On to Brooklands
The next morning, as tall and lanky Chris Parkington worked to install the new engine in our Saab, I realized that from now on, no matter what else transpired, the mere fact that we would make it to the start was going to be a miracle. Later that morning, Parkington took our Saab around the block a few times as he changed jets in the carburetor to adjust them to the new engine. By mid-afternoon we were on our way to Brooklands, to sign in and take the car through scrutineering. Our hastily assembled kit of rally gear passed the technical inspection, and we were in. The rally would start at 9 a.m. the next morning.
Sunday, a cold pale dawn faced the hundred or so competitors who would start from the Brooklands racetrack. Most of the prewar cars entered in the event were starting here, and they looked to be an amazingly uncomfortable way to travel more than a thousand miles through ice and snow and night. Most were open cars, and their crews were decked out in fur-lined leather jackets, leather flying helmets and goggles. Cars began arriving by the dozens--MGAs Triumph TR3s, Alfa Romeo coupes and British sedans of every description. We were the only Saab entered in the event and drew our share of the crowd, especially when I lit the three-cylinder off and it idled with its characteristic ring-a-ding sound.
The first car to leave was a 1939 Lancia Aprilia. We waited our turn and finally got underway almost an hour later, the second to the last car to leave Brooklands. The Union Jack waved, the crowd cheered and we were on our way.
On the Rally
Driving in England in a classic car is always a treat, and not just because you are on the wrong side of the road. The British have a true appreciation for old-timers and honk and wave when they see something they like. After a brief drive we reached the entrance to the Eurotunnel train that would take us under the Channel and on to France. So far our replacement engine was running fine, but it didn't have the performance that our sport-tuned engine had delivered.
Through the rest of the day and into the evening, Peter Pleitner and I worked our way across central France to the city of Nancy. Whenever we stopped for gas, a group of French enthusiasts would gather and ask us about our car. They seemed very knowledgeable about Saabs and the two-stroke models that dominated rallying for a time in the '60s. Finally, we arrived at our hotel in Nancy at 11 p.m., tired but happy to have made it through the first day.
Uphill and Down
The next morning saw us on the road again by 6:30 a.m. It was very cold and clear outside, but our Swedish-built automobile started immediately with a cloud of two-stroke smoke. Almost immediately our Halda Speedpilot rally odometer stopped working properly. This was a serious problem--route following on this event is difficult under the best of circumstances. Maybe that's the reason we spent a lot of the day in frustration. The route took us into the foothills of the Alps, and some of the ascents were very steep, especially for an engine that displaces only 841cc. It was nearly impossible to stay on time on the uphill, and we would try o make up time while going downhill when gravity acted as our friend.
I began to understand how these cars could do so well in their day. The handling was superb, even with a very heavy load and running on skinny winter tires. Our ability to stay on time was also hampered by getting lost a few times. In all, it wasn't a great day for competitiveness, but the clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine, coupled with spectacular views of the mountains almost made up for it. We arrived in Aix-les-Bains, a famous stop on rallies in the old days and found the car park filled with cars that were being repaired.
A Bit of Bother
Driving old cars as hard as was necessary to keep up with this event inevitably means some of them need major surgery at the end of the day. In our case, although the car was running perfectly, the left rear wheel showed signs of brake fluid from a leaking wheel cylinder. After realizing we didn't have a puller to remove the brake drum and check the problem, we went for another solution. Peter Banham, one of the hard-working mechanics provided by the event organizers, bent some surplus brake lines and a fitting to block off the fluid pressure to that brake. It meant I would have only three brakes for the rest of the event, but it was better than losing all of my brake fluid at the top of some mountain pass. Others had much more severe problems, and there were engines, transmissions and rear axles under repair throughout the parking lot of the posh headquarters hotel.