A good pub is a source of much more than a pint. I used to frequent one in particular that attracted an unusually eclectic range of drinkers, one of whom was a tree surgeon who recognised my interest in rallying. One evening a few years ago my better half arrived home from her shift behind the bar with a carrier bag containing two photo albums, confident that I would like what was inside. The tree surgeon had been going through his late stepfather’s possessions and discovered a stash of old rallying photos. Here, courtesy of a man only identified as “Dean’s stepfather”, we can travel back in time exactly 33 years ago to the week, and revisit the 1985 Lombard RAC Rally.
The photos are those of a keen amateur. This was a time before the world went digital, when photography took a far greater commitment in terms of investment and skill. You had to decide in advance if you wanted to shoot 24 or 36 frames, chose your film speed to suit your planned application, loaded it into the camera and took aim. Unless you had the funds to keep feeding a hungry motor drive you generally had one opportunity to get your perfect shot. If you missed the moment, it was gone. Your framing needed to be right first time too. Most people didn’t develop their own images, preferring to keep their bathroom for bathing. Instead you would drop your completed rolls off for processing, wait patiently for a few days, and finally open the envelope with anticipation, hoping the image on the glossy Kodak paper would be the one you thought you’d captured the week before… So a few of these rally photos are a little blurred, but that only enhances the movement. Some are cropped a little tight, but the cars seem ready to jump straight down the lens. You can feel the winter chill and revel in the bold colour schemes of the era; Computervision, Andrews Heat for Hire, AC Delco, Martini, Peugeot Talbot Sport and Surprising Skodas. 1985 was a prime time for photogenic rally cars.
The Lombard RAC Rally was traditionally the final round of the World Championship. It was an era when rallying still captured the imagination of the general public and it was the largest annual spectator event in the country – not just in motorsport terms but of all spectator events of any kind. The 1985 rally was set to be an epic event of proportions that could not be repeated today. 155 cars assembled in Nottingham for the start on 24th November and the survivors wouldn’t see the finish line until five days later. Clerk of the Course Dave Whittock’s route comprised 63 stages totalling 556 competitive miles, but when transport sections were accounted for the total mileage came to 2,205. During the final four days, the crews would only stop for a total of 10 hours. Conditions were expected to be challenging, and competitors would face long days tackling stages all over the country in freezing conditions with a large proportion of the route scheduled to run in the pitch dark. Oh, and just in case you imagine a good set of pace notes would take care of things, there weren’t any. This rally was still run on Ordnance Survey maps, just like the ones you might use when out for a Sunday walk. The demands of the 1985 route had roused voices of dissent amongst some top crews and choruses of alarm amongst the teams who had to somehow get service vans to each halt to feed and water both man and machine. In order to document it all, the BBC had deployed four separate film crews equipped with Range Rovers, in an attempt to capture as much of the action as possible to be replayed on the nightly Rally Report programme presented by William Woollard. Even amongst the hardcore world of rallying, it was considered that perhaps it was all a stretch too far.
The World Championship had already been decided but RAC honours were still highly prized. Although 1985 title holder Timo Salonen could have been forgiven for taking it easy, I very much doubt that ever entered his mind. Certainly there was a pack hungry for victory nipping at his heels and nobody was out for gentle run round. The top five comprised of Timo Salonen & Seppo Harjanne starting first in their Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 E2, Hannu Mikkola & Arne Hertz in an Audi Quattro Sport E2, Markku Alen & Ilkka Kivimaki in the brand new Lancia Delta S4, Walter Rohrl & Phil Short in another Quattro and Juha Kankkunen & Fred Gallagher starting fifth in the Toyota Celica Twincam Turbo. If that wasn’t enough, just behind sat Henri Toivonen in his Delta S4 and the highly experienced Bjorn Waldegard in his Celica. Rounding off the top ten were top British seeds, Tony Pond & Rob Arthur in their Computervision MG Metro 6R4. To the home grown partisan crowd, hopes were high that Pond could be the first British driver to take the win since Roger Clark in 1976. No pressure then.
The Group B era has of course since passed into legend, and with good reason. The technical freedom allowed by the regulations had bred pure racers that were cartoons of the road cars they purported to resemble. Kevlar bodywork clothed spaceframe chassis, turbochargers and superchargers (the Delta S4 boasting both simultaneously) delivered power allegedly touching 500bhp, and most transmitted it through all four wheels for neck-snapping acceleration and traction. The fact that the partially steel bodied Metro 6R4 was seen by some as an underdog with a mere 410bhp from its normally aspirated V6 puts into perspective quite how serious things had become. The Opel Manta 400s of Russell Brookes and Jimmy McRae and the Nissan 240RS of Terry Kaby were positively agricultural by comparison, most of the Nissans even still having steering boxes rather than a rack! There were concerns that the Group B cars were too fast and that on an event as gruelling as the RAC the combination of enormous performance and tired drivers could become lethal. An unwelcome portent came earlier in the season in Argentina when Vatanen was seriously injured in an end over end high speed crash in his Peugeot, but the darker days of 1986 were yet to come.
On Sunday 24th November, the traditional first day spectator special stages of the RAC Rally were crammed with expectant fans. SS1 was at Wollaton Park, a stone’s throw from Nottingham city centre, and it’s there that Salonen launched his 205 Turbo 16 off the line, headlamps ablaze in the early morning gloom. It appears that our photographer had made for SS2 at nearby Clumber Park as dawn had broken, but the cars were still clean having only tackled damp tarmac up to this point. These atmospheric shots transport us back to that Sunday morning 33 years ago, and you can imagine the anticipation of the huddled group of spectators, clad in their padded rally jackets and sheltering behind the Auto Windscreens banner. In a flash Salonen streaks through in the 205 looking confident and in control, swiftly followed by Mikkola and Alen. Walter Rohrl comes through on a charge, the Quattro rearing up as it fires out of the bend, the five-cylinder engine doubtless blaring its trademark howl whilst spitting flame and popping on the gear change. If there was ever a car to make you stand well back, that was it. Toivonen comes through in hot pursuit a couple of minutes later in the number 6 Martini Delta S4. With 155 starters, there was plenty of entertainment to keep the spectators entertained once the top runners had long since cleared the stage. Pete Slights and Lou Naylor have a big slide in their car 45 Escort RS, seemingly overdoing it on their tarmac tyres which had ceased to work on the wet grass. Derbyshire driver Chris Mellors had no such trouble in Escort number 47, whilst fellow local Alistair Sutherland took the middle ground in his ex-Roger Clark Escort at number 49. It’s easy to imagine the Escort photos could have been taken yesterday; the cars are still the backbone of British rallying and rally spectators can’t be guaranteed to have updated their clothing much, but the little details such as the short Freefone number on the banner give the game away. Probably most notable is what isn’t present… with the exception of a few photographers, the spectators are watching the cars in real time rather than holding phones in front of their faces to watch them later…
I’ve not been able to place our next group of found photos, but they appear to be taken later on the first day or second day as the cars bounce over a railway line somewhere. If anyone can shed any light on locations, I’d love to know. Mark Lovell flies low in the Mk3 Escort RS Turbo, a car that was merely a hasty Group A stop gap between the aborted Group B RS1700T and RS200. He would make it as far as a very slippery Hamsterley Forest at the end of Leg 3 before leaving the road. The French entered Talbot Samba Rallye running at car 30 would improve on seeding by 6 places in the coming days, conditions conspiring to benefit those with limited horsepower. The German Junior Team Golf GTi looks to be building up to an alarming bounce whereas the booted Corollas look much more planted. Notable here is the Mitsubishi Lancer 2000 Turbo, a rare sight on the stages then and a rare sight anywhere now. The Lancer crew would get all the way to SS53 before crashing out.
Our intrepid photographer next took a series of shots in a forest stage on the edge of an expansive moorland, probably also on day two. The weather had not yet blown in, although each spectator would have checked the forecast, and those sleeping in their cars in the forests would have felt the benefit of a blanket over their rally jackets. Pond sprays gravel as he comes past, slightly out of shape in the 6R4. Despite suffering from the flu, he was pressing on and climbing the leaderboard, giving those loyal fans reason to hope. Could it be a British win after nine long years…? Mike Stuart and Brian Goff are spotted on the same stage in the TWR Rover 3500 Vitesse, as used by Pond in the British Open Championship throughout 1985. Always an effective car on tarmac it was not quite as suited to being on the loose, but they’ve got further than Pond’s 1984 attempt on the RAC in a similar Rover, when he infamously smacked a tree in a terminal fashion on the very first stage. Here we also see the unusual 300bhp rotary powered Mazda RX-7 of Ingvar Carlsson. New Zealand’s Rod Millen drove an identical car and was accompanied by British navigator Brian Rainbow, one of several drivers to opt for local knowledge in an attempt to mitigate against the ban on pace notes. Navigating any rally car on the maps is a particular skill, but guiding a top driver in a Group B car for five days and four nights? That’s another league entirely.
The last selection of shots come from the final day, when the weather had arrived with a vengeance and plunged northern England and Scotland into a deep freeze. This caused chaos for organisers, competitors, service crews and spectators alike. The Ogre Hill stage in Kielder was impassable and had to be cancelled. The public roads were tricky enough and warnings were issued against unnecessary travel. For the rally crews travel was entirely necessary and there was no option but to press on. Our photographer’s final vantage point takes in a tight gatepost at a hairpin and having got this far nobody is taking any chances. McRae slithers the AC Delco Manta through the gap on his way to an impressive 6th overall, although nearly 44 minutes behind the winner. Under normal circumstances that would have been a lot of time to drop, but to put it into context, the 20th placed finisher was 2 hours behind, 29th was over 3 hours late, and the last placed crew in 62nd had a whopping 6 hours 23 minutes of penalties! The Corolla GT of Takatsugo & Tsutomu slides through the junction sporting a heavily dented door, evidence of an excursion in the wintery woods. The BBC Rally Report coverage showed them being consistently “on it”, much to the delight of the spectators, and this is probably the only time in 5 days the car wasn’t travelling broadside. Having come all the way from Japan, they clearly weren’t going to give it any half measures. Louise Aitken-Walker & Ellen Morgan just sneak into shot in their Peugeot 205 GTI, on their way to 16th overall and winning class A6 in convincing style. Terry Kaby similarly fills the lens, sending the big Nissan 240RS into a drift and lining it up for the exit. We also see Sweden’s Mats Jonsson in his humble looking Opel Ascona B (Car 24) chasing down Andrew Wood in his GM Dealer Sport Vauxhall Astra GTE (number 29) into 13th and 12th places respectively and the class A7 battle. Throw in the works Skoda 130LR and a privateer Lada Riva and variety was everywhere. Our snapper understandably concentrated on the top cars, but we do get to see Car 101, a careworn Talbot Sunbeam Ti on the way to 50th overall. Judging by the registration plate it was only around 6 years old but looks at least 16, a hard-worked privateer car if ever there was one, but one that encapsulates the magic of the old RAC Rally when leagues of amateurs went out to mix it with the best.
Just finishing the 1985 Lombard was a huge achievement. From the 155 starters, a staggering 93 retired. The projections had been borne out; it was the toughest RAC route ever devised and the weather made it all the more difficult. By the time they made it to the finish ramp, the top five were well spread out. 1985 World Champion, Salonen, had retired days earlier with no oil pressure. Kankkunen drove his Celica to 5th place and top two-wheel drive on his last outing with Toyota before moving to Peugeot for 1986. Per Eklund took the privately entered Audi Quattro A2 to 4th place, 12 minutes ahead of the Toyota. Neither of the factory Quattro Sport E2s finished with Mikkola suffering engine failure and Rohrl leaving the road hard enough to rip navigator Phil Short’s door off. Tony Pond & Rob Arthur had outrun Eklund by 24 minutes and wrung every last ounce of horsepower from the Metro, but despite several fastest stage times couldn’t quite catch the Lancias. The British crew finished in 3rd place just 1:01 behind Markku Alen in his Delta S4, Alen being on course for the win until he lost time in Kielder. So, first over the ramp was Henri Toivonen partnered by Neil Wilson, just 56 seconds ahead after five long days of competition despite losing one minute in road penalties and a light roll. It was Toivonen’s second RAC win having previously taken the honours in 1980 in a Talbot Sunbeam, but he wouldn’t live to see another Lombard RAC. When he was killed along with co-driver Sergio Cresto in Corsica the following May, the curtain began to descend on Group B and the category was banned at the end of the year. The 1985 RAC Rally really was the beginning of the end of an era.
These photographs have never been published anywhere else before! They capture the crews and fans of Group B, and an era of colour and excitement that now seems so long ago. I’m grateful to Dean for rehoming them rather than throwing them in the bin, and I hope you enjoy them too. I don’t apologise at all if you now lose several days on YouTube with the volume turned up to the maximum.