Stahl

TRIBU­LA­TIONS OF A MARATHON MAN

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

My dad was asleep when his co-driver launched the Merc off the road in Turkey

A FEW WEEKS BACK I PUT ON A PEN­GUIN SUIT AND TOOK MY DAD TO DIN­NER. THIS WAS SPE­CIAL, BE­CAUSE HE LIVES IN BRIS­BANE AND I’M IN SYD­NEY, WHERE THIS DIN­NER WAS BE­ING HELD, AT THE ROYAL AU­TO­MO­BILE CLUB OF AUS­TRALIA.

Dad’s 83, and through a com­bi­na­tion of worn sus­pen­sion bushes and a high roll cen­tre, he no longer han­dles all that well. But he quickly had the tyre-warm­ers on his walker be­cause he wasn’t go­ing to miss this.

The din­ner was to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of the orig­i­nal Lon­don to Syd­ney Marathon, and also ac­knowl­edge its 1977 and 1993 re-runs and other great marathon ral­lies like the 1997 Pek­ing to Paris Mo­tor Chal­lenge.

I was most in­ter­ested in the 1968 event. My dad had been one of the 51 Aus­tralians who com­peted in it, six of whom were among the 150 or so guests at the din­ner.

I was six years old when the Lon­don to Syd­ney Marathon was run. I re­mem­ber the fin­ish of the 16,000km event, my sis­ters and I wan­der­ing around look­ing for our dad when the com­pet­ing cars – only 54 of the 100 starters made the fin­ish – ar­rived and were lined up around the mo­tor rac­ing cir­cuit at War­wick Farm.

The he­roes, of course, were the sur­prise win­ner, Scots­man An­drew Cowan in a Hill­man Hunter, who claimed the mon­u­men­tal £10,000 first prize; enough to buy two Syd­ney houses in 1968. No less lauded were run­ner-up, Paddy Hop­kirk (Austin 1800) and Aussie Ian Vaughan, in one of the three Fal­con XT GTS that won Ford Aus­tralia the teams prize.

My dad ar­rived in a Fal­con, too. Which was not good, as he and his team­mates, a cou­ple of posh Poms named Bobby Buchanan-michael­son (ac­tu­ally, a mil­lion­aire ex-con) and for­mer Tri­umph works driver David Sei­gle-morris, had left the start at Lon­don’s Crys­tal Palace four weeks ear­lier in a Mercedes-benz 280 SE.

The sur­name-de­fi­cient mem­ber of the crew was asleep in the back seat when Sei­gle-morris launched the Merc off the road in Turkey, de­rang­ing the sus­pen­sion and cool­ing sys­tem. This would prove ter­mi­nal to the en­gine in Afghanistan, but not be­fore they were towed by the Turk­ish army, and col­lided with a cow, hav­ing then to es­cape its mur­der­ous and re­venge-bent owner.

And they’d lasted only seven days. For the crews that con­tin­ued, the Lon­don to Syd­ney was an im­mense and quite in­sane ad­ven­ture whose dan­gers are, to­day, dif­fi­cult to truly di­gest. It was brought to life on the night by vet­eran com­men­ta­tor and PR man John Smailes who, as a bright-eyed news­pa­per­man, covered the event, and who’s re­cently com­pleted a book on the ad­ven­ture, Race Across the World.

In 1968 there were no Boe­ing 747s, no mo­bile phones. The route had been laid through In­dia and Pak­istan with no ap­par­ent re­gard for the two be­ing still ef­fec­tively at war. Quite aside from the in­evitable me­chan­i­cal prob­lems on what were of­ten goat tracks and Aussie bull­dust roads, crews were in­jured, robbed, at­tacked by an­i­mals, their cars pelted with stones by feral kids.

The end­ing, wherein F1 driver, Le Mans win­ner and clear Marathon leader Lu­cien Bianchi’s Citroen DS 21 was writ­ten off in a freak ac­ci­dent just 150km from the fin­ish, is one of the most emo­tive sto­ries in mo­tor­sport. It would be trag­i­cally un­der­scored by Bianchi’s death at a Le Mans test just three months later.

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