"The first 7000 miles were surprisingly simple..."

As plans are made for the forthcoming London to Sydney marathon, Gordon Cruickshank looks back 30 years to the first time cars tried to drive to the other side of the world

The words are John Sprintzel’s; the journey an epic motoring adventure across the world. The destination was Sydney, the starting point London, with 10,000 arduous miles in between. It happened 30 years ago, and was hailed as "the greatest motoring adventure since the Peking-Paris of 1907". True, there had been impressive journeys across Africa and Asia, but this was different — it was a true competition, a race for scores of cars and hundreds of competitors, run in the floodlights of all the publicity a newspaper could muster. The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon was headline news.

If the London-Sydney recreation planned for June 2000 doesn't make the same headlines, it doesn't mean it's an easy jog. But with a raft of cross-continental rallies in the last decade or so, the impact has gone. And the original London-Sydney and its successors were contested by the latest rally cars, driven by famous names. Nowadays manufacturers spend their millions on what are virtually gravel road-races, while the endurance stuff is in the hands of unknowns (plus a smattering of past heroes) driving historic cars. And while Ford can actually make some present-clay capital out of a Cortina winning an historic event, Lancia, or for that matter Lanchester, are not particularly interested.

So come June 2000, the cameras will be trained on the technological rocketships of the World Rally Championship, rather than on the Rovers and Rileys departing for Asia, Indonesia and Australia. Their daunting trials will be reported in the specialist press, but back in 1968 it was front-page news all the way. Main sponsor was the Daily Express, a frequent patron of motor racing events under the chairmanship of ex-racer Sir Max Aitken, and the paper used its muscle to promote this as the greatest motoring escapade ever, with a first prize of £10,000.1n a time of economic gloom, this was a glimpse of blue sky.

With the might of the Express behind it, this journey was breakfast-table conversation across the land – possibly the first to be so since Count Borghese set out from Pekin 61 years before. After months of boosting, the crowd which turned out at Crystal Palace to speed the rally on its way was estimated at 20,000 – bigger than came to the race meetings at the south London track. Graham Hill thrust his Lotus 49B around the narrow circuit, and a carnival atmosphere reigned.

Paddy Hopkirk, whose BMC Austin 1800 the rally in second place, remembers the build-up to the event. "There was a great air about it because of Sir Max Aitken and Tommy Sopwith, a whiff of money, a posh tone that rallies normally didn't have. At Crystal Palace there were pretty girls, picnic baskets, champagne... And there were police all along the route out of London.

"It had a bit of class about it, superb organisation, and it brought in a lot of interesting people, not just the usual beady-eyed coke-drinking Swedes." Sponsors queued to reap this PR harvest, with cars entered by newspapers here and in Australia, and by works teams, the Forces, and oil companies. There was even a trio of works Moskvitches, and two Grand Prix drivers signed up Giancarlo Baghetti and Innes Ireland, reporting for The Motor.

Naturally the fancied teams were the works outfits: Lotus-Cortinas from Ford of Britain, Falcons from Ford Australia, gangly Austin 1800s from British Leyland, a single Hillman Hunter from Rootes, and the tough Citroën DS21s. Anything with two-wheel drive was eligible; alongside big saloons with chunky roo-bars, Sprinzel's Midget looked delicate, though quite conventional compared to Rob Slotemaker's DAF 55.

Some went in pairs, some three-up, some even with four to a car, like the quartet of women in a Volvo estate. Few were experienced: perhaps 20 crews had serious international experience, but many were novices attracted by the adventure. Generating more attention than most was the larger-than-life Keith Schellenberg, who had entered a Bentley – a vintage 8-litre. Those who thought he was daft didn't realise that he was one of the sparks for the whole mad undertaking.

"I told Jamie Scott-Douglas (a founding Ecurie Ecosse driver) who was working for the Express that I wanted to drive from Lisbon to Vladivostok from the westmost point of Europe to the eastmost point of Asia. He discussed it with Aitken, and he said 'Why not Australia'?" Tommy Sopwith, on the other hand, (then working at the Express and racing power-boats with Schellenberg) remembers it stemming from an evening with Jack Sears to celebrate a publishing success. "By the third brandy we had decided to run an event around the world, though later things got more sensible." By the time Aitken involved Sydney Telegraph owner Frank Packer (father of Kerry), Sydney had become the target.

As Sopwith, a rally driver himself, was a society figure and Sears was known as 'Gentleman Jack', the tone was set an air of glamour and style many miles from the bobble-hat image of rallying. Yet contestants still recall its fine organisation. Sopwith again: "We spent 18 months planning it it was no last-minute wonder. We went for the longest possible mileage overland, with a sea passage from Bombay to Fremantle in Australia." In those days of the Cold War and limited tourism, crossing Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan smacked of pre-war adventuring; and even then the Australian section meant another 4000 miles, and promised to be even tougher.

John Davenport, then Rallies Editor of Autosport, was one of the recce crew charged with easing border crossings, and he recalls being scoffed at when he told the Roads Minister in Islamabad that the rally would run at a 30mph average "But our buses do more than that. Better make it 50." There was also a hold up entering Afghanistan from Iran. "This immaculate Afghan officer wanted us to drive two days back to Tehran for a new visa," says Davenport, "but I showed him my picture in Autosport, which impressed him. So we did a deal: he fudged my papers, and I fixed a subscription for him. Must be the only man in Afghanistan ever to get Autosport regularly."

Davenport's advance knowledge was little help on the rally when his works-backed Porsche 911 consumed its rings in Afghanistan and began gulping more oil than they could beg from rifle toting tribesmen. "Luckily our practical sponsor had given us an open-ended plane ticket home."

Sopwith had tried to dissuade Schellenberg from the Bentley, "but I told him it had all the speed and power of the modern stuff and was far stronger. I do believe an 8-litre in 1931 guise is the most indestructible car of all. It never occurred to me that it couldn't cope. And we hadn't lost any marks until we went off the road in Turkey." Schellenberg's companions, Norman Barclay and the Hon Patrick Lindsay, were equally cavalier. "The whole thing was as amateur as possible," says Schellenberg today. "We only took a magneto and half-shafts, though I did have a steel frame bolted to the chassis to carry two spare tyres on each side."

But Turkey brought a setback. While Schellenberg was driving, a wheel went over the edge. "I always say the road collapsed. The others were asleep, and they woke up flying through the air. We finished in a river bed having rolled twice." (Paddy Hopkirk claims that as debris cascaded to earth, Norman Barclay looked at the pools of liquid around the wreck and was heard to mutter "Thank Christ, it's only blood, not the whisky.")

Schellenberg's tale of rescue involves bandits, the Turkish army and an opportunist human chain recovering parts from the river. "But the chain stopped in the bush they were stashing the pieces. Still, we only lost rubbishy bits like mudguards and screen." With Lindsay in hospital, the others went on. "We had to drive standing up for hours after that, to see over the mud spray. Then we lost a wheel at speed; spent three hours searching a paddy field for it. Oh, and we had sonic Kurds chasing us too." The Bentley never got to Sydney: "We missed the boat at Bombay because we stopped to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight. Somehow that seemed so much more important than getting to Australia."

Had they reached the Bombay docks, they might not have got aboard. Only 50 or so cars were expected to make it to Bombay, but Sprinzel's remarks above were justified. Navigation was far from hard, with crowds lining much of the route, and a trail of discarded self-heating soup cans marking the frontrunners' passage. Only one section through Iran was unsurfaced; even the road to Kabul was a fine smooth highway, and an impressive 72 made it, leading to some rapid negotiation with P&O. Roger Clark and Ove Andersson were £2000 richer for leading in a Cortina, with a German Ford Taunus next, pursued by Bianchi's Citroen and a pair of ‘landcrab’ 1800s. Hopkirk views the hydraulically suspended cars as ideal fir rough endurance runs. "Roomy and tough fantastic cars. No power uphill, but great road-holding. Coming down from the Khyber Pass I drove probably the best stage of my life." Behind him lay the little-developed and unsophisticated Hunter of Andrew Cowan.

The boat carrying the survivors to Fremantle was the liner SS Chusan, and apart from offering nine refreshing days of seaborne relaxation for competitors, it cemented the growing social element of the event. "It was a bit like a classic event today, where the nicest people arc down the back, helping each other," says Paddy Hopkirk, who still competes enthusiastically in historic rallies. On the other hand, Hopkirk, the professional driver impatient to get driving again, earned himself a black mark from P&O: when asked about the voyage in Fremantle, he called it "a good advert for air travel."

Four thousand miles along Australia's southern coast was going to be tough, with 100-degree heat and choking dust. The DAF team were ahead of their time in boasting a servicing aircraft, but according to John Davenport, it didn't work out as planned. "Their manager told me that they'd hired a DC3, but it was so full of DC3 spares they could hardly carry any rally stuff: Then they met a headwind over the Nullabor and had to watch the rally cars streaking ahead of them."

Iron-hard ruts, sand holes, and tyre-slashing stones took their toll. Clark holed a piston, leaving Bianchi's Citroen and the Staepalaere/Lampinen Taunus in charge, on hearing which Max Aitken is reported to have said, "I'm not giving my prize to a kraut or a bloody frog!" But Ford sacrificed a lower runner, and with a new piston fitted, Clark laid into the winding gravel roads of the Flinders Ranges RAC country, where he clawed back enough time to split the French and German machines, until a duff swap delayed him. Australia's hopes crashed when a hub failed on the works 1800 of Evan Green and 'Gelignite jack' Murray while lying sixth, and Britain's rose when the Taunus rolled out. Bianchi seemed destined to lift the laurels, Cowan now second, until only 160km from Sydney co-driver Ogier collided with an oncoming Mini.

Hopkirk was next along. "It was terrible; I knew Lucien well. The car had folded, and he was trapped and bleeding. Alec (Poole) tried to get him out, then the Mini began to burn. We only had a little extinguisher which could barely put out a cigarette, but it did the job." Once help arrived, the BMC crew pursued the lone Hunter, but it was Rootes' day. Cowan, Coyle and Malkin even made it onto the BBC TV news. Hopkirk, Nash and Poole made it one-two for a cheering Britain, while Australian Ford Falcons collared the team prize. And against expectation, the four ladies in their loaded Volvo estate took the Ladies Prize, 41st overall.

For Rootes, despite a small budget and a rush development job on a car with no competition past, it was a PR coup. Most of the world applauded, though Motor Sport took a haughty line: "just a stretched rally with bags of glamour and some seasoning," sniffed Gerry Phillips. Yet its success sparked a series of successors, plus a wave of historic recreations in later years. Anyone finishing the 2000 London-Sydney (run by Nick Britian who competed on the first one) will deserve his award, but won't make it onto the BBC. For that you had to be around in 1968, when glamour and seasoning were just what Britain wanted.