Nobody told Saab expert Paul Perry that he might look out of place rounding the back straight of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in his two-stroke 1966 Saab 96. Nobody told the Swedes that they don't exactly show up in the paddock of the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion—dominated as it is, and rightfully so, by Porsches and Jaguars and eye-wateringly expensive race cars.
There's the occasional , sure. Perry owns one of those, too.
Your average Saab may be a rally-bred animal that loves to roll around in the muck—but it plays nicely on tarmac, too. Which is why Perry's appearance at the 2010 Monterey Motorsports Reunion is all the more strange. They stuck him in Group 4B, 1955-1962 GT Cars, against a slew of diminutive Europeans: he battled Alfa Romeos, TVRs, MGAs and Porsches, but there was even a Ferrari 250 SWB, a pair of Corvettes, and a pair of Aston Martin DB4s, one of which won the race with gleaming chrome looking like a million bucks. A squashed red tomato with yellow Minilite-style wheels may look funny heading down the main straight, but its screaming two-stroke makes a hell of an impression. No brightwork needed.
Saab is most associated with rallying, and Saab rallying is most associated with Erik Carlsson—the man who won the RAC Rally three years in a row, the Monte Carlo Rally twice, the man the Swedes nicknamed "Carlsson on the roof"—mostly in reference to a by the same name who lived on a roof, but also because Carlsson ended up on the roof—a lot. With the snail-shaped 96 he also placed second in two of the most grueling long-distance rallies ever devised by border-crossing masochists: the Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally, 4000 miles in length, and the East African Safari Rally, 3-4000 miles across the plains of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The 96 proved to be tough. Anywhere on dirt, or ice, or blizzard conditions, the front-drive 96 could outgun conventional rivals to the finish.
And what about on the pavement? The 96 fared well in the European Car Touring Championship, against Austin Mini Coopers and BMW 700s–all of whom shared the same humble, lightweight, underdog status. In 1964, the series headed to the other side of the Iron Curtain, and a 96 won a four-hour race . Other early entries at the Dutch Grand Prix have seemingly been lost to time. Against Lancia Fulvias and Triumphs, the Saabs never shown as brightly as they did when the going got tough—you'd have to be mad to take one out of its natural element. Fortunately, Perry is.
Saab owners are a tight-knit group, small and experienced and waning in number. Some might call them weird. You have to be, I suppose, to remain dedicated to a brand with hardly any parts support, a brand that stuck to its bizarro-world ways—antiquated, even—well into the Nineties, a brand that was always the quintessential underdog on and off the track. Perry started working on Saabs in 1961 when he was an apprentice; a decade later, he amassed enough experience working on British and Swedish cars that he opened up his own shop in Santa Clara, California. Saabs are famously known for their winter-weather traction, and California is not, but that didn't stop him. There are plenty of college professors and pseudo-intellectuals around, whom were the brand's most devoted fans for decades. "It was an educated and loyal group of customers who appreciated the safety," , just as the brand's fate was all but uncertain. "Saabs were among the few front wheel-drive cars around, which made them popular in snowy parts of the country."
Among Saab aficionados, he's built up quite the collection: in addition to his 96, he also races a 1967 Sonett, a low, wedgy sports car far more suited to the rigors of road racing. And yet, the red-taped racer regularly competes at West Coast vintage races, including Sonoma, where one year he ran down a while cresting Turn 4 in the strangest track outing yet.
And at 2010's Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, Perry came down from Santa Clara, about an hour north, and threw his two-stroke Saab into the fray. He finished 33rd. It was a crowded field of 42 entrants, and at 850cc, his car had arguably the smallest engine. But hey. If you look at the history of Monterey Classic Car Week, and glance over the lists of entrants, Perry drove the fastest Saab at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. And there's something to be said about that.