With the route plotted, it seemed a shame to waste the evening, so they did a quick divert and swapped the Herald for the only other vacant machine, the VW Transporter pick-up used for delivering the Fidler fish

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Ecurie Cod Fillet is an unlikely name for a team, yet this is the true story of a band of brothers and sisters united by their love of rallying — and much more besides. Fully-paid-up, card-carrying member John Davenport recounts a fishy tale

How to tell you about Ecurie Cod Fillet? When asked to explain jazz, Louis Armstrong famously replied, “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know”. Even within rallying circles, exact knowledge about Ecurie Cod Fillet is hardly widespread. A few years ago, Autosport published a picture of ECF’s assembled members and were so baffled when it came to writing a caption that they entitled it, ‘Past winners of the RAC Rally’, which was, of course, only partially true.

Truth is frequently stranger than fiction, and it was in search of the former that I recently travelled north to a point almost within sight of the Manchester Ship Canal to meet with the founders of this unique phenomenon, Roy Fidler and John Hopwood. The venue for our interview was to have been the Hazel Grove Pussy Cat Club but, sadly, it had been closed down only the previous week. Fortunately, the Bramhall Pensioners’ Association were having their Late Nite 5 & 3’s in the local Methodist Hall and kindly let us have a table near the door as the venue for our little chat.

According to Roy, it all started while he was hanging upside down at Knickerbrook. During the 1950s he was the proud owner of a Buckler 90 powered by a Ford 1172cc side-valve engine. This chariot was used for rallying and for 30-minute time trials at Oulton Park. For the latter, his rally navigator John Hopwood turned pit crew-cum-team manager to oversee the mandatory change of one wheel using a quick-lift jack. It was during one of these time trials that an experimental tyre arrangement featuring larger wheels on the front proved sufficiently unstable to result in the aforementioned inversion and a positive decision to stick to rallying in future.

It was at this time that Fidler and Hopwood were both put in the position of having to take over control of their family businesses. For Hopwood it was a traditional glove-making company, while for Fidler it was a fresh fish business originally founded in 1895. Neither company was trading at any kind of zenith and both needed a lot of hard work to make them successful. So British road rallying, which only took up a Saturday night, fitted in rather well. Before long, the Buckler was making a better impression than it had done on the Oulton Park scenery. In 1959, the pair won the Lakeland Jubilee Rally outright.

The following year, the Buckler had gone and they started No1 on the same event with a Triumph Herald. Overcome by the occasion, the poor thing ran its bearings as they set out from Macclesfield towards the Peak District. With all the route plotted on the maps, it seemed a shame to waste the evening, so they did a quick divert and swapped the Herald for the only other vacant machine, the VW Transporter pick-up used for delivering the Fidler fish.

They got back to the rally route somewhere near Buxton and joined it in their rightful place. To everyone’s surprise, they managed a whole string of controls on time before deciding that this was not the safest way to proceed through a national park. Discretion having triumphed over valour, it was thrown away again when, on the way home from the end of that rally, they remembered a daylight event being run by Stockport Motor Club on the Sunday morning. This time, they entered legitimately and famously won it. It was the first — and last — time the VW was pressed into rally service, but it had set them thinking.

Hopwood wrote the rally reports for Stockport MC’s magazine and he began refer-ring to the Fidler/Hopwood combination as `Ecurie Cod Fillet’ as a bit of a take on continental rally teams. The next thing was that a badge was devised and cut out of fablon. Other crews, especially the stalwarts of the Stockport MC, saw it and, since the word Ecurie predicates more than one car and crew, they were soon sporting similar badges. At the time, Stockport MC had a particularly strong rallying contingent and soon other northern drivers, including Reg McBride, Phil Simister, Mike Sutcliffe, Phil Crabtree, Derek Astle and Don Grimshaw, wanted to have the fishy emblem on their car. Right from the start, there was no suggestion that you had to fill in an application form or pay a subscription. It was sufficient for you to be a regular and successful rallyist.

Ecurie Cod Fillet was soon being used as a convenient name for teams entered on the new Motoring News Rally Championship and, before long, recruits from outside the north-west were swelling its ranks. When Erik Carlsson won the RAC Rally with John Brown in 1961, his works Saab carried an ECF badge that was removed by the Saab people just before the finish.

Like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ECF ‘just growed’. Indeed, the members of its illustrious ranks won every major event in the rally world between 1960 and 1980. Ecurie Cod Fillet could have stayed like that, awarding its annual trophy for the best organised rally, and then just gracefully followed similar organisations such as Ecurie Ile de France, Ecurie les Mordus and Squadra Cinquanta into obscurity.

But then in 1962, Hopwood was invited to suggest a plan for running a motor rally on the Isle of Man. Len Bond of the Manx Tourist Board invited him over to look at the place and make some suggestions that they could put to the Manx Government. They drove round and saw there were roads that would make a very fair, if rather short, night rally. It was only when John and Roy were about to leave that Len said: “Of course, if it is of any help, we could always close the roads for you.” That off-the-cuff remark changed the face of British rallying, since, with the exception of Ulster, the only possibility to have proper special stages at that time was to use Forestry Commission roads. And those were only just being made available in any quantity for the RAC Rally.

The rally that Hopwood and Fidler devised with help from the ECF membership was a short night rally followed by a full-blown daylight stage event. The involvement of ECF with the success of that first Manx Rally of 1963 was to get it even better known throughout British rally circles. And the various social engagements that came as part of the Manx Rally package — the party on the ferry going over, the prize-giving party, the driving tests on the promenade and the impromptu hill climb on the ferry going back to Liverpool — all contributed to the legend.

At that time, Fidler was playing a double role, driving his own 1340cc Ford Anglia on British events and co-driving for the Triumph works team on continental rallies. Indeed, later in 1963, he was the victim of a nasty accident at Mont Ventoux when Mike Sutcliffe put the TR4 into a wall. Roy broke his left leg and sustained quite a few other knocks. Happily, within a couple of years, Roy was a number one driver at Triumph and soon the little ECF logo started to appear on a wide variety of works rally cars.

The next big step came in 1967. By this point Ecurie Cod Fillet had only been in existence for 12 years but had spread widely — the membership was already well over 200. The nature of rallying, however, especially in Britain, was changing fast. Road rallies were now frowned upon and special stage events were in the ascendant. Where the core members once met a couple of dozen times a year on events, it was now unusual to have more than a few together at any one time. Thus was born the exciting new concept of the Ecurie Cod Fillet reunion. The first event was held in Stone, Staffordshire. The location may simply have been chosen because it was halfway between the north of England and the south. Or it could have been because Stuart Turner’s mother lived just round the corner. No one is certain. But they can all remember the strippers! Subsequent reunions featured competitions which involved the placement and removal of advertising stickers from young ladies, or hands-on tests of proficiency in the undressing of inflatable dolls. Apart from the serious side though, these events became enormously popular and remain a forum in which the rally fraternity asserts an identity often lost at other motorsport jamborees in the razzmatazz of racing.

Since they started, the venues have moved around a bit with ECF reunions held in Douglas IoM, Worcester, Oldham and Birmingham. More recently, they have settled on Nottingham and gradually, as the membership has matured, the content has become slightly less Rabelasian. Indeed, after some 42 years, Ecurie Cod Fillet is now very much a collection of senior citizens, albeit some of them quite eminent.

The membership stands at approximately 340 and is now virtually closed. It is not, and never has been, a commercial organisation, and most of its financial support has been drawn from the businesses of Fidler and Hopwood, who themselves labour tirelessly on its behalf. John sends out a regular newsletter while other volunteers such as — and this is to literally name but a few — Alan Jolley, Mike Broad, Jackie Francis-Lucy and Tony Mason work to ensure the continuation of the reunions.

Based as it is in the era of road rallying, it is little wonder that ECF has been highly visible in the great historic rally revival of the last two decades. The Fidler/Hopwood combination has been seen at work in the latter’s TR2 while other members, throwing away their Zimmer frames for a day, have shown their old skills have not disappeared. On the 1992 Charringtons RAC Historic Rally, for example, Ecurie Cod Fillet won the team prize with their B team comprising three Mini Coopers driven by Timo Makinen, Stig Blomqvist and Rauno Aaltonen. A contemporary journalist was heard to mutter: “If that’s their B team, who’s in their A team?”

Being a peculiar institution, it is doubtful whether Ecurie Cod Fillet will ever completely disappear, as is the way with legends. But one’s thoughts do turn more frequently to the question of whether cars and decent OS maps exist in the afterlife.