Sun, snow... and Saabs

The Swedish Rally started as a summer event held in 24-hour daylight. John Davenport looks at how it evolved into the classic snow rally

Think of the Swedish Rally and the first images that come to mind are probably not mid-summer skies, endless days and dusty gravel roads.

But when it was created in 1950 by the KAK — King's Automobile Club — it was an event far removed from the current snow rally and much in the tradition of its age. Run over four days in June, there were three starting points, at Gothenburg, Falsterbo and Stockholm, for the 126 starters. After some sections in Southern Sweden, the three routes converged and then headed north to finish after 1400 miles well inside the Arctic Circle at Kiruna. There was not a great deal of competitive motoring and, in yet another homage to events like the Monte Carlo Rally, the competitor's times were modified by a coefficient depending on the car's class and engine capacity. There was even a final braking and acceleration test. The overall winner was Pehr-Fredrik Cederbaum with a BMW 327/328, though the fastest car was an Austin A90 Atlantic driven by Helmer Lindström.

As the 1950s went by this event, aptly named the Rally to the Midnight Sun, evolved into a more competitive rally, with proper special stages on gravel roads. It was naturally influenced by the immense popularity of the smaller rallies held in Sweden and known as T-races, events in which drivers like Erik Carlsson and Carl-Magnus Skogh rose to fame. Curiously enough, Carlsson first did the Swedish Rally as a co-driver to Pelle Nyström in a Volvo PV444. He recalls that on that occasion he navigated from a special seat fitted in the rear. This not only put more weight over the driving wheels but enabled a bed to occupy the normal passenger seat position so that Nyström could snooze on the long road sections. In fact it was not until '58 that a recognised rally man won the event, Gunnar Andersson triumphing in his works PV444. It was Carlsson's turn the following year with the Saab 93.

By the early 1960s the multiple starts had disappeared and the number of stages had increased. One of the earliest non-Scandinavian visitors was John Sprinzel. He found that the combination of dull road sections lined with trees and highspeed special stages — where the car was very likely to take off without warning and visit the trees — was unlike anything else in Europe. According to him the police speed traps, the strict drink-driving laws and the preponderance of raw herring on the menu were the downside of an event that was redeemed by its high-speed gravel roads, friendly people and frantic parties.

In 1963, on its last visit to the Arctic Circle, the organisers threw in a new diversion — a special stage down a coal mine. Kiruna was famous for its coal and most of the mines were near the surface, with the coal being brought out in trucks up tortuous galleries carved in the rock. The rally cars were taken down in convoy and then, with the road closed, released upwards to do their worst. It was a gimmick, but it got the event noticed. For '64 the rally spent most of its time in central Sweden and finished in Stockholm. By now it was clearly the province of the works — or semi-works — driver, with Skogh winning twice for Saab, Bengt Söderstrom making his name with a Mini Cooper in '62, Bernt Jansson winning in a Porsche in '63 and Tom Trana taking the trophies back to Volvo in '64.

As Trana won, Lancia made its first foray to Sweden with a brace of Flavias. Both finished — 16th and 18th in a class almost entirely populated by PV544s — and the team had a really good time at the final ball in Stockholm. When it came time to go home in convoy it was decided to follow the signs for the E4, which led all the way back to Italy. The co-drivers went to sleep. When they were woken, it was to discover that they were just passing signs advertising the proximity of the Arctic Circle on the E4 some 560 miles north of Stockholm!

The Rally to the Midnight Sun no longer went to the Arctic Circle every year, and there was a very good reason. Firstly, the journey was too long and it took too long to get back. With increased car ownership and the understandable desire of the populace to make the most of their wonderful summers by spending them with nature, motor rallying was not desirable at that time of year in Central Sweden. The solution was relatively simple: the Swedish Rally would move forward some four months and become a winter rally, which is what happened to it in 1965.

Curiously, running the rally in winter's harsh environment made it more attractive to entrants from outside Scandinavia. BMC entered Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Mäkinen and Harry Källstrom in Mini Cooper Ss, while DAF sent Group Two Daffodils for Rob Slotemaker and Claude Laurent. The first British private entrant in this winter carnival was Barrie Williams with his Cooper S: "I'd never driven so far and so fast on ice. Come to think of it, I hadn't driven on studded tyres before. And no one told me how you were meant to use the snow banks to stay on the road. The first time I tried it I went into a hole made by Erik's Saab and it took me 20 minutes to get out." All in all the event was a big success, even if the winter winner was the same man in the same car: Trana in his Volvo PV544.

The 1966 event was one to remember for all the people that were involved, as it was the coldest Swedish Rally ever held. Temperatures plunged below minus 40°C, which meant that mechanics were warned not to pick up spanners without wearing gloves. Even the photographers found that they had to keep the cameras under their car's heater until the last moment or, when they wound on the film, it was so brittle that it broke. It was no surprise that in those conditions a Swedish car, Ake Andersson's works Saab 96, came home first, but it astonished a few that Vic Elford very nearly stole the Group One victory from local Opel ace Lillebror Nasenius in a works Lotus-Cortina.

When you have to survive those temperatures in a mass-production car designed to withstand the mild conditions only of a Dagenham winter, you begin to appreciate the need for long woolly underwear to bulk out your single-layer Dunlop overalls. I did the rally with Elford that year, and the modifications to deal with our plight comprised fitting a winter thermostat and taping a large piece of cardboard in front of the radiator. The only times during the rally that we could be described as comfortable were when the car was flat-out on a special stage. Fortunately these were extensive, with the longest being some 125 miles and incorporating a long section on a frozen river carved out by a snow plough. If the car was left in a park during a halt for a meal, when we came to start off it was as if the handbrake was stuck on. This was because the transmission lubricants had become highly viscous and it took about 10 minutes of driving before normal service was resumed.

Roger Clark's sister car blew its engine somewhere on a night stage and, rather than leave him and Jim Porter to be frozen solid, we stopped, slung on a rope and towed them out. Of course we stopped at the end of the stage to have our time recorded, whereupon one of the marshals ran round the back of the car to tell us to move on as there was another car immediately behind us. He disappeared briefly and then appeared at Vic's window, covered in snow, to say, very politely, "I think you have a piece of string tied to the back of your car."

In 1967 the rally visited Norway for one special stage. There were no customs formalities at the border, but there was a readjustment as the cars had to go from driving on the left to driving on the right and vice versa when they returned to Sweden. Later that year Sweden changed to driving on the right. When asked how it was to be achieved, Erik Carlsson said: "Monday they change the trucks and buses. By Tuesday, everyone else learn!"

By now the rally was firmly established in the centre of Sweden and, after a couple of events based in Orebro, for 1967 it moved its HQ to Karlstad, capital of the inappropriately named Warmland, where it has remained ever since. The biggest boost that the rally received was help from a private forestry company, Billerud, which was able to make its roads available to the event and ensure that they were ploughed out and ready — the Swedish companies were willing for the roads to be used in winter time since, even with studded tyres, the damage to the hard frozen roads was minimal. Sadly this is not as true today as it was then thanks mainly to global warming, which means that these days prayers for snow and cold weather are frequently offered up shortly before the Swedish Rally. Indeed in 1990 it had to be cancelled for a complete lack of the white stuff and suitable sub-zero temperatures.

In the late '60s and early '70s there was no big problem with snow and it was in this period that first Björn Waldegård and then Stig Blomqvist laid claim to hat-tricks in Porsche 911 and Saab 96 V4 respectively. Blomqvist's second victory, in '72, was in a year when the snow was a bit thin and the studded tyres broke through and damaged the roads, something that did not please Magnus Sjölander, forestry manager of Billerud. For '73 it was decided to try running the event without using studded tyres. It was a qualified success but one that was not repeated when the event was run next in '75 after missing a year due to the fuel crisis. The Saabs of Blomqvist and Per Eklund dominated, but the sensation of this studless event was Jean-Luc Therier, who brought an Alpine A110 home in third place.

The Swedish Rally was a natural choice for the World Rally Championship when it started in 1973, and it has kept that status — bar a couple of exceptions — right through its 50th birthday in Millennium Year to the present day. For a very long time no one but a Swede had won it, but finally in 1981 Hannu Mikkola broke the mould by taking victory with an Audi Quattro on only its second WRC event. Despite the best attempts of drivers like Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Didier Auriol and Richard Burns, a Scandinavian had always won the event until Sébastien Loeb added that distinction to his CV in 2004.

The main struggle for the modern Swedish Rally is keeping itself a proper winter rally. The cancellation of 1990 has not been repeated but it is only the concerted efforts of the organisers to choose roads that keep their frozen covering in the face of milder winters that has kept the traditional event going. It would be easy to find more snow and colder conditions by relocating further north, but the sophisticated requirements of a WRC Rally are not so easily found. Karlstad has everything that is needed and gives a lot of support to the modern Swedish Rally. That kind of help is much more difficult to find in the snowy forests further north. Already the route of the Swedish Rally looks like the outline of a tall tree, with the base of its trunk at Karlstad and all the stages run in its far upper branches.

The brightest spot on the horizon for the Swedish Rally is that the new date structure for the WRC, with the championship run from August to May in 2007-08, plus the suggestion that events may be paired so that the Swedish could 'marry' a new Norwegian event, could give it the freedom to ensure that it stays cold and white.