"I tried a Beetle once, but I didn't like it ..."

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It’s 50 years since Erik Carlsson scored the first of three RAC victories for Saab – and he’s still loyal to the manufacturer now

You have to feel for the kid, although judging by the age of the photo he’s probably in his fifties by now. “They were mad Saab fans from Belgium,” recalls rally deity Erik Carlsson, surveying the sepia-tinged image of a beaming couple. “I remember them because they had named their son Carlsson. It was his first name.” He dispatches this anecdote without additional comment, save for a “ja, ja” delivered in his wonderful sing-song Swedish lilt. This isn’t even the strangest case of fan fervour he’s ever encountered, but for a legion of the marque faithful Carlsson is a god. The title of his biography is Mr Saab, after all.

Few drivers spend their entire career with one make. It’s rarer still that they’re employed by that same manufacturer as they enter their ninth decade. Straining to get comfortable in his armchair, photograph albums stacked high at his side, he still looks much the same as he did in his heyday. The hair is thinner, his eyes magnified slightly behind thick-framed glasses, but his broad shoulders and wide girth render him instantly recognisable. Carlsson is a bulwark of a man, his size at odds with the cars he drove: with one exception, he only ever rallied Saabs. “I tried a Volkswagen Beetle once but I didn’t like it. The clutch broke,” he says dismissively.

A big-hearted and hospitable man, there is nothing retiring or hesitant about Mr Carlsson. He clearly enjoys the reverence his stature affords him but he wears this status lightly. November 2010 signifies the 50th anniversary of his first RAC Rally win, a victory that in many ways marked him out as a superstar, yet he plays down its significance. “I did the rally with Stuart Turner, who is a funny guy. I like him very much still,” he smiles. “I met him for the first time in 1960. He had done some small rallies with Pat [Moss, the future Mrs Carlsson] and she said he was the best I could get. And he was incredibly skilful. Stuart could read the road using only a simple map. We didn’t get a single penalty that year for arriving late at checkpoints, even at the end of the rally when we had to drive through London on our way to Brands Hatch for the final stage. Stuart was telling me to run red lights, to drive on the pavement…”

What he neglects to mention, at least without some prompting, is that he was in considerable pain at the time. “I broke some ribs a couple of days before the rally,” he admits. “We had rented a Morris Minor; we wanted to have a look at the roads in Scotland. The route was secret but it at least gave us an idea. We were driving along a country road and went around a corner; a lorry was taking up the entire road and there was no room. I drove up a bank and rolled. Pat and Anne Wisdom took us back to the hotel – the four of us in an MGA. We went to a doctor and sat there waiting and waiting, so in the end I got up and left. Stuart found a chemists, taped me up and that was how it was.”

Carlsson’s legendary strength and stamina set him apart from his rivals, a case that was evident from the get-go. “When World War II ended I was 15 years old. In 1947 I bought my first Norton motorcycle and started competing. There were five of us who rode as a local team [SMK Trollhättan]. I did that for three years and then went into the army. After that I worked for a Norton importer, Pelle Nyström, who was a very good motorcyclist but he had damaged his leg in 1929 trying to beat a world record on the ice track in Ostersund. He changed to rallying cars and it was with Pelle that I got into it: I was his co-driver on the Dalslandsloppet and Swedish rallies in 1952.”

Our hero made his debut as a driver in his native Trollhättan that same year aboard a second-hand Saab 92, bought from a bankrupt farmer. His press-on style was immediately evident: with foot to the boards over the crest of a hill, a hard landing caused the battery in the back of the car to break loose. The pale green Saab lost power and went backwards through a hedge and into the garden of a grocer’s shop. He went on to win his class.

“Living in Trollhättan meant I had quite good contacts with the Saab factory,” he says. “If anything broke I could go to the gates and pick up whatever parts I needed. I rallied my own car with good support and they loaned me one from 1954. In ’56 I was employed by Saab and I still am.” Three years later he scored what he regards to be his breakthrough success – a class win on the Tulip Rally. “We very nearly didn’t finish, though. The last stage was at Zandvoort. As the cars drove down to the track in a long line, the plugs in my 93 began to oil up; I only just made it onto the circuit. Parc fermé had been applied which meant I wasn’t allowed to touch the car before the start. My co-driver Karl-Erik Svensson remembered that this rule didn’t apply once we were out on the track but I still needed to change the plugs. I persuaded Ingemar Johansson, who was driving a Porsche, to take his time as he was called up to the startline. He did this, which gave me just enough time to fix the problem and close the bonnet before the race began. The car was running on all three cylinders again and I beat Harry Bengtsson by one car’s length.

“That victory meant a lot as it was the start of me winning at a high level. It also meant a lot to Saab, which was still quite a small company, because we started to do well all over Europe.” By ‘do well’, he means those famous Monte Carlo Rally wins of 1962 and ’63 and three consecutive RAC victories. “I should have won the Monte Carlo three times also,” he laughs. “We were fourth in 1961 after they changed the rules to favour the French Panhards which finished first, second and third. When we won the RAC in 1960 we went to a club in London called Talk of the Town. There was a banquet and we were all there in our dinner jackets. We rose through the floor on the stage with our car, in front of all the guests. The RAC committee told me to come back the following year and try and win it again; if I did, the trophy would be mine to keep. John Brown and I won it in 1961 and then they claimed we had to win it three times in a row – which I did. Then they said that it was to remain a challenge trophy so I never did get to keep it. We were taught at school about British sportsmanship…

“I did my first Monte in 1960 with John Sprinzel but we didn’t do very well. The following year I drove a Saab 95 estate car because it was the only model we had with a four-speed gearbox. We really needed that extra gear on the Alpine hills. When I won in 1962 it wasn’t all that dramatic. Not as much as in ’63 when there was so much ice. It was so bad you could barely stand up, let alone drive. I had the start number before Pauli Toivonen – who had been a Saab dealer by the way – for the concluding stage on the Grand Prix circuit. His tactic was to drive very slowly during the warm-up lap so he could be as far behind me as possible. I wouldn’t then see him in my mirrors. I managed to stay ahead of him anyway…”

Carlsson brushes aside the endurance element of the Monte, his outlook in period only serving to wind up his rivals. “It was always the same. My co-driver and I used to wash and shave during rallies – if we had the time – and would also take care of our clothes. We had to look refreshed in the car as it was all part of the game. When others would complain about how tough things were, we’d say that it was a pity it wasn’t harder and a little longer. We would grin and bear it, no matter how bad we felt.

“This all started on the Monte in 1962. That year the organisers brought in some stupid rule that they had learned from Sweden. If you had damage on your car you got penalised. On the last night I was driving through a village and skidded into a big stone that stuck out into the road. It damaged the right-front wing and also the door. Eugen Böhringer was maybe 15 seconds behind us overall. We had service that year and they sat there waiting for us, also in a red Saab. I told them to ‘get the wing and door off, quick as hell now’. They swapped them over but the car was covered in shit – with a clean door and wing. So as quickly as we could we washed it and got back out. At the finish ours was the only clean car. The press got on to this and in all the headlines it said we had arrived so early, we’d had time to clean the car. Saab got a lot of publicity out of that.”

But if Carlsson’s uncompromising will to win didn’t always endear him to others, he bats away the suggestion that he was robbed of victory by foul play on the ’66 Coupe des Alpes, his Sonnett II famously dying virtually within sight of the finish. “No, I don’t honestly believe that,” he says, palpably perishing the thought. “I know of one driver who was always coming up with excuses, talking about sabotage, but I don’t think anyone would do that. Sure, it was strange. My wife Pat was driving the sister car and that also died. The following day both of them started without any problem. To this day I have no idea what the problem was, but I don’t think anyone would ruin our rally like that.”

Yet for a man so used to winning, it’s ironic that he considers his greatest achievement as being a brace of second places on the Liège-Sofia-Liège classic. “Pat had won it in 1960 and that was pretty amazing. That was by far the toughest rally. Just finishing it felt like you’d won. You would drive for 100 hours with a break of only one hour. We finished second in 1963 and ’64 and that was more important personally than winning the Monte. You have to remember that wherever we went, we always had the smallest-engined car.”

After effectively retiring from motor sport at the end of 1967, due largely to chronic backache, Carlsson returned two years later for a tilt at the Baja 1000. “That was fun. There wasn’t more than a page of regulations. In 1969 I did it with Gunnar Palm and we led in our V4, but the universal joints broke after a few stages. We got them fixed and got back into the lead but then they broke again. We ended up third. In second place was James Garner [driving a tubeframe Oldsmobile]. Steve McQueen was also there in a strange beach buggy [the Baja Boot], although he didn’t finish. He tried my Saab after the finish and I’ve never been so scared in a car before or since; he was crazy, I think. Garner was a good, sensible driver, though. He was a very nice guy and didn’t act like a Hollywood star.” Carlsson would place fifth overall a year later after losing five hours digging his car out of a sandbank. This time he retired for good, though his role as roving Saab ambassador shows no sign of ebbing. He’s also clearly excited by talk of the marque returning to rallying, the firm’s new owner having leaked details of a possible WRC bid.

But you have to ask, was he never tempted to look elsewhere? “Yes, and I’d agreed to do the Circuit of Ireland – in 1963, I think – in a Mini but I hurt myself on a rally in Sweden and that stopped that. I also came close to signing for Ford at one time. I had the pen in my hand but I then called the Saab MD who told me I was ‘a son of Trollhättan’… Saab has been very good to me, so I have no reason to complain.”

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