Erik Selects Six Favorites from Saab's Hall of Fame
The career of Eric ("Mr. Saab") Carlsson, international rallying's first superstar, spans six decades. It has taken him from test driving in Trollhattan, to the top of the podium in Monte Carlo and on to a globe-trotting role as Saab's international ambassador. Here Erik chooses his six favorite Saabs, one from each decade. His recollections, and the cars themselves, tell the story of how the automotive aspirations of an aircraft manufacturer took wing.
As a young boy, Erik Carlsson used to stand on the perimeter of his local airfield in Trollhattan and admire the aerobatics of Saab aircraft flying overhead. Little did he know that Saab would one day start making cars and that he would play a key role in its growth as an auto maker.
Erik's legendary exploits at wheel of the 'little red cars from Sweden' include two back-to-back victories in the Monte Carlo Rally and a hat-trick of wins in the British RAC Rally. His success in the early Sixties launched Saab as a global car brand and today, at 78 years young, Erik still plays an active part in Saab activities.
Preparing to lead the celebrations for Saab's 60th Anniversary next week, he is happy to take up the theme by identifying his six favorite Saab cars, one from each decade.
"I think we all have a special place in our heart for our first car, " he says. "In my case it was a Saab 92, in green like they all were then, which I bought second-hand from a farmer in Trollhattan. It was 1952, I was 23 and I had started a job at a local garage.
"Saab was the big local company and they had just started making cars. It was an exciting time and the 92 really was something different from other cars, with its streamlined shape and aircraft engineering. Most cars then had a separate body and chassis bolted together, but the 92 had one single body structure, as most cars do these days. It was light but extremely strong, as I found in my rallying.
"It also handled really well with the front wheel drive. It had a small engine but I could go quicker than larger cars that had quite a bit more power."
1960s Erik's success in local rallying events at the wheel of his 92 quickly led to full-time employment with Saab as a test and development and works rally driver. His 'Saab of the 60s' is the famous Saab 96 that brought international rally success for him and for the company. More than 500,000 examples were to be sold in a production run spanning almost 20 years.
"The 96 had more power, good suspension, disc brakes and great handling. We didn't have a roll-over cage, but with the 96 you didn't need one, as I appreciated a few times. Although I got the nickname 'Carlsson on the Roof', I don't think I rolled all that many times. But I remember one occasion when I rolled over in a ditch and water was coming in. It was like sitting in an aquarium but the roof pillars were extremely strong so we weren't drowned or hurt much at all."
The aircraft engineering tradition of combining strength with light weight helped establish the popularity of the Saab 96 and in snowy and icy conditions Erik was able to fully exploit its sure-footed handling. But he also has a soft spot for the sister car of the 96, the Saab 95 wagon.
"Quite a few eyebrows were raised when I did the '61 Monte Carlo with one. It was unheard of to use a wagon or estate car but the 95 handled and drove every bit as well as the 96. I was fourth that year. We used the wagon, together with its aerofoil on the roof, because it had just come out with a four-speed gearbox, which really helped on the steep alpine passes."
Carlsson's choice as 'Saab of the 70s' is the now iconic, black Saab 99 Turbo. "A lot of people at the time said we wouldn't get turbocharging to work for passenger cars," says Erik. "I would say history has proved them wrong."
These days, the words 'turbocharging and Saab' are as closely associated as 'peaches and cream' or 'bacon and eggs' , but back in 1977, exactly 30 years ago, when the 99 Turbo was unveiled, Saab surprised the automotive world by declaring that it had succeeded in 'taming the turbo' .
"The 99 was a great chassis and with the turbo we had real power to exploit its potential," says Erik, who remembers secret forest test driving and his first experiences of the explosive performance on full boost. "We had to do a lot of work to control the boost, to stop the engine blowing up and to get the power on the ground. But, of course, we showed it could be done and just about everyone now uses turbocharging."
The logic behind getting 'big engine power from a small engine', or 'right-sizing' as Saab calls it, is even more attractive these days, with the need to save weight, reduce bulk and improve fuel consumption. "Our top engineer, Pelle Gillbrand, who led the project, used to put it very simply," says Erik. "He would explain that all engines have a fuel pump, a water pump and an oil pump - so why not an air pump? That's all a turbo really is and he thought it was strange that all engines didn't have one."
With its wraparound, cockpit-inspired windshield, 'clamshell' hood and 'self-repairing' bumpers, the bold and distinctive looks of the larger Saab 99 took Saab upmarket, a process continued by its evolution into the 'classic' Saab 900, of which more than 900,000 were sold.
"The first production cars in jet black and cardinal red had Inca ally wheels, which were intended to symbolize the turbine of turbo, not a cheese-grater, as some people suggested," laughs Erik. "It was, and still is, a very distinctive car. We had the ignition key between the seats on the floor and people were always surprised by that. But why not? There were valid reasons for it, to do with ergonomics and good crash impact safety. It's like the throttle controls of an aircraft, between the seats in the cockpit. We still have it today and that's another feature where I think we have proved the skeptics wrong!"
Carlsson's choice for the 'Saab of the 80s' - the Saab 900 Convertible - surprised the automotive world when it was revealed as a design study at the Frankfurt Show in the autumn of 1983. "I don't think anyone was expecting Saab to come up with a convertible," says Erik. "After all, it is not the kind of car that that a Scandinavian manufacturer was expected to produce, but it turned out to be an outstanding success."
Back in the 80s, convertibles were not as popular as they are now and Saab was to play a pioneering role in establishing the attraction of an open-top car as a practical, all-year-round means of transport. "We always had a strong soft-top which was fully automatic, quick and easy to use," says Erik. "That was an essential requirement and we were able show people this was a car that was good to own and drive in winter as well as summer."
Initially produced for the US market, the first 900 Convertible soon went into production for global sale. "It was a great looking car, roof up or down, and looked like a completely new car, rather than a version of the 900 three-door model," says Erik. "I still run a Saab Convertible at different times of the year. Even in winter, when it's cold, you can have the soft-top down with the heater going and still be very comfortable."
Over the years, Saab has organized keynote events for the Convertible, such as driving in the Land of the Midnight Sun, a 1,500 kilometer (900 mile) excursion through Sweden into the Arctic Circle to North Cape, the 'roof of Europe'. Another favorite, led by Erik, has been 'Rally Monte Carlsson', which follows a route from the Mediterranean beach in Monaco up through the maritime Alps to a ski resort 2,000 meter above sea level. "You can be driving in warm sunshine with the top down and a few hours later be up in the snow and ice. It's a great demonstration of what the Convertible has to offer," adds Erik.
Over three generations, Saab has sold more than 250,000 Convertibles. In many European markets it has often featured as the top-selling car in its class.
Fixed roof motoring was recommended in 1986 when Erik had led a team of Saab test drivers at the wheel of three 9000 Turbos on the famous 'Long Run' at the Talladega Speedway in the United States. Over almost 20 days, stopping only for fuel, tires and routine servicing, they established a series of speed and distance records for standard production cars. The lead 9000 covered 100,000 km at average speed of 213.299 km.
In recognition of this achievement, a top sports flagship model, the 9000 Talladega was introduced. In the UK this was known as the Carlsson edition, Erik also lending his name to a 900 series version as well. These performance models were later given their ultimate expression in the Saab 9000CS Aero of 1993, Erik's choice as the 'Saab of the 90s'. It set a first template for top-of-the-range Aero models that continue at the pinnacle of Saab's product range today.
"The 9000 was a great car, very roomy and comfortable. It was a large hatchback that offered all the versatility of a wagon," says Erik. "With the rear seats down, you could carry a hell of lot and with the seats up it was just like being in a sedan."
Saab was also introducing its own engine management system, Saab Trionic. With a processing capacity greater than the computers that put men on the moon, Saab Trionic was an ideal platform for the launch of the more powerful Aero. "The new 2.3 turbo engine gave fantastic torque and the Aero model was the quickest car we had ever produced at that time," says Erik.
"The engine was extremely smooth with its balancer shafts and gave good power from very low revs. It really showed what we could do with turbocharging. You could be in almost any gear, just put your foot down and go. With the 9000 Aero, we asked everyone to 'talk torque' when describing what it was like to drive.
"It was a large car, but it handled very well and everyone appreciated how good the seats were. That is something Saabs has always been known for. Even the seats in my first 92 were very comfortable."
The Saab 9000 five-door hatchback and sedan range took the Saab brand further into the premium car segment, and more than 500,000 were sold before production ceased in 1998..
When he's not at the wheel of a Saab Convertible, Erik usually drives a Saab 9-5 Aero SportCombi, but this is not a contender for his choice of a Saab for the first decade of the new millennium. That honor goes to the Saab Aero X Concept, shown at the Geneva Show last year. With its aircraft-like canopy and a V6 BioPower turbo engine capable of running on pure bioethanol fuel, offering the prospect of zero fossil CO2 emissions, the Aero X is a concept in tune with the demands of the new century.
"Sweden has a great tradition of concern of the environment," says Erik "And Saab was first to introduce improvements like asbestos-free brake pads and CFC-free air conditioning systems. This car follows in that tradition, without sacrificing the sort of turbo performance we all enjoy.
"Looking at the Aero X, I see how far our cars have travelled in 60 years," says Eric, who drove Saab's first two-seater car, the lightweight Saab Sonett in 1956.
"But I think this is a good time to be looking towards the future, as well as enjoying the cars of the past," he adds. "The Aero X is a very modern design and it shows that Saab will be making exciting cars in the future. We did not produce a concept car until 1985, now there have been several recently, which shows the Saab spirit is strong.
"That wraparound windscreen gives it a good Saab character. It is, of course, a design concept, but I'm not sure about the opening canopy without any doors, but then my first Saab did not have a boot lid and the doors opened from the front!"
In a more serious vein, Erik agrees that when his career with Saab began, the company's cars were almost unknown beyond Scandinavia. And he is too modest to point out that his rallying success played a major part in establishing Saab outside its home country. The brand is now a global player, selling premium cars in more than 60 markets around world. Carlsson and Carlsson's Choice can both take credit for helping to make it happen.
Erik will be reunited with his Carlsson's Choice - and many other favorites - at Saab's 60th Anniversary Festival in Trollhattan, from 7-10 June, celebrating the unveiling of the first Saab car exactly six decades ago.
In what could be the biggest-ever gathering of Saab fans and enthusiasts, more than 30,000 visitors are expected to come from all over the globe to enjoy a packed program of events. (Visit www.saabfestival.se for all the details).
Carlsson's Choice: Saab 92 (1950) Monocoque construction, 2-door sedan, front-wheel-drive Two cylinder, 2-stroke, 764 cc. 3-speed gearbox Max. power: 25 hp @ 3,800 rpm. Max. torque: 59 Nm @ 2,000 rpm Max speed: 105 kph (65 mph). Saab 96 (1960) Monocoque construction, 2-door sedan, front-wheel-drive Three cylinder, 2-stroke, 841 cc. 4-speed gearbox Max power: 38 hp @ 4,250 rpm. Max torque: 80 Nm @ 3,000 rpm Max speed: 125 kph (78 mph). 0-100 kph (62 mph): 25.6 secs Saab 99 Turbo (1977) Monocoque construction, 3-door hatchback, front-wheel-drive Four cylinder, turbocharged, 1985 cc. 4-speed gearbox Max. power: 145 hp @ 5,000 rpm. Max torque: 235 Nm @ 3,000 rpm Max speed: 198 kph (124 mph). 0-100 kph (62 mph): 8.9 secs Saab 900 Turbo Convertible (1986) Two-door convertible, powered soft-top, four-seater, front-wheel-drive Four cylinder, turbocharged, 1985 cc. 5-speed gearbox Max power: 175 hp @ 5,300 rpm. Max torque: 273 Nm @ 3,000 rpm Max speed: 205 kph (128 mph). 0-100 kph (62 mph): 8.7 secs Saab 9000CS Aero (1993) Monocoque construction, 5-door hatchback, front-wheel-drive Four cylinder, turbocharged, 2290 cc. 5-speed gearbox Max power: 225 hp @ 5,500 rpm. Max torque: 350 Nm @ 1,950 rpm Max speed: 240 kph (150 mph). 0-100 kph (62 mph): 6.9 secs Saab Aero X Concept (2006) Monocoque construction, 2-seater coupe, canopy opening, all-wheel-drive V6 BioPower, twin turbochargers, 2792 cc. 7-speed gearbox Max. power: 400 hp @ 5,000 rpm. Max. torque: 500 Nm @ 2,000 rpm Max speed (limited): 250 kph (156 mph)). 0-100 kph (62 mph): 4.9 secs (projected)