Jimmy McRae never really carved out an international rally career – but he didn’t need to when the competition was so good at home
By John Davenport
To successfully take up rallying after the first flush of youth is not unknown in our sport. Eugen Böhringer did not start his career until 1958 when he was 36 years old, then went on to win the European Rally Championship and the Liège-Sofia-Liège twice. Böhringer’s career started with a bet, but for Jimmy McRae it was seeing Roger Clark in his Escort RS 1600 going sideways to victory on the 1973 Scottish Rally.
Since he was 17 Jimmy had been into motorbikes, doing a few trials and then scrambling. But as he approached 30, he and his friend Alan O’Neill watched the Scottish Rally near Peebles. “Alan suggested that we rally together in his Lotus Cortina. One night we went out for a run round the hills, and when we came back I knew for sure that co-driving was not for me. I told him that if I was going rallying, I was going to be in the driver’s seat.”
And that’s how it turned out, but not before Alan had gone off to do a rally with another co-driver and comprehensively rolled the Cortina. This was the time of the petrol crisis when rallying came to a halt so Jimmy and a friend took the chance to buy and rebuild the car, and when Scottish rallying recommenced with the Aberdeen Stages, he was ready for his first event. Despite a late starting number, Jimmy finished 11th overall. Two weeks later, he did another rally and finished fifth: “I began to think that I must be quite good at this”.
Jimmy acquired an Escort Twin Cam, joined the Lanarkshire Car Club and wasted little time building his reputation. At the end of the Burmah Rally, he wandered into the HQ to look at the results and scanned the midfield for his name only to discover that he had finished eighth behind drivers such as Tony Pond and Andrew Cowan.
The bug had bitten and he began to do as many rallies as he could afford. He won the Scottish Challengers trophy for the best newcomer and got his first offer of support when Alan Allard offered him the use of a supercharged Escort RS2000. “It was a complete disaster. I think in three rallies I only did five stage miles before it ate a piston. But it was a quick car when it was going.”
Jimmy reverted to his old Twin Cam for more events, on one of which he encountered David Porter of SMT, the main Vauxhall dealer in Perth. Porter sold him a Magnum Coupé at cost and SMT converted it into a Group 1 rally car with which Jimmy instantly won the Abroath Stages. In subsequent rallies, including the Scottish, the Magnum’s torque-tube rear axle proved fallible and it was not until near the end of 1975 that Jimmy got his hands on a DTV unit. He wanted to do the RAC Rally but support was not forthcoming. SMT and DTV gently suggested he should do the Lindisfarne, the last British national, with Hugh McNeil, Andrew Cowan’s regular co-driver. It was obviously to see how good he really was. “I knew what they were at and I drove all out because I was annoyed at not doing the RAC.” It was effective. Jimmy finished ninth overall and second in Group 1 ahead of works DTV drivers Will Sparrow and Paul Faulkner. On hand to witness this was Gerry Johnstone, who had just joined Bill Blydenstein at DTV. He was impressed and Jimmy got a fully-supported Group 1 drive for 1976.
With the new car in SMT colours, it was important to be seen in Scotland’s forests going for the Scottish Championship, which Jimmy nearly won outright. He took the Group 1 title, but down to the last round there was a chance he could beat Cowan in his Colt Lancer for the main title. He failed to do so but at least factory support on the Motor/RAC Rally Championship meant he got a go at the RAC Rally, where he finished second in Group 1 and an excellent 12th overall.
For 1977, there was to be more of the same. These were the days when the RAC Championship comprised 13 events, which made for a busy year, especially with a sprinkling of Scottish events added to the mix. And DTV was trying to rally and develop its new Chevette HS at the same time.
A year later Jimmy finally got behind the wheel of a Chevette, joining Penttii Airikkala in DTV’s star line-up. His first rally in the Group 4 car was the Mintex, where Airikkala won and Jimmy was seventh. On the Circuit of Ireland, Jimmy led for almost the entire event until a valve seat loosened on the last night and he had to be content with second place behind Russell Brookes’ Escort RS1600. Then the year went into reverse after Vauxhall’s homologation problems with the Chevette’s cylinder head. Forced to use the production item, the number of retirements mounted, and Jimmy’s only consolation was that he had a second string to his bow in the shape of a Group 5 Chevette prepared by SMT. This featured the single- camshaft Magnum engine and saw him take second place overall in the Castrol/Autosport national championship. Had it not been for an engine failure on the first stage of the last round, he could possibly have nudged Malcolm Wilson off the top spot.
In 1979, it was Chevette 2300HS on both championships. Jimmy made it to the winner’s circle on the Gwynedd and took second places on the Manx and in Ulster. “The Group 4 car, once sorted, was so much easier to drive that I took to it like a duck to water, especially on asphalt where the brakes were so much better than the Group 1 car,” he says. In 1980, things got even better with the arrival of the Chevette 2300HSR, with more horsepower and better handling. “We needed to test some of the components of the new car, so we took a car to the Galway Rally in February and we won.” The car must have been good: Jimmy won the Circuit of Ireland and finished third in the new streamlined British Open Championship behind Ari Vatanen and Hannu Mikkola. He also won the Cork 20, which was enough to give him the Irish Tarmac Championship title. As practice for the RAC Rally, Jimmy won the Castrol Rally in Wales – beating national rally champion Terry Kaby in an SMT Chevette – but was unlucky in the big event, deceived into parking the Chevette in a firebreak from which it could not be quickly extracted.
As 1980 came to a close, DTV in the shape of Bill Blydenstein decided that it could “let McRae go”, as Tony Pond was freed up by British Leyland to join DTV and Airikkala was still saying he wanted to drive for Vauxhall even though he was in talks about a Rothmans Escort. It was an amazing decision in light of the fact that Jimmy had won all four of DTV’s major successes in 1980, but he was immediately snapped up by Tony Fall and the Dealer Opel Team. “At first, I was a bit worried about going to the Ascona 400 which was a fair bit bigger than the Chevette,” he says. “Tony used to say that the DOT Asconas were the Truck & Bus Division of GM. But it didn’t take long to get the hang of it.” That’s no exaggeration – in 1981 Jimmy was rarely off the podium. He won in Ireland again and, once it saw his European Championship score mounting, DOT was cute enough to send him to events like Haspengouw and Ypres, and even to the Rallye du Vin in Switzerland, which he won. The end result: British Open Champion – particularly sweet as he beat Pond’s Chevette and Airikkala in an Escort – and third in the European.
If anything, the following year was even better, Jimmy taking his second British Open title in the Ascona 400 and second in the European. He widened his horizons by going to the WRC Acropolis Rally and finishing sixth. But as usual, his gremlins were waiting for him on the RAC, this time in Kielder Forest, where he broke the axle. The winning car was an Audi Quattro and the rally world was in the beginning of its 4WD turbocharged revolution. For 1983, everything was Group B, even the Ascona, but by May Opel had its new Manta 400 – no 4WD or turbocharger but a quicker car than the Ascona. But, like all new cars, it needed sorting, especially for gravel stages. With a programme almost identical to ’82, Jimmy struggled to get the wins that the Manta promised, though he did win Cyprus and finished a magnificent third on the RAC behind the Quattros of Stig Blomqvist and Mikkola. “That to me was my most satisfying result with an Opel. The conditions were dry and icy, and a whole bunch of people, including my team-mates, went off the road. But no one could touch those Audis …”
For 1984 GM rolled its UK operations into one and formed GM Dealersport, but little changed for Jimmy. His Manta took AC Delco sponsorship but it was run by the same people and, though he spent most of the year finishing behind one or more Quattros – the exception was the Manx International which he won – the points haul was sufficient to give him the British Open title for a third time. GM even gave him the chance to link up with Bill Blydenstein for a couple of European events in one of his new cars, a Nissan 240RS. He took one of the Japanese cars to third in Haspengouw but crashed out of the Cyprus Rally.
In what was to be his last season with GM, his 1985 schedule was almost exclusively limited to the UK where he had a battle all year with Russell Brookes in the sister Manta. “In Ulster, Russell got the lead and towards the end of the rally, GM decided to ask us to keep position to protect their manufacturers’ points,” he says. “I didn’t have a problem as Russell had done the same for me on one rally. But I thought I had the measure of him on the Manx until in the last stages, a broken damper cut a wire and we lost a heap of time.” Second place gave Brookes the championship by three points.
As 1985 came to close, Jimmy learnt that AC Delco was ceasing its sponsorship and that GMDS would not be running a car for him in ’86. His first call was to Ford and then to Austin Rover. David Richards at Prodrive had got some Rothmans sponsorship, and eventually, with only a month to go before the BRC started, a brace of MG Metro 6R4s made their way to Banbury. “I’m glad it happened in a way or I would never have got the chance to drive a proper 4WD car. And, in fact, moving out from GM was to help my subsequent career – and that of [son] Colin.” The McRae/6R4 combination was certainly effective: only an engine shedding a camshaft belt on the Manx thwarted his bid for a fourth British Open title.
With Group B gone, it was time to find a Group A car. Jimmy made an alliance with R-E-D and Shell to drive a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. He took with him his co-driver since 1981, Ian Grindrod, who had only missed ’84 thanks to a Rothmans commitment with Henri Toivonen. They were immediately in the groove with the 2WD turbo car, registering wins in Ireland, Ypres and Manx, and finishing third on the RAC. And this time, he did get his fourth British Open title, a feat he repeated in 1988.
It was at this point that Jimmy discovered he was also fighting to be the best McRae.
“My attitude to Colin had always been pretty neutral,” he says. “I didn’t try to persuade him to be a rally driver but then I didn’t try to stop him either. Where I could help him I did, but he was pretty much his own man.” In fact the surname McRae did the young rising star no harm at all. In 1989, when Dad was having his last full season of Ford Sierra drives, Colin was driving an R-E-D Group N Sierra and intermingling fast drives with fast accidents. For Jimmy there was a good result when fellow Scot Cowan invited him to drive a Mitsubishi on the Acropolis Rally and he came home fourth, the best WRC result at that point for a Galant VR-4. But in New Zealand where both he and Colin were driving borrowed Sierra RS Cosworths, it was Jimmy that had the accident and Colin who finished fifth.
In 1990, Colin started to convert speed into results with a Group A Sierra and on the RAC drove the latest Sierra Cosworth 4×4 to sixth overall. For Jimmy, there was a more modest programme involving an Audi 90 Quattro, and with Colin getting a full works Subaru for ’91, Jimmy’s rallying became what it had started out as: a hobby.
His winning ways persist. Motor Sport spoke to Jimmy the week after he had stormed to victory in a Porsche 911 on the Manx Historic Rally. While discussing 34 years of rally driving, this modest gentleman never thought to mention his latest success. He accepts his own assessment that he came to rallying with the double handicap of a late start and a UK-orientated programme, but it doesn’t take much to speculate on what might have been had he started in his early twenties or got the chance to do more overseas rallies earlier in his career.