Having heard that Ralph Stokes accompanied Bill Bengry on the recent Pirelli Classic Marathon at the age of 81, in Bill's Ford Cortina which was second in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon Rally, I called at Ralph's house in Malvern (where the great locomotive engineer Stephen Ballard was bom in 1805) to talk about his life in rallying. It would fill a book!
Space decrees that we concentrate mainly on his Monte Carlo Rallies, undertaken at a time when that event was high adventure for those driving normal cars from whatever British or far European starting point took their fancy (and even from obscure places behind the Iron Curtain); for many, the aim was simply to finish rather than to hope to win.
Ralph went to see the Le Mans 24-Hour Race in 1931 with Lionel Creed in Frank Williams' 12/40 Alvis, and on the boat they met John Whalley, who had made a name for himself as a rally driver — he was to be the highest-placed British driver in a Ford V8 in 1935 and ninth overall in 1939 in the Monte Carlo Rally. Thus started a friendship with John, who often stayed with Ralph for Shelsley Walsh Hill-Climbs and whose stories of the great winter rally inspired Ralph himself to enter in 1936.
He was no stranger to competition motoring. Indeed in 1928 he rode an SS100 Brough Superior in the MCC Land's End Trial with George Brough on a similar machine (12 Brough Superior solo and sidecars competed), and won a gold medal in the London-Exeter Trial with a SS100 TT Hughes sidecar outfit with independent wheelbrake — the fact that his passenger had a broken arm was unrelated! Ralph had competed in other trials such as the "Colmore", "Victory" and Cardiff-Leicester, and the Birmingham-Holyhead with Lionel Creed in a three-wheeled Morgan, and his enthusiasm for motorcycles saw him riding an HRD Rapide at Shelsley Walsh in 1947 and a Black Shadow there the following year.
To list all his road cars would take much space, but his first new car was a Morris 8 four-seater (at the time of the £100 Morris, but he paid £112 for the de luxe version), an early model with a four-speed gearbox, enabling ascents of Lakeland terrors such as Walna Scar. Then he had one of the first Mini-Coopers and later a much-liked Lotus Plus 2 and a Lotus Elite, which received special attention to its teething troubles at Hethel. His present cars are a Peugeot 309GTi, with the registration FWP 275 from the Ford Anglia he drove in the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally, and a Peugeot 205 GTi.
For his first Monte in 1936 he bought a used Ford Ten tourer for £100 and took as his crew Ewart Ballard and Frank Williams, starting from John o'Groat's. The only preparation work was fitting a bracket for the two chain-shod spare wheels, a fog lamp, a canvas screen to shield the rear-seat occupant, and getting hold of two shovels. They went to Brooklands to practice the driving tests which would sort things out at Monaco, and found the Ford's turning circle could be improved to 29ft by removing the check bolts.
Leaving Malvern three days before the start, they arrived in Glasgow after eleven hours' driving over snowy roads. G K Stevenson welcomed them at the RSAC, where they spent the night. Stokes was told that the road beyond Inverness was completely blocked, and that all the other John o'Groat's starters had put their cars on the train to Wick, except for Mrs Cotton (Aston Martin) who elected to start from Glasgow.
However they decided to drive on in the little Ford, and after an adventurous day and night they arrived at John o'Groat's, having averaged 27 mph from Inverness. In pre-war cars even the journey south could be an adventure, and sure enough ice on the frozen snow made the going tough. They were 97 minutes late at the Aberdeen Control, having lost half an hour digging out of snow after trying a short-cut; the front mudguards had been damaged on a skid on ice, and a navigation mistake had taken them an extra 20 miles. The electric wiper was inoperative, the screen being cleaned by a Heath Robinson affair involving string and rubber bands, and a dig in the navigator's ribs . . .
They made up time and arrived on schedule at Glasgow, having averaged 40 mph, though had they removed the chains, as Jackie Astbury in the Singer had done, they would have gone faster. They were an hour an a half ahead by London, with time to get a puncture mended and the Ford serviced, but it was not until they were on the ship at Dover that Stokes had his first meal since leaving John o'Groat's.
In France the roads were better, and near Pau a Ford garage repaired the damage to the car, respraying the mudguards, changing the oil, and refusing payment! This meant that the entry "body damage" in the route book was erased at the final control. The lamps were by now dim, but Jackie Astbury and the Hon Brian Lewis, driving a Jaguar, generously agreed to wait for the Ford and lead it through the night.
The average for the last 1000km had been increased that year to 34.1/2-37.1/2 mph, but this was no problem to Stokes. In the tests at the finish, the Ford was second-fastest of the John o'Groat's starters (of whom only half finished) and was placed 59th overall, eleventh in class.
This Monte Carlo adventure had cost Stokes £50 all in, and his appetite had been effectively whetted. His friend John Whalley had failed to finish, after a French level-crossing barrier had been suddenly dropped, removing the Ford's windscreen and hood, but Whalley was in again for the 1937 event and Stokes was delighted to be a member ofhis crew with Raymond Gough from Stavanger. The car was a V8 open coupé, with an Armstrong pre-selector with the final tests in mind, and the twin spare wheels arranged to bolt onto the back wheels to give twin-wheeled traction on snow and ice.
Alas, their luck was out. Their ferry, the old Venus, received an SOS call from a cargo steamer in distress during the crossing from Newcastle to Bergen, with the result that the Ford was 18 hours late being unloaded. After taking a Norwegian boat to Stavanger, the crew had only four hours before they were due to start, and felt very rough by then.
The going proved hazardous on the road, too: the links of the snow-chains broke several times and Stokes suffered frostbite, his fingers taking a year to recover any feeling. At the Oslo Control the Ford was eight minutes late, and since the top French competitor had lost only four minutes Whalley, who was only interested in winning, decided to retire. He and his crew were made honorary members of the KNAC and stayed at the Club.
Incidentally, in 1931 the Monte Carlo Rally British Competitors Club had been formed in Monaco, and when Life Membership was introduced in 1955 Ralph Stokes availed himself of it. He was also to join the Monegasque Club, which helped him get a Rally entry after the war when things had become very professional.
Stokes was out of luck for the 1938 Rally, too, because after being offered a co-drive in a works Ford it was decided instead to give the car to aviator Amy Johnson, who had a high publicity value. She was paired with Mrs D McEvoy, and they finished 76th.
After the Second World war, which Stokes spent driving very rapidly about the country in Dodge trucks with essential war supplies for Rotol, he went on the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally in a Ken Wharton-tuned Ford Anglia that would do 80 mph, and 60 in third gear, aided by V8 valve-springs and other mods. Bertie Bradnack was the keen co-driver, but he was so heavy that this seat collapsed!
Stokes then did the 1952 Rally in Bradnack's Mk7 Jaguar, seeing off the works Jaguars headed by Ian Appleyard and finishing 44th. The next year Stokes went with George Woods and Holland Birkett in a P-type Allard saloon, of the kind with which Sydney Allard had won outright in 1952. Birkett had borrowed the car for a week beforehand, and arrived at Malvern the night before they were due to leave for the start announcing that the big-ends were rattling!
The engine was immediately stripped down and the bearings replaced, the ovality on the crankshaft being 60 thou . . . However, the Allard did the Monte and then an RAC Rally, after which the engine was put into a van! Birkett, a vet by profession, was apt to describe any driver he did not approve of as "a thrombosis (clot) behind the wheel".
Ralph Stokes attempted the 1954 Rally again with George Wood in a Ford Zephyr, but its standard suspension made it quite unsuitable for icy roads. The 1955 Rally he did with the famous Lyndon Sims in a 2.1/2-litre Riley RMA saloon, which in three previous Montes had never incurred a scratch. This time, when some seconds up in the Regularity Test, a secret check penalised them 15 minutes and they were 42nd out of 360 starters. In 1956 the same Riley performed outstandingly in the lappery of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit which comprised the final test.
Other outings in these years included the 1955 London Rally, in which Stokes' Ford Ten Popular (three up, so that the third passenger could read the Halda and open gates) won the saloon car prize and was second only to Jimmy Ray in a Morgan, and a "Tulip" in a Morgan with Sims, finishing second in class against the works TR Triumphs.
Back on the Monte in 1956, Stokes was in a works Riley Pathfinder whose brakes were considered so good that, to prevent them locking, their linings had been reduced at the front from 10.1/2in to 7.1/2in. They finished, but with no lining left for the mountain circuit, and the mechanics had already been sent home!
Petrol rationing stopped the Rally in 1957. Then in 1959, Stokes finished about half-way up the list in an Austin Cambridge in spite of being on retread tyres, and in 1962 he went with Lyndon Sims in an Aston Martin DB4, putting up the fastest lap in 2min 2sec on the Grand Prix circuit. His last Monte Carlo Rally was in 1966 in a Lotus Cortina with Bill Bengry, when he finished 60th at his fifteenth attempt.
I only regret that lack of space prevents me from telling more of the many adventures all this rallying has entailed. That Ralph Stokes retains all his enthusiasm will be evident when I say that this 81-year-old is looking forward to competing in next year's Pirelli Marathon if it is held, this time behind the wheel. He has also been a great exponent of the Economy Run, taking part in many Mobil and Total events, and he drove that Peugeot 309 Diesel, with which he recorded 79.27 mpg at a road average of over 40 mph, not long ago. Moreover, age no deterrent, Ralph Stokes is ever-willing to put up vast mileages at short notice, running-in or checking over the competition cars of friends such as Bill Bengry. A gendeman who just loves cars. WB