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Carlsson's half-century - Driven: Saab 96

  • Driven: Saab 96 with Erik Carlsson - 0
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Erik Carlsson won the RAC Rally at his first attempt, then repeated the feat twice. Half a century on, he and John Simister swap Saabs and lose themselves in a two-stroke smoke of nostalgia...

Eaton Bray, Bedfordshire, mid-November. Mine should not be the only two-stroke Saab in the village, because I have come to find the king of all Saabfolk. Erik Carlsson lives here. But where? The Google map has told me a fib, it seems.

A bit further along... and is the air-rending I hear that of a very healthy two-stroke with a competitive attitude? It is. Erik is warming up his rally car; two-stroke Saab expert and 2010 Le Mans Classic racer Chris Partington is encouraging the process. I’ve arrived.

This is Erik’s own toy. We’ve recently seen it in the motoring press, helping the great man celebrate the 50th anniversary of his win in the 1960 RAC Rally – and one of the first major international rally wins for the then-new Saab 96. For the celebration it was given the number 178 to make it look like the actual winning car, a car that still exists and which, by the time you read this, should be residing at Saab’s Trollhättan headquarters having been prised away from its most recent US owner.

Erik’s toy is actually a replica of a rather important 1963 rally car, still with a single Solex carburettor and an underbonnet view remarkably like that of my machine. Appearances deceive: instead of 38bhp it has around 65, and even that is quite mild compared with the rally cars in their more extreme tune. But too much power would have been bad news, because what a rally car really needs is a broad band of torque. You might not think a rapid two-stroke could manage this, but it can.

Saab’s favourite son is looking good for his 81 years. He was 30 when he won the RAC, 50 when Saab gave him the birthday present that was the rebuilding of his roadgoing 96 – ‘It belonged to an old lady, and I bought it for the equivalent of £120 when she died’ – into a replica of the 96 that Erik drove to victory in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally, wearing competition number 283.

The dashboard and its accessories, and the seats, are from the actual Monte winner. ‘The cars were put back to standard after the rallies, and sold as used cars,’ says Erik, ‘but the rally bits were kept. Saab asked me what I would like as a present. “A tractor,” I said, “preferably a Massey-Ferguson.” But this Saab is very nice.’

It is indeed. It’s full of period pieces, from the ultra-rare Bosch fog and spotlights (which Bosch wanted for its museum) to the BP Energol two-stroke oil cans in the boot. Unlike the 1960 RAC car (and mine), though, it has a four-speed gearbox instead of a three-speed and disc brakes for the front wheels. Technology had moved on by 1963. And it even wears the Monte car’s P77558 numberplate, by special Swedish dispensation even though it conforms to an obsolete system. A plaque on the dashboard says ‘Till Erik 5.3.79 Saab Personbilsdivisionen’.

We’re off to the hills. ‘It’s a bit down on power with 65bhp,’ Erik is saying as we bwaaarp-ring-ding-bwaaarp up through the gears. ‘At the time we had 75 to 78bhp. Other people said they had more but we were always faster.’ He never liked using the freewheel on rallies, because you never quite know what lies around the next bend and the freewheel deprives you of instant variability of balance. Would he use it on a race track? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘because you know where you are going.’

Three gears must have been a hindrance on a rally, which is why Erik sometimes used the 95 estate car version in 1961. It was the first Saab with a four-speed transmission, controlled by a gearlever chromed instead of painted. This difference in finish caused trouble for Pat Moss, Erik’s late, rally-winning wife, because the three-speed 96 she was campaigning in 1961 also had a chromed lever, as right-hand drive cars did. Rivals filed protests, but they were wrong.

Erik enjoyed spooking the protesters. At the German Rally in 1961,  DKW started a rumour that Erik was using an illicit four-speed ’box in his 96. He won, and a protest duly followed. ‘All through the rally I’d been dipping the clutch to make four-speed noises. So they had the engine and gearbox out and the gearbox in bits, but they couldn’t find a fourth gear…’

This rally car seems very short-geared, its fourth gear shorter even than my car’s third. All the better for pace off the line, and Erik never used to worry much about revs. ‘Normally I kept to 7500rpm: “Don’t go over that or you’ll blow it up,” they said. But in Monaco one year I had to use 9000rpm going down to the Station Hairpin in second gear, to keep ahead of Böhringer’s Mercedes. It didn’t blow up, though.’

We’re powering nicely through some corners, so I wonder about left-foot braking and imagine Mr Carlsson to be quite an exponent of the art. Not so, for Erik is ever the pragmatist: ‘Yes, there’s some advantage but it used too much brake linings. And it’s a hell of a job to change them.’ Too true, especially with the drum brakes. You need a monster puller and then the hub taper lets go with a bang like a 12-bore shotgun. Been there, done that, felt the fright.

Erik is mindful of speed limits hereabouts – his Toreador Red rally car is quite conspicuous both visually and sonically, after all – but he enjoys a good blast on the open road. Snow would be even better, but that has arrived only as I write these words. I’m watching from the roadside as the little Saab blares back and forth for the camera, blue oil-smoke trailing because it’s set to run richer and oilier than mine. Several hill-walkers are watching too, all smiling. It’s that sort of car.

Now it’s my turn to try it, Erik next to me in the seat originally occupied by navigator Gunnar Palm, watching how I treat his baby. I’m privileged to drive it, because he doesn’t entrust it to those unfamiliar with a Saab two-stroke’s ways. The surprise is its tractability, something I hadn’t expected given its power increase over standard and its angry, manic tickover. All those gears are gone through in a trice, and there’s a lot of surging and snatching on the overrun with the freewheel locked out, but at no point does it bog down and turn dyspeptic. The throttle response is as crisp and blippable as a throttle can be; the sound is like mine but played through a PA system instead of a transistor radio.

The ride is firmer, too, thanks to uprated dampers. Not springs; they are standard. Erik favours these, with one-and-a-half turns cut off if necessary for racing. ‘The Safari Rally in 1963 was the first time we altered the suspension, using Bilstein dampers. For 1964 Saab made special springs. We collected the cars from
Mombasa, and even before the start of the rally two springs had broken on my car and one on Pat’s. Standard was best.’

Standard, too, would reduce sudden lateral weight transfer and the risk of unintended inversion. Ah yes, ‘On the roof’. Erik’s nickname, because he did it more than most, possibly helped by the Saab’s narrow track. Just as well, then, that the Saab’s domed profile and thick metal kept the roof roof-shaped and made the Saab easier to return to the correct orientation. The rally cars didn’t even have roll cages. Even better, a sumpless two-stroke recovers more readily from inversion than an oil-swamped four-stroke, and will even continue to run if there’s enough fuel sloshing about.

Erik proved the point after one Safari Rally, by turning his 96 on its roof again to demonstrate how the engine still ran. ‘So the Ford team tried it with a Cortina. There was battery acid everywhere, oil, a terrible mess, and they couldn’t get it upright again. It didn’t run, of course.’

What is not standard in this car is the cluster of four round dials from the triple-carburettor Saab Sport, replacing the ribbon speedometer and adding the vital revcounter. There are stopwatches and tripmeters too, of course, and the steering wheel is the wood-rimmed, three-spoke Sport item. This faster 96 became the basis for the rally cars later on, but Erik never reckoned there was much advantage from the extra airflow capacity. The earlier cars’ raised compression from both head and crankcase, their altered porting and their drainpipe exhausts were enough.

The racket from those exhausts played havoc with Erik’s hearing, especially on an epic rally such as the Spa-Sofia-Liège. ‘We were awake for 100 hours continuously, 94 of them driving. In our Saab we had to go flat-out the whole way, with just an hour’s stop in Sofia.’ Erik’s co-driver for these events was Stuart Turner, who described how competitors began to hallucinate. The duo finished second two years running, in 1963 and 1964.

 Turner, later to become competitions supremo for both BMC and Ford, co-drove for that 1960 RAC, too. He recalled the event at Erik’s 50th anniversary celebration at the RAC Club. ‘It was the first rally with timed special stages, and Erik was the only one to get under the target times. It was also Erik’s first British rally, so he came over beforehand to see what British roads were like. I found us a very nice Morris Minor to use as a recce car.

‘On the third stage we met a lorry, so Erik turned sharp left. It was quite a deep ditch, so that was the end of the Minor. We found an MGA and did the rest of the day in that, with four of us squeezed in. Erik, we later discovered, had broken two ribs. With Erik bandaged up, we won the rally.’

Erik takes over the story. ‘We arrived at the first service to find the crew asleep.

So I banged on the roof: “Oh, Mr Carlsson, would you like a cup of tea?” The worst part was the Friday night, when we had to drive out of London to Brands Hatch.

The traffic was terrible. “Drive on the pavement,” shouted Stuart, so I did and we got there in time.’

Accidents apart, the 96 proved an amazingly reliable rally car. One of the stranger problems was the fact that carburettor icing, which normally occurs in cold, damp weather, was particularly bad on the 1960 Acropolis Rally. ‘It was 30 degrees [Celsius],’ Erik recalls, ‘so how did it happen? We cured it with big holes in the air filter to let warm air in. We gained maybe half a bhp, too.’

That Acropolis was notable for the strictness of the scrutineering. Having forgotten to bring a fire extinguisher, co-driver Palm faked one with a Coke can wrapped in red tape.

Erik remained faithful to Saab throughout his rallying career, finally succumbing to back trouble and retiring in 1967 after just one rally in the V4-engined 96. He had started as a test driver for Saab back in 1952, readying the then-current 92 for rallying. ‘The only tuning we did then was to make a hole in the silencer to make more noise. It was bit understeery, but if we bent the rear axle a little it was better. So we’d load it up with three or four people and go yumping in the forest until it felt right.’

Fifteen years, then, of front-wheel drive. Did it constrict his style? ‘No, I don’t think the difference is as great as some say it is. I started driving in a Ford V8 so I knew about tail-happy cars.’

And 15 years of one-make loyalty. Surely there must have been tempting offers to defect?

‘Yes, there was an offer from BMC. And one from Ford for the 1964 season, a very good one. I was at Boreham [competitions department], I had the pen in my hand, and the managing director of Saab was on the telephone. “Please, Erik,” he was saying, and he started crying. “You can’t do this. Stay at Trollhättan. You can’t go to bloody Ford!” So I stayed.’

Now there’s a treat in store for me. Erik lowers his towering frame behind the wheel of my 96, and I hop into the unfamiliar passenger seat. It has been a very long time since he has driven a standard 96, it seems. Will he rev it to death? Will the roof paint get scraped?

Not a bit of it. We smooth off along the road, each gearchange as crisply executed as you would expect from the world’s greatest 96 exponent, and Erik is grinning broadly.

‘I couldn’t remember how nice it was,’ he’s saying with his intriguing Swedish tense-shift. ‘This is a pleasure! This is so nice! So many years ago… the torque… see how it pulls in third… so quiet… I couldn’t believe
it was so nice!’

I do believe he likes it, which is rather special. The great Erik Carlsson has driven my Saab, and I’ve driven his. What a magical day.


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