Celebrating 50 years of the Southern Cross Rally

My Southern Cross Rallies – Bob Watson – Part 2

Welcome back!  (Missed part 1? – find it here)

I missed the ‘Cross in 1967, having gone to England for twelve months to work at Vauxhall. My place in the Holden Dealer Team was taken by sports car racer Ron Phillips. I did manage to arrive back in time to drive one of the Holden service cars which was a minor compensation for not competing. Some great stages south of Canberra allowed Barry Ferguson and his VW to show their speed, and he had a good win.

In 1968, the inaugural year of the Australian Rally Championship, I was back in the Holden team, driving an HK Kingswood V8 with two speed automatic transmission. Although powerful, these cars were big, heavy and brakeless, and no match for the Ford Cortinas and John Keran’s Volvo. Keran’s kamikaze driving style introduced a new level of speed to rallying and he managed to keep the Volvo on the road (or near enough to it) to score a great win.

In 1969 because of problems in NSW with the police and road usage for rallies the event shifted to the Gold Coast. I had transferred to Renault following the demise of the Holden Dealer team and drove an R16TS. The car was very tired after a hard year of rallying, and my navigator Jim McAuliffe and I were hoping that if it was going to break it would do so early so that we could sample the delights and fleshpots of the Gold Coast. The car certainly had a lot of problems, smoking wiring, bent steering, all sorts of things went wrong but they were repairable. The car just would not die. Very exasperating.

In 1970 the ‘Cross made its move to Port Macquarie. We had had an incredible season in the Renault R8 Gordinis, winning the Australia and Victorian championships, and we expected a good result in the Cross. Early on we suffered a problem with loss of brake fluid due to a loose bleeder valve, and ran out of brakes. As we pulled over, along came Andrew Cowan in his factory Mini and to our surprise he stopped to ask what the problem was. In no time he fished out and gave us a container of brake fluid. How amazing that a top flight International competitor, favoured to win the event, would do that. Andrew’s sportsmanship is legendary.

Unfortunately neither of us finished the event. Our engine swallowed large amounts of dust and was buggered, and Andrew crashed out.62594_8

The following two years were not good for me. We had the Renault R12 Gordini which followed on from the R8 and was nowhere near as good. 1971 and 1972 saw us retire with gearbox problems. According to the legendary Peter Holinger, the split case gearbox was distorting under high temperatures and causing the gears to mesh incorrectly. Very frustrating. The Southern Cross is like Bathurst or the Melbourne Cup – only once a year, and if things go wrong it is a long wait until the next one.

Renault pulled out of rallying in 1973 and after driving another Holden, this time an HQ Kingswood for Harry Firth in the Victorian championship, Datsun team manager Bruce Wilkinson offered me and Jeff Beaumont a drive in one of the factory Datsun 240Z’s for the Cross. This was a big deal. The other team drivers were Rauno Aaltonen, Shekhar Mehta, Tony Fall and Frank Kilfoyle.

To be honest, the 240Z, which was left hand drive and had a lot of power, had me frightened. It was very difficult to drive, and during a test session I asked Tony Fall to take me for a drive so that I could watch his technique. “You can never afford to let these f..kers understeer”, he said. He was constantly moving the steering wheel, even on straights, to keep the rear end of the car swinging. He was using an enormous amount of energy, it was a new world to me. “They are sh.ts of things to drive in the wet” he said. “If it is raining I’m rolling mine over early”.  Sure enough, it poured rain at Port Macquarie and Tony retired on the first night – rolled over.

LRX828E_67southerncrossThere was one thing about my car (it was ex Monte Carlo Rally) that puzzled everyone including the service crew. There was a switch on the dash, but nothing happened when it was turned on, except that the engine would slow down. Finally we figured it out. The car had a heated windscreen for the ice on the Monte, and it drew an enormous amount of current. You could have fried an egg on the windscreen.

It rained heavily for the entire four days of the 1973 Cross, and it was a nightmare drive. For the first couple of days we were all over the place. Positioning the car on the slushy narrow tracks with left hand drive was far from easy as numerous dents in the bodywork attested. We eventually were one of only nine cars to complete the course, finishing eighth. What a nightmare.

Next year, 1974 appeared to be another golden opportunity to conquer this difficult to win event. Renault Australia had brought out an Alpine A110 factory rally car for dealer showroom display after Renault’s win in the 1973 World Rally Championship. I was fortunate to drive the car in the inaugural Don Capasco Rally in Canberra, the first true European style rally run in Australia, and we won the event by some 9 minutes. The car was brilliant.

After the Capasco the car went off on its tour of Renault dealerships around Australia and we did not get it back until a week before the Southern Cross started. The car was in very bad shape. Every cowboy in every Renault dealer’s around Australia had obviously taken it for a fang, and it needed a month’s work to make it ready for the ‘Cross. Enzo Dozzi and his boys did what they could, but the car was nowhere near what it had been. After a slow start with a few problems, things were starting to come together when – of all things- the ignition coil failed. It is almost universal rally practice to have a spare coil mounted so that if one fails the other can be quickly connected. No spare coil on the Alpine. End of rally.

1975 offered another big hope. Howard Marsden was helped by Ford to import an ex factory Mark 1 BDA Escort, to test the water prior to a major rally assault under Colin Bond in 1976. This was a superb car with a Brian Hart 240 hp motor, easy as pie to drive and super quick. It should have won everything that year, but a few niggles appeared. In the Don Capasco, the engine flamed out every time we went into any water, which was quite frequently. Because of this we lost a lot of time to Greg Carr and in spite of making some fastest times, at the start of the final day we were several minutes behind. Trying too hard, I clipped a stump with the LH rear wheel and that was it. Left hand drive again!281713_orig

The following event was a round of the ARC, the Akademos in Victoria. Because of the curious system adopted by CAMS for the Australian Championship where cars which complied with the championship vehicle eligibility (not many) were allowed to start before those which did not comply with the regulations (most) we ended up following Ed Mulligan’s L34 Torana which was making impenetrable clouds of dust but not much speed. The engine ingested dust (shades of 1970) and the motor suffered a lot of damage. Howard Marsden’s guys rebuilt the BDA locally instead of returning it to the UK, and sadly it was way down on power after the rebuild. We soldiered on in the ARC but the car was not showing its true capabilities. In the Southern Cross the engine slowly deteriorated, and finally cried enough on the final day when we were well in the top 10.

Bob Watson

Continued here…

Southern Cross Gold Anniversary Rally

November 8 - 19, 2016