The worst car I ever drove - Axle tramp

When the steering wheel came off, it still steered from the rear…John Davenport hears about a saloon with an attitude problem.

Ove Andersson is now best known as the President of Team Toyota Europe and the mastermind behind Toyota’s six World Rally Championship titles – two manufacturer’s and four driver’s – and this year’s brilliant Le Mans GT debut with the Toyota GT-One. Before that, he had a distinguished rally career with Saab, Lancia, Ford, Alpine-Renault and Peugeot, winning the Monte Carlo, Safari, Acropolis, San Remo and other major rallies.

During his very successful time with Alpine-Renault, he had several outings in Renault 12 Gordinis that at least added anecdotal colour to his CV even if they didn’t swell his trophy cabinet.

“The first time I drove a Renault 12 Gordini was in South Africa. The local Renault importer had a competition department run by a nice chap called Scamp Porter. They invited Pat Moss and I down to join Scamp and Heini Dahms in a four-car team for the Total Rally in 1971. Scamp lots of experience in South African rallies and thus these little can were set up quite well fbr the conditions.”

The rally turned out to be an eye-opener and a lot tougher than most had expected. It was nominally a special-stage event, where one would expect to drive flat-out on closed roads. In fact, the stages were navigational nightmares using all kinds of roads and paths in the South African forests. It was more a matter of keeping on the correct route than sheer speed. Ove recalls that, “We met cars coming the other way or saw them crossing our path. As a driver used to European rallies, it was a unique experience. We soon dispensed with crash helmets on the stages as we were spending more time looking for roads than driving quickly. By contrast, the open roads were almost impossible to do on time since time lost in the stages had to be made up afterwards. At one point, to get into the main control on time, we had to average over 100mph.”

The rally leader was Chris Swanepoel in a Toyota Corona with the Renaults of Andersson, Moss and Porter in line astern behind him. When the Toyota lost 12 minutes changing suspension going away from the re-start, all three passed him. But then, on the forest stages of Swaziland, the Gordinis started to show their darker side. Andersson had a puncture, Pat Moss had the wiring catch fire and retired, while Porter rolled his into a ditch. And then Andersson’s car started to play up again.

“We knew something was wrong with the rear end and thought it was another rear wheel puncture. But it was the whole axle that was loose! We carried on at reduced speed but then a stub axle broke. The car would still move on three wheels, but the drag was so great that the engine boiled going up a hill and we had to stop.”

Ove Andersson’s next acquaintance with a Renault 12 Gordini came when Alpine-Renault entered two on the 1972 Swedish Rally for him and Jean-Luc Therier. The recce did not start well when Therier left the recce car for them in Karlstad… but not its keys. These had to be sent back by train from the northern town of Torsby. Ove recalls that, “These Gordinis had been used for circuit racing in France and were quite quick and nice to drive on tarmac. But the rear suspension was not right. There was a central ‘A’ link on the axle and two longer outer links that were inclined quite steeply upward. On a rutted sulface in a corner, this meant that the rear end steered you further into it.

“On the Swedish Rally, the icy stages get made into ruts by the studded tyres of the rally cars and any car that cannot handle them is unpleasant to drive. With the rear end trying to do the steering for you, life was bound to be something of a trial. We actually rolled the recce car trying it out on a practice stage. I always remember that place as we had a ‘soptunna’ in our pace notes. ‘That’s Swedish for ‘rubbish bin’ and it’s where 1 would like to have put that car after trying to drive it quickly.”

It was a big disappointment for Andersson on his home event, especially after his outright wins on so many major rallies the previous year. On the rally, he grinned and bore it, being ultra-careful not to get the car out of line over any ruts, especially in last corners, and even then did more than his usual share of demolishing snow banks with the rear end.

“I think the spectators may have enjoyed it but it was not nice for me, sitting behind the wheel and wondering when the accident was going to happen. And I couldn’t help thinking that it was that rear end that had broken in Africa.”

Somehow Ove Andersson kept the little blue streak on the road, and by the end of the rally was getting almost confident with it. On the last but one forest stage, he set fifth-fastest time only to have two massive spins on the following stage and a front wheel puncture. His finishing position was 15th.

“It was,” says Andersson, “harder work driving the Gordini to 15th on the Swedish than winning the Monte Carlo with the Renault Alpine A110.”

Ove did a couple more South African events with their Renault 12 Gordini, but no greater success came his way. On the BNU Rally, he and co-driver Arne Hertz heard a rattling that seemed to be coming from somewhere in front. “For ages we couldn’t work out what it was. Then I turned the steering wheel to go into a corner and it just kept turning. Of the four bolts that held it to the column, three had dropped out. We went off the road a bit. The biggest problem was to get Arne to stop laughing, he thought it was so funny.”

They continued, but then the exhaust fell off and the hot gases melted the wiring harness which promptly incinerated itself. With a jury rig to run the essentials, they pressed on towards Lourenco Marques and the finish. But then a drive shall broke and they got stuck. Even that was fixed and they did get to the finish, only to discover that they were just one minute over maximum lateness and were thus excluded. On that unsatisfactory note ended Ove Andersson’s relationship with the Renault 12. The factory did persist with le douze for a while. They sent Jean-Pierre Nicolas – now Andersson ‘s opposite number at Peugeot – back to the Swedish Rally in 1973 where he finished 14th, just one plate ahead of Ove Andersson the previous year…