One moment we were motoring briskly through the French Alps, the next we were stopped on the side of the road, the tiny three-cylinder engine of our classic Swedish-made Saab seized solid. We were four days into one of the world's toughest events for classic cars with one more day and night to go. But now it was clear that my drive from the bone chill of England across the snowy Alps and to the warmth and sunshine of the Mediterranean coast was over.
In 1910, officials in the tiny principality of Monte Carlo were looking for ways to extend their tourism season. Situated on the sunny French Riviera and with world famous gambling casinos, Monte Carlo and its city of Monaco would seem to be the perfect winter destination for the rich and famous. They decided to hold an automotive competition, Le Rallye International de Monaco, to attract some of the well-to-do sportsmen whose enthusiasm for the automobile was quickly growing. The first event, in January 1911, was a modest one with only 23 starters, but the second year of the Monte Carlo Rally saw 60 starters from six of Europe's capitals. World War I ended motoring competition for a while, but the seeds were sown.
It wasn't until 1924 that Monte Carlo's run to the sun was re-established. As before, competitors could choose to start from one of a half dozen of Europe's major cities before converging on the principality of Monte Carlo. There, driving tests would determine the winner. Competitors could count on plenty of snow and ice as they traveled across Europe in the grip of winter. Some years only a handful of competitors would actually make it to the finish, and the glamorous event's reputation grew as one of the most fearsome tests of driver and machine.
The Rally survived another World War, and by the '50s and '60s car manufacturers were using the Monte Carlo Rally as a way to prove the reliability and toughness of their passenger cars. In 1961 the event was comprehensively overhauled, and secret time controls and special average speed sections were replaced by maximum speed tests on roads that were closed to other traffic. The age of the rally professional with an army of service crews had arrived and gradually eliminated any chances a talented amateur might have to do well in the event.
Enter the Madmen
A dozen years ago, Philip Young and the Classic Rally Association in England became interested in recreating the Monte Carlo Rally from the late '50s, before the professionals had altered its amateur standing. Young had already played a major role in creating rallys that mirrored events of the past and gave competitors a chance to really use their old cars. The four-day and -night format was established, and the event, later known as the Winter Challenge, quickly gained a reputation as one of the toughest competitions for classic car owners. Cars must be built before 1968, cannot run modern electronic navigational aids or studded tires and are strictly limited in the modifications that are allowed. A surprising number of competitors choose pre-war cars, which run in their own separate class. The organizers even encourage competitors to dress the part, asking them to avoid brightly colored ski parkas or clothing with too much advertising. In look, sound and feel, the event becomes a tribute to the past.
I had run the event last year in a borrowed 1960 Alfa Romeo sports car and was hooked. This year I wanted to run my own car, a mid-'60s Saab 96 sedan. These small front-wheel-drive sedans from Sweden were giant-killers in the '60s. Powered by a tiny 841cc two-stroke engine, similar in many ways to the one in your weed-chopper, the cars were successful right from the start in international rally competition. We had no illusions about winning the event. But I figured if it snowed heavily, our little Saab would go well in the snow--and above all, Peter Pleitner, my navigator from Ann Arbor, Michigan and I would at least have an adventure.
For an American, running a car event in Europe requires a great deal of logistical planning. For the month before the car was shipped, I collected together the necessary fire extinguisher, first aid kit, warning triangles and tow rope required by the organizers. Nokian provided me with a set of narrow Hakkapeliitta winter tires for my Saab. Because so much of the driving in this event takes place after dark, I mounted a set of huge Hella rally lights on a removable bar to the front bumper. Overseas insurance had to be arranged, as did proper licensing and import papers. Finally, after weeks of planning and checking the car, we were ready. I locked all of the rally gear into the trunk of my car and shipped it to New York, where it would be placed upon a ship for the voyage to the Saab Museum in Trollhattan, Sweden. There we would meet up with our car a few days before the event and check it over again before driving to our Holland starting point to begin the rally.