LONDON TO SYDNEY
50th anniversary of the Marathon event.
T he London To Sydney Marathon — by road, ship and road — was conceived at the end of 1967. The owner of the Daily Express, Sir Max Aitken, got together with Jocelyn Stevens and Tommy Sopwith, to create a motoring event in 1968, which the Express could sponsor. Sir Max challenged them to promote a monumental transcontinental motor rally which would span the world.
The route covered 10,070 miles with no scheduled rest halts between the London start and Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. There a ship would take the surviving cars to Fremantle (near Perth, in Australia) to start the final 3000-mile dash to Sydney. Starting on 24 November, and ending on 17 December, it was meant to be a straightforward test of crew endurance and reliability — with a tight time schedule, and high speeds required.
Ford was reluctant to get Boreham involved at first, the plan merely being to support two British Fords (Cortina 1600Es) — and there would be two Taunus 20MRSs built in Germany. This soon expanded into four works Lotus Cortina (for Roger Clark, Eric Jackson, Bengt Soderstrom and Rosemary Smith), and three supported Lotus Cortinas and three Taunuses, while Ford-Australia entered three V8-engined Falcon GTs. The main opposition would come from BMC’s front-wheel-drive 1800s, the works Citroen DS21s, and the Hillman Hunter from Rootes/Chrysler.
In preparation, John Davenport and Gunnar Palm surveyed the London to Bombay route in a 1967 works rally Lotus Cortina, while team co-ordinator Bill Barnett and Gunnar Palm then practiced the Australian section, which was to involve 70 hours of flat-out motoring in searing heat. Already there were worries about engine durability, for petrol quality would be unpredictable through the Middle East and into India, until the cars reached Australia.
Roger Clark later summed it up beautifully in his autobiography (Sideways to Victory) when he commented:
‘It wasn’t the flat-out endurance test some people had prophesied, and though there wasn’t an official night stop between London and Bombay, we certainly didn’t go short of sleep. I reckon that by the time we rolled in to Bombay, I had had more good sleep than I normally get, and most of it in beds, too. We slept on the cross-Channel boat, in beds in Turin, Belgrade (about 11 hours), Istanbul and Sivas, and all of this was before we had been given a single hard-working competitive section to cover…’
Even so, the team’s stars soon hit trouble. Ford lost two Lotus Cortinas in the opening days, for Peter Harper’s car (privately prepared by Tecalemit-Jackson, the fuel-injection specialists) suffered a failed water pump, while Bengt Soderstrom’s car suffered a broken cam follower, and eventually ran out of time before it could be fixed. Flat-out Fords Early on there was a long trundle through France, Italy, and Jugoslavia to reach Turkey. Then came the restart from Sivas, where cars tackled their first flat-out challenge to Erzincan, knowing that they would certainly lose time.
The stage distance along the shortest (mud-afflicted) route was 175 miles, and the target time was 2 hours 45 minutes, but no-one really expected to beat that. Not even rallyfavourite Roger Clark made it on time (he lost 6 minutes), with the Staepelaere/Lampinen Taunus 20MRS way back, 14 minutes adrift. The works Hillman Hunter lost 21 minutes.
Next came the long drag across Afghanistan to Kabul, which was meant to be noncompetitive: even so, most of the non-works team lost time, and slipped out of contention. It was here that Rosemary Smith’s Lotus Cortina struck trouble, while Dieter Glemser’s works Taunus engine broke its camshaft drive.
When the cars reached Bombay hours early in spite facing huge and enthusiastic crowds, Ford’s enormous effort looked to be paying
off. Roger Clark was comfortably in the lead, Staepelaere’s Taunus was close behind him, and Eric Jackson’s car was still well-placed.
To follow the drama, the dust, the speed, and the sheer exhaustion of the first half of the Marathon, to rest on board the P&O ship, Chusan was a complete rest-cure. This graceful old ship was on its regular scheduled voyage, made special this time because 72 surviving rally cars, their crews, and many team bosses and media crews were all on board. The cars were securely locked away below decks, and could not be worked on while the ship was at sea.
At was about then that Australian crews started spreading tall stories about the horrors of the route to come. Harry Firth, Ian Vaughan and Bruce Hodgson (driving works Ford-Australia Falcon GTs) were the most inventive, suggesting that European crews would be blown away by what they were about to experience in the final 67 hour/3000-mile dash, and that the Australian experts would leave them far behind. This was more of a wind-up than a promise, for though the Falcons duly pulled up to third, fifth and eighth places before the end, they were still outpaced by the European cars and crews.
It was shortly after a high-profile restart from Perth to Lake King, where Clark was once again on time when almost all others were losing out, that the event suddenly threw itself into high drama. On its way to Quorn, the engine in Clark’s Lotus broke a valve, which damaged a piston. Even though the Ford mechanics cannibalised Eric Jackson’s sister car to repair that of Clark, he was nevertheless 14 minutes late at the Quorn control, and dropped to third place. The Staepelaere/Lampinen Ford Taunus now led the event, and Ford breathed again.
But the chase to the finish was still on. Although Clark’s Cortina regained 8 minutes and second place at Brachina, Cowan’s Hunter moved up to fourth, and Lucien Bianchi’s Citroen took over the lead. Then, north of Murrindal, Clark’s Cortina broke its rear axle, and could only get going again after one had been begged from a local in a Cortina who was passing by. Roger and Ove then lost nearly 100 minutes in getting it changed, and finally fell out of contention.
More drama then ensured. Though Bianchi’s Citroen DS21 was leading, with the Taunus close behind, on the tight, 42 minute, section to Hindmarsh Station, Staepelaere put the Taunus off the road, broke a steering tie rod, and lost nearly 3 hours before repairs could be made.
They think it’s all over
So, it was all over, and Citroen had won — or had they? As Autosport’s reporter saw it:
‘As the cars came down from the mountains towards Nowra, [Bianchi]… handed the driving over to Ogier so that he could snatch a bit of sleep. Then it happened: with Ogier powerless to do anything about it... an [on-coming] Mini collided with the Citroen, and pushed it off the road. Bianchi was trapped inside the car for 20 minutes while help, summoned by Paddy Hopkirk, came along with cutting equipment…’
This meant that the Hillman Hunter, crewed by Andrew Cowan, Brian Coyle and Colin Malkin, pulled off a remarkable victory in the world’s first highly-publicised transcontinental rally. At the finish, in front of a huge crowd at the Warwick Farm race track near Sydney, every car and its crew looked grubby and exhausted, though this was quite excusable.
For Ford, it had been a huge disappointment. First Clark, then Gilbert Staepelaere, might have won the event. For manager Henry Taylor, his team, and in particular Roger Clark , this was a shattering blow. Walter Hayes had to reassure Clark that Ford still loved him — and that it would never happen again. Nor did it — 18 months later, when Hannu Mikkola won the World Cup Rally, it would be in a Kentengined Escort.
An enormous crowd at London’s Crystal Palace circuit greeted the cars which started the London-Sydney Marathon. This was Eric Jackson’s works car.
Roger Clark and Ove Andersson were comfortably leading the Marathon when they arrived in Bombay, India. Another 3,000 miles still to go - Roger Clark and Ove Andersson set out from Perth in Western Australia, on their way towards Sydney — tragically their car would strike serious engine trouble within 36 hours.