I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that’s happened on this trip. It’s been one highlight after the other and I’ve been so busy that I’ve hardly had any time to update the site. I’ll get around to sharing (almost) all of it here in due course.
I had to take a little time out, though, to share some of what happened today. Thanks to the kindness of friends, Mike and Hilary, I was able to spend a dream afternoon with Saab’s ace rally driver, Mr Saab himself, Erik Carlsson.
Right now, we’re smack-bang in the midst of a whole range of 50th anniversaries for Carlsson and he’s loving every minute of it. The party started back in 2010 with the 50th anniversary of his first-of-three consecutive wins in the RAC Rally. It’ll continue this year with the anniversary of his first Monte Carlo win in 1962. The sixties were a golden era for Saab racing and much of it was down to the deft touch of the kid from Trollhattan – Carlsson ‘On the roof’.
I’m very happy to report that Erik was in fine form – happy, energetic, healthy and with his formidable sense of humour fully intact. He was fresh back in England from a weekend event in Stockholm for Bilsport Magazine, which the Bilsport guys will be happy to hear he thoroughly enjoyed.
We joined Erik at his home, where he’s accompanied much of the time by his cousin, Britt-Marie, since the passing of his wife, Pat Moss, a few years ago. His daughter Susie lives just down the road and it’s obvious that Erik enjoys having his loved ones close to him.
He greeted me with a strong handshake and his thanks for the work I’d done for Saab over the years. It’s stating the obvious to say that it was an honor for me to meet the great man at his home but to be welcomed in such a way lifted me beyond words. It’s not the first time he’s done that, though. When I first started at Saab, my friend Mike emailed me a message from Erik, welcoming me as a co-worker at Saab Automobile. It’s a message I still treasure today.
After a brief chat inside the house, we went outside to what was a highlight of the day – his ‘replica’ rally car. I use the word replica lightheartedly because whilst it has some replacement panels and other bits and pieces, much of the car is original spec, just as he raced it back in the early 1960s.
The car was rebuilt as a gift to Erik for his 70th birthday a few years ago. Right now it has decals to recreate the look of the RAC Rally car from 1960 but the vehicle specification is actually closer to the Monte Carlo winning car from 1962-63. The 96 has an 850cc, three cylinder two-stroke engine matched to a wonderfully smooth, column-shift 4-speed gearbox.
The engine started on the first turn of the key and it still sounds magnificent.
My apologies for the wide-angle skewing but it was the first time I’d used my new GoPro Hero2 and I didn’t have time to adjust the settings. You get the picture, though.
Just seeing this classic Saab fire up and listing to the pop of the stroker engine was reward enough. Seeing it in Mr Saab’s hands was an even bigger bonus. He absolutely adores this car and he knows it inside out. His pride in having this machine was obvious and every touch was a tender one.
He told me about the oil cans in the trunk, which were actually bought by him during an event many years ago, just as a precaution. He unscrewed the top of one can showing how it was still sealed underneath, laughing that the oil would probably be more valuable than the car nowadays (hardly!).
We adjourned for lunch at the local pub and Erik was like a king in his castle, sweet-talking the staff and commanding the conversation with his booming baritone. He stands a little smaller today than in his dominant days behind the wheel. Age has taken a toll, but his health has improved in the last few years. He’s in top form today and looking forward to a Saab Owners Club event on the weekend where he’ll speak to the gathered crowd and once again and have them on the edge of their seats and laughing at his stories from days gone by. As we exit, Erik talks at length with the chef, thanks him for his skills and promises to be back. The chicken curry was a hit.
We return to his home and chat at length, seeing some of his considerable collection of memorabilia. Over an afternoon fika in his kitchen, he asks a lot of questions about what’s happening at Saab. He’s already well informed, catching up with friends and colleagues in Sweden on a regular basis (both he and I spoke with his former navigator, Gunnar Palm, by phone during the afternoon). Like everyone else, he’s both anxious about the future of the company and relieved at the fact that at least the Saab Museum has been saved. He shares his opinion on what’s happened, expressing both his admiration and exasperation at various elements of the drama in a very forthright manner.
Our visit eventually comes to an end and we take our time saying our goodbyes. Erik was kind enough to inscribe and sign a copy of the Mr Saab book for me. Hands shaken and photos taken, we get back into Mike’s car and relive the whole afternoon over again during the hour drive back to his home. Mike and Hilary see Erik regularly but I think today’s been one of those special visits for them, too.
I sat at the great man’s table and felt like I could do little more than just drink it all in. The stories, the experience, the good fortune I’d had to simply be there. Erik Carlsson quite possibly did more than any other individual to put Saab on the map and the chance to spend some quality time with him is a rare one that I will always hold dear.