Pirelli Classic Marathon

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Age amongst beauty

We have become used to professional rally teams today, with apparently limitless budgets; events such as the Monte Carlo Rally, which once were the great adventure for the private motorist, have become specialist races for paid experts. But nostalgia is a booming business, and as Historic racing expands, Historic rallying is growing too, fostered by the Historic Rally Car Register.

It was to recall the days of amateur adventure over Alpine passes and give Britain its own prestige “retro” event that a European Marathon for classic cars was first proposed by Philip Young, a veteran of several Himalayan rallies, and with the backing of Pirelli, this adventurous plan went ahead in June.

Very fortunately, Don Pither, Secretary of the HRCR, had an empty navigator’s seat in his ex-works Sunbeam Tiger, and I jumped at the chance to fill it. This is the car driven by Peter Harper in 4.2-litre form in 1965 on the Alpine Rally (first, but disqualified) and the Monte (fourth place) before gaining the 4.7-litre version of the Ford V8 and being used as a recce car. It is unchanged since, retaining its lorry springs for the rear axle and huge 26-gallon fuel tank.

Stern regulations thinned out the entries to pre-’68 cars, plus a few with competition history up to 1974, but scrutineering proved to be less strict than feared, and there were few sticky moments. When their cars were passed the crews lined up to bury themselves in paperwork, for which the reward was a fat envelope with ferry tickets, timecards, amendments and the vital roadbook detailing every junction on the 2800-mile route.

From here the cars began to trickle down to the Tower Bridge start-line to be lined up in number order. Just how to seed such an event is bound to be a problem, given that the impecunious novice is here as important as potential winners, and the final order was somewhat arbitrary, except that the BBC, making a Top Gear special on the event, had asked for an interesting selection of cars in the first ten. Our start number was to be 9, which was to prove a blessing. Interesting entries included a works Austin 1800 (one of the London-Sydney Landcrabs) the prototype Aston Martin DB4, an Alfa SZ, Austin Westminster, Lagonda M45, Ford Zephyr – a real mix of the exotic and the ordinary, all with realistic hopes of an award.

Saturday night started with a Competitors’ Briefing. After Philip Young had set the tone of enjoyable friendly rivalry with the phrase “the spirit of the rally”, Deputy Clerk of the Course Rick Smith ably fielded much of the questioning. Immediately it was clear that there was a gulf between the experienced rallymen, who had dissected their roadbooks and found a few schedule errors, and the hopeful novices who asked worried basic questions about how the timing worked. They were about to learn very quickly.

Even at eight o’clock the next morning there were crowds on the bridge to applaud car No1, the white Jaguar XK120 of Mike and Gina Barker from the Bridgnorth Motor Museum, as it rolled under the “Start” banner and off to follow the road to Dover. As the quintessential Alpine Rally car, the XK was a scene-setter for the event.

As we buckled ourselves into our harnesses and Don turned the key, I recollected that this was the first time I had ever sat in the Tiger, and that it was seven or eight years since I last navigated in competition – yet Don was aiming for a top ten finish. But there was no time for worrying as the marshal’s clock ticked on to our start-time, I zeroed the Halda tripmeter, our timecard was signed, and we rumbled gently off the bridge.

First task for the navigator over a regularity section is to calculate the acceptable arrival times at the next control – not more than the allotted time and not less than three-quarters of it – and as I combined this mental arithmetic with calling instructions to the driver, two things became apparent. First, that the roadbook was very accurate, and secondly that we would arrive at Lydden too early. Sure enough, as we approached the little Kent circuit, there was a line of Marathon cars waiting to clock in their three-quarter time. Young and Smith had been right when they stated at the briefing that the road timing was very slack.

Our task at Lydden was a fast slalom where the front-heavy Tiger might well lose out to the nimble Minis, especially as the start was uphill. In deference to the long motorway stretches Don had fitted a high 2.8:1 axle to the Tiger, so our take-off was steady rather than rapid, but we howled through the cones in impressive style, collected our time, and rejoined the A2 to Dover. It was only when lined up for the ferry that the crews could start to compare times at Lydden, and already John Atkins, with Rob Lyall alongside, headed the list in his AC Cobra Mk II, more usually seen in the InterMarque series.

While the early cars had had an easy run to the ferry, many later crews had collected penalties for being late because of traffic jams at Lydden. These penalties would eventually be cancelled, but there were plenty of grumbles as the rally circus relaxed on the sunny decks of the boat, watching a BBC crew filming an interview with the veterans who had done these events 20 or 30 years ago. There was Bill Bengry, using the same Ford Cortina he took on the London-Sydney rally in 1968, his navigator Ralph Stokes, now 82, who entered his first Monte Carlo Rally in 1936, 71-year-old Peter Binns in his HRG, and the two rapid ladies in an Anglia, Anne Hall and Val Morley, once a Ford works crew in Anglia and Zephyr days.

Even before gaining the continent one car was out, a Mini which had blown its head-gasket on the ferry ramp; it was left on the boat to return to Dover with its mechanics.

Four hours were allowed for the leg to Reims, which should have meant a relaxed run, but many people lingered at service stations and were caught out by an accident and traffic jam in town. Penalties here ought to have proved the lesson that you make all speed possible and only relax outside the control, but this took some time to sink in lower down the order.

At Reims, parc ferme was in the grounds of Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, and crews assuaged their thirst with that fine product before boarding busses to the hotel. Already there had been mechanical maladies: Jane Young, wife of the Chairman, had cracked the overdrive casing of her Sunbeam Rapier, losing much oil before one of the service crews patched it with Araldite, while Roger Byford had his Healey’s clutch disintegrate on the autoroute. Conveniently, the big Healeys were supported by a well-equipped team, and the unit was changed in 35 minutes at the road-side.

Service crews were allowed in the Marathon, but at every night halt competitors argued about this: some felt that they should simply be forbidden, cars carrying all their own spares, some that they were essential for old cars under stress. Certainly the system was abused, with non-official cars and crews benefiting from the rally’s hospitality or ignoring route restrictions, while at least one British and one Italian team blatantly broke the rules, either by unloading the car before a special test, or by reconnoitring a test with a service vehicle. Everyone was aware of this, but the other crews chose to be gentlemanly and adhere to the spirit of the rally. No protest was made.

High-spots for Monday morning were driving over some of the forlorn Reims Grand Prix circuit (clock in and out in the derelict pits with no time to stop and look) and Pevy hill, the first timed climb over closed public roads. A series of open 90deg bends climbing slowly through fields of high corn, Pevy was longer than any hill British drivers were likely to have tackled, and of course had to be driven blind.

There had been conflicting official comments as to whether navigators were to stay in the car for the special tests, but by some sort of democratic competitors’ decision we all stayed aboard throughout. It was while sitting back with nothing much to do as Don threw the Tiger up Pevy hill that I realised just how fast it could be. It certainly understeered, and without a limited-slip differential it was reluctant to wag its tail, but the sheer “grunt” of the 4.7-litre block and the grip of its modern Goodyear NCT tyres hauled it up the hill and over the flying finish line in 1min 15secs, matching John Chatham/Ken Bartram in their Healey 3000 but losing 7secs to the Cobra.

Some dramatic downhill curves led us back to the main road, where I calculate that we have time for lunch in our 6 ½ hour next section, running south towards Aix-les-Bains. After this stop outside Chaumont, we slide on to the autoroute and let the big engine settle to a lazy 85 mph. Strapped into our seats and surrounded by a complex roll-cage, we have little room to move – acceptable for the driver, but as navigator and photographer I have to balance my maps, roadbook, time sheets, clipboard, pens and clock, and still be able instantly to reach toll-money, cameras and assorted paperwork. Yet though the cramped interior of the Tiger becomes steadily hotter from the big engine, I am kept busy working out our average speed, arrival times, and fuelling points so as to do the hill climbs with the minimum weight.

Quite suddenly the autoroute plunges into a tunnel, then bursts out onto a bridge across a gorge – “into the Alps at last” declares the roadbook, and indeed we are, sweeping east along elegant viaducts amongst snowy crags and narrow verdant valleys. Before Geneva we again turn south onto minor hill roads, where we catch the excitement of knots of village children waving and cheering this file of funny old English cars. A time control in a one-street village with a few bemused locals looking on from a café serves to regroup us for the final run into that traditional gathering point for Alpine Rallies, Aix-le-Bains. This time parc ferme is by the Lac du Bourget, and it is a real delight to abandon our baking car and walk down to the water where a train of cygnets ripples the reflections of the mountains.

The talk is of the day’s problems: most cars have been running extremely hot, a TVR 2500M has broken its crank, and Robin Stretton and John Francis have left their MGA in Reims after the diff gave out on the start of Pevy. Here we see our first results: the Cobra leads, but surprisingly is separated from Chatham’s Healey by the Ginetta G4 of Leigh Davis and Duncan MacNivan. Our Sunbeam is tenth, between a Dutch Volvo Amazon and a Lancia Flavia Zagato.

Back in the lakeside park next day, the MGA crew are beaming – they have borrowed a spare diff from one of the Magnettes and are off to Reims in a hire car to fit it. Don is a little nervous about whether we need water after yesterday’s exertions (of course it is impossible to check with a hot car before parc ferme), and as soon as we leave the main control on the way to Mont Revard, another hill climb, we stop to check it.

Everything is in order, but the two minutes that took are about to cost us dear in this 12 minute section. At a complex junction in the town we know we want to go straight on, but are siphoned off to the left by a high kerb; an urgent three-point turn brings us back to a long red light, then the traffic clogs up… We clock in three minutes late at the bottom of the hill; our first road penalties, and the end of our hopes for an Alpine Cup.

To cap it all, the road is not closed after all and will be run merely as a road section, not timed to the second.

Our way now leads to Italy, crossing the Alps by the Col du Mont Cenis; we make good time and pause for a celebratory jus d’orange at the scruffy summit café before diving down past the Italian border overlooked by glowering fortresses. Onto the flat industrial country around Turin, and we arrive at Pirelli’s Vizzola Ticino tyre proving-ground for lunch, followed by another test on the track.

From here to our night-stop at Monza is only 35 miles, but heavy traffic puts the cars in serious danger of going Over Time Limit, and soon Monza is echoing to air-horns as Jowetts, Alfas, Minis, Lancias and Austins try to make gaps in the rush-hour traffic. Yet the Italians seem not to mind! They have an innate love of sporting cars, and wave cheerfully to the sweating rally crews searching for the park which contains the Monza circuit. We tear in through the gates and I leap out to run past the queue and grab a time on my card – a minute late. At the circuit, the cars are stabled overnight in the old cobbled courtyard, and later we learn that penalties from both sections where we lost time have been cancelled because of traffic. We are back in the running for an Alpine Cup.

Tonight there is a huge dinner hosted by Pirelli, with the 1976 Monte-winning Lancia Stratos as centrepiece, and Sandro Munari as guest of honour. It is a loud and cheerful affair, and the competitors only leave their tables when someone recollects our policy of paying our hotel bills the night before because of our early starts. Suddenly there is an enormous queue at the desk; “this should be called the Rally of the Queues” mutters someone. Yet although the buses in particular are a difficulty (starts have been delayed on several mornings), the mere fact that all competitors sit down together and talk rather than taking taxis to separate hotels reinforces the principle of co-operative rivalry.

Since we are about to thrash cold cars around the Monza track, we are allowed 30 minutes to work on them next morning. The Stretton/Francis MGA has reappeared, though now out of the rally. Don seems almost nervous that the Tiger needs no attention, while others are torqueing down cylinder heads, wiring up exhausts and changing tyres.

This time there are no extra chicanes or bollards – merely 99% of a lap of the circuit, and after our inevitably slow take-off Don has the Tiger howling through the tree-lined chicanes, the big V8 throbbing between three and four thousand revs. My only worry is whether we can stop at the finish, especially when Don announces that the big drum brakes have faded. But all is well, and we rejoin the autostrada passing Bergamo and skirting Lago d’Iseo. My calculations say that we must push on, and we overtake at every opportunity along the twisting lakeside road with its sudden tunnels.

Into the mountains again; this time it is the Croce Domine, a rutted single-track hedged-in road which saws over the top and down to Lake Garda – spectacular, but with nowhere to go should you meet something. Our brakes are reeking on the way down, but the locals wave as we screech past and squeeze in to the control on time.

Garda itself is hard work – no time to appreciate the beauty of this lovely place. We collect a string of rallycars amongst the slow traffic: behind us is John Handley (once a works Cooper driver) in a Volvo PV544, followed by Anne Hall’s Anglia. We have the power to sprint past most things, much to the amazement of a BMW 735i which cannot shake us off, but the other two always seem to make it as well.

Over the Croce Domine the engine got very hot, and this sprint-and-crawl stuff along the lake is no help. Luckily a few miles of autostrade brings it down before the Pordoi and Falzarego passes which will bring us to Cortina d’Ampezzo sitting in its mountain bowl.

Cortina proves an ideal and appropriate base. We have half a day off here, after two special tests – first, an autotest where one of the Porsches is quickest, followed by an ascent of the Passo Giau, a green and beautiful ribbon of road which has been closed “per manifestazioni automobilistica”. A helicopter hired by the BBC trails the Barkers’ white XK the 8.5km to the summit, where they have a two-hour wait as the rally joins them one by one. Our Tiger thunders aloft, inside tyre squealing as the tail twitches, the very long first and second gears sufficing for most of it. There is only one mishap on the hill, when Davis’ Ginetta leaves the road and has to be lifted out of a stream, though damage is slight.

Up here the view is stunning, and no one is in a hurry to leave. But we have a special lunch to go to, so we are gathered up in order behind a police motorcycle and trail down the hill. After a meal most people set to work on their cars, before a little prize giving ceremony in the town square (the Powley brothers for FTD on the autotest, Atkins for FTD on the pass, Ralph Stokes for venerable age, Anne and Val for leading ladies, Philip Young for effort).

An even earlier start brought us to possibly the most famous Alpine pass – the Stelvio. This staircase of 48 hairpins soars over craggy rocks into Switzerland, and was to be the competitive highlight of the tour. However, there was some snag with the local authorities, compounded by an unofficial Alpine tour of Dutch classic cars which chose to tackle the pass at the same time, so although the road was more or less closed, we had to be prepared for the odd bicycle. But it was exciting nevertheless and as we whipped back and forth towards the summit the Dutch, and some trapped locals, cheered and clapped each car.

After this it was a long hot haul through Switzerland to Basel and into France to stop at Mulhouse for an excellent dinner put on by the local classic car club actually in the Musee National de l’Automobile, once the Schlumpf collection. This staggering sight made the long hours on the motorway worthwhile.

Spa-Francorchamps was our next stop, and the test here used service roads and part of the circuit from above Eau Rouge. It was ideal for the Tiger, with the tight part downhill and the fast bit uphill, and though Atkins and Chatham were uncatchable, Don put in a real sprint which consolidated our top-ten place.

With everyone running very short of sleep, the nine-hour ferry crossing from Vlissingen to Sheerness was ideal to refresh the competitors for the final test, slalom at Crystal Palace. This looked rather tight, and we were worried that a single mistake might jeopardise our overall position, now up to eighth. But the Sunbeam, by now literally creaking with the hammering it had had, acquitted itself bravely, and we rolled into Pall Mall soon after, pleased to have made it after seven punishing days. In the RAC clubhouse Don collected an Alpine Cup from Sandro Veronesi, Managing Director of Pirelli UK, plus third in class (inevitably behind Atkins and Chatham), and all finishers took away a trophy.

Behind the Atkins/Chatham steamroller, Luca Grandori (President of Italian classic racing stable Club Italia) was third with an Alfa GTA, Peter Tyson in fourth was the top Porsche pilot, and Henry Pearman was a hard-trying fifth in his 4.2 E-type.

Although everyone had their grumbles over the things which went wrong, the whole event was really a great achievement for which Philip Young and his hard-working team (including the RAC’s Peter Cooper and Bjorn Waldegard’s navigator Fred Gallagher) deserve much credit. Whether they can run another within a year is debatable; both Veronesi and Pirelli press chief Tom Northey professed themselves pleased with the promotion and promised a repeat, but would not be drawn on a date. A major sponsor is vital to an undertaking on this scale, but if famous-name competitors become too prominent, the amateur running without a service crew might be squeezed out, and the spirit of the rally lost.

That would be a tragedy, for here is a glamorous event which inexperienced crews can tackle with unsophisticated machinery. We need more like it but not too close together. GC