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Celebrating 50 years since the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon rally

By Chris Thompson, 04 Dec 2018 News

Celebrating 50 years since the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon rally news

Hundreds of drivers and mechanics were blazing a motorsport trail half a century ago

Fifty years ago to the day, just a few short of 100 rally cars were making their way through India waiting to board a boat to Perth. It was the first London-Sydney marathon. 

From the 24th of November, right through until the 18th of December, most of these cars would spend hours and hours on the road racing between the aforementioned cities. 

Out of those almost hundred cars only just more than half finished. They travelled through Europe, the Middle East, India, and then right across Australia from Perth after a relatively long voyage. 

But the connection of this race to Australia goes deeper than just the destination, even with the length of time they spent driving across it. 

Several cars made in Australia were filled with Australian drivers and backed by Australian factories in an effort to show the world that Australian cars were tough enough to undertake the task, and fast enough to do it well. 

It was Ford Australia who came out on top, though not overall. Ford won the team prize, the result of a massive PR effort and resource involvement. The three XT Falcon GTs Ford entered came third, sixth, and eighth.

John Smailes, a well-known reporter in the motorsport and motoring media, has released a book on the London-Sydney marathon called Race Around the World. His book details many aspects of the race including traveling through politically tumultuous regions, the mechanical mishaps, and perhaps the most discussed since the event, the conspiracy surrounding the crash of the then winning car only hours away from Sydney. 

Picture: Andrew Cowan (left) with his winning Hillman Hunter and John Smailes

Leading the race with 12 points separating the top six and two separating the lead car and that of second place, was Lucien Bianchi. His co-driver, Jean-Claude Ogier, was driving their Citroen DS on a transport stage the night before they were to arrive presumably first in Sydney. A Mini Cooper with two teenagers in the car came around the corner and smashed into the Citroen. Both cars were travelling rather quickly. 

Andrew Cowan and his team drove the unlikely winner, a Hillman Hunter, to victory.

While the Citroen team maintained there was a conspiracy against them, most other sources suggest this was a complete accident. 

Of course there were other hardships, and some with a more Australian flavour. A team traveling in a Holden HK Monaro fell victim to one such mishap.

A problem with the brake assembly on the rear had made itself known to the crew (of Barry Ferguson, Doug Chivas, and Dave Johnson) while travelling through Western Australia.

“We changed the rear-end [diff and surrounds] in Perth,” Johnson tells MOTOR. In a rally like this it's faster to replace than repair where possible. Unfortunately, only a stock diff was available, not one built to race the width of Australia.

“We actually ended up breaking the diff on the way into Broken Hill, so we had a written message for the rally control team to call ahead and get a car stripped for us in Broken Hill.

“We get there and there are Ford caps everywhere. Everybody's got a cap!

“Ford had done a big promotion and handed out caps to every man and his dog, and flown a bunch of journos in.”

Smailes, as a journo, was there and told us essentially the same thing. But Johnson had an issue with the Ford caps, as you'd imagine a Holden driver would.

“I walked into control, and I thought – oh, shit. What do I do now? If I leave this message with anybody it's likely to end up in the bin.

“I looked around the room and up the back was a cop without a Ford hat on. About the only one in the place.

Picture: Andrew Cowan's Hillman Hunter at the Warwick Farm finish 

“I went over and said ‘what car so you drive mate?’ and he said he had a Holden. I said ‘come here!’.

“The message ended up going through on the police frequency and they went down to the dealer and said ‘Ferguson needs a diff!’

“That was a good bit of cooperation to get us ‘out of jail' as it were.”

Johnson says the rally was “the most fantastic adventure [he's] ever had in his life,” and while there have been similar rallies run in the years since, there have been none as extraordinary as that first trailblazing race fifty years ago.