Motoring News rally memories

First published around 2009.

MN Memories by Nigel Raeburn.

MN rallies played a big part in my rallying life and I am pleased to set out some of my recollections – apologies for any errors (especially dates) but it was a while ago!

My first ever MN event was the OUMDC Targa Rusticana in 1963, where I drove my standard 850 Mini navigated by racing driver John Thurston.  I was in my first year at Cambridge (and John was also an undergraduate at Cambridge in his third year as well as racing and hill-climbing a Mini round Europe – he was one of the very first people to race a Cooper S) and it was traditional for CUAC crews to enter OUMDC events, and vice versa.  I recall the start was at Welshpool, it was a very snowy and icy night and most of the top crews were using studs – but not us.  It was a star-studded entry including Vic Elford, John Sprinzel, David Seigle-Morris and the winners Pat Moss/David Stone in an Anglia, who had a reporter from the long-extinct Sunday Dispatch riding in the back (which must have been exciting!) and a full page report appeared the next weekend as I recall.  We finished in the mid-thirties after a steady night managing to slither round most of the route without hitting anything!

I can recall the first MN event I marshalled – it was the Filldyke in East Anglia around 1964 and I (with some CUAC friends) marshalled a time control out in the remote darkness of the Fens.  This was the infamous Filldyke which resulted in an RAC inquest and I believe the banning of the Clerk of the Course for setting extremely high average speeds (was it 60 mph?)!  There were a number of works cars and crews competing and it was very exciting to see their headlights approaching our control from miles away and the sounds getting nearer and nearer.  I think this night helped get me hooked!

I started navigating on a few MN events in the next couple of years and managed to score my first MN points on the 1967 Mini Miglia with driver Ted Rowland in a Cooper S, Ted being an ex-works co-driver but also quite handy behind the wheel.  I can recall my excitement when we ran in convoy with Roy Fidler at one stage, and I can also remember meeting Rev Rupert Jones at the start at Rochdale Town Hall who of course also enjoyed and nurtured his motor sport with CUAC while at Cambridge.

Soon after this I started a period of about 10 years where MN rallies were a major part of my life, up to 1979, then I had a quiet period apart from having my arm twisted by the late Tim Miller to tackle the Cilwendeg in 1987 in his Peugeot 205 as a nostalgia trip, as at the time it was thought this might be the last ever traditional road rally as legislation took hold – fortunately this proved to not be the case.


So my peak MN period was from 1967 to 1979, mostly with Will Sparrow, but also I enjoyed good one-year campaigns with Cyril Bolton (1976, Mini-Sport Mini, one MN win, Bartley), Bob Bean (1977, Escort Mk 1, 2 MN wins, Costa di Plenti and Mull) and in 1979 with Harold Morley (Escort Mk 2).  Other drivers with whom I did a number of MN events included Geoff Grundy (ex-works Mini), Laurie Richards and Linda Jackson (Escorts).

With Will from 1967 to 1973 we won (in 1970 and 1971) in Minis 9 MN events, with most of our successes in Wales including ‘classics’ such as the Cilwendeg, Gremlin, Nutcracker, Plains, Targa and Vales.  In 1972 we branched off to the new and hotly contested Escort Mexico Championship which we won (beating Messrs Brookes, Dawson, Hill, Pond etc.) and it included some overlapping rounds with the MN Championship.  By 1973 we were with the Martin Group in a Vauxhall Firenza tackling the stage rallies of the RAC Championship, but still ventured out on a few road events as well.

My first ever event with Will was the 1968 Dursley (which had both stages and a long road rally) and the last MN road rally was the 1973 Cilwendeg in the Martin Group Firenza (we came 3rd) – then Will went on to stage rallies only but my heart really was in road events where the navigator really counted – but I did do a lot of stage events as well.

Here are some of my notable memories from those MN years mainly with Will:

  • The Cilwendeg – terrific atmosphere with the huge crowds at the start and indeed all round the very compact route.
  • The buzzing atmosphere at the start of other events like the Nutcracker in Aberdare.
  • The 1969 Bolton – just 9 finishers from nearly 90 starters, we came 2nd … absolutely non-stop over 200 miles – with a pit stop petrol halt.
  • The incredible intricate routes on events like the Plains and the Targa, using footpaths and sometimes tracks not even on the map – and all this on one-inch maps – how did we ever manage to plot and read the route on those maps?
  • Dices and battles – chasing Colin Malkin’s Imp over the Elan Valley, with John Bloxham and  Jimmy Bullough in Escorts many times, with the Cooper brothers and Frank Pierson in Cortinas, with Rob Lawrence in his ex-works Mini and of course our year long battle with George Hill and the late Keith Wood in their Escort in 1971.
  • The first Tour of Mull in 1969 – we had to look at the UK map to find out where Mull was when it was first announced!  I did my recce with George and Keith in the back of George’s father’s Rover 2000 – it was a real exploration of foreign lands!  I came to love the event which I did eight times with various drivers – with results including a 1st, 2nd twice and a 3rd.
  • The final event of 1971 which would decide the Championship and we were neck and neck with George Hill and Keith Wood.  It was the Targa – there was an electric atmosphere at the start near Brecon after a big build-up in Motoring News – our battle was the top story at the time.  It was very tense!  Each led at different times that night, then with only about 10 miles to go to the finish (and I think we were leading) we got stuck on a 3-ply track and a mile or two further on George’s engine gave up.  We both managed to be classified as finishers but George and Keith clinched the Championship by 1 point.  It had been a tremendous season-long battle – but although the competition was intense we were all good friends and it was a terrific year.
  • Multi-lap / 1-minute control strings on Epynt.
  • Absolutely flying through lanes south of Epynt when we had the 8-port head on the car and it was really pushing out the power – maybe it was a Gremlin?
  • Pioneering the use of pace notes on regularly used classic roads like Abergwesyn-Tregaron.
  • The use of ‘sign-posting’ crews – friends who went to tricky turnings to help us find them fast.
  • The Dubonnet – one of the few events outside Wales which we won – I recall Clerk of the Course Stuart Gray setting the finish clocks for the selectives after we, as first car on the road, had finished the section – ‘did you have any problems?’ ; ‘no’ ;  ‘OK, so you have lost 40 seconds and I’ve now set the clock!’.
  • Clever looping back – always look out for it – once Jimmy Bullough/Don Barrow who were running one minute behind at the last control were leaving the next control as we arrived … I was really baffled at the time as we had followed the only apparent route and had no delays – but a clever double back and dual use of a road used earlier was shorter.  Always look for the fastest route which could be much longer – Russell Brookes/ John Brown once used many (20+) miles of A road in the valleys round the edge of Exmoor – twice the distance but no fog which was bad on the direct route over the top of the moors.
  • Low-lights – ingesting water and ‘hydraulicing’ the engine in the ford at Radnor Forest (after I had wrong-slotted and back on route Will was really fired up to make up the time and took the ford very fast!).  Rolling while in the lead near the end on Mull (1970).
  • Most exciting: total brake failure steep downhill on the Cilwendeg – I managed to call a slot into a white which Will managed to take to get us stopped with minimal damage.

They were wonderful times!  My thanks to all the organisers, marshals, fellow competitors and my drivers!



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