Veteran to classic: RAC road rallies

A serious business

Modern rallies are usually fast thrashes through forests in specialised cars, or something similarly tough on Continental roads. But it was not always like that, and the younger generation may well have little idea of how pre-war rallies, contested mainly over long mileages on public roads, were run.

In 1982 the RAC remembered the kind of cars which competed in such contests with its Lombard "Golden 50" Rally, and in more recent times its Norwich Union Classic Run has converged on Silverstone from different ,starting points. This summer the Pirelli Classic Marathon will recapture something of the spirit of the famous pre-war Alpine Trials and Rallies. So it seems appropriate to look at what the road rallies of former days were all about.

What follows is not intended to be an early history of the most important of them, the RAC Rally; that has been done in various books. This is just a brief backward glance at some of these RAC contests, to remind ourselves of how comparatively simple they were, but nevertheless how very seriously they were taken and how they rather surprisingly tended to break competing cars.

These rallies were said to have originated when Britain went off the Gold Standard, and thus spending money abroad was considered unpatriotic. A Monte-type rally to Torquay was suggested and so was born the RAC Rally in 1932.

It was realised that requiring competitors to drive 1000 miles around Britain by day and night would constitute a pretty severe test, even at average speeds which would not cause adverse comment among the anti-motoring fraternity.

Furthermore, if some timed tests were added, winners could be declared, and by having a coachwork competition as the grand finale interest from the motor trade would be encouraged.

It worked out very well. The towns through which the rally was routed enjoyed the attention they attracted, sporting drivers thought the thing a challenge with good social possibilities, and manufacturers saw some useful publicity if their cars did well.

The rules for this and subsequent pre-war rallies enabled drivers to choose their own way between controls, and these opened early so that time for rest and refreshments could be built up — which may be why so many cars blew up — but at the finish the official margin was down to a maximum of five minutes early or ten minutes late, if no marks were to be lost.

You may now think nothing of driving 500 miles in a day on British roads at averages you would prefer not to admit, and wonder how even twice this distance, completed at modest average speeds, could constitute any sort of test of cars and crews. But you must remember that this was more than half a century ago, that much night driving was involved, and that the final tests were rather longer than is usual now, so that cars would be wound up to quite a degree.

Anyone who has driven fora night and a day will know how a second night at the wheel feels, and those competitors were either on the road for some 42 hours or had to build up time so they could sleep, eat or mend any marks-losing damage before the finish. Similar rallies caught on — the Scottish, the Welsh and the Blackpool Rallies for instance — and the format endured until the 1960s with the popular Daily Express Rally. Though it was nothing like as demanding as the already long-established Monte Carlo Rally, plenty of sportsmen and sportswomen were willing to try the RAC Rally. A total entry of 367 was attracted in 1932, and so successful was the event that it soon became a much-publicised annual fixture. In 1933 it finished at Hastings, but there were starting points in London, Bath, Norwich, Leamington, Buxton, Harrogate, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow.

Average speeds of 22, 24 and 26 mph for cars of up to 10hp, 10-16hp, and over 16hp respectively may seem tame; but starting on a Tuesday evening, drivers had to dispose of the 1000 miles by 9.30am on the Thursday, which, with 1930s performance and roadholding (or the lack thereof), rain, fog and even icy March roads, was not as easy as it sounds. Amusingly, no driver was permitted more than 700 miles behind the wheel (how did the RAC check?) and bonus marks were given for additional drivers or passengers. Marks were lost for damage discovered to cars at the finish, making it all that bit tougher . . .

The second RAC Rally had ten fewer entries than the first, but was still "the biggest car event in the world" according to one authority, and the motor papers were full of it. The most popular make was Riley (36 entries), followed by Standard (27) and Wolseley (23). Six Rolls-Royce owners entered, and there was even an Isotta-Fraschini. Five Trojans were optimistic, but only two "Chain-Gangsters" (one of them Mrs Needham) put in Frazer Nashes. A dozen of the new Ford V8s were nominated, and a 6hp vee-twin Andre . . .

How did the RAC sort them all out? With a slow-running test, a 1-in-6 hill re-start, and an acceleration/brake test. That it was taken very seriously is evident from The Autocar entering Sports Editor Sammy Davis in a Siddeley Special, Gordon Crosby in a Sunbeam, Douglas Clease in a wireless-equipped SS1 and artist Barry Applby in an Aero Minx. Sales Managers such as McKenzie of Hudson-Essex and Blake of Crossley's (in a Buxton saloon) turned out.

So did many racing drivers. In just three RACs they numbered SCH Davis, Harvey Noble (De Soto-mounted at Hastings), Ken Hutchison, Fay Taylour, AG Bainton, Mrs Wisdom, Prideaux-Brune, Captain Marend., Dick Seaman, Kay Peter, Joan Richmond, GW Olive, JA Driskell, the Hon Mrs Bruce, KD Evans, WM Couper, Miss Naismith, Freddie Thatcher, Peter Clark, RD Poore, FR Gerard, the Barnes brothers, Doreen Evans, Charles Follett (in an Alvis, naturally) and Manby-Colgrave. Manufacturer Sir John Siddeley and Cyril Siddeley drove Armstrong Siddeleys, and titled competitors included Viscount Curzon, Lord Waleran, Lord Walpole, Lady Oldham, Lady Mary Grosvenor, Lord Stuart, Sir Ronald Gunter and Sir F Bowring. Some would say they had nothing better to do, but I prefer to say they had the time to spare—and many of them were competition drivers of repute, anyway.

At Hastings in 1933 attractive blonde Kitty Brunell was in the news, having won her class in an AC, which shared the honours with Rover and Riley; she was later to marry Ken Hutchison (who was driving a Ford) and I had a card from her only last Christmas. . .

It is rather surprising how many cars fell by the roadside. Miss Warley's Delage lost all its electrics, a vintage Bentley lost a piston, and in all 32 failed to qualify. Then 79 more were penalised for being late. Others lost marks for various faults which included defective horns, lamps, starters, dynamos, wings and screens — and even fuel, oil and water leaks. Imagine modern rally cars being subjected to this?

But the red, white and blue Singers and the big Siddeleys came in exactly on schedule, "Ebby" himself clocking the finishers in for overnight garageing in Hastings' underground car-park. Next day the Siddeleys did 3 mph in the slow test, and in the stop-start Humphrey Symons' open Siddeley and Donald Healey's big Invicta were among those earning high praise.

Two years after the Hastings event, the RAC went to Eastbourne. An entry of 281 started from Leamington, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Harrogate, Buxton, London, Torquay and Yarmouth, with the rules virtually unchanged. Leamington's Mayor despatched the first to start (Mrs Richards in a two-tone Standard saloon) and the Ace Of Spades road-house saw off the London starters.

In spite of the blessing of many Mayors, the police were trapping in the new 30 mph speed-limit zones, the Torquay force using an ancient A7. Follett hit a wall in fog in his Alvis Speed-20, Miss Streather crashed her Alvis, and an SS and a Singer had accidents, which were not welcome on public roads.

Viscount Curzon was caught speeding in Bristol by non-uniformed police and his SS was also in mechanical trouble. Miss Allen pressed on in spite of her AC running a big-end, developing a radiator leak and shedding its propshaft; Doreen Evans's MG and Driskell's Standard were savaged by lorries; a Squire was reluctant re engage reverse gear; Stanley Barnes lost his route-book; and in the tests a Marendaz Special smoked to excess before stopping.

This was the year, 1935, when the little 8hp Talbot-Darracq which is now in my possession was driven by Hal Hill's young son, as high adventure. Knowing the battery would be in a poor state after two nights on the road, he had removed the starter, intending to do the quick-start test on the handle; but the astonished officials objected, so he lost marks there. Still, he gained a third-class award, which only 50 modern cars managed — not bad for a 1922 light-car.

Once again "Ebby", in what looked like a sort of chicken-coop, presided over the timing in Eastbourne. There were 107 first-class awards and 81 second-class, but no award for three of the starters, and this new idea of competing against the RAC instead of having outright class-winners was unpopular.

The Rally returned to Torquay the following year and, although engines and axles could not be changed en route (imagine such rulings in today's RAC Rally!), there were complaints that some of the competing cars were close to being racing cars — such as Boyd-Harvey's lightweight Squire, Spikins' twin-blower short-wheelbase Hudson Special, or Hillcoat's sporting Ford V8, perhaps.

Mayors were out in force again to see the drivers away, souvenirs were presented by towns happy with rally publicity and Sammy Davis left his competing Armstrong Siddeley to broadcast the story of the run. The battleship Royal Sovereign and the Queen Mary at Glasgow were counter-attractions to the rally cars. Last to arrive in Torquay, very late, was Mrs Lace in a Marendu Special. Alas, the cars then got bogged down when rain hit the grass-field car park overnight.

Even tiny paintwork blemishes now lost marks, but in the end the Singers shone and Frazer Nash-BMW, Hudson, Bentley, MG and Austin won their classes, while the premier coachwork awards went to Alvis and Humber. But as ever in competitions, there were problems — FS Barnes, whose Singer had battery trouble, did much of the night running on side lamps, and Hobson's MG stopped only six miles from the Yarmouth start. He complained that other competitors went by making derisive gestures, whereas ordinary drivers stopped to help.

A Ford and a Standard contrived to overturn, and the veteran motoring writer Thornton Rutter had a bad crash in a Humber near Penrith. But out of 274 starters, only 22 retired, and only 30 lost road-marks.

I have reported many such rallies for Motor Sport, watching numbers going past for hours on end — the story of my life! Looking back I arn reminded how much sport ordinary drivers could have in their own cars in these early RAC events, yet how seriously such rallies were regarded. Certainly manufacturers supported them, and there was the amusing year when, after paying special attention to carburation and the use of fluid flywheels, Lanchester and Daimler crawled so snail-wise through the slow-test as to dominate the Rally. WB