Mirror to the World

The budget was huge, the organisation immense. Anthony Howard was the man charged by the Daily Mirror with turning rally bulletins into news

Once upon a time, Fleet Street thrived amid rivers of alcohol, old Spanish practices, the chatter of telex machines and the aroma of hot lead. But its firm grip on advertising revenues and its prime position as provider of news and entertainment faced an increasing challenge as independent television began flexing its muscles from the mid-1950s.

Amid the doom and gloom of the Harold Wilson era - characterised by industrial unrest and the devaluation of sterling - national morale got a much-needed fillip when England beat Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley.

Two years later, at the instigation of Daily Express proprietor Sir Max Aitken, the first 9600-mile London-Sydney Marathon began from Crystal Palace. The idea was to cheer everyone up, boost circulation and nurture exports to the 12 countries en route.

After high drama towards the finish, Andrew Cowan and his Hillman Hunter came through to claim the £10,000 prize and acres of ink. Paddy Hopkirk finished second. Quietly observing all this from behind a cloud of Havana smoke was Australian ad-man Wylton Dickson, the brains behind the 1966 World Cup Willie mascot, who had a chance encounter with Hopkirk at a drinks party in Chelsea. Hopkirk recently reminded me: "Wylton asked what my game was. I said professional rally driver, and he asked me what a rally was. So I explained, mentioning the London-Sydney."

Dickson put two and two together and came up With 10: how about the mother and father of all motoring contests running from the previous World Cup venue to the next London to Mexico City in 1970? Next question: what kind of organisation was big enough and silly enough to risk putting its financial muscle behind such a hare-brained scheme?

Why, the Daily Mirror of course. In those days, it stood like a colossus in its purpose-built Holborn Circus HQ, and its five million-odd daily circulation was the world's largest. Dickson made his pitch, saw his idea deftly appropriated, and found himself confined to the shadows.

As the complex, highly-politicised worlds of motor sport and the media converged the resulting ego clashes were analogous to the Large Hadron Collider. My good fortune was to be a Mirror foot soldier in the thick of all this, charged with maintaining rally news flow to the 22 countries from which the 106 entrants arrived.

This involved crucial journalist skills such as smoking, drinking and keeping very unsocial hours - long before Blackberries, wi-fl laptops, e-mail or digital photography existed. For I was captive between the varying time zones competitors were in from day to day and the deadlines of British and foreign media as far afield as Argentina, Australia and Thailand all anxious for stories.

Appropriately, the start was scheduled for Wembley Stadium where Bobby Moore was to dig up a sod of hallowed turf for re-planting in the Aztec Stadium. Raymond Baxter the voice of BBC's Tomorrow's World (not to mention motor racing) was signed to give the startline commentary. Then some bright spark decided the event had to be more family-friendly, and hired Ginger Baker's Air Force jazz-rock band at huge expense to play a 20-minute gig at the halfway mark. Nothing was too good for our readers.

There was further consternation when Ginger and the boys over-ran, oblivious to frantic signals to cease. They were just getting into their stride when power to their amplifiers and huge speakers was cut.

Writing Where they are - day by day for the official programme (left price 4/or 20p) was pretty exhausting, I quipped to colleagues. So doing the real thing was bound to be a touch arduous. With exquisite understatement, IPC Newspapers chief Edward Pickering remarked: "I understand that the tougher a rally is, the more it pleases competitors. Even as a non-expert it seems clear to me that the Daily Mirror World Cup Rally is going to make a lot of competitors extremely happy."

The 'warm-up', the brisk week-long 4500-mile tour of (what is now) 15 European countries, was an hour ahead of London. Once in South America, the remaining 11,500-mile route was three to seven hours behind us, which mostly entailed waiting late into the night for any snippets that could be cobbled into stories and telexed to grateful distant recipients. So I lived just around the corner in the Waldorf Hotel for a month, and sustained my stamina by refuelling regularly at the Stab-in-the-Back, where there was a reliable telephone.

Shipping the cars from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro took a couple of weeks, and just to keep things on the boil the Mirror hosted a major black-tie thrash for 200 thirsty automotive luminaries at London's Savoy Hotel. I don't know where they found the money, but we sure knew how to spend it.

Ironically, given what it was spending, the Mirror missed out on one benefit. Fleet Street rivals had essayed spoilers by sponsoring likely front-runners. The Evening Standard and Woman each backed contenders for the ladies' prize, a baffle that the Standard's Rosemary Smith, Alice Watson and Gineffe Derolland won. The Daily Express and Sunday Express rode with a factory Ford Escort apiece, the Express scooping third place with Rauno Aaltonen and Henry Liddon. The Telegraph Magazine drew the best cards, however, winning with the Escort driven by Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm.

The Mirror's overall rally budget was supposedly £250,000, but the smoke and mirrors department eventually had to find £1 million plus, a vast amount of money in those days. Inevitably, the post-mortem found it was a jolly good jape that underscored the Mirror's prestige with established readers and advertisers. But it could scarcely have built new circulation or revenues in Latin America or mainland Europe, and it was maybe the last of Fleet Street's serious such extravagances.