Roger Clark was not just a quick driver, he was a wonderful person with a truly rare talent. John Davenport, team-mate and friend, remembers him.
I was writing freelance rally reports for Motoring News when I first encountered Roger Clark. In those days, Christmas Day had to fall on a Saturday to prevent my participation on a rally at a weekend, so I am not sure about the name of the event. All I can remember is this pleasant chap driving a Mini Cooper who was going like hell in the fog and was very ready to ascribe his success yes – he won the event – to the skill of his co-driver. In almost 40 years of acquaintance, that description would have held up for Roger at any time.
I spoke to Jim Porter about the early days with Roger. Their first international event had been the 1961 RAC Rally where they went three-up with John Oldham in an 850 Mini. Jim recalled that, “None of us had any idea how demanding three nights on the road might be. We took it in turns – all of us drove and all of us sat in the back seat.” This was the first RAC Rally to use forestry stages in any quantity. Roger and Jim were already clear that they preferred stage events after their experiences on the Circuit of Ireland earlier in the year, one of their last events with a Renault Dauphine.
Later, when I was working full time for Motoring News, I got to know Roger better. By the merest coincidence, he and I chose the same event for our international debut, the Tulip Rally of 1963. I was with Brian Culcheth in a Sebring Sprite while Roger was in his Mini Cooper with John Oldham. Us GT chaps didn’t see much of the tin-top brigade as start numbers were allocated by class and capacity and Roger retired with broken transmission.
After that, Mr Clark’s star was very much in the ascendant. The Mini was replaced by a Cortina GT and victories started to come. They were rapidly followed by offers of works drives from Bob Aston of Reliant and Ralph Nash of Rover. Roger always acquitted himself well even if the machinery was not up to the job, but the result which sent his career into overdrive was the ’65 Monte Carlo Rally. He drove a Group 1 Rover 2000. Whatever else the P6 Rover might not have been, it handled. Legend has it Roger got it sideways leaving Calais and only straightened up to get onto the finish ramp in Monaco. He and Jim Porter finished an incredible sixth overall in some of the worst weather the Monte Carlo has ever seen. This result more than any other secured Roger a drive with Ford, where he and I met again as team-mates in 1966.
You probably could not have found two more widely differing styles of driving than those of Roger Clark and Vic Word, for who I was co-driving. When Roger was sideways, we’d be on the racing line, as he oversteered so we understeered and while he looked invariably spectacular, we always looked merely committed. The consequence was that Roger was always eminently watchable while Vic and I only raised the spectators’ pulse only if we got it wrong. It was a frustrating season for Vic as the tyres that Ford was committed to use on all events, gravel or tarmac, were Goodyear Ultragrips. Their tarmac behaviour definitely favoured the Clark approach and he made the most of it.
The interaction between Roger and Vic was fascinating, though on one occasion I suffered as a result. It was in Ireland, where one could not recce the stages – unless you happened to find out where they were. With a day to go, some of the Ulster stages were ‘discovered’ by the team and Roger and Vic sent out to make the pace notes. On the Torr Head stage, there is a phenomenal brow that the road goes straight over, so Roger said `Crest, straight’ and Vic wrote it down. I have already described Vic’s driving as `committed’ so when I read this back to him on the rally, we briefly joined Pan-Am. The landing, some 40 yards down the hill, was heavy enough to end our rally. But for Roger, in whom the spirit of improvisation burned perhaps more strongly, the brow was taken slightly sideways and the jump was nowhere near so severe.
The Lotus Cortina gave Roger good results in ’66 and ’67 but it was not until the Escort Twin Cam arrived in 1968 that Roger found the machine that made him the phenomenon of the rally world. I was back with Ford, now with Ove Andersson, and I remember a prototype test at Boreham. Where the Cortina had been a progressive machine that danced like Margot Fonteyn, the Escort was more in the Elvis Presley tradition and could roll its hips quicker than a go-go dancer.
Ove was sufficiently impressed by Roger’s performance that they did the first London to Sydney together in a Lotus Cortina Mk II. Ove recalls, “From my point of view, he was a very precise driver, not hard on the car. He knew where he wanted the car to go and he got it there. Roger was one of the few drivers that I have been with in a car who didn’t scare me.”
Ove and Roger were the cutting edge of Ford’s 1968 Escort team and naturally we saw a lot of one another. Roger always seemed to have the fates on his side. On the Acropolis Rally, we both had alternators go. Ours went as we checked out of the control going away from service, Roger’s went just as he approached service. Anyway, he usually got the better of us, winning as he pleased in the Escort. But with Roger, you never minded his beating you. Ove again: “As a competitor, he was one of the good guys. You were friendly, you had a ball, but when you got in the rally cars, then you were competitors. Roger never went in for that gamesmanship stuff. He had total confidence in his own ability.”
Once the Escort got a BDA engine and more reliability, Roger’s results became more consistent and the wins mounted. The difficulty was that, by 1971, he was sharing the Ford team with the Terrible Finns, Timo Makinen and Hannu Mikkola. This meant that Roger tended to have his programme based on the British rally championship with added promotional outings such as the Smile Rally in Finland with Clement Freud in the hot seat. Stuart Turner now says he was too focussed on the Finns. “Roger certainly had the natural talent – and more of it compared with the Scandinavians than, let us say, Paddy Hopkirk. I see no reason why he could not have been achieving what Colin McRae is doing on the world stage had circumstances been different.”
In any case, my guess is that Roger’s interests were starting to expand and he was no longer wholly committed to rallying. Mind you, he did enough of it to win the British championship four times, but he also found time to start powerboat racing and then a company that manufactured boats.
Andrew Cowan, one time Ford team-mate and now Mitsubishi boss, reckons, “Everything happened 10 years too soon for Roger. If his peak had coincided with the rallying boom at the end of the ’70s, we might have had a British rally champion much earlier. By the time it happened, he had many other things going for him. He was so enthusiastic that will be my lasting impression of Roger. He had tremendous spirit and everyone wanted to be in his company.”
That is very much my memory of Roger Clark. Win or lose, he was great fun to be around. Always positive and never one to look on the sad side. Stuart Pegg, his South African co-driver from the 1976 RAC Rally victory, confirms it. “I was fortunate enough to sit alongside Roger for the first time on the Total (the 1975 South African rally which they won) and it was truly an eye-opener. He was at the peak of his ability. He was always so cool and never got excited. What was really impressive was that we would come out of a stage, the car would be falling apart and some press guy would ask him how it was. He would just say ‘Fine. The car’s OK’. Never a bad word about the car or the mechanics. The guys on the team just adored him. He was an exceptional person.”
If I could choose one situation that epitomised Roger for me, it was the Scottish Rally of 1973. I was with Mikkola, we had a superb Escort RS1600 and Hannu was sure that we were going to do the business. And we did, up until stage eight where we went off at ‘McDougal’s Folly’ and lost nine minutes, dropping to 56th overall. With nothing to lose, Hannu spent the rest of the rally going like a dingbat, setting a string of fastest times. It was even on the cards that we could overtake Roger. Any other driver seeing the times we were doing would at least have had the decency to look worried. Not Roger. He was interested in how we were doing, had a drink with us every night, but never once did he put a foot wrong on any stage or betray the slightest concern about our progress. And the final result was that he won the rally and we finished second still some two and half minutes in arrears. The celebration afterwards was highly memorable. Roger’s party mood would best be described as boisterous and it was amazing to see what entertainment he was able to devise with half a dozen drinks trays and a dry ski slope.
It is a terrible shame that Roger did not get the opportunity to do more of what are now World Championship events. He did the 1000 Lakes once 1966 in a Lotus Cortina finishing 20th, but he never got regular drives on that or the Monte Carlo, Sweden, Portugal, Acropolis and Corsica rallies. As a result, his undoubted ability on all types of surface was never married to in-depth experience of these events and, when Ford closed its rally team in the late 1970s, there were no other doors swinging open for him.
Roger Clark’s legacy to us is twofold. Firstly, he gave a lead to at least two generations of British rally drivers and showed them, beyond all possible doubt, that the Scandinavians could be beaten. Secondly, he brought to an immense number of people the realisation that rallying was meant to be fun whether you were watching, organising, or participating in it. For this, let us remember him.