OFFICE HOURS RALLYING?
by Keith Chamberlain with additional material supplied by Graham Samuel
(text originally published in the July/August 2004 issue of The Middlesex Magazine)
Once upon a time, many years ago, a little club decided it could climb a mountain. Frustrations, dormant for years, were brewing in the breasts of it’s members. Those members felt they could do better than the usual diet of driving tests, production car trials and the occasional 200 mile Oxford to Oxford LCAMC thrash. Truly exciting and testing they might have been but this was not enough for the members of The Middlesex County Automobile Club. They were determined to return the club to it’s rightful place. It started as a whisper. Soon repeated until everyone in the club wanted to be a part of it. Eventually someone was bold enough to speak the dream out loud. Enter a car in the RAC Rally!!!
“Potholers climbing Everest” some unkind person suggested but was soon quieted. Gradually the inner feelings were expressed “this is not so unrealistic, it is possible”, but even then the question mark was still there, under the breath. The committee, normally a sane body designed to quash such foolish thoughts among it’s members, recognised the possibilities and took the matter to heart. A meeting was held in October ‘69 at John William’s house chaired by John Taylor and Harry Poxon, the club secretary, took notes. It was quickly realised that the main problem was to be MONEY. It was thought that we would need at least £300.00!
MCAC Newsletter 1
A subcommittee was formed comprising Graham Samuel, Adrian L’Estrange, Don Caisey, Barry Proctor, John Lacey and Norman Sirett. This duly convened at Graham’s house in November ‘69. Fund raising was the order of the day. First a film show and then a giant raffle to be drawn at the AGM. Next target would be sponsors and then finding willing service crews. We were told to look out for a mention in The Motoring News’ Verglas column (Stuart Turner?). A competition of sorts was mounted to see if any member could (or was willing to) provide a suitable car. Potential drivers put forward were Graham Samuel, John Williams, John Lacey, Keith Chamberlain and Barry Proctor. Soon three cars were on offer, a Sunbeam Imp Sport, a Lotus Cortina and a Mini. Five service crews were identified.
MCAC Newsletter 2
At the March ‘70 meeting it was decided to invite Keith Chamberlain, with his Imp, to be the MCAC entry co-driven by Graham Samuel. Keith had found the eighteen month old car in a scrap yard in West Drayton (rallying an Escort GT he was a regular customer). The roof was at the same level as the seats so some straightening and much glass was called for. Finances were progressing slowly with some £203.00 raised which would cover the entry fee of £50.00 plus insurance etc. However, the main committee generously offered to cover these costs so releasing all the £200.00 for preparation. This was much appreciated as we were all incredibly skint in those days! John Lacey offered to be service manager and the service crews were split into three main crews and two ‘pathfinder’ crews. He was to manage fifteen people in five cars. The car would be Group 1 as this was all that we could afford. Preparation was to be all important. Adrian and Keith visited Rootes Competitions Dept. in Coventry and learned quite a lot from Comps Manager Des O’Dell and his assistant Andy Dawson. There was a lot of work to do. We would prepare for reliability rather than speed. The car was stripped and much welding was carried out thanks to Dave Baker aided and abetted by his brother Tom plus Norman Sirett and John Lacey. Days were spent at the breakers yard stripping as many items as we could carry on a use or return basis as a form of sponsorship. Dave also sprayed the car a bright orange to make sure we couldn’t lose it.
MCAC Newsletter 3
Sponsorship was also gained by Adrian for a supply of oil from Shell and Keith managed to get tyres from Uniroyal. Warwick Wright Ltd supplied a short engine and promised to supply parts at trade prices. The local Rootes dealer in Uxbridge, Grange Garage, also came to our support. The committee grew to include Keith Chamberlain, Mike Willis and Andy Slaughter. By September things were getting exciting. Two silencers from Servais, three hand built batteries from Blue Star, harnesses from Britax, tyres from Uniroyal, rear shock absorbers specially made from Armstrong, all free of charge! The sponsorship team was working well. During the rally a system of telephone calls to Rosemary Williams would keep the team in touch with one another.
An entry was taken in the Dukeries Rally as a shakedown and it was quickly learned that a laminated screen was essential. Harry was to take his caravan and be based at certain strategic spots around the country in order to feed the crews. Christine was in charge of food. Harry was aided and abetted by Mike Willis and Bob Frame. They also carried some of the larger spares such as two front wishbones (huge), windscreen, petrol tank etc., etc. The caravan also provided an excellent promotional feature as Harry always arrived early at the major service points and bagged the best spot. What a welcome sight that van was to become for all involved. MCAC made many friends. Harry and the MCAC had set a precedent that all future teams would follow.
May the writer remind the reader of the original title of this article, “Office Hours Rallying”?. The 1970 RAC Rally started from London Heathrow on Saturday morning. We drove north during Saturday with a few stages on the way to the Yorkshire forests, continuing on through Kielder during that night and on into Scotland by next morning. Without rest we traveled north up into the Scottish Highlands during Sunday and Sunday night returning to the Southern Uplands and the Lake District during Monday to enjoy a well earned night in bed at Blackpool. Tuesday bright and early we were off again driving down through Wales during Tuesday and Tuesday night, and on into the West Country on Wednesday morning returning to Heathrow to a welcome greater than the winner had received. More than 2,500 miles, 79 stages covering some 800 or so miles.
The service crews were all absolutely great. They all found their service spots and arrived on time. They had much work to do. Every bolt and nut that could come loose came loose. Even the bumpers were trying to escape. At the very first service halt manned by Barry Proctor, Andy Slaughter and Pete Timberlake, Keith broke the gearbox trying to back the car onto the ramps. A box full of neutrals and barely started the rally. We were gutted. Service crews, heading for various parts of the country, never to see us again? Harry had set off for Bathgate with his caravan. In deep despair we towed the car behind a service car and with Keith driving and pressing the clutch Graham wrenched the gear lever back and forth and suddenly, hey presto, gears again! We did the rest of the rally without reverse gear leaving us terrified that we might go off.
Our next service problem was judiciously corrected by the team of Dave and Tom Baker with Norman Tipping. They drilled a number of holes in the floor so as to remove a couple of inches of water. We later learned that they also cured Adrian’s cold feet by stuffing wads of newspaper in the rust holes of his Triumph Vitesse Convertible. As we left the last stage finish in Kielder the fan belt started shrieking so we removed it and drove carefully to the next service halt. The water pump had seized and this was the only service crew carrying one. How’s that for good luck? George Harris and Don Caisey fixed it very promptly and we were on our way.
In southern Scotland it rained and the stages became a quagmire following the passing of two hundred or so rally cars. Inevitably we went off and had to try reverse but, again, ended with no gears at all. A marshal, who’s armband made him a little Hitler for the day, decreed we would have to stay there until the rally had passed. Quite how Graham managed to persuade this nasty little individual, not only to help push us out but to leave his post, get his car and tow us until we had freed the gears again we shall never know.
Hunger was a problem. Prior to the rally someone in the club wrote to the makers of Mars bars and obtained a complementary box of one gross. At every service halt a fresh supply was hurled through the window to the crew. Eventually we reached Bathgate. So incredibly cold but there to warm us all was Harry’s caff. Nearly everyone met there and all were sent on their way fully restored. The twelve hour trip up into the Grampians was fairly uneventful for a change but the turn to the south was very welcome nonetheless. At Dumfries the supply of Mars bars was replaced by Haggis pies thanks to Bob Frame. Our troubles were escalating. Everything was coming loose. The offside front wheel was showing about thirty degrees of negative camber which was very good on left handers. A working party was arranged for the Sportsmans Arms in the Lake District. There, John Lacey and Norman Tipping joined several other crews and started to tighten up gear lever, bumpers, doors, seats, steering column etc., whilst Andy set about replacing the offside suspension. A well known lady driver wandering around the service area made an unrepeatable comment about the number of bodies working on one car.
Throughout the rally the car seemed always to be on the ragged edge of its maximum time allowance. Always late. Dashing on through the last Lake District stage in the dark the crew suddenly recognised the screeches of delight as they passed their wives. From the end of that stage they were given a police escort, at speed even through limited areas, all the way to Blackpool. Aren't the cops wonderful?
A bath, a meal, a bed, heaven. And then on to Wales. What rallying enthusiasm. All the school kids were let out into the playground to wave us past, we were even asked for our autographs! Somewhere Keith, going too fast round a bend on a wet road section, had to take to a gate into a field. It should have been a simple matter or turning the car around and driving out but the field was on a steep hill and the grass was very wet and it was impossible to get traction. Suddenly MCAC had reduced the RAC Rally to a Production Car Trial. We seemed to thrash around in there for an interminable time. Another major meal at Harry’s caff at the Severn Bridge service area followed. John managed to weld the dynamo bracket and later Adrian purchased a new one which was fitted on our way back from the Quantocks. Just one final stage in Sandhurst and head towards Heathrow, jubilant.
Those were the days! But we had achieved a finish! 61st out of about 200 starters. We were all ecstatic. MCAC had been reborn and just look what it has achieved since. Well done all. Now, how to follow that in November ‘71?
MCAC Newsletter 4
Footnote from Adrian L'Estrange: It cannot be denied that our venture into the realms of international rallying in 1970 was THE catalyst that set the Club off onto the path to very much greater things. It is a shame that there are now very few existing members who recall those heady days when, even though we had very little money and even less experience, we still were able to make waves in the motor sport scene. Apart from Keith and me, the only participants from those exciting days who are still members are Vice-Presidents Graham Samuel, John and Rosemary Williams, Christine Poxon, Dave Baker (and his brother Tom) and former membership secretary Don Caisey and, last but by no means least, my brother Chris; heaven help me if I have left anyone out! My own effort once the rally got under way was to act as one of the many service crews with brother Chris on the maps in my Triumph Vitesse convertible which had such advanced bodyrot in the driver's door that I had to resort to stuffing it with newspaper to eliminate the draughts, which were so cold that my feet were in danger of freezing!
It should not be forgotten that not only did our venture into International rallying in 1970 form the 're-birth' of the Club from a competitive point of view, it also led to, not a re-birth, but the birth of the Club's social activities. Up to 1970, we had never been able to get even a monthly get together supported by more than the committee members and a few others. However, as a result of the frequent and regular meetings held at Keith's house, The Breakspear Arms Harefield and various other locations in the course of rebuilding the Imp and planning the service crew logistics, we continued to meet after the event on a very regular basis at a variety of local pubs over the years. It was as a direct result of such meetings that we now meet regularly every week at Gerrards Cross.