25 Years of Rallycross

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John Taylor at Lydden in 1973As long as enthusiasts enthuse there will always be prolonged debate on the birth of rallycross. Opinion is divided about the first rallycross meeting; some say it took place at Brands Hatch in 1963, others that Lydden was the venue in 1967. The Brands Hatch event was conceived to help the BBC TV Grandstand production team, a one-off meeting designed to fill the void caused by the cancellation of numerous horse racing events because of heavy snow and reoccurring sharp frosts. Raymond Baxter was charged with conjuring up something exciting - and hey presto! The Monte Carlo Rally had just taken place and so there was an abundance of cars and drivers who were readily available. Bulldozers cut a series of swathes through the deep snow in the car parks at Brands in order to set up a series of special stages and one bitterly cold Saturday a surprisingly large crowd of spectators turned up to watch their own 'mini-Monte'. Vic Elford in the AFN Porsche 911 won the first 'Motor Rally-Cross' at Lydden 1967There was a superb entry and Eric Carlsson (Saab), Paddy Hopkirk (Cooper S) and Vic Elford (Vitesse) were all very impressive. But the stars of the show were unboubtedly Timo Makinen and one of the BMC team's charismatic Austin-Healey 3000 models. The 'Flying Finn' thrilled the crowd with his verve and aggression as he hurled the big Healey through the snow drifts and bounced it between the snow banks on his way to victory. The event was called 'Rallysprint' and cars started one at a time as there was no room to pass. Four years passed before Bill Chesson thought of attracting the Monte Carlo rally competitors to his recently completed circuit at Lydden. A promoter in the true sense of the word, Chesson had organised a variety of successful grass-track events at the venue and had laid a tarmac surface just a few months before. He had intended to make it one mile long but a temporary cash-flow problem meant that he had to turn back at the bottom of Hairy Hill to complete the circuit before he ran out of money. The North Bend hairpin loop was added later. Harald Neger's Alpine A110There were two grass tracks at Lydden. One was at the top of the hill behind the current paddock and was called Lydden Hill, while the other was on the same site as the existing circuit and was known as Lydden Autosports track. It seems ironic that certain sections of the motoring press, including Autosport correspondents, failed to understand the difference and until recently persisted in referring to the existing circuit as Lydden Hill. The organisation of that first rallycross meeting at Lydden was entrusted to the Tunbridge Wells Centre of the 750 Motor Club and coverage by the World of Sport Programme (ABC TV at that time) guaranteed a first-class entry. Significantly, almost a third of the competitors were driving factory team cars. BMC was represented by Tony Fall and Bob Freeborough in 1275 Cooper S models. For the Rootes Group Peter Harper and Eric Hassell drove Sunbeam Imp specials and there were factory Fords for Roger Clark and Brian Melia. Standard-Triumph relied on Roy Fidler's Triumph 2000, while Porsche loaned Vic Elford a car through AFN. Prominent private entrants in twin-cam Lotus Cortinas included Alan Allard, Rod Mansfield, who made his name in circuit racing with an Anglia, Rod Chapman, one of the sports' first stars and Mike Butler, owner of a motor accessory business in Rochester. Former British saloon car champion Ray Calcutt had somewhat ambitiously rescued an ageing Sunbeam Rapier from Alan Fraser's garage, where he worked as a salesman after resigning from his previous job as a patrol car driver for the Kent County Constabulary. Other unlikely entries included John Sprinzel's MG Midget and a Fiat Abarth for John Aley. The event was billed as 'the first ever Motor Rally-Cross,' and John Davenport's headline in Autosport read; 'Vic Elford wins the first Rallycross.' Melia was only two tenths slower, while Fall and Butler were further adrift. The best Clarks could manage was 5th but he was apparently denied a twin-cam and was forced to rely on a Cortina GT. That first meeting was decided by the best time of each competitor but the next event, again at Lydden in September of the same year, relied upon the aggregate times of three runs. On this occasion Peter Harper's Imp was eight seconds quicker than runner-up Paddy Hopkirk, who was driving the famous Cooper S, GRX 5D. The third meeting at Lydden, which was also the second round of the World of Sport series should have included several foreign drivers who were hoping to take part on their way back from the RAC Rally. Unfortunately, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease caused the RAC event to be cancelled and so the foreigners never arrived. Consequently, another Imp was victorious in the hands of Andrew Cowan, while the Coopers of Roy Edwards and Paddy Hopkirk finished 2nd and 3rd respectively. Those early events were marred by three problems which were all caused by the loose shale put down to cover the chalk. Constant hammering by the cars caused the surface to shift, creating 'waves' which regularly launched the cars into spectacular but sometimes damaging jumps. The flying stones frequently cracked windscreens and if it were wet the screens soon became smothered in muck, effectively blinding the drivers. The drivers were not used to coping with visibility problems as most of them were rally competitors who normally started at one at a time. Hopkirk, who was a regular contributor to Autosport at the time, wrote; It depended very much on whoever got into the first corner in front because anyone behind was immediately blinded by the mud. Some people even drove with the windscreen out; we had a continuous pump with a tube up the wiper blade so that the water squirted on to both the wiper and the screen. But it wasn't enough and you got mud about an inch thick and lumps the size of a cricket ball nothing would shift. Somebody suggested having a chap by the trackside close enough to throw buckets of water at the cars but there wasn't many volunteers, except Brian Gillibrand, who missed....' Jan de Rooy bounces his Daf accross Lydden's Meadow sectionBy now the cars were starting four at a time, but the narrow track at Lydden made this rather hazardous, especially if it was wet and on more than one occasion subsequently Bill Chesson was obliged to revert to starting singly when the weather was particularly bad. The Thames Estuary Automobile Club was involved in rallycross almost from the very beginning and they soon introduced a system whereby two heats started in quick succession so that there were eight cars on the track concurrently. On New Year's day in 1968, Croft held its first rallycross event and in October of the following year Cadwell Park also became a rallycross venue. By the end of the 1960s the Escort twin-cam was becoming a regular winner in dry conditions, while Minis and Imps still held the advantage in the wet. John Welch slides his Escot off the MeadowAs the factory teams began to divert their attentions elsewhere several prominent privateers began to emerge. Barry Lee celebrated his first Lydden win by getting married the following day and a certain Winston Percy proved very spectacular with a 1650cc Anglia. Several circuit racers soon became successful as well; John Rhodes, John Handley, Gerry Marshall and Bill McGovern were just a few. Some unlikely cars proved surprisingly impressive. The Abingdon-built Austin 1800 Land Crabs were quick and easy to handle, although at Lydden Geoff Mabbs managed to roll his over what is now known, needless to sat, as Mabbs Bank. John Taylor soon came to notice with an ancient Volvo and Paul Kerridge became a regular front runner with his Lotus Europa, despite minimal ground clearance. In 1970 the four-wheel drive factory Ford Capris appeared. They were truly spectacular but unpredictable. The Dunlop Maxaret transmission system lacked the sophistication of today's variable-bias systems and there was very little warning before chronic under steer turned into a complete pirouette. Rod Chapman four-wheel drive Capri taps Bran Chatfield's Mini at Lydden's devil's ElbowRoger Clark enjoyed limited success, but the inimitable Rod Chapman tamed the beast by the simple process of throwing it sideways everywhere. When his trajectory followed the same path as the track he was virtually unbeatable but quite often it didn't and then he wasn't. The national newspapers were immediately attracted by the charisma of the big Capris and soon cars appeared for Roger and Stan Clark in the colours of the Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph respectively. Chapman continued to receive sponsorship from his local Ford dealer, Stormont Engineering. By 1972 rallycross had spread to Europe and the de Rooy brothers, Jan and Harry, led the continental invasion with their potent four-wheel drive BDA-powered DAFs. But penalties of 10 seconds (later reduced to five) for the four-wheel drive cars meant that the Dutchmen were forced to resort to unacceptably aggressive tactics and they were subsequently banned. Mick Bird in his front wheel drive MiniBut the most consistently successful car was undoubtedly the Mini in its various forms and in the hands of drivers like Hugh Wheldon, 'Jumping' Jeff Williamson, David Preece, Brian Chatfield, Tony Skelton, George Jackson and Don Gilham, the little front-wheel drive machines were well to the fore in the formative years of rallycross. Later on drivers such as Tom Airey, Nick Jesty, Keith Ripp, Mike Bird and David Angel ensured the continuing success of the Mini. Meanwhile a certain young man from Whistable with a mustard-coloured Mini was beginning to win Autocross events in the area. His name was Will Gollop. The Ford dealer, Haynes of Maidstone, became attracted to the sport by the enthusiasm and success of John Taylor, who leaved nearby at Ulcombe. Despite a back injury which had forced him to give up steeple chasing, John pressed on regardless in spectacular style with his Escort RS1800 and at the end of 1973 he managed to clinch the inaugural European Championship on his home track at Lydden. With Rod Chapman in 2nd place it was a fairytale climax to the season and from that day on rallycross has never looked back.Tags: