One moment we were motoring briskly through the French Alps, the next we were stopped on the side of the road, the tiny three-cylinder engine of our classic Swedish-made Saab seized solid. We were four days into one of the world's toughest events for classic cars with one more day and night to go. But now it was clear that my drive from the bone chill of England across the snowy Alps and to the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean coast was over.
In 1910, officials in the tiny principality of Monte Carlo were looking for ways to extend their tourism season. Situated on the sunny French Riviera and with world famous gambling casinos, Monte Carlo and its city of Monaco would seem to be the perfect winter destination for the rich and famous. They decided to hold an automotive competition, Le Rallye International de Monaco, to attract some of the well-to-do sportsmen whose enthusiasm for the automobile was quickly growing. The first event, in January 1911, was a modest one with only 23 starters, but the second year of the Monte Carlo Rally saw 60 starters from six of Europe's capitals. World War I ended motoring competition for a while, but the seeds were sown.
It wasn't until 1924 that Monte Carlo's run to the sun was re-established. As before, competitors could choose to start from one of a half dozen of Europe's major cities before converging on the principality of Monte Carlo. There, driving tests would determine the winner. Competitors could count on plenty of snow and ice as they traveled across Europe in the grip of winter. Some years only a handful of competitors would actually make it to the finish, and the glamorous event's reputation grew as one of the most fearsome tests of driver and machine.
The Rally survived another World War, and by the '50s and '60s car manufacturers were using the Monte Carlo Rally as a way to prove the reliability and toughness of their passenger cars. In 1961 the event was comprehensively overhauled, and secret time controls and special average speed sections were replaced by maximum speed tests on roads that were closed to other traffic. The age of the rally professional with an army of service crews had arrived and gradually eliminated any chances a talented amateur might have to do well in the event.
Enter the Madmen
A dozen years ago, Philip Young and the Classic Rally Association in England became interested in recreating the Monte Carlo Rally from the late '50s, before the professionals had altered its amateur standing. Young had already played a major role in creating rallys that mirrored events of the past and gave competitors a chance to really use their old cars. The four-day and -night format was established, and the event, later known as the Winter Challenge, quickly gained a reputation as one of the toughest competitions for classic car owners. Cars must be built before 1968, cannot run modern electronic navigational aids or studded tires and are strictly limited in the modifications that are allowed. A surprising number of competitors choose pre-war cars, which run in their own separate class. The organizers even encourage competitors to dress the part, asking them to avoid brightly colored ski parkas or clothing with too much advertising. In look, sound and feel, the event becomes a tribute to the past.
I had run the event last year in a borrowed 1960 Alfa Romeo sports car and was hooked. This year I wanted to run my own car, a mid-'60s Saab 96 sedan. These small front-wheel-drive sedans from Sweden were giant-killers in the '60s. Powered by a tiny 841cc two-stroke engine, similar in many ways to the one in your weed-chopper, the cars were successful right from the start in international rally competition. We had no illusions about winning the event. But I figured if it snowed heavily, our little Saab would go well in the snow--and above all, Peter Pleitner, my navigator from Ann Arbor, Michigan and I would at least have an adventure.
For an American, running a car event in Europe requires a great deal of logistical planning. For the month before the car was shipped, I collected together the necessary fire extinguisher, first aid kit, warning triangles and tow rope required by the organizers. Nokian provided me with a set of narrow Hakkapeliitta winter tires for my Saab. Because so much of the driving in this event takes place after dark, I mounted a set of huge Hella rally lights on a removable bar to the front bumper. Overseas insurance had to be arranged, as did proper licensing and import papers. Finally, after weeks of planning and checking the car, we were ready. I locked all of the rally gear into the trunk of my car and shipped it to New York, where it would be placed upon a ship for the voyage to the Saab Museum in Trollhattan, Sweden. There we would meet up with our car a few days before the event and check it over again before driving to our Holland starting point to begin the rally.
That was the plan at least. When I arrived in Sweden four days before the rally, it was clear my plans were going to change. First of all, the car hadn't left the port of New York aboard the freighter Atlantic Concert until the 28th of December and was still on the high seas. It wasn't scheduled to arrive in Sweden until the 16th of January. The rally would start on the 14th. All seemed lost until Peter Backstrom, the congenial curator of Saab Car's Museum in Trollhattan, began to make some phone calls. The freighter would make a stop in Liverpool, England on the night of the 11th. Saab twisted a few arms at the shipping company, and it was agreed that my car would be off-loaded in England and that my navigator and I would fly to Liverpool to pick up the car. I called the rally organizers, and they agreed I could change my original plans and start the rally at the venerable Brookland's race track, just to the south of London.
Peter Pleitner and I presented ourselves to the shipping desk at the Liverpool terminal just before 8 a.m. on Friday the 12th. They were waiting for us and quickly processed us through. The car looked fine on the outside, but when I opened the trunk I was horrified to see that all of our carefully obtained and packed rally equipment was missing. There was a lot of shrugging of shoulders and paperwork to fill out, but everyone knew that our gear was gone for good. We finally left the docks knowing we would have to stop and buy what we could to pass the rally technical inspections.
The drive from Liverpool to Brooklands is a couple hundred miles, and Peter and I were being very careful not to push the car too hard. We had a whole day to get there and find our hotel, so a slow and steady pace seemed to be justified. So when we suddenly ground to a halt about 60 miles from London, it was quite a shock. The engine had locked solid, and nothing we did would get it to turn again.
It is in such cases that a cell phone becomes the classic car enthusiast's most important tool. Although it was already late on a Friday afternoon, we managed to reach the UK branch of Saab Cars. Joanne Cox, public relations assistant and all-around hero, arranged to have a breakdown truck sent from Saab Great Britain's headquarters at Marlow, about 30 miles from where we were stranded. On the trip to Saab headquarters, I called Chip Lamb of West of Sweden Saab in Virginia. Chip had prepared the engine and transmission of our car and is also heavily tied into the worldwide network of fans of two-stroke Saabs. Chip was perplexed about our problem and promised to get the word out among Saab fanatics in the UK to try to find us a new engine.
When we arrived in Marlow, we found that the indomitable Peter Backstrom from the factory museum had already been at work. He had made an arrangement with Christopher Parkington, the retired head of Saab Parts in the UK, to bring us a new three-cylinder engine in the morning. This was close to unbelievable. Two-stroke Saab engines are becoming rare, even in places where the cars were popular. Yet here was a new engine, a factory replacement item that had been sitting on a shelf since 1967. We quickly pulled the seized engine out of our Saab and got everything ready to install the new unit in the morning. Then, in a show of great faith, before heading to our hotel for the night (in a press car also provided by Saab and Joanne Cox), we stopped at an auto parts store to replace all of the rally equipment that had been stolen.
Meanwhile, Chip Lamb had gotten the word out, and over the next several hours I received several phone calls from Saab enthusiasts in England who wanted to know how they could help. This was amazingly gratifying. Here we were, two Americans half a world away from home, driving a 34 year-old Swedish car across England to compete in the world's toughest old car rally. Yet, when trouble struck, we suddenly had several options open to us from people whose only common bond was their affection for the charismatic little cars. For a time several years ago, it seemed Saab wanted to distance itself from its history and its heritage. But we were seeing a kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that no amount of advertising or brand management could bring about. By driving my old Saab on this event, we had joined a family, one whose members have a kind of pure, triple-distilled enthusiasm for the cars from Trollhattan.
On to Brooklands
The next morning, as tall and lanky Chris Parkington worked to install the new engine in our Saab, I realized that from now on, no matter what else transpired, the mere fact that we would make it to the start was going to be a miracle. Later that morning, Parkington took our Saab around the block a few times as he changed jets in the carburetor to adjust them to the new engine. By mid-afternoon we were on our way to Brooklands, to sign in and take the car through scrutineering. Our hastily assembled kit of rally gear passed the technical inspection, and we were in. The rally would start at 9 a.m. the next morning.
Sunday, a cold pale dawn faced the hundred or so competitors who would start from the Brooklands racetrack. Most of the prewar cars entered in the event were starting here, and they looked to be an amazingly uncomfortable way to travel more than a thousand miles through ice and snow and night. Most were open cars, and their crews were decked out in fur-lined leather jackets, leather flying helmets and goggles. Cars began arriving by the dozens--MGAs Triumph TR3s, Alfa Romeo coupes and British sedans of every description. We were the only Saab entered in the event and drew our share of the crowd, especially when I lit the three-cylinder off and it idled with its characteristic ring-a-ding sound.
The first car to leave was a 1939 Lancia Aprilia. We waited our turn and finally got underway almost an hour later, the second to the last car to leave Brooklands. The Union Jack waved, the crowd cheered and we were on our way.
On the Rally
Driving in England in a classic car is always a treat, and not just because you are on the wrong side of the road. The British have a true appreciation for old-timers and honk and wave when they see something they like. After a brief drive we reached the entrance to the Eurotunnel train that would take us under the Channel and on to France. So far our replacement engine was running fine, but it didn't have the performance that our sport-tuned engine had delivered.
Through the rest of the day and into the evening, Peter Pleitner and I worked our way across central France to the city of Nancy. Whenever we stopped for gas, a group of French enthusiasts would gather and ask us about our car. They seemed very knowledgeable about Saabs and the two-stroke models that dominated rallying for a time in the '60s. Finally, we arrived at our hotel in Nancy at 11 p.m., tired but happy to have made it through the first day.
Uphill and Down
The next morning saw us on the road again by 6:30 a.m. It was very cold and clear outside, but our Swedish-built automobile started immediately with a cloud of two-stroke smoke. Almost immediately our Halda Speedpilot rally odometer stopped working properly. This was a serious problem--route following on this event is difficult under the best of circumstances. Maybe that's the reason we spent a lot of the day in frustration. The route took us into the foothills of the Alps, and some of the ascents were very steep, especially for an engine that displaces only 841cc. It was nearly impossible to stay on time on the uphill, and we would try o make up time while going downhill when gravity acted as our friend.
I began to understand how these cars could do so well in their day. The handling was superb, even with a very heavy load and running on skinny winter tires. Our ability to stay on time was also hampered by getting lost a few times. In all, it wasn't a great day for competitiveness, but the clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine, coupled with spectacular views of the mountains almost made up for it. We arrived in Aix-les-Bains, a famous stop on rallies in the old days and found the car park filled with cars that were being repaired.
A Bit of Bother
Driving old cars as hard as was necessary to keep up with this event inevitably means some of them need major surgery at the end of the day. In our case, although the car was running perfectly, the left rear wheel showed signs of brake fluid from a leaking wheel cylinder. After realizing we didn't have a puller to remove the brake drum and check the problem, we went for another solution. Peter Banham, one of the hard-working mechanics provided by the event organizers, bent some surplus brake lines and a fitting to block off the fluid pressure to that brake. It meant I would have only three brakes for the rest of the event, but it was better than losing all of my brake fluid at the top of some mountain pass. Others had much more severe problems, and there were engines, transmissions and rear axles under repair throughout the parking lot of the posh headquarters hotel.
Finally, Some Snow
The next day would be a loop, beginning and ending at Aix-les-Bains. It was a tough day with increased speeds and even more mountains to climb. We finally encountered some snow on the roadway, but it wasn't anything our Hakkapeliitta tires couldn't handle. Aside from the occasional off-course excursion, we faced another problem. French gas stations in the hinterlands close for lunch between noon and 2 p.m. The first cars were arriving at the gas stations at 11:30 in the morning and getting gasoline. We were arriving at 12:30 and finding the stations all closed. It was bad enough that we had to go off-course to find a station that was open and then skip controls and take penalties to get back on the rally. The rally organizers just shrug their shoulders at these problems, as they faithfully recreate the rigors faced by the rallyists in the old days.
Aix-les-Bains is a pretty town on the shore of a large lake that is at the gateway to the French Alps. In the evening, with the cars once again parked in the hotel parking lot, there was a lot of local interest in the cars. Crowds gathered and politely conversed with the rally crews. Many spectators were interested in practicing their English, and being Americans made us conspicuous targets. Still, receiving the adulation of the adoring crowds is a good enough reason to do an event like this.
The Hard Part
The forecast for the next day's run was for snow, and lots of it. The rally would now run for a whole day, stop for two hours in Gap for dinner and then run all night to the afternoon finish in Cannes on the coast. Peter and I started the day with the hope that snow would be our friend, slowing down the other cars and providing us with an advantage. After a transit along a scenic highway, we arrived at a special timed section at the Col de Granier, a famous hillclimb in the old days of rallying. It was very steep and filled with switchbacks, and I took it very easy. It began to snow with big, fluffy flakes. About halfway to the top, our engine suddenly rattled a bit and then seized solid. It was clear that this time there would be no amazing appearance of a spare Saab engine. Our rally was done.
A few minutes later the organizer's sweep truck appeared. They pulled us to the top of the mountain and then pointed us in the right direction to reach a town at the foot of the climb. We coasted for more than five miles, finally coming to rest in the courtyard of a small church. Once again my cellular telephone came to the rescue, and I arranged for a breakdown truck to collect us and bring my stricken car to a Saab dealer in Chambery, about 40 miles away. When the car arrived at the dealership, the elderly owner of the establishment, a distinguished gentleman with more than 30 years as a Saab dealer, looked into the engine bay of my stricken sedan. He smiled at me, then shook his head sadly, saying, "Tres fragile...."
In Chambery, Peter hopped onto a train to go to the finish in Cannes, while I stayed in Chambery to make arrangements for my car. Peter Backstrom, the curator of the Saab Museum, was curious as to why we had failed two engines and offered to have the car shipped to Sweden so he and his crack two-stroke mechanic could look over the remains. The next day I took a train to Geneva and headed for home.
How the Others Fared
While we were having our problems, the rest of the rally continued on. The snow got worse, and the roads became icy. At one control, the dreaded black ice was so slippery that five competing cars ran into each other while trying to stop. At another, a car stopped on the side of the road with nobody in it slowly slid sideways off the shoulder and over the side, rolling on its way down the hill. Nobody was injured in any of these mishaps, but last year's winner and the leader, Frank Fennel from Ireland, broke both of his legs in a nasty crash with an oncoming local car on one of the mountain passes.
Winners in the tough Sporting Route category were Jan Ebus and Lester Van der Zalm from Holland in a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulia coupe. Jos Fruytier, Jan-Willem Hanrath and Marcel Fruytier won the pre-war category in a Bentley Derby sedan, followed by George Melville and James Warner in an open Alvis Firefly. When Peter arrived in Cannes, he found a parking lot filled with dozens of cars that had suffered damage from hitting things on the icy roads. Everyone immediately described it as the most slippery Winter Challenge rally ever. Most drivers were just relieved to have survived the challenge of one of the toughest classic car rallys.
I Shall Return
Of the 173 cars that started the rally, 33 failed to finish, including several former winners. We were in good company. In the days of the original Monte Carlo, it wasn't unusual if 60 to 70 percent of the field failed to make it to the finish. So in a sense we were accurately recreating history by not making it to the Mediterranean. This is just about the toughest event in the world for old cars. The navigation is difficult, the timing is tight and the driving is challenging. I will be back.