It is a reasonable assumption that hardly an American thinks of automobiles when he thinks of Sweden. Garbo, yes. Bergman, to be sure. Cars, no; for the Swedish auto industry is microscopic by American standards.
Well, last Saturday 10 Swedish cars—five Volvos and five Saabs—were entered in the 10-hour Little Le Mans race at Lime Rock Park, Conn. against an array of French, German, English and Italian cars. Not only did they all finish, they swept the first nine places and carried off the index of performance, or handicap, trophy.
The race, believed to be the first in the world of its kind, was originally scheduled for 12 hours, just half as long as the famous French endurance test after which it was named. It was shortened to 10 hours after the police objected to night racing. To fit it in between dawn and dusk the start was scheduled for 8 a.m., and at 8 a.m. the thermometer had just begun to climb from a low of 26°.
Thus it was that one driver, blind to the splendor of frost-covered hillsides and maples ablaze with autumn foliage, huddled miserably in a raccoon coat as he awaited the count-down for the Le Mans-style start. First away of the 31 entries was a Volvo, and then into the first corner went the field like a locust swarm, tiny engines wound up to unaccustomed racing speeds.
Around the 1½-mile road course sped Volvos and Saabs; English-built Metropolitans; French Renaults, Dyna Panhards and a Simca Aronde; DKWs and Volkswagens from Germany; English Austin A-35s and Morris 1,000s; and a Fiat 600 from Italy—none with a piston displacement of more than 1,600 cc. For class awards the cars were grouped in three sections: those with a displacement of less than 750 cc, those between 750 and 1,200 cc. and those between 1,200 and 1,600 cc. At 1,597 cc. and 85 hp the Volvos were the largest and most powerful. Unsurprisingly, they soon took the lead as a unit, but not before the 1,298-cc. Simca, savagely driven by Washington, D.C.'s Charles Kolb, had given them a stirring battle. A long pit stop to correct valve trouble sank the Simca.
As the sun burned the frost from the ground and the blue haze from the hills, the Volvos consolidated their lead. There developed a race-long duel between the No. 1 car of New Jersey's Vernon Bennett and Ralph Schantz and the No. 5 machine of Arthur Riley of Port Washington, N.Y. and bearded Bill Rutan of Essex, Conn.
But no one could ignore the perky little three-cylinder, two-cycle, 748-cc. Saabs. From the first they were well placed on handicap and scrapping among the first 10 over-all. Fastest of the Saabs was the No. 55, driven by Dick Thompson of Washington, D.C. and Emil Pupilidy of Freeport, N.Y., both widely known sports car drivers.
"That car just keeps buzzing along like a little hornet," said Thompson during a respite.
The Saabs buzzed fast enough to take the sixth through ninth places over-all and the first four places on index of performance. Bountifully prepared, the Saab men had brought 82 spare tires and wheels. As much could not be said for the lone Fiat, whose entrants, needing to replace a distributor, lifted one from a spectator's unattended Fiat (pleading urgency in a note left under the windshield wiper) and sent the 600 back into the chase.
As for the Volvos, the Riley-Rutan car took over in the ninth hour and held the lead thereafter, completing 398 laps at an average of 59.646 mph for the 10 hours. Bennett and Schantz finished two laps behind; the remaining Volvos took the next three places. A 950-cc. DKW, similar to the Saab in engine design and front wheel drive, was 10th over-all and first in the intermediate class. Only four cars retired, a tribute to the endurance qualities of the field.
Team Manager John Norwood had just time to say "tack sa mycket" to his Volvo drivers before night fell and visions of aquavit began dancing in their heads.