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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

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