The death last week of Swedish rally star Erik Carlsson, aged 86, got me thinking: has a motorsport personality ever had as long and well-known an association with a manufacturer as the great man had with his beloved Saab?
I can’t readily think of such a successful partnership between man and machine, a loyalty untested in which mutual affection and back-scratching held great sway for more than 50-years. It would have lasted a bit longer, of course, had Saab not collapsed, to Carlsson’s eternal sadness, at the end of 2011.
Carlsson was born within spitting distance of Saab’s Trollhatten factory in 1929, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-1950s that he landed employment with the firm, in the shape of a pukka testing contract. It came as a reward for his stand-out results using a modest 92 in European competition.
Once on the receiving end of proper kit and the backing of the brand, Carlsson, who would come to be universally known as ‘Mr Saab’, began to fly, winning big events in the quirky two-stroke, skinny-tyred machines.
Victory in the 1000 Lakes and Swedish Rallies in the late-1950s, the RAC – on three consecutive occasions – and the Monte Carlo, twice on the trot, in the early-’60s – soon elevated Carlsson to hero status and indelibly stamped Saab’s name on the rallying map.
After meeting and marrying Stirling Moss’s sister Pat, herself an accomplished rally driver who on more than one occasion beat her husband at his own game, Carlsson continued competing in Saabs up until 1970, but never stopped working with the firm, promoting all its products and waving its flags at launches and corporate shindigs. And he managed to tow the party line despite a cheeky wit and a readiness to share an amusing tale or three.
Erik Carlsson: proper, old-school bloke, who had car control to throw away and an acute sense of how to do things properly – in and out of a rally car. And he made sure everybody loved Saab.
I’m still trying to think of a driver as intrinsically linked to his paymaster. Jim Clark and Lotus, perhaps? Gilles Villeneuve and Ferrari, maybe? Sandro Munari and Lancia or Derek Bell and Porsche, even? All good ones, but there’s nothing quite like Erik Carlsson and Saab.