The world of historic rallying has been deeply saddened to learn of the death of John Brown on 10 November 2022.
Brown was one of the most forward thinking and influential rally organisers of his generation, as well as being a very accomplished co-driver. His enduring legacy was to be the founder of HERO and the originator of Le-Jog.
He started rallying at the age of 20, back in 1959, while still a student at Oxford University. He started rallying in a Triumph TR2 and won his first national rally little more than 18 months later, while still a student. During his studies at Oxford, he took over organising the Oxford University Motor Club’s annual rally, known as the Targa Rusticana in homage to the famous Targa Florio. In its day, the Targa was one of the most challenging rallies in the UK, and Brown’s innovation and vision helped develop it into a ground-breaking event.
He graduated from university with a modern languages degree and followed in the footsteps of Stuart Turner as the ‘Verglas’ rallying editor at Motoring News. He also followed Turner to become co-driver for Erik Carlsson and, in 1961, scored one of his biggest successes when he co-drove Carlsson to victory on the RAC Rally in a Saab 96. By this time, Brown was still just 22 years and eight months old and set a mark as the youngest person to win the event.
Brown’s prime co-driving career blossomed through the 1960s and 1970s and in 1968, he took the first of two British Rally Championship titles when he co-drove for Colin Malkin in a Hillman Imp. Nearly a decade later, he won the co-drivers’ title once more in the British Rally Championship, competing alongside Russell Brookes at the height of one of the most enduring partnerships in British rallying.
Through the early 1960s, Brown co-drove for a variety of drivers, including David Seigle-Morris, Terry Hunter, Dan Margulies and Brian Culcheth, before teaming up with Malkin in the Imp. In 1968 they won the Cambrian Rally, the Bolton Rally, the Vales Rally and the Express and Star Rally on the way to the British title. After a couple of relatively quiet years, he teamed up with Brookes in 1973 when Brookes ran a Ford Escort Mexico. They won the Plains Rally but retired from the RAC Rally at the end of the year. So began more than four full seasons with Brookes, usually in Ford Escort Mk2s, and usually in the colours of Andrews Heat for Hire.
Winning his second British co-drivers’ title in 1977 alongside Brookes was another career highlight as they claimed numerous top six placings in all the key British events and finished a remarkable third overall on the 1977 Lombard RAC Rally after starting as car 23. They were beaten only by Bjorn Waldegaard (Ford Escort) and Hannu Mikkola (Toyota Celica).
When his partnership with Brookes came to an end, Brown moved into the later years of his co-driving career but still picked up first class seats with drivers of the calibre of Simon Everett, John Buffum, Willie Crawford and Willie Rutherford, before re-joining Brookes for the 1989 Killarney Rally of the Lakes to win in a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. That event really was his swan song as a co-driver but he was still incredibly active as an organiser.
Brown had a remarkable CV in event organisation. He was a man who invented the targa timing system, which became the standard on British events. In basic terms, each clock was set back by the relevant amount to bring each car into a control on the same minute throughout the event. It was a brilliant solution to the challenge of rally timing but would eventually be outlawed as event organisers used it as a means to hide ever increasing average speeds.
In the early 1960s, Brown was central to the creation of the first Manx Rally to run on closed road special stages on the Isle of Man. Then he helped found the legendary Gulf London Rally, which became infamous as one of the toughest and most demanding events on the UK calendar. He sat on the Montagu Committee, which created a report that formed the basis of government regulations for rallies in the UK. He was a truly influential figure.
Then, into the 1990s as his co-driving career came to an end, Brown became increasingly interested in organising historic and classic rallying. He was the brains behind the creation of the Land’s End to John O’Groats Classic Reliability Trial, commonly now, of course, known as Le-Jog, which ran under his control for the first time in 1993.
That event was pivotal to the creation of the Historic Endurance Rally Organisation in 1996 and Brown was the prime mover in the formation of the organisation, along with one hundred enthusiasts and friends who became the first members. HERO was primarily formed to run Le-Jog but, of course, its remit and scope has grown and evolved massively over the following three decades.
In 2004, Brown decided to concentrate on long distance four-by-four adventure type events and confirmed that he was retiring from competitive organisation. He would look for someone to take over the organisation and promotion of the events, notably classic reliability trials, being run by HERO.
It was a major step back from running competitive rallies over more than four decades as he moved into retirement. But even in his later years, he remained a competitive spirit and could be seen from time to time competing in Vintage Sports Car Club hillclimbs in a pre-war Vauxhall.
The contribution to our sport made by John Brown cannot be underestimated. Whilst a talented and competitive co-driver with a long run of success, he was also an innovative and forward thinking organiser. Much of what we have now in UK historic and classic rallying can be traced back to his guiding hand, influence and vision. We have lost a truly inspirational organiser, but his legacy lives on in every event run under the HERO banner.