Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose dominated the 1964 Liege-Sofia-Liege rally. Here, Tony describes 5600km squeezed into four gruelling days
I am sure I speak also for Rauno Aaltonen when I say this was the most important victory of our careers — greater even than winning the 1965 European Rally Championship. I was amazed to discover Erik Carlsson also cites this 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liege (he came second by a margin of 28 minutes) as his most memorable. Perhaps the event assumed colossal importance because many of us felt the ’64 event might be the last true European rally on open roads. My own ambition to win a liege’ dates back to my schooldays when motorsport resumed after WWII. The 1964 event was my sixth (see sidebar for resume of previous five attempts).
Rauno and I managed to persuade Stuart Turner two recces were required. For the first, I flew with the Austin Healey to Geneva then drove down to Rijeka to arrive at dusk. I put the car on a coastal steamer and travelled for 36 hours down the Dalmatian coast, eventually arriving at Kotor in the late afternoon — by which time I was due in Titograd where Rauno was due to arrive by air.
As I drove down the dirt roads of the Adriatic coast I was horrified to find the speed limits had been reduced to 30kph but I had to hurry. Rauno and! arrived at Titograd at about the same time, neither of us pleased that half a day’s training had been lost.
We backtracked as far as Pec, in Kosovo, then turned around to drive at as near rally speeds as we dare. Intermediate times were logged. These were to be of great assistance on the rally.
Back through Titograd then on to Cetinje and down the steep descent to Kotor we reached a roadblock, and the police whisked us off to a station. The problem was my speeding earlier in the day, but! had enough Yugoslav dinars to influence matters. Official documents were produced and the exchange of cash for a receipt made it look legal, though the figure on the receipt omitted at least two zeroes. After a delay of four hours we were on our way again.
Rauno and! decided each of us should drive sections we might expect to drive in the rally while the other took brief notes. Our delay in Kotor meant the recce was driven at the same time of day that we would pass on the rally — a valuable experience.
On the second recce I took a driver about to compete in his first Liege, and as we headed south from Belgrade on a straight road at 150kph, I closed my eyes to the glare of the sun bouncing off the concrete road surface. When I looked up, we were heading fora solid object in the middle of the road which we hit at undiminished speed. The radiator remained intact but the front wheels were at a very odd angle.
‘Why did you drive straight at it?’ I enquired. ‘I thought it was just a cardboard box,’ replied the well-known Lancastrian. We managed to drive very slowly to Nis, where railway workshops straightened, welded and manufactured the various items to get us on our way. I drove most of the remainder of the recce.
Two days before the start of the rally, we arrived in Liege to discover the weather forecast for Central Europe was not good — considerable risk of thunderstorms. We had encountered such conditions on the two previous Liege rallies, and though the Healey had no heater, the exhaust pipes passing dose to the floor and exiting under the passenger door could make cockpit conditions unbearable. Rauno was convinced a demisting device was essential and bought a powerful vacuum cleaner motor. With the mechanics he created a device with a long flexible tube through which could be delivered a very powerful jet of air for the co-driver to point at misty spots on the windscreen. Handily, it could also be pointed at various parts of one’s anatomy, a useful device for relieving discomfort in the torrid heat of southern Yugoslavia.
The assembly of cars and crews at the Palais des Princes Eveques in Liege was, as in previous years, awe-inspiring. Whatever perils lay ahead, we would all be made welcome on our return. With much revving of engines and sounding of hooters, the cavalcade left the Palais behind a police escort.
We were on the front row — cars started three abreast — but I had lectured Rauno about the futility of attempting to lead our ‘trio’ through the first bend. But then along the hill to Francorchamps we roared past the other two cars and into the lead.
Seasoned competitors were aware the event did not really begin until we had departed from Bled in Slovenia. Fine weather meant dust would be a problem so we were happy with our early start number. Rauno drove superbly and we reached Col with a penalty of 12 minutes, got refuelled and then Rauno gave it his all to Ogulin, reaching the control without further penalty.
At Novi we were informed the next passage control had been moved due to road repairs, so we were faced with navigating our way across country we had never seen, at night, and in a slight mist. Though we had the best available maps, they were inadequate (scale 1:800,000) and so we groped our way through, occasionally hesitating to check a signpost.
Rauno was obviously tiring having driven flat out from Bled to Novi, almost five and a half hours. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had a lead of 14 minutes over the factory Mercedes of Eugen Böhringer/Klaus Kaiser. Mist now combined with drizzle and at one point we went off the road onto a gravel heap but bounced back into the road. Rauno stopped, rubbed his eyes, arid said, ‘Tony, I think you must drive now.’
It was 3am and I was unprepared for this. I knew it was important to drive as fast as I could, with no navigational errors, and not to damage the car. It was a challenge I had hoped would come my way one day, but when it arrived the prospect was awesome. The mist cleared so I had no excuse to ‘pussyfoot’ but there was now an additional hazard in the dark as local farmers made their way to market, their horse-drawn carts only occasionally carrying a tiny red light. In villages the boom from the AH’s exhaust was deafening as we raced between houses on slippery cambered cobbles, but Rauno slept through it all.
Four cars were faster on the Novi-Zagreb stage, but we had been a full 10 minutes faster than Böhringer/Kaiser and were still in the lead with the Carlsson/Palm Saab eight minutes behind. I could probably have driven faster, but I derive satisfaction from knowing I might then have lost the rally with a silly mistake. As Tazio Nuvolari said, ‘It takes courage to drive slowly’.
We shared the driving along the autoput Sofia, using the high cruising speed of the AH 3000 to arrive at the control as it opened. Our service crew had made sure that we had two rooms booked at the Grand Hotel Balkan. There was no chance of sleep during the one-hour break but a bath, shave and 10 minutes stretching out on a bed refreshed us to a remarkable extent As we returned to the car the first of the other competitors were booking-in, and by the time we left, only four other cars had arrived. We were not to see another rally car until we descended the hill into Spa.
Each year the crowds in Sofia grew in number as the Bulgarian economy moved forward and the regime began to welcome foreign visitors. We allowed ourselves the luxury of a few waves to the spectators who lined the cobbled streets, criss-crossed by tramlines. And so to Pec, in Kosovo, where the next competitive section began.
The three sections which linked Pec, Titograd, Perast and Stolac were all very demanding. And here we gained maximum advantage from a well-planned recce. Pec-Titograd was always a classic section in the Liege, for rough rock outcrops and precipitous drops were features of the notorious Cokor Pass which claimed many victims. We were delighted to reach Titograd with a minute to spare. This put us in good spirits for the exacting drive over to Kotor, Perast and on to Stolac where we were 20 minutes late.
Again Rauno had been at the wheel for a demanding five and a half hours. So I took over to drive to our service point at Mostar where we (a) learned that we had been in the lead at Sofia and (b) enjoyed our first food for about 30 hours a ham and tomato sandwich made by our service crews.
Rauno slept on most of the section to Split where I was disappointed to lose a minute. But I continued at the wheel to Novi, the aim being to arrive with at least 20 minutes in hand. It was now becoming unbearably hot in the mid-morning sun. Every time we went over the smallest of bumps, the fine dust which was at least 5mm deep on the floor, rose in a cloud drying our mouths and nostrils.
Rauno took over for the drive to Col, and then it was back to me. My recollections of those next few hours are hazy but I do recall shaving in a fountain in a tiny Italian village, and of passing through Longarone, where a dam had recently collapsed causing devastation on an enormous scale and considerable loss of life.
Late in the evening we arrived at Schilpario, the start of the dreaded Passo Vivione which had put us out the previous year. We learned from the controllers we were still leading, but nobody knew by how much. The car was holding together well: in fact there was little difference in the performance or handling after three long gruelling days and nights. However, we reckoned Erik Carlsson’s 850cc Saab might well be down on power. Rauno and I agreed that a tidy drive, leaving a reasonable safety margin, was all that was required. Because we had driven the Passo Vivione so many times (it was often included in the Coupe des Alpes) we had not driven it during our recce.
We spoke very little during the few minutes before we started this last crucial section. Already dry mouths were made even drier by the tension. Rauno drove very smoothly but quickly. We knew that we were going to lose a few minutes. This, we agreed, was acceptable. In fact our five minutes lateness was only equalled by the Böhringer/Kaiser Mercedes. As we left Italy we were told our lead was 28 minutes over Carlsson/Palm. All we had to do was drive safely back to Spa.
We were elated but we were also very tired. We recognised there was a serious risk that either of us might fall asleep at the wheel or lose concentration and have a silly accident on the autobahn. Thus we changed drivers every half-hour, but to save time we evolved a system of changing seats while on the move not easy as the gear lever was nearly vertical and at about knee level. There must have been many puzzled looks from other drivers as we performed this manoeuvre.
We finally drove down the hill into Spa to a tumultuous welcome. I was so overcome with emotion that I don’t recall much of the following few hours except falling asleep in a restaurant and embedding my face in a spicy steak tartare.
Without a superb car and dedicated support from our service crews, victory would have been impossible. Perhaps my determination, tenacity and planning ensured we remained competitive throughout those four gruelling days, but it was Rauno’s brilliant driving that won it.
The schoolboy dream was completed two months later at a reception in Buenos Aires with a congratulatory handshake from one Juan Manuel Fangio.