My Car Story – Ultra Rare SAAB GT850 – Robert Crawford

Native New Yorker Crosses The Pond
#MyCarStory

My Car Story - Ultra Rare SAAB GT850Last year, an extremely rare SAAB GT850 made the journey from New York State to its new home in Ayrshire.

Until that point, there was only one GT850 on the UK’s roads although there is also another in an early stage of restoration.

This is the story of this rare SAAB and the people connected to it.

 

THE EARLY YEARS

It was Spring 1964. SAAB were at the height of their popularity having won the RAC Rally three times and the Monte Carlo Rally twice, all in the space of just four years. In the UK, SAABs were desirable, slightly exotic and so rare that drivers flashed their headlights and waved when they passed each other. SAABs were cool!

So, imagine the delight of Robert Crawford, a young 14-year old petrolhead, when George Stewart, owner of SAAB dealership Cambuslea Garage in Ayr, drove into his dad’s business yard and handed over the keys of a brand new, dark blue SAAB 96. And, even better, his first outing was with his dad to collect a new caravan that promised holidays in far flung places. All towed behind an 841cc two-stroke – how’s that for confidence? They both joined the Saab Club locally and enjoyed meets and treasure hunts.

Unfortunately, the SAAB had to go just over a year later when his dad died and no-one else in the family could drive. Legally, that is, as Robert had been a competent driver for over three years – but that’s another story.

But, once a SAABist, always a SAABist. He bought BSD 221C, a white 1965 SAAB 96 when she was three years old and, after meeting his future wife in 1969, she later told him that she only allowed him to take her home because of the fabulous white SAAB! And 50 years later, she’s still with him (his wife, that is) but, sadly, he had to sell the SAAB in 1971 to raise the money to get married.

 

THE SEARCH

Fast forward and, after a 30-year period of classic Jaguars and Land Rovers, Robert felt the urge to breathe in the unmistakable smell and hear the cacophonic ring-a-ding-ding of a two-stroke SAAB.

So, he searched the ads, haunted the forums and generally made a nuisance of himself with anyone who would help. During the search, he realised that he didn’t really want an ordinary two-stroke but wanted a Sport. In one memorable phone call with a SAAB expert, Graham Macdonald (who was extremely helpful), he asked what Robert really wanted.

“Ideally,” he said, “I want a Red Bullnose Sport.”

There was a split second of absolute silence before Graham just laughed! “You don’t want much!”, he said. He then explained patiently that Bullnose Sports had never been officially imported into the UK although there were a few Longnose examples.

Drawing a blank, the search was expanded including a trip to Sweden to view a spectacular white Longnose Sport which had been completely, and expertly, restored. But Robert was unconvinced on its true provenance and walked away. A few other false starts with GT750s amongst others and he was beginning to lose heart.

But the lessons from the missed opportunities also persuaded him that he only wanted a LHD if a RHD of that model had not been available in the UK. So, for example, a LHD Bullnose Sport was OK but a Longnose Sport had to be RHD.

 

THE FIND

During the search, Robert periodically received some very good advice from Fredrik Ekendahl of Sweden. He told him of a GT850 in New York State whose 80-year old, retired SAAB dealer owner was considering selling but had not advertised. A Gran Turismo 850 is, of course, simply a Sport with the name changed for the North American market due to copyright issues. Fredrik had viewed and driven the car a few months earlier and reckoned it was “The best unrestored GT/Sport in the world.” No pressure then!

My Car Story - Ultra Rare SAAB GT850After seeing lots of photos from both Fredrik and the owner, Robert spoke to Graham about it and, would you believe it, he also knew the car and said, “That’s a fantastic car, one I have known about for many years. I didn’t know it had become available.”

Armed with all this information, Robert did something against all his instincts from 52 years of car ownership and something that he always advises against – he phoned the owner, negotiated a price and bought it sight unseen! And at 1.30am UK time!

The SAAB Leaves from New York

The SAAB Leaves from New York

Engine Bay

Engine Bay from the offside

The SAAB arrives in Felixstowe

The SAAB arrives in Felixstowe

That was on 4 March 2019 and, as the owner spends winters in Florida, he wasn’t back in his New York home until the end of April. Then began the shipping saga – but that’s another story for another time. Suffice to say that Robert and a friend collected the car from Felixstowe docks on 17 June 2019 and trailered it home to Ayrshire, immediately doubling the number of GT850s on the UK roads.

 

THE PREVIOUS OWNERS

The SAAB GT850 was bought new for US$2842 (£1012) in January 1964 by John L. Pellinger of Keene, New York State who kept it for nine years.

In Spring 1973, John took the car for a Service to SAAB dealers Drake Street Motors in Elba, NY. The favourite SAAB of the Sales Manager, Bob Abels, had always been the 1964 GT850, and he asked John if he was interested in trading for a new SAAB, but to no avail. So, Bob asked if he had driven the V4 SAAB and if he would like to drive one while he waited.

John came back with a smile on his face and said, “OK give me a price.” Bob had already agreed with Merril Mabon, the owner of the dealership, that he could buy the car if he made a deal. He made the deal and kept the car for the next 46 years.

The following year, in 1974, Bob bought the SAAB dealership and expanded it before retiring 25 years later in 1999.

 

THE CAR

This SAAB GT850 is chassis number 213105 with engine number 2458 and was used only lightly by Bob over the years. It is believed to have covered only 70,000 miles although the odometer shows just 27,000 miles as the first owner had it replaced.

My Car Story - Ultra Rare SAAB GT850When Bob Abels bought the car in 1973, there were some blisters under the aluminium side trim which was common due to aluminium against a steel body (SAAB later used chrome trim). SAAB made lower door skin panels because of this problem and he had those installed, respraying the car in original enamel so everything would match. Robert says, “It’s a typical American 1970s respray which is not up to today’s standards but adds to the car’s history.” The body remains in wonderful condition, never having been welded, and still has that rare aluminium side trim.

The interior is most exceptional because, not only is it unrestored, but it is all original and in very good condition. It even has an original Blaupunkt radio which still works.

Under the bonnet, everything works as it should with only service and maintenance items having been replaced, including a rebuilt dynamo/water pump although electronic ignition was installed. But even this latter addition is hardly new as it is a Delta Mark 10 Capacitive Discharge Electronic Ignition installed in the 1960s. Robert tell us that thanks must go to David Nameri of Israel, who he met at IntSaab 2019 I Holland, for a copy of the Mark 10 manual.

Latterly, Bob drove the car only a little each summer to keep it operating. He seldom showed it in the last 10 years, although he did take it to the major Saab’s at Carlisle show in 2018 and won First in Class. He showed the car many times over the years at vintage Saab meets and almost always won Best in Class or Best of Show.

It’s unique selling point, of course, is not that it’s a shiny, totally restored concours queen but that it’s a completely unmolested, unrestored piece of history in wonderful condition with a fully documented provenance. Robert intends to retain it in a way that preserves this uniqueness whilst, at the same time, enjoying its capabilities.

 

THE SPARE ENGINE

My Car Story - Ultra Rare SAAB GT850As if all this wasn’t enough, the car came with some spares and a spare engine. But not your usual run-of-the-mill spare engine. A brand-new, factory-supplied replacement engine with a Lifetime Warranty!

When Bob Abels, as a SAAB dealer, became aware in the mid 1980s that Saab was stopping making these engines, he bought one just in case. Engine number 3353, it came complete with flywheel, crank pulley, distributor, carburettors and oil pump. He fitted a restored starter, dynamo/water pump, fan and exhaust manifold to make it absolutely complete.

Still unused, never having been fitted to a car, the engine sits today on a display stand which is the original factory shipping crate. It retains its Warranty tag attached by wire and seal at the factory together with the return coupons should the dealer wish to treat it as an exchange engine.

The engine has been turned regularly to keep it in ‘as new’ condition. The spark plugs are taken out, a small amount of oil squirted onto each piston and it is turned over rapidly for about 20 seconds.

This is the only known engine of its type in such original, unused, unmounted condition and just adds to the historical value of the car.

It is hoped to take the car to shows in 2020/21 and, for the more long-distance ones, it will be trailered along with the spare engine for everyone to see.

 

Robert Crawford

 

  • Big Thanks to Robert for contributing to the My Car Story idea with this comprehensive tale of his gorgeous car and its history – join in and send your own #MyCarStory to web@ayrshireclassics.com to share it with the Membership!

 

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