A game of two continents

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It started in London, ran through Europe and the Americas, and Finland was the top scorer. The 1970 World Cup Rally was a daunting event that could never be repeated today

In the summer of 1970, Finland won the World Cup. You thought it was Brazil that took the famous trophy, beating Italy to one of sport’s greatest prizes, right? Well, yes, but… While Edison Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele as he is better known, was leading his team to victory in Mexico City, Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm were on their way home from the same place with another World Cup. The original Flying Finns had driven there from London in a Ford Escort.

You may recall that four years earlier England won the cup in London and later that year FIFA bestowed the next tournament upon Mexico City. It was this connection, and the success of the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon, that inspired Wylton Dickson to organise a World Cup Rally (see p83). The cars would set off from Wembley Stadium on April 19, finishing nearly six weeks and 16,000 miles later in the Mexican capital on May 27, just as the World Cup was getting underway. What a wheeze.

Dickson’s brusque and abrasive approach did not endear him to the motoring media, but having persuaded experienced rally practitioners Paddy Hopkirk, Dean Delamont, John Sprinzel and John Brown to join him, the RAC and the MSA came on board to make sure it was all within the rule book. It was promoted as the toughest rally of all time. And so it proved to be.

In his definitive account of this extraordinary event, The Daily Mirror World Cup Rally 40 — The World’s Toughest Rally in Retrospect, Graham Robson describes the route as being the toughest, most tortuous, most arduous challenge in the history of serious rallying. And he should know: as one of the rally controllers he had to leapfrog along the route to run controls.

Ford, British Leyland and Citroen spent a fortune preparing for six weeks on the road in two-and-a-bit continents. Robson, a former competitor and team manager, recently celebrated the 40th anniversary with a small party of other veterans from an adventure that captured the nation’s imagination all those years ago. The trials and tribulations are still fresh in his mind.

“The London to Sydney was good, but many people thought it was just too easy, and so the World Cup Rally was deliberately tough,” he says. “Some of the stages were so long that the target time was 11 hours, and that was never going to be a picnic. Where John Sprinzel was involved, there had to be adventure and there was plenty of that once the cars got halfway up South America.”

Paddy Hopkirk, who finished fourth in a Triumph 2.5PI, recalls the challenges. “One of the toughest sections was in South America, from Rodeo to La Vina. This was like driving flat out from Edinburgh to Dover in the fog, on unmade roads strewn with rocks and animals.” Typically the veteran rally champion also remembers the lighter moments. “On the stopover in Rio de Janeiro we all stayed in the old Gloria Hotel and there was Rosemary Smith, relaxing by the pool, in her white bikini. That seemed to stir up more publicity than the cars themselves.” Ms Smith went on to win the Ladies Cup, bringing her Austin Maxi home in 10th place. Hopkirk was in fact one of the few who spent some profitable time out on the stages preparing for the rally. While others sunned themselves, he was the only one to practice the final stage in Central America which he won, taking home some decent prize money.

The World Cup Rally started from Wembley on the morning of April 19, with England football manager Alf Ramsey and team captain Bobby Moore dropping the flag on over 100 cars. There was a special send-off for Jimmy Greaves, who had just retired from the game and was sharing a Ford Escort with Tony Fall, the pair finishing a very creditable sixth.

“Jimmy had just lost his place at West Ham and it was Wylton Dickson and the Daily Mirror who saw the potential of putting him in a car,” says Robson. “Ford agreed to run him as long as he was a credible co-driver for the experienced Tony Fall. As it was, on the first test day, Jimmy told Stuart Turner, Ford’s motor sport director, that if he made a fool of himself then Stuart was to tell him and he’d pull out before the event got going. But he was very professional, he took it seriously, and his sheer grit and determination got him through. At one point, high in the Andes, they had so many punctures that they ran out of wheels and tyres. So Tony put Jimmy on a local bus to go and get some new tyres from the nearest town. He really entered into the spirit of it but he’s never talked about the rally since — I think it was just something he did, and that was that.”

There was royalty present too, with HRH Prince Michael of Kent setting off around the world in an Austin Maxi, but like four-fifths of the starters he failed to make it to the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, just a week before the World Cup kicked off.

But do not be deceived by the presence of footballers, celebrities and royalty on this extraordinary adventure. This was a very real rally, taken very seriously by the manufacturers, the works teams and the British motor industry which, in 1970, was still in its ascendancy. Forty years ago Britain was producing a great many motor cars, British Leyland had not yet fallen foul of industrial action and Fords were rolling off the production lines at Dagenham. The industry saw the World Cup Rally as a huge marketing opportunity, a chance to further boost the ‘high performance’ image of their brands both at home and around the world. Ford, in particular, committed big budgets to developing an Escort 1850 GT, while Triumph and Austin were not far behind with the 2.5PI and the Maxi. In the Soviet Union Moskvitch prepared to enter a works team, and in France Citroen began work on its ageing DS21s.

Ford decided to modify the Escort Mk1, installing an 1850cc version of the tried and tested crossflow Kent engine and using uprated components from other models in the range. British Leyland covered every base by entering two teams — one from Triumph and one from Austin. Triumph ran three 2.5PI Mark IIs which, though more powerful than the Fords, were significantly heavier. Two of these cars would carry a crew of three while Brian Culcheth preferred to stay with a more conventional crew of two, driver and navigator. A second Leyland team ran the Maxis, with twin carburettors and lightweight door panels, and the Morris 1800s, as did some of the plucky privateers.

Peter Browning, competitions manager at Abingdon, had been given a generous budget by BL boss Donald (Lord) Stokes, who made it clear that he expected his cars to win. Ahead of a trip that would take them over some of the most daunting roads in the world, however, talk of victory was premature. There was a gargantuan amount of intricate planning to be completed.

“With the benefit of hindsight,” says Robson, “everybody says they always knew Mikkola would win — but they didn’t, because he was in fact the least likely to finish. At the time his record of hitting things was not exactly wonderful and, if there was a favourite, it was another Finn, Rauno Aaltonen, who was very quick and diligent. Yes, Hannu was extremely quick, but he kept crashing. In many ways the result was a surprise.” Mikkola, who celebrated his 28th birthday just three days before the finish, waited another 13 years before becoming World Champion.

The early part of the route took the competitors across Germany, Austria, the former Yugoslavia, Italy and back through France, before racing south across Spain to Portugal where the teams would board the SS Derwent, a Royal Mail Lines ship, to take them to Rio de Janeiro. Stage time targets were, as ever, demanding but the European section offered nothing too challenging in the way of terrain.

“Those first seven days across Europe were really just a warm-up,” says Robson. “They took in the classic stages of the SpaSofia-Liege and the Alpine passes behind Monte Carlo but the stages in the Balkans, in the former Yugoslavia, were pretty difficult, weeding out the no-hopers early on. At that point Citroen were leading with Rene Trautmann in a DS21 but he couldn’t repeat that success in South America.”

Apart from some rough stuff in Eastern Europe, the leaders dashed down to Lisbon without undue troubles, conserving their cars for the hard part to come in darkest, deepest Peru. They landed in Brazil, where in those days very few roads were properly paved, and set up camp in the Gloria Hotel. Some drivers prepared for the arduous trek to come by swimming and lazing on Copacabana beach, others hanging out with their mechanics who were poring over every nut and bolt, knowing that service points were going to be virtually impossible once the cars moved up into Chile and Bolivia.

“A lot of people had a very good time. Many of them are still not prepared to talk about it…” laughs Robson, who ran the dockside control in Rio. “But the real pros went out and practiced. The route went south from Rio, over the River Plate to Buenos Aires, and then hopped over the Andes before winding up the Pacific coast of South America. Not only were the roads in bad condition but there was none of the infrastructure you might expect on a rally. The stages were pretty horrible although some of the roads in Argentina, which had been impossible in practice, had been re-graded and paved ahead of the rally for fear of bad publicity for the country. Brian Culcheth talked about the unique experience of taking the Triumph along a stage that was disappearing into the horizon at 6000rpm, flat in fifth gear, or about 120mph — unbelievable.”

British Leyland had a slight advantage in that it had agents and some servicing in South America but for the privateers it was a daunting prospect. Some of the special stages were run over distances of more than 500 miles in remote areas, and time penalties were given for exceeding set times as well as any other infringements of the rules. The results, therefore, were determined by penalties awarded rather than the fastest cumulative times.

“It started to get very demanding as we went up the Pacific Coast,” says Robson. “Some of the stages were very remote, and dangerous. You’d never get that route sanctioned in today’s culture of health and safety — there were no medical facilities and at times they were up over 16,000 feet in the Andes where some of them used oxygen to stay alert, the others relying on adrenalin. The four days during which they went from Santiago to La Paz and then to Lima were the most challenging.”

It was a matter of endurance, driving flat out for up to 11 hours at a stretch. The crews of three had The crews three more pairs of hands, of course, but those with two in the car were carrying much less weight and were therefore faster. The highest-placed crew of three was Paddy Hopkirk’s Triumph in fourth. Culcheth, who did by far the most pre-event practice, said that a crew of two was the only option because they could carry more fuel, more spares and more tyres. “And fuel was a problem,” continues Robson. “Every little town had some, but it was poor to about 66 octane in quality, down to about 66 octane in places, and dispensed by a bloke with a hand pump. Both Ford and Leyland were with Castrol so they were able to get high quality fuel at pre-arranged stops. The privateers relied on big tanks and the local juice.” From 100 starters, just 23 cars made it to Mexico City.

The World Cup Rally of 1970 could not, and will not, ever be repeated. Rally bodies would not accept such draining time pressures — through South America there were four nights’ rest in 15 days. The costs would now be prohibitive and the cross-border politics simply too complex, too sensitive. Back then they relied on Gentleman Jack Sears to smooth out all the diplomatic wrinkles between the various governments and that’s unlikely to be achievable again. Forty years on, civil wars are no longer put on hold while rally cars come blasting over the border. And more’s the pity.

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