The rise of Fall

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From Yorkshire and a Mini to a GM competitions boss. Tony Fall tells John Davenport how he did it

Tony Fall was a rally phenomenon in the 1960s. Just as the works teams were starting to go all Scandinavian, along came this cheerful young lad from Yorkshire to give them a run for their money. His first event outside Britain was the Alpine Rally of 1965: he finished eighth in a Mini Cooper S and won a coveted Coupe. Even in the enormously successful BMC team, possessing this award was rare and it led to Fall’s three year run with Stuart Turner’s squad.

He won the Polish Rally in 1966 and finished second in the 84 Hours of the Nürburgring in ’67 in Minis. But Fall was adaptable. The Mini was deemed unsuitable for the ’68 London-Sydney Marathon, hence the infamous ‘Land Crab’, an Austin 1800 on steroids. To everyone’s surprise, Tony claimed the ’67 Danube Rally outright in one.

Drives in works Minis continued during 1967 but with the swallowing of British Motor Holdings by the voracious Leyland Motor Corp in March, the Abingdon team could see the writing on the wall. Indeed, it was at the start of the London-Sydney that the new chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, announced that the competition department would be wound down and the drivers, all but Paddy Hopkirk who had a year’s contract to run, would be released.

Fall has never let the grass grow under his feet, and by October he was driving a works Lancia on the TAP Rally in Portugal. He had met Cesare Fiorio, Lancia’s team boss, during the 84 Hours. It was doubly satisfying: Fall, partnered by Ron Crellin, won the event — beating a lone BLMC entry for Hopkirk. His next stroke was to secure a works Porsche for the RAC, with which he actually beat team-mate Vic Elford at Thruxton before retiring with transmission failure.

That Lancia victory in Portugal secured an Italian foothold for Fall and he spent most of 1969 driving Fulvias. If Monte Carlo ended with a spectacular double exit on the Col de Fayolle with Rauno Aaltonen’s sister car — “We climbed out of the wreck only to hear Henry Liddon [Aaltonen’s co-driver] calling to us from across the valley” — finishing 15th on the Safari was to showcase Fall’s ingenuity; his Fulvia arrived at the finish with its rear axle held in by the steel cable of its winch.

There was cruel disappointment on the TAP Rally where, after winning, he and Liddon were excluded for giving Fall’s wife, Pat, a lift for the last 20 yards to the finish ramp.

In September, Fall returned to the Nürburgring for another 84-hour helping, this time co-driven by Sergio Barbasio and Harry Källström in a Fulvia. They won, but not before Fall had again to demonstrate his ability to improvise.

“The organisers demanded that we change the exhaust because of complaints about the noise, but we couldn’t take more than 16min to do a lap, plus we had to do the job ourselves with parts carried in the car. When we changed drivers I got in the car with an exhaust system stuffed down the inside of my trouser leg. I had to operate the clutch with my right foot. I stopped on three consecutive laps to use the 4min I had gained to take off all the old bits and replace them with new. I did it, but I would never want to try that again.”

By now the World Cup Rally to Mexico was coming up. Turner was in the driving seat at Ford, and he issued Fall with an Escort TC and Gunnar Palm and dispatched him to South America to learn about rallying at altitude by tackling the Rally of the Incas in Peru. They won, and Ford gained a lot of useful knowledge. But there was still a Lancia to be driven on the RAC where, with Liddon, Fall turned in a third overall. It was Lancia, too, on the first event of 1970, the Monte. It blew up. But when Fall got back to the finish there was a surprise: “Rauno had organised for the Japanese to show me their new car, the Datsun 240Z. I couldn’t believe it, there was this modern Big Healey with proper suspension. It was great to drive.”

With a Datsun seat in the offing, it was still Ford that provided Fall with the bulk of his drives in 1970, including the World Cup with that master of nifty footwork, Jimmy Greaves, alongside. They finished sixth, but the Escort did not please elsewhere: “I chatted up a guy who was driving a Rolls-Royce on the World Cup Rally and his company, Autobars, gave us the money to go rallying in a works-provided Escort Twin Cam. I did rallies in Ethiopia, South Africa and a few in Europe, but Henry Liddon and I retired every time.”

The first run in a Datsun 240Z was the RAC Rally, but a collision with Ove Andersson’s Alpine put both of them out.

It was Datsun most of the way in 1971, though, Fall starting well with a 10th place on the Monte. He took the Datsuns back to the UK, and it was at this point that the entrepreneur within him started to emerge.

“I won the Welsh and was leading the Scottish when the ‘box broke. I needed some help and figured that if Datsun UK would back my plea, then we would get help direct from Japan. I went to see the bossman, Octav Botnar, and asked if he could help. He told me that this was the only occasion he was going to speak to me: he did not want me to have anything to do with his company, he did not agree with rallying and, as a final point, he did not like the Japanese. I took that to be a ‘no’!” Fortunately, Datsun importers elsewhere were more helpful and Fall drove 160SSSs in South Africa and Ethiopia, where he won outright.

Fall was still looking for drives, opportunities and sponsors. In early 1971 BMW’s new rally team invited him to drive on the Austrian Alpine where, aboard a 2002 Ti, he finished fifth. Then, while sharing a 240Z on the Safari in ’72, he met Jack Brady, who, with Sears Roebuck money, was sponsoring various rally cars to use SR’s own-brand tyres. Fall was offered a deal for the Acropolis and promptly rang BMW to see if they would provide a car. They said yes.

“Then I made the biggest mistake of my life. Sears gave me this stack of money and I suggested that I split it with Rauno. It was only later that I realised Rauno was going to the Acropolis for BMW anyway!”

It led to a good fifth place for Fall and further runs in a 2002 Ti on the Olympia Rally and Austrian Alpine, He distinguished himself on both events before retiring.

Now another important connection was made, this time with Peugeot through Jean Todt, Aaltonen’s co-driver and thus Fall’s team-mate. The introduction resulted in a couple of drives in a Peugeot 304S of which the first was on the Ronde Cévenole: “Great stuff! One lap was 50km of rally road, after which you stopped for service and a drink, and then did it again, nine more times. Wonderful!” Fall’s second event was the Tour of Corsica, where he finished six positions ahead of Hannu Mikkola in a similar 304S.

More Peugeot drives followed in African enduro events like Morocco and Bandama, but in the bigger 504.

“In Morocco, we kept on having front strut problems and the guys tried to drop us spare ones from the aircraft. Without a parachute they kept self-destructing, so they tried one with a rally jacket attached to it. That was better. So was their aim — it landed on the bonnet!

“Then in Bandama, the first time we did it, there were no finishers. We were the only car at the finish, but got excluded after a protest by the Renault team! The second time, my co-driver hurt his back and we had to pull out.”

So 1973 proved a mix-and-match affair: Datsun on the traditional ‘big three’ of Monte, Safari and RAC, a smattering of Peugeots, and three drives on European rallies in a VW 1303S. But it was at the TAP Rally that Fall learnt that Opel might be contemplating a UK race team in Britain, starting in 1974…

“I arranged to meet with Charlie Hodgeman and George Hum, the director and the marketing manager of Opel UK. The main business of GM Ltd was selling Frigidaires, but they also imported Opels and sold them via a network entirely separate to Vauxhall. Eventually we got a deal together whereby I set up Dealer Opel Team and Tony Fall Automotive. I would get £1.75 every time a dealer sold a new car and, depending on the overall sales, GM would double that. There were a few drawbacks in that TFA had to invoice the dealers direct and, of course, no one was keen to pay up, and there was no bundle of money or cars to kick off the programme.”

In fact, DOT bought its first rally Ascona second-hand from GM Sweden, and Fall tackled Portugal with it. These were not auspicious times for a new rally business. The fuel crisis meant that most motorsport in the first quarter of 1974 was cancelled. But DOT had a fallback, a programme of racing with Peter Hanson in a Gp1 Commodore, and an obligation to do some rallies. Rosemary Smith and Russell Brookes both turned a wheel for Fall’s new team before he was approached by Tony Pond, just recently spurned by Ford. Pond first drove for DOT on the Mintex and then won both the Furness and Burmah rallies before finishing fifth on the Manx and second on the Dukeries.

Pond signed for 1975, the racing was cut right back and a full rally programme, mainly based in the UK, was announced. The problem, as always, was money, or it was until AC Delco, another division of GM, stepped in during May. That same month Pond finished third on the Welsh in the ageing Ascona while a new boy from Finland, An Vatanen, impressed in another example.

The big problem was that DOT was trying to rally while developing the new Kadett GT/E and converting them to rhd for the British market. The Kadett’s international rally debut was on the San Remo, where Walter Röhrl and Aaltonen both retired. The German cars fared no better on the RAC, where all three retired. But Pond drove the DOT car to an excellent fourth overall.

That was the good news. The bad was that Pond had already signed for British Leyland, Vatanen for Ford. For 1976, Fall was going to have to take the driving seat of the car as well as of the business. He took to it with a will and was sixth on the Tour of Dean, Mintex and Welsh rallies. He even took one of his Kadetts to the Moroccan Rally but retired with a broken gearbox. The works cars were doing even worse, and Opel in Germany started looking round for solutions. Luckily, the chairman of GM Europe, Alex Cunningham, had watched John Handley take a DOT Commodore to third in the 1975 TT while the three factory cars broke down.

Fall: “He invited me to London and asked if we were getting enough help from Germany. My face must have said it all, so I got invited on the executive jet next time he went to Russelsheim. You should have seen their faces. He even gave me a car, a Conrero GT. I couldn’t believe my luck as it had a crossflow engine — they were as rare as hen’s teeth. It was the engine that Pond had on the RAC Rally in his Kadett!”

First, Opel Germany asked Fall to co-ordinate their Dealer Teams throughout Europe. But that idea didn’t appeal and the line went dead for some months while Germany struggled. Röhrl came to the Tour of Britain and blew up the latest Kadett at the first race, while DOT finished 12th with Denny Hulme in an old Commodore. On the RAC it was almost as bad, with Fall surviving longer than the German cars and the only glory going to the Swedish Dealer Team. Early in the New Year the call finally came: would Mr Fall come and run Opel’s entire competition activity from Germany?

Thus the gate was opened to a world championship title and a host of VVRC victories. The Yorkshire lad had done good.

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