Adventures of a Rally Driver

Adventures of a rally driver.

The year was 1977, the car was a mini 850, and the rally was the Bellingen Valley Rally. So began my rallying career. Bellingen is between Coffs Harbour and Dorrigo on the north coast of NSW. This was the first year of the Bellingen Valley Rally, an event that went on to become the Coffs Harbour Rally, until a few years ago a round of the Australia Rally Championship. But back then it was a small event run in the State forests around Bellingen.

I had become interested in Rallying thanks to the Southern Cross International Rally which used to be based at Port Macquarie but would go through Bellingen and Coffs at some time during its four or five day duration.

The car was a standard mini 850, just full harness seat belts and a Halda. The Halda belonged to my Navigator Peter Liston. We got through scrutineering alright and did the Halda check which involved driving from Bellingen 10 km to Bellingen post office to make sure our Halda reading corresponded with the organisers reading, it didn’t. This Halda was set for miles not KM’s and with no gears to adjust it we decided to wing it. We promptly got lost in the first transport section on our way to the forest. We were also having problems with the regulator. We finally found the control all be it a bit late. Not long into the first section and we were overtaken by a spectator car, not a good sign. The mini was hopelessly under powered, we were down to first gear up some of the hills, and it was way to low. I forget how far into the section, about 10 km and the clutch started to go a bit funny, we decided to go home.
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The next year, (1978) well the 850 had been sold and a Mini Cooper S had replaced it. This car was more like a rally car, roll cage, lights, etc. I had a new navigator as Peter Liston had bought his own car, a Datsun 1600. My new navigator was Colin Green, like Liston, an old school friend. It was the Bellingen Valley Rally again and things looked a lot better, we got through scrutineering with minor problems and we where then asked for our log book, to which I replied, “what’s a log book”. There had not been any thing about log books in the Supp Regs or the club magazine, no one had mentioned log books. This was the first rally that required them and without one it was “no start”. So ended our second rally before it started. This was the start of a long history of not knowing about new rules and regulations that would cause me more problems in the years to come.
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With the disappointment of the Bellingen Valley Rally behind us we decided to enter a rally in Armidale a few months later. No problems at scrutineering this time and we had a log book, so there we were off to the first section. It was a daylight spectator section. Daylight rallying was a new thing back then and I did not much like it. You can see to much in the daylight, all the trees that are that much closer and the sheer drops off the side of mountains that you were blissfully unaware of in the dark. We got through the first section alright but a few hundred metres after the control there was a cattle grid. It was made from rail way line but it was not dug into the ground, it was just sitting on top. The car had a little bull bar that acted like a skid, which lifted the front of the car enough to allow the front wheels to drive on to the cattle grid but the front wheel came off the grid before the back wheel were on it, end result was we were beached. Luckily there were a lot of spectators around who much to their amusement lifted the car enough to drive it off the cattle grid.

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The next section was on shire roads in sheep farming country, very fast and straight with 90 degree corners and concrete causeways scattered throughout the section. In those days rallies were timed to the minute, we lost three minutes but just about everyone else clean sheeted it. The next section was in forest country but not very far into the section and we got a flat tyre in a creek crossing, we drove out of the creek and changed it, but the spare was a bald road tyre. The next section and another creek and the car did what mini’s are known for and stopped. We were in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night in the middle of winter in the middle of a creek. After drying things out and with the last breath of life from the battery the car fired up, but we had had enough, so we found our way back to Armidale and retired from the event.

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I decided that a low front wheel drive, short wheel base mini was not the car to go rallying in, so I started looking for something new. I kept the mini for many years after and used it in Motorkhanas and Hillclimbs. Over the next few months I looked at a Ford Escort and a MK1 Triumph 2000, both cars where unregistered and needed a lot of work, so a two door Leyland Marina ended up being the choice.

The first rally for the Marina was the 1979 Coffs Harbour Rally. Colin Green was still my navigator. The car had a roll cage, lights etc, but was basically standard. Again a creek would play a part in our down fall. Other than the car being a bit low things where going quite well until a deep creek crossing near Ulong, which is high in the hill above Coffs Harbour. Like a lot of cars the Marina had a plastic fan which are known to bend when driving through water and tearing a hole in radiators. So as we drove through the creek I was trying to keep the revs down but only succeeded in stalling it and well, the battery was flat from running all those lights. We were stuck in the middle of a creek in the middle of no where in the middle of the night in the middle of winter again. This section was used twice so we sat there for about three hours before the sweep car came through and jump started us.

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Coffs Harbour Rally 1980. An uneventful rally where every thing went well. I had a new navigator, Cedric Green, from Grafton. We finished 23rd and even though that was not last, it was the last of the runners who had not lost time due to some problem.

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The Grafton Rally 1980. A lot of work had been done to the Marina since the last rally, telescopic shock absorbers fitted to the front, extra leaf in the rear springs, big alternator and the engine had been lifted in the engine bay for more ground clearance. The first section was a daylight section in the Forest south of Grafton. All seemed well until the transport section on the way back into Grafton. The car started to vibrate and the gear stick was moving all over the place. The gear box cross member had broken away. My navigator, Cedric Green (a resourceful farmer) made up a new cross member which bolted to the gear box and was jammed between the torsion bars and the floor. It made a lot of noise but it worked. The only other problem was that I ran wide around a corner hitting a log in the long grass which flipped up and put a dent in the drivers door. Another competitor had a problem that affected us. They had a small off which must had broken a fuel line as by the time we got there the car was well and truly on fire. We were unable to complete that section. We had finished, all be it very late, about two in the morning.
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The Kempsey Rally 1981. This event was where we achieved out best ever result on merit, 12th outright. From the start in Kempsey the rally headed south for a daylight section. Things got of to a bad start with the car dropping a cylinder and we under steered off on one corner. The miss turned out to be just a spark plug lead coming of. The car went well for the rest of the event and it was a bit of a surprise to finish so well. If only that spark plug lead had not fallen off. We did have a problem with the brakes, with the rough roads and with the discs out of true the pads where being knocked off the discs. The result being that there was no brakes on the first application. May be that’s why we were so much quicker than usual!

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The Grafton Rally 1981. Started in South Grafton and headed out on the road to Armidale to the start of the first section. I thought to myself, ‘I have been here before’, and as I ran wide on a corner hitting a log in the long grass, I remembered. That was the same log I hit a few years ago. Not much damage this time just a small dent in the sill. I declared that before the next Grafton Rally I would take a chain saw to that log! The service point was a Nana Glen which is about half way to Coffs Harbour where my father was acting as my service crew. The section before the service point was a long down hill section that really suited the Marina. About half down the mountain we started to smell the brakes and as we pulled up at the control a great cloud of smoke billowed from the front brakes. The control official said they could see the disc glow red as we approached but the pedal never went away. The alternator light was flickering on and of and on inspection at the service point we discovered that the alternator bracket was broken. There was nothing that we could do about it so we would just have to live with it, that meant, no driving lights. Worse was yet to come, the car drooped a cylinder in the next transport section, which turned out to be a blown head gasket. We finished but only just. The Marina retired to the back yard for a long time after that.

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The Grafton Rally 1984. The Marina had been through a back to shell rebuild. A five speed Celica gear box was fitted, the motor was rebuilt, it was resprayed (green) and dozens of fatigue crack had been welded up. The event started with a spectator section at Mountain View Hillclimb track using the access roads as well as the hillclimb. The hillclimb showed up the Marina’s lack of power but otherwise so far so good. The car went well for the rest of the event and we finished in 12th place again.

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The Nambucca Rally 1985. Started in Macksville and headed north towards Nambucca Heads. As the first section got under way a thunder storm hit which turned the road into mud. I don’t think the car was straight for more than 100 metres at a time for the whole section. These days they would have cancelled the event or at least the section. The next section was just as bad we under steered off the road at one corner but the organiser had stationed officials there to push every one back on to the road. We picked up a dent in the rear guard some where as the car was side ways all the time. Driving down a steep slippery muddy hill into gully we noticed a rally car parked of the side of the road which meant we had to slow. Only a few metres further on and there were another three rally cars. We where now down to walking speed and there was no way we would get up the hill in front of us, we tried but ended up parked like the others. Oh for a limited slip diff. We all stood around for about ¾ of an hour before the sweep car arrived, it was an old Nissan 4WD which pulled one car out, no trouble, but they did not have time to help all of us. They said, ‘another 4WD will be along in a minute’. This must have been a new meaning to the word, ‘minute’, after about two hours of dodging leaches a Mitsubishi Pajaro arrived. This 4WD was unable to tow us up the hill so we had to park the 4WD at the top of the hill and winch all the rally cars up. So ended the Marinas last rally. Not long after this CAMS changed the rules making group G rally cars obsolete. The Marina continued to be used in motorkhanas and as a road car but one day it was parked out side the local wreckers under a large spotted gum tree. A large branch broke of the tree and landed on the roof just behind the main roll cage hoop putting a fair sort of dent in the roof and braking the side window.

For all it’s faults the Marina was a great car, not only did I rally it, but I also lived on a dirt road and used it for general transport. At one point while building my house the box trailer remained on the back of the car for about four months. Often loaded to the gunnels with bricks, sand, timber etc, and during a drought I use to tow the box trailer with a 44 gallon drum filled with water on a daily basic from my parents home to my place. The Marina stood up to every thing thrown at it for many years, it was a pity that it did not come to an end in action rather than just parked outside a wreckers.

The Bulahdelah Rally 1990. The first rally for the Dolly and like the first rally in all my previous cars we did not see the finish. The event started at the Bulahdelah Golf Club and headed south to the first competitive section. I had a new navigator for this event who was still coming to grips with it all. Things were like this; bang!! Crash!! Followed by, Caution deep ruts. Or after splashing through a creek crossing, Caution, Creek crossing. Unfortunately she did not get much time to learn about navigating as about 4 KM into the section the car started to feel a bit loose. We drove into a rocky creek about knee deep but we did not drive out the other side. Here I was again, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a creek. We had a flat tyre and the wheel was spinning in the tyre so it would not drive out. So with rally cars going past at two minute intervals we changed the wheel. Problem was the spare was, and this might sound a bit like history repeating it’s self, was a bald low profile road tyre. We decided to call it a night.

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Same car, same driver, same navigator decided to try again a few months later but we did not even get to the start. The rally started at Raymond Terrace, but just out side Kurri Kurri the engine stopped. The rotor button had fallen apart destroying the dizz cap in the process. We towed it back to my Uncles place at Kurri Kurri and come back the next day to pick it up.

So ended my rallying career. I still own the Dolly and I am always planing to compete again, but I don’t think it will happen. Rules and regulations and CAMS, seem to make it next to impossible. So for now it’s, Touring Assemblies, Motorkhanas, Khanacrosses and the occasional Super Sprint.

James Pope

Motorsport