Premium

Blood, sweat and gears: the rough road to classic rally success

liege-brescia-liege classic car rally 2019
English's 1960 Triumph TR3a heads for the hills Credit: WWW.CLASSICRALLYPRESS.CO.UK

Read Andrew English’s day-by-day Liège-Brescia-Liège rally diary

Classic-car rallying and touring is big business. What started as an obscure activity for the adventurous is now an industry, with organisers dreaming up more diverse challenges across the globe and preparation specialists ready (for a fee) to transform your old car into a go-anywhere monster. Even BBC2 dipped a toe this year with Eight Go Rallying, a somewhat contrived celebrity rally tacked on to the Endurance Rally Association’s Road to Saigon event in 2018.

While some of these challenges are genuine touring holidays, others can be fast and furious. In this world, Malcolm McKay’s events have a good reputation for safety and value for money. This motoring writer and classic rally participant happened upon an obscure rally anniversary more than a decade ago, of the Liège-Brescia-Liège (LBL), a 1958 rally for microcars with engines under 500cc. When he approached its original organiser, the Royal Motor Union of Liège, about staging a 50-year anniversary event, it had forgotten it had run it in the first place and willingly licensed the name.

“You’ll be lucky to get half a dozen entrants,” McKay had been warned. In the end he got 25 and has since run the event again for small cars, once for old Jaguars and, this year, exclusively for Triumph TRs, which were rallied extensively in their day including in the LBL’s bigger sister, the Liège-Rome-Liège.

British rally aces Pat Moss (Sir Stirling’s sister) and Ann Wisdom drove the first LBL and although their motorcycle-engined Berkeley broke down the event provided sound experience for their attempt on the Liège-Rome-Liège rally in 1960, which they won in a works Austin-Healey 3000.

Engine tuners Peter Baldwin and Lee Deegan of Regency Autos in Cambridge managed to liberate 20 per cent more power

The first car I bought was a TR and I have a soft spot for these blue-collar sports cars, devised by Sir John Black, the mercurial head of Standard-Triumph, engineered and honed by taciturn engineer/driver Ken Richardson and designed by Walter Belgrove, although Triumph eventually bought in Giovanni Michelotti from Italy to design the bodies for the TR4 onwards.

Four years ago I bought a well-known rally warhorse, a 1960 TR3a registered 637JHU and known as Yoo Hoo. In the hands of preparation specialist Neil Revington, it won a load of silverware though it had subsequently burned to a crisp in an accident. While Revington’s firm in Somerset had rebuilt a fair bit of this powder-blue charger, there was lots still to do – and a distinct lack of time and resources. 

During the rally build-up I was frantically juggling work and preparation and encountered so many setbacks that I almost scratched my entry. It was only the kindness and generosity of my brother William, co-driver and old school friend John Smallwood and Jeff Marks from parts supplier Moss among others that enabled me to make the start in front of Le Palais des Princes-Eveques in Liège, where the original rally set off from.

Apart from a thirst for oil, English's car ran faultlessly at first, although other competitors struggled from the off

We were flagged off by Remo di Cocco, a veteran of the 1958 event. Ahead of us over the next 10 days were 2,200 miles through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Italy, much of it over the tiny twisting roads of the original route, with at least eight 2,000-metre-plus Alpine passes and interminable hills, all the while extemporising a route through countless diversions using large-scale maps that quickly frayed and tore in hot, often wet, cars.

Marshalling such a marathon would be a nightmare, but McKay has an ingenious system; the 26 competitors take photographs at predetermined places along the original route to prevent them taking shortcuts. The timing was deceptively easy as there were no allowances for minor problems and finding the photo controls; there would be no leisurely lunches here and, for some, no supper either.

The first few days saw most of the cars completing the course on time, though several were having problems, which kept engineers Simon Courtney and Mike Collins in the RAC back-up van busy. The 1954 TR2 of Mike and Frances Grace from the US wasn’t happy, nor was the TR6 of John and Kim Durden, with Martin and Dorothy Goodall’s TR6 losing a driveshaft. Vincent Paccellieri and his son, Arthur, found a notorious weak point of their lovely 1953 TR2 when the hub broke and the wheel folded under the body on a sinuous mountain road.

The number of Alpine passes en route gave the cars a hard time, with cooling problems on the way up and brake issues on the way down Credit: WWW.CLASSICRALLYPRESS.CO.UK

The 2,700-metre Stelvio pass might be touted as a great driving road (it isn’t), but starting up from the Austrian side in mid-morning on one of the hottest and most crowded days of the year isn’t the best policy for old cars with marginal cooling systems. Yoo Hoo wasn’t the only TR stranded with a boiling radiator several times on the way up.

The Passo di Pennes in northern Italy, however, is one of the most sensational Alpine passes as well as being quiet and well surfaced; it was an absolute pleasure.

Or would have been if we hadn’t started to have brake trouble at the top, first a rear brake cylinder, then the master cylinder. We soldiered cautiously on, but two days later at Bretten in Germany the game seemed up. What a waste, all my efforts, all that money, all those hopes, all for nothing.

The glamour of long-distance road rallying... English misses a meal as he battles rear brake problems

But then Revington revealed that the part we required might have been packed into the general spares box in the RAC van. Courtney and I ransacked the box until we found it. My co-driver John Smallwood and I set to work as rivals left the town square. Forty minutes later we were the last car out, but still in the game.

A timed run at the track saw US pairing Jeff and son, Jeffrey Givens, (TR3) in a firm second, although one slip and any of four cars could win the Authentic Class (for cars old enough to have competed in 1958). The roads were confusing, with many diversions, and the timing was tight. It was also hot; most had their heaters on to help cool the engine, if not the crews.

The final stages traversed a lovely part of Germany between Aachen and Trier as the cars blasted past vineyards and tiny villages to get to the Abbaye de Stavelot, where the Liège-Brescia-Liège finished 61 years ago.

Our heroes in surprisingly relaxed mood as the rally enters western Germany on the return leg

It was a battle to get to the final control on time. Alongside Spirit Class (touring) winners Mike Jones and Liz Wakefield, we watched as chief marshal Mark Smith examined each of our camera images. 

“Well congratulations,” he said, shaking my hand. “You’ve had a hard rally, but you’ve won.”

There’s no denying it had been a hard rally and the build-up had stretched my finances, expertise and time. Yoo Hoo has won a lot of silverware in her 59-year life, but honestly anyone who got their car over the whole course was a hero. The Givens pairing were a well deserved second and Iain Paul and James Butler in a 1957 ex-works rally car were third. 

Jeff Givens from the US finished second in his lovely 1959 TR3a

In 1958 the competitors did this route in just three days (in 500cc cars, remember) and took Benzedrine to stay awake, but although the roads were much quieter they lost more than half of the entrants; only three of this year’s 26 starters dropped out.

We left Yoo Hoo ticking as she cooled in the Abbey courtyard and trudged off for a beer. I’m not sure whether any pint has been more deserved.

Thanks to Classic Rally Press, Moss Europe, DFDS, Revington TR, William English, John Smallwood and my family.

English (left) and co-driver John Smallwood (right) with the trophy, presented by 1958 Liège-Brescia-Liège veteran Remo di Cocco  Credit: WWW.CLASSICRALLYPRESS.CO.UK

For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

A-Z Car Finder