And then there were none...

The famed 1961 Liege-Rome-Liege rally destroyed ninety per cent of its entrants. But compared to some rallies, says John Davenport, it was a stroll in the park

The year 1972 was a special one for rallying in Africa. To save you rushing for the history books, let me tell you straight away that part of the reason for this statement was that in April, Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm became the first European crew to win the East African Safari since its inauguration in 1953.

I'll come to the other part of the reason in a minute. For the moment, let us go back even further in time. Before the advent of the special stage, all rallies were like the old Safari just time controls and lots of fast driving in between. In 1935, a quiet, bespectacled Belgian called Maurice Garot took over responsibility for Le Marathon de la Route, better known to us as the Liege-Rome-Liege. The central precept of this event was that it was only acceptable to have one competitor without penalties and that he should be the winner. Over the years, M. Garot developed this idea to the point where he was able to state that his perfect rally would be one where there was only one finisher.

Despite gallant attempts, Maurice never quite achieved his aim. The nearest he came was in 1961 when just eight competitors from the 85 starters qualified as finishers. This was the first year that the Marathon had gone across Yugoslavia to the Bulgarian capital Belgrade. As it was the first year on what was largely a new route, some of the time allowances were a bit parsimonious. The story goes that in his meeting with the Yugoslav authorities, they pointed out to M. Garot that there was a 100kph speed limit on the single carriageway autoput that they hoped the competitors would respect. It would be no problem said the urbane organiser... since the rally only required them to average 98kph on those sections.

The result was a very hard event Only 20 cars reached Belgrade and the worst was yet to come. It was compulsory or at least highly desirable – to make up time by checking in early wherever possible. Thus the 20 who arrived in Belgrade had all checked in the minute that the arrival control had opened. This meant that they were all due out at exactly the same minute. Thus the Bulgarians were treated to the rare sight of a rally with a grid start and a 110km race to the frontier. The eventual rally winners were Lucien Bianchi and Georges Harris in a works Citröen DS 19. In fact, René Cotton's cars took first, third and fifth places overall with Bob Neyret and Roger de Lageneste in the other two. Second was the legendary Hans Walter with a Porsche 356 Carrera and fourth the soon to be legendary Eugen Böhringer and Rauno Aaltonen sharing a Mercedes 220SE. Böhringer won the next two Marathons and Aaltonen the last one in 1964.

The effect on other organisers of seeing a finisher's list in single figures was to make all the events during the 1960s a little bit tougher. It was not long before the achievement of the Marathon had been bettered. And for that, we go back to Africa and to the East African Safari. If the Marathon was tough thanks to the rocks and dust of Yugoslavia, the most dreaded element on the Safari was rain and the consequent mud.

For anyone who has not driven in East Africa during the rainy season, the worst image that the expression 'black cotton' might conjure up would be an Oswald Mosley shirt. For those who have been there, it is a type of mud that has the lubricant qualities of Mobil One and the adhesive attributes of Superglue. You can't drive on it or stand up on it, but it sticks to the tyres, the wheel arches and the soles of your boots.

When it is dry, black cotton looks much like an ordinary road, but after rain it reveals its true nature. And on the 1963 Safari, in true African fashion, it rained a lot. By the end of the northern loop which had gone out from Nairobi via Mount Elgon to Kampala and back via Nakuru, there was exactly half the entry still running – 42 cars. The man in the lead was Erik Carlsson whose Saab had only lost 15 minutes compared with the second-placed Ford Cortina GT of Beau Younghusband that had 48 minutes of penalty.

The rain got worse still on the southern kg and by the time the rally wound its way to Dar-es-Salaam they were down to just 27 cars. Carlsson had hit an aardvark going into Dar, lost 32 minutes doing repairs, but was still leading the event. Then going north, the front suspension rubbed against a drive shaft and he was out, soon to be followed by the leading Cortina, which suffered a holed sump.

The route was literally awash and the two leading cars, the Peugeot 404 of Nick Nowidti and the Ford Anglia of Peter Hughes, had to go back from one swollen river and persuade the marshal at the previous control to authorise them to take another mute. Getting through often involved getting past other cars that were stuck or paying 'push money' to increasingly avaricious natives. Despite increases in the maximum lateness, only seven cars crossed the finish line back in Nairobi. Nowicki won with Hughes second and no team finished intact.

The Safari with its rain and mud notched up a double when in 1968 it repeated the feat of only having seven finishers. The winner was once more Nick Nowicki in his Peugeot 404.

So the smallest number of finishers in a major rally by the end of 1963 was seven. But then came the Polish Rally of 1967. There were just 54 starters but this was a key event in the European Championship so there were works cars from Lancia, Porsche, Opel Sweden, Citroen, Steyr Puch and Wartburg. I was with Ove Andersson in one of the factory Fulvia Coupes. The Polish Rally was always quite tough with some rough special stages and long mixed surface road sections set at almost Garot-like average speeds. After the first day and night, the rally had evolved into a threeway fight between us, Sobieslaw Zasada's Porsche 912 and our team-mate, Leo Cella in another Fulvia Coupe.

At the re-start, the rain and fog arrived and large numbers of the competitors started dropping out. The crucial part of the rally was a road section that led for a very great part of its length along a narrow, asphalt road originally built so that Hermann Goering could go hunting in comfort. He would not have hit much that night unless he had radar. The fog was awful but our pace notes were good and, once we had seen Leo stuck in a ditch, we knew we were onto a winner.

And then like all the best plans, something went wrong. Either the Polish Highways Authority had taken this particular bend sign away for cleaning and polishing, or someone had nicked it. Whatever, our 'marker' for a tightening downhill right-hander was missing and, seconds afterwards, so were we. It took us 40 minutes to get the Lancia out and mobile. It was absolutely no consolation to note that the next car along was running some 12 minutes behind us and thus we must have been leading the rally by some 10 minutes or more. In fact, only three cars passed us as we laboured and that was the total number of finishers.

So the Garotmeter now registers three. The next event to reduce that was a rally on which Ove and I were again the last retirement and once more we are back in Africa...

In 1971, Ove was invited down to South Africa to drive a Renault R12 Gordini in the Total Rally. It started in Pretoria and finished in what was then called Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. The rally plot was simple. Start easy and get more difficult as you head east. The organiser had copied David Seigle-Morris' idea from the old Gulf Rally. Put simply, it meant that you ran the road sections between special stages at whatever the authorities allowed and then set much higher averages on the stages. But the overall timing for a section that had, say, two 50km stages, was not calculated at the lower average. The road times were added to the bogey times for the stages and that was the time. The result was a pretty good road race.

We came off one stage where we had had a puncture and failed to make the bogey by some 10 minutes and I calculated that we had to average 180kph down the main road to make it into the Belfast control on time. You will perhaps be surprised to learn that we did it. But the attrition rate was high and as the rally entered Swaziland for a run through its labyrinthine forest complexes, there were just 13 left from 93 starters. We were leading overall when it happened again. The rear stub axle complete with the wheel went its separate way. Fortunately, Ove is a skilled mechanic so we did not stay there forever, but we were well over our maximum lateness by the time we did get out. And only two cars came past us. They were Chris Swanepoel's Toyota Corona and another Renault 12 Gorclini driven by Heini Dahms.

And now, for the pièce de resistance, we come to the Bandama Rally of 1972. We are still in Africa but among new scenery in the Ivory Coast. The Bandarna Rally was the creation of an amazing chap called Jean-Claude Bertrand. It emerged in the late 1960s as a French-speaking challenger to the Safari and had a fearsome reputation. Its unique feature was that it was held between Christmas and New Year with the gala dinner on New Year's Eve. There were many attractions to celebrating Hogmanay on the Equator with an ample supply of champagne, seafood and young ladies in bikinis.

The reality of the Ivory Coast hinterland, however, was a very different proposition to that of East Africa. Jean-Claude had found some places through the grasslands where no roads really existed so he had made them with his 4x4. Elsewhere, huge logging trucks that took complete boles of teak and mahogany clown to the coast used the main roads. This meant that surfaces were rutted and river crossings strewn with small logs and other 'aids' to passage.

The whole 1972 Bandama was a bit over the top. There were no rest halts to speak of in some 4000km of motoring. The event started by going north from Abidjan and into the grasslands on the fringe of the Komoe National Park. By the re-grouping at Boualce, just half a dozen of the 52 starters were still running. The leading contenders were Tony Fall and Gerard Flacon in a factory Peugeot 504 and Shekhar Mehta and Andy Dawson in a factory Datsun 180 SSS. I can't prove it but I think that this was the same car with which Ove Andersson and I had finished 12th on the Safari of that year. When I asked Andy, he said that it had a 'very cooking engine' which struck a bell with me.

Their first problem was triggered by an accident involving one of the service cars. As a consequence, they had no petrol at Dabakala and had to top up the Pug with paraffin. Their plight was eased when, in the middle of the night, they pulled into a Peugeot service point, spoke French and were given fuel before anyone realised who they were. Meanwhile, Tony Fall was having minor problems: "We knocked a front wheel off and broke a steering arm. It cost us four hours before we were mobile again."

By the time the rally had reached Man with only 1000km to go, the Datsun was in a commanding lead. Andy reckoned that "they held us until Tony came in and he started service as we left." Then Shelchar got caught out in road works and the Datsun was in a ditch. It was then that they made two discoveries. As Shekhar put it, "The Datsun service manager from Abidjan had taken all the tools out of the car to lighten it and put them in his chase car. And then he had stopped for a long lunch in Man." Without even a jack, they could not achieve anything until Tony Fall came along and pulled them out.

Then the Peugeot hit gearbox problems but, just after the coastal town of Tabou, the Datsun had broken a front strut and lost two hours messing about. Finally, they went into a timber yard and 'borrowed' their welding kit to effect a repair. By the time they reached the main road to Abidjan some 200km before the finish, Tony Fall had already passed through some hours earlier and had told the control that Mehta was out. Consequently, the marshals packed up and went off home.

Now the fun really started, because Tony had actually been over his maximum lateness at a control between Tabou and the finish, lithe organisers re-instated the control on the main road and extended the lateness, then Mehta would have won with fewer penalties. Since Fall had been acclaimed as the winner, this was not seen as a good idea so they thought of declaring the result back at Tabou where Fall was leading This did not sit well with the Datsun team so the next idea was to declare the result further back at Man. But then it transpired that a local driver had got to the finish who was behind both the others on penalties at Man but after then had enjoyed a trouble-free run and would have won ill all had not told the control that no-one was corning.

So Jean-Claude had three possible winners depending on where he declared the rally to have finished – Man, Tabou or Abidjan. In the end, he did the only fair thing, promoted himself and his event to the very zenith of the Garotmeter and announced that the 1972 Bandama Rally had no finishers.

Now there is a record that is going to be very hard to beat.