Fifteen minutes of fame
Ford Taunus 20 MRS: Safari Rally – APRIL 4-8, 1969
The bulky Taunus may have lacked the nimbleness of its rally rivals but, as John Davenport explains, Ford Germany recognised its potential for the rougher events
Prior to the advent of the bespoke rally car, manufacturers had to make do with mildly altered versions of their road machines. Not all of these were a success, but just occasionally one of them fitted the bill so well that it proved to be the proverbial dark horse. Such was the case with the Ford’s Taunus 20 MRS, which made its name with a sole rally victory in the gruelling East African Safari event of 1969.
The Blue Oval’s Cologne-based competitions department first appeared with the Taunus on the 1968 London-to-Sydney Rally. It entered two of them as part of the massive Ford works effort that stretched from British Lotus Cortina Mk2s through to Australian V8 Falcons. The 20 MRS was a sort of halfway house in that it had a 2.6-litre V6 but, like the other two main Ford contenders, it was conventional in every other respect: it inhaled through carburettors, drove the rear wheels through a four-speed gearbox, and was suspended by MacPherson struts at the front and leaf springs at the rear. It was a big, heavy car, but it was simple and rugged.
The Taunus of Dieter Glemser/Martin Braungart was lying in equal fourth place as the event passed through Afghanistan before the drive between the camshaft and the distributor broke and they were out. But the sister car of Simo Lampinen/Gilbert Staepelaere rose up to second overall by Bombay, just 9min behind the leading Lotus Cortina. Across most of Australia these two cars – and the Citroën DS21 of Lucien Bianchi – swapped the lead. Then the Cortina broke its axle and dropped way back. A win looked to be on for the Taunus but then, on the last day, Staepelaere skidded, hit a gatepost and broke the front suspension. They got it fixed, but it took more than two hours to do so.
So the Taunus had shown promise in terms of durability, if not outright speed, and when the main Ford dealer in East Africa, Hughes Motor Company, approached Jochen Neerpasch, Ford’s competitions director in Cologne, it did not take much to arrange a deal to send two cars out for the 1969 Safari Rally. They were accompanied by Neerpasch himself, one mechanic and a pile of parts; the importer laid on the entire service organisation. Neerpasch brought one European crew with him – Bengt Söderström and Gunnar Palm – while Hughes nominated Kenyans Robin Hillyar and Jock Aird.
Hillyar and Aird worked for Hughes, but had started their rally career together behind the wheel of a Datsun. They had been offered a Datsun for the 1968 Safari, but by then they were becoming rather high profile and Hughes suggested that it was worth more than their jobs to drive for the Japanese company. They entered a Lotus Cortina instead and, like many others, got bogged down in the horrendously muddy conditions.
In contrast, the 1969 event was pretty dry and so Hillyar/Aird benefited greatly in the early sections from having drawn number one and running first on the road. Even so, Jack Simonian took the lead (in a Datsun) until he tried to move Uganda with it! The Lotus Cortina of Vic Preston Snr took over at the front, but on the twisty, European-like sections along the Congo border, Söderström swept ahead. By Kampala, the order was Taunus, Lotus, Taunus, and then there was a half-hour gap to Joginder Singh’s Volvo 142S. The ‘Cologne Taxis’ had had their problems, however.
Hillyar: “We kept breaking the rear dampers. The only difference was that, since we could not drive like Bengt, we weren’t breaking so many. The Taunus wasn’t a lump. In fact, it was actually quite nice to drive. But you couldn’t throw it around and get away with things as you could in the Cortina.”
Leaving Kampala to return to Kenya, Söderström was outfumbled by Singh at the border and it was the Volvo that led on the road as the rally headed into the notorious Rift Valley sections of Tot and Tambach. While they had been resting in Kampala, Neerpasch had told his crews that they should not race one another and that any prize money won would be split. However, in the dust kicked up by the Volvo, all this was forgotten very quickly. Hillyar: “Bengt must have had a puncture and changed a wheel. We were the next car and the old wheel was right in the middle of the road. I would like to think that they had not left it for us…”
In his attempts to get past the Volvo and have a clear road, Söderström pushed his Taunus hard. He was still in the lead on points but, around the back of Mount Kenya, the axle casing broke and he was out. At Malindi on the coast, Preston had a 9min lead over Hillyar, with Singh 65min behind. But the Taunus now had a new problem.
Hillyar: “The clutch was slipping and there was no time to change it We had a chat with Neerpasch and decided that we would just drive slowly back to Nairobi. We even told Vic [Preston] what we were going to do.” The tired Cortina driver didn’t believe them, though, and pressed on – and crashed into a bridge between Malindi and Mombasa!
Hillyar and Aird now had the task of driving slowly back to Nairobi to win – but only if they could get there. It nearly all came to an end when, near Machakos, only an hour or so from Nairobi, they hit – of all things – a Morris Oxford taxi.
Hillyar: “I was driving with the window open listening for what could have been a puncture. If I’d been concentrating, I could probably have missed the taxi. As it was we met almost head-on.”
Within just 15min, on the side of the road and unaided, Aird and Hillyar had removed the radiator, reconnected the throttle, levered the wing off the tyre and got the car running. Hillyar: “We had never worked so hard in our lives. Joginder came past and reported at the next control that we were out. He was quite surprised to find us at the finish.”
Their problems were not over even then. The scrutineers discovered that the inlet valves on the Taunus were too large for the dimension given on the original homologation form. It took Neerpasch 36 hours and a forest of telex tape to get the confirmation from the FIA in Paris that the new dimensions had been lodged and accepted by them.
So the Taunus 20 MRS won a famous victory. But it was not quite its last. Braungart took one of the rally cars to a meeting at Niederstetten and entered it in the DTM race there. The object was to take points away from a chap driving a big Opel and thus let the Escorts secure the title. The Taunus dutifully took its last win and retired gracefully.