That was the plan at least. When I arrived in Sweden four days before the rally, it was clear my plans were going to change. First of all, the car hadn't left the port of New York aboard the freighter Atlantic Concert until the 28th of December and was still on the high seas. It wasn't scheduled to arrive in Sweden until the 16th of January. The rally would start on the 14th. All seemed lost until Peter Backstrom, the congenial curator of Saab Car's Museum in Trollhattan, began to make some phone calls. The freighter would make a stop in Liverpool, England on the night of the 11th. Saab twisted a few arms at the shipping company, and it was agreed that my car would be off-loaded in England and that my navigator and I would fly to Liverpool to pick up the car. I called the rally organizers, and they agreed I could change my original plans and start the rally at the venerable Brookland's race track, just to the south of London.
Peter Pleitner and I presented ourselves to the shipping desk at the Liverpool terminal just before 8 a.m. on Friday the 12th. They were waiting for us and quickly processed us through. The car looked fine on the outside, but when I opened the trunk I was horrified to see that all of our carefully obtained and packed rally equipment was missing. There was a lot of shrugging of shoulders and paperwork to fill out, but everyone knew that our gear was gone for good. We finally left the docks knowing we would have to stop and buy what we could to pass the rally technical inspections.
The drive from Liverpool to Brooklands is a couple hundred miles, and Peter and I were being very careful not to push the car too hard. We had a whole day to get there and find our hotel, so a slow and steady pace seemed to be justified. So when we suddenly ground to a halt about 60 miles from London, it was quite a shock. The engine had locked solid, and nothing we did would get it to turn again.
It is in such cases that a cell phone becomes the classic car enthusiast's most important tool. Although it was already late on a Friday afternoon, we managed to reach the UK branch of Saab Cars. Joanne Cox, public relations assistant and all-around hero, arranged to have a breakdown truck sent from Saab Great Britain's headquarters at Marlow, about 30 miles from where we were stranded. On the trip to Saab headquarters, I called Chip Lamb of West of Sweden Saab in Virginia. Chip had prepared the engine and transmission of our car and is also heavily tied into the worldwide network of fans of two-stroke Saabs. Chip was perplexed about our problem and promised to get the word out among Saab fanatics in the UK to try to find us a new engine.
When we arrived in Marlow, we found that the indomitable Peter Backstrom from the factory museum had already been at work. He had made an arrangement with Christopher Parkington, the retired head of Saab Parts in the UK, to bring us a new three-cylinder engine in the morning. This was close to unbelievable. Two-stroke Saab engines are becoming rare, even in places where the cars were popular. Yet here was a new engine, a factory replacement item that had been sitting on a shelf since 1967. We quickly pulled the seized engine out of our Saab and got everything ready to install the new unit in the morning. Then, in a show of great faith, before heading to our hotel for the night (in a press car also provided by Saab and Joanne Cox), we stopped at an auto parts store to replace all of the rally equipment that had been stolen.
Meanwhile, Chip Lamb had gotten the word out, and over the next several hours I received several phone calls from Saab enthusiasts in England who wanted to know how they could help. This was amazingly gratifying. Here we were, two Americans half a world away from home, driving a 34 year-old Swedish car across England to compete in the world's toughest old car rally. Yet, when trouble struck, we suddenly had several options open to us from people whose only common bond was their affection for the charismatic little cars. For a time several years ago, it seemed Saab wanted to distance itself from its history and its heritage. But we were seeing a kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that no amount of advertising or brand management could bring about. By driving my old Saab on this event, we had joined a family, one whose members have a kind of pure, triple-distilled enthusiasm for the cars from Trollhattan.