Rally, the big history

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The first known use of the word rally to include a road competition was the 1911 Monaco Rally (later Monte Carlo Rally). It was organised by a group of wealthy locals who formed the “Sport Automobile Vélocipédique Monégasque” and bankrolled by the “Société des Bains de Mer” (the “sea bathing company”), the operators of the famous casino who were keen to attract wealthy and adventurous motorists to their ‘rallying point’.

The word ‘rally’ comes from the French verb ‘rallier’, meaning to reunite or regroup urgently during a battle. It was in use since at least the seventeenth century and continues to mean to synergise with haste for a purpose. By the time of the invention of the motor car, it was in use as a noun to define the organised mass gathering of people, not to protest or demonstrate, but to promote or celebrate a social, political or religious cause. Motor car rallies were probably being arranged as motor clubs and automobile associations were beginning to form shortly after the first motor cars were being produced.

“Auto Rallies” were common events in the USA in the early twentieth century for the purpose of political caucusing, however many of these rallies were coincidentally aimed at motorists who could attend in convenient fashion rather than being a motoring rally. One early example of a true motor rally, the 1909 Auto Rally Day in Denison, Iowa, United States, gathered approximately 100 vehicles owned by local residents for no other real reason than to give rides to members of the public, using fuel paid for by local businessmen who hoped the event would help sell cars.

In the case of the 1910 Good Roads Rally held in Charleston, South Carolina, a rally was organised to promote the need for better roads. The rally itself had no competition and most vehicles were expected to be parked for its duration. The programme included a visit to some ongoing roadworks, a vehicle parade, with food, drink, dancing and music also arranged. However, the Automobile Club of Columbia, who had members attending the event, independently organised their own road competition to contest on the journey between the two cities. A prize of $10 was awarded to the motorist “approximating the most ideal schedule” between two secret points along the route and who had “the most nearly correct idea of a pleasant and sensible pleasure tour” between the two cities. Though this format of competition itself would later become known as a regularity ‘rally’, it wasn’t at the time, however the trophy and prize were awarded at the rally.

The first known use of the word rally to include a road competition was the 1911 Monaco Rally (later Monte Carlo Rally). It was organised by a group of wealthy locals who formed the “Sport Automobile Vélocipédique Monégasque” and bankrolled by the “Société des Bains de Mer” (the “sea bathing company”), the operators of the famous casino who were keen to attract wealthy and adventurous motorists to their ‘rallying point’. Competitors could start at various locations but with a speed limit of 25kph imposed, the competitive elements were partly based on cleanliness, condition and elegance of the cars and required a jury to choose a winner. However, getting to Monaco in winter was a challenge in itself. A second event was held in 1912.

Origins of motorsport

Rallying as a form of road competition can be traced back to the origins of motorsport, including the world’s first known motor race; the 1894 Paris–Rouen Horseless Carriage Competition (Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux). Sponsored by a Paris newspaper, Le Petit Journal, it attracted considerable public interest and entries from leading manufacturers. The official winner was Albert Lemaître driving a 3 hp Peugeot, although the Comte de Dion had finished first but his steam-powered vehicle was ineligible for the official competition.

The event led to a period of city-to-city road races being organised in Europe and the USA, which introduced many of the features found in later rallies: individual start times with cars running against the clock rather than head to head; time controls at the entry and exit points of towns along the way; road books and route notes; and driving over long distances on ordinary, mainly gravel, roads, facing hazards such as dust, traffic, pedestrians and farm animals.

From 24 September-3 October 1895, the Automobile Club de France sponsored the longest race to date, a 1,710 km (1,060 mi) event from Bordeaux to Agen and back. Because it was held in ten stages, it can be considered the first stage rally. The first three places were taken by a Panhard, a Panhard, and a three-wheeler De Dion-Bouton.

In the Paris–Madrid race of May 1903, the Mors of Fernand Gabriel took just under five and a quarter hours for the 550 km (340 mi) to Bordeaux, an average of 105 km/h (65.3 mph). Speeds had now exceeded the safe limits of dusty highways thronged with spectators and open to other traffic, people and animals and there were numerous crashes, many injuries and eight deaths. The French government stopped the race and banned this style of event. From then on, racing in Europe (apart from Italy) would be on closed circuits, initially on long loops of public highway and then, in 1907, on the first purpose-built track, England’s Brooklands.

Italy had been running road competitions since 1895, when a reliability trial was run from Turin to Asti and back. The country’s first true motor race was held in 1897 along the shore of Lake Maggiore, from Arona to Stresa and back.[24] This led to a long tradition of road racing, including events like Sicily’s Targa Florio (from 1906[25]) and Giro di Sicilia (Tour of Sicily, 1914), which went right round the island, both of which continued on and off until after World War II. The first Alpine event was held in 1898, the Austrian Touring Club’s three-day Automobile Run through South Tyrol, which included the infamous Stelvio Pass.

In Britain, the legal maximum speed of 12 mph (19 km/h) precluded road racing, but in April and May 1900, the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (the forerunner of the Royal Automobile Club) organised the Thousand Mile Trial, a 15-day event linking Britain’s major cities in order to promote this novel form of transport. Seventy vehicles took part, the majority of them trade entries. They had to complete thirteen stages of route varying in length from 43 to 123 miles (69 to 198 km) at average speeds of up to the legal limit of 12 mph (19 km/h), and tackle six hillclimb or speed tests. On rest days and at lunch halts, the cars were shown to the public in exhibition halls. This event was followed in 1901 by a five-day trial based in Glasgow. The Scottish Automobile Club organised an annual Glasgow–London non-stop trial from 1902 to 1904, then the Scottish Reliability Trial from 1905. The Motor Cycling Club allowed cars to enter its trials and runs from 1904 (London–Edinburgh, London–Land’s End, London–Exeter). In 1908 the Royal Automobile Club held its 2,000 mi (3,200 km) International Touring Car Trial, and in 1914 the Light Car Trial for manufacturers of cars up to 1400 cc, to test comparative performances. In 1924, the exercise was repeated as the Small Car Trials.

In Germany, the Herkomer Trophy was first held in 1905, and again in 1906. This challenging five-day event attracted over 100 entrants to tackle its 1,000 km (620 mi) road section, a hillclimb and a speed trial, but it was marred by poor organisation and confusing regulations. One participant had been Prince Henry of Austria, who with the Imperial Automobile Club of Germany, later created the first Prinz Heinrich Fahrt (Prince Henry Trial) in 1908. Another trial was held in 1910. These were very successful, attracting top drivers and works cars from major teams – several manufacturers added “Prince Henry” models to their ranges. The first Alpine Trial was held in 1909, in Austria, and by 1914 this was the toughest event of its kind, producing a star performance from Britain’s James Radley in his Rolls-Royce Alpine Eagle.

In Estonia and Latvia, The Last Race of the Empire was held in the days prior to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. This period was later called the July Crisis. A 706 mile car race of six stages through what is now Estonia and Latvia. The race was the third Baltic Automobile and Aero Club competition for the Grand Duchess Victoria Feodrovna Prize. The participants were mainly of Tsarist Russian and German Nobility.

Two ultra-long distance challenges took place at this time. The Peking-Paris of 1907 was not officially a competition, but a “raid”, the French term for an expedition or collective endeavour whose promoters, the newspaper “Le Matin”, rather optimistically expected participants to help each other; it was ‘won’ by Prince Scipione Borghese, Luigi Barzini, and Ettore Guizzardi in an Itala. The New York–Paris of the following year, which went via Japan and Siberia, was won by George Schuster and others in a Thomas Flyer. Each event attracted only a handful of adventurous souls, but in both cases the successful drivers exhibited characteristics modern rally drivers would recognise: meticulous preparation, mechanical skill, resourcefulness, perseverance and a certain single-minded ruthlessness. Rather gentler (and more akin to modern rallying) was the Glidden Tour, run by the American Automobile Association between 1902 and 1913, which had timed legs between control points and a marking system to determine the winners.

Interwar years

The First World War brought a lull to motorsport. The Monte Carlo Rally was not revived until 1924, but since then, apart from World War II and its aftermath, it has been an annual event and remains a regular round of the World Rally Championship. In the 1930s, helped by the tough winters, it became the premier European rally, attracting 300 or more participants.

In the 1920s, numerous variations on the Alpine theme sprang up in Austria, Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. The most important of these were Austria’s Alpenfahrt, which continued into its 44th edition in 1973, Italy’s Coppa delle Alpi, and the Coupe Internationale des Alpes (International Alpine Trial), organised jointly by the automobile clubs of Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and, latterly, France. This last event, run from 1928 to 1936, attracted strong international fields vying for an individual Glacier Cup or a team Alpine Cup, including successful Talbot, Riley, MG and Triumph teams from Britain and increasingly strong and well funded works representation from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, keen to prove its engineering and sporting prowess with successful marques like Adler, Wanderer and Trumpf.

The French started their own Rallye des Alpes Françaises in 1932, which continued after World War II as the Rallye International des Alpes, the name often shortened to Coupe des Alpes. Other rallies started between the wars included Britain’s RAC Rally (1932) and Belgium’s Liège-Rome-Liège or just Liège, officially called “Le Marathon de la Route” (1931), two events of radically different character; the former a gentle tour between cities from various start points, “rallying” at a seaside resort with a series of manoeuvrability and car control tests; the latter a thinly disguised road race over some of Europe’s toughest mountain roads.

In Ireland, the first Ulster Motor Rally (1931) was run from multiple starting points. After several years in this format, it transitioned into the 1,000-mile (1,600 km) Circuit of Ireland Rally. In Italy, Benito Mussolini’s government encouraged motorsport of all kinds and facilitated road racing, so the sport quickly restarted after World War I. In 1927 the Mille Miglia (Thousand Mile) was founded, run over a 1,000-mile (1,600 km) loop of highways from Brescia to Rome and back. It continued in this form until 1938.

The Liège of August 1939 was the last major event before World War II. Belgium’s Jean Trasenster (Bugatti) and France’s Jean Trevoux (Hotchkiss) tied for first place, denying the German works teams shortly before their countries were overrun. This was one of five Liège wins for Trasenster; Trevoux won four Montes between 1934 and 1951.

rally, the big history
rally, the big history

Post-World War II years

Europe

Rallying was again slow to get under way after a major war, but by the 1950s there were many long-distance road rallies. In Europe, the Monte Carlo Rally, the French and Austrian Alpines, and the Liège were joined by a host of new events that quickly established themselves as classics: the Lisbon Rally (Portugal, 1947), the Tulip Rally (the Netherlands, 1949), the Rally to the Midnight Sun (Sweden, 1951, now the Swedish Rally), the Rally of the 1000 Lakes (Finland, 1951 – now the Rally Finland), and the Acropolis Rally (Greece, 1956). The RAC Rally gained International status on its return in 1951, but for 10 years its emphasis on map-reading navigation and short manoeuvrability tests made it unpopular with foreign crews. The FIA created in 1953 a European Rally Championship (at first called the “Touring Championship”) of eleven events; it was first won by Helmut Polensky of Germany. This was the premier international rallying championship until 1973, when the FIA created the World Rally Championship for Manufacturers.

Initially, most of the major post-war rallies were fairly gentlemanly, but the organisers of the French Alpine and the Liège (which moved its turning point from Rome into Yugoslavia in 1956) straight away set difficult time schedules: the Automobile Club de Marseille et Provence laid on a long tough route over a succession of rugged passes, stated that cars would have to be driven flat out from start to finish, and gave a coveted Coupe des Alpes (“Alpine Cup”) to anyone achieving an unpenalised run; while Belgium’s Royal Motor Union made clear no car was expected to finish the Liège unpenalised – when one did (1951 winner Johnny Claes in a Jaguar XK120) they tightened the timing to make sure it never happened again. These two events became the ones for “the men” to do. The Monte, because of its glamour, got the media coverage and the biggest entries (and in snowy years was also a genuine challenge); while the Acropolis took advantage of Greece’s appalling roads to become a truly tough event. In 1956 came Corsica’s Tour de Corse, 24 hours of virtually non-stop flat out driving on some of the narrowest and twistiest mountain roads on the planet – the first major rally to be won by a woman, Belgium’s Gilberte Thirion, in a Renault Dauphine.

These events were road races in all but name, but in Italy such races were still allowed, and the Mille Miglia continued until a serious accident in 1957 caused it to be banned. Meanwhile, in 1981, the Tour de France was revived by the Automobile-Club de Nice as a different kind of rally, based primarily on a series of races at circuits and hillclimbs around the country. It was successful for a while and continued until 1986. It spawned similar events in a few other countries, but none survive.

South America

In countries where there was no shortage of demanding roads across remote terrain, other events sprang up. In South America, the biggest of these took the form of long distance city to city races, each around 5,000 to 6,000 miles (8,000 to 9,700 km), divided into daily legs. The first was the Gran Premio del Norte of 1940, run from Buenos Aires to Lima and back; it was won by Juan Manuel Fangio in a much modified Chevrolet coupé. This event was repeated in 1947, and in 1948 an even more ambitious one was held, the Gran Premio de la América del Sur from Buenos Aires to Caracas, Venezuela—Fangio had an accident in which his co-driver was killed. Then in 1950 came the fast and dangerous Carrera Panamericana, a 1,911-mile (3,075 km) road race in stages across Mexico to celebrate the opening of the asphalt highway between the Guatemala and United States borders, which ran until 1954. All these events fell victim to the cost – financial, social and environmental – of putting them on in an increasingly complex and developed world, although smaller road races continued long after, and a few still do in countries like Bolivia.

Africa

In Africa, 1950 saw the first French-run Méditerranée-le Cap, a 10,000-mile (16,000 km) rally from the Mediterranean to South Africa; it was run on and off until 1961, when the new political situation hastened its demise. In 1953 East Africa saw the demanding Coronation Safari, which went on to become the Safari Rally and a World Championship round, to be followed in due course by the Rallye du Maroc and the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire. Australia’s Redex Round Australia Trial also dates from 1953, although this remained isolated from the rest of the rallying world.

North America

Canada hosted one of the world’s longest and most gruelling rallies in the 1960s, the Shell 4000 Rally. It was the only one sanctioned by the FIA in North America.

Intercontinental rallying

The quest for longer and tougher events saw the re-establishment of the intercontinental rallies beginning with the London–Sydney Marathon held in 1968. The rally trekked across Europe, the Middle-East and the sub-continent before boarding a ship in Bombay to arrive in Fremantle eight days later before the final push across Australia to Sydney. It attracted over 100 crews including a number of works teams and top drivers; it was won by the Hillman Hunter of Andrew Cowan/Brian Coyle/Colin Malkin. The huge success of this event saw the creation of the World Cup Rallies, linked to Association Football’s FIFA World Cup. The first was the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally which saw competitors travel from London eastwards across to Bulgaria before turning westwards on a more southerly route before boarding a ship in Lisbon. Disembarking in Rio de Janeiro the route travelled southward into Argentina before turning northwards along the western coast of South America before arriving in Mexico City. The Ford Escort of Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm won. These were followed in 1974 by the London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally, and in 1977 by the Singapore Airlines London-Sydney Rally.

The 1974 London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally followed four years later. The rally travelled southwards into Africa but a navigational error saw most of the rally become lost in Algerian desert. Eventually only seven teams reached the southernmost point of the rally in Nigeria with five teams making it back to West Germany having driven all legs and only the winning team completing the full distance. This, coupled with the economic climate of the 1970s the heat went out of intercontinental rallying after a second London–Sydney Marathon in 1977. The concept was revived in 1979 for the inaugural Paris-Dakar Rally. The success of the Dakar would eventually see intercontinental rallying recognised as its own discipline; the Rally Raid.

Introduction of special stages

Rallying became very popular in Sweden and Finland in the 1950s, thanks in part to the invention there of the specialsträcka (Swedish) or erikoiskoe (Finnish), or special stage. These were shorter sections of route, usually on minor or private roads—predominantly gravel in these countries—away from habitation and traffic, which were separately timed.[70][71] These provided the solution to the conflict inherent in the notion of driving as fast as possible on ordinary roads. The idea spread to other countries, albeit more slowly to the most demanding events.

The RAC Rally had formally become an International event in 1951, but Britain’s laws precluded the closure of public highways for special stages. This meant it had to rely on short manoeuvrability tests, regularity sections and night map-reading navigation to find a winner, which made it unattractive to foreign crews. In 1961, Jack Kemsley was able to persuade the Forestry Commission to open their many hundreds of miles of well surfaced and sinuous gravel roads, and the event was transformed into one of the most demanding and popular in the calendar, by 1983 having over 600 miles (970 km) of stage. It was later renamed Rally GB.

Rallying also took off in Spain and Portugal and by the 1960s had spread to their colonial territories in the mid-Atlantic. By the end of the 1960s events had not only begun in Madeira and the Canary Islands, but also on the far-flung Azores

Modern times

The introduction of the special stage effectively brought rallying into its modern form. Since then, the nature of the events has evolved relatively slowly though over time, rallies have tended to become shorter in distance, but also allowing for more events to be organised. Some of the older international events have gone, replaced by others from a much wider spread of countries around the world and many more local events.

The World Rally Championship was inaugurated in 1973 at first only for manufacturers and won that first year by Alpine-Renault. Not until 1979 was there a World Rally Championship for Drivers, won by Björn Waldegård. Popular international rallies were included in the championship and professional drivers have been employed alongside amateur entrants for the entirety of its existence. In the 21st century the events began to take a common “clover-leaf” format instead of the touring “A-B” format. A central service park would provide the base for all the teams and officials, including all overnight halts, with the special stages within reach of the service.