Sadly we learned today, that Saab’s internationally famous rally driver and brand spokesman, Erik Carlsson, has died at the age of 86.
He was known to Saab owners and rally fans as “Mr. Saab” and sometimes “Carlsson på taket,” or Carlsson on the roof. This name came from the fact that he rolled the sturdy 96 in competition, and often, was able to keep going.
Carlsson was a native of Trollhättan the home of Saab. As a teenager having lost his parents, he developed a taste for speed on two wheels. Running his 1947 Norton 500 ES2 in hillclimbs, motocross and ice and road racing prepared himfor his service as a motorcycle orderly with the Swedish infantry.
Erik Carlsson came to associate with Saab when he bought a Saab 92 from a farmer. Before switching over to driving on the right-hand side of the road, there was no maximum speed limit in Sweden. On gravel roads and in bad weather conditions, Erik learned to keep up the speed in this under-powered car. He rounded bends and perfected his mastery of taking the shortest route whilst negotiating bends without skidding with in his front-wheel drive car..
His competition debut was typical. Full speed over the crest of a hill, a hard landing, the battery in the rear of the car broke free. The battery cable was torn off and the car was blacked out in a fraction of a second. The Saab went backwards through a hedge into the garden of a grocer’s shop. Co-driver Sten Helm, who worked at the power station in Trollhättan, succeeded in fixing the electrics so they could continue – and win their class.
Every day, he would drive before work, and after races, he would turn up on Saab’s doorstep to borrow spares. Having established his racing credentials he was employed by Saab and never needed to worry again about spares.
An early Saab was not the fastest in terms of speed, but Erik was able to extract every ounce of power that the screaming engine could produce. Modern rally cars have vast horsepower available, on the day Saab succeeded in extracting 85 horsepower from an 850 cc engine, the entire competition department was treated to cake !
Erik was formally associated with Saab in the role of competitions driver from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, his greatest performances and wins were during the early 1960’s.
Navigator Stuart Turner and driver Erik Carlsson before the 1960 RAC rally.
Erik made the strange little two-stroke cars, and their famous aircraft parent company, famous on the international racing stage, he competed in Sweden’s Midnight Sun Rally, Norway’s Norwegian Rally Viking, Finland’s 1000 Lakes Rally, Holland’s Tulip Rally, Belgium’s Marathon de la Route Liège-Sofia-Liège, France’s Coupes des Alpes, even the East African Safari Rally. Considering he was driving cars that had three or even five cylinders less than those driven by the competition,his legendary outright victories in the 1960, 1961 and 1962 RAC Rallies and in the 1962 and 1963 Monte Carlo Rallies were truly remarkable.
Carlsson married rally star Stirling Moss‘s sister Pat in 1963 often racing each other,the partnership lasted until her death in 2008. The couple lived in England, and had a daughter, Susie.
After his retirement from competition, Carlsson continued to work with Saab, using his driving skills to help develop new models through the 1990s, and offering his larger-than-life personality to promote the Saab brand. The British market received limited-edition performance models bearing his name, these included the 900,9000, and 9-3 Aero Carlsson.
With Saabs in his blood, he was a regular at many Saab club events around the world, doing driving demonstrations, telling stories and signing autographs, his manner and personality made friends with everyone he met. He will be sorely missed and well remembered at the 2015 Saab Festival being held at the Saab Museum in the middle of June.