London, England is centrally placed for many fine motoring activities, and one of the best has to be long-distance classic rallying. These events leave for a variety of destinations each year; the simplest are weeklong culinary tours to France or Italy or maybe a tour of Ireland sampling malt whiskies. Others go to Morocco and North Africa, or Eastern Europe, and even these more exotic destinations can fit into a two-week vacation, or a holiday fortnight, as we Brits call it.
The ultimate trip is overland to Australia. When Bob Ashworth and Chris Wray told me they were planning to join the '05 M&M London to Sydney Friendship rally for pre-'65 cars and wanted to take a Corvette, I assured them they had made a good choice. Although they had never even driven a Corvette, a '64 convertible was tempting them, but it seemed to me unlikely that the rear spindles and bearings on the C2 would last the distance under an overloaded car on such roads, so I steered them towards a straight-axle C1. They eventually bought a red 1961 fitted with a 350 crate engine, and I sold them a T-10 four-speed from a 1977 to replace their tired Muncie four-speed. An engine skid plate, heavy-duty shocks, an extra leaf in each rear spring, and towing eyes front and rear was about the limit of modifications to the car, but like all the entrants, they carried GPS navigation, a satellite phone, two-way radios (which were confiscated in China), and regular UK-based cell phones, which worked almost everywhere along the route.
Almost 18,000 miles, with more than a third of them on unpaved roads, and a grueling twelve weeks of driving would be a challenge for any car and driver. The proposed route included highlights such as the Karakoram Highway, the highest asphalt road pass in the world connecting Pakistan with China, and a crossing of the Taklimakan desert in China. Taklimakan means enter and never come out. The final 12-day run was across the desert heart of Australia to the finish in Sydney, (3,465 miles further than Boston to San Francisco). Chris and Bob's previous rally experience had been in India, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia north of the Arctic Circle, South Africa, New Zealand, America, and most of Europe. Their own cars are 4 .5-litre Bentleys: Bob has a 1929 and Chris a 1928. Both are too valuable to risk on such a hazardous trip.
When the 12 crews assembled at Marble Arch at the top end of Park Lane in London's West End on August 14 for the first day's drive to Metz in Germany, the drivers of the 11 European classics cars were a little uppity about the plastic-bodied American car. But the '61 Corvette would eventually prove to be one of the least troublesome cars on the trip. All 12 cars were 35 years or older. They were: an Aston Martin DB6, two Austin-Healey 3000s, a '61 Bentley S2 Saloon, two Jaguar convertibles (a '57 XK140 and a '71 XKE), a '64 Porsche 356 coupe, and four Mercedes (a 220 SE Cabriolet and three pagodas-roofs), a '64 230 SL, a '67 250 SL, and a '71 280 SL. Apart from the V-8 powering the Bentley, all of the Europeans were straight sixes. Support for the trip was supplied by two diesel 4x4s, a Mitsubishi and a Hyundai carrying spares and tools, and a Land Rover Discovery with medical supplies and a doctor. Clearly, with three support vehicles for twelve participants, the organizers were doing their best to minimize risk, but this was by no means a low-budget trip. The route had not been scouted to see if it was passable for off-roaders, let alone '60s sports cars. All the hotels were pre-booked with the assistance of sponsor M&M.
This was not a competitive event; the idea was to enjoy the cars, see some spectacular sights, arrive safely at the end of each 400-mile day, and meet as many local people as possible.
The first week saw the teams drive the 2,450 miles across Europe to Istanbul, with a rest day in Salzburg. They then drove a further 1,700 miles to take them north of Iraq and into Iran through the Zagoras mountains to a two-day reststop at Esfahan before tackling the first unpaved roads. Paul Marsh who did the final preparation of all the cars and was responsible for their mechanical well-being, drove the medical Discovery. He surprised me when I asked about security in Iran. There were two countries, he said, where the local people were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming-Iran and Pakistan. never on the whole trip did they feel threatened.
Iran is a big country, where gas costs just a few cents and where the tank of the Corvette could be filled for less than two dollars. It took another week, including a rest day in Kerman, to cross it. The Global Rally organizers adopted the sensible policy of scouting out local repair shops that would put each car on a ramp every evening to check nuts and bolts, tighten hoses, and search out and weld up fatigue cracks.
The Corvette was still running perfectly, except that, as any C1 owner will guess, the inside rearview mirror kept shaking loose and the wipers had failed beyond repair, so RainX was used to see the road ahead when it rained. With temperatures in excess of 120 degrees in Iran, Chris and Bob kept comfortable by raising the rear bow of the convertible top to keep the sun off their heads, while still allowing a through flow of air inside the car. Of the other cars, the XKE Jaguar was faring the worst because its front suspension torsion bars, already weakened in a previous rally, were allowing its oil pan to ground on the worsening roads, and the complex rear suspension arms had to be reinforced too. The Aston Martin's fuel supply endlessly vapor locked in the heat until the inner fender was finally removed to allow extra airflow.
With a police escort front and rear, the teams convoyed through the potentially dangerous roads of eastern Iran, close to the Afghanistan border, finally crossing into Pakistan on September 3, having travelled 6,300 miles in total. They spent ten days there, with a two-day rest in Lahore, where they were formally welcomed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Given the chance to drive any of the classic cars presented, he opted for the Corvette! Shortly after this, the Corvette collided with a donkey cart, but a local repair shop made a perfect repair to the fiberglass within hours. The dramatic Karakoram Highway took the teams through the mountains of western Pakistan and the Hunza Valley. Three weeks later, on October 8, this beautiful and remote region was to be shattered by the terrible earthquake in which more than 73,000 Pakistanis died. Even as this is written, much of the aid promised from all over the world has yet to arrive.
Thiry-one days after leaving London, the cars crossed the Khunjerab Pass, at more than 15,500 feet it is the highest blacktop road pass in the world. The 350 Goodwrench crate motor in the Corvette coped with this climb easily, much better than the sixes in the other cars. Ten years ago it would have been impossible for foreign car enthusiasts to travel for three weeks and more than 4,500 miles through China, but this is a rapidly changing country. From the construction that Bob and Chris saw, in five years it should be possible to drive much of this route on modern freeways, but much of this drive was on dirt roads. With specially issued Chinese license plates and accompanied by official guides, this was the highlight of the trip and helped it to be the longest distance ever driven by a London-to-Sydney rally. The Khunjerab Pass was followed by the Turfan Depression, the lowest dry place on the planet after the Dead Sea. During the long drive through China, the Corvette suffered only a broken rear shock absorber, but finding the right fuel was much more difficult, mainly because the phonetic chyu means diesel and cheyu means gasoline, and neither product smelled like the western equivalents. This led to the Aston Martin being filled with diesel and later the Mitsubishi with gas. It was here the first major accident occurred when Paul Markland crashed his '63 Mercedes 220SE. Once again, the local workshops were superb, and the car was fully repaired in 37 hours.
By this stage of the rally, the Corvette had lost its speedometer drive (though the Sat Nav readout allowed them to still know their speed to a tenth of an mph) and the front engine mount, which is sandwiched by the water pump, was allowing coolant leakage. A worse problem was damage being done to the cast-iron manifolds by the exhaust system pulling on them as the engine moved on its mountings, so I sent a spare pair to meet them in Bangkok. Owners of '63-and-later Corvettes will be aware that the Corvette engineers fixed this problem for their cars by supporting both exhaust pipes with a bracket that bolted to the transmission mount.
A trip like this needs some luck and, for Chris and Bob, this happened in Thailand when after 12,500 miles, the Vette blew its clutch friction plate. Incredibly, this happened as they had just passed a Chevrolet garage. A bike was dispatched to find another plate, and one labelled for a Mustang was fitted, and lasted the rest of the trip.
The hardest part of the drive was now over, and after 13,800 miles and two months of travel, the cars arrived in Singapore, ready to be shipped to Darwin in Australia's northern Territory. The cars needed two days of cleaning prior to shipping because of our old colony's strict rules on pest control. At the beginning of November and after a seven-day sea crossing, the cars were cleared by customs in Darwin ready to cross the empty center of Australia. Here, the great danger is hitting kangaroos in the bush, but, luckily, because of a very wet Antipodean spring, the normally dry bush was green and the marsupials stayed away from the road.
On November 16 after three months of driving, all but one of the cars arrived in Sydney. Unfortunately, Charles and Jane Patchetts's 250 SL was totalled by a young driver running a red light in Batemans Bay the previous day, after an almost trouble-free trip for the Mercedes. I suggested to Chris that he should ship the '61 to LA to complete the circumnavigation, but having successfully completed this trip, Chris is shipping the Vette back to Pakistan, where he was to compete in a Trans-Himalayan rally in March 2006. He commented, "The Corvette was absolutely the right choice with its massive engine torque and strong chassis, and the fibreglass body proved its worth as well. Some of the other drivers of European cars were indifferent about our American intruder, but their respect was finally secured when we left most of them stuck in the muddy mountain terrain for several hours after we were tucked up in our beds at the end of a 17-hour day of mountain mud, mist, and monsoon.
I asked Paul Marsh of Footloose 4x4, who provided all the back up, to name his favorite cars. "For driving pleasure, it would have to be one of the Austin-Healeys, great power-to-weight ratio, superb handling on any surface, just great fun to drive. For reliability, any of the Mercedes SLs, they are just so much better built than any of the other cars of the '60s, every last detail is properly engineered. But for the impact everywhere we went, and the reaction of people seeing all the cars, it was always the Corvette that stood out."
If you would like to learn more about this and future Global Rallies, please go to www.globalrally.org.uk.
Special thanks to Paul Marsh of www.Footloose4x4.com for the photographs.