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1998 Great River Road Rally

by Tim Winker
Photos © 1998 by Steve Irwin

The little 96 leads more exotic machinery from Germany and Italy. Click here for a larger photo.
The RAC Saab 96 leads at Porsche and a Ferarri through the turns on the Great River Road Rally.
Eric Carlsson's victory at the 1960 RAC Rally in Great Britain was one of the more important of his career, and for the reputation of SAAB as a strong vehicle for the sport of rallying. Carlsson went on to win the RAC again in '61 and '62, plus had major wins at the Monte Carlo Rallye in 1962 and '63, and many others as well. The combination of Carlsson and Saab was always one to be reckoned with.

Eric Johnson of Northfield, Minnesota, stumbled upon the fact that the very early SAAB 96 he bought at an estate sale in St. Paul turned out to be the same chassis that Carlsson drove in the 1960 RAC, and many other international rallies of that year. Johnson was nearing a restoration of the 96 when he made the discovery, so had it painted in the same shade of red that the factory rally cars of the era used. Last year (1997) he and Chuck Andrews drove it on the Northern Lights Challenge tour from Oslo, Norway to North Cape, then to Trollhattan for the Saab 50th Jubilee celebration.

This year Johnson entered the car in the Great River Road Rally, a mere 400 mile tour for vintage and specialty cars. Like the classic Monte Carlo Rallye, the GRRR has multiple starting points, in St. Paul and in Madison, Wisconsin, and the two converge on LaCrosse during the first day. All of the cars start from LaCrosse the following morning for the more difficult portion of the rally to decide the winners.

Unfortunately, the death of Eric's father a couple of days before the GRRR meant he would not be able to participate. But since the Minnesota Saab Club had arranged a crew to work checkpoints and had even borrowed a new Saab 9-5 from the Chicago press fleet meant that Johnson felt some obligation to see to it that the 96 still ran in the event.

He called me on Friday morning, the same day as registration, to see if I could change my weekend plans to compete in the 96. I called fellow Saab Club member and two-stroke fanatic Greg LeBaron and he was able to get the car to the start point and registered. Greg would drive, I would navigate.

We started the rally on Saturday morning in a light rain with the other 20 cars that started in St. Paul, just ahead of a 1960 Volvo 544 and a 1966 Volvo P1800S. In my haste to pack a bag, I had neglected to bring some basic rally equipment, such as a clipboard and pens. I did have a Curta calculator (a mechanical unit popular for rallying in the 1950s and 1960s), a Halda Speedpilot (a mechanical rally computer of the 1950s and 1960s), and the instruction books for them. I had used a Curta once or twice on rallies, but never the Speedpilot and I was anxious to find out how well it worked. Johnson's 96 already had a Speedpilot mounted in the dash as it was standard equipment on the Saab GT 750s of that time; mine was to be used as a backup unit since neither of us knew if his worked.

The dash of the 96
The Halda Speedpilot is in the center of the dash on the 96, with a Heuer rally clock to the right.
The answer to that came on the first leg of the rally. The odometer check seemed to work okay, but there was a fairly large error factor, about 18 percent. I could work around that with the Curta calculator. But about halfway through the first leg, the mileage began to change. Then on a hard left-hand sweeping turn I heard a hubcap pop off the wheel so we stopped to look for it for a few minutes. No luck in finding it, however, so we got back into the car and headed to the checkpoint, which came up about a half-mile before the Speedpilot's odometer said it should. Greg was able to creep off some speed but we were still nearly a half minute early on calculated time, after requesting a delay of several minutes (delay requests were accepted without penalty, and a darn good thing as the 96 had the standard 40 hp engine, not the hotter 60 hp version of the GT-750). Points on Saturday's run were earned at a rate of 1 point for every 1/10th of a minute off perfect time (one point for every six seconds of error), so we collected four points to start the event, while most of the top running teams would be getting a string of zeros during the day.

This did not concern me too much as Sunday's scoring would be at one point per 1/100th minute, and four points on Sunday would be an excellent score. As long as we could run the rest of Saturday with no or few points, we would be in good standing for the start on Sunday.

Pushing the 96 for all it's worth! Click here for larger view.
Greg LeBaron drove the 96 hard, using every bit of road he dared.
I decided to take a different approach to navigating since the Halda odometer could not be trusted. My plan worked for the next couple of legs, and we added no more points to our score before lunch. During the lunch break, I swapped Eric's Speed Pilot for mine. I was able to accommodate for the different mileage error between the two machines (the second one had about 8 percent error), and we went on to collect only one more point on Saturday, putting us in fifth place in the overall standings at the end of the day.

The roads used on the GRRR are all paved, thanks to Wisconsin's practice of paving most county roads. Speeds for the event are brisk for those driving exotic cars, so Greg had all 40 hp wound out on many occasions as we traveled up the coulees, then made sparing use of the brakes on the downhill sections while the engine free-wheeled down to idle. I wondered whether Stuart Turner, Erik Carlsson's navigator on that famous 1960 RAC win, had been provided with a grab handle, because the car didn't have one now and I certainly could have used one. There were several photographers along the route, and I'm sure the old Saab provided plenty of interesting video and still footage as it leaned its way through the corners on vintage Michelin 155x15 radials. Rob Edwards, driver of the 1960 Volvo 544 behind us commented that the Saab sure leaned a lot, but he didn't get to experience first-hand the old style stock suspension and its quirks. His 544 is set up for vintage racing with lowered suspension, and had much newer alloy wheels from a Volvo 244 with wide, low-profile tires.

Part of the festivities of the GRRR included a cruise on the LaCrosse Queen, a paddle wheeler that travels up and down the Mississippi while dinner and drinks are served. Weather was warm and from the upper deck we watched Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons dive for their dinner in the Father of Waters.

Despite a severe overnight storm in the area, Sunday began with sunshine. Once on the road, we saw plenty of storm evidence in the form of trees and branches blown down and flooded fields.

I had made some adjustments to the Speedpilot so the odometer would be more accurate, and after the day's odometer check found that it was within two percent. Not perfect, but certainly better than the day before.

The two-stroke Saab's "ring-a-ding-ding-ding" exhaust note echoed through the coulees of western Wisconsin.
The Sunday run was only about half the distance, but consisted of 11 checkpoints, whereas Saturday's longer but more leisurely course had only eight checkpoints. At one point per 0.01 minute, the points added up more quickly. By leg two, our total score was 24. Not a terribly good beginning, but still not outside the top five. Greg was not experienced at rallying and the mechanical odometer in the Speedpilot was really only accurate to about two percent, so anything under five points I considered to be very good. From that point, the score went up by only a few, or not at all, on each leg. A hidden checkpoint at the end tagged us for 8 points, but our overall total was only 45, good for third overall and second in the Historic Class behind a 1959 Mercedes 300SL Roadster and a 1983 Lotus Esprit Turbo.

The endpoint was at Norskedalen, a Norwegian homestead museum near LaCrosse, where we were served a Scandinavian style lunch of open faced sandwiches and several tasty desserts. Rally tales were told, scores tabulated, winners announced and trophies awarded.

On the trip home Greg and I kept thinking aloud about which cars we each owned that could make the GRRR next year. We each have several two-stroke Saabs, which somehow seems fitting. Eric Johnson plans to participate next year. The hills of southeastern Wisconsin could ring with the screams of several Saab three-cylinder engines wound out into the upper rpm ranges come early June 1999.

Tim Winker
© 1998

Originally published in NINES, The Saab Club Magazine, #239

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