The first American adventure: The 1956 Great American Mountain Rally

Saab entered the US market with a presentation In New York of the then new Saab 93 and the Sonett 1, a car originally intended for competition use in 1956. The prepare for and support the launch into a new and vast market, though at the outset concentrated at the East Coast/New England area, Saab entered a team of three cars in the Great American Mountain Rallye in New England. Below follows an article by an unknown author, published in a special rally edition from November 1956 of Saab Soundings, a little publication issued by the newly opened Saab USA office.

In their first time out in international competition on American soil, a team of production SAAB 93´s swept most of the major awards in the Great American Mountain Rallye. Bob Wehman and Louis Braun won the top awards overall in their SAAB and as a team, the three SAAB entries won the touring and factory team under 1500 cc´s, first, third and fourth in the 750 cc class, and in addition to the first placed car overall, took sixth position overall. SAAB´s succeses in the GMAR culminate year of winning some of the principal rallies in Europe. In 1956, SAAB cars won the International Wiesbaden Rally, placed second in the Tour of Europe (called the toughest rally in the world) and were first, second and fourth in the Viking Rally. In this year´s GAMR, roadholding on snow and ice and reliability were decisive factors and SAAB´s accomplishments on these counts were topics of conversation throughout the Rallye. In fact, the outright winner – the Wehman/Braun SAAB – never had its engine seal broken in the entire Rallye and on the other two cars hoods were opened only once – to check the water on the Mellde/Mushkin car and to try to repair a broken speedometer cable in the Jankowitz car. Otherwise, all three cars ran like express trains establishing records for the Rallye never equalled by any other make of automobile. WE felt extra blessed that they all came home without a scratch from an event that cost many so much.

In a way GAMR, for SAAB the GAMR started back last July. At that time, the idea of entering a factory team was first discussed. But later one problem arose. Rolf Mellde, chief test driver for SAAB and one of Europe´s finest rallyists, would not be available, and it had been our thought that he would be the team captain, the rest of the crew being selected from American drivers and navigators. So until nearly the end of October, all thoughts of the GAMR were pretty well shelved as every effort was made to get SAAB Motors in full operation. But the idea of entering a team still stuck at the back of our minds. The GAMR was the kind of rough tough competition that SAAB´s had been winning all year in Europe – it made a perfect opportunity to show enthusiasts in this country what the car can do. However, if SAAB entered, SAAB must be prepared – some mishap through lack of preparations would be contrary to SAAB´s attitude towards its cars. In Mellde, we had our own SAAB expert and our own rally expert – a man uniquely equipped to direct preparations and lead our team in the GAMR. Although we knew that his responsibilities for development of the Sonett made it virtually impossible for him to leave Sweden, we cabled for him. The reply came back: MELLDE COMING SOONEST STOP SEND RALLY INSTRUCTIONS STOP (this is the kind of uncontested backing we have mentioned before)

Now things begin to happen. Through the good offices of Ark Peck – author of the rallyist´s bible, “Sports Car Rallies, Trials and Gymkhanas” – a number of drivers and navigators were recommended to us and a team was finally settled on by the time Rolf Mellde arrived, which was in just five or six days from the time of the cable exchange. It might be added here that this was R.M.´s first trip to the United States and, therefore, of course, his first opportunity to experience U.S. roads and traffic conditions, not to mention English language signs and instructions. Nor was he able to begin practicing immediately because the entire task of preparing the cars had to be placed in his hands and the rallye was now only two weeks away. Before leaving Sweden, Mellde had selected and prepared for shipment 900 pounds of equipment for the cars so that this could come with him on the plane and be ready for immediate use. The bulk of this shipment was tires, of a type that SAAB feels is most satisfactory for the kind of conditions the GAMR presented. But it also included such rally instrumentation as Halda Speed Pilots, special clocks and safety belts and one small card board box which contained something that attracted considerable attention to Rolf Mellde´s car throughout the Rallye – the badges he had earned in most of the leading rallies in Europe – the Tulip – the Monte Carlo, The Midnight Sun, the Tour of Europe, etc. These were subsequently mounted all over the luggage compartment door of R.M.´s car. (If anyone can think of anything useful to do with one luggage compartment door that had 22 holes drilled in it, we will gladly present him with said door as a momento of this year´s GAMR.) Things began to look pretty good until our friends in the customs service decided that the cases of rally equipment must contain some sort of nefarious contraband and for four long days the boxes could not be pried loose from said fell clutches. Time was running out and the equipment was desperately needed. Finally it was released and since the cars otherwise had been checked over and found to be in good order (the three team cars were demonstrators that had covered 8 000 to 20 000 miles apiece), in another three days of hard work all was ready. During those nights at the garage, when literally the midnight
lights were burning, we were reminded of similar nights in other garages before other competitions. The three cars were lined up before the work benches, the forward-opening hood were raised and figures in coveralls bent over engines or sometimes feet and legs protruded from doors or beneath scuddles. Often there were long periods of silence, except for the rattle when tools were dropped on concrete floors, and then in the gloomy night in the garage, there would be a quick flow of undistinguishable words between the Swedish mechanics as one sought to locate a missing tool or required some extra assistance. Somewhere in the atmosphere one could feel the camaraderie that existed among the whole group behind the effort – the team captain and crews, the SAAB Motors personnel and mechanics. The three little cars – a white one, a grey one, and a green one – now belonged to the various crews, and each followed every detail of the preparation of its car knowing how important that would be in the test ahead. No desire of our team members was denied in the preparation of the cars and as a result each knew that he had the best our team could offer.

On the night in November the 19th, the cars were finally finished and each waxed. The next afternoon they were taken away to be scrutinized and impounded prior to the start of the Rallye at midnight Wednesday (the 21st). The SAAB´s were carrying the numbers 50, 51, 52 and their departure time was set at 1 : 40, 1 : 42 and 1 : 44 a.m. respectively. The team actually had only two weekends in which to practice, for the most part using the upper Westchester County and parts of Connecticut for this purpose. For these activities the real estate office of Bob Cory in South Salem, New York was used as a base of operations. As well as a game personality, Bob Cory has a happy knack of knowing everybody and so when a large area was needed for practicing regularity tests, B.C. quickly organized the fire department parking lot and when, at the eleventh hour, it was suddenly realized that Rolf Mellde should have an American driving license, here again B.C.´s well oiled machine went into operation and delivered the good in extra short order. (If a single thing should be picked as characterizing the first six months of SAAB motors, it would certainly be the warm and generous help so many people extended to us.) ZERO HOUR Midnight of the 21st finally arrived, and the first car was waved of the starting line by the honorary starter, Juan Manuel Fangio, champion of the world. Now the interminable wait till the first SAAB came to the line one hour and forty minutes later. Slowly the time passed, as the Jaguars, Porsches, Austin Healeys, Volvos, TR-3s, various MGs, Volkswagens, a 300 SL Mercedes Benz and American cars left at two minute intervals. SAAB number 50 came to the line. This was the team captain´s car, driven by Rolf Mellde and carrying Morrow Mushkin as navigator. All evening, car 50 had been the centre of a certain amount of attention on account of the impressive array of badges fixed to it. The starter counted off the seconds and then in a flash of photo bulbs the little grey car was off and up the ramp into the night. Next number 51. This was the white car, driven by Bob Wehman and carrying Louis Braun as navigator. Five seconds, four, three, two, one and they were away. Then the green car, number 52, moved up and it was in the hands of a husband and wife team, Jerry and Doris Jankowitz. Again the seconds were counted, and the green car moved off into the night on the first leg.

For those of you unfamiliar with rallies, and specifically the GAMR (called affectionally GAMMER), it might be helpful to include a brief description of at this point. Basically, it is a test of four things: the reliability and handling qualities of the car, navigational skill, driver ability and the endurance of the crew. Depending on how the rally is set up, the importance of any one or more of these elements can be varied. In this year´s GAMR, it can probably be fairly said that the emphasis on navigating ability was heavily stressed, although in the areas where there were deep snow and ice, it was a car and driver rally. At the start of the Rallye, and at each new start thereafter, the crews are given an instruction sheet which details the course they are to follow and the speeds they must observe for the day’s run. Along the way, there are check points manned by officials of the Rallye and at each of these the time of each car is recorded, and penalty established depending on the number of seconds early or late the car has arrived. This procedure is the basic pattern of the Rallye, except on the final day and this is true of most big rallies – there is a regularity test which is principally a test of driving skill, and the handling ability of the car. The regularity test may take on many forms such as timed acceleration runs and brake tests, manoeuvering through chicanes, backing tests, etc. We should add that out on the road sections, the cars are customarily impounded at each stop over and in the GAMR only fifteen minutes are allowed for the crews to work on them. Hood are otherwise sealed at all times and severe penalty marks are incurred if the seal is broken to perform engine work, top up oil or water, etc.

And so the cars were gone…. around the garage, up the ramp and out of sight, navigators bent over their instruction sheets and instruments plotting the first leg. It was about seven p.m. Thursday evening – more than seventeen hours later – before the first SAAB reached the first night´s stopping point at St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The early stages were fairly easy, the course going north up through Connecticut and New Hampshire, a good deal of it by parkway and main road. It was in this first stage the SAAB experienced the only real trouble that would befall it on the entire Rallye. At about 10 . 30 Thursday morning, the speedometer cable on car 52 broke, thereby making the task of navigating extremely difficult, if not, in fact, sometimes impossible. Nevertheless, the car carried on and although suffering penalties on check points on account of late arrival, it reached St. Johnsbury in far better position than many another car. Already many of the other cars were in trouble. A DKW had broken two wheels, a Renault had disappeared entirely and various mechanical problems had beset Jaguar, Volvo and Austin Healy. Still, with the exception of the Renault, all of the cars reached St. Johnsbury that night, although some came in very late. Mellde´s number 50, while coming in nearly on time, had suffered a rather heavy penalty along the way due to late arrival at several check points on account of an early navigation error. (But it should be noted that the error developed out of a little linguistical misunderstanding that occurred between the Swedish/American crew working together on this precision run for the first time. A difficulty that did not, we hasten to add, occur again as the final score indicates.) Car number 51, piloted by Bob Wehman and navigated by Louis Braun was the stellar light of the first day´s run. Their score at St. Johnsbury was 194, placing them more than 93 clear of the next runner. In talking to SAAB crews that night, a fact emerged which as the
days went by became extremely helpful to the SAAB team. The SAAB´s were displaying fantastic roadholding and this combined with immense reliability and the excellent job being done by the team was beginning to make it look as though they had every hope of not only finishing the Rallye intact as a team but holding first place throughout and perhaps getting a team award. FROM ST: JOHNSBURY Car number 51, drew by lot the first starting position for Friday morning, and we were on hand to watch as at exactly seven a.m. it moved away from the line at St. Johnsbury to head into the snow covered hills to the northwest. The infamous smuggler´s Notch was the first great test and although the first car through, Wehman managed to blast his way up and over and strike south towards Lincoln Gap. It was clear now that this would be a great day for the SAAB´s. The GAMR could be largely determined in the high and snowy country of Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. And so on they came, often slicing through country where other cars were forced to stop and put on chains, Mellde coming down off the hills at speeds that impressed many other competitors. Now car number 50´s crew were atune and running with great verve, Mellde absolutely at his best. But in Lincoln Gap there was trouble. Cars were in the ditches and others choked the way. Number 50 was forced to stop and when the way was clear again the ascent was so steep that it was impossible to gain sufficient traction to get underway. There was no alternative… Mellde manages to turn the car around and the proceed to charge towards the summit, but this time running the car backwards. The ascent of number 50 up and over Lincolns gap backwards was one of the highlights of SAAB´s GAMR. It was successful and the car was soon speeding on its way on the far side of the Gap.

And so the cars pushed on, often in the face of driving snow and ice. Here again the superior traction of the SAAB´s was a deciding factor and the cars reached Lake Placid unscatched and having incurred fewer penalties than any other team. By now the weather was bitterly cold, the temperature going all the way down to 10 degrees below zero, but the heating and defrosting systems in the SAAB´s had kept the crews comfortable and the windshields clear. The next morning at the start in Lake Placid nearly half of the cars had to be pushed and although there was no special credit, for immediate starting, it was very pleasant to see the SAAB´s start at first use of the starter. (because of the design of SAAB engines and their starting equipment, SAAB´s are virtually unaffected by cold weather.) The second day´s run had indeed been SAAB´s day. The Wehman/Braun car had held its lead from the first day, and the Mellde/Mushkin car had moved all the way up into sixth place. At the Lake Placid stopover, the roadholding ability of the SAAB in the hands of Mellde who drives at incredible speeds downhill was the subject of applaud. Car number 52, manned by the Jankowitzs´, although moving, had to labour under the enormous liability of no speedometer. Nevertheless, their reckoning had been so dead that even it was lying within the first twenty overall! The third and final day would take the cars back to New York, sometimes at an average speed of 59 miles an hour! Although, in order to achieve this, the Mellde car was sometimes travelling at quite high speed on the straights, this leg was anti-climactic after the epic struggles the previous days. The SAAB team would have much preferred another day in the mountains on ice and snow but that phase had now passed. The cars came on to New York, first number 52 reaching the final check point at busy section of the West
Side Highway in surprisingly good time, then number 50 nearly dead on and then, an hour later, number 51 was due.

All of us gathered to wait for 51. We had developed a certain reluctance to mention 51 for fear of breaking the spell and as the time for its arrival approached, we stood along the edge of the road peering into the darkness for its headlights. But they did not come. The time dragged by and each minute seemed like an entire new agony. What could have happened? Other highway traffic was allowed to crawl – we dared not to think. After such a magnificent drive, it was heart breaking to think that something had gone wrong so near the end. Wehman had clearly been lying far in advance to anyone else but it looked as though victory had been snatched from him at the very finish. Suddenly out of the night came a fire truck ponderously making its way by us and an understanding we would like to have avoided came to us. Could we still have any hope? At last the little white car came into view streaked to a stop at the check point. We all immediately gathered around. Whatever had happened? Wehman and Braun said that up to two miles from the finish line they had been absolutely on time and then suddenly they came across a severe accident with which the fire truck was somehow involved. The same block had held many other Rallye cars as well because now they began to stream in. There seemed to be a general agreement that this leg would be thrown out by the officials in which case the number 50 was still far ahead, but otherwise the penalty for late arrival would be fatal.

The cars were then impounded to await the regularity test the next morning, and it appeared that two of the three SAAB team cars could be qualifiers for this as part of the first ten. Since, as far as we could see, the fire truck episode seemed to comprise a hazard in no way comparable to others encountered in the road sections of the Rallye, being a matter of chance rather than driving skill, and since it was so considerable that it had had a devastating effect on the scores of cars having the misfortune to be coming through at that time, it seemed reasonable to assume that this last leg would be thrown out. On this assumption that the Wehman/Braun car had really “taken it”. In fact it was not until the next morning when the scores were posted before the regularity tests that the awful truth emerged. The last leg had not been thrown out and as a result, the Wehman car had suffered 898 penalty points, placing it incredibly enough, still in first position but a scant 14 points ahead of the next car, the Blackburn Jaguar. (A road block involving a truck had occurred earlier in the Rallye and unknown to us had involved many competitors much more than our own.) All hope seemed to melt away. The regularity tests included backing, braking and acceleration tests and although the SAAB, as a car could easily cope with these, it nevertheless put a terrific responsibility on Wehman who had had virtually no time in which to practice this kind of exercise with the car, and whose nerves at this point were ready to blow up. Windows had to be rolled up, rear view mirrors were taped over and there was little doubt but that here, long familiarity with a car would be a vital factor since an intimate knowledge of the car´s width, length and turning radius is needed for such tests.

Only the top ten cars were allowed to enter the regularity tests, and the temth car was started first. Slowly each completed its test and the tension in the SAAB team mounted all the time. The sixth car was Maurice Gatsonides on a Triumph TR-3, who completed a near perfect run. The fifth car was Rolf Mellde in SAAB number 50 and his performance was so spectacular that the entire audience burst into applause. In circling to come in for the first garaging test, Mellde had the car on full bore and by using the emergency brake at just the right moment was able to bring the tail end around to place him just right for straight section. Eventually the then second placed car, the Blackburn Jaguar, came to the line and executed a really smooth and well driven run. If the Wehman SAAB could at least equal it, SAAB was in, but in a test where, after 1450 miles of tortuous driving, parking six inches closer to a rail can determine who is top scorer, anything could happen. The little white car was off with crackle of its engine and the first run was completed near perfectly. Now for the backing test around the circle and into the simulated garage made of 4 oil barrels, one for each corner of the “garage”. The car started but gathering speed a little too quickly began to go wide of the arc. Wehman saw what was happening in time, slammed the car to a stop, pulled forward, corrected and the raced backward again and in between the barrels to within a snug few inches of the crash bar that must not be knocked off its pedestals. The Rallye was over and now all that remained were the interminable hours until the final listing was determined. Those results are now known to all. As we said in our last issue, it is over and it is won, but at that time we could have no idea by whom. SAAB has achieved a victory of unprecedented proportions and the wonderful reliability and road holding of these cars as demonstrated in this year´s GAMR has already achieved great attention. To boot Wehman and Braun broke the record that says “He who is first from the beginning never finishes first.” They were first and they stayed first…. Bravo ! Now it is on to the Alpine. As you may know, first place winners receive an all expenses paid entry to the famous Alpine Rally in Europe next Spring _ an endeavour in which we wish them the greatest luck with their SAAB.

1st 20 OVERALL

Pos.Car noDriver and co-DriverPenalty pointsMake
151Wehman and Braun1516SAAB
257Macklay and Locke1554Renault
37Blackburn and Blackburn1993Jaguar
440Young and Fendler2071VW
530Hurtley and Reider2272TR3
650Mellde and Mushkin2277SAAB
732Gatsonides and Blodgett2325TR3
853Allen and Allen2701VW
963Yount and Thomas3105M3 Magnette
1015Millard and Bower3185VW
1127Kinney and David3263Porsche
1231Fogg III and Bullard3263Alfa Spyder
1333Riley and Williams3543Volvo
1416Haupt and Byron3742VW
1519Smith and Heppenstal3874Chev. Corvette
1644Twist and Hilmoe3906Volvo
1752Jankowitz and Jankowitz3907SAAB
1877Halmi and Waller4069Jaguar
1958Hamilton and Loutitt4260Renault
2014Voss and Krapp4910VW

Ed.note: A few comments are in place concerning the driver in 7th place. Maurice Gatsonides, Dutch but born in Java, and a very capable drivers as well as an inventor and entrepreneur. He started already in the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally, an event he won in 1953 in a Ford Zephyr. The winning margin was extremely tight, only 3 sec. He also scored several victories in the hard Coupe des Alpes, 1952,-54 and -56. Furthermore, he did some sport car racing, participating in LeMans 1953 and 1954, 11th and12th respectively, as well as in Mille Miglia 1954. The same year as his entry in GAMR,in the spring 1956, he, as first European, drove the East African Safari-Rally, winning his class, Standard cars class C. From the 1956 GAMR, he wrote an article, 4 ½ pages long, for motoring magazine Autoweek, where he also emphasizes the partially very difficult snow situation, forcing his navigator to now and then sit in the open trunk on their Triumph TR3, this to gain better traction for the rear wheels. The Saab drivers method of reversing up the slippery slopes, he observes, seemingly both amused
and impressed. In a by-line, he mentions, with some satisfaction, that he, in a late stage of the 1955 Tulpen Rally, managed to snip the 4th place from Rolf Mellde, the latter encountering engine problems. In the GAMR the positions were reversed. Gatsonides was seemingly a bit confused by the American practices concerning timing , with very precisely defined average speeds over the stages, two decimals used. Due to the snow, the stewards drove the stages a few hours before the contenders arrived, to check the conditions, and in situ they quickly changed the previously very precisely stipulated average speeds, both upwards and downwards, still with two decimals. Another deviation from European customary rules: it was not permitted to stop within sight from a check point. If you did, the arrival time would be clocked by the stewards, as the time when they saw you stopping, consequently resulting in possible penalty points, if you were early. Concerning his entrepreneurial side, during the first years after the WWII , he ran a small, in the end unsuccessful, car manufacturing operation, producing a product with Ford V8 engine, the Gatso. A decade later he invented the well known and widely used speed measuring device with two tubes lying on the road combined with a timing device. Thereafter, he developed the equally common speed camera with a flashlight. In short: mr Gatsonides, a man of several and diversified skills.

The Saab Team GAMR 1956 Unknown photographer

The victory created the desired attention in sports and motoring press , as well as it was used in adverisments. Attached is an ad publicized in th Motor Trend Febr -57 . The rather fine print in the text underlines the fact, that the hood seal was never broken during the entire rally, no need arouse to open the hood, i.e. proof of good reliabilty.