All roads lead to roam

Time spent as a long-distance rally organiser breeds a rich seam of anecdotes. Meet Jim Gavin...

It’s hard to finish a conversation with Jim Gavin. Not because he won’t stop talking but because you hear yourself saying ‘hang on, you didn’t finish the story about the elephants…’

A big, bluff Irishman with breezy white hair and a ready laugh, Jim planned and ran some of the great endurance rallies. After entering the 1968 London to Mexico, he helped organise and run the two World Cup rallies, London-Mexico and London-Sahara-Munich, and then the longest rally ever – the 20,000-mile 1977 London-Sydney.

Crews faced a host of obstacles on these expeditions. But who booked the ferries? Squared the border guards? Sprinted ahead to man controls for the first car, and waited for the last? For many of those headline events it was Jim Gavin – and his adventures on the recce runs often outdid the real event.

There was the time in Peru when they’d booked a DC3 to fly them out of La Paz, only the drunk pilot, wearing a Colt 45 in his belt, hit the hangar before take-off. “Luckily I’d already met the President – we’d had afternoon tea. Well, afternoon gin, actually, and he kept asking about Princess Anne. I realised he wanted to meet Prince Michael of Kent who was in the rally, so I fixed that and in return got the border opened for us.”

But the DC3, Jim?

“Yes, yes. I called the palace and they sent another plane, a little Cessna. La Paz is the highest airport in the world – we didn’t so much take off as just run out of runway and suddenly there’s a condor looking in the window – but to land we had to overfly the strip to shoo the llamas off.

“So we get to Potosi and in this tiny inn they show me to the President’s Suite. I asked how many rooms they had. ‘Just the suite.’ Still, while I waited for the first car there was somewhere to go. A potato museum…

“I got a bad tummy when the cars were due, and there was an outside lavatory with a big gap under the door. I ran most of that control from the lavatory, shouting ‘Shove your timecard under the door and I’ll stamp it’.”

It can be hard to keep track of where Jim’s stories are going next. One minute we’re in Columbia on a recce with Jack Sears, then in the Pacific port of Buenaventura in Columbia. Cajoling and bribery are a vital part of running one of these events. “They built a huge hotel hoping the railway would come – but it didn’t. So this hotel only had about four guests, military-looking old men who spoke German…” After moving seamlessly on to the new sport of classic rallying, Gavin worked on the 1997 Peking-Paris trek. “I did the Peking to Iran section because I knew it well – I’d been through in ’68 and then again in 1970, the time Tony Ambrose and I were thrown in jail, so – ”

Hang on. Jail?

“We’d had a bit of an accident after crossing into Iran up near the Russian border. It was when the Shah was having his spot of bother; they were suspicious of cameras and notebooks so we were arrested. A bit alarming as no one spoke English and my Farsi is rusty. They finally allowed Tony to drive to Teheran to the Consulate but they kept me. They were embarrassed by the state of the cell so I served my sentence in the office while we all drank tea. Naturally me and the head policeman try talking. No good, so he gets out a tin whistle and we sing some Iranian songs, and he asks me to teach him an English song. So out in the lonely village of Khoy there’s an Iranian policeman singing the Eton Boating Song…”

Jim breaks off for a sip of wine “Stop me if I’m boring you,” and without a pause continues. “Did I mention the lemonade? These police saw a bottle of whisky in my case. ‘What is this?’ ‘Lemonade’. When I was released it was hinted that a gift would be appropriate. ‘Like what?’ ‘Like the Johnnie Walker lemonade’.”

Another sip of wine, and we shift to the Sahara where he and famous co-driver Henry Liddon are driving an ex-works Escort on the recce for London-Sahara-Munich.

“We fell in with three London solicitors in a Land Rover. One of them had brought a folding lavatory seat. ‘An Englishman does not squat,’ he said.

“So we travel with them for a few days and we meet a truck broken down. While I’m under the bonnet trying to fix it the truck driver approaches Henry shyly asking if he had any medicine. What sort? It transpires he has an itchy behind. Now Henry had a wicked sense of humour, so he points to me and says ‘he’s an eminent British specialist in that department. He’ll sort you out.’ I’m balancing on the bumper and I look up to see this guy undoing his trousers. I straighten up, bang my head on the bonnet and step back into the ashes of our fire – barefoot. As I’m hopping around eyes full of tears I collide with him and he falls on top of me. Of course I don’t know about the doctor story – all I know is a guy with his trousers down is lying on top of me, I’m hollering and the three solicitors are helpless… I gave the guy some Savlon.”

Under this cascade of tales I’m looking at Jim’s CV: competitor, engine builder, Ford co-driver, racer, book writer, Moskvitch rally entrant, and those arduous, lengthy recces – 17,000 miles through Africa, trips to Bombay, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Madras for the Sydney rally that didn’t happen…

“That was when I broke into the Taj Mahal. Tony Ambrose and I had crossed the Khyber Pass and got to Delhi, after being hauled out of a river by elephants when our boat grounded – tell you about that in a minute – and Tony said ‘We’re done here, I’m going to fly home, so why don’t you take the car the 2000 miles to Bombay?’ Well, I was young…

“So on the way I divert to Agra to see the Taj, and they tell me it’s best at dawn. It’s also closed, so I get up at 5am, park by the 10ft wall, climb on the roofrack and slide over the wall.”

I am still in a Sussex pub, but Jim is transported to Agra. “I sat by the pool as the pale yellow light washed over the minarets… Of course now I can’t get out. I waited by the huge wooden door until it opened and a man said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I replied, ‘You bloody well locked me in last night!’ and sprinted for the car.”

If it wasn’t for the mowers I might have space for the story about rescuing Moss from the Sahara, but I’d better get round to lawnmower racing, Jim’s other lasting contribution to motor sport, invented 40 years ago as a protest against commercialisation.

“Cheapest racing you can get,” he beams. “I just stuck up a notice – anyone interested? – and 50 people turned up. From a barmy idea it has spread around Britain, Scandinavia, Germany and the US. There’s an annual 12-hour marathon too, and one year Stirling Moss and Derek Bell took part.”

Though in his 70s, Jim still plans events: classic car tours of Europe and the US involving fine hotels, leisurely lunches and fundraising instead of wild terrain – more a club than a business.

“You’re a good prompter, Gordon,” chuckles Jim as we part. Funny, I barely remember saying a word. And I still didn’t hear about the elephants.

Gordon Cruickshank