Toughest of them all
If you were to ask Peter Hughes and Mike Armstrong which was most difficult, the East African Safari or the Liège-Sofia-Liège, the answer might be a straightforward vote for the Liège or a rather sheepish grin. The reason is that whereas Mike and Peter finished third and first in works Cortina GTs on the Safari neither they nor any of the other works Fords -finished this year’s Liège-Sofia-Liège Rally. In this they were not alone for none of the Rovers (works or otherwise) or the Standard Triumphs finished while only one B.M.C. works car got through and only Volvo and Citroen could be said to have got anywhere near a reasonable proportion of finishers to starters.
This is not to say that no Ford products were amongst the cars lined up in the parc fermé at the finish. In all, three Cortinas finished, the emphasis in my first paragraph being that no works cars finished. The Belgian entered Cortina GT that finished sixteenth was in the name of Ford Belgium and was driven by those Liège veterans, Staepelaere and Meuwissen. Last year, they finished seventeenth in a similar Cortina GT and were fifteenth in 1962 with a Ford Anglia. Their compatriots’ Charlier and Mosbeaux who have an even more enviable record with a Ford Anglia—Charlier seventh in 1961 with Jowat, and tenth in 1962 and twelfth in 1963 with Mosbeaux—were not in Fords this time as Ford France who prepared their entries in the past seemed to have lost interest. In the event, Charlier shared a Volvo from Ecurie Nationale Beige with Jacques Patte and finished tenth while the unfortunate Mosbeaux drove in one of the Volkswagen 1500Ss that competed in the 24-hour race at Spa and retired very early with far from adequate brakes. Conversation with these Belgian drivers revealed that they were of the opinion that Fords were unwise to overlook drivers with a good finishing record in the Liège and instead pick on drivers whose first Liège this was to drive works cars. On the face of it, this seems reasonable and Fords may well be thinking along those lines at the moment.
The other two Fords that finished this gruelling event were both British owned, entered and driven. In a very gallant last place after a two-day battle to keep their front suspension intact after the anti-roll bar had sheared its mounting bolts was the Cortina GT driven by John Sprinzel and its owner, Mike Donegan. This car was unusual in that it had fibreglass bonnet, boot lid and doors produced by Donegan’s-own firm, Fibrepair, who also made the bonnets and boot lids for the two works Corsairs. Two places ahead of them came the Allard Motor Company’s entry for Alan Allard and Bob Mackie which although bearing signs of youthful exuberance at the finish at least gave Ford some saving grace in the finishers list and should help to convince the motoring public that supercharged engines are no less reliable than their un-blown counterparts.
As far as you can tell without delving too deeply into the relationship between the works drivers and the company that employs them, the works Cortinas and one of the Corsairs—that of the Finn, Esko Keinanen—fell out through no fault of the cars. The other Corsair—crewed by David Seigle-Morris and Tony Nash—retired after rolling when a rear tyre punctured on a sharp bend and threw it off the road into a ditch. The two American Ford Mustangs entered and prepared by Alan Mann Racing both retired relatively early in the rally, one driven by the Swedish ace, Bo Ljungfeldt, had its lights fail on a twisty section and rolled while Peter Harper’s car suffered from total loss of brakes through no traceable fault.
On looking at the results, it is very easy to be wise after the event and say that this rally has demonstrated once again how tried and tested designs have triumphed over less developed ones. The finishers list is, in fact, almost in order of how long the models have been rallied with the later Cortinas and Volvos taking second place to the—dare I say it ?—ancient Healey, the Saabs and the Citroens. Comforting though this may be, I openly confess that I thought before the rally started and even when it was half-way through that the Triumph 2000 was going to do exceptionally well On its first international rally appearance. At Sofia, the three works cars were all running well with their raised suspension, TR4 wheels and triple Weber carburetter engines giving them the speed and rough road clearance that was needed. Sad to relate, their rear swing axles and the chassis-mounted TR4 limited slip differential took a great deal of the strain and all three of the cars dropped out within about twenty miles of one another with the differential unit having worked loose from the chassis. Such promise deserved better than that.
The other new designs that were getting a tryout on the Liège were the Mustangs and the Corsairs which dropped out for the reasons I have already mentioned. Though not completely new to the rally scene having competed on the Alpine Rally earlier this year, the Rover 2000 was certainly new to the Liège and surprisingly did not find it to its liking. The two Rover 2000s that retired on the Alpine both had trouble with the oil filter systems breaking and the engines running their bearings before the loss of oil could be made good. On the Liège too, the Rovers had their share of engine trouble with Anne Hall and Roger Clark both retiring with unspecified engine trouble that sounded like broken cranks or camshafts probably resulting from overstrained engines after a spell of making up time on the autobahn. The slogan of Rover reliability was not aided by the fact that none of the four 3-litre Rovers entered in the rally finished with crashes eliminating two of them and a punctured radiator and a faulty distributor taking care of the other two.
The outright win for the Austin Healey of Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose was very much more than just another victory for this very successful rally car. Long renowned as a tough and fast motor car, the works Healey has already an excellent reputation on the Liège, winning it in 1960 with Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom, finishing sixth with David Seigle-Morris and Tony Ambrose the following year and fifth and eighth respectively with Logan Morrison/Rupert Jones and David Seigle-Morris/Barry Hercock in 1962. Last year saw Aaltonen and Ambrose leading right up until the last stages in the Italian Dolomites where they had the most frightening accident high up on the Vivione with only inches separating them from a fall of many hundreds of feet. Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon were the only B.M.C. finishers that year taking sixth place with one of the Healeys. Thus, at a time when a lot of people had already dismissed the Healey 3000 as being at the end of its development and were looking to new cars like the Mercedes 230SL and perhaps the M.G.-B to replace them, it had been demonstrated that it could still win the Liège. In another respect, this year’s event must have been something of a trial for the two young men, one Finnish and the other English, who were driving this car with the memory of what happened last year imprinted only too clearly on their minds. As they came out of Yugoslavia with a lead of something like half-an-hour over their nearest rivals, Carlsson and Böhringer, the passes of the Dolomites must have taken on the appearance of roads such as are seen in nightmares. It is a tribute to the driving of both men and an indication of their maturity that nothing was able to deter them from going quickly and safely over the four most feared passes that a rally driver has to negotiate—the Croce Domini, the Vivione, the Gavia and the Stelvio.
Without any doubt, the sensation of the rally was the performance of the two works Saabs driven by Pat Moss and Erik Carlsson. In all, there were three Saabs that started this rally and the one that retired was a private Anglo-Scottish entry that hit another car on one of the early Italian sections. Only the Saab factory would have the impudence to enter just two cars—even the might of Mercedes had to rely on four works entries this year to get two home at the finish—and then get them both to the finish. The most amazing thing is that these small-engined cars must have been driven very close to fiat out all the way to finish where they did and Erik’s performance in beating Böhringer in the Mercedes 230SL, albeit by two minutes, is an unshakable testimony to the strength of Saab and the skill of Carlsson.
Saabs’ Swedish compatriots, Scania-Vabis, who had entered five 1,300-c.c. Okrasa VWs for a selection of Finnish and Swedish drivers were not so fortunate and they only got one of their cars into the final twenty-one. As with Fords, the car’s reliability was scarcely in question, except that on Pauli Toivonen’s car the gear selector mechanism did come adrift at one stage, and it was accidents that accounted for the retirements. Mercedes had mixed fortunes With Dieter Glemser retiring one of the two 230SLs with electrical failure while Böhringer lost a little time when Isis ignition went dicky on the way into Zagreb. His third place is naturally very praiseworthy but after winning the rally two years running for Mercedes it probably feels like an anticlimax. Of the two 220SEs that were entered by the factory, Ewy Rosqvist kept going and finished sixth while Kreder and Kling crashed very hear to the end of the rally while trying to catch up Pat Moss on the Gavia.
Citroën had twelve DS19s of which eight were works sponsored and they got four of them to the finish to give them the team prize and the largest number of finishers of any manufacturer. Surprisingly, the French team suffered very little from retirement by virtue of ace idents and typical of the reasons for their retirement was Olivier Gendebien who had his distributor break. Lucien Bianchi had one of his oil pipes chafe through on the sump shield and lost two hours getting a replacement from the nearest Citroën service car.
Whenever anyone asks exactly what do rallies prove, the answer is some variation on the theme of testing strength and reliability and then feeding the lessons learnt back into the production line. With the Liège, the cars get a testing which is far more severe than anything dreamed up by a development engineer who is, after all, only trying to prove that his car will not break down. It is for this reason that success on a rally like the Liège means so much and why manufacturers spend large quantities of money in a search for that success. All good luck to B.M.C., Saab and Mercedes and long may they continue to build motor cars capable of running from Liège to Sofia and back.—J. D. F. D.