For rally drivers in the late 1960s and early 70s, there were two must do events: the BP Rally and the Southern Cross. The rallies were a total contrast – the BP very navigational, with roads that sometimes made a mockery of the term. That was not to say that drivers had no influence on the outcome of the BPs: when the navigator made a mistake, the race was on and the quicker drivers made up the lost time best.
Erik Carlsson commented after competing in the 1966 BP rally in a factory SAAB: “this event could be won by a good navigator driven around in a taxi”, but many would disagree. Your average taxi driven by your average taxi driver may have had some problems negotiating what Donald Thomson and other BP Directors defined as “roads”. For Thomson, a road was “anything between two fencelines”. The list of BP winners suggests that a good helping of driving talent and ability to preserve the car and get it through the bad stuff was required.
The Southern Cross on the other hand was purely a driver’s event, with well defined roads chosen to test the skills of the drivers and the abilities of the cars. It required no navigation from maps, just accurate reading of the route charts, but there were occasions when navigator’s errors did occur, and did influence the final result. There is an old rally saying: Drivers win events, navigators can only lose them. Hmmmmm.
The first Southern Cross event in 1966 caused huge interest; in fact not since the days of the early Redex Trials had public interest been as high. At that time motor sport was running on the whiff of cigarette smoke, with the 500 mile Bathurst race sponsored by Gallaher and the Southern Cross Rally by Rothmans. Tobacco sponsorship brought money, and the prize pool for the 1966 Southern Cross Rally was £10,000. In those day you could buy a house for not much more. Naturally local excitement was high, and the local car makers were keen to do battle on their home turf with world famous names such as Paddy Hopkirk and Rauno Aaltonen in UK prepared Minis under the team management of Gus Staunton and Evan Green.
Holden entered three Holden HR cars under their Holden Dealers Trials team banner for drivers Tony Roberts, Bob Watson and Reg Lunn. Other strong Holden entries were received from Pat Cullen, Holden dealer in Sydney, who had Greg and John Garard as drivers. Ford, still celebrating Harry Firth’s win in the 1964 Ampol Round Australia event entered Ford Cortina GTs for Firth, Ian Vaughan and Frank Kilfoyle. VW was strong with supported entries for multiple NSW champion Barry Ferguson and others.
For us, the Holden effort did not start well. Travelling in convoy in Sydney heading to scrutiny, the lead car driven by Roberts made a late decision to turn into a service station for fuel. Lunn, following close behind collided with the rear of Roberts’ car, necessitating last minute body repairs to both cars. Fortunately both cars were tidied up before the high profile start at Roselands Shopping Centre.
Without going into great detail the event travelled via Jenolan Caves to Melbourne. The highlight was a multi loop complex of stages in and out of the town of Bethanga, east of Albury, which became known as the Bethanga Stampede. Cars completed four loops, starting side by side in Bethanga’s main street before heading off on different stages. Our car was lined up with Harry Firth’s Cortina on the start line and we realised that the old Fox was going to be a threat when he left us behind quite convincingly.
The return to Sydney was via South and East Gippsland, including the magnificent but very rough Barry Way, which follows the mighty Snowy River.
An interesting sidelight to the 1966 Cross was revealed after the event. I had competed with my driving licence suspended, the result of some indiscretions earlier in the year. I was not aware of this until the event was over.