Rally of the Cedars 1971

First published November 2015.

RALLY OF THE CEDARS, 1971 by Nigel Raeburn.

I recently came across the Motoring News report of the only overseas rally I ever competed on – the 1971 Rally of the Cedars in Lebanon.  I think it’s an interesting piece of history.  At that time Lebanon was still pretty peaceful and its capital Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the East’ because of its prosperous way of life and French influence.  The ‘Automobile et Touring Club du Lebanon’ (ATCL) – their equivalent of the RAC – wanted to raise the profile of their major rally and asked Geraint (Gerry) Phillips, rallies editor of Motoring News, to find them some international crews who they then invited to take part using locally provided cars.  Thus it came about that Will Sparrow and I decided to skip the MN AGBO Rally (we had a good lead in the MN Championship at the time) in order to enjoy an all expenses paid week in the Middle East.  As things turned out it may well have cost us the MN Championship – but there you go!

When we flew out to Beirut we had little idea of what sort of rally it was going to be – and the route and format were not issued until just before the start time so it was quite an adventure.  We were assigned an Audi 100LS provided by the Beirut Audi dealer and in the days prior to the start we spent time in their workshop helping get the car prepared – although this did not amount to much more than a sumpguard and tripmeter.

Other overseas crews sourced by Gerry included Eric Jackson (Ford record-breaker – remember the Corsair racing the ocean liner from Cape Town to Southampton) from Barnsley, who was navigated by Gerry himself – they were in a Fiat.  Others were Per-Inge Walfridsson / Torsten Palm from Sweden in a Volvo (Torsten being famous co-driver Gunnar’s brother and at the time a top F3 racing driver), Herbert Volker from Austria, Tony Denton (Jean Denton’s husband) from the UK and other crews from France, Greece, Syria, USA etc as well as many local Lebanese crews, many supported by Lebanese car importers and dealerships.

We stayed at the Phoenicia Hotel, the best hotel in Beirut (since destroyed in the civil wars but now rebuilt) and I shared a room (suite actually) with Eric Jackson as Gerry and Will had come with their wives.  With Eric having travelled the world extensively I had a good crash course in surviving abroad – I remember to this day his advice on what drinks to order at the bar to help deal with upset stomachs!  Beirut was a busy city – I remember the sound of tyre squeal and horn blowing being almost constant from the traffic outside our hotel – but we had a good view of the Med too.

The premises of the ATCL were an eye-opener – situated on the coast a few miles north of Beirut their club HQ was a marina complex complete with lecture theatre, restaurant, Olympic sized pool, bars, boat repair facilities, etc – all to a very high standard.  No comparison I’m afraid with the few UK motor clubs I know of with their own premises – Ross on Wye and de Lacy – although I suppose at that time the RAC was in Belgrave Square!


Our hosts from the ATCL looked after us very well and as well as visits to their clubhouse (drinks by the pool etc!) we were taken out on various trips – e.g. to a famous night club with cabaret and to towns along the coast.  Not all of Lebanon was prosperous however as on the way to the clubhouse we passed miles and miles of shanty town – quite a contrast.

The rally itself covered about 1000 miles, all in Lebanon and mostly on sandy minor roads in the sparsely populated mountains.  The road book was all Tulips – and we only had a pretty rudimentary map.  The format was essentially all-regularity, to the minute, with all control locations secret, but certain sections were designated special stages (still on roads open to other traffic) where the required average speed was stepped up to the impossible level.  An unusual feature was that cars did not run at minute intervals, nor were they seeded, but ran to a secret sequence and gaps only revealed by the organisers shortly before each car started.  The idea behind this was to make it impossible to judge your progress and timing relative to other cars on the road.

What we found once underway were some incredibly rough roads in places (especially on the special stages) with boulders which you had to carefully pick your way round at walking pace (or even, as Gerry reported, stopping to recce on foot the exact course round the boulders – maybe more like a PCT).  Not the sort of special stages we were used to at all!  Unfortunately our rally lasted only a few hours as it was all too rough for our Audi which holed its petrol tank and although we patched it up it was not possible to continue safely.  I recall the hardest navigational challenge was to find our way back to Beirut from where we retired up in the mountains with only that rudimentary map to help!

Most of the non-Lebanese entries retired with car maladies although Per-Inge and Torsten managed to finish despite 8 punctures and win the ‘best overseas’ award.  The rally was won by a local crew in a BMW 2002.  Hopefully the ATCL learned from the feedback from their overseas entrants – but sadly the coming civil wars meant the event never had a chance to develop into a major international rally in the way they would have liked.  Certainly the potential was there with lots of enthusiasm, wonderful terrain and helpful authorities.

For me it was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience – I kept ‘abroad’ for holidays thereafter as there was ample good rallying in the UK!


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