1964 Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally
Ninety hours with one hour’s break; that was the Liège-Sofia-Liège. “A stupid event”, says Eric Carlsson but one he rates at the scene of this two greatest drives
I’ve won quite a few rallies in my time. Some well-known ones like the RAC. But I honestly feel that the best driving I have ever done is on the Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally in the early 1960s an event I never won. It was the longest rally you could ever imagine around 4000 miles with just a solitary hour’s break in Sofia… if you could get it!
I did the event a few times, but in 1963 and 1964 we finished second on both occasions, and they were without a doubt my best performances behind the wheel of a rally car. The satisfaction I got from driving like that is even greater than from winning.
The first thing that made it so special was that the Saab I was driving was by far the smallest car out there; just 850cc, compared to the cars that normally ran there like Porsche Carreras, 3-litre Healeys, big Mercedes SLs and so on. Everyone out there had a massive power advantage over us, but my co-driver Gunnar Palm and I managed two unimaginably hard-fought second places. In 1963 we were beaten by Eugen Bohringer in an SL Mercedes and in ’64, Rauno Aaltonen’s Healey was the only car that led us home.
I first did the Liège in 1959, when I was in an even smaller Saab, a 750, and it seems hard to believe now, but we had no service stops at all. We carried two spare wheels in the back but by the time we started the return leg from Yugoslavia into northern Italy there was nothing left on the front tyres. We were forced to stop at a petrol station and buy two Pirelli Stelvios but only had time to put one new wheel on. We just slung the rest in the back and decided to change it later when we had more time. It gives you an idea of just how frantic the whole event could be.
It had been a really tough rally in 1959 and then to cap it all, the bloody car broke down on the last night, just before we made it to Belgium. The distributor more or less exploded and that was it. When we realised it was all over we just went to sleep in the car and didn’t wake up for 12 or 14 hours. We were nearly dead. The only thing that reminded us of what we had just been through was the ringing in our ears. The two-strokes ran just a foot of exhaust pipes from the manifold and you couldn’t hear for about a week afterwards.
A few years later we were allowed to have a little bit of servicing on the cars but you could not imagine a. tougher event if you tried. The roads in Yugoslavia were really, really bad. On the way out of Belgium, through Germany and into Switzerland there were quite good tarmac routes, but once into Eistem Europe every track was just awful. It didn’t matter if you were in Yugoslavia or Bulgaria, they were just appalling. In 1963 about 100 cars had started the rally but by the time we got into Sofia there were only about 60 still running. When we came to set off again, everybody had the same starting time, so there we were, all lined up in three lanes in the main square in Sofia. A chap stood in the middle and just dropped the flag and off we all went. It was like a race.
Gunnar was sitting next to me then and he was smart was very and on the ball. While I had been having a shower to try and freshen up a bit, he went off to find some shortcuts out of the city. All the other cars took to the main streets, but he found some small roads and we passed the whole field before we got out onto the gravel. If we had been running among all 60 cars in the dust it would have been ridiculous. Gunnar was fantastic at doing those little recces and finding us little bits of time here and there.
The little two-stroke Saabs were always bloody thirsty – we might as well just have poured fuel straight through them – and it was always very tight whether or not we would make it to the next stop. In 1964, the last Liège I did, we stopped at a town on the coast in Yugoslavia called Niz. Every single car was there – Mercedes, Citroen, BMC, the whole bloody lot – I looked for our service car but couldn’t see the bloody thing anywhere! I knew they had sent one down to us from Sweden with tyres and fuel but the two guys driving it clever boys hadn’t filled up with petrol because they didn’t want to carry it all the way from Scandinavia. I have quite a short fuse and got really mad but luckily for us Mercedes had lost a couple of cars already and we were allowed to use their petrol, which saved us. I must have been pretty mad because by the time I got back to Sweden one of the mechanics had quit his job!
Later on the 1964 run we knew we were going to be very close on fuel and had already used both reserve cans. We got to the service stop just in time, filled the car and spare tanks and set off. It was only when we stopped to use the spares that we found out that one of the mechanics had put empty ones in the back! We ran out of fuel about one kilometre from the next time control and all we could do to try and get to the end was pour four litres of neat alcohol (which we normally mixed with the petrol) into the tank. It may not have been the best thing for the car, but it got us to the service.
Even though we were guzzling fuel, we had to run flat-out all the time. The top speed of the car was almost identical to our average speed, so you get an impression of how hard we were pushing that little Saab. Running that quickly meant that we had plenty of hairy moments and they always seemed to happen in Yugoslavia. Everything happened in Yugoslavia!
We were understeering like hell along a steep downhill section and in the distance we could see a dust trail. When we got closer we could see that it was being kicked up by a bus. Having no idea what was on the other side of the dust cloud I just kept my foot in and it wasn’t until we got to the other side that we saw the roadworks and the huge mound of earth. I ploughed right through it, went up on two wheels… and then saw the second bus. There was a tremendous bang, the Saab screeched down the side of the coach, but we got away with it. Thankfully the car was just a bit dented, but that was the closest we got to a big accident. The closest I have ever been to a bus, anyway.
I’m proud of the Lièges in which I competed because they demanded total commitment. Once Gunnar wasn’t feeling at all well and of the 90 or so hours of non-stop driving I drove at least 75 of them. We never took any medicine to stay awake like some other drivers, but I have been a stubborn bugger all my life on an event like that you have to be. I was also very lucky that I could sleep instantly for very short periods. If we got to a time control 10 minutes early I would just nod off on the spot and tell Gunnar to wake me up two minutes before we started again. I was fantastic like that. I could sleep anywhere. When you get a bit older you realise how dangerous the whole thing was, but back then you never thought about it. It was a stupid event really, but still the best I ever drove.