John Davenport is a true rallying legend, with a story that covers six decades of involvement and success in the sport at the highest level.
Describing his career as having had ‘three lives in rallying’, he first competed as a professional co driver for teams such as Ford, Saab, BMW, Lancia, BMC and Renault Alpine winning many WRC events, co driving for such drivers as Mikkola, Andersson, Lampinen, Munari, Alen, Aaltonen, Warmbold, Elford, and Arikkola.
He then went on to run the MSA and establish himself as a renowned writer, before returning to active competition this time leading the Austin Rover works team with drivers such as Pond, Wilson, Eklund, Lewellen & Toivenen and the development of the loved Metro 6R4 to compete again in the WRC in the infamous Group B era.
The Snowman Rally however forms a highlight in his story, with a victory in 1976 which was his final professional event as a co driver. He returned with Malcolm Wilson again in 1987 to attend the rally forum and see some of his Metros continue where the WRC left off.
My motorsport life can be said, as with Caesar’s description of Gaul, to be ‘in tres pars divisia est’.
The first part started with my discovery while still at university of the world of rallying where two men could spend a night together in a car without attracting lewd comments. This then led me into a world of journalism – Motoring News and then Autosport – and a succession of international rallies as a professional co-driver. My first such appointment, after accompanying private drivers like Brian Culcheth and Peter Moon on internationals, was with Toney Cox in a Rover P5 Coupé 3.5 as part of a four-man works team on the RAC Rally of 1963. We finished and were fourth in class behind one of our team-mates, Bill Bengry, and two aspiring Volvo drivers, Tom Trana and Gunnar Andersson. By the way, Tom also won the rally …
In 1964, I drove – still with private owners – a Monte, a Circuit of Ireland, Lyons-Charbonnières, a Tulip, an Acropolis, a Geneva and a Bolton Rally with Pat Moss in her private Saab before having my second works drive. This was with Simo Lampinen on the RAC Rally in a Saab 96 850. There were three revelations on this event: firstly, that he slept all the time while I drove the road sections and only woke up for the stages and meal halts; secondly, I saw left-foot braking in action for the first time; and finally discovered that it was possible to double roll a Saab end over end. Erik Carlsson normally did his rolls the other shorter, neater way.
The following year, it all became a bit more professional with works drives with Geoff Mabbs on the Monte Carlo and the Tour de France in Cooper Ss from BMC, a Rover 2000 P6 with Toney Cox on the Circuit of Ireland and with Simo in Triumph 2000s on the RAC Rally and the Welsh. The way Simo was driving, we should have finished in the top three on the RAC, but a broken head-gasket and a unionised service crew put a stop to that, but we did get a second place on the Welsh.
A bit earlier, I had gone with Vic Elford to Corsica to attempt the Rallye des Dix Milles Virages in his own Ford Anglia 1600. It was great experience, but our mistake lay in telling the Goodyear guys that we were going to do a tarmac rally. They provided slicks that were wide enough to have graced Indianapolis and were about as unsuitable for the stony, broken Corsican roads than one can imagine. Still, the experience was very useful, and Vic was sufficiently impressed by my recital of his pace notes that he offered me a contract as his co-driver at Ford for 1966.
This was Henry Taylor’s first year in charge and first full year with the Lotus Cortina Mk1. It did not go well. On the Monte, the fuel pump failed but in Sweden with temperatures of minus 20°C we finished tenth overall and first in Group 1. We won the Sanremo but were then disqualified as our car did not comply with its homologation form. In order to do so, each connecting rod would have had to weigh 9.60kg! Probably some poor typist got fired for that and a whole string of other errors that had not been double checked. On the Circuit of Ireland, with no pace notes allowed, Vic and Roger Clark decided to go out and look at a couple of the stages the evening before the start. One they went to look at was Torr Head with its infamous jump. On the rally, it was clear that Vic had not fully appreciated the ability of this piece of road to launch a Cortina into the air. I had a drone-like view of the surrounding countryside and could actually look down on a stone wall out of my side window. The landing was not kind –
it was not even in the road – and we retired shortly afterwards. The Tulip Rally where, perhaps perversely, we had no Goodyear racers and drove all the tarmac stages on winter Ultragrip tyres, Rauno Aaltonen in a Mini Cooper S shod with Dunlop racers beat us, but we were at least second.
On the German Rally, the new super-high compression BRM-tuned engine blew up at the start of the Rossfeld hill climb at Berchtesgaden which meant that I never got to see the Eagle’s Nest. My final run with Vic and the Lotus Cortina was in the Vltava Rally. I had spent two weeks laboriously making pace notes for Vic with Gunnar Palm who was making them for Bengt Söderström. Come the rally and Vic, having just done the Gulf London with Terry Harryman, had decided that he was quicker on gravel stages without notes. Third gravel stage and we did the classic head-on into tree at a hidden hairpin that caused the Cortina to go considerably cross-eyed.
So that was the end of my first full works contract but, it was no sooner gone than it was replaced by a Lancia one. I had met Cesare Fiorio, the Lancia team manager in Munich when I drove the Three Cities Rally in a private Cortina. He invited me to help them with a service plan for the RAC Rally and co-drive Ove Andersson. Joining Ford had meant that I had to quit my job at Motoring News but now I was offered the job of freelance Rallies Editor at Autosport. This dovetailed perfectly with everything I was do over the next ten years. Co-drivers were not then well-paid, and a dual source of income was very useful.
I spent the next five years in the employ of Lancia driving first with Ove for two years and then a year with Sandro Munari – mainly in the Italian Championship using pace notes in Italian – and then two years with Simo. It was a good relationship with Lancia as generally they were relaxed about my doing events with other people, even other factory teams, if they had nothing for me to do at that time.
The only event I missed out on was a works drive on the 1970 London-Mexico with Colin Malkin in a Ford Escort. But I did the RAC for Saab with Simo – when we won – the London-Sydney for Porsche with Terry Hunter – retired with no piston rings at Kabul – the Manx International with Colin in an Imp – when we won – and the Tour de France with Willie Green in a GT 40 – gearbox broke – and the Scottish Rally and Manx (again) with Chris Sclater in an Escort – both of which we won. At the same time, I had widened my experience considerably by doing rallies in the USA, in Kenya, in South Africa and Finland as well as all the stock European events including the Tour de Corse in an open Lancia Fulvia, an F&M Special (that’s Fiorio & Maglioli not Fortnum & Mason) with Sandro.
For 1972, I did not have anything much lined up except a drive with Ove Andersson in a works Alpine A110 on the Monte Carlo and a vague promise of more from Renault who were in the process of taking over Alpine. We could so easily have won the Monte, but someone had miscalculated the power of the new 1800cc engines, and the old R8-derived powertrain could not stand it. On the last night lying first and second overall, we were first out shortly followed by teammate, Bernard Darniche. With Ove, we did the Swedish in a Renault R12 Gordini and finished in the top twenty and then drove a Datsun 180B on the Safari and finished twelfth after spending more time in service areas than we had driving the route. There was supposed to be a twelve-hour rest at the mid-point in Nairobi, but we were running so late that we checked in, took a cup of coffee and were then waved back over the ramp to start the second half.
Next up with employment was BMW where Rauno Aaltonen offered me a ride on the Acropolis and Austrian Alpine rallies in a works 2002 TI and then on the giant Olympia Rally from Kiel to Munich in a works BMW 3.0 CS. Retirements beckoned on all three but it was fantastically interesting to drive with Rauno who was not just very knowledgeable about rallying and cars, but many other subjects as well. He also spoke better English than I did! Through BMW, I got my next offer which was to go with Achim Warmbold on the TAP Rally in Portugal again in a 2002 TI. At first, I thought I would never master his complicated pace notes – I had believed he would be using a similar system to the one I had used with Vic, Ove, Simo and Rauno – and these also had to be delivered in German. I was scared that we would get to the end of a stage and find that I still had a couple of pages left to read. As it turned out, it worked well and somehow the IBM processor in his brain converted my efforts into a stunning performance and we won.
I won again with Achim at the beginning of 1973 in a one-off drive in a Porsche Salzburg VW 1303 and then retired on the TAP Rally with a BMW 2002 TI. I drove the Moroccan Rally with Rauno in a Fiat 124 Spyder and broke down in the Sahara, but I had already made an arrangement in late 1972 with Ford to drive some rallies with Hannu Mikkola. This lasted just over two years during which time we finished second on the Scottish Rally, retired three times on the RAC Rally (broken wrist, head gasket and sheared wheel studs), won the 1000 Lakes Rally, retired while leading the Arctic (faulty kill switch), led the Safari until three sections from the finish (steering rack broke), and, on Hannu’s initiative, did several rallies with Peugeot South Africa. The Peugeot connection also provided me with a drive on the 1974 Safari in a 504 with Timo Mäkinen which was a great experience only brought to a halt when the camshaft broke when we were in a comfortable lead. The best part about that retirement was that we coasted to a halt next to an airstrip, a long way out at Laikipia, so the Peugeot supervision plane landed, and we were back to Nairobi in a trice instead of a six-hour trip in the back of a service car or taxi.
As part of my liaison with Ford, during that period I won the Manx for a third time in 1973, on this occasion with Adrian Boyd, and won the 1974 Welsh with Markku Alén, both in Escorts. For 1975, Hannu went to Fiat with Jean Todt and Achim came up with an offer to do the Monte in a works Alpine A310 where I am afraid that we failed to finish. I then did a string of rallies with Billy Coleman in his semi-works Escort, winning the Mintex at home and finishing second behind a works Fiat (not Hannu!) on the Firestone Rally. Then Achim appeared with an ex-works BMW 2002 TIi powered by the BMW F2 engine and we won the Sachs Winter Rally, opening round of the German Rally Championship which led to the offer of an A310 from the factory to do the rest of the series. We won a couple more events but by year’s end we were only third. Achim did get the 2002 TIi out again in Donegal where we won outright, but the differential failed when we tried to repeat our 1972 TAP Rally success.
The year’s end was rapidly approaching, and I was in a slight dilemma. I now had a wife and two daughters, we had moved from London to North Wiltshire and, to paraphrase Jane Austen, I was a married man not in possession of a good fortune and in want of employment. During 1974, I accepted a drive to go with Gerry Marshall in a Group 1 Vauxhall Magnum Coupé on the Manx which was, like the Safari with Mäkinen, an interesting experience. Gerry in fact drove very well but he did occasionally not accept what the pace notes were telling him and needed instruction in rituals such as setting the lights in the night before the start.
We finished third in Group 1 behind Russell Brookes and Will Sparrow and won the Manufacturer’s Award. Anyway, that Vauxhall connection led to my doing the 1975 RAC Rally with that nicest of all Finns, Pentti Airikkala in another Group 1 Magnum. We had a torrid time of it, kicking off by drowning out in the Sutton Park ford and progressing through other miseries – almost going OTL at one point – but finally finishing twentieth and second in class.
Pentti then asked me to do some events with him in David Sutton’s Escort in 1976. Behind the scenes, I had fixed my future employment and income by agreeing to join the RAC Motor Sport Department as from Monday, February 2nd but since the only two rallies for which he wanted me were the Forest of Dean and the Snowman this actually worked out just fine and we were both happy. On the Dean, Pentti was suffering from ‘flu and when the gear selectors started playing up, I had to change gear using both hands while he drove. Eventually, the pickup in the distributor failed and that was that.
The Snowman was to be the end of the first part of my motorsport existence and the omens, after the Dean, were not good. Indeed, when Pentti arrived in Inverness, he still had the ‘flu but John O’Connor had done a grand job on the Escort and I thought that at the very least I could expect to get a finish on my last event as a professional codriver. But the line-up against us was fairly formidable with Roger Clark, Ari Vatanen, Billy Coleman, Russell Brookes, Drew Gallagher and Bill Taylor all in Escorts and then Tony Pond and Brian Culcheth in works Dolomites, Andrew Cowan in a Mitsubishi Colt, Jimmy McRae in a Group 1 Vauxhall Magnum and Colin Malkin in a Chrysler Avenger. Worrying too was the news about the weather as there appeared to have been deposits of the white stuff here and there. For the others, it was more of a panic to try and decided which tyres to use where and how to get them changed between stages. For us, it was not problem at all since our tyre supplier, Avon, had but one variety which we used throughout.
There was one positive before the start since it was David Sutton’s birthday so we knew we would have something to celebrate at the finish even if the rally did not go well. A negative was that Pentti had flown up and BEA lost his bags so that Friday night was a bit of a panic as he rushed round borrowing items of clothing and overalls and buying driving shoes.
As it was only one day long, the rally started early – it was still dark – and we did the first stage somewhere near Culloden Battlefield. I think the surface was the same in 1745 perhaps with a few extra bumps added over the years. For a while, icy patches on the stages reminded us that we were in Northern Scotland in January and Pentti started setting fast times – Pentti did four BTDs in the first seven stages. Then the rally arrived at stage eight, an eight-miler that was almost completely ice and snow. We beat Ari by six seconds, Roger by twenty-one and Culcheth by fifty-three and were hard on Ari’s heels with the rest of the field well distanced. Ominously, it was the thirteenth stage that gave us the lead when Ari went off and lost three minutes while Peter Bryant pushed him back on.
At lunch, we had a lead of forty seconds over Roger, but Ari started to charge and though both Roger and Pentti held him on times, there was no doubt he was catching up. At the end of the rally on the two long stages to the west of Loch Ness where there was again snow, he took half a minute off Pentti, but we were comfortably out of both his reach and that of Roger who was destined to finish second with Ari third.
I don’t remember anything in particular about the evening except for a feeling of sheer pleasure for myself, for Pentti, and for David Sutton. I probably went to bed early as I had just the Sunday to get back to Wiltshire, write a report for Autosport, and tidy myself up to report for duty on Monday in London. After thirteen years I was a codriver and journalist no more and the Snowman Rally of 1976 was the watershed between that existence and the second part of my motorsport life.
After working for the RAC for ten months I was headhunted into the job of Director of Motorsport at British Leyland, later known as Austin Rover, and cast into a world of rallying and racing with everything from Minis, Dolomites, TR7s, Jaguar 5.3s and XJSs, and Rover 3500s. It was during my ten years working from first Abingdon and then Cowley that I was involved in the creation and production of the world’s ugliest rally car, the MG Metro 6R4. That was five years of hard grind, endless meetings, awful frustration, and the occasional miracle. We did not succeed in reproducing the glory of the Mini Coopers from the 1960s, but we gave British motorsport a car that has won more rallies probably than any other over the last thirty years, including so I am told several Snowman Rallies.
When I left Austin Rover in the spring of 1987, the third part of my motorsport life started. I became a journalist again and then a kind of Jack-of-all-Trades by running classic rallies in Europe as Clerk of the Course and even a long-distance run (The Trial to the Nile), chaperoning a classic saloon car championship in the UK, doing service plans for Toyota Middle East, press officer on the East African Safari Classic, doing the European road book for Peking to Paris, a part-time organiser for the Eifel Rally Festival and many more interesting projects. I had already written and contributed to half a dozen books, but around 1990, I started writing books seriously by collaborating with Reinhard Klein, the legendary rally photographer, and for the last ten years or so, that has been – almost – my main occupation.
But there will always be a happy memory of that cold January day in Scotland when the first of my three motorsport ‘lives’ came to a happy conclusion.
John Davenport, Wiltshire, Wednesday, February 24, 2021