Saab: RAC and ruin


Stratos versus 96 V4: no contest. An eight-year-old could tell you that.

The 1975 RAC Rally, the Lombard, was behind schedule and my feverish anticipation had given way to a bone-numbing cold. Dad perched me on a fallen bough as a means of insulation while he pondered the wisdom of bringing his son to this place at this time. Then the Course Car hustled through and my restorative tingle began.

The rally cars were out of sequence for some reason too, and Roger Clark, seeded at six in his Cossack-liveried RS1800, was first through, all blips and sideslips on the icy Tarmac. Then some bloke in a Fiat 124 rushed by. Whatever.

Sandro Munari was next in his radical wedge. Aha. It sounded fab, particularly as he rocketed, ricocheting, through the narrow farmyard. But he spun. Twice, I think.

His Lancia team-mate Björn Waldegård (above) was also spectacular to a time-consuming degree, understeering across the grass at Harewood hillclimb’s Orchard hairpin, a photographer leaping for his life yet somehow arching to sweep camera and tripod from harm’s way.

Strike both works Stratos. My heart sank.

On the way home in Maxi FHE 340L we debated who, therefore, might have been quickest: Röhrl, Mikkola or Vatanen? That’s Kadett GT/E, Celica or Escort?

Not for a moment did I consider that funny-sounding, sickly green machine. Yet there it was, in smudgy Motoring News black and white: SS2 Harewood: 1 Blomqvist, 2min 34sec.

The real Stig set eight fastest stage times that year before retiring with engine problems. My unswerving choice as the fastest front-wheel driver, he has been a hero of mine ever since. And pre-GM Saabs have had a place in my heart, if not my garage.

The latter feeling firmed when I subsequently discovered that we had this idiosyncratic marque from Trollhättan to thank for modern rallying. The flicks, sleights of foot and unflinching commitment of Erik Carlsson (below at the 2002 Goodwood Festival of Speed) allowed this burly Swede to upstage much more powerful cars in his rinky-dink, three-speed (for a time), ring-a-ding three-cylinder two-stroke. His RAC Rally hat-trick (from 1960) spanned the event’s Forestry Commission renaissance, and his fast and loose antics recalibrated the British public’s expectations of the modern saloon.

So, there you go: the first Flying Finn was a Swede.

Carlsson could have had his pick of the other manufacturers, but his loyalty to Saab has never wavered. He isn’t alone.

‘Snaabery’, snides call it. And they had a point once the available models became little more than warmed-over Vauxhall makeovers. Prior to that, however, the brand’s innovation and individuality – plus the efforts of Erik, Simo Lampinen, Stig and ‘Pekka’ Eklund (below driving a MG Metro 6R4 in the 1986 1000 Lakes Rally, Finland) – gave owners good reason to be proud: Saab was a state of mind.

But now it’s gone. Belly up rather than ‘On the Roof’. The brake-disc glow of Stig’s 99 Turbo has finally set, though I can again feel it flush my cheeks as I write.

My blood up and coursing, we stayed to the bitter end at Harewood, accessing new vantage points when the crowd thinned. Traipsing to the car park as the tail of the field filtered through, my flagging attention was caught by a very fast Sunbeam Rapier hurled sideways through the left-hand kink before Orchard. That this unusual car, the rally’s only such entry, was metallic tangerine is perhaps another reason why this fleeting moment has lasted 36 years.

An internet trawl narrowed its driver down to Craven Motor Club’s Gordon Jarvis. With a start number of 183, and co-driven by Wayne Goble, his Group 2 machine finished this five-day thrash in 71st.

“That car cost me £275,” says Gordon, still happily entwined with the sport at just-turned 65. (He provided the engine and gearbox for Richard Burns’s first rally car, a Sunbeam Ti. He helped install them too.) “I spent another £150 on the cage and sump guard. It had twin steering boxes for improved feel, and standard Estate springs at the rear.

“You drove it like a 911: it had a lot of weight at the rear because of that long overhang, plenty of glass and 15-gallon tank. It was great to throw around. You could hold it in long slides on a light throttle. And that weight helped the rears to bulldoze through the ruts when we entered the forests.

“We used the car to haul our six-berth caravan up to York too. We removed the tow bar, did the event, hitched up again, and towed the caravan back to Reading.”

Sunbeam, of course, is another famous marque rich in rallying heritage that has dipped below the horizon. Despite the best efforts of Gordon and a certain Henri Toivonen, its hard-won identity – like Saab’s – was too easily fumbled, dropped and discarded by an amorphous blob of an industrial combine.

Only memories, it seems, are sacred.

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