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The 1969 Daily Mirror World Cup rally from London to Mexico

Manufacturers have always recognised the importance of motor sport in promoting their products, and until recently where ‘works’ cars are prepared by motor sport specialists — every factory had its own competition department. From the Sixties, Ford’s hugely successful works rally cars were prepared in a hangar on Boreham airfield in Essex. The airfield had once been used as a race circuit and made a natural proving ground, and it was far enough from production sites to operate peacefully but close to Ford’s Dunton engineering site if special equipment was needed. Such was the success of cars built here that Ford formed its famous Advanced Vehicle Operation to mass produce competition oriented vehicles.

The World Cup cars had sparse but cosy interiors. To help with overtaking on road sections, these were the first left-hand drive works Escorts.

I realise now, that it was a provocative thing to say to a rallying legend. But how else do you break the ice when you’ve just slid into the co-driver’s seat of a 30-year-old Ford Escort rally car beside Hannu Mikkola, the flying Finn who won 18 world championship rallies and the 1983 title? ‘Nice day for it. Mr Mikkola. The car’s running well, and the stage is smooth — hopefully we’ll get a few slidy shots later on without working the old girl too hard?’ What happened next will keep me in ‘I once met a great rally driver’ stories long into my dotage.

Hannu trundled along the first 200 yards of the stage. checking the dials and acclimatising himself with FEV 1H, a car he hadn’t driven in anger for 30 years. As I uttered my innocent provocation, we entered an avenue of traffic cones on the rally school’s mud/gravel course, which was — let me see — a foot wider than the length of a MkI Escort. Hannu noted his cue and pepped up the engine, slewing the Escort broadside along the cone corridor with the classic mudflinger’s turn-left-when-you-want-to-go-right pendulum technique. Hello? Straight road? Laws of physics? None of that mattered to the impassive Mikkola, who whirled the Escort from a full-lock right-facing slide to its left-facing equivalent with the nonchalant flourish of a silver service waiter scraping a dinner plate into a bin, all the while maintaining an impeccable straight-ahead course. Only when he’d gathered up the gambolling Ford did the ice-cool Scandinavian deadpan a reply to my earlier intimation: ‘Ja, surface is good. Ve can go sidevays.’ I stole a blasphemous glance over my shoulder. Predictably, not a cone was out of place...

THIRTY YEARS ago, Hannu Mikkola (with a little help from co-driver Gunnar Palm) carved a place for himself and FEV iH in rallying’s history books with a dominant drive to victory on the epic 16,000-mile DailyMirror World Cup rally. Conceived as a promotional event for that summer’s football World Cup, the rally linked London (site of the 1966 World Cup) with Mexico (venue for the 1970 tournament); it was the longest and most ambitious trip in post-war rallying, and received massive world-wide publicity. It would also make Mikkola and the Escort superstars.

Before the World Cup, both man and machine were exciting new talents with bags of promise and everything to prove. Ford’s latest small saloon burst into rallying in 1968, in Twin Cam form with running gear pinched from the successful Lotus Cortina, and secured victory first time out for works driver Roger Clark in a rallycross at Croft, Darlington. Its first major test was that spring’s San Remo rally, where it finished third despite being blocked by a stricken vehicle. The next two rallies, the Circuit of Ireland and Austrian Alpine, brought Escort wins for Clark and Bengt Soderstrom respectively. But in Austria, Ford rally boss Bill Barnett was impressed by a Finnish student called Hannu Mikkola whose second-place Lancia harrassed Bengt. He decided to try out the youngster in a works Escort: Hannu beat a world-class field to win the 1000 Lakes rally on his Ford debut. Works Escorts took six victories in 1968 and several more in 1969, although much of that season was compromised by preparations for the World Cup. Former BMC motorsports manager Stuart Turner took over at Ford for the 1969 season, and viewed the World Cup as a gauntlet for him to take up. Ford would make every effort to dominate the rally, initially settling on a strong four-car team. But which car? Such was the importance of the decision, virtually every Ford model in Britain and Germany was considered before the nimble Escort was chosen. Then came the conundrum of which engine to use. In sufficiently powerful rally spec, Twin Cam Cortinas had suffered repeated head gasket problems due to poor sub-continental fuel on the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon (for that event the Escort was judged too new to plunge into a 10,000-mile rally). Understandably. Ford didn’t want to risk dropping out of the World Cup over something so trivial as a failed head gasket.‘We had a long meeting about engines.’ says Hannu. ‘The Twin Cam was good to drive, but with its shims we couldn’t change head gaskets fast — a necessity given the fuel we’d use in South America.

We thought about an Escort V6, and Roger Clark tested a prototype on the Alpine rally to try this.’ Clark’s Escort used a German Taunus V6, but it overheated so much in the cramped engine bay that the gearbox’s tolerances tightened up, leaving Clark stuck in gear. The Essex V6 would offer lots of torque and high cruising speeds even in road tune, but Ford envisaged more overheating. Bill Meade of the Competitions Centre advocated the new BDA twin-cam, but this was not yet in production and totally unproven. The issue was resolved when Clark and Palm returned from a recce and reported that expected road speeds of 120mph wouldn’t be necessary to stay competitive — 100mph would suffice. Ford knew it could stretch the modified Kent i6oocc pushrod engine that Holbay were building for the Lotus Seven to 1800cc without compromising its reliability. Only problem was that such a big overbore took the engine to its casting limits, and perhaps 50 blocks would have to be machined to find 15 usable ones. While four shells were prepared at Boreham, Turner — with an eye on the publicity this unprecedented event would bring — organised a set of easily remembered registration numbers: Mikkola and Palm would drive FEV 1H; Jirnmy Greaves (the recently retired World Cup footballer and Ford’s celebrity entrant) would partner Tony Fall in FEV 2H; Roger Clark and Alec Poole would drive 3H, with Timo Makinen and Gilbert Staepelaere taking 4H. (Numbers 5H-8H, incidentally, were used on Escorts for regular 1969 events). Late in the build process, Ford strengthened their squad further with three more Escorts, adding FTW 46H for Rauno Aaltonen/Henry Liddon, FTW 47H for Colin Malkin / Richard Hudson-Evans and FTW 4.8H for Sobieslaw Zasada and Marek Wachowski.

The World Cup rally left London on April 19th, its first major section being a seven-day dash from London to Lisbon via Vienna, Sofia, Yugoslavia, Monza and Northern Spain. The main battle would always be between Ford and British Leyland’s team of four Triumph 2.5PIs, two Maxis and a Mini 1275GT. Citroën fielded a strong team of six DS21S and Hillman prepared Hunters for four private entrants. More stylish private entries included a VW-based beach buggy; and Rolls-Royces Silver Cloud and Silver Shadow. Hannu remembers: ‘Roger knew from London-Sydney that we’d be lighter but still competitive with a crew of two. Leyland went for three, but you never rest in the back. Imagine what you’re fit for after nine hours on stages in the back of a Mini! I was second behind Trautmann’s Citroën by Lisbon, we had four cars in the top ten, and only Malkin out when a sleeping truck driver hit him near Belgrade. But Yugoslavia was rough — the long-distance cars were heavier than normal, causing axle trouble. Jimmy’s bent; Roger’s broke. Roger scrambled to Lisbon, and was flown to England while we relaxed during the nine-day Atlantic crossing. With Greaves in our party, we didn’t go thirsty! ’Clark spent a hectic week at Bagshot test ground developing a quick axle fix. There was no time for elegance, intricacy or Brazilian customs formalities, so all six braces had to fit into suitcases. The resulting alloy plate worked so well, it was a standard on works Escorts until an axle redesign in 1975. When the rally resumed for the 13-day trek from Rio to Buenaventura by way of Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, La Paz, Jima and Cali, the luckless Clark retired almost immediately after co-driver Alec Poole ploughed into an innocent VW Beetle. Mikkola took the lead — never to be challenged again — and pressed on with the grueling schedule, the most memorable part of which was a mammoth special stage in Peru.

‘It was more than 900km (560 miles) long,’ Hannu recalls, ‘mostly at altitude and set at an average speed of 50mph. We started fifth on the road at 6am, and were first within the hour. I hardly saw a vehicle all day, except at our service stop. At breakfast, Stuart Turner asked “Where are the boys?” and was told we’re already on the stage. At lunch, he asked ‘Where are they now?” and we’re still on the stage. At tea he asked again, and was told we were due in any moment. It was nearly dark. ‘That stage was my most tiring ever, but the whole rally was similar. There was hardly any oxygen at altitude, the car was down to 60bhp at times. Some crews carried oxygen. I could hardly keep my eyes open for the last two hours, we were just going through the motions. Near the end we stopped for a puncture. The silence was deafening after 11 hours of engine noise and clattering stones. We could just hear the second car in the distance. Overall, we were something like nine minutes quicker than anyone that day’ After a three-day sea crossing to Panama City, the Escorts dashed to Mexico to finish an unbelievable first (Mikkola), third (Aaltonen), fifth (Makinen), sixth (for the impressive Greaves) and eighth (Zasada) to take the team prize. Mikkola incurred nine hours of penalties. but his winning margin over Brian Culcheth’s Triumph was still a comfortable 1hour 18min. One privately-entered Escort finished 57 hours behind Mikkola! Following its World Cup ordeal, FEV 1H retired immediately and was retained by Ford. It nearly re-emerged for the 25th anniversary World Cup in 1995 but Ford decided instead to build a sister car from a shell. Entrusted with this delicate task was David Sutton’s Historic Motorsport Ltd, who ran works-assisted Escorts for Mikkola and others in the Seventies before taking on Audi UK’s rally programme in the Eighties, resulting in a British championship for Mikkola and an enduring legend in the monstrous Group B Sport Quattros — all of which are in his rally museum in Daventry, Northants. David’s experience ensured the sister car (fittingly marked H1 FEV) powered Mikkola and Palm to an apt double in 1995, and they are currently rebuilding it for this year’s London-Sydney Marathon for Mikkola and his son Juha. Meantime, on a blustering rally stage at Enstone, Oxfordshire, Sutton’s team have fettled FEV 1H for a rare outing with Mikkola to celebrate 30 years since their epic win. He ambles through the puddles to where it is patiently ticking over, the long-distance pushrod engine running impeccably smoothly, and sinks himself deep into the soft seat, designed as much to cushion 16,000 miles of bumps as to lower the centre of gravity. The interior is sparse but comfortable, with good ventilation and no fittings except a dash-mounted Halda Speedpilot and collection of gauges. There’s not even a full roll cage, just visible frontal bars attaching to others inside the windscreen pillar. Into first, and we move off with more of a fellwalker’s ‘tally-ho’ than a sprinter’s searing charge. Even before Hannu’s mind-boggling sideways-on-the-straight demonstration, I’m marveling at how the Escort bounces across the boulders and pot-holes without flinching, yet doesn’t feel remotely soft or wallowy. As Hannu plays with the throttle, the brpp-brpp-brpp of its gravelly engine note complements perfectly the incessant battering of stones against the floor. A quick corner approaches — quickly — and Hannu seems loath to lift off never mind dab the brakes. Oh, I see, you just launch the car roughly where you want to go and shovel dirt with that tank-slapping rear until the desired cornering speed is reached. It’s easy. at least from this seat. Trying to relate Hannu’s steering to the direction we’re going is hard, so I sit and enjoy his swirling flow of arms, safe in the knowledge that cones on an airfield are softer than rocks on a mountain or horses on the Peruvian plains (one of which Jimmy Greaves hit in 1970).

With no notes to decipher and no interest in the Halda’s numbers, I soon get the hang of this co-driver lark. Just smile, keep your lurching limbs out of the way and refrain, at all costs, from bellowing ‘Go on my son, hook up a big one!’ before each bend. Hannu speaks: ‘I still rate the Escort a favourite for driver pleasure: you feel in control. The Quattro was difficult, a car you fought against rather than worked with. It would bite back, but you can do anything with an Escort.’ So he can. We park Sutton’s van in the gravel, sit our lensman on top and ask Hannu to slide by in a gentle arc. Whether in mischief or misunderstanding, he circumnavigates the van at a distance of three feet with the Escort continually pointing straight at it, before stopping beneath a bemused snapper and asking ‘Like that?’ Lovely Hannu, but could you do it further away next time, so we can see more than the flailing bootlid from up here? After two hours slithering its stuff for the camera, the Escort has barely broken sweat, and seems almost sad to be wheeled onto its trailer. I’m relieved a mechanic offers to load up — for Hannu it would doubtless have involved some spectacular twirling somersault and not the ramps designed for the job. As soon as he vacates the Escort he strolls across to world championship rally team Prodrive — who are on the stage conducting a familiarising session with a customer and his WRC-spec Subaru Impreza — to blag a drive. Though an experienced circuit racer, the owner had struggled all morning with a new discipline; even the instructor took a good hour to settle into the tempestuous car. And Hannu? He’s off like a bullet to the first corner, left-foot braking and swinging the scrabbling car like a satchel. He’s instantly 20% quicker than anything I’d seen all day. and in each corner he gets faster and more fluid. For goodness’ sake! The guy hasn’t driven a modern rally car since retiring in 1993, and nothing that powerful since Group B in 1986... When the 50th anniversary World Cup rally is run in 2020, Hannu Mikkola will be 77 years old. I, for one, won’t be betting against him.

FEV 1H 1969 World Cup Escort specification.

Four-cylinder in-line, 1850cc
Twin Weber 45DCOE carbs
Power 140bhp @5500mm
Transmission Five-speed manual
Rear-wheel drive
Brakes: Discs all round
Front independent, MacPherson struts coils springs, track control arm, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, trailing radius arms, leaf springs, telescopic dampers
Weight 2640lb (1200kg)
Performance 0-60mph: l2sec (est) Top speed: 100mph
Cost new n/a
Cost now £60,000-£80,000

All illustrations Copyright Thoroughbred & classic cars 2000.
Words: Lloyd McNeil.
Photography: Mike Johnson.



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