It was late 1967, and Great Britain’s economic fortunes had hit the skids. The pound sterling had been devalued, auto sales were down, and unemployment was up. Tired of the doom and gloom in his newspaper, Sir Max Aitken, owner of London’s Daily Express, wanted to create an event to lift the spirits of his readers…..and increase his circulation. Over a late afternoon, roast beef lunch at The Savoy Grill, Aitken and two of his editors, Tommy Sopwith (of the aviation Sopwiths) and Jocelyn Stevens, hit upon an idea. Why not create a race going half way around the world for “ordinary showroom cars”, as a show case for the British motor industry. Such an event would buoy the public’s spirits, and create export demand in the countries through which the race passed. An initial £10,000 prize was offered by the Express for the winner; Sir Frank Packer, owner of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, was eager to promote the Australian portion of the event; he offered up the prize money for 2nd and 3rd prize, as well as a special cash prize for the top Aussie driver.
An eight man organizing committee was formed to plot the route. Jack Sears, the committee’s organizing secretary and former touring car/endurance sports car racer, chose a 7,000 mile route traveling through 11 countries in as many days. In order to cover the greatest distance overland, it was decided to route the rally from London to Dover, then travel by ferry to Calais; from there, the rally continued to Paris, then Turin, Belgrade, Istanbul, Erzincan, Tehran, Kabul, Sarobi, Delhi and finally Bombay (Mumbai). The first 72 cars to arrive at Bombay would be taken by the S.S. Chusan to Fremantle, in Western Australian. The contestants would then disembark and drive the final 2600 miles across to Sydney. With the combined media push of the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph, the organizers received over 800 applications to compete with 100 teams finally making the cut. The London to Sydney Marathon was on!
Over 500,000 turned out on a late November morning at London’s Crystal Palace to see the drivers off, with millions lining the route to Dover to see what was the largest international rally yet staged. As soon as the drivers left Calais, the trouble began. Thick fog blanketed the route to Paris, often reducing the cars to a walking pace. As the temperature dropped, ice and freezing fog dogged the contestants on the early morning run to Turin. At the Mont Blanc tunnel, French customs officials decided to enforce currency rules and checked all the crews’ money before allowing them to proceed. In Italy, while several teams experienced mechanical difficulties, the Citroen team, lead by Lucien Bianchi, stormed to the front of the field.
In Turkey, children threw rocks at the passing cars, denting body work and smashing a few wind shields. The first “big killer stage” was Sivas to Erzincan in Western Turkey, 170 miles of mountain roads…at night….in driving sleet. Roger Clark, in a MkII Lotus Cortina, broke away from the field, setting a blistering pace on the treacherous night stage at an average speed just under 60 mph. The competitors had a break at Tehran before the rally’s longest stage, a 1500 mile stage through the Elburz Mountains to Kabul. Harry Firth arrived first in Kabul, in a Ford Falcon XT entered by The Daily Telegraph. Only 33 entrants made it to Kabul in the time allotted.
The next stage, Kabul to Sarobi to Delhi, added a new hazard….dust. Both Roger Clark and Paddy Hopkirk stayed at the top of the standings, despite losing over 5 minutes to greatly reduced visibility. With a well paved road over the Khyber Pass, the drivers had few issues as they departed Afghanistan; The transition from Pakistan to India went unexpectedly well, as the two countries set aside their political differences and opened that part of the border for the first time in 3 years.
After a 9 day sea voyage to Fremantle, during which the Australian drivers regaled their European rivals with stories of dust covered potholes and suicidal kangaroos, the remaining teams found themselves in the clutches of the Australian police, who booked 26 of the drivers for mechanical defects and illegal equipment, such as sirens and extra driving lights. The hostile attitude of the Australian police would continue to be a problem for the rest of the event. After departing Perth, the Australian teams, in a bit of karmic payback, would be the first run afoul of kamikaze kangaroos.
The Marathon boiled down to a 3 way contest between Roger Clark’s Lotus Cortina, Simo Lampinen in a Ford Taunus and Lucien Bianchi is a Citroen DS21. Clark’s Cortina suffered a piston failure, and after cannibalizing a teammate’s car, Clark struggled to stay in the top 3. Lampinen, and co-driver Gilbert Staepelaere, were booked for speeding in Victoria, after leading police on a 75 mile chase. Clark again suffered car trouble, when his differential failed. Spotting a Cortina owner nearby, Clark tried to purchase his rear axle. The driver initially refused, until he realized he was talking to Roger Clark when he parted with the axle. After an 80 minute delay, Clark was back on the road. Bianchi, on the other hand, had no such issues. Late in the rally, he’d amassed on 7 penalty points, versus Clark’s 12 and Lampinen’s 40. The rally appeared Bianchi’s for the taking.
Lampinen’s Taunus and Clark’s Cortina both dropped out with mechanical difficulties in the rally’s final stages, allowing Andrew Cowan’s Hillman Hunter and Paddy Hopkirk’s BMC1800 to creep into the top 3. Bianchi lead had become so large that Citroen had booked full page ads in all the British papers to trumpet Bianchi’s foregone victory. You know what they say about tempting fate, don’t you?
98 miles from Sydney, Jean-Claude Ogier had taken over for Bianchi, who was sleeping comfortably in the passenger seat, when their Citroen hit a local Mini head on, on what was supposed to be a closed stage. Paddy Hopkirk, who was at that moment was still in contention for an overall victory and in his final, professional rally, came upon the accident scene and stopped to put out Bianchi’s burning car and render assistance. That left Andrew Cowan’s Hillman Hunter, a car that Cowan had only hoped would finish the event, to be the first to arrive in Sydney and win the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon.