Historic rallying is serious stuff. But mixed in with all that will to win is a lot of fun and camaraderie
Down the years, rallying at its highest level has changed almost as much as top-line motor racing. For sheer spectacle there is little to touch a works rally car flat out on a gravelstrewn forest lane, and world rallying is now excellently covered on TV. But its audiences have never approached those for Formula One, even when the rallies are close-fought and the grands prix are not. As manufacturers tot up the costs versus the promotional benefits of a major rally programme, works teams are dwindling. Like Formula One, top-flight rallying is beset by problems.
By contrast, and just like historic racing, historic rallying is thriving. Enjoyment and camaraderie come first, yet the driving and navigation are demanding and serious, some of the events are pretty tough on cars and crew, and the will to win runs high. Britain’s traditional championship round, the old RAC Rally, changed for ever when its organiser Jack Kemsley took it into the forests in 1961. Before then it consisted of a route around the UK punctuated by tests — ranging from a trip up a hillclimb course to squealing around pylons at a seaside resort. The Rally of the Tests recreates those RACs of the 1950s, starting at the Imperial Hotel, Torquay (where the RAC’s forerunner concluded in 1932) and finishing in Chester, another town with strong RAC associations. The route is put together for the Classic Rally Association by Fred Bent, clerk of the course for the old Morecambe Illuminations Rally, and he knows all the tricks. Cars have to be pre-1968, but the outright winner has to be pre-’63. Only period modifications are allowed, there are no service cars and even mobile phones are forbidden. No crash helmets are
worn, and roll cages are optional. To promote the period atmosphere the dress code is “Britain in the 1950s”, so rather than racing overalls there are worsted jackets, woolly sweaters, ties and scarves. The rules list suitable headgear as bobble hats, cloth caps, deerstalkers or tam o’shanters: there are penalties for anyone wearing baseball caps. But this does not mean that the Rally of the Tests is just a jolly. There are three days of demanding tests against the clock, and the road sections are challenging, too: during the Friday night on rural lanes across Exmoor and North Somerset, there
were some 18 controls within two hours, and all had to be hit on time. And there are some serious competitors: rallying names of the past like Irishman Robin Eyre-Maunsell and ace navigators Willie Cave and Nigel Raeburn, plus former circuit racers like Geoff Breakell, who 35 years ago campaigned Brabhams and Alfas, but now likes to storm round the pylons in his Jaguar 3.8. Richard Sandilands raced a notoriously quick Standard 10 in the 1960s and remains faithful to the marque today, rallying a very original 10 with his son Jon. When long-time McLaren team manager Alistair Caldwell finally
turned his back on Formula One he got seriously stuck in to classic rallying. His eclectic stable includes Ferrari 330GT, Mercedes 280SL and Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, and he’s rallied them all, but his favourite car is his AC Aceca with full-house Zephyr engine, which he says “eats Healeys for breakfast”. He has done three Carrera Panamericanas, as well as events as far afield as Marrakech and Moscow, but closer to home he still finds the Rally of the Tests “really intense”. His cool-headed navigator Catriona Rings, her head down over the ‘pod’ map magnifier, relishes the relentless brainwork, and for Alistair historic rallying is the ideal sport, involving teamwork, extreme mental effort — and sometimes scaring yourself as well.
There’s a splendid esprit de corps among the crews. At the Saturday lunch stop in a little café on the edge of Kemble Airfield, everybody was swapping hairy stories of their adventures so far. Several cars were already battered from fleeting arguments with banks and ditches. Lunch consisted universally of bacon, egg and chips, and in the steamy atmosphere I was transported to another era as I clutched my mug of tea. At the Goodwood Revival, the period clothing is mostly clean, pressed and rather too new-looking. Here, tired, cheerful faces topped crumpled tweeds, eggy sweaters and oily twills. This didn’t feel like a fihnset: it really did feel like 1958.
Later, as I watched perilously close to the pylons at the Long Marston test, the straining front-left wheel of the Sunbeam Rapier of Michael and Richard Moss finally tore out its centre and bounded off across the fields. As the Rapier lurched to a three-wheeled halt in a shower of sparks, the loudest noise was peals of laughter from the crew, for whom it was all part of the fun. Marshals lifted the stricken car onto a jack, the Mosses hastily unbolted the remains of the old wheel and shoved on the spare, and they were off again to finish the test.
An event like this isn’t cheap, but £1300 or so for three days, including all hotels and meals and 850 miles of fun and excitement, doesn’t sound so much when you think of the organisation involved. As for your car, it needn’t be expensive: an elderly Volvo 122 or Rover P4 can be put into rally-worthy state for very little money, and you can still use it to take the kids to school during the week. I’ve always had an odd hankering for a bog-standard battleship grey Austin A35. Perhaps I’ve now found an excuse to buy one. lZ1