Rally Review, February 1969

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Whatever else the London-Sydney Marathon may, or may not, have done, its result has certainly given the Rootes Competitions Department a shot in the arm; and no one will say that it didn’t need it. There has always been a competitive atmosphere within the Rootes Group of companies, going back to the beginning of the century if you consider separately the component companies of the Group. But in more recent times the Group’s rallying antecedents only began when Norman Garrad built up the competitions department into a successful entity based at the former Humber works in Coventry.

But, even more recently, when rallying became faster and faster, the potentialities of the Rapiers (and before them the Sunbeam Talbots) waned. Power/weight ratio became increasingly important and car strength and crew tenacity dropped just a little down the scale, particularly in such road events as the French Alpine Rally and the Tour de Corse.

Although Imps were rallied with great verve, often achieving success against far more potent machinery, there was no model being manufactured by the Group which could really stand up to Porsches and Alpine-Renaults in a straight fight. So the competition activities of the Group lessened.

Then the Marathon was announced and at once it was realised by Des O’Dell, chief engineer and brain behind much of Rootes’ rallying activities (he used to be mechanic for Aston Martin), that here was an event in which sheer power would not be the sole deciding factor.

Since entrants to the Marathon were given carte blanche insofar as car preparation was concerned (except that cars should have four wheels, only two of them driven), an extensive test programme was put in hand, the chosen model being the Hunter. There are those who have mildly snubbed the Hunter’s success, saying that it was a very special motor car quite unlike any in the showrooms. That may be so to a certain extent, but the Marathon was a very special event which no standard car would have survived if driven to win. Furthermore, the Hunter’s modifications were not nearly as extensive as those of some of its rivals.

Whilst Andrew Cowan and Brian Coyle, the two Scots who have been rallying Rootes cars for many years, were away on route-finding and pace-note-making expeditions, a Hunter was being hammered around an Army testing ground in the South of England. It was on this “London-Sydney Prototype” that various modifications and additions were tried before they were approved for fitting to the car which was actually used in the event. The body was strengthened, a complete full-circle roll cage installed, a stouter rear axle fitted, a 37-gallon fuel tank, divided into three compartments, was mounted in the boot and four spare wheels were bolted directly to the strengthened roof.

Naturally, there were many more modifications, but if I were to list them all I would run far beyond my permitted space. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the raw material with which the competitions’ mechanics worked, i.e., the standard Hunter, was eminently suitable in the first instance and many parts which are changed for rallying by other manufacturers were used straight off the line.

The engine, for instance, was a standard Holbay unit taken from one of the latest Rapiers. Naturally, it was stripped, weighed, balanced and polished, but the only real change was to modify the cylinder head so that the compression ratio was reduced from 9.8-to-1 to 9-to-1. This was done in order that the unit could better deal with the rather dubious petrol grades available along much of the route to Bombay.

When all this was done, of course, the car was heavier. In fact, a, 17 cwt. car had been built up into one which tipped the scales at 32 cwt. As one mechanic remarked, it seemed that they had “built a tortoise”. Lightening was not possible since aluminium had already been used as much as possible, perspex windows fitted and items such as dual braking systems ruled out because of the weight of an extra servo. It was during this period of preparation that the seeds of victory were sown and credit must be given to O’Dell and his team of mechanics who so ably built the car and looked after it en route—although it transpired that it didn’t need much attention at all.

Whilst the Rootes preparation was going, on, other manufacturers were engaged in similar activities, but they really had a head start on the Coventry people. Ford, for instance, had long experience of rallying Cortinas; B.M.C. were well versed in preparing their 1800s and the same applied to Citroën, Porsche and most of the others. Routes had never really had serious thoughts about rallying a Hunter and so had to start from scratch with their test programme. Fortunately for them, the car was basically a sturdy one and they were able to complete the entire operation in six months, probably spending far less on the project than other manufacturers.

Now that it is all over, what can he said of it in retrospect? Firstly it was not nearly as difficult as crews returning from reconnaissance trips had made out. The run from London to Bombay, for instance, was no more than a tedious drive with two “bits” of rallying thrown in—the first from Sivas to Erzincan in Turkey and the Second over Afghanistan’s Lataban Pass. These two sections were timed at 2 hr. 45 min. and 1 hr. respectively, whereas allowances varying between 12 hr. and 24 hr. were given for the other nine sections.

Unexpectedly, then, the number of competitors who reached Bombay within the time allowance exceeded by two the maximum number of 70 which could make the sea voyage to Fremantle. However, the organisers relented, the SS Chusan loosened her belt and two extra cars were taken into the hold.

Australia proved to be much tougher, although once again not as difficult as expected for the seasonal road grading had taken place in many parts of the continent and competitors found that loose roads which they expected to be rough turned out to be quite smooth.

Perhaps I should explain that when referring to degrees of severity I am really using the values of factory drivers. To amateur drivers, both experienced and otherwise, the going was difficult and many of them collected enormous penalties by losing time and/or missing controls. Six hours permitted lateness was allowed at controls up to Teheran, 12 hours from there to Bombay and in Australia the penalty for missing two controls in any one of three groups was exclusion.

Whilst Rootes had entered only one car, and had prepared another for an R.A.F. team, Ford had entered four twin-cam Cortinas. One of these, crewed by Roger Clark and Ove Andersson, was leading at Bombay and there was every likelihood that this pair of experienced rally drivers would maintain their lead to the end. But various troubles overtook the team and it seemed that perhaps the engines of the cars had been overtuned so that they could not cope properly with low grade petrol. Spare parts availability was not particularly good either, and a cylinder head had to be removed from one of the Cortinas in order that another could be kept going.

B.M.C. had little trouble with the engines of their 1800s, but some of them had suspension trouble after a particularly rough piece of road on the way to Bombay.

Of course, the big hard luck story of the Marathon concerns the Citroën driven by Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier. On the last section, and an easy one at that, the car collided with an oncoming non-competing car and a certain victory slipped out of French hands. It has been said that the New South Wales Police contributed to this accident by concentrating their efforts on harrowing competitors rather than controlling the “cowboys” and helping the field on its way.

Certain second place (which would have been an outright win, of course, after the Citroën crash) was lost to Simo Lampinea and Gilbert Staepelaere when their Ford Taunus 20MRS leaped off the road, again towards the end of the rally. But these ifs and buts are as much a part of rallying as undershields and to speculate on what would, or could, have happened is quite useless. I have every sympathy for the unfortunate Bianchi (who was asleep at the time) but the fact remains that the Hunter of Andrew Cowan, Brian Coyle and Colin Malkin won—and did so magnificently at that. Rallying demands a car which is both strong and fast and a crew which is skilful. Success only comes to a team which has all three.

The Marathon has certainly been an expensive exercise, more so for competitors, perhaps, than for promoters. Factory teams spent enormous sums of money sending their teams on reconnaissance trips, sending consignments of spare parts, tyres and petrol all over the world, hedge-hopping their mechanics by air and, by no means least, preparing their cars. Whether budgets have been overstepped to excess will manifest itself during the coming year by the extent to which the various teams will participate in more conventional rallies.

It has been said that the Marathon will again be held in 1972, and thereafter during each Olympic year. Whether manufacturers will again support the event remains to be seen. But a question which is more important is whether the same number of private entrants will support it, for after all these are the stalwarts who make any rally possible. Without them, no organiser would be able to stage an event with an entry list composed solely of factory cars—there just aren’t enough of them. The majority of private entrants were this year financed by sponsors varying from wealthy commercial undertakings to groups of small firms, each group “buying” an interest in a particular car. Whether they will give similar financial support in 1972 will depend a great deal on whether they consider that they have had a return for their money—measured in publicity—this year.

One of the features of the Marathon was the rivalry which existed between Australian competitors and those from Europe. Neither group knew much about the ability of drivers in the other, but there was this underlying doubt that the predictions of Australian supremacy on their own ground would be at all true. But during the rally the rivalry went beyond the bounds of sportsmanship and there were cases of blatant baulking on narrow roads—the ultimate sin as far as European rallyists are concerned. One front-to-rear collision, as it was reported by most publications, was merely a case of “leaning” by a desperately frustrated driver who had been held back for miles by a slower man in front who simply would not pull over.

Various superlatives have been applied to the Marathon. I don’t feel inclined to use them myself since the event was unprecedented. But ask any seasoned rally driver and he will tell you that it was just a stretched rally with bags of glamour and a bit of seasoning thrown in. Certainly it was something which competitors will want to tell their grandchildren about. The thing is, by the time they are old enough will they want to listen?—G. P.