Coventry and Warwickshire has a proud motorsport tradition. Coventry Climax supplied engines to Formula One teams in the 1950s and 60s, and in more recent history John Judd’s engines have powered a number of Formula One teams. Manufacturers such as Triumph and Healey have taken part in Le Mans, but one victory that stands out to me happened fifty years ago this year, in 1968. This heroic win was achieved by the Hillman Hunter, a rather unassuming family car built by the Rootes Group.
To finish first…
So, what race did it win but the inaugural London to Sydney Marathon. A race putting as great a demand on the vehicles as it sounds, the Hunter was not among the initial favourites. Other cars, such as Roger Clark’s Lotus Cortina, and even the Citroen DS, had more of a rallying pedigree. Rootes driver Andrew Cowan had requested a car that would finish the race although this was not so pessimistic a demand as it may have seemed – retirements from the race were, naturally, expected to be high.
Accidents and mishaps
Clark, rally legend, set the early pace in his Lotus Cortina, leading throughout the move into India, and into Australia itself, until with only two days to go he suffered a breakdown. Misfortune certainly befell the Citroen DS of Lucien Bianchi, who had inherited the lead from Clark. With less than 100 of the 10,000 miles of the rally to go, their car was involved in a head on collision. This was no ordinary crash however, as this was with a passenger car that had ignored a rally official, and chosen to enter the road (supposedly closed to the public). They, therefore, found themselves going in the opposite direction to the rally cars!
Paddy Hopkirk, in his Austin 1800, stopped to help at the accident scene, thereby throwing away any chance of victory himself. This left Cowan and his Hunter to take the honours.
The boost to sales was immediate, but Rootes weren’t able to take advantage of this, only being able to offer nine cars for sale in Australia at the time. Given the distances involved, new cars to satisfy this immediate demand wouldn’t reach the country until two months later.
The Hunter, of course, had a lengthy life as a family car. Even when it was deleted from the Chrysler1 range in 1979, it continued to be produced in Iran as the Paykan until the 21st century, taking on a cultural significance rather far from its Coventry and Warwickshire roots (no pun intended!)
Andrew Cowan’s rally career, meanwhile, saw him continue to have success after success, including winning the second London to Sydney Marathon in 1977, driving a Mercedes. Once he gave up driving he managed Andrew Cowan Motorsports and their team of Mitsubishis. This second career brought great success too, as Tommy Makinen won four consecutive world championship titles for the team. The cars may have been less obviously linked to the area than Rootes, with its lengthy Midlands heritage, but Cowan’s team base was Rugby. It seems, then, that Warwickshire and rallying can trace a lengthy and successful association.
But still, is the Hillman Hunter the most unlikely rally winner? Answers on a postcard or, better still, in the comments section on this web page!
1 Chrysler having taken over Rootes, and their European operations were soon to be subsumed into Peugeot.