1960 RAC Winning Saab Found and Restoredby Tim Winker
Photos by Tim Winker and Chuck Andrews
The winner of the 1960 R.A.C. Rally was Swedish driver Erik Carlsson in a factory prepared and sponsored Saab 96, with Stuart Turner acting as co-driver. The Saab was a rough and tumble family sedan, built to withstand the rigors of Swedish winters, with front-wheel drive and a two-cycle, three-cylinder engine displacing a mere 850cc. Carlsson went on to win the R.A.C. twice more, in 1961 and 1962, as well as many international rallies of the time including wins at the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1962 and 1963.
The tale moves forward thirty years to 1991, and a school teacher from Northfield, Minnesota, by the name of Eric Johnson. Johnson was a Saab fan who was looking for a three-cylinder Saab that he could turn into a vintage racer. A friend told him about several old Saabs being offered at an Estate Sale in St. Paul. Though there were a couple of Sonett sports cars that demanded minimum bids above $2000, Johnson's interest was in a faded red 96 two-stroke. The interior and some trim pieces indicated it could be a GT-750, one of only 600 sporty sedans made by Saab between 1958 and 1962. In addition, the window glass had been replaced by plexiglass and there were extra gauges, a Halda Speedpilot and a "Stockholm" clock (which looks like it may have come from an airplane dashboard) mounted on the dash. The very cracked dash pad also carried a tech inspection sticker from the 1961 Hershey Hill Climb in Pennsylvania. With some obvious competition history, Johnson bought the car with the intent of restoring it for vintage racing and rallying, possibly making it look like one of the factory rally cars that Erik Carlsson and Carl-Magnus Skogh drove to rally victories in the early 1960s.
It took several years of work, including stripping the car down to a bare shell and having it professionally patched and painted by Chuck Andrews, who runs a Saab-only repair and body shop in Princeton, Minnesota. But some modifications to the car made Johnson more curious as to its history. It had much longer seat tracks on the driver's side, and there were weld filled holes on the hood and trunk where rally plaques might have been attached. Could it have been a Saab factory rally car, modified to accommodate Saab's great bear of a driver, Erik "On The Roof" Carlsson?
At the 1993 National Saab Owners Convention in Wisconsin, Johnson showed photos of the car to Carlsson and to Per-Olof "Pelle" Rudh, curator of the Saab Car Museum and former Saab factory rally mechanic who had built the original rally cars. A couple of clues were the heavy string wrapped around the wooden steering wheel to prevent it from splintering, and the gold cord around the plate that held gauges where the glove box would normally have been. Both agreed that those and other modifications were consistent with those they had made to production cars and that it likely was one of the factory modified rally cars. But which one?
Pelle Rudh passed away suddenly in late 1994, but his successor at the Saab Car Museum, Peter Backstrom, has provided Johnson with what little information he could locate. A fire in the Competition Department destroyed many of the records of that time, so little remains. According to a Bill of Sale, it was purchased by the Saab Competition Department on March 4, 1960. The original title was signed by Svante Holm, brother of Trygve Holm who was the president of SAAB at the time. Pelle Rudh must have immediately commenced setting it up for rallying. Entries are not certain, but it appears that the car was driven by Carlsson during the 1960 season in the Tulip Rally (Holland), the Swedish Rally to the Midnight Sun (won by Carl-Magnus Skogh in a SAAB 96), the Norwegian Viking Rally (also won by Skogh), the Finnish Rally of 1000 Lakes (where Carlsson placed second to the 96 of C. Bremer), and the R.A.C. It was then shipped to North America for the Canadian Winter Rally. From there it went on display at the 1961 New York International Auto Show. In November that year it saw action at the Hershey Hill Climb, as evidenced by the tech sticker on the dash. For the next thirty years, its history is unknown. Though Johnson has queried friends of Ray Marklund, the St. Paul man whose Saab collection was being split up by his relatives, it is not known if the Saab 96 ever saw competition again.
On a Sunday in late September, 1996, Johnson celebrated the car's restoration and his 50th birthday with a party at his home in Northfield. About 30 Saab fans from as far away as Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Waterloo, Iowa, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, showed up to join in the celebration. Some minor details were not yet complete - the headliner needed to be replaced, the cloth on the original interior was torn and stained, and the three original bumper mounted rally lights were missing - but overall the car was ready to be shown as the rally artifact that it truly is.
Johnson believes that a car is meant to be driven, so he does not trailer it to events. Over the past several years, he has driven the historic rally Saab across the United States several times, to the Saab Owwners National Conventions in South Carolina, Colorado and New York, putting about 30,000 miles on it in the process. While at the Saab Owners Convention this past summer, he had the opportunity to drive the 96 at speed on the equally historic Lime Rock Park race track.
He had entered the Saab in the 1998 Great River Road Rally, a two-day vintage rally from St. Paul, Minnesota, to La Crosse, Wisconsin, traveling the beautiful paved roads along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. Due to a death in the family, he was unable to participate at the last minute, so he called yours truly and asked if I would care to compete as long as the entry fee had already been paid. I called fellow Saab Club member Greg LeBaron and he picked up the car in Northfield that afternoon and drove it to St. Paul for the start of the rally. The GRRR requires some rather agressive driving to stay on time, but we managed to keep the little Saab on the twisty roads up and down the coulees that carry small rivers and creeks down to the Mississippi. Greg would have the two-cycle engine wound out on the uphills, and would be very sparing of the brakes on the downhills. It was a very exciting ride! Best of all, we finished third overall, behind a 1959 Mercedes 300SL Roadster and a Lotus Elite Turbo, and were awarded the trophy for highest finish in the "Historic Category".
If by chance you may have some details you could share on the missing thirty years of this historic Saab rally car, please contact Eric Johnson at 507/645-5726.
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