Notes on Rolf Mellde
March 24, 2009 in Archive
I’ve just been re-reading my copy of Rolf Bleeker’s book, The Spirit of Saab, to get a better look at the days when Rolf Mellde was at Saab as Chief Engineer.
This book never fails to bring a smile to my face. Reading about the antics the guys could get away with in those days….it really must have been a lot of fun starting this little car maker from scratch.
Here’s a few summarised tidbits:
Mellde drove a Saab 92 in the Monte Carlo rally in 1950 but the car developed a problem with the carburettor freezing up. This was something they’d not anticipated, so naturally Mellde was keen to find both the cause of the problem, and the solution.
They needed to see the carburettor in operation in similar conditions to those experienced during the rally so they cut a hole in the hood, covered it with plexiglass and strapped an engineer to the hood with a safety belt supplied by the Trollhattan Fire Department.
The engineer got a trenchcoat to protect from the cold.
Mellde used the insights gained from this to construct a pre-heating system for the carby.
Kjell Knutsson joined Saab as an engineer in 1958 and at that time, he was only the second person dedicated to engine development. He started work with Saab on a Tuesday and by Wednesday was flat on his back with appendicitis.
His appendix removed, he woke from his sleep with Rolf Mellde looking into his eyes. Mellde said “You must get well quickly, we have work for you to do”.
He reported for duty the next Monday.
Perhaps Mellde’s biggest single project at Saab was the development and implementation of the V4 to replace the two-stroke engine.
- Mellde tested engines from VW, Lancia, Renault, BMW, Triumph, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Ford and Goliath. Testing consisted of running the engines for 400 hours each. The Ford V4 came out as the most reliable engine from these durability tests and was chosen.
- The V4 project was called Operation Kajsa
- Per Gillbrand was the engineer entrusted with the first round of testing. The project was top secret and no-one was allowed to know that Saab were moving out of two-stroke engines lest the sales of Saab’s current range go through the floor. Gillbrand was sworn to secrecy, given 64,000 Swedish Crowns, a Saab 96 fitted with a V4 and told to go find some place quiet to run the car at high speed for a while. He went to Northern Italy and covered 30,000 miles in six months before Mellde came down to see how things were going.
- When Mellde visited, he bought a replacement car with him. Neither car was registered with the Swedish authorities. They tried to swap plates when he was there but for some reason one of the plates wouldn’t come off. Mellde ended up driving back into Sweden with two different plates on the car and having to construct a very creative story as to why in order to satisfy the customs people.
- Mellde only had eight people working on the V4 at this stage. The ninth person was a guy by the name of Olle Granlund. Even Granlund’s boss, Josef Eklund, was unaware of the V4 project. Mellde by-passed Eklund and told Granlund on a Friday that as of the following Monday, he’d be travelling to Germany to pick up a truckload of V4s for further testing. He left constructing a plausible story to convince his boss up to Granlund.
- When testing and product planning of the V4 was complete, it was still a huge secret. Saab traditionally took a holiday in July and in July 1966, Saab had a field of Saab 96 two-strokes out the back that were unsold. They asked 40 employees to work over the holiday period, publicly telling them that the cars were to be fitted with new brake systems. Once inside the factory, the 40 employees were assigned the task of converting at least 350 of these two-stroke Saabs to V4s. The men did better than that and by the end of the holiday period, the first 600 Saab 96 V4s were ready.
- They didn’t have any V4 badges for these early cars, so one employee was sent out to buy up every V4 badge he could from existing Ford dealers.
Mellde finished 69th in the 1950 Monte Carlo rally, driving a Saab 92.
The same year he won the tough Rikspokalen Rally in Sweden, also driving a Saab 92. This was Saab’s first major win and it netted Mellde a prize of 300 SEK.
These weren’t Mellde’s only races, of course, but a young Erik Carlsson started rallying just after this time. I think you can guess the rest.
Mellde worked for Saab for around 25 years, a time which saw one of the greatest single changes in Saab’s history.
He and his type were the fabric of a young car company in turbulent times. I hope Saab can find more of his type for the turbulent times coming in the future.