When Simo Lampinen caught polio as a child, his doctor said he would die. John Davenport recounts how he defied medical opinion and recovered to become one of the rally greats.
There is a Finnish word that sums up in four letters an attitude to life that could take a slim volume to express in English. That word is ‘sisu’. The dictionary gives it as ‘determination, stoicism’, but to a Finn it means much more than that.
Take for example Simo Lampinen. The year is 1957 and this son of a ski manufacturer based in Porvoo, half-way between Helsinki and the Russian border, is already competing in the regional ski jumping championship. Ills 14th birthday is only a few months away and his father, a racing motorcyclist who has been as far afield as the Isle of Man with a Manx Norton, has promised Simo his first motor bike, a Triumph Cub 200. It is early spring and as he washes the family car in the yard, he notices that his hands are starting to lose their leding. At first this is ascribed to the cold, but when the paralysis spreads, the family gets alarmed and calls the doctor. Within hours, he is in hospital. The diagnosis is polio, more commonly known as infantile paralysis.
He is not alone in the ward, as several of his friends from school are also there. As night falls, it becomes harder to breathe but they are not going to have a iron lung available for another two clays. The senior physician does his midnight round, looks at the young man and whispers to the nurse, “What a shame. This one will not see the morning.” What he probably did not realise was that no finer stimulus could have been administered to the sickly youth. The sisu effect cut in.
There was no way that Simo was going to miss getting that motor bike. He set to concentrating on staying awake and using every bit of energy in his body to maintain his breathing. In the morning, it was hard to say who was most surprised, the doctor or the patient. From that moment Simo’s recovery began; though there were several others in the hospital who had not been so lucky.
Once the paralysis had been conquered and he was freed from the necessity to use artificial breathing aids, there was the problem of wasted muscles and withered tendons to address. Simo underwent several operations on his legs and ankles over a period of years, in Finland and Sweden, and a lengthy regime of treatment in Nottingham with the aim of restoring his mobility. Before that, when he had been recuperating at home, his father had struggled upstairs with the Triumph Cub and started it up so that Simo could rev the engine himself. It was pretty clear that he would not ski again, or ride a motor bike in competition as he had hoped. But other plans began to form.
The final phase of his recovery involved two year’s therapy in a clinic outside Helsinki some 50km from home. To start with, he was driven there but then his father applied for special dispensation for him to be issued with a restricted driving licence so that he could drive himself. Simo’s father had a MkVII Jaguar and he had just bought a 3.4 Mid for Simo’s mother. It was promptly handed over to the 16-year-old. His legs were in iron braces and by normal standards he was disabled, but he was determined to manage. He was arrested once when, after parking the car in Helsinki and walking away to his therapy, a policeman noted his rolling gait. “The guy thought I must have been drinking too much. He breathalysed me and it was a little while before they would believe me,” recalls Simo.
On his 18th birthday in June 1961, Simo got his full driving licence and one week after that, he entered his first rally. Some weeks before, a Saab 96 had replaced the Jaguar. There had actually been a choice. “We had the brochures on the sporty versions of the Wartburg and the Ford Anglia, but when Carl-Otto Bremer (winner of the 1000 Lakes Rally in 1960 in a Saab) called to say that a Saab 96 was available, that’s what we went for. Very few were imported and we only got this one because a chap went broke. We went down to the harbour with the cash and got the car.”
On the rally, he finished seventh overall and best Junior driver. It should not have been so much of a surprise to those people who knew him, because his determination to win was every bit as great as had been his determination to survive that night in the hospital ward. He had also had some help. Rauno Aaltonen’s father was his godfather and to Simo, Rauno was simply God.
Aaltonen was just a few years older than Simo but was doing everything, including rallying, racing, powerboats and enduro motor cycles. He also knew all about left-foot braking, which was a Finnish invention developed by the likes of himself and Timo Mäkinen, and he was only too pleased to pass details of the technique on to young Simo. It was particularly handy with the two-stroke Saab, which had a free-wheel device, enabling gear changes to be made in both directions without depressing the clutch. Thus Simo’s steel-shod left leg could stay hovering over the brake pedal and not be required to move around too much.
His second rally was scheduled to be the 1961 1000 Lakes, but before that, he took the Saab and a couple of friends on a holiday across Lapland to Tromso in Norway. “We were driving back when I looked down for some papers on the floor and, when I looked up, we were crashing into a tree. It took a week to limp back to Finland with the car and then it turned out they couldn’t fix it in time for the 1000 Lakes. So, in two weeks, we prepared the Jaguar.” Thus on his second ever competitive event, deprived of all the advantages of the Saab and in Mum’s Jaguar, Simo set out on one of Europe’s most demanding events.
He and Esko Vainio finished 44th overall and 8th in class, while 20 places ahead of them was Timo Mäkinen in a Mini and 24 places ahead of limo was Rauno Aaltonen in a Mercedes. This was the Jaguar’s first and last outing and, with the Saab repaired, Simo was ready to rally on a regular basis. He paired up with Jyrki Ahava for the 1962 season and on the 1000 Lakes they finished fourth overall.
During this year, Simo learnt quite a bit from Jyrki, who was no mean driver himself: On one small rally, they swapped roles fora stage. Jyrki hooked two wheels of the car into the inside ditch of the last bend and when they exited the corner, it was to find an equally surprised timekeeper sitting at his table in the ditch. The Saab collected the table and knocked the poor fellow flying. Jyrki stopped to have the time recorded. “Goodness,” said a marshal, “I think he’s broken his aim.” “Yes, but did he stop the watch?” asked the imperturbable Ahava.
The following year, nothing could hold Simo back. He won most of the national rallies to become Finnish Rally Champion and he won the 1000 Lakes outright. Victory on the event came courtesy of a clever bit of pre-rally planning.
In the 1960s, reconnaissance of special stages on Finnish rallies was forbidden, but many of the roads were used year after year and the drivers got to know them. Where this was not the case there was often room for a little private enterprise. On one stage of the 1963 1000 Lakes Rally, Simo and Jyrki thought there might be a short cut. “It was where you came into a farm, with the house on one side of the road, a barn on the other and a nice lawn and a children’s swing in front of it,” recalls Lam pinen. “We tried when no one was about to see if you could drive straight and go behind the swing across the lawn. It looked good so we got out and combed back the grass so they could not see our wheel tracks. On the rally, we came in full speed and went next to the barn behind the swing. It worked fine except that the people sitting on the swing and the front step of the barn got the shock of their lives!”
The 1964 event was quite a tough struggle for the first night. The Mini Coopers and Cortina GTs were bringing new speed to European rallies and the 850cc Saab was beginning to feel the strain. Timo Mäkinen now doing the rally for the fifth time in a Mini, and the first time in a Cooper S, was putting on the pressure, setting fastest time on the first stage in Jyväskylä city centre. But as the rally went into the night and down towards Tampere, Simo responded with six straight fastest times, to lead by over two minutes.
“We did this fantastic stage on the other side of the Murole canal,” he recalls, “and at the finish, there must have been 500-600 people. The brakes were all red on the Saab and I shut the engine off to let everything cool down. Someone said, Now he’s going to hear how much slower he has been than the Minis.’ That chap got a bit of a shock when they announced that we were faster by 17 seconds. I remember the crowd all cheered. That was one of my best moments in rallying.”
By now, Simo had come to the notice of a wider audience. He had done the Acropolis Rally that year but the long descents and tarmac roads were too much for a left-foot braked Saab and he had to retire. The RAC Rally in 1964 was my first ride with Simo and we were in the top three before having an extremely comprehensive accident on the Eppynt Ranges. In 1965, he was signed by Triumph and did a spate of events in Spitfires including Le Mans where, paired with jean-Jacques Thuner, they won their class. He then did a couple of events in a Triumph 2000, including another RAC with me, where we were in contention for the lead only to blow a head gasket in Scotland.
Triumph stopped rallying at the end of 1965 and Simo reverted to Saabs. In fact he never given them up totally, as he and Jyrki had finished fourth on the 1000 Lakes. With Klaus Sohlberg, he had his last outing with a two-stroke on the 1966 event, where he finished fifth and it was with Klaus that he won the 1967 Finnish Rally Championship in the new Saab 96 V4, which included a second place on the 1000 Lakes, a result they were to repeat for the next two years.
He and I did a third RAC Rally together in 1968, when I am pleased to say that we won it. Simo nearly went on to win the London-Sydney Marathon a few weeks later, where he shared a works Ford Taunus 20M with the late Gilbert Staepelaere. They were leading, almost within sight of Sydney, when a gatepost leapt out and removed a front wheel.
For 1970, Simo signed with Lancia and I went with him. For two years, we hammered Fulvias on all the classic rallies but with only one major win – the Portuguese Rally of 1970. During this period, we did the Safari Rally twice for Lancia and Simo learned some of the skills needed on long distance rallies. For my money, one of his best wins came in 1972 when he won the Moroccan Rally in a Fulvia with Solve Andreasson. In those days that rally was amazing, with stages of several hundred kilometres, day and night, over desert, along river beds and generally through what might be called uncompromising countryside. It was that same year that he won his third 1000 Lakes with a Saab 96 V4. A bigger contrast in events one could not hope to find.
Simo went on to drive more Lancias and Saabs before doing his last full year as works driver with Fiat, for whom he drove an Abardi 131 in 1977. After that, his father had a stroke, which forced Simo to take more interest in the family business. For this article, I asked him which was his last rally. “Don’t you remember?” he asked. “It was for you in a Triumph TR8 on the RAC Rally in 1979. You paid me so badly, I decided to give up.”
Towards the end of the 1980s, Simo was invited to understudy the Clerk of the Course for the 1000 Lakes Rally, Veilkko Partanen. He did the job for five years, during which he learnt about the dynamics of running a World Championship event. Thus when he was called to take on the principal role, he already knew both sides of the fence. On the modern Rally of Finland, no one gets to go between the barn and the swing…
Parkes, Stratos man
When asked about his favourite rally car, Simo actually picks one that he never drove in competition, the 24-valve Lancia Stratos. He did a couple of rallies in the 12-valve version, breaking down on the Safari and finishing 4th in Sweden, but he did once get to drive the more powerful version. “It was on a San Remo when I was driving Mike Parkes around. I am sure I impressed Mike, but he had a go and impressed me even more… We came down a pass from Molini di Triora into some road-works that closed off half the road. Except it wasn’t closed off after Mike went through the barrier, hit the side of the mountain and came back onto the tarmac just before a tunnel!”