It's a distinctive sound, a three-cylinder two-stroke Saab rally car on full song. Echoing off the walls of French towns, it sounds like a squadron of WWI biplanes lining up to make a strafing run. More than one elderly villager looks skyward to find the source of the unholy din. But it's just us, Marv Primack and I, in my 1967 Saab 96 rally car, hurrying along through the south of France, trying to find the next checkpoint on the 13th Winter Challenge Rally.
Capital COld car rallies in Europe are a lot different than the sedate classic car events found in this country. First of all, they are real competitions, spelled with a capital C. MGs, Triumphs, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz sedans, Rovers, Volvos, Porsches and a full range of lesser known marques are put to the test in events that can last a couple of days or up to a month or more. The objective for many goes beyond winning and losing. Sliding a mid-'50s MGA over a snowy mountain pass or powering a big Mercedes-Benz coupe from the '60s across the dunes of the Sahara gives competitors a chance to relive the past.
One of the toughest classic car events in the world is the Winter Challenge Rally, conducted by the Classic Rally Association (CRA), headquartered in England. Philip Young, founder and chief of the CRA, was among the first to recognize the potential for running old cars on events that recreate the '50s and '60s, the period that many consider to be the golden age of rallying. Young's first Classic Marathon Rally in 1991 got things going, and since that time CRA has put on several yearly events as well as such truly epic motoring adventures as the Peking to Paris Rally in 1997 and the Around the World in 80 Days rally in 2000. One annual event in its 13th year and which takes place every January is the Winter Challenge.
When The Going Gets ToughThere are several factors that make the Winter Challenge Rally so tough. First of all, it takes place in the dead of winter and covers several thousand miles of driving across the wintry roads of the Alps and the Pyrennes. Competitors are expected to maintain very brisk speeds on narrow mountain roads that may be covered with ice and snow. The days begin early and end late, with plenty of night driving. The car preparation rules are very restrictive when it comes to traction aids, and useful products like studded tires are strictly forbidden. In fact, only limited modifications are permitted, and modern updates such as replacing old-fashioned generators with modern alternators result in large penalties.
If the cars are then similar to what would have run in the '50s and '60s, so too is the route book and navigation. The route follows the turns and twists of the smallest farm paths in central and southern France. One of my navigators once described the process of laying out the route on a Michelin map as being similar to tracing the digestive system of a canary. Most navigators spend many hours before the event pouring over the recommended maps in order to have a fighting chance on the event. All through December we were getting reports of record snowfalls in the French Alps. Would this be the year that my front-wheel-drive Saab would come into its own?
Returning To The SceneFollowing my disastrous attempt at the event last year (see the whole story on the european car Website, www.europeancarweb.com), when I seized the engine of my two-stroke Saab on the Col de Granier and had to retire, I wanted to come back this year and avenge that failure. I figured the only chance I would have with the low-powered car was snow and ice, and the weather reports had me rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation.
Peter Backstrom, the genial curator of Saab's Museum in Trollhatten, Sweden, helped me get the engine of my Saab rebuilt, and his shop mechanics also went over the car carefully to help make sure I would finish this year in Barcelona, Spain. Chicago orthopedic surgeon, vintage racer and all-around good guy Marv Primack had always wanted to do a classic car rally in Europe, and we quickly decided that together we would tackle the 13th Winter Challenge.
Blessings From On HighOne of the problems facing Americans who want to run an event in Europe is getting there. In my case, I was fortunate that my car was already in Sweden, so all I had to do was fly there and pick it up. I arrived two days early in order to work out a few last-minute tweaks on the car and to spend some time with curator Backstrom and the mechanics who had done so much to get the Saab ready. These guys still care very deeply for Saab's illustrious competition history from the 1960s, when the legendary Erik Carlsson took the tiny cars to numerous international rally victories. Erik has always been one of my biggest motorsports heroes, so imagine my astonishment when he called the factory workshop just before I left to wish me luck on my adventure. He had been in Trollhatten the previous weekend and had seen my rally car as it was being prepared in the shop. With a blessing from one of the rally gods, how could I go wrong?
Just as in the old Monte Carlo rally, there are several possible starting points around Europe for the Winter Challenge Rally. All of the routes eventually converge in central France, where the real rally begins in the tough terrain of central and southern France. This year, for the first time, the event would also cross into Spain for a quick drive into the rugged Pyrennes Mountains before finally ending in Barcelona after four days of competition. Oslo, Norway had been listed as a rally starting point, but as we were the only team to choose that far northern city, it was removed from the list. Because our car was already in Sweden, the CRA allowed us to start in Scandinavia anyway and find our own way to the rendezvous point in Troyes, east of Paris.
On The Road To MadnessWith a freshly rebuilt engine under the hood and a long way to go just to get to France, Marv and I took it easy driving across Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. Much of the time we drove along the autobahn, but once in France we took a detour to stay the night in Verdun. The next morning we toured the World War One battlefield of the same name. During the Great War, more than half a million men died fighting over this seemingly insignificant plot of land, and today the earth is still mottled from the millions of shells that rained down upon it. We finally left this monument to madness and arrived into Troyes in the evening, in time to have our car inspected to make sure it met all of the safety and period authenticity requirements to compete.
The Rally ProperIt was then we found out that most of the many rally competitors who had started from the Brooklands Racetrack in England that morning were still stuck on ferry boats in the English Channel. Heavy winds were making it difficult for boats to land and discharge their cargo of classic rally cars. Eventually everyone would make it in, although many hours later than expected. The penalties for the first day were scrubbed because of this, and so along with the other 97 teams on the event we started the second day tied for first place.
As I had run this event a few times before, Marv and I decided that he would do the majority of the driving and I would be the navigator-at least until we hit the heavy snows in the mountains. We had fitted an electromechanical auxiliary odometer to help accurately judge the mileage on the route, a critical part of staying on course throughout this type of event. Although we had carefully calibrated the device on our drive across Europe, it now seemed very erratic, sometimes measuring precisely and other times off by large amounts. Finally, after some experimentation, we figured out the device was picking up interference from the car's ignition and electrical systems. Whenever we drove with the headlamps switched on, for example, the counter would randomly add extra distance.
With the fast speeds, tight timing and truly difficult navigation ahead of us, this one weakness sealed our fate and eliminated any possibility of our doing well during the event. This was almost exactly what had happened a year earlier, when my vintage Halda Speedpilot also gave up the ghost on the first day of competition. Oh well, we could still live the life of 1950s-era rally drivers.
Saab StoryAt first Marv seemed somewhat dubious about driving an 841cc Swedish car with column shift and freewheel. He soon began to appreciate the car's charms and in no time was flinging it with abandon into the twists and hairpins of the course. Saabs are still held in great reverence among classic rally fans, and as we were driving the only car from Trollhatten on the event, spectators, workers and the other competitors constantly greeted us. Without an accurate odometer, I was finding it difficult to stay on course, and every time we had to turn around would cost us valuable time that our small-engined car just couldn't make up. Not that it mattered, as we were having fun. That is, until I glanced at the engine's temperature gauge. I had looked at it a minute or two earlier, and it had been normal. Now it was pegged in the red zone. Marv quickly switched off the engine, and the car coasted to a stop on the side of the road. We were far from nowhere.
After opening the hood and rooting around, we determined the engine thermostat was sticking shut and not allowing hot water to go from the engine to the radiator. Fortunately, we had tools with us and we were able to unstick the offending unit and reassemble the parts. All it cost us was time, enough so that we had to cut several of the next sections to get back on course. The penalties were severe, but at least we were still in the rally when we rolled into Clermont-Ferrand in central France. We were now third in class and 16th overall in the Marathon section of the rally. Not great, but apparently other people were having problems, too.
Into The MountainsThe third leg of the rally went from Clermont-Ferrand to Valence, which is in the French Alps. This was the section where the winter rally would begin in earnest-except it was 50F and raining when we left Clermont and the forecast was for more rain during the day. What happened to the record snowfalls? What happened to the cold weather? What was happening to our winter rally?
To make matters worse, we weren't even out of town when the engine began overheating again. This time when we stopped, we removed and gutted the thermostat so it couldn't possibly stick closed. We also jury-rigged a switch onto the electric cooling fan so we could run it constantly if we were in heavy traffic. All of this cost us more valuable time, and we cut some more of the course in order to get back to the rally. We spent the day driving through the beautiful farmland of the Auvergne, crossing low hills and valleys and heading further south. Eventually the rain stopped and the sun came out, warming things up even more. By the time we arrived late in the evening in Valence, we still hadn't seen any snow. With our added penalties from the morning's overheating problem, we had dropped to fifth in class and 20th overall.
Best DayValence to Montpellier was our best day rallying. We finally had the little glitches in our Saab solved, and I was learning how to cope and navigate without a reliable odometer to measure distances. The car seemed to sense our euphoria and was running well, too, screaming through towns and villages, grinding up long mountain grades and swooping through downhill curves. Marv was doing a fine job and was wondering aloud why modern cars with manual transmissions don't have column-mounted gearshift levers.
We knew that finishing was our biggest goal now and after careful consideration chose which parts of the route to skip in order to save the car from unnecessary abuse. We quite rightly reasoned that if we were going to take close to the maximum penalty on a section anyway, we were better off skipping the section in order to run the portions we knew we could do well on.
Our day went well, even if the weather had warmed enough to allow us to drive in T-shirts. Upon our arrival at Montpellier, we were still classified as fifth in class but had moved up a position to 19th overall.
A Couple Of WimpsThe next day we had an epiphany of sorts. Looking at the scores, I realized that if we did every section perfectly, we wouldn't move up any places, and if we took a maximum on every section we wouldn't move down any places. Our only hope of doing better would be that some of the cars ahead of us would drop out and be unable to make it to the finish control on time.
This left us free to do whatever we wanted on our drive to the finish at Barcelona. We took advantage by leaving the route shortly after the day's start to explore the Mediterranean coastline before heading inland to rejoin the rally in the Spanish Pyrennes Mountains. There was no snow here, either. Our relaxing drive off-route also allowed us to arrive in Barcelona early. We weren't the only rally cars to adopt such a strategy, and several other rally cars were already parked at the Arts Hotel on the Barcelona waterfront when we arrived in the late afternoon. We waited a couple hours until our proper rally-in time and turned in our time cards. We were officially finishers of the 13th Winter Challenge.
A Tough TimeBy late evening most of the competitors had made it to the Barcelona waterfront. The toughness of the event was evident in the damage done to the cars. Many had dents to their front or rear fenders, and others had damaged lights and bumpers. There had been no serious accidents on this year's events, but driving so hard on such narrow roads had taken a toll. An instant of inattention could mean a body panel crumpled against a tree or fence post. Not surprisingly, the big and powerful mid-'60s Mercedes 300SEC coupe of Nigel Broderick and navigation expert Colin Francis from England won the highly competitive sporting section of the rally, while Mike Newman and Alec Newsham in a Lotus Cortina won our Marathon category. Keith and Jason Piper won the prewar section in an open 1930s Aston Martin International sports car. Our Saab finished 17th overall and third in class, as two of the cars in our class had problems on the final day's drive to Barcelona and had to retire.
Golden AgeSo, we didn't win. We really didn't expect to. Driving such a small-engined car puts you at a significant disadvantage, especially when the roads are dry and there is no snow. It really makes you appreciate the skills of Erik Carlsson, who was able to beat bigger, more powerful cars with his tiny Saab. For me, it's what an event like this should be-a chance to experience, first-hand, what it was like to be a rally driver during the sport's golden age. Marv claimed that it was the toughest driving he had ever done. It's one thing to drive a classic sports car in a vintage race that lasts half an hour but quite another to drive an old car hard for 12 hours or more on twisting mountain roads. Had it snowed, some of the roads would have been all but impassable.
Next TimeAs much fun as everyone had, the warm weather meant the roads weren't as deserted as they usually are in winter, and there were several scrapes and close calls with locals. Most competitors at the prize-giving party were wondering aloud how long events like this could continue on roads that are ever more crowded. After three times on the Winter Challenge, I too had sort of decided to maybe find another less intensive winter event in Europe.
Then Philip Young announced that next year's event will be different, perhaps not quite as intense and competitive, but still far from the gentle old-car tour we have in the States. I still like the competitive nature of the classic car events put on in Europe, the kind of events that can never really be run here in the United States. Maybe Mr. Young and the CRA can fine-tune the balance, making their events more social and maybe just a bit less competitive. If so, there is a good chance you know where my Saab and I will be next January. I just hope it snows.