CAR & DRIVER
October 1967 

Copyright of Car & Driver and

Warren Weith

 

Met Tom O'Brien at a Chinese dinner the other night. Lots of talk about how's your Alfa business going, what are you driving now, etc. Somewhere after the one-ton soup he came up with the story about the rental Ford down at Sebring. Seems like some big thinker rented one of Henry's machines, drove it close to the circuit, pulled the engine, put it in his Mustang, went sedan racing, put the engine back in the rental, and drove it back to Tampa. I didn't know whether to believe Tom or not. Then again he had just broken a foot on his trail bike. Went out a few weeks later on the same two-wheeler and came back from the woods with a broken arm. Any man that busy just hasn't got time to think up big fat lies. So the story about the rental spare parts bin must be true. Then I thought, "That guy had a hell of a lotta nerve to rent wheels and then use the engine for his race car . . . the young squirt." 

Suddenly I heard that small, cold voice that keeps me from becoming a complete bore. It was saying something about a SAAB that I'd once borrowed. A gray-green SAAB. Long ago. So long ago. "I'm not kidding you, Harry, it's a front-wheel-drive two-stroke.... Yeah, yeah, that's right... built in Sweden. Listen, Harry, this guy Ralph is going to let me borrow one next weekend." 

And on and on went that telephone conversation. At the windup, Harry Fanelli agreed to enter the SAAB in the sedan races that the Westchester Sports Car Club seemed to have every weekend at Thompson, Connecticut. All the young hot-shoes would assemble behind the old wooden grandstand left over from the midget days and proceed to take everything removable off and out of a large collection of VWs, 4 CV Renaults, Morris Minors, and God only knows what. After a Saturday and Sunday of enthusiastic, if inexpert, race driving only about half of them bad enough sheet metal left to receive the bumpers and seats they'd hastily removed. 

This was the scene into which Harry and I were going to slip the "S" Bomb. An unknown factor, the SAAB was going to clean up. Or so we thought. The SAAB's racing debut was also very unknown to the importers- those pleasant gentlemen who were loaning me the car for a quiet country weekend. ("Hell of a lotta nerve... the young squirt.") Our plan received its first little setback when I went to pick up the car. The newly-arrived service manager- a young Swede slightly smaller than a SAAB- would like to take a drive in the American countryside. Get used to U.S. driving habits and what not. He would follow Jane and me in another car. We wouldn't mind, would we? 

During the introduction I gathered that the SM's English was more than adequate for repairing SAABs, but not up to finding Thompson, Connecticut,. I pointed out Thompson on a map and told him we'd meet him there if we got separated. We got separated in about 10 minutes. 1 put my foot down, and didn't lift it until we tore up the motel driveway. The blue stone hadn't stopped flying before we spotted the happy expatriate's SAAB. There he was smiling, pointing out the features of the SAAB to a puzzled Harry Fanelli. I knew that Harry gave away information about as willingly as a wounded Mafia leader so that the Swede still didn't know what was going to happen Saturday morning. 

Our cheerful service manager bubbled about how good American roads were, what lovely scenery we had, and how I should learn to drive the SAAB quicker... as it was meant to be driven. All the while Harry and I were plotting to introduce him to lethal doses of Scotch before, during and after dinner. It was a simple plan; Swedes like to drink Ergo, we'd get him drunk, and slip off early to practice. I didn't realize that in Sweden, Scotch is a soft drink much used by teething babies and nursing mothers. The next morning two bleary-eyed conspirators, whispering in rasping tones outside the motel, were surprised by the bright-eyed bouncing Swede. He had been for a long walk down the road. And do you know what? There was some kind of automobile racing track down there. Yes, young American owners frequently ran their cars on tracks like that just to learn how to really drive them. Gag, cough, retch breakfast. Good- we'll go down and run one of the SAABS. 

Well, with the luck of, the very stupid, we were slowly easing our way up to the two-hour race on Sunday. The Swede took to practice like Alfred Neubauer. He insisted we take all the extra seats out of the car. Not to mention the plywood divider between the trunk and the rear area. And all the bumpers and bumper guards. I was right, the SAAB would leave the VWs standing. I was slowest, Harry next, and Anita Ekberg's brother was unchained lightning. 

His enthusiasm began to worry us undercover racers. Not to mention what it was doing to our egos. Suppose we totaled the machine? The Swede would be sent home in disgrace, and we'd positively meet some nice lawyers. We tried to slow him down. He just went faster. Then he came in and started to whip up leaner mixtures of gas and oil. I knew enough from fooling around with racing outboards that this could only end with a bushel-basketful of the smallest engine parts you've ever seen. Harry and I began sneaking more and more oil into the tank. After practice, our buddy wanted to immediately go and get the other car, set it up, and race the two of them as a team. Harry and I really began to worry. We talked him into keeping the other car as a spare. I wanted to go home, and so did Harry. 

I've never spent a worse night in my life. I figured up the cost of two SAABs so many times before morning that, when I got up, the figures were burned on the ceiling. We took turns driving the spare car around the circuit and I was so shaky that I almost lost it at touring speeds. We decided... they decided... I decided... that maybe I should just manage the pit. As the cars were being settled on the grid I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see the police- followed by those nice SAAB men- come running through the gate. The big Swede was like ice. He climbed in that can like he had been doing it for years. He went off in the lead and held it until his first trip into the dirt. He regained it and handed over to Harry. Harry kept going nice and steady until the thing started to misfire. Too much oil... too much oil. I told you not so much oil. We brought him in. Changed the plugs. The Swede drained the tank, put in straight gas, went out and regained the lead. It began to sputter on the turns. Fuel low. He came in. We gassed him up. He was so excited he insisted Harry take over until he calmed down. We were in fourth place. Harry worked it up to second and was going after the first place man hammer-and-tongs when the engine went all flabby. 

In came Harry. Plug lead off. Out he went again. Twenty minutes to go and still in second place. The Swede practically ran out on the track to get Harry in. We made the change-over, and he took off like a rump-shot reindeer. It was poor timing on the part of the pit manager (who had been cringing in the background mumbling, "Don't bend the car, never mind winning, just don't bend the car"). The flying Swede just couldn't make up the time. He finished second. It was the worst race I've ever watched. We put the cars back together, washed them, switched the tires from back to front, and started home for New York. Can you imagine some young squirt renting a car and using the engine in his racer, and then putting it back in the hack and returning the whole bag? Terrible what kids do nowadays isn't it? 

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