Having barely started rallying, and being daft and impulsive, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to pick up the regs for ’The Monte’ at the Royal Scottish Automobile Club in Blythswood Square when I went in there for lunch one day near the end of 1972. There wasn’t much time until the closing date for entries, so I completed it there and then and took it through to Major R. Tennant Reid together with a cheque for the horrendous sum of one hundred quid! There was so little time in fact, that Bob appended a personal note to my application via the RAC in London which said ‘for favour of stamping and urgent onward transmission to Monte Carlo‘, and sent it off by Special Delivery.
“You’ve what!” exclaimed Isabell when I eventually arrived home. “I’ve entered for the Monte” I repeated. Quite reasonably she asked who I was going to do it with; and this had the immediate effect of making me realise just what I had taken on, and thus began weeks of planning and organisation.
Right enough, a co-driver was the first thing on the agenda. I suspected my wonderful co-driver Frew Bryden would be unable to take the time off for it, although I asked him of course, only to receive the answer I expected. So who was to be the brave soul sitting in the hot seat? With the handicap of the passage of time I am not absolutely certain quite how I was lucky enough to avail myself of the professionalism and experience of the late Ian Muir, (who himself dearly wanted to have the Monte on his CV as it were). I think the tracking-down process was via Jimmy McInnes and John Milne.
International rallying was different in those days, and quite unlike the rather pathetic three-day events in daylight only which we have today. They lasted a week or more and involved days and nights without sleep, and pace notes were something a privateer could only dream of. Also, being a foreign event, there was no question of having or affording my trusty service crew of Mid Bruce and Mike Banks, so everything we needed had to be stowed in the car. Big problem – and the subject of many meetings and ‘phone calls between Ian and myself which usually boiled down to weight and to what we thought we might need.
The dining room at Barnsdale was emptied of furniture and the floor given over to laying out every conceivable thing we thought would have to be taken; but after a while it became obvious that what we had spread out just wouldn’t physically fit into the car, (in spite of a few sterling efforts), and thus began the process of starting all over again with the criteria for inclusion being not what we thought might be handy, but that which we just couldn’t do without. There was much to do, and even my entry number, 307, had to be traced out and painted onto self-adhesive white plastic on the dining room floor, as standard competition numerals weren’t allowed.
With days to go, we were as ready as we were ever going to be; and on the eve of the adventure duly reported to the multi-storey car park near Blythswood Square for signing-on, scrutineering and parc ferme.
The big day started dark and freezing, and I can’t remember if my shivering was because of cold or nerves! A few Glasgow friends including Robert Reid and my uncle John braved the elements to see us off, as did that wonderful stalwart of Scottish rallying – the late Ross Finlay. His advice was not to worry too much about the competition, as most of the foreign private entrants were all ‘flashing teeth and eyes and go-faster tape!’ There were only twelve starters from Glasgow – the other three hundred odd starting from nine varying places such as Stockholm, Warsaw, Paris, a few other capitals I cannot recall, and Monte Carlo itself. Among our little group was the maestro himself, the legendary Hannu Mikkola – of which more later.
Five, four, three, two, one – the Saltire was lifted from the windscreen by Bob Reid whose parting words were, “See you in Rosie’s!” We were off……
There were only three main controls in the UK – Scotch Corner, Watford Gap and Dover. These were easy runs with ample time, and had none of the snow around Carnwath and the Borders that I remembered seeing when I watched the Monte competitors on several occasions before. We only had a little bother, (with the twin down-draught Weber carburettors), which was sorted out in next to no time thanks to the kindness of Norman Masters of the Ford works service crew.
Boulogne, and another freezing early morning, and the start of more serious road sections with shorter times between main controls than allowed in the UK. There were crowds in every town and village willing us to go faster, which we refrained from doing until we saw even the gendarmes urging us to ‘sink the welly’. In France, quite unlike rallying in Britain, where cars seem to be studiously ignored by the general public, but not by the police (!), we could at last let things rip a bit. I remember our first control point in a small town in northern France where we were served breakfast by the mayor who turned out to be an Englishman! He insisted we come with him to see a Norman archway which had recently been discovered in the local church; and although we were in a bit of a hurry to be off, good manners dictated we paid a visit to his pride and joy.
The run south through France was fast but uneventful until we reached the hillier regions around Clermont Ferrand. There was one small incident however which marked out Ian as one of the countries greatest co-drivers and navigators. We were speeding along in convoy at the tail end of about eight competitors, (which included Mikkola), when Ian told me to take a left even although every other car had gone straight on. Just as with Frew, I did as I was told, but did wonder just a wee bit! I needn’t have worried, as about ten minutes later I saw them all come up in my rear-view mirror! (I learned only recently that Ian once co-drove for Stig Blomquist in an RAC Rally and learned Swedish for the event).
In the Rallye Monte Carlo in the old days, there was only one special stage on the first leg between one’s starting point and Monaco itself, and which had to be completed before being allowed to compete on the subsequent two mountain sections for the real meat of the rally. This for us was the Col du Corobin.
I don’t think before or since in my rallying career have I ever known such out and out fear. As I mentioned at the beginning, I was very much a learner driver, and it would be nearly two years before I was third in the championship, and had yet to master even that most basic of rally-driving skills – opposite lock! The stage started down in a valley and climbed way up above the snowline. That was bad enough – but going down the other side was nothing short of terrifying. The road was narrow, there were no crash barriers, and the drops were awesome. I was close to tears with fear, and but for Ian’s comforting words I might have stopped there and then and run home to mummy! We did have a minor prang though when I stupidly braked on an icy hairpin instead of hitting the loud pedal, and we hit the side of a spectator’s BMW; just the other side of which was a chasm, the depth of which I still don’t want to know!
It was at the bottom of this ordeal when I first met Geraint Phillips, aka Verglas of the Motoring News – and I was in a state. Gerry saw this quivering wreck and sussed what was up: so he came over, stuck his head through the window, and in his lilting Welsh accent uttered the words I shall never forget – “You don’t want to worry about these drops boyo. Just imagine it’s a ploughed field out there!”
We made it to Monaco, and, as arranged, Isabell flew out to Nice to meet up with us. We all stayed with a Madame d’Estrange in one of those houses built on the edge of a cliff which seemed to feature all over Monaco. (As an aside, Madame d’Estrange was very friendly with the staff of the Onassis household, and on our first morning with her we found her in tears as she had just heard that Alexander Onassis had died in a ‘plane crash. Even then, just hours after the tragedy had happened, Aristotle himself privately announced to his staff that he was sure his son had been murdered).
A proper sleep before the first of the mountain sections was completely out of the question, and I sweated, tossed and turned all night. That made it about sixty hours without anything approaching a decent kip – but adrenalin is an amazing thing!
We were not to know it as we were flagged off for the second section of the rally, but this Monte was to turn out to become one of the most famous in its long history.
The trouble all started after we had completed only a few special stages, (which didn’t turn out to be so bad, because it was dark, and I couldn’t see the drops!). I also discovered that Ross Finlay was absolutely right about the boy racers as we had to pass dozens of them on the stages.
The next main control was in the village of Burzet high in the mountains, and we drove into what can only be described as a rally circus. There were hundreds of vehicles in the square – rally cars, services wagons, spectators’ cars, tyre trucks, the press – you name it. Ian got out and went to the control point with our road book for stamping, but returned very soon after and told me the marshals weren’t signing in anybody, and there would be an announcement later. The announcement duly came in the form of a marshal who poked his head in the window of every car that bore rally plates, and saying, none too politely, – “Pour vous c’est finis!”
While I went off to find something for us to eat, Ian tried to discover just what the hell was going on, (and thank goodness for his fluent French).
It turned out that a few dozen of the leading cars had made it through what would have been our next stage, but then an avalanche had blocked the route. As the then leading car was French, a Renault Alpine driven by Jean Claude Androuette, co-driven by Michelle Petite, aka ‘Biche’, the organisers decided not to declare force majeure on the stage and thereby effectively put an end to our rally. (We found out not much later that the Clerk of the Course was a twenty-three year old Frenchman who had never even seen the inside of a rally car in his life!)
We three hundred or so privateers hadn’t gone to all the time, trouble and expense to be illegally kicked out of a rally because a young Frog didn’t know the rules! Something had to be done!
The leading light of the rebellion was a Swiss driver who turned out to be a forceful character with a command of most European languages. Our ‘council of war’ centred around a map of the south of France spread out on a car bonnet. We knew we had to stop the rally in its tracks in order to bring about a status of force majeure for the entire complement of competitors, including ‘the ones that got away’. It became apparent that we would have to block several junctions at scattered locations such that the cars still in the rally couldn’t possibly make it to their next main control in time thereby disqualifying them too. Ian and I along with about sixty other cars set off in a high-speed convoy to a junction twenty miles away with instructions to snarl up the route. The blockage we arranged was by parking about thirty cars up the road from the stage and the rest from the junction over the bridge which was the road out to the next special stage control. We sat and waited.
We had the radio tuned to Monte Carlo, and suddenly Ian pricked up his ears. It was the news, and the first item was about competitors blocking the route of the Monte. Here were we thinking we were on a secret mission when every man and his brother knew what we were up to! It didn’t take long for the gendarmes to arrive – and arrive they did. Truckloads of them, and mob handed. They were nasty. Vary nasty indeed. The was none of your ‘good morning sir, would you mind moving your vehicle’. No – it was out with the truncheons, screaming and shouting, demanding our car keys, and generally behaving like a shower of thugs. It was scary enough to make us move.
We then made our way down the route of the rally and came upon a long straight with a bridge in the middle of it whereupon was parked a service van with its wheels removed! We had to laugh! Other competitors and some spectators were parked with us beside the road, and we all wondered just how the gendarmes were going to sort this one out as the driver of the service truck had taken the keys out and flung them into the river along with the wheels!
And then it happened. The most amazing bit of guts and driving skill I have ever witnessed.
The first car down from the stage was the works Escort of Hannu Mikkola. He stopped about four hundred yards from the bridge, and we could hear the throaty snarl of the powerful engine as he stopped there, revving every few seconds, wondering what to do. Suddenly we heard the deafening roar of the RS1600 bursting into life, and with squealing tyres hurtled towards us. About a hundred yards from the bridge he flicked the car right, blasted through the roadside hedge, literally flew down onto the field several feet below, gunned the car towards the river, drove right through it in a cascade of water and noise, roared across the field on the other side, did a wall of death manoeuvre up the banking, blasted through the hedge again, off down the road, and away……! When our dropped jaws returned to normal, all we could do was clap, cheer and salute! Having seen how it could be done, many others then completed the same trick.
The heavy-handed gendarmes soon arrived along with a handful of members of the press and some more spectators. One poor bloke was taking photographs and was immediately pounced on and had his camera ripped from him and the film torn out. Another was manhandled pretty badly. Ian sought to intervene, and for his troubles finished up with a policeman’s pistol thrust into his gut. It was the photograph of this incident that finished up on the front page of The Daily Mirror. Fame at last Ian!
The gendarmes unceremoniously dragged the offending service van off the bridge, and the road again became clear. A little later, and a bit further down the road, the mayhem continued. In a massive field of several hundred acres we witnessed the cream of the world’s rally drivers milling around aimlessly in desperate attempts to find a way out and back onto the route. The first to try was Tony Fall in a works Datsun 240Z who blasted through the hedge quite close to where Ian and I were standing. His effort was in vain as he belly-flopped onto a banking which rose from the hedge to the road. He was right royally stuck!
Tony pleaded with us and the others who had gathered around to get him out of his predicament; but it was Ian, who knew Tony well, who told him there was no way we were going to help him unless he used his position in the Rally Pilots Association to help us. He eventually agreed to take the position seriously and promised to help, so we dragged him onto the road and let him go. (Fortunately his Datsun was an ex-Safari car with lots of grab handles).
Eventually we all finished up back in Monte Carlo and into one of the stormiest meetings of any kind I have ever attended. The organisers were sticking to their guns by saying we hadn’t clocked in at Burzet, (studiously failing to mention that they wouldn’t let us!) We for our part were screaming back saying that the Clerk of the Course hadn’t followed his own, and standard, rally regulations! But it was no use. We were denied further participation, and for the rest of the event became mere spectators.
On a lighter note, two days later was the rally dinner and presentation of prizes which was held in the splendid Sporting Club d’Hiver in Casino Square. Before that event we had to of course pay a visit to the world-famous casino and lay the many one-pound bets we had been given by friends and relatives! Entrée to the best areas of the casino was smoothed by the concourrent badges which Ian and I had to wear on our lapels – and it was truly amusing laying five-franc bets with us resplendent in our dickies and Isabell in a magnificent mink stole lent to her by Madame d’Estrange, beside the seriously rich laying bets for a king’s ransom! James Bond – Eat your heart out!
There was more. One had to arrive at the dinner venue either by car or taxi; so we had to pile into a taxi for the hundred yard journey from the casino to the winter sports club! The reason for this was so that the band could play the appropriate national anthem for the arriving competitors’ grand entrance! Now I know what royalty feels like!
Our last day was also the festival of St. Devota, the patron saint of Monaco – and in addition to the most amazing fireworks display I had every seen, we were within five feet of one of the most beautiful things on the planet: Princess Grace. On the silver screen she is certainly lovely, but close up in the flesh she was a memory that will forever sear my mind.
Postscript – The long journey home was a high-speed blast which we did ‘in a oner‘, with poor Isabell sandwiched into a corner of the back seat between roll cage struts, studded tyres, crash hats, tools, and all the other paraphernalia.
Our Monte fiasco finished up at the FIA in Paris for their adjudication, and not surprisingly they ruled in favour of the privateers. The rally organisers received a severe ticking off and were told to provide us all with free entries for the 1974 event. However, 1974 was the year of the fuel crisis – and the event never took place.
Naive souls that we were, we presumed that we would have our free Monte in 1975 – but the organisers, with a completely straight face, told us that our free entry was only for 1974!