Ford and BRM’s alpine quest
These two companies came close to scoring a much sought-after win with Vic Elford on the 1965 Alpine Rally, before disaster struck on the final stage
Back in the 1960s international rallying received magnificent support from major manufacturers. Works cars were run by Alfa Romeo, BMC, Citroën, Ford, Lancia, the Rootes Group, Triumph, Volvo, sometimes Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and more. We road racers seldom paid much attention to what went on within the rally scene, but the enthusiast following was huge despite very few having the wherewithal then actually to attend the events. One I was always keen to see – but never did – was the mid-summer Alpine Rally. I’d grown up as a schoolboy fan feasting on the Shell film unit movie of the Coupe des Alpes which was aired regularly as a TV trade-test transmission, just about the time I got home after the three-mile walk from school.
Only two competitors had won the coveted golden Coupe des Alpes d’Or for three consecutive penalty-free performances. The icing on the cake was that both had been Brits; Ian Appleyard in his Jaguars followed by Stirling Moss in the works Sunbeam-Talbots.
By 1965 the mountain byways of southern Europe were carrying ever-heavier traffic. Problems with road closure for rallying were increasing. Nobody liked to face it, but the writing was on the wall for ‘The Alpine’.
Still it remained a feather in the cap for any successful manufacturer, and there was one which had an extremely live link to road racing technology in general, and Formula 1 in particular. This was the Ford Motor Company with its latest Lotus-Cortina works cars.
The added ingredient was the fact that some of its engines had been modified, built and developed by none other than BRM at Bourne, Lincolnshire – the others being by Cosworth.
BRM was part of the Rubery Owen group, whose head was Sir Alfred Owen. This altogether remarkable industrialist had struggled for a dozen years to turn enthusiasm for his all-British team of Grand Prix cars into a profitable business. To keep abreast of BRM’s activities he had chief engineer-cum-general manager Tony Rudd report to him via a weekly document known as the Bourne Diary.
Tony’s report for July 22, 1965, read in part: “Halford, Ford Cortina, leading Alpine Rally”. Perhaps Tony had misheard the name of Vic Elford, or maybe during dictation he had lapsed into the past, recalling Bruce Halford. Anyway, his final entry for that year’s Alpine then told how: “Halford, in Ford Cortina, retired when leading Alpine Rally with comfortable lead and 50 miles to go – due to Lucas distributor failure”. In the margin of his copy, Sir Alfred’s large, looping handwritten note read: “Must be very disappointed!”, but Tony’s snipe at Joseph Lucas would not have passed unrecognised – the British motor accessory industry’s legendary ‘Prince of Darkness’ had apparently struck yet again…
In fact, Vic Elford and his long-serving navigator David Stone had been holding an apparently unassailable lead over the rest of the 33 survivors (today’s modern WRC might eat its heart out just for so many starters?) on the section from Entrevaux to Sigale. The pack was all but home with one special stage remaining, over the Col St Martin, and it seemed as if Vic should surely win. But just 2kms from the top his Cortina’s engine had cut dead. A contact heel had come adrift in its Lucas distributor. Team-mate David Seigle-Morris stopped and towed the luckless crew to the summit, from where they coasted to the timing line – but six minutes had been lost. Ironically, the previous year Seigle-Morris had himself retired when leading the Alpine just short of the finish. Now Vic and David were finally classified 21st.
Ford and BRM personnel quickly met with Lucas to investigate this rally-losing failure. They concluded that the BRM-built engine in the works Cortina had been fitted with a standard competition distributor supplied by Lotus, whereas Lucas had distributors readily available with specially stress-relieved contact breaker followers as supplied direct from them to BMC. That week’s motor magazines carried prominent adverts picturing a Mini-Cooper and headed ‘BMC Wins Major Awards in Alpine Rally’ – best performance by a manufacturer’s team, three Coupes des Alpes, Touring Coupe des Dames and three class wins. Ford’s top echelons were unimpressed.
Tony’s report to his boss concluded, “Since supply of distributor was defined as being Lotus’s responsibility at the original meeting, on the 7th April, responsibility for this failure rests with Lotus”. Tarraaaah! Ford’s wrath was redirected towards Cheshunt. Sir Alfred relaxed, and Tony probably adopted his quiet, Rolls-Royce trained engineer’s smile; back duly covered. It was the way of big industry. Pull up the ladder Jack – we’re inboard.
‘Jolly Jack’ was one of first Indy Brits
One seldom saw a British Racing Drivers’ Club badge on the overalls of a driver at Indianapolis until the likes of Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart well and truly rang the 500’s bell in the 1960s. Today their Indy exploits are obviously well remembered, but they weren’t alone in waving the flag at the Brickyard, as Jack Fairman drove there too.
‘Jolly Jack’ had been one of the most enthusiastic of all journeyman drivers, from the late 1940s onward. When I first met him in the early ’60s he was regarded – I regret to recall – as a veteran figure of fun, always hovering around the paddocks with his crash helmet, gloves and goggles to hand, just in case somebody – anybody – might offer him a drive. He would test and race for anyone who asked, and he had always commanded perhaps greater respect as a capable tester than as a racer.
In 1960-61 Harry Ferguson Research engaged him as test driver for their sophisticated front-engined, four-wheel-drive Project 99 car, and he gave it its racing debut in the British Empire Trophy at Silverstone, before running it briefly in the British GP at Aintree… Moss taking over mid-race after his first-string Lotus had failed.
When the Granatelli brothers’ STP Corporation showed interest in a four-wheel-drive programme for Indy, the P99 was demonstrated to them by Fairman. Ferguson then built a four-wheel-drive chassis for the Granatellis’ centrifugally-supercharged Novi V8 engine. It was driven in the 1964 500 (albeit very briefly) by Bobby Unser. While he was at the Speedway Jolly Jack also drove laps in a number of the home-grown Offy-powered roadsters. He never got to race there, but many USAC veterans recalled him as one of the drivers of those embarrassingly quick D-type ‘Jahgwah’ sporty cars run by the Scots-blue Ecurie Ecosse team in the Monzanapolis ‘Indy car’ race of ’57. To that extent some fame had preceded Jack Fairman to Indy. Good guy though – his heart was absolutely in the right place…
The front-rear engine debate Jenks didn’t expect to lose
Fifty years ago on January 19, when Stirling Moss won the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix in Rob Walker’s undersized 1960cc Cooper-Climax, he registered the first victory for a rear-engined car in a World Championship-qualifying Formula 1 race. From that pioneering success, a half-century of dominance by rear-engined racing cars blossomed. We often waffle on about the ‘rear-engined revolution’ and of course in 1961 the Ferguson-Climax P99 – similarly entered by Walker and driven by Moss – became the last front-engined design ever to win an international F1 race, in the Oulton Park Gold Cup.
In these pages Denis Jenkinson once argued that only Porsches, VWs and Tatras were correctly ‘rear-engined’ since they carried their engines overhung, outboard of the back axle. Contrary to most of the motoring world at that time he maintained that modern racing and sports cars with their engines behind the cockpit but ahead of the back axle should be described as being ‘mid-engined’. He had a point, but another friend – John Godfrey, the Ferrari-racing jeweller from Grantham – pointed out that by Jenks’s own measure he was himself guilty of inexactitude, because cars he would describe as being front-engined – such as the Maserati 250F, Vanwall, ERA, D-type Jaguar, etc – were really ‘mid-engined’ because while their power units might be ahead of the rear axle, they were behind the front axle.
“If you’re going to claim a rear-engined car has to carry its motor behind the back axle, then surely a front-engined car has to carry its motor ahead of the front axle!”. This triggered much huff and splutter from little Jenks, who didn’t like being challenged – particularly since John had a point.
I then made matters worse when I brandished a photo of Troy Ruttman in the pits during qualifying for the 1963 Indy 500. He was in Jim Robbins’ low-slung Eddie Kuzma-built roadster, which had its classic four-cylinder Offenhauser engine way offset from the chassis centreline on the left-hand side. To my surprise Jenks relented (almost). “Now I’ve seen it all,” he confessed, “that bugger’s front/side/mid-engined!”