Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams

| 9 Jun 2022
Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams

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Gunnar Palm is standing beside the century-old Olidan powerplant of Trollhättan, the home of Saab.

In front are three 96s: a standard white Sport and two rally cars, from which Palm (85) saw a lot of scenery fly by as co-driver for Erik ‘On the Roof’ Carlsson.

“It’s a miracle what we did with those cars,” says Palm.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The 96 Sport from the 1963 Paris Salon (left), a Monte-Carlo rally car replica (middle) and the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liège rally car

“We had much less power than everyone else, so Erik’s motto was to never take his foot off the throttle.

“Our Saabs were also relatively heavy and they understeered, but the general handling was very good.

“They were strong and reliable – and the mechanicals were straightforward. In addition, we always made sure that we were prepared to the extreme.

“As a result, on more than one occasion we were able to outperform the bigger factory teams, which had budgets that were five to 10 times ours.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Gunnar Palm (right), Erik Carlsson (rear) and Pat Moss celebrate a brilliant second place at the Liège finish in ’63 © Saab Car Museum

Our presence here in Trollhättan began with Dutch collector Michiel Bakker, a great fan of the idiosyncratic Swedish brand.

Some time ago, Bakker learned that the 96 Sport which Carlsson and Palm drove on the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liège rally was somewhere north of Stockholm in the hands of an enthusiast, and was due to be auctioned. 

He immediately leapt into action and bought it.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Michiel Bakker arranged for Gunnar Palm (pictured) to be reacquainted with the Spa-Sofia-Liège rally car

“The previous owner had taken over the car from the factory, but without an engine,” Bakker explains.

“He managed to get hold of a correct triple-carburettor unit, and restored the car to the way it was when Palm and Carlsson drove it.”

After some additional light restoration work, Bakker hatched the idea of making a pilgrimage with the car back to Trollhättan where it was built, and arranging a meeting with Palm.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Tweaks to the rally Saab 96 Sport (front) included a roof-mounted spotlight

That plan was welcomed with open arms not only by the former co-driver, but also by Peter Bäckström, curator of the Saab Car Museum.

As well as P97349, Bakker has brought along his very original 96 Sport road car, which graced the Saab stand during the 1963 Paris Salon. 

Meanwhile, Bäckström has manoeuvred something special out of the museum to complete the trio – a 96 wearing start number 283 and numberplate P77558, the car in which Carlsson and Palm won the Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1963.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The replica (left) and the real thing, as Palm and Carlsson drift through the snow on the Col de Turini, en route to taking victory on the 1963 Rallye Monte-Carlo © Saab Car Museum

Except this is not the real deal, but an exacting replica.

“Many Saab works cars were crashed or, if they survived, were sold to other competitors and continued to live demanding lives in rallying,” explains Bäckström.

“A limited few have survived that, too, such as P97349.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
‘Among the major rallies Palm contested with Carlsson in “bullnose” 96s were the East African Safari, the Rallye Monte-Carlo and Spa-Sofia-Liège’

To the question of how many works 96 Sports were built, the apologetic curator has no answer: “When Saab stopped rallying in 1981, the competition department was so disappointed that the team threw everything away, the parts and all of the documentation.”

It’s clear that Bäckström would love to have had those archives in his hands.

Palm, too, struggles to come up with an exact number: “We competed with two teams, with Erik and Pat Moss as drivers. I think the competition department built two cars for each season, plus a spare.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The Spa-Sofia-Liège rally was an exhausting challenge for both the cars and their crews

“There were also ‘semi-works’ cars built for privateer teams, and parts were offered to people who converted their 96s themselves,” Palm continues.

“The department seized each and every opportunity to make some money because the budget was so small.”

Among the major rallies Palm contested with Carlsson in ‘bullnose’ 96s were the East African Safari, the Rallye Monte-Carlo and Spa-Sofia-Liège – the latter a killer for cars and an exhausting challenge for the crews.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
In 1963, the Spa-Sofia-Liège rally went non-stop from Belgium to Bulgaria

In 1963, only 20 of 119 starters made the finish in Liège; in 1964 only 21 out of 98.

In 1963 the event, also known as the Marathon de la Route, went non-stop from Spa in Belgium to Sofia in Bulgaria, where there was an hour’s obligatory break, mainly spent eating.

Then the entire pack (or at least what was left of it) was simultaneously given the go-ahead for a street race back to Liège.

“It’s hard to explain how inhumanely hard it was,” recalls Palm.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The 841cc Saab competed against cars with much higher capacity engines, the stamina and preparation of the crew key to success

“Driving day and night, on difficult roads, with a very high average speed.

“It was 90 hours of hell: 5500km, many of them on gravel, over the Passo di Gavia, the Passo di Crocedomini and the Stelvio, as fast as we could, without rest, through the night, in fog and mist.

“I still marvel at Erik’s stamina and his ability at the wheel – unbelievable. The road network was far worse then than it is now: Yugoslavia had the autoput [highway] across the country, but there wasn’t much more than that.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Gunnar Palm and Erik Carlsson on the tough Spa-Sofia-Liège © McKlein

The challenge gave the rally prestige, and all the major brands were represented.

“It was a unique rally,” says Palm, “there were hardly any rules. You couldn’t lose because your starting numbers weren’t ‘the right colour’ or your lighting was ‘not according to regulations’, as happened on the Monte.

“The organiser, the Royal Motor Union in Liège, didn’t worry about regulations – it knew that the desire to protest would disappear quickly along the way, once you realised that just finishing was in itself a huge feat.

“The distances from control to control had been measured with a ruler on the map – so in reality they were much greater.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The Marathon de la Route Saab has survived in remarkably original fettle

“The average speeds are almost unattainable even now, on modern roads, so you wouldn’t be able to touch them – it was an endurance race on the open road,” explains Palm.

“We ate in the car, and if the pants had to come down I gave Erik 40 secs to do so: open the door, quickly squat then drive again!

“The time controls were very strict: you had to arrive from the correct direction and within a tight interval. If you didn’t make it, you were out. ‘See you next year, maybe,’ the official would say, taking your timecard.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Many major brands were represented at the prestigious Spa-Sofia-Liège rally

Carlsson and Palm finished second in both 1963 and ’64, achievements of which the driver remained most proud until his death in 2015 – that despite winning the Monte twice and the RAC Rally three times in a row, all with Saabs.

“We took pills to help us stay awake,” recalls Palm, “and seized any moment to close our eyes, if only for 10 mins, because even that could make you feel much better.

“We developed a strategy to switch places while driving so Erik could get some sleep.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Palm had the chance to get to grips with his old steed once again

“Of the 5500km, he drove 5100 and I did 400. I still find his stamina unimaginable,” Palms adds.

“What kept us going was that we were both extremely competitive: the tougher the rally, the greater our will to win.”

The Marathon was torture for the 841cc Saab, which had to compete with cars boasting far larger engines, such as the 3-litre Healeys and V8 Rovers.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The ex-works Saab looks at home on twisty terrain

The 96’s tyres were threadbare after 24 hours on punishing gravel roads, the wings were sandblasted on the inside and the heat from the overworked dampers made their paint curl: “Erik changed the tyres while I cleaned the windscreen, inside and out.

“That was important, because it made your eyes less tired.

“Occasionally there was a stage on good roads, so we could get to a checkpoint a few minutes early and close our eyes for a bit.

“That was a risk, though, because we weren’t sure if we would wake up again.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The stripped-out Rallye Monte-Carlo replica (left) contrasts with the 96 Sport show car

“On the way back, driving from Kranjska Gora, in modern-day Slovenia, to Austria, we reached the border too early and it almost went wrong at the time control,” he continues.

“We decided to sleep for 15 mins and set a timer, our only sleep in a stationary car during the entire rally, and we slept so soundly that we didn’t hear the alarm.

“Hermann Eger, the former Fangio mechanic, woke us up: ‘Hey guys, shouldn’t you start driving?’ If he hadn’t, it would have been the end of the event for us.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The hint of blue smoke betrays this classic Saab's two-stroke power

“Eugen Böhringer, who had won in 1962 with a 220SE but drove a 230SL in 1963, was our biggest rival but the Mercedes team was never arrogant and was always very sporting.”

Driving around the outskirts of Trollhättan in the 96 Sport in which Palm spent so many hours, the three-cylinder two-stroke crackles merrily as the former co-driver deftly steers it over the gravel routes Carlsson used to fine-tune the works cars.

Ahead, the dash features a pair of Heuer clocks, plus a Halda Speedpilot and Tripmaster, giving it an aircraft look – highly appropriate for a Saab.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The original Heuer clocks are still in place

“The seats are too high,” Palm notes. “Erik sat almost on the floor.”

He’s right, of course, and Bakker has already tracked down the original seats to put back in.

Saab’s ever-evolving rally weapon started out with an 841cc two-stroke triple mounted ahead of the front axle, delivering 38bhp and 59lb ft of torque with a single Solex 40 BI carburettor.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
‘The dash features a pair of Heuer clocks, plus a Halda Speedpilot and Tripmaster, giving it an aircraft look – highly appropriate for a Saab’

The 96 in which Carlsson and Palm won the 1963 Rallye Monte-Carlo featured machined and polished ports and higher compression, giving 70bhp at 6000rpm – which reportedly sounded more like 12,000.

The drive for ever more power led to the 96 Sport, called the GT 850 in the US market, which featured three Solex 34 BIC carbs.

It got disc front brakes, a four-speed ’box and a separate 3-litre oil reservoir with a pump to lubricate the two-stroke for up to 2500km, so that regular pump petrol could be used.

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Modifications to the 841cc two-stroke include three larger Solex carburettors plus a special airbox

In standard road form it was good for 52bhp, but in Group 2 form for the Spa-Sofia-Liège it used larger Solex C44 P3I carbs crowned by a sextet of air filters, which boosted it to 80-85bhp.

It would prove the perfect partner for Palm and Carlsson.

“We were then probably the first and only professionals in the sport,” recalls Palm, “in the sense that we made our living from rallying.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
A period-correct works team crash helmet

“All the other teams were paid per event,” he explains, “whereas Erik and I were put on the payroll after we won the Monte – plus a bonus for the risks we were taking.

“Because of this, I was able to spend a lot of time on preparation and organisation.

“After the Monte we both got an envelope from the top brass, as a token of appreciation, with 2500 crowns in it – about €2800 today.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Gunnar Palm, back behind the wheel of a Saab 96 Sport nearly 60 years after the model brought two of his greatest results alongside fellow famous Swede Erik Carlsson

Palm is modest about his own contribution, repeatedly praising Carlsson’s skills, yet their success wouldn’t have come without his exacting preparation.

Palm did all the reconnaissance for the rally, driving a 96 from Trollhättan to Liège, then on to Sofia and back, to find the fastest course between controls and analyse the route in detail: “I found some maps of Yugoslavia in the library in Vienna that were much more detailed than I had seen before, so I started looking for shortcuts.

“We took advantage of that when we were stuck behind one of the Citroëns with no opportunities to pass.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Palm did all the reconnaissance for the rallies, analysing every route in detail

“I had marked places where we could cut off a stretch of road if necessary, so I made Erik turn left down a narrow lane, past farms, across yards and almost through a barn,” Palm remembers.

“When we turned back on to the main road, the DS21 whizzed past.

“Erik got mad, until we realised it was another Citroën that had started 10 mins ahead of us!”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
In standard road form, the Saab 96 Sport (left) was good for 52bhp

The importance of preparation was also apparent during the mass restart in Sofia, after the mandatory hour’s rest.

“Everyone rushed to the main road, because you didn’t want to drive in someone else’s dust,” says Palm.

“I had mapped out an alternative route through narrow alleys beforehand, and it worked: we turned on to the main road 5m ahead of the lead car.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The car has a well-stocked dash with stylish instruments behind the three-spoke sports steering wheel

The reconnaissance demanded a lot in terms of organisation – and improvisation: “While exploring the mountain roads near Kotor, now in Montenegro, I collided with a truck.

“In a nearby village they took care of the injuries to my face and a truck driver took me to a town where I organised for the Saab to be picked up.

“I called the Swedish embassy in Belgrade to arrange a ticket to Sweden, then hitchhiked to Rijeka from where I was able to fly on a DC3 to Belgrade, then on home.

“Back in Trollhättan I got into a new Saab and drove the 2500km back to Kotor to finish the recce – all non-stop, with Pat Moss’ navigator Liz Nyström.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The Marathon de la Route competitor returns to its birthplace of Trollhättan, Sweden

Spots were identified where the service team could be ready with fuel, because the tuned 96 used a litre every 3km when Carlsson had his foot down: “There had been a major earthquake in Skopje, and I had noticed during my recce that there was no petrol for miles around.

“The mechanic left Trollhättan in plenty of time, taking empty jerrycans and assuming he could fill them when he got there, but he couldn’t.

“He was very embarrassed. Luckily, the Mercedes team helped with fuel, or we would not have been able to continue.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
The sound of the rasping triple rings across Havstens Fjord

Among the other rallies tackled by Carlsson and Palm was the epic East African Safari.

In 1963 they had to retire, but in ’64 the pair drove their 96 Sport to a brilliant second, sandwiched between a pair of Ford Cortina GTs.

“The Safari was also tough for the cars. A win was the ultimate proof of your brand’s durability.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
At the time, Saab’s crew was probably the first and only that competed for a living, permitting thorough preparation

He continues: “What made it different from the Spa-Sofia-Liège was that the pace wasn’t so relentless: you could take a break every now and then.

“It was also a lottery because there were so many things you had no control over – the wildlife, the terrain, the weather. The rain could turn the road into a washboard or a swamp in the blink of an eye, or make it disappear altogether.

“You had to take care of your car: the experienced teams said that to use its maximum potential you had to drive in such a way that your car collapsed exactly on the finish line.

“There were years when 100 cars started and only seven finished.”

Classic & Sports Car - Saab 96 Sport: Swede dreams
Palm and Carlsson at the start of the 1963 Spa-Sofia-Liège © Saab Car Museum

Palm tackled the Safari seven times, twice with Carlsson and the rest in Fords, yet still cites the two podium finishes on the Marathon as his greatest performances.

Speaking at a memorial service for his great friend in 2015, Palm said: “Erik, if you want to impress your new audience up there, tell them about your two second places in that rally from Liège, the best two drives 
of your life.

“There is no need to exaggerate – they won’t believe you anyway!” 

Images: Luuk van Kaathoven


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