Marathon Man

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Andrew Cowan was the greatest long distance rally driver of them all and now runs the best team in rallying. Jeremy Hart met him on the safari to recall his 30 year career at the wheel

Like an expectant father pacing up and down the maternity ward, Andrew Cowan’s face bore the agony and suppressed thrill of imminent joy. ‘Marathon Man’, Britain’s most successful long distance rally driver, was at last about to win the Safari Rally at least by proxy.

Two and half dusty African kilometres stood between Cowan’s protégé Richard Burns and the fresh-faced Englishman’s first world championship rally win. Cowan’s insides churned like Sunday lunch in a launderette.

“Easy, take it easy…” the Mitsubishi boss muttered to himself as Burns tiptoed his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV round the final stage on the infield of Nairobi’s racecourse. “Get it home.”

Twenty two years earlier, Cowan tasted victory in Kenya too, only to sink his Mitsubishi Lancer into a mud hole deep enough to swallow a hippo on the final leg. It’s a galling moment in an illustrious career that still turns Cowan cold.

“I would have won in 1976,” Cowan laments today. “I was leading on the third leg by 20 minutes from the other two Colt Lancers of Joginder (Singh) and Robin Ulyate. “There was a mud hole, a hundred yards of mud which wasn’t there when we did the recce. It was a lottery which way was going to be the best way through. I went right and the car went in to the axles. I could only sit and watch the others drive straight through. It broke my heart.”

In five decades of rallying, Cowan has competed on every continent bar Antarctica. Not that he planned to bear a passport with more stamps that Judith Chalmers’.

“It’s a bit corny to say so but I started driving when I was seven or eight on tractors and other vehicles on our farm in the Borders,” recalls Cowan. “I was always interested in cars and things mechanical, but what really got me into motorsport was the local car club, the Berwickshire Motor Club.

“It had a great sporting pedigree, a bit like good rugby clubs producing internationals. We had members like the Somervilles in their ERA and of course Jim Clark. After the war there were many old airfields, like Charterhall and big names like Prince Bira and Hawthorn came to race at our meetings.” Cowan was tempted by circuit racing, and indeed was given a try-out in an F3 factory Lotus organised by Clark the year he won Indianapolis. Rallying though was Cowan’s first love.

“It was mostly down to money. In the late ’50s I rallied the family Beetle and then mum’s Sunbeam Rapier, but it got to the point where I was beginning to get serious,” remembers Cowan with a boyish glint in his eye. “Dad said he would buy me one car. I chose a Rapier and I drove it on the 1960 RAC Rally. I crashed.”

Cowan’s passion and subsequent loyalty to Rootes products established then stifled his rallying career. Successive wins on the International Scottish Rally in 1962 and 1963 captured the attention of the Rootes factory, who then offered the Duns farmer four years behind the wheel of their class-winning but otherwise sloth-like Hillman Imp.

Meanwhile his teenage friend Jim Clark had charged to the top of his racing discipline. Cowan was never jealous though. He still had to pinch himself that Rootes were paying him £1000 a year to drive rally cars.

“I was one of Jimmy’s greatest supporters. I tried to get to as many races as possible, but usually it was only the British Grand Prix,” says Cowan proudly. “The day he died was one of the worst of my life.”

The black economy of the late ’60s did more to change the course of Cowan’s career than anything else. No longer were all the major British factories so flush with cash for rally teams. “By 1968 everything was pretty depressed at home and Hillman decided to enter a team for the London-Sydney Marathon,” says Cowan in his office above the Rugby workshop of Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe. “It was a big deal. To organise a race that far and at that time, gave everyone a sense of hope. We were more like explorers than rally drivers.”

Cowan, like most rally drivers of the era, had experience of excruciatingly long hours behind the wheel. But driving to Sydney was daunting even for the Scottish master of endurance. “For instance on the 1965 Monte, it was full snow all the way from London to Monte Carlo, so I had to drive the whole way. Normally the co-driver would have helped, but the conditions were too bad,” explained Cowan, the mental picture causing his brow to furrow. “We had been to Amsterdam, Brussels and goodness knows where else and by the time we got as far as Chambery I was dead. “The team manager handed me a wakey-wakey pill full of multi-coloured grains. Boy did that wake me up. In fact it worked so well it took me three weeks to get my proper sleep pattern back. I never took one again, not even on the London-Sydney. I just learned to cat nap. If there was a 10-minute service in halt, I would sleep for seven of them.”

Cowan’s win on the semi-circumnavigation of the planet came because Rootes were unable to afford a full reconnaissance of the gruelling 12,000 mile route. The Hunters were built so strongly after hearing the horror stories from other team’s recces that the Hillman was virtually indestructible. “Leaving Crystal Palace and knowing you have to drive to India in, what, less than a week, is very sobering,” said Cowan. “To be honest I remember very little of the details. Each day and night rolled into the next.

“I knew the car was strong and would last, but I wasn’t expecting to win. In fact we only won after the leading Citroen crashed just a few hundred kilometres outside Sydney. “It was the aftermath, the elation of having beaten however many others halfway across the world that sticks in my mind. The rally captured the imagination of the world and everyone said that winning would change my life. I didn’t think it would and, sure enough, a few weeks later it had been all but forgotten.” Cowan was now pigeon-holed as a long-distance driver. Not that occasional European-style rallies were entirely off schedule, but BMC Australia snapped up the Scot for their attack on events like the 3000km Southern Cross Rally, which Cowan ended up winning six times between 1969 and 1976.

“I guess the most significant thing that came from those rallies in Australia, which were important in their day and attracted the likes of Hannu Mikkola, was my introduction to Mitsubishi, who’d used the Southern Cross for their first international rallying,” says Cowan. At a chance meeting in 1972 with Mitsubishi’s Mr Kitane at a Sydney barbecue, Cowan was asked if he’d like to drive the Japanese company’s Galant 161. GS, a pokey 1600cc pocket saloon with 110hp of screaming power. BMC were losing interest in rallying and Cowan was impressed by the Mitsubishi’s nippy indestructibility and agreed on the spot.

“I didn’t have a contract then and I have not had one since,” laughed the wily Scot. “Even now for the whole Mitsubishi Ralliart Europe project I only have a letter saying that Mitsubishi will support and pay for the decisions I make.”

Cowan’s marriage to Mitsubishi has not been entirely monogamous. From the Lancer in which Cowan beat more powerful and more glamorous machinery like the Datsun 240Z in the wet on the Southern Cross in 1973, he took to the wheel of Mercedes’ rallying behemoths in the late ’70s.

“It was a bit strange going from such light and nimble cars to something so big and strong,” admits Cowan. “But, weight aside, the Mercedes were very good rally cars, especially for the long distance events as they were very comfortable.”

In 1977, on Mercedes’ first return to full factory motorsport since 1955, Cowan won the Singapore Airlines London-Sydney Rally in a 280. In spite of a near-fatal crash over a cliff in a Triumph on the 1970 London-Mexico Rally, Cowan had proved himself the world’s top endurance rally driver.

Mercedes used Cowan for their campaign in Australia, on African rallies like the Safari and on the longest rally ever held, the 1978 20,000 Miles Around South America. On every continent, Cowan was invincible.

“The Bandama was hairy because you would always find other traffic on the stages,” he shrugs. “The Safari for me was never quite the same after so nearly winning in 1976. I finished fourth and sixth for Mercedes in the 450 SLC, but the car was never perfected for the Kenyan sections. It was better in South America where its 140mph speed was usable.”

Victory on the mammoth Latin American classic in 1978 was Cowan’s crowning glory, and, with the exception of two wins for Mitsubishi on the Wynn’s Safari in Australia in ’85 and ’86, was his last victory.

“Around South America was more of an adventure than a competition, but still it was my most memorable win,” admitted Cowan. “We started and finished in Buenos Aires, and with the recce, it took about three months. I don’t think there will ever be anything like that again.”

When Mercedes bowed out of rallying, Cowan rejoined Mitsubishi for their rally-raid programme. For seven years, from 1983 to his last international rally, the 1990 Paris-Dakar, the Sahara became Cowan’s second home.

“There is nothing like the Dakar,” gulps Cowan. “To be out there and see virtually no-one on a whole stage is incredible. Also, then there was no GPS. We only had a compass by which to navigate.

“My first year on the Dakar I finished 11th. I was just happy to finish. The size of the dunes, having to dig the car out and for three weeks. It was the toughest rally I had ever done.” In 1985, as with the Safari in 1976, Cowan sniffed victory again. This time it was team orders not an error that was his undoing. In spite of stopping to help team mate Patrick Zaniroli, Cowan was ordered to hold second place to the finish in Senegal. Ever loyal, Cowan obliged. It cost him the win but earned enough respect at Mitsubishi to put him in position to run its world rally championship programme.

“Sometimes, as a driver I wish I had been more ruthless,” admitted Cowan. “But loyalty counts for a lot. How else could I be running a multi-million pound business with only a letter for a contract?”

In 1990, suffering from bladder cancer, Cowan retired. Partly in search of nostalgia, partly missing the buzz of competition, Cowan took to the wheel of his victorious 1968 Hillman Hunter for a 25th anniversary re-run of the London-Sydney marathon. Cured of cancer, he found the experience less exhilarating than running a team of rally cars and subsequently championship-winning Mitsubishis.

“There is nothing like winning when you’re behind the wheel, but I have have had just as much pleasure, and pain, from running a team as driving in one,” reckons Cowan, for whom Tommi Makkinen won the 1996 and 1997 world titles.

Emotionally though, standing at Nairobi racecourse and waiting for Richard Burns to cross the line was one of Cowan’s most stirring moments. “Yes. Yes. Yes,” he cried triumphantly, tears in his eyes, as Burns coasted across the finish, winner of the 1998 Safari Rally. It was a win Cowan never achieved and if anyone was to experience the moment, it was almost as good for it to be another Brit in one of his Mitsubishis. “Good boy.” CO