Joginder Singh was perhaps the greatest exponent of the old-style safari – fast, determined and a demon spanner-man. John Davenport catches up with this three-time winner in sunbury-on-thames!
During the 2000 Rally of Great Britain, I was leaving the fourth stage when I saw Richard Burns and Robert Reid working on their Subaru Impreza in a lay-by. They were improvising a sling, using the spare wheel strap to stop the left-rear wheel taking a road of its own. They wanted it to go to service with them to Builth Wells. They not only made it there, but went on to win the rally.
This was an example of bush mechanics that would have been very familiar to crews on the old East African Safari. And there was none better at it than Joginder Singh. He was truly a man for all Safaris.
A typical example of his perseverance and skill at both repairing and driving cars was the 1973 Safari Rally — his first drive in a Mitsubishi.
The car was a second-hand Galant It was the normal road car for the boss of the Mitsubishi importers, Simba Motors, and Joginder had prepared it himself using some competition parts from Japan. In the Tanzania wet, he clouted a bridge and sheared the U-bolts between leaf spring and axle. It was two o’clock in the morning. It took three hours to lash the axle to the car with rope so that they could proceed to Korogwe and get it changed. Despite the delay, Joginder was still in the running and, as the rally entered its final stages, he had worked his way back up to ninth. Then 50 miles from the finish in Nairobi, an oil pipe sheared and the engine rattled its bearings. Most people would have given up. Not Joginder. He kept topping it up with oil and, by driving slowly, crept into the finish in 11th place.
Born in Kericho, Kenya, in 1932, Joginder learnt engineering in his father’s garage and at school in Nairobi. After several jobs in the motor trade, he took on the challenge of becoming the first patrolman employed by the East African Automobile Association (EAAA). He was sent out onto the African roads on a BSA motorcycle and sidecar.
It was that same year, 1958, that he did his first rally, as co-driver to a friend, Raman Patel, in a Morris Minor used by Patel in his Moonlight Driving School. They quickly discovered that ‘Granny’ made better progress when Joginder was driving and, for the Safari Rally of 1959, they entered in a Volkswagen Beetle. This already had 60,000 miles on the clock, but it did get a good going-over from Joginder before the start. The result was a ninth-place finish. But the pace did not suit Patel, and the following year, when Cooper Motors lent Joginder a VW, he took his brother, Jaswant, with him
In three successive years with Volkswagens, the Singhs finished ninth, 16th and fifth, on the latter occasion coming in one place ahead of Erik Carlsson. And that was after holing the sump and sealing it with a mixture of soap and mud, which set solid and held to the finish.
For the 1963 Safari Joginder’s reputation as a quick driver, allied to the brothers’ preparation skills and their ability to keep cars running, led to them being loaned a Fiat 2300 by the local agents. The car was prepared in the Fiat workshop under Joginder’s supervision. “The Italians were a funny lot in those days,” recalls Joginder. “They insisted on us using these RN shocks that were like bicycle pumps after only a few hundred miles. On the rally, we were constantly changing them. They were also Pirelli agents and we had terrible trouble with the tyres. They would skin themselves and then we would be driving on the carcass or, worse, the rim.”
In a wet year, they were woefully unlucky to draw number 75 and had many problems getting past other cars before tyre delamination started in Tanganyika. They were running out of tyres, and service crews were sent to scour the garages of Dar es Salaam for replacements, part-worn or new.
Out on the rally route, the Fiat had kept going on bald tyres for over an hour and now it was on the rims. Suddenly, they encountered one of their service cars. Lost. It had missed its service point and travelled 10 miles the wrong way down the rally route. Without that mistake, the Fiat would never have come through to be one of the Magnificent Seven at the finish. The Singhs were fourth overall.
With this excellent result in the bag, the following year Joginder was invited to drive for the Lincoln Mercury team from Detroit. The car would be a Comet, described by one contemporary commentator as ‘several table tennis tables stuck together with a big V8 engine’. The Americans sent six cars for the rally. But there was a fair bit of trouble during the recce; Tommy Fjastad, the winner in 1962 with a Volkswagen, got sacked because he bent his car.
But, according to Joginder, it was not all bad: “The Comet was a great car. In mud, it was just like a tractor. It would bulldoze through and had the most amazing Firestone tyres. Of course, the steering was a bit too direct. The kick-back through that big wheel was hard on the hands. But it was good. The main problem was that the suspension was a bit too soft.” Harder dampers were thus sent from the US, and they worked. But there was no time to try them properly.
To start with, all went well. Despite having number 80, by the time the rally reached Kampala in Uganda, Joginder found himself third overall with just 5min of penalty. But coming back to Nairobi, the lack of development started to unstitch things — literally.
First, the new dampers pulled out the upper mountings from the body and it took an hour at service to devise a solution and fix it. Then, after leaving Nairobi, the bottom damper mounts broke — another wasted hour. By now the last crew on the roadjoginder came to a collapsed bridge. Competitors stranded on the wrong side built a causeway with trees and stones. Kim Mandeville in the other Comet survivor got across, as did six more cars. But as the water rose and the improvised causeway became less firm, the Singhs’ ton-and-a-half of Detroit metal bogged down, and only after hard toil did they get going again. They would finish 21st — and last
“It was a shame: I expected a much better position with that car,” says Joginder. “Lincoln’s problem was that they did not realise what they were getting into. When it was all over, they apologised to us for the mistakes. They even promised to come back the following year, but thank goodness they didn’t, or I would never have driven the Volvo!”
That same year, 1964, Volvo had come with four factory PV544s. None finished but Volvo left the cars and some spares in Kenya with the importers, Amazon Motors. Having been persuaded to try one of the cars at the Nakuru race track, Joginder was impressed and suggested that perhaps he did some rallies with it. Amazon’s workshops. “I took off the front end and completely rebuilt it to get.
Having risen in EAAA’s ranks, Joginder was able to organise his time so that he could work on the Volvo in proper suspension movement, and to correct the steering geometry.”
He and Jaswant did many smaller rallies with the PV. Every time, they found some new problem and overcame it: “At the rear, the Panhard rod used to kink in the middle and send the car all over the place. It would then break the mounting points. So I got to know the car inside out. I knew just what it could do and what it could take.”
Come December 1964, Joginder handed the car back to Amazon, confident he had a drive coming for the Safari with Ford. Or Datsun. Or someone. But nothing materialised, except an offer of an Alfa Romeo from the local agent. So Joginder asked Amazon if they would sell him the PV544. A deal was struck at 1350.
He and his friends worked on the car for three months, right up to the Safari. But despite his reputation, the fact that no Volvos had finished in 1964 led pundits to discount him as a potential winner, especially as works teams from Peugeot, Mercedes, Citroen, Ford and Saab were there in force. But this was the first year there was a free ballot for starting number irrespective of class. And the Singhs got number one — not the equivalent of a lottery win, but a dam sight better than their luck to date. They had never started higher than 16.
The story of their rally was simple. While the conditions were dry, the Volvo ran merrily out in front with no dust. The rain came as they left Kenya for Uganda and, barring the occasional puncture, all the excitement was behind them. Mercedes and Citroen went into oblivion and, by half-way, Joginder led by a minute from Pat Moss in a Saab. As the route went south, the rain got worse. Pat crashed into a lorry on the Kiroka Pass and, despite repairs, eventually ran out of time. So the Singh brothers arrived in Nairobi with a lead of 1 hr 40 min over Ian Jaffray’s Peugeot 404.
The crowds went crazy. It was not just the biggest winning margin in Safari history (it still is). It was achieved by two Sikhs driving a car they had prepared themselves. This, more than anything else, triggered worldwide media coverage that was almost unheard of. It did enormous things for the Safari and made Joginder an inter Volvo is that it was a double edged sw°rd; the last PV544 would roll off the production line just six months later. For a few years, while Volvo continued a rally programme, Joginder drove for them on the Safari as well as trying his hand at the Swedish and Acropolis rallies. Never quite able to repeat the PV’s performance with the less wieldy 122S and 142S, Joginder did notch up a second, a third and a fourth. He also tried an early Datsun Cedric, finishing fif-th in 1968, and was second with a factory Datsun 1600SSS in 70.
That year, he was the subject of a tug-of-love between Datsun and Ford. The British team had a Safari assault planned for ’71 with the Escort Twin Cam and needed to hire experience. After visiting Boreham, Joginder signed.
“It was only a few hundred pounds more than Datsun, but the contract was for two years,” he recalls. “I was promised a works drive on the RAC Rally and on the World Cup. I thought it was a better package.”
In the run-up to the 1971 Safari, Ford took up most of Joginder’s suggestions regarding the cars’ preparation. But on the event itself, he learnt a cruel lesson of a works team. Stuart Turner had six Escorts entered, and when Joginder lost all his gears on the first really difficult section in the Taita Hills, he was abandoned to his fate. But this was Joginder Singh. He jammed it into reverse and motored backwards to the main road. He then removed the ZF ‘box, rejigged the selector rods, shoved a screwdriver in as a gearlever and, after three hours, set out in pursuit of the rally.
By the half-way point at Nairobi, the Singh Escort was 49th car on the road. When they returned there for the finish, they were running third car on the road and were classified 16th overall. Five of the six Escorts finished. Hannu Mikkola had blown a headgasket in Uganda and local drivers Robin HiLlyar and Vic Preston Junior were fourth and sixth, while Timo Mäkkinen and Roger Clark were 20th and 24th. Joginder had made his point.
The following year, Safari history was turned upside down: firstly, an overseas driver (Mikkola) won the event in an Escort RS1600. Secondly, Joginder posted his first Safari non-finish. It happened when his Escort broke a strut on a fast stretch behind Mount Kilimanjaro and crashed out bending the rear axle beyond what even Joginder could repair.
Joginder’s association with Mitsubishi started with that private Galant in 1973 and moved to a more formal arrangement which netted the Flying Sikh two more Safari wins (74 and 76) at the wheel of their diminutive Lancer, partnered by David Doig. After his first win in 1965, Joginder had parted from the EAAA and started his own garage and workshops, and with Mitsubishi’s success, they prospered. But with his 50th birthday looming, he sold up and retired to England, in 1980. Seven years ago, he was elected to the Kenya Sports Hall of Fame, the only motorsport person so honoured.
His last three Safaris were with Mercedes, and he won twice for Mitsubishi, and yet Joginder’s favourite rally car remains the Volvo PV544. He has restored the original car — “three of the original shocks are still on it!” — and it currently takes pride of place in Volvo’s museum in Gothenburg.
“My head tells me that the Mitsubishi Lancer should be my favourite. But my heart tells me the Volvo PV. That win really put me on the map. And it was such a nice car to drive. So little went wrong that we never had to stop to fix it.”
But you can be sure he would have, if necessary.