Manx Memories

First published September 2016.

MANX MEMORIES by Nigel Raeburn.

Among my collection of rally books and the like is what is probably a rare copy of a softcover booklet entitled ’25 Years of the Manx Rally’ by Doug Baird and Gordon Kniveton.  It runs to 80 pages, mostly made up of two page reports from each of the Manx rallies run over those 25 years, plus a collection of photographs and some articles mostly from the organisers’ perspective about the history of the rally.  There is a Foreword by Tony Pond, who of course not only won the rally several times but became a Manx resident for his last few years with us.

There are quite strong connections with the North West and our HRCR Area, as the first Manx rally in 1963 was instigated by the late John Hopwood and Roy Fidler of Ecurie Cod Fillet.  Rallying was unknown on the Isle of Man as they were so focussed on motor-bike racing that no-one had thought to organise a rally.  To start with John and Roy were planning a typical day and night road rally – but almost as an aside the Manx Tourist Chief said ‘would it help if we closed the roads?’.  And so they did, initially just for the daylight sections but from 1964, when John Brown took over as Clerk of the Course, for the night sections as well.

A quality entry of 52 cars was gathered for that first rally in 1963, with Vic Elford in a very standard looking (the book has a photo) works Triumph Vitesse seeded number one.  Our NW crews featured strongly in the results, with Don Barrow navigating Reg McBride to victory and Barrie Potts navigating Phil Simister into second place.  John Sprinzel and Willy Cave came home third – all three top crews in Allardettes (the rally car of the day – basically a 105E Anglia with bigger engine).  Driving tests (autotests) were held on the promenade at Douglas the morning after the rally and these became a tradition which lasted quite a few years.  The event was deemed a great success and this led to it running just about every year since – and in many ways the format has not changed – certainly many of the roads used are exactly the same!

As mentioned John Brown took over as CoC for 1964, and the winner was David Friswell from Barrie (Whizzo) Williams, both in Cooper Ss.  In 1965, with John Stott from the IoM installed as CoC, Tony Fall won.  Manx crews were not to be left out though and often did very well – Dennis Easthope winning in 1966 (from Doug Baird, author of the book) and John Huyton in 1968.

I first did the Manx in 1968 and it was one of the earliest rallies I did with Will Sparrow – at that time it was a round of the Motoring News Championship and it was for the first time of National status.  From 1971 it became an International.  I think I did the rally 8 or 9 times – I’m not quite sure if I did it in 1974 or not – I have no records!  Here is a summary:

1968, Will Sparrow, Mini, 8th overall

1969, Will Sparrow, Mini Cooper S, 4th overall

1971, Andy Dawson, Sunbeam Imp, 6th overall.  I have previously written a separate article about this rally in the Imp.

1972, Will Sparrow, Martin Group Vauxhall Firenza, (debut event for the Martin Group team), retired on stage 2 with engine valve gear failure.

1973, Will Sparrow, Martin Group Vauxhall Firenza, 7th overall (with late substitute standard engine).

1974, probably, Will Sparrow, DTV Group One Vauxhall Magnum, about 12th overall – but no records to confirm this!

UPDATE, January 2017:  Research by Andrew Bodman (many thanks) confirms that Rodney Spokes co-drove for Will on the 1974 Manx, coming second in class to Russell Brookes.  So I only did 8 Manx rallies, not 9!  I did do the historic Three Legs of Mann Rally in 2012 with Paul Wignall in his Porsche 911 so got a chance to revisit the roads then!

1975, Will Sparrow, DTV Group 6 Vauxhall Magnum, retired near end with back axle failure while well placed.

1979, Cyril Bolton, Triumph TR7V8, retired with engine valve gear failure.

1980, Cyril Bolton, Triumph TR7V8, about 11th overall.  My last ‘modern’ rally.

I have quite a lot of memories from these rallies and I’ll try to give you a flavour of what the rally was like by relating a few of these.

When I did my first Manx events, in 1968 and 1969, finding out where the route was to go was a bit of a treasure hunt!  Of course we wanted to do this so we could make pace notes, but the organisers tried to keep the route secret.  The answer was to go to the Council offices on arriving on the island and get a copy of the ‘Road Closure Order’ which they had to issue to inform the residents.  This was an A3 sheet closely printed with details of the route but given by obscure Manx place names and road names – so the next task was to try to plot this on the OS map, which was not easy nor 100% reliable.  However it was possible to work out most of the special stages – the roads to be used if not where the starts and finishes were to be.  Once done, a recce to make pace notes could be started – so all serious entrants came over a few days before the rally to allow time for this.

A ‘hot potato’ issue with the rally was to what extent practicing was allowed.  Technically not at all, but in practice where do you draw the line between a recce and practice?  The organisers tried various methods to control this, like trying to enforce speed limits, but it was for long a problem issue.  I remember one amusing incident when were were doing some mild recceing in the Martin Group Firenza one evening – and the fan belt broke and we had no spare.  Our team manager Eric Dixon was on hand and he persuaded the barmaid at a pub near Ramsey to remove and donate her tights which served to keep us mobile!

The real rally started on the boat over from and to Liverpool which usually turned into a big party – I seem to remember Shipley and District Car Club were the ring-leaders in this.  Once on the island we usually stayed at the rally HQ Sefton Hotel, in the middle of the prom at Douglas, which ensured plenty of rally socialising – although for my two years with Cyril Bolton we had more of a family holiday style stay at some self-catering cottages near Laxey.  I can recall a number of late nights in the bar at the Sefton joining Roger Clark in his training regime – well, it worked for him!  It was a shock one year when the new regime of Tony Pond and Dave Richards were staying there and they came into breakfast one morning having already run to the top of Snaefell (the highest point on the island) – their method seemed to work as well!

Quite a few famous drivers did the rally.  In 1969 we were delighted to beat Pat Moss (in a Fulvia) into 5th place although she got her own back on us by beating us in 1973 (she was then in a Renault Alpine).  Of course this was right at the end her career and I’m sure she was much faster in earlier times!  As the years went by overseas drivers came and did well – Pentti Airikkala, Henri Toivonen and Ari Vatanen, as well as many top Irish drivers like Billy Coleman, Cahal Curley, Dessie McCartney and Bertie Fisher – so it was a real International.

The prize-giving evening at the end of the rally was a big occasion and I remember one year it was held in Summerland, a huge night club and leisure centre on the promenade at Douglas.  This was probably in 1971 which was the year the venue opened – in 1973 there was the dreadful fire there in which over 50 people died.

I remember the prize-giving there for another reason too – there must have been a shortage of seats because a very nice young lady had to spend the whole evening sitting on my lap!

There is a lasting video record of my time on the Manx on a Vauxhall film made in 1975 covering Gerry Marshall’s racing season and the year for the DTV rally team – and it includes an in-car sequence of me reading pace notes over Druidale.  It was a set-up, not filmed on the actual rally.  On the same theme, and filmed on the actual rally, I’m sure you’ve all seen the in-car of Ari Vatanen and the cattle grid on the approach to Tholt-y-Will and co-driver Terry Harryman’s exclamations!

One of the most disappointing retirements was in 1975, when quite near the end of the rally the back axle failed.  We were having a fierce and very close but friendly battle with Tony Pond and Dave Richards in their Dealer Opel Team Ascona.  We had both been going well and were squabbling over about 6th in the high class field.  Ironically soon after we retired so did Tony and Dave – the strain on both cars must have been too much!

The roads used on the rally are very varied, from tight, narrow, bumpy and twisty to fast open wide roads across moorland including parts of the TT course.  In the early years some unsurfaced roads were used too (the Curraghs area as I recall).  They are certainly a good test of all-round skills, especially as a significant part takes place in darkness and it is very often quite foggy too.  From all the recceing and doing 8 or 9 events I can still recall quite a lot of the roads in my mind.

So although my results were rather mixed, I do have many treasured memories from a great rally.  Long may it continue.


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