Public face, private man

Tony Pond succumbed to cancer last month. He was just 56. His British Leyland team manager, John Davenport, remembers a perfectionist who was much better than his results suggest

He never won a world championship rally, let alone a world title. But those in the know were well aware ofjust how good Tony Pond was. When asked whom he would most like as a team-mate for the 1986 season, Walter Röhrl said: “I’d rather have Tony Pond in my team than driving against me.”

When you add engineer Wynne Mitchell’s assertion that Pond was the best test driver he ever worked with, and understand that Mitchell’s career included a spell at Audi when Hannu Mikkola was in his prime, and you can see that Pond’s reputation was far from a simple reflection of the English public’s frequent perversity in choosing heroes.

The first impression one got of Tony was that of a playboy, always ready with a quotable quip. He was a good performer in front of camera or microphone, and his appearances at Motorsport forums were very popular. One in Chester before the 1985 RAC Rally drained the audience from a performance by Gilbert O’Sullivan and created massive overcrowding in the local Austin Rover dealership. A month earlier, after winning the national Audi Sport Rally in an MG Metro 6R4, Tony was presented with an expensive Audi Sport sweater. He immediately thanked Audi GB at the prize-giving for providing him with gardening clothes.

Tony’s other side appeared when you put him to sorting out a competition car. Mitchell, who worked with him at Chrysler, Vauxhall and Austin Rover, recalls how his understanding of the man changed as he got to know him.

“The first time I saw Tony,” says Mitchell, “was at the prize-giving for the 1973 Scottish Rally, where he had just finished seventh in a factory Escort. I didn’t really take to him. There was a bit too much of the second-hand car salesman image for a lad from the valleys like me.”

Some years later, though, they worked together for a day on a pre-homologation Sunbeam Lotus. Tony had been ‘loaned’ to Chrysler in the hope he might learn something (he didn’t, because every time they changed the suspension, he was led away). By the end of the day, Mitchell had changed his view of the man completely.

“He was nothing like the person I had imagined him to be. He was quiet, very serious, and dedicated to the job in hand. Nothing like the bloke I had seen on TV.”

Perhaps what also endeared Pond to Mitchell was a sense of humour that kept breaking through the serious analysis. Mitchell would ride as a passenger, evaluating for himself in those pre-digital information days what the car was doing, and recalls Pond remarks, such as one uttered beside a fearsome drop: “If we go off there, that suit you’re wearing will be out of fashion before we hit the bottom.”

Tony’s career started in road rallying and progressed via the Ford Escort Mexico Championship, in which he finished second in 1972, to stage rallying in an Escort RS1600. By 1974, he had been spotted by Tony Fall and drove first an Ascona and then a Kadett GT/E for the Dealer Opel Team. In 1975, he and David Richards finished fourth on the RAC Rally, and for 1976, the pair joined Leyland Cars to head up the TR7 team.

It was not until 1978, and the arrival of the V8-engined TR7, that Tony found himself in a truly competitive car. He took on some lofty opposition on rallies like the Manx Trophy and the 24 Hours of Ypres, and came out firmly on top.

The TR7 V8 was not as adaptable to unseen forest roads as it was to Tarmac, but despite that, he notched up a fourth place on the RAC Rally.

He took a sabbatical from the Triumph to try his hand with the Sunbeam Lotus. That was 1979, which was mainly a development year for the car. He got some more European experience and was second on the Mille Pistes in France and fourth on the world championship San Remo Rally. The latter event was his second with Ian Grindrod in the co-driver’s seat.

“It was a rude awakening,” says Grindrod. “The first stage went down over Abbeylands crossroads. We just flew and, in my mind, we missed at least two corners. I realised I had just moved up a league, or even to a whole new sport”.

Like Mitchell, Grindrod found that Tony did not bring his public persona to events: “For my money, he was a technical sort of driver, particular about everything. The reason he was such a good driver on asphalt was that he put a lot of time into finding the correct line round corners. It is the norm now, but was not so then, when rallies were longer. In many respects, he was a driver before his time.”

The same applies to his personal fitness — he took it very seriously. This was in the days when a serious interest in the delights of the table and a frequent cigarette were a hallmark of most top drivers, apart from the admiring Röhrl.

When Leyland canned the TR7 at the end of 1980, Tony stayed under contract to the company, placing his faith in our assurance that we were going to come up with another rally car. With our willing consent, he took drives with Datsun and Vauxhall to widen his experience — and astounded just about everyone who did not know him well with what he achieved.

The 1981 season saw him finish third in Corsica in a Datsun Violet GT (with its live axle!) and fifth in Portugal with an even older Datsun 160J. For some reason, that excellent result in Corsica, added to his double victories in Ypres and on the Manx, led to Tony being dubbed a Tarmac specialist Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 1981 British Open Championship saw Tony in a Dealer Team Vauxhall Chevette HSR, going up against Jimmy McRae in an Opel Ascona 400. Of the five rounds, two were Tarmac: Pond won the Manx with McRae second, and the positions were reversed on the Circuit of Ireland. On gravel, Pond would have been second, ahead of McRae, on the Mintex had he not been excluded for missing the end of stage three. On the Welsh, he finished second, with McRae third, and he won the Scottish, ahead of McRae. His performances were enough to give Vauxhall the manufacturers’ title — but McRae took the drivers’ crown. It was the closest that Pond got to winning a major championship. It was also a season that proved beyond doubt he was no slouch on gravel.

“He was not like Roger Clark, throwing the car sideways all the time,” says Grindrod. “He was a much tidier driver, even on gravel, and this was important with cars that were not as powerful as the competition.” The Chevette occasionally fell into that category. In 1982, Tony underlined his versatility when he contested the Safari for the first time and finished fourth overall in a Nissan Violet GTS. The following year, he was sixth in Portugal with a Nissan 240RS.

The rally world was now heading towards the dizzy heights of Group B, and when it appeared the Leyland/Austin Rover effort was lagging, Tony put out feelers to see what else might be available. He talked to Fiat, who always liked to hire a lot of drivers and run a lot of cars, but the negotiations foundered officially on the Italian company’s unwillingness to prepare one car in right-hand drive form.

But behind the scenes, that year Austin Rover actually had a 4WD Metro for him to test-and the first Rover 3500 Group A rally car. His 1984 programme was to involve rallying and racing the Rover, and national rallies with the Metro 6R4. It was enough to stifle thoughts of driving for a foreign team. In any case, Tony was immensely loyal. At many points in his career, he chose to work with people that he liked even if the cars were not top rank.

He took to racing like a duck to water, putting the Rover 3500 on pole in the wet in his first BTCC race, at Donington, and finished third then won his second race, at Silverstone, outright. When Austin Rover abandoned the British series and went European, Tony paired up with Eddy Joosen. They led the Spa 24 Hours and generally distinguished themselves in a car which, at that time, was not completely sorted. On the rally scene, Tony, teamed with Rob Arthur, nearly won the Gp A section of the 1985 British Open Championship with the Rover. They won the category on four of the six events, but retired on two and lost on points to Per Eklund’s Toyota.

The Manx retirement was thanks to a rare occurrence, a Pond accident. Right from his early days, Tony was well known for keeping his cars looking good and for keeping them away from harm. It later transpired that the Rover’s crown-wheel had broken, causing the shunt.

The 1985 RAC story has been told and retold. Suffice to say that Tony captured the imagination of several million of his countrymen and very nearly nailed that elusive WRC win. As it was, to be third behind Henri Toivonen and Markku Alen on a lot of ice and snow was good going.

The Metro 6R4 never did better on a World Championship event though Tony did add the Manx to his trophy cupboard for the fourth time, in 1987.

Pond had his preferred events, and his attitude to them could even affect his performance.

“Tony’s favourites were Corsica on Tarmac and New Zealand on gravel,” says Arthur. “He had reservations over events like Sweden and 1000 Lakes, which I never understood. He thought there was too much local knowledge needed. But I am sure that if he had done them, he would have enjoyed them immensely.”

Perhaps the truth is that Tony Pond was no extrovert and, if anything, was slightly insecure. Put him on an event he liked and he was a different chap, with the perfectionist streak well to the fore. His ability to concentrate and pull out a stunning performance on a long stage was one reason he liked the old-style Corsica so much. Ninety-kilometre stages were just his cup of tea.

A man whose results never truly reflected his talent, Pond inspired respect in rivals and colleagues and a loyal following from the public. His place at the top of the tree is secure.