The 50th Anniversary of the RAC Rally was celebrated in great style with the Rally of the Tests revival-rally - 101 entries saw 98 actually set out from Blackpool promenade under the flag of the Mayoress....who sent starters roaring off down the super-long promenade test.
History repeats itself, for sure, as this was exactly how it all started back in 1951. The H.R.G. that competed on the original event back in ’51 put in a storming performance with a noise that drowned out the crashing waves on the beach below, Russ Swift, the demon demonstrator of hand-brake turns, put up the biggest cheer from the spectators as he flicked the Mini 850 around like a toy, but most noise of the day was coming from the supercharged MG PB “ex-works” Cream Cracker team car of Ian Williamson.
Fred Bent’s course saw the cars spent an eventful day up and over the great passes of the Lake District, with several cars having a big struggle on the likes of Hardknot and Wrynose – Jonathan Bowles in an Austin A35 despatched his co-driver, Classic and Sportscar’s Paul Hardiman, who was ordered first to walk it…and then when the pace slowed some more, try his hand at pushing!
Even a Mini failed to make it in one clean run, and the ex-works Reliant Sabre found the course so demanding the car that had survived an RAC Rally back in the early 1960s had to give up and take the long way round. The Rally of the Tests was not going to be a stroll in the park…and the Lake District’s National Park turned into a real sort-out.
At Lakeside, on the south bank of Lake Windermere, a tight test in the goods yard saw Nigel Broderick wrestling with the five litres of Cadillac V8 engine of his Allard J2XC, the Austin A35s locked in grim battle with the Standard Motor Co’s team of Standard 10s, the MGAs beating off the TRs, Rapiers clashing blades with Magnettes and Frank Fennell powering the back round of the big three-litre Merc in fine style….the Riley 1.5s were trying to beat the Rapiers, and in the maroon car of Arthur Senior – 7th overall on the RAC Rally of the Tests back in 1958 – things were not so happy.
Co-driver and ace navigator Tony Mason reckoned his mate, who shall be nameless, but almost as famous as Mason, had cocked things up at the top of Hardknot, and “really we should be at least second overall.” As he climbed the wooden steps to the cafe of the old railway station, he looked out the window and spotted the paddle steamer, moored up for the winter. Mason to marshal holding clock: “I can’t wait to get home…. when does the bloody boat sail?”
Things were to improve for the Riley duo, but not for Gethin Jones and Dave Whittock in the Peter Banham ex-Marathon ex-Every Event You Can Mention Riley 1.5… the back axle was coming away from its lever-arm shock absorbers, although the driver was raving about the ability to tweak the back around the tighter cones thanks to the thirty-quid cross-ply tyres. By Harrogate, they were out of the event and packing up for home….the engine had over-heated in the queue to get to the summit of one of the Lake District climbs.
Day Two was the longest day of all. With tests in the early-morning light at a showground near Harrogate, and on to Harewood House, the long run took in several tests, including one of the best organised of the whole event at Curborough’s sprint course, before a final supper stop at Shipston – here the police closed the main street, floodlighting lit up the cars, and with everyone strolling around in 1950s clothing, the atmosphere against the traditional buildings produced a real time-warp.
This was to be a highlight of the whole event. Inside the pub, Rob Lyall was ready to penalise any crew booking in that was not wearing a hat…. (part of the eccentric regulations, nothing to do with Rob getting over-bearing with crews) but some wag had put up a sign for those who lost their headache in the storms that morning: “Hat for Hire – £1 for Ten Minutes.” But with everyone keen to obey the dress code, the Entrepreneur of Shipston was not going to get even get the cost of a good dinner from hatless rallydrivers.
On to Finmere, for a test on the end of the wartime airfield, where John Sprinzel once set up Britain’s first ever rally school, teaching the likes of the delightful Christabel Carlisle to drive a Sprite, where BMC, or were they called Leyland, tested their big Triumph saloons for the first World Cup Rally…and where today there is a snaking course of old tyres for anyone who wants to let off steam.
It was tight and twisty, and run in the dark. After that, time for a pie and pint in the Holiday Inn, a new hotel set up on the Peartree Roundabout of the A34 just south of Blenheim. So ended a long day that had seen all sorts of old rally heroes of the past out and about…we spotted Nigel Raeburn manning a control at Tissington Hall (where a ford water-crossing was not less than 11 inches deep) helped by Paddy Hopkirk, who had decided to drive up from Chelsea in his new BMW-type Mini Cooper, red, white roof, with 333 EJB on the number plate, and echo of his 1964 Monte win.
The following morning saw a Test at Blenheim, with Stuart Turner, who had navigated the winning Saab of Erik Carlsson back in 1960, among the cheer-leaders…he had something to make him somewhat misty-eyed as a red Saab two stroke going ring-a-ding-ding on the overrun with puffs of blue smoke was the very car he had sat in back in 1960….Eric Johnson having made the crossing of the Atlantic from America to take part in this revival-rally. Chased out of Blenheim with the bellow of the red ex-works Healey 3000 of Jonathan Everard (SMO 745) this was quite a picture.
Tests at Basildon Park near Pangbourne, and on to the Castrol headquarters, followed, before coffee at Brooklands and a thrash up the steep test hill and onto the hallowed banking of 1907, all that remains of the world’s first-ever motor-racing circuit, no time for crews to inspect the rebuild of the Wellington Bomber in the hanger, although Biggles made an exception and climbed into the rear-gun turret, and it was on to Jim Gavin’s pub on the green of Wisborough Green, to collect the signature of the former World Cup Rally organiser, before arriving at Goodwood.
Here we had a thrash up a bit of the “hillclimb” course in front of the main house, well, a few cones kept everyone in second gear, then a Regularity Test, damn it, out of the park at a speed which ensured nobody put a wheel on the grass.
Finally, Brighton, where there was one of the best tests of the lot, with a long slide up Madiera Drive through some straw bales. Back in 1961, you had to finish with a braking test into a “garage” of straw bales, and to ensure you had your foot on the brakes, there was a scaffold pole across the end of the garage. Did it ever smash a few headlights in days of old? Did a Sebring Sprite not slide underneath and do in a windscreen? Alas, the prospect of hanging Fred Bent from a sea-side lamp post saw him chicken out and replace the piping with a bit of modern technology….a lightweight job made of plastic. Even the big Jag boys such as Paul Carter were raving about this Test.
The end of 23 tests, umpteen road sections, several regularities, so time for a good thaw out in the Grand Hotel… Paul Hargreaves produced a film show of the action, with “In Town Tonight” music of the BBC Home Service… cups were given out, with Frank Fennell showing his accident on the Winter Challenge had done nothing to dent his style and lifted the winners pot despite driving one of the biggest cars.
Geoff Awde of MGA Coupe fame seemed happy enough with second spot, and there were lots of trophies for class awards, even one for Arthur Senior, with Tony Mason waxing on, and on, and on, and on, about what a great bloke his driver is… and, of course, “Now, when I won the RAC back in 1872” but he we can’t report any more…he was drowned out by the groans of Go Home… which we did, after the bar had closed at four in the morning. If you were not here, you missed something – better make sure you join us for next November’s Rally of the Tests. There is going to be another one.