In the hot seat

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Scandinavia’s first rally hero Erik Carlsson explains his roll — sorry, role — in Saab success and how all your hard work can be undone by an exploding distributor and an aardvark

Did you deserve the nickname of On the Roof ‘ Carlsson? Sam Pearse, Surrey

When I got that nickname, it was the very first time I rolled a car. I was doing a small rally near Stockholm, and starting right behind me was a famous chap from Swedish Radio. I came to this right-hand bend, did not make it and the Saab went on its roof, in a stream. They asked this guy at the end of the stage if he had seen me and he said, “Oh, you mean Carlsson ‘On the Roof’.” He used that on his radio programme, and so everyone got to know about it. In my whole career, I don’t think

I rolled more than 10 cars — but that name was good PR.

Why did you drive an estate car on the 1961 Monte Carlo surely It must have been heavier? Paul Skidmore, St Albans

When we did Monte Carlo the year before, we only had a three-speed gearbox. The only car we had with a four-speed unit was the 95 station wagon, so that’s why we used it. It was only some 10kg heavier, but the catch that year was that you had to go 10 per cent faster with a twostroke than with a four-stroke, otherwise we’d have won.

Is it true that you would have won the 1959 European championship had you not been penalised for having white competition numbers? Chris Smales, Middlesborough

Yes. It was the last rally of the year, starting in Spain and going through Portugal. I did it with Jolm Sprinzel. We rolled on a railway crossing but arrived at the finish in fourth place. That would have been enough to clinch the title, but when the results came out we had accrued 25 points for having the wrong colour numbers. It dropped us to sixth, which still would have been okay, but then, at prize-giving, they gave us another 25 for the second door panel!

What are your best — and worst — memories of the Liège-Sofia-Liège? Al Vickers. Middlesborough

The worst was when I drove a Saab 93 with a Swedish guy called Mario Pavoni; he sounds Italian, but he’d never been south of Denmark. Anyway, we were leading on the final morning coming back to Belgium when the distributor exploded. We were so tired I think we slept for 18 hours there on the side of the road. I had driven all the way. That was a big disappointment.

The best memories are of finishing second twice in 1963-64. That last time we were so lucky. We refuelled some place and lots of people were helping. We ran out of fuel some kilometres from the next control, and when we went for the spare cans we discovered that they had put the empty ones back in! I poured in the litre of alcohol we kept to mix with the petrol and we just made it to the control, going carefully.

How many rallies did you do in the Saab Sonnett? Was It quicker than the normal 96? Nicer to drive? Rick Hewland, Huddersfield

Yes, a lot quicker. But I only did the Coupe des Alpes with it in 1965. It was on the pace of the Porsche 904s, but by halfway we were running out of tyres — it just ate front tyres in the dry. And then we broke something and retired. It handled perfectly; we should have spent more time on that car for rallying. Not so easy to roll over either!

Were there any tricks to rallying a two-stroke Saab? Simon Weigl, Golders Green

Uphill wasn’t the best for the car. But all uphills have a downhill, and the roadholding was unbelievable. I always drove with the free-wheel locked so that I could keep the revs up when I took the foot off to brake. Of course, another reason you went fast with it was that you didn’t want anyone hearing you lift off. Downhill, if you were stupid enough to keep your foot down, no car at that time could follow you.

For rallies like Monte Carlo and Alpine, did you do a lot of reccelng? Jenny Hall, Manchester

The first year we did any recceing for the Monte was 1961 when we went round with a Chrysler Valiant [Saab were Chrysler importers into Scandinavia] to find out which way the route went; we didn’t make pace notes, they were not normal on the Swedish rallies of the time. The following year, with Gunnar Haggborn, we tried to make proper pace notes and they worked quite well, not so different to those used today. I used to trust the notes we made ourselves 110 per cent. If you could not trust them like that, they were only a nuisance.

Was It harder to win a rally like the RAC Rally on scratch than a Monte Carlo Rally where there was a handicap? Christopher Cornish, Tooting

Monaco was harder. When I won the RAC Rally for the first time, with Stuart Turner, the Saab 96 was so much better than its competitors over those gravel roads. And I was much more used to going flat-out over them than the British drivers, who’d done nothing like that before. The toughest section was getting through London to the timed test at Brands Hatch on time. Stuart was amazing, such a quiet bloke, but shouting for me to go through red lights, the lot!

Loyalty Is laudable, but why have you stuck with Saab for such a long time? Duncan Ball, St Bees

I once did a small Swedish one-day rally with Volkswagen, who wanted me to drive for them. It was not a bad car but the clutch went and so we didn’t find out how we might perform together. But I didn’t really like that business of the engine right at the back Marcus Chambers then tried to get me to BMC, but I didn’t fancy a Mini. And I had the pen in my hand for a Ford contract, but changed my mind about it at the last moment. But I think I made the right choice: the association of Saab and Carlsson has worked quite well over the years.

What was the Saab Formula Junior like? Jim Tyler, Essex

Very fast in a straight line. Probably quicker than the factory Lola. But the roadholding was really… well, none. Its cornering was ruined by severe understeer. Of course, the brakes were good because you had all that weight up front, but once you were in the corner, it was hopeless. There was blue smoke from the front tyres and blue smoke from the exhaust so the team couldn’t tell when you spun. I drove one a few weeks ago at Karlskoga. We have one original and one completely new one. And it still understeers!

Would you have liked to rally a Group B car? Robert Hui, Portland, Oregon

I drove an Audi Quattro when Stig Blomqvist started with Audi. Stig said that when he first drove the car, he was off the road more times than he had ever been with a Saab. Lift off and you had to be quite busy to get it back again. I tried one of our four-wheel-drive cars in America and I had a similar feeling. I think it best to stick with my front-wheeldrive Saab…

Is it true that hitting an aardvark led to your retirement from the 1963 Safari? Duncan Rollo, via e-mail

Absolutely. We were leading and, unlike some other occasions, knew we were, so we weren’t going crazy. The Saab could have won the Safari several times, but I broke the car when it wasn’t necessary. Not this time, though. We were cruising at 70mph between high elephant grass when this ant bear [aka aardvark] came straight out in front of us.