You are very well known for your exploits in Hillman Imps – which you used on your first Snowman Rally in 1972 – but you also took a leading development role with the Clan Crusader – how would you compare the two cars?
The Clan that I used on the Manx had the running gear from my Imp. I was working at Rootes as Des O’Dell’s assistant and one of my early jobs was to make the 998 reliable and work with George Bevan to win the BTCC. The Bevan engines had to comply with Group 2, mine didn’t so it probably had more power than the McGovern race engines. I really enjoyed the Manx in ’71 but the weight and aerodynamics of the Imp were its limiting factor. I had started building a very light Imp Coupe for the ’72 Manx when I bumped into the Clan. It was a no brainer, Paul Haussauer lent me a development car and the rest was me. If it had been wet on the Manx we could even have beaten Roger, but he was able to use the power of the Escort to keep us at bay even though I sat at 10,500rpm for many seconds on the final TT course stage. The Clan was everything that the Imp was, a poor man’s Porsche, but with less than 50% of the aero drag and 100kg lighter. The handling was the same, just faster and tighter.
Andy Dawson is a true UK rally legend – his success in winning the 1975 Snowman rally helped him form a lengthy and successful career with Datsun.
His high-profile victory with David Richards co driving, highlighted his ability to win in underpowered cars and helped form a long-term relationship with Datsun, that saw them competing for several years successfully in the world championship.
During his driving career he achieved several International victories and podium positions, both in the UK and at World Championship level.
As a team principle he has had 3 World Champions drive his cars during his time leading the works Datsun team and works supported Audi 555 team.
Through his company (DAD) Dawson Auto Developments his engineering capabilities have been greatly demanded and have helped many works teams develop their cars.
You competed on the Snowman’s of 1972, 1975 and 1976 when the event was also part of the BRC, what was your overriding memory of the rally as an event, the long travel to get to it, and the stages that form the rally?
My memory is of brilliant stages, real driver stages. We were always tired due to the long treck up from the Midlands, but the adrenaline meant that it was forgotten on the event.
In ’72 we did the first couple of stages and I was wondering whether we should fit the four studded tyres that I had ‘borrowed’ from work. I can’t remember the detail, but Pauline (Gulick) told me that this was a road race, we fitted the studded tyres, filled the Imp up with fuel and told the service crew to try to get to the refuel. We next saw them at the finish, the Imp was reliable, but I didn’t push it on the stages, we treated them as a rough road section, the studded tyres were the right choice in the woods and on some of the road sections.
I don’t really remember the finish, I had to be back at work in Coventry on Monday morning and Pauline had to get back to work in Bristol. In the middle of the following week the story started to come out, I recall reading it first in Motoring News – Oh how times have changed.
1975 was my first event in the Kleber Wheelbase Datsun 160. I had won a scholarship at the end of ’84 which was probably the biggest prize ever in rallying.
I was lent an ex-Safari Datsun, Kleber paid for entries and fuel and we had as many tyres as we wanted in whatever compound and design. The snag was that the car had all of 170bhp and weighed well over a ton. The weight meant that it was strong, I rallied it for a year only changing oils. At the end of the first stage, I was convinced that we were being blown away, it just didn’t feel fast.
At the end of the second DR told me that we were leading – was this DR playing the psychologist? Then it became clear that the independent suspension and Kleber snow tyres (It wasn’t snowy, but they were very soft and narrow) were working well in the very slippy conditions. At the end Kleber and the Datsun people were VERY happy, they even agreed to pay the hotel bill including a few bevvys.
For ’76 I knew that a new Datsun was coming, it was to be a two door and it was waiting for a new twin cam engine from Japan. We did a deal with GM to borrow a Kadett as part of an event test with CCC. As I recall, I hadn’t tested the car and it was late arriving in Inverness. I accelerated off the hotel start ramp and the engine dropped onto 3 cylinders, we returned to the bar.
Its fair to say that you are amongst the most revered of UK drivers – with some outstanding performances over your career on both UK events but also on the World championship events such as Corsica and Portugal. With such a successful career in Motorsport it must be difficult to pick out highlights – but what achievements gave you the greatest personal and professional satisfaction?
Unlike drivers such as Russell Brookes and Jimmy McRae I wanted to do World Championship rallies. At the end of ’76 Nissan told me that I would be driving for them in ’78. I drove an essentially private Ford in ’77 including losing the RAC due to politics. ’78 was a development year; the Datsun PA10 wasn’t the car that I hoped for, it wasn’t as fast as a Group 1 RS2000, but I had a 5 year contract and a World drive in ’79.
My most satisfying drive was to the Group 2 win in Corsica, I had made this 4 door taxi win on French Tarmac – or so I thought. The French scrutineer didn’t like the French cars being beaten on home soil and picked a small point to try to disqualify us, just as the same man had done to the Minis in Monte. We fought it through the courts and his decision was overturned BUT that was the point where I realised that I couldn’t drive and team manage. The same thing happened in New Zealand – effectively it was the end of my rally driving career – it was easier to put Pondy into my car than find a chief engineer and team manager.
Datsun had several successful years in the WRC when you run the team through your Dawson Auto Developments company – at times you also drove the cars with great success – what was your secret with the cars preparation to achieving such success?
We finished second in the World Championship three years running, and if the Japanese hadn’t overruled me in San Remo – they were paying most of the bills – we would have won the world championship.
It was hard work, but we just made the most of what we had available to us and I understood what was needed to optimise everything.
You are famous for being the only driver to have won an international UK event in a Lancia Stratos – what are your memories of driving that car, and how does it compare to the others you have driven?
The Stratos was a brilliant car for the tight and slippery 90degree corners on the North York moors. It was the ideal car to use to win the Mintex, but I knew that it was fragile and ready to break by the end.
Later I drove a factory 24 valve car and that was something else – it was perhaps the most complete car that I have ever driven, I smiled for days – 50% more power than the Chequered Flag car.
I think I’m right in saying that D.A.D has had three world champion drives compete in your cars – notably running the 555 Audi team in Asia Pacific with Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist driving. What was it like working with these great drivers?
Salonen was easy to work with, he accepted my settings and ideas until Pondy started winding him up. They both wanted to develop the PA10 Violet, I gave them the parts and the opportunity and they both came back to my settings.
He was basically lazy and had me doing all the graft, I would do an 18-hour day and he would be lying beside the swimming pool or out recceing!.
Hannu is my God, he was so easy to work with and accepted everything at face value. What lights do you want? – Oh whatever. What tyres do you want? – Black and round. Lovely man and quite brilliant driver.
Stig is down to earth and very good but he gets wound up and can be too political.
One of the high points of my simple life was beating Hannu on a gravel stage in China in my ‘service car’ that was there to back him up. By that time, I was too old, but I have often wondered where I would have been had I not stepped back to become team principle and engineer.
What main advice would you give others in their car preparation?
My main advice is don’t believe the internet and keep the car simple. I watch as people try things on modern Gp4 Escorts that we tried and discarded in the day. Oh but it must be better because it is modern – b@&^*t, look at history, look at basic engineering, take it back to first principles and ignore the WWW.
How do you see the future developing for Rallying in the UK to address its challenges and remain a viable sport for clubman as well as the elite level?
We need to revert to production-based cars with only the elite allowed to use 4wd. Effectively have two parallel sets of rallies. The quattro was a bloody awful car but the 4wd made it unbeatable. Split 2wd and 4wd to the point of having 2wd only rallies. The fun will be the same, the same people will win but the costs will be greatly reduced. We need to have control tyres, they need to make driving more important than a cheque book. If it is the same for everybody, we will have 10% of people that winge and make 90% of the noise but the 90% of competitors will grow to 180% or even 270%. The wingers can have 4wd and piles of tyres, but the great majority must not have their cost increased due to the damage done to the road surface by those that can afford the expensive cars.
If the Snowman is for 150bhp fwd cars on Cadburys Van tyres then so be it, the rally will give the same fun to the great majority – BUT the people that matter don’t want that. My Daihatsu's had 165bhp, no limited slip diff but they worked and everybody that drove them had a smile on their faces. My case rests but will be ignored, money will rule unless the masses react. I tried to persuade the MSA 30 years ago, but the old fogies ruled!.