As the organisers do with the Pirelli Marathon in recreating Alpine rallying of another era, so the Ulster Automobile Club seeks to recreate the Circuit of Ireland which reached a peak of popularity in the Fifties and early Sixties.
The competition consisted of a number of disciplines including driving tests, night navigation, regularity and selectives. These combined to form a challenging event, similar in spirit to those previously dominated by the likes of Paddy Hopkirk and Ronnie Adams, but whilst retaining a competitive edge, the whole weekend was blessed by a certain easy-going magic unique to the Emerald Isle.
The Circuit of Ireland is tough, the countryside wild and the roads quite unforgiving. Competing cars take a real pounding — far more so than on either the Pirelli Marathon or Coppa D’ Italia — which precludes less than business-like machinery. Agility is required for the driving tests and so the field this year was dominated by such small cars as Mini Coopers and Austin Healey Sprites, the balance made up of MGs, Triumphs and Sunbeams, the faster Jags, big Healeys and the occasional Reliant Sabre. As the organisers had set the cut-off date at 1972, it also enabled a posse of Porsche 911s and Lotus Cortinas alongside the rapid but fragile Elans. Some rarer machines included an Aurelia, a Fulvia and an Alfa Romeo Duetto.
Ron Gammons of Brown and Gammons, more often referred to as ‘Uncle Ron’ amongst the historic rally fraternity, has built a significant reputation for his faultless preparation of MGs. Ron and his son Malcolm are serious competitors themselves, but for the last two years have also prepared an MGB for Stirling Moss and other notables. We were driving Malcolm’s car which was in pristine condition and sported several modifications to improve its chances of survival on the Circuit: the underside — the exhaust system in particular — had been skidded, a rear reversing light fitted and electric points incorporated on the dashboard for the navigator’s magnifying light. However these were minor modifications to a well proven motor car — Malcolm’s Stelvio ascent time on this year’s Marathon was beaten only by the very fast E Type of Bobby Unser.
The car itself was easy to drive and within a quarter of an hour I was at ease with it, but this relaxed state of mind was soon to be shattered. Upon reaching Hollyhead for the ferry across the Irish Sea, we were informed that the 3am boat was fully booked with the next boat due to sail at 3pm the following afternoon. This was too late by far to be able to make the start in Newcastle, County Down. In the end our car was squeezed on board with less than six inches to spare!
Scrutineering was thorough from the safety point of view but map marking was an intense operation, made more difficult by the quaint set of 1:126,720 maps. By lunchtime most of the field had arrived and last minute preparations were underway — that is unless your name is Peter Banham. He was to be found at a nearby garage changing the clutch of a Healey 110/4, crewed by two guys from Miami. The clutch was fine, the newly lightened flywheel being the problem. A thicker clutch plate would do the trick and Don Pither, the chairman of the Historic Rally Car Register, miraculously located such in the middle of nowhere. Another helper rushed it back to Peter who had it fitted in less than half an hour. Thus, against all odds, the Healey made the start. The organisers sportingly allowed Peter time to wash and shower by re-allocating his start time. Already the spirit and camaraderie of the event was emerging.
Early starters included a 1956 Ford Prefect reputedly sporting a demon tweak and Erica Storrs in a fine 1936 Lagonda LG 45. We followed the Sunbeam Rapier of Peter and Betty-Ann Banham which flew around the first driving test, going as rapidly but with far less confidence.
I have never appreciated the finer points of this pub car park-type activity and looked upon the myriad of cones with slight disdain. The object is to complete the often long, convoluted and superimposed course against the clock. Illustrations provided as a guide were of little assistance and usually had the appearance of a plate of spaghetti. Tight manoeuvring and reversing was inevitable, yet some of the tailenders were forced to complete at least two of the first night’s driving tests in fading light or darkness.
As the night approached and with three tests completed the MGB skirted the infamous Warrenpoint and headed for the South, leaving behind the beautiful but forbidding Mourne Mountains. Already it had been discovered that the large Weber carburettor and straight cut gearbox hindered progress around cones but to drop five seconds or so against smaller cars was altogether inevitable.
The hour-long break for supper misled others as it did us for it left us all quite unprepared for the frantic scramble that ensued as we began the night navigation sections. The roads were narrow throughout; very narrow, bumpy, fringed with thick hedgerows and peppered with blind crests and bends. The map sheets, four for this section alone, indicated that the countryside varied from rugged, mountainous terrain around Baileborough, to wet lowlands around Athlone. From inside the car, though, little distinction could be made — roads converged from all angles and the lack of signposts augmented navigational difficulties for co-driver Andy Beaumont.
I had thought that the high intensity bulb, fitted especially for the event, would be effective but there was a definite need for the brightest of spotlights. At the very start we ‘wrong slotted’ necessitating some interesting motoring. Naivety was revealed when I suggested backing off slightly, after having reached the first checkpoint, but my naviagtor insisted that the roads and maps were tight, complex and indistinct, requiring us to create a cushion in lieu of inevitable errors. This was fine by me and I began to enjoy myself, pushing the car to the limit of visibility. It was heartening to see so many cheering spectators dotted along the route. So often, just as doubts began to emerge, their existence provided confirmation that we were heading in the right direction.
In building a cushion we caught and passed several cars; occasionally we passed the same cars twice but at least we were making the checkpoints on time. The tail lights of other cars became targets to haul in and outstrip. With the exception of one lurid slide — close to the night halt and involving a degree of hedge trimming — this was fast becoming one of the most rewarding drives of my life. Whilst extricating our machine, two fellow competitors managed to make the same mistake. I sat inside waiting for the impact but thankfully both drivers missed.
By daybreak rumour buzzed that over a quarter of the field had enjoyed a similar excursion. We also discovered that only around 20 cars had avoided time penalties and that we lay in 14th position. Such news gave rise to a smile, though small and agile cars dominated. There were four Mini Coopers and `Spridgets’ in the top ten, which reduced scope for improvement. I need not have worried.
We had arrived in Athlone well after midnight having refuelled ready for the morning. We had already used our spare fuel and that from car No 44, but such thirst was judged acceptable considering the MG’s exemplary performance.
The following day’s weather deteriorated towards lunchtime, after which began the regularity test. An average speed of 30 mph was set which had to be maintained precisely throughout this test. All our clocks and charts were calibrated In kilometers which necessitated an overload of mental arithmetic. As if this was not enough to destroy our chances over the 90-mile test involving 16 secret checkpoints — within the first mile the HaIda broke. Unfortunately, before it gave up the ghost, it coughed out some faulty readings which resulted in utter confusion. Thus, throughout the afternoon we sat behind the Mini Cooper of Palmer and Williams who guided us home with reasonable accuracy and far better than we could have achieved without instruments.
Much of the following morning was taken up by navigational stages. Our progress was not as effective as on the Friday night and culminated in a 9 minute delay as a result of a wrong slot. Both of us were deceived by several cameramen who, by logic, could be expected to locate themselves on a turn. Not a bit of it, the correct junction lay 200m ahead; minus five on the amusement chart.
The Cork countryside is simply splendid and on this occasion the weather was in concert. We headed through the Shehy Mountains, skirting Lough Allua before veering west towards Bantry Bay for a short lunchstop and refuel. The roads were bumpier than ever and in order to make times the poor MG bottomed and scraped her way along. In this area, roads often consist of two parallel metalled strips divided by vegetation. Looking out for junctions becomes something of a lottery, since private roads and drives are often of better quality than the roads themselves. There was one amused farmer who greeted over 50 competitors together with the Clerk of the Course atop his three mile driveway! One marshall confessed, that on the way out three official cars lost their way.
The afternoon consisted of ever more complex driving tests and two selectives. These are run in exactly the same manner as the Stelvio Special Test on the Pirelli Marathon, except one merely had to beat the bogey time. The Healy Pass is part of the old Circuit of Ireland route and resembles a miniature Alpine Pass. Numerous hairpins and turns are bordered by jagged marker stones, each highlighted with splashes of yellow paint. Unlike the Stelvio it features several blind crests which serve to make life far more interesting.
With petrol in excess of £3.00 per gallon I began to feel a little light. A simple solution was to have a small wager with Ealand in the Jaguar. He resolutely refused to bet the ferry fare home but after considerable abuse he reluctantly agreed to place a fiver on it! The ascent was glorious. The little MG worked for all her worth putting its relatively meagre power on to the road with minimal fuss. Second gear was just right for the hairpins and overdrive second invaluable. This is an MGB that revs willingly and drives like a lightweight. Rarely did she point ahead as she swept towards the finish line.
As if in slow motion the car stopped astride the line. There was a pause accompanied by muffled shouting but Andy didn’t jump out. The door had locked itself! With the clock ticking away I fought at my harness. After what seemed an age I ran to stop the clock. My face was red and the surrounding air very blue as I returned to the car. Moral victors perhaps, Roger nevertheless relieved me of the fiver.
The second selective was even more of a challenge. The road was narrow and carried the apt title of Ballaghbeama Gap. The ribband of tarmac was screened from view at the start, but in fact scythed through a constricted, rock-strewn gorge before emerging, downhill into an open valley. On the downhill sections my navigator warned of gravel. I backed off slightly but the car rarely strayed off line. At the next passage control, we were informed that we were 8 seconds ahead of the nearest competitor. This I found difficult to believe, considering the potential of several early Porsche 911’s, works spec Healey 3000s et al, but it proved to be accurate, except that a spirited drive in his father’s Healey Sprite put Andy Johnson within two seconds at the finish.
Our final placing was pretty disappointing after our malfunctioning navigational equipment let us down, but the selectives provided real satisfaction. To win this event one must certainly clean all navigation and regularity sections for there is absolutely no scope for error. Similarly, driving test times must be competitive, however, a reasonably agile machine will suffice, as Don Pither proved by finishing third in his Reliant Sabre Six.
The event was a well balanced affair with a tremendous atmosphere of camaraderie. It could be improved and every one hopes that next year more selectives are included; better still, if selectives could be run as special stages. Such a move would exercise larger cars, allowing them to make up in speed what they lack in agility and furthermore, special stage skills would complement the other driving disciplines.
The competitions may have been over but the event had not finished. A gala supper was held back in Killarney and attended by all. Speeches lasted forever but the prize for eloquence went to John Kane and Skip Jones from Miami. John replied superbly after having been awarded the ‘Transformer Trophy’. The American crew entered a Sunbeam, ran in a Healey but finished in an Opel Corsa! Don Pither declared the event to be ‘the best within the Historic Rally calendar’ which was seconded by the deserved winners Mervyn Johnston and Ian McFarland.
My thanks must go to Malcolm Gammons who allowed me to play in his very competitive machine. Derided though MGBs often are, this car is a real credit. CB