Monte Carlo Winter Challenge Rally in a Vintage Saab

I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to participate in the 2001 Monte Carlo Winter Challenge rally to Cannes, France in a 2-cycle Saab 96 with journalist Kevin Clemens.

I liked my 2-cycle-engine Lawn Boy for cutting my grass because it was lightweight and required zero maintenance. It lasted a quarter century. And it kept the mosquitoes away. What more can you ask for? How about a cordless electric mower? One your wife likes so much you don’t have to mow anymore? That’s progress. Well anyway, that soft spot ended up biting me in the derriere because it must have clouded my judgment when I said “yes” after being asked by Kevin Clemens, a journalist neighbor, “How about we do a winter rally to Cannes, France in the 2-cycle Saab 96 I’m buying — just like “on-the-roof” Erik Carlsson did by winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1961 and 1962?”

Start of the Winter Challenge in Brooklands, England with Philip Young in the background
Start of the Winter Challenge in Brooklands, England with Philip Young in the background

I already had rallying on my bucket list — enjoyed doing them a couple of times in my TR3 in the 1960s and my MGTC 30 years later. However I had neglected that I supplied the torque while mowing uphill — and that mountain stages require lots of torque to stay on time, something a 2-cycle, 3-cylinder Saab 96GT engine just does not do well (though going downhill it is better than most). It’s soprano voice announces that deficit clearly. I should have listened. But our Saab was still somewhere in Ohio.

I bought the airline ticket, the two dozen large scale Michelin maps, the wind-up timers (electronics are not allowed, not even a digital watch), the clip boards, lights, the round slide rule, decimal minute converter, lightweight winter clothing, and proceeded to plot the course and annotate the instructions with pace notes up to the holidays of 2000/2001. There was no turning back. Even my mother in Germany was expecting me for a brief visit between the holidays. The hastily outfitted and supplied Saab was sent to the docks in New Jersey, shipped to Trollhattan, Sweden for a final fettle at Saab’s museum by mid December. A great plan. It inspired confidence. Torque deficit didn’t concern me yet. I was not even thinking about our torque deficit because I knew that Kevin Clemens is a good driver. Plus he had taken my seat in an Alfa Giulietta Veloce (another high rpm’er known to be short on torque) the year before on the same rally (but different route) so at least he knew the drill. Besides, he was inspired to emulate Erik Carlsson. Did I mention that Erik Carlsson had a factory chase vehicle packed with his luggage, parts and supplies? Well, we didn’t. Therefore our torque deficit would be greater than his.

In Trollhattan we encountered our biggest deficit — no Saab! Panic set in and phone calls were made. Our Saab was still at sea, headed for Liverpool. Its arrival in Sweden would be way too late to make our start in Holland! Never mind the factory preparation. We took an immediate flight to Manchester, taxi to Liverpool, found a nice harbor hotel and did some sightseeing (including the infamous Yellow Submarine). We paid the unscheduled offloading ransom the next morning only to discover the probable reason for its holiday layover in New Jersey. All our supplies, from tire chains, two spare tires, extinguisher, fancy first aid kit, spare parts, tools, snow shovel, office supplies, etc. had been repurposed as Christmas presents for dockworkers in New Jersey! Both of us steaming with unpleasant thoughts, we drove our new/old Saab 96 to our new rally starting point, Brooklands, south of London. Then suddenly our pace slowed down. More gas made it feel worse. Only by disengaging the clutch could we manage coasting into a highway rest stop. Plugs out, then rocking the car in gear finally confirmed that our engine had ceased. Piston? Crank? Who knows?

Our 1966 Saab 96 driven by Kevin Clemens and Peter Pleitner
Our 1966 Saab 96 driven by Kevin Clemens and Peter Pleitner

A panicky telephone call to our friend and museum director Peter Backstrom resulted in a herculean rescue by Saab’s UK distributor and the sourcing of a replacement engine overnight via a tightly knit club of 2-cycle enthusiasts. The next day, while Kevin and the distributor’s shop crew were busy swapping engines, I drove our 2000 demonstrator Saab 9-3 Turbo around London’s suburbs shopping for office supplies, spares, tyre chains (in the UK), fire extinguisher, shovel, etc. — all the gear required at tech inspection plus replacements for some of our stolen personal items. There was definitely no deficit of torque in that Saab, but I had no time to enjoy it much while concentrating on looking right first before entering or crossing a road and executing right turns like left turns back home, all while shifting with the left hand!

A second night at a charming village pub, then up early, we found the atmosphere at Brooklands equally special. Plus it was sunny and cold. Assembled there were 175 interesting pre-1969 cars, liveried and outfitted for a long rally, namely the 12th Classic Rally Association’s Winter Challenge Rally (formerly known as the Monte Carlo Winter Challenge until their club claimed ownership of the name). It is inspired and run by that former journalist and rally enthusiast Philip Young who organized his first Pirelli Classic Marathon for cars of a certain vintage in 1988, and who is presently heading the Endurance Rally Association. Anyway, that is where I was reminded that Kevin had signed our Saab into the “Sporting” class (more accurately the professional masochist class) — as in longer and more difficult to follow instructions and route, pressing on while more sleep deprived, than the “Marathon” (tourist) class. My trepidation set in because well wishers we didn’t know seemed to regard our effort as something extra ordinary. However transit to our first destination made no class distinction. Folkestone was a little over an hour away, from where we board a drive-on Chunnel Train to Calais, France. It is kind of bizarre, after paying at a toll booth, you drive on a platform parallel to a very long train made up of enclosed cars, up to a man waving you into a long door that you angle into. We then drove down this aluminum tube until we were real close to the parked car ahead, a red, top down, 1964 Corvette. We set our brakes and then turned off our popcorn machine. We could stay seated or could walk to a passenger lounge car up front.

After 32 miles, at a maximum of 99 mph through the tunnel, we were in Calais. We then immediately headed to Nancy, on “D” (county) roads mostly, for our first hotel stop late that first night — a new route I had hastily plotted on a generic scale map purchased in Calais to invent our new plot and dash rally style. There we would meet up with the starters originating from two more countries. And our new engine sounded happy, well giddy actually, compared to the engines in the cars that our competition was driving. Unfortunately our speedometer cable apparently was not. It soon broke — bad news because half the data on my route instructions was now useless. Unless we recognized a competitor ahead of us changing to another road and we trusted their navigation, I had to read my maps very, very closely to correctly decipher or guess every change of course we made based upon what I saw. And I was not perfect, especially in towns. That meant we had to go as fast as we dared in order to bank time for waiting just short of a check point, then punch in at the time I calculated from the distance and average speed stipulated in the route instructions. That was stressful. Not to mention the stress from trying to steal time for a bite to eat, find “facilities” and pump gas.

From Nancy, our route took us from flat land to an Appalachian-type of landscape, namely the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. There we encountered a tragedy which happened moments before and would shock us into realizing that our adventure could also result in serious consequences. A “civilian,” not many cars in front of us, on a two-lane down-hill section, collided head-on into large diameter tree logs torn loose from a lumber truck rounding a curve. It was ugly and deadly.

View out windshield
My view from our 1966 Saab above Aix-les-Bains, France

We arrived in Aix-les-Bains, an ancient spa town at the foot of the French Alps, for a two-night layover — an alpine motoring adventure flogging our new popcorn machine up alpine meadows, blasting through tiny villages sometimes praying a little old lady wouldn’t swing her front door open. More than once our route took us into what appeared to be a farmstead. At least we had offloaded some of our gear and lightened up.

Both mornings were lovely. We were starting to get comfortable in our new routine. A French breakfast followed by a walkabout chatting with our competitors and just one map for each day’s work in a most beautiful part of France (between Geneva and Grenoble). Life on the rally might be good, even though we lost all hope of being competitive in our class. I would be navigating us up in the mountains from one ski area to another, on roads barely one and a half lanes wide. From high up I spotted that most beautiful city on a lake, Annecy, which my wife and I enjoyed so much a couple of years before.

The morning we checked out, in the parc-fermé (closed off parking), we discovered our Saab was leaking brake fluid from the right rear wheel cylinder. Our start was soon and winter weather was closing in. No time for repairs, we pinched that line to prevent more loss and topped up the fluid. Ahead was the most strenuous part of our winter rally, an overnight romp over numerous mountain passes to Cannes on the Mediterranean via Gap.

It was drizzling, clouds were low, roads got icy on the way up, then it started to snow. We were losing serious time going uphill fully loaded for long stretches. Kevin tried making up time going downhill but it was downright scary. We started to pass competitors who hit obstacles or plowed into a ditch. In the valley the roads were simply wet, but going up again we hit that ice again, this time under an inch or two of snow, plus the fog of low clouds limited and constantly changed our ability to see the road and what to anticipate. This sport was getting awfully dangerous. Then it happened. That familiar inexplicable change of pace due to loss of power. We barely made it to the top of a cole (pass) and pulled over. We tested our suspicion. It was disheartening and a relief to conclude this might again be terminal as we waved by the last competitors behind us until finally the chase Range Rover with two mechanics and tools stopped to assist.

They called Cambridge Motorsports who had a space left in their large enclosed semi trailer. We coasted in strange silence down the mountain a couple of miles into a church parking lot (fitting) to ship our Saab off to Trollhattan, finally. My luggage in hand, Kevin and I departed company on a train platform as if we had just interned a relative who was a difficult partner. My ticket was for Cannes to see how many actually made it. Even that leg was not without adventure. I had to change trains in Marseilles and didn’t know to recognize the main station. Scared of missing it, I got out one station too soon (signs said Marseilles something). Damn, I had a tight connection already, and it was the last one for that night. A taxi got me there by driving faster than our Saab ever could even downhill. We caught up to my train and I was able to connect. Too bad it was dark as the route parallels the Mediterranean.

I got a nice hotel room for two nights at rally headquarters, hung out with some of the course marshals, and rented a car. The World Rally Championship cars were also running up in the foothills for the 2001 Monte Carlo so I drove to spectate at one stage. That was not easy either. Finding it then parking was tricky but worth it. It was nice to watch a few pros really flog their studded beasts. No thank you but terrific for them!

One of the Touring Class winners in Cannes, France
One of the Touring Class winners in Cannes, France

In a conference room, which served as rally HQ, I learned of another tragedy. Frank Fennell had been in a head-on collision with a local driver on the same stage when our engine failed. He had two broken legs and was flown by helicopter to a hospital. That stage spelled disaster for 13 of us out of 16 Sporting Route teams that didn’t finish. His navigator, Kevin Savage, apparently was in the safer seat of their Volvo PV544. Both had been consistent leaders and previous winners of this rally.

Kevin’s report for European Car magazine includes more details and many photos. But the postmortem on our engine failure was to come later from Trollhattan. It was the “cage” in one of the substitute crankshaft roller bearings that eventually disintegrated due to its design for short motorcycle crankshaft applications. The radial flexing of the Saab’s longer crankshaft causes eventual metal fatigue of the cage which holds the rollers parallel to each other. I believe it. Roller bearings can be tricky. I experienced a different roller bearing failure a few years later. It was in the lay shaft of a transmission. That time the culprit was modern oil which was too slippery! The brand new transmission’s roller needles flat-spotted because they couldn’t get enough traction to roll.

All photos by Peter Pleitner.

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