REFLECTING ON THE ULSTER RALLY’S HISTORY
WE TRACE THE ROOTS OF A MODERN CLASSIC
With a lead of over two minutes, Cahal Curley – who was nicknamed CB – was coasting. His roaring 911 was chewing up the Irish lanes on his way to victory on the 1976 Ulster Rally, the first running of the event.
With four stages to go, the giant German car ploughed through the lanes. Humpback bridge, T-junction. Austin Frazer yelled the notes. Then clunk.
The gearbox. Curley had caressed the beast into a winning position as attrition struck the other major contenders, but the ’box had been troublesome. Now it was about to cost him his first major win in two years. Could he scrape to the end?
The Ulster came about over a fight for closed road permits. One of the most popular rallies in the world, the Circuit of Ireland, had one. The other was disputed. But in ’76 the clashing clubs came together to create the Ulster.
Somewhat unusual at the time, the event would run through Northern Ireland only; the Circuit of the time was a proper loop of the Emerald Isle. With backing from the Belfast Telegraph, the Ulster started from Antrim and finished in Portrush. For 1976 (only to be struck off the following year) it also formed part of the RAC Rally (now British) Championship of well over 10 rounds.
It attracted the giants. The MN report at the time labelled it “the highest class entry list ever seen in an Irish rally”. Boreham had presence in the North of Ireland for the first time in two years. Roger Clark, Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen were there and the list goes on.
But for every strong Ford entry there was something continental to match. Curley boasted the three-litre Porsche 911 backed by The Chequered Flag, which also ran a new Lancia Stratos for Billy Coleman. The legendary Dessie Mccartney also brought a 911 – albeit 2.8-litres in capacity. It was truly a meeting of the giants.
Immediately, the rallying gods began their work. Clark was swiped from the order with a broken throttle pedal while leading after a handful of stages, adding to his poor luck after winning the British title the year before. Curley scored a puncture and dropped just under a minute to Brookes, who had taken the lead from Clark. The Andrews Heat for Hire driver would also go the same way later on.
For Vatanen, it was a baptism of fire after only a brief effort at Donegal the year before in an Opel Ascona. Driving on compression struts for the first time the soon-to-be champion of Britain took a while to get going in his first prolonged experience of Irish asphalt.
He claimed his first stage win 10 tests in, but a short time later, he’d roll dramatically. The infamous Torr Head – used as part of The Glens super stage on the Circuit of Ireland in 2016 – claimed he and co-driver Pete Bryant after an aggressive roll. It came on the final corner and was just a week on from a similar accident on the 1000 Lakes Rally. Would the Finn remain popular in Boreham? Hindsight is a fantastic thing. He was on his way to his first major title, the British championship.
Vatanen’s last-corner shunt meant Brookes’ strongest competition was taken away. While Mccartney and Curley weren’t an age behind, Brookes appeared comfortable as he tried out experimental suspension for an attack on the Manx later in the year (which ironically Vatanen would win).
Brookes had campaigned for the team to enter the rally and it looked as if his cajoling would pay off. Not so. A few miles before the end of Glendun, there were noises coming from the ‘diff. He and co-driver Ron Crellin completed the test, but it was broken. The car was towed to parc ferme and what followed will go down in Irish folklore. Brookes took off for Dunadry in Antrim where the Ford team was staying in order to take the ‘diff from Clark’s car. However, he wasn’t allowed into the hotel and the police were called thanks to what MN reported as an “un-cooperative night manager”. Brookes shot off for Torr Head, to get the ‘diff from Vatanen’s mangled car! But the clock was ticking and Torr Head was cruel to Brookes too. He was left wishing the robust efforts to compete on the event would have been better spent elsewhere as he was forced to retire, out of time.
So, into the final day and CB had the lead. It was 1m40s, and instead of nursing it, he consequently went out and took the first five stages of the final day. However on the Slieve Gallion test he landed heavily from a jump and bent the undershield, possibly the cause of the gear selection issues as almost immediately he was down to second and fourth only.
Four stages to go and the lack of gears hit. They reached stage end and CB furiously hunted through the ’box with the same vigour he’d chased the Escort of Brookes on the previous day.
Nothing. Surely his bad luck would have to end? Third engaged. The flat six roared and the crew were left worshipping the torquey Stuttgart motor.
He reached the service halt with two stages to go where service crew Patsy Donaghy was waiting. With the selection freed, the duo managed victory by a minute and a half.
Second was one half of the legendary Mccartney brothers entry. Dessie – who is still competing today – was excellent in the smaller-capacity 911. He’d win the event four years later in a Vauxhall Chevette.
Dessie’s brother, Ronnie, had a fight as dramatic as Curley’s event had been. He was competing in the Group 1 class for over 1600cc cars in his Woolworths-backed Escort. His challenge came from Jimmy Mcrae and his Dtv-backed Vauxhall Magnum. Mccartney would drop out, while Mcrae would stamp his authority on the Irish lanes in ominous fashion, managing eighth overall and equal fastest on the last stage. There’d be no hard feelings between Mcrae and the late Mccartney though. When Jimmy wanted his teenage son Colin to learn some car control skills, he sent him to the Circuit of Ireland winner Ronnie and some Irish auto-testers.
And what of another Circuit winner, Coleman? The signs weren’t good when he only got a day of testing in the new Stratos before the event with brake issues, which continued in the rally. A mid-event burst put him fastest on a group of stages. His time at the finish was good enough for fourth but his road penalties left him seventh at the end.
After 19 hours of non-stop flat-out competition, Curly was a worthy winner, one of the most underrated drivers to hail from the Emerald Isles. He won the Donegal Rally four years in a row culminating with a Donegal-circuit double in 1974.
The very first Ulster delivered. Porsche 911s took up the first five spots and drama was aplenty with an entry worthy of any championship in the world. No wonder it’s hung around for 40 years. ■
Vatanen rolled in spectacular fashion on infamous Torr Head
Curley (left) took victory in dramatic fashion