A shadow on the mountains

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Up against works railcars, three Brits chose a Rolls-Royce. Gordon Cruickshank recalls the 1970 World Cup rally to Mexico

Competition successes involving Rolls-Royce motor-cars are reasonably sparse. They do include a Grand Prix win (the 1913 Spanish Touring Car GP), and there were the famous Alpine achievements after WWI. I have even seen a Silver Shadow contesting a saloon car race in Germany. But as a rally car, a Rolls makes a good limousine. It also makes for terrific publicity.

The death two months ago aged 76 of ‘Bill’ Bengry (he was really Alfred, but inherited Bill from his grandfather) meant a lot to anyone in British rallying. RAC National Champion in 1960 and 1961; inaugural winner of the Motoring News rally championship, stalwart road rally contestant in his VW Beetle, and works Rover driver, Bengry’s name figured in rally circles from 1951 right up to 1988 and the early days of the historic rally movement, when he contested the 1988 Pirelli Classic Marathon across Europe. Anyone who competed in the great days of road rallying will have started at least one overnight event under the glaring lights of his Leominster Car Auctions business, and he passed his endless enthusiasm to his son Theo, also a Motoring News champion.

But Bengry’s most remembered feat combines heroism and daftness in a thoroughly British way. He prepared and drove a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow in the longest, toughest rally ever.

The Daily Express World Cup Rally between London and Mexico was designed as an adventure to boost (and benefit from) football’s 1970 World Cup. Covering 16,000 miles in 16 days, across 25 countries, it aimed to connect Wembley, the home of English football, with its Mexican counterpart, Aztec Stadium, Mexico City. At 10am on April 18, 1970, after Bobby Moore had cut a square of Wembley turf to be transported to Mexico, England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey waved a Union Jack to start 96 cars on the longest rally ever, to the cheering of a crowd of both football and rally fans. To cement the link, England football star Jimmy Greaves was handling the navigation for veteran rallyman Tony Fall. Up till then rallying was a specialist pursuit, only occasionally meriting notice beyond its own fans, but the London-Sydney rally of two years before had exposed the sport to a new scale of audience. That was why the big players such as Ford and British Leyland were banking on the likes of Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Maldnen, Roger Clark, Rauno Altonen, and Andrew Cowan, winner of the London-Sydney, in lavishly modified saloon cars. This was, in theory, a competition for privateers, so even the professional crews were backed and entered by names not usually associated with the sport, but there was no shortage of expert input.

However, the nature of this one-off event was meant to appeal to the one-off contestant. All the big papers had entries, as had several magazines including Woman and Autocar; there was a BBC Grandstand team, several forces crews, works Moskvitch cars from the USSR, and backers as unlikely as Berry Magicoal, Annabel’s club, and Power Gardening (Slough). As this was an endurance event above all, car choice ranged widely from the battleship Triumph 2.5 and the rapid Ford Escorts to a Trident Venturer and a GP beach buggy. Amongst this catholic assortment, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow begins to seem less bizarre; after all, comfort is one of the great aids to endurance.

Ray Richards was the wealthy boss of the Autobar vending company; he’d done all sorts of different things and wanted a challenge. Knowing that the Rolls-Royce was “the best car in the world”, he thought he’d buy one and do the rally. But, according to David Skeffington, the third crew member and Bengry’s long-time co-driver, he thought it would be a touring event; that “someone would drop a flag in London and you would find your own way there — a tour with a few gin-and-tonics on the way. When he approached the organisers with this idea, they suggested they should put him in touch with someone who knew a bit about rallying”. Bengry and Skeffington had the right experience with big heavy cars as a works Rover crew, while Bengry was the last person to be awarded a Gold Cup on the gruelling Liege Rally by finishing in 1962, ’63 and ’64, and had contested the 1962 Safari. More important, he had been on the London-to-Sydney marathon, breaking his GT Cortina’s rear axle on the final leg. The duo eagerly agreed to prepare and run the Shadow.

The first snag was that Rolls-Royce did not want to know. Competition aspirations had long been absent from Crewe’s agenda, and a Silver Shadow was unlikely to show up particularly well on a rough-roads rally against specially built works rally cars. Richards had bought his car from Meades of Maidstone, and when Rolls-Royce found out, according to Skeffington, they more or less told Meades that if they equipped the car with any nonstandard parts, they’d lose their dealership. Nevertheless Meads did help within this restriction, fitting the more substantial ‘colonial’ suspension and reducing the compression ratio to cope with poor fuel.

Bengry and Skeffington then began the next phase, removing the emissions equipment from the US-specification car as well as the self-levelling suspension units and the air-conditioning. Then they committed the crime most likely to aggravate Crewe : they cut vents in the bonnet and led new exhaust pipes up the windscreen pillars and over the roof. It was hideously ugly, but how better to preserve the bulky double exhaust of a thumping big V8 from the battering of rocky roads? If nothing else, it guaranteed Richards more press coverage than almost anything else in the rally.

That coverage began with The Sunday Telegraph, who wrote up the project the week before the rally started. On the Monday, David Skeffington got a call from one of the directors of Rolls-Royce. “We understand you’re entering the London-Mexico rally.” Skeffington concurred, thinking the worst. “Right,” came the brisk response, “if you can get the car up to us, we’ll check it out and do anything that needs doing.”

No doubt smiling quietly, Bengry and Skeffington drove to Crewe, where Rolls-Royce engineers retuned it to take account of removing the de-tox kit, as well as sorting several other details. The Shadow crew returned home quietly pleased; but on the Friday there was another call from Rolls-Royce headquarters. “We feel we should alter the torque converter it may not be too reliable on something like this.” When Skeffington pointed out that they were due to start from Wembley the next day, there was only a brief pause. Then: “If you get it to our London showrooms today, we’ll do the job overnight.” And they did a job which should have taken three or four days.

Not bad for a firm which officially wanted no connection with the affair. Nor was it Crewe’s only silent contribution. People remember the Bengry Shadow going to Mexico, but there was another Rolls-Royce entered too, by a father and his two sons from Kent, which was delayed in Austria when the starter motor burned out. Skeffington recalls what followed: “There were three chaps in an old Silver Cloud I think they thought it would be a gentle ride as well. It had been reported in the papers that a Rolls-Royce starter-motor had failed, and when we got back to the control at Monza, after the trip down to Sophia and back up through Yugoslavia, there was a little man with a parcel in his hand. ‘I’ve got your starter-motor’ he says. Rolls-Royce had taken the trouble to fly a man down with the part in his baggage.” He was directed towards the Cloud, which survived until after Rio.

p> That Monza control offered the first rest and sit-down meal in four days and 2800 miles. Cratered gravel roads along Serbian mountainsides to Sophia had been a foretaste of South American conditions, and while Mikkola in the lighter Escort, taking the gamble of two instead of three men on board, was leading the solider Triumphs, he in turn was trailing two of the DS Citroens, whose hydropneumatic suspension seemed to be easily swallowing the punishment.

The next drama for the Silver Shadow, and the wellspring of an enduring legend, came in Portugal. From Italy the route took in Monte Carlo territory before crossing the Pyrenees and striking off across the Iberian peninsula. While still 70 or 80 miles away from the Lisbon control, the Rolls came to a clanking halt. A rear wheelbearing had disintegrated and the Hardy-Spicer joint had come out, letting the half-shaft flail uselessly and depriving the machine of all drive. After a brief discussion, Skeffington flagged down a passing Renault and headed off for the Portuguese capital, “going like a lunatic much faster than we had been in the event.” In Lisbon he found a Rolls-Royce agent (“or at least a very pompous Englishman whose job was to sell Rolls-Royces”), who replied, “I shouldn’t think we’ve got something like that”. The despondent co-driver’s frustration was lightened when the garage owner arrived and took charge. After some rapid phone calls, he beckoned to Skeffington to climb into a Mercedes waiting outside.

“We set off to another part of Lisbon where we found a brand-new Silver Shadow, with a chauffeur standing alongside. The garage owner swapped the Mercedes for the Rolls, rushed back to the shop, and took off the hub and shaft. He asked if I could guarantee they would get a replacement, and I said yes. So we went off in another Merc with a mechanic. We’d only got about 40 miles, and lo and behold, there’s Bill. I thought, how the bloody hell can he have got here, with no drive?”

Now if there’s one element of Bengry’s make-up which associates constantly bring up, it is his ability to invent a solution to a broken motor car, not because he was worried about winning but because getting moving again was the challenge which inspired him. Skeffington again: “He was such a wonderful character; he thought to himself, ‘If I block one side of the diff, all the drive will go to the other’. So he found a bit of wood in the ditch and forced it into the joint to stop it going round, making the other wheel go round twice as fast. He got almost 40 miles before he met a traffic jam, and he broke the piece of wood trying to restart up the hill. He was even more frustrated. But he was the type of man who would do anything which would keep you going, quite apart from being able to tune a car and prepare it beautifully.”

With this flash of ingenuity, and the luck and generosity which produced a Silver Shadow to cannibalise, the Rolls-Royce trio were able to line their car up with 70 others at Lisbon docks ready for the 10-day boat trip to Rio de Janiero. Rio to Mexico City might not look so far on a map, but the World Cup Rally took no short-cuts. The route led south to Uruguay and Argentina before crossing the continent to head northwards along the Andes, and on these tough, wild stages the leaderboard changed abruptly. First Roger Clark, fastest of the Escorts, hit a lorry; then Rene Trautmann, leading the rally, rolled his Citroen out of the event. Mikkola and Gunnar Palm took a lead for Ford which they would maintain to the finish. But Ray Richards’ flying limousine had developed a serious problem. David Skeffington outlines their worries: “We knew there was something else wrong with the back end, that the sub-assembly holding the diff was all cracked. We got down to Rio and changed that, but after about a day we stopped again this time the assembly that holds the whole rear suspension had broken. We were then officially out of the event, because we couldn’t keep up. We put it into a garage in Canela in southern Brazil and looked underneath, and it was in four pieces. Well, Bill set to to weld it, and he lined it all up using a length of string. Comical when you think about it; we would tack it, check it, pull it right, weld again, check it…”

Given that this subframe located all the rear suspension pivot points, it was a remarkable thing to tackle in a dusty back-street garage. But Bengry’s sharp eye and skilled hands soon had the wheels pointing in the correct direction, and the frustrated crew decided that while they might be out, they didn’t have to go home. “We cut across the top of Argentina and re-joined the route in Bolivia, in front of the rally. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you’re the leader!’ because we were actually the first car in by 24 hours. We motored on, fairly quickly, acting as a sort of sweeper, and got into Mexico with Bill’s repaired sub-assembly which lasted perfectly.”

The phrase ‘sweeper’ falls a little short of describing Bengry’s activities, which became more like a rolling service station as they traversed Peru, Bolivia and Panama.

When the Rolls came across anyone with a problem, he would hop out, and like as not solve it. It was, says Skeffington, “one of his downfalls if anyone was in trouble he would always stop to check they were alright. I used to cuss him sometimes: ‘Bill we haven’t got time! But he would always want to check. At the start of an event people would be saying, ‘Bill, come and have a look at this,’ and he’d have his head under their bonnet instead of being in our car.”

Amongst those he rescued on the last legs of the Mexico event were the three-man crew of a Morris 1800, stranded high in the Andes with a flapping rear suspension arm due to a broken bolt. Bengry tapped out the broken part with a tommy-bar, and then, deciding that the bar itself would make a fine substitute, welded it in place. It held for 400km over a competitive high-speed prime section.

Richards’ silver-grey luxury saloon thus made it to Aztec Stadium, where winners Mikkola and Palm received the plaudits of the crowd, the press, and Ford, who efficiently borrowed the ‘Mexico’ tag for a sporting Escort variant. Built for luxury, the Shadow’s single strongest element was probably Bengry himself, and he has been quoted as calling it his least favourite rallycar; but Skeffington recalls it fondly. “You really could motor it and it sat on the road very well. But we had entirely the wrong tyres we used Dunlop ‘Town and Country’, which chunked badly. The tread was falling off because we were doing 100mph and they were rated for 50. We got very low on tyres, though we didn’t run out. There were supposed to be fresh tyres delivered up in the Andes, but hearing we were out, they didn’t send them.”

Tyres weren’t the only worry. “We were completely out of brakes most of the time. We just pushed it into ‘3’ or ‘2’ and we got through, but it was pretty hairy with two tons of motor car going down steep mountain passes. We had put harder pards in, but the brake fluid kept boiling. It would run all right for 100 miles and then go off again. The sad thing was that when we got back, Rolls-Royce said, ‘Oh, we know about the problem, we could have cured that’.” Nor were they surprised by the problem with the duff sub-assembly. “Oh yes, we’ve had lot of trouble with that. If we’d had more time we could have sorted that too.”

So just how did Bengry and Skeffington feel when first presented with the Silver Shadow proposal? “We both thought it had potential, with enough work. Of course it wasn’t a rally car, but the power was there, which would help it go to 17,000ft. The sad thing is that if Rolls-Royce had helped earlier we could have finished well. But the hub problem didn’t surprise Bill. He looked at it beforehand and said ‘there’s no grease nipple’.” Crewe’s policy was that the hubs merely needed repacking at 50-60,000 miles, but then they weren’t bargaining for endurance rallying. And to be fair, smiles Skeffington, “the car wasn’t quite new it had done about 3000 miles”. And if the rear suspension hadn’t broken? “If we hadn’t made that shortcut we would have been in trouble anyway. The head-gasket blew towards the end, and the front suspension was starting to crack, though I think that was after the rear suspension went and you couldn’t steer it, so we may have hit a few things.”

The World Cup Rally was, says Skeffington, “The last big event Bill did, and he often talked about it.” But Bengry latterly brought out his trusty VW for the early historic rallies, and came out of retirement for one more long-distance hike, that Pirelli Marathon. He was then 67, and took 88-year old Ralph Stokes as navigator in his Cortina. I was competing too, and my memories of him mainly feature Bill head down under someone else’s bonnet with the anxious crew standing by. His long-time rally partner David Skeffington has no reservations: “He was a great man. I never felt scared with him, and he actually drove better on the rough. There’s no-one like him today.”

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