Finally, Some Snow
The next day would be a loop, beginning and ending at Aix-les-Bains. It was a tough day with increased speeds and even more mountains to climb. We finally encountered some snow on the roadway, but it wasn't anything our Hakkapeliitta tires couldn't handle. Aside from the occasional off-course excursion, we faced another problem. French gas stations in the hinterlands close for lunch between noon and 2 p.m. The first cars were arriving at the gas stations at 11:30 in the morning and getting gasoline. We were arriving at 12:30 and finding the stations all closed. It was bad enough that we had to go off-course to find a station that was open and then skip controls and take penalties to get back on the rally. The rally organizers just shrug their shoulders at these problems, as they faithfully recreate the rigors faced by the rallyists in the old days.
Aix-les-Bains is a pretty town on the shore of a large lake that is at the gateway to the French Alps. In the evening, with the cars once again parked in the hotel parking lot, there was a lot of local interest in the cars. Crowds gathered and politely conversed with the rally crews. Many spectators were interested in practicing their English, and being Americans made us conspicuous targets. Still, receiving the adulation of the adoring crowds is a good enough reason to do an event like this.
The Hard Part
The forecast for the next day's run was for snow, and lots of it. The rally would now run for a whole day, stop for two hours in Gap for dinner and then run all night to the afternoon finish in Cannes on the coast. Peter and I started the day with the hope that snow would be our friend, slowing down the other cars and providing us with an advantage. After a transit along a scenic highway, we arrived at a special timed section at the Col de Granier, a famous hillclimb in the old days of rallying. It was very steep and filled with switchbacks, and I took it very easy. It began to snow with big, fluffy flakes. About halfway to the top, our engine suddenly rattled a bit and then seized solid. It was clear that this time there would be no amazing appearance of a spare Saab engine. Our rally was done.
A few minutes later the organizer's sweep truck appeared. They pulled us to the top of the mountain and then pointed us in the right direction to reach a town at the foot of the climb. We coasted for more than five miles, finally coming to rest in the courtyard of a small church. Once again my cellular telephone came to the rescue, and I arranged for a breakdown truck to collect us and bring my stricken car to a Saab dealer in Chambery, about 40 miles away. When the car arrived at the dealership, the elderly owner of the establishment, a distinguished gentleman with more than 30 years as a Saab dealer, looked into the engine bay of my stricken sedan. He smiled at me, then shook his head sadly, saying, "Tres fragile...."
In Chambery, Peter hopped onto a train to go to the finish in Cannes, while I stayed in Chambery to make arrangements for my car. Peter Backstrom, the curator of the Saab Museum, was curious as to why we had failed two engines and offered to have the car shipped to Sweden so he and his crack two-stroke mechanic could look over the remains. The next day I took a train to Geneva and headed for home.
How the Others Fared
While we were having our problems, the rest of the rally continued on. The snow got worse, and the roads became icy. At one control, the dreaded black ice was so slippery that five competing cars ran into each other while trying to stop. At another, a car stopped on the side of the road with nobody in it slowly slid sideways off the shoulder and over the side, rolling on its way down the hill. Nobody was injured in any of these mishaps, but last year's winner and the leader, Frank Fennel from Ireland, broke both of his legs in a nasty crash with an oncoming local car on one of the mountain passes.
Winners in the tough Sporting Route category were Jan Ebus and Lester Van der Zalm from Holland in a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulia coupe. Jos Fruytier, Jan-Willem Hanrath and Marcel Fruytier won the pre-war category in a Bentley Derby sedan, followed by George Melville and James Warner in an open Alvis Firefly. When Peter arrived in Cannes, he found a parking lot filled with dozens of cars that had suffered damage from hitting things on the icy roads. Everyone immediately described it as the most slippery Winter Challenge rally ever. Most drivers were just relieved to have survived the challenge of one of the toughest classic car rallys.
I Shall Return
Of the 173 cars that started the rally, 33 failed to finish, including several former winners. We were in good company. In the days of the original Monte Carlo, it wasn't unusual if 60 to 70 percent of the field failed to make it to the finish. So in a sense we were accurately recreating history by not making it to the Mediterranean. This is just about the toughest event in the world for old cars. The navigation is difficult, the timing is tight and the driving is challenging. I will be back.