Trollhättan, Sweden: The Mille Miglia is one of the highlights of the year for any car enthusiast. Fantastic cars, fantastic scenery and fantastic people. And at Saab Automobile, we live cars, so naturally we again competed in this year’s event after the 2010 edition saw Saab Automobile CEO and Chairman Victor Muller and former Saab Automobile CEO Jan Åke Jonsson taking the wheel of two Saab 93s.
For the 2011 edition, Saab brought three 93s to the Brescia starting line. The #331 car was driven by Mats Fägerhag, Saab Automobile’s Vice President Vehicle Product Development, with Peter Bäckström, Manager of the Saab Car Museum, sitting alongside. The #332 car was driven by Hans Hugenholtz, Chairman of Saab Automobile owner Spyker Cars N.V., and his wife Laurence. A third #333 car was entered and driven by long-time Belgian Saab importer Jacques Beherman, assisted by Umberto Stefani, External Affairs Director for Saab Belgium.
In preparing the Saab 93s for the event, the cars were kept as close as possible to the specification of the cars that competed in the old days. “We restored them to original condition, as near as possible, with the same materials and components that were used at that time,” says Peter Bäckström. “We’ve had to refurbish some of the interior trim and that was an interesting project for our colleagues in the prototype workshop at the factory. They were working with materials and build techniques that are no longer used, but they enjoyed the challenge.”
Click to see a feature on the restoration of the #331 Saab 93.
Keeping the cars in original condition also meant not improving them beyond their original trim. “For instance, with the technical knowledge we have these days, it would be quite easy to get some more power from the two-stroke engines, but that is not what we wanted to do,” says Bäckström. “In standard trim they produced about 33 hp and for competition use this was raised to about 50 hp. And that is what we had on the Mille Miglia.”
As in previous events, the 2011 Mille Miglia produced a long cavalcade of priceless and exotic cars. And while the Saab 93s may not have been as glamorous or prestigious as some, they did attract a lot of interest and curiosity because of their uniqueness: with front-wheel drive, great aerodynamics and built-in crash safety, they were ahead of their time. Passing through small Tuscany towns or past packed roadsides, the 93s proved to be a true crowd pleaser as the characteristic, one-in-a-million sound of the two-stroke engines filled the air.
Hans Hugenholtz really enjoyed the unique atmosphere of the Mille Miglia. “Along the route, we visited many Italian towns for Time Controls, and each time we were escorted into the town square or some other important place, like the new Ferrari Museum being constructed in Modena,” says Hugenholtz. “The typical sound of the Saab two-stroke racing into town at high revs made spectators turn their heads; every time we could hear the public yell out “Saab” and several Saab Clubs had banners along the road wishing us a good rally.” He adds that arriving in Rome on Friday night was a highlight as well: “We had thousands of enthousiasts cheering us on, and we spent a long time signing banners, photographs and posing with the cars for the Saab fans.”
During the three days of competition, the Saabs hardly experienced any trouble. The #332 car had a slight problem with the rear brakes early on in the event which was solved quickly, but apart from that the 93s proved to be highly reliable.
According to Hugenholtz, the 93s showed their worth in the event. “Our team of three Saabs drove the full 1.600 km rally without any problems and were mixing with, and passing, much faster Porsches, 1.600 cc MG’s and other cars on the beautiful Italian roads. It was the living proof that great handling of a light car can overcome the fact of having a small engine.”
Fägerhag agrees: “I was impressed with what we did with the cars. The 93 was an impressive car back in the day, and it still is. What we lacked in horsepower compared to much stronger cars, we managed to compensate by the 93’s excellent handling.” And, with a wink: “Peter and I finished more than 100 places ahead of two-time Formula 1 world champion Mika Häkkinen in his Mercedes 300 SLR. That says it all!”
With 375 competing cars, many fast service vehicles and all sorts of car clubs following the rally, arriving on time at the various controls was a challenge for the drivers. With the route existing of virtually only local two-lane roads and many mountain sections, overtaking was vital to keep the average speed up. “The compact size of the 93 and the excellent acceleration gave us the chance to beat many faster cars on the road,” explains Hugenholtz, “while in the mountain sections, rich with both sweeping and tight corners, we used the Saab’s excellent handling to out-run other competitors.”
In the end, all three cars arrived safely in Brescia with very good scores on the regularity sections. Leading the Saab pack was the #331 car of Mats Fägerhag and Peter Bäckström, which finished 175th overall, closely followed by Hans and Laurence Hugenholtz in 187th place. Jacques Beherman and Umberto Stefani did finish the race, but were removed from the final classification on an administrative technicality.
The Mille Miglia is a unique and fantastic event, says Fägerhag. “There was one thing that particularly struck me. When you are competing in this event, everywhere around you see these fantastic and incredible cars: Porsche, Ferrari, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz… and Saab. It shows the fantastic history we have as a brand. In Mille Miglia, you don’t see every car brand. You see only the really special ones. And Saab is one of them.”
Click to enlarge the images below….