The SAAB Way - History of the Marque
The SAAB Way Part 3
Unfortunately many of the Swedish records of Saab rally achievements in the 1950s seem to have been lost, and as magazines and newspapers in Britain at that time largely ignored this foreign competitor, we have to rely on personal recollection for the best stories.
The Saab company was one of the first to realise that the sport of rallying offered the opportunity to combine development, design, advertising and prestige into an operation to produce a better product and lots of publicity. There was no sentiment about this. The Saab executives saw a great opportunity to demonstrate their product and they supported it with enthusiasm. Much of the early impetus behind Saab developments was down to the dedication and energy of one man, Rolf Mellde, the technical manager and head of development. Rolf was a brilliant engineer and driver and was well qualified to oversee the competition department. His own driving took Saab to many successes and he gradually built a very strong rally team around him. It was Rolf who took on the talented newcomer Erik Carlsson. For the record Erik’s impressive list of world-class achievements includes the following silver-ware:
Because the early Saabs he raced with were seriously underpowered, he had to keep a high speed through the corners and developed the left-foot braking technique to perfection. Left braking was done by keeping the right foot down on the throttle pedal while pushing the brake pedal with the left foot as he entered the corner. This brought the rear out in a controlled skid but Erik maintains this was incidental to maintaining speed. The drawback of this driving technique was that brake wear was severe and ensured the team mechanics were kept busy between stages.
Erik’s background of local forest events meant that he had built up a huge amount of experience of fast driving, mostly against the ubiquitous but awkward rear-engined VW beetles, on rough tracks so that he could quickly read the terrain and knew how to exploit the handling of the 92. He also knew the people he could trust as co-drivers and as mechanics because he realised that getting the fastest times is down to confidence in the machine and in the co-driver’s call. There were plenty of fast drivers around at that time, but it was Erik’s persistence and endurance that won him the trophies. He was always a most competitive driver and his determination to win often enabled him to overcome the fatigue which resulted in errors from lesser individuals.
Erik earned his nickname “På taket” (“On the roof”) early in 1956 on his second rally outing with the 93. It was a domestic event and he was seen by another Swedish competitor to roll his car off stage. When asked if he had seen Erik the driver replied, “You mean Carlsson on the roof?” (a nice play on the title of a popular Swedish children’s story by Astrid Lindgren about a boy called Karlsson who lived on the roof of a block of flats). This was a reputation which Erik lived up to on several occasions during his career.
In those far-off days the most prestigious rallies were for standard production cars and it was important for Saab with its eye on export markets to have competitive machinery. The new 93 had a 748 cc, 3-cylinder, two-stroke engine designed and built by Saab. There were huge benefits over the 2-cylinder engine in terms of power and economy. Initially, the power output of the basic engine rose from 28 to 33 hp DIN. Some of this was the result of better timing of the exhaust pressure waves from 3 cylinders over 2 cylinders using a pulse charging manifold and some from better fuel/air mixing in the cylinders from a redesigned head. Later versions, in the Granturismo 750, produced well over 50 hp with polished ports, a higher compression head and improved carburettor/exhaust systems. The gearbox was also redesigned and given gear ratios more suited to the new engine’s performance.
Putting all this to good use, 1956 turned out to be a good average year for Saab rallying. At home Erik Carlsson and Carl-Magnus Skogh competed for top spots in the Viking Rally and Scandia Trophy, while Rolf Mellde gave brave displays in the 8,000 mile Tour d’Europe and The Great American Mountain Rally which was won by a Saab 93 driven by the American crew of Bob Wehman and Louis Braun. The Weisbaden Rally was also won by a Saab driven by Bengt Jonsson and Kjell Persson.
But there was a lot more to come…..