First published in the Plains Rally special 50th year programme, 2016.
THE PLAINS AS A MOTORING NEWS ROAD RALLY – by Nigel Raeburn
The Plains Rally was a round of the Motoring News road rally championship from 1968 to 1974, which was the last Plains to run as a road event. Of these seven runnings, I competed as a navigator in five and was a Steward, as I recall, for the final 1974 event. My memories are not exactly crystal clear, but I note here some of the key things I can remember, to try to give a flavour of what the rally was like in those days.
It was a 200 mile night road rally, on a Saturday night, always starting in these years from Border Garage on the old A road running south out of Welshpool. The event invariably attracted a full 120 car entry, and typically about 118 actually started. This number stretched the space available at Border Garage but when everyone was crammed in it made for a real buzzing atmosphere at the start. Usually an hour was given for navigators to plot the route, requiring 80 or more map references and approach/depart directions to be plotted. These were the days of the old 1 inch to the mile OS maps, considerably smaller scale than today’s 1:50000, and marking up the often very intricate route was quite an art – let alone reading them once underway in a noisy bouncing rally car! Also the route usually included quite a lot of unsurfaced white roads, adding to the difficulties. The most popular cars were Minis, Cortinas and in the later years Escorts.
Typically the event was made up of timed to the minute Time Control sections, many of which would be only 4 (the shortest allowed by RAC rules) or 5 minutes long. For example in 1970 there were 75 Time Controls, plus three timed to the second Selectives to ensure any ties would be resolved. This year the route was in three parts, with two petrol halts. The timing was very carefully planned by Clerk of the Course and event founder Alan Jolley, with the aim of ensuring the winners dropped very few minutes but never had to wait for their time – and Alan was a master at this and careful route selection and control siting meant he only used the fine-tuning flexibility offered by Targa timing when required. Some years Alan Jolley had real problems with getting his desired route authorised – for example he submitted 8 different routes until he gained authorisation in 1972. The result was that the event gained a fine reputation for being a non-stop challenge to both sides of the car. It was a tough rally – in 1968 there were only 36 finishers out of 109 starters, in 1971 48 out of 111. Press reports described the rally as ‘unrelenting pressure’, ‘slick organisation’ and ‘first class event’. Such was its success that it was awarded the highly prized Ecurie Cod Fillet Rally of the Year award in both 1971 and 1972.
The terrain used was usually to the west and north from the Welshpool start, so places like the Ceiriog Valley, Dyfnant forest area and the Llandrindod area often featured. The finish venue varied – the Bryn Howel Hotel near Trevor was used a few times and other finish venues were the Hand Hotel at Llangollen and in Newtown in 1974.
The list of winners in this period reflected some of the great names of British rallying in that era:
1968 Rod and Ian Cooper (Lotus Cortina)
1969 and 1974 George Hill / Keith Wood (Mini and Viva)
1970 Frank Pierson / Colin Francis (Escort)
1971 Will Sparrow / Nigel Raeburn (Mini)
1972 Paul Faulkner / Martin Holmes (Escort)
1973 Russell Brookes / John Brown (Escort Mexico)
What can I remember from my own participation? In 1968, the first year Will Sparrow and I rallied together, we came 3rd having lost time getting stuck on a steep slippery hill while leading near the end. In 1969 we had to retire with a broken brake pipe. In 1970 we were stopped for 12 minutes repairing a missing suspension bolt but then had a really good run through the very foggy latter part of the event to work our way back up to 3rd. In 1971 we had a pretty trouble-free run and won. In all these years we were in Minis.
In 1972 there was a clash with not one but two rounds of the new Escort Mexico Championship, which kept me away, but the Plains with its fine reputation nevertheless still attracted a full entry. By 1973 I had moved to the North West with my work and had joined Knutsford and DMC – so I had to get special dispensation to take part (as opposed to organise, which all Club members were expected to help with) and I navigated for Laurie Richards in his Escort – but only for a short while as we had to retire with an engine problem. In 1974, when Tony Goulding took over from Alan Jolley as CoC, I think I was a Steward, although I have no records to confirm this. After this the Club took the decision to change the Plains to a forest special stage rally and it has been a BTRDA round ever since. It is still remembered, however, as one of the very best MN road rallies.