Pat Moss is a BMC works rally ace from a famous racing family, so she knows a thing or two about motorsports skill. Sometimes the simple solution is the best one. Like what she did if she’d lost her way in the great road rallies of the 1960s.
“If we got lost, we just slid back the window and listened out for the TRs," Moss says about the navigation difficulties and noisy rivals she encountered while competing in formidable works Austin Healeys in the Monte Carlo Rally, the Tulip Rally, the Alpine(s), and the Liège, to name a few.
Given the massive mileage, little sleep, and fiendish navigation and time keeping, these rallies were took a major toll on the drivers. As for the cars, mastering these marathon de la route could quickly establish a carmaker’s reputation for reliability and glamour. Think Minis on the Monte, Citroën's DS floating over the Alpes Maritime, and those big Healeys raising the dust on Yugoslavian mountain passes. Moss—Stirling Moss’ sister and the wife of works Saab driver Erik Carlsson—teamed up with Ann Wisdom to win the 1960 Liége-Rome-Liége in one of the most famous big Healey 3000s, URX 727.
These were the rallies that established a heritage still honored today in retrospective events, which see crews come from all over the world to pit their prized cars against the clock and the map. Less all-out road races these days, the schedules are looser (the original Liége-Rome-Liége involved about 96 hours of non-stop driving), but the roads haven't changed much, nor have the skills required to keep the cars going and remain firmly on the black stuff.
Well, that's what I'm telling myself as I'm lying beneath a TR, dropping the transmission so I can deliver this lump of recalcitrant aluminium and helical cut case-hardened-steel—plus the dubious splendour of the Laycock de Normanville overdrive—to expert Peter Cox for a rebuild. It's 2 degrees below zero outside and it's not much warmer in the garage, despite the sibilant warmth of the gas heater alongside (Fire risk? What fire risk?). As one who considers historic road rallying something of a travel agent cum creche for wealthy baby boomers, I'm not entirely sure I should be doing this, but Malcolm McKay's rallies are genuinely different. I know because I've done one.
The Liège-Rome-Liège rallies were among the toughest, attracting works teams and privateers alike. Notes on the event in from Rally Manual, Richard Bensted-Smith's 1960 comprehensive primer go as follows: “There are rallies which are car-breakers and rallies whose appeal is less easy to define. The character of Liége-Rome-Liége has never been in any doubt; it is hard on the car and one great big grind for the drivers. In fact, its indisputably marathon nature gives it a human interest, and inspires personal endeavours, which must be unique.”
McKay took his cue from the foreshortened version of the event announced in 1958 by the Royal Motor Union of Liège, which was solely for cars up to 500-cc. Cars left Belgium on Thursday evening and travelled all night through Germany, crossing the Alps via Austria, then heading east through the Dolomites into Yugoslavia, tackling many loose-surfaced mountain passes on the way.
Without stopping, except for fuel and a snatched sarnie, they turned at Ljubljana and returned through the Dolomites to the Stelvio Pass, descending south to Brescia. There, the cars went into parc fermé for five hours (meaning they could not be worked on), while the crews had a kip (if they arrived on time—none did). Then it was back up the Gavia Pass and down the Stelvio, over the Alps, through Austria and Germany and back to Liège, arriving on Sunday evening. It was more than 2000 miles of flat-out driving, averaging well over 30 mph through three nights, in tiny cars with engines as small as 250-cc.
In 2008, McKay ran a retrospective Liége-Brescia-Liége rally, which was highly enjoyed by crews (I was in a Fiat 500). Since then he's leveraged his map-making and route-finding work by re-running the event for Jaguars. Next year, it's the Triumphs’ turn. Hopefully that includes my 2.2-liter, four-cylinder, and what amounts to a seven-speed-gearbox TR3—if Peter Cox can work his magic and JHU 637 (aka YooHoo) is in a more comfortable place.
The Triumph-only Liége-Brescia-Liége rally is a 10-day event July 11–21. In the hands of previous owner and TR specialist Neil Revington, YooHoo has won a fair bit of silverware in modern rallying, but right now the list of jobs to do before we can take the starters flag seems horribly intimidating. Cox is putting on a spurt with the transmission as the old car is due to be delivered into the tender hands of Glen Hewett at Protek Engineering later this month, but before that I also have to source and fit a new clutch and propshaft before refitting the gearbox—oh, how my back is looking forward to lying on that cold floor again.
And then there's an endless round of forms and regulations, as well as spot lamps, fire extinguishers, and tightening bolts while earning enough to keep the whole show on the road and finding a co-driver and navigator. I'll keep you posted.