A tale of two hillrallies

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By Gary Pusey

08 September 2020

RR Classic reunited with Roger Crathorne at the Dunsfold Open Weekend in 2013 : credit: © Dunsfold Collection/Nick Dimbleby

Two very different Land Rovers were among the 45 vehicles that entered the first Hillrally. What unites them is that they were competitors 49 years ago, and they are unique survivors today

Sunday, May 2, 1971. You could argue this was the date when anyone who harboured any lingering doubts about the advantages of coil springs on Land Rovers finally had to concede that the leafer’s days were probably numbered. It took Land Rover themselves another few years before the diehards among their own senior management accepted the fact and commissioned four coil-sprung assessment vehicles, built by cutting and shutting Range Rover chassis and fitting modified Series body panels. Why 2 May 1971? Because that was when the results were announced after the conclusion of the first Hillrally, which had been held that weekend in Wales. And despite the best efforts of several teams in their Series Is and IIs, the event had been won outright by a Range Rover.

We told the definitive story of the first Hillrallies in the March 2019 issue of LRM in our Land Rover Legends interview with Roger Fell, the man who gave up his job and committed himself wholeheartedly to making that pioneering first Hillrally event such a success. A total of 45 vehicles were entered in four different classes, and the list makes interesting reading. 

As you’d expect, it was dominated by Land Rover products. There were very few alternatives in those days. There were four examples of the recently-launched Range Rover in Class V, together with a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Couzens-Renault special and a V8-powered Series I. Class IV contained a single Rolls-Royce engined B40 Series I, nine Series IIs and six Jeeps. Class III contained eighteen Series Is, and Class I comprised four Haflingers.

There were only two non-starters and 34 of the vehicles completed the course. Bill Boddy, writing in Motor Sport magazine in June 1971, proclaimed it a great success. “For our part,” he said, “we enjoyed what we saw. There were Range Rovers and Land Rovers seemingly bogged down for evermore, yet they winched themselves out. The Midland Rover Owners Club’s recovery vehicle went in up to its front hubs, but that got clear. It was excellent PR for four-wheel drive.”

Proud Philip Bashall delighted to have found Brian’s rally vehicle

Today, only three of the Land Rover vehicles that entered the first Hillrally are believed to have survived, and of these only two are on the button: the winning Range Rover, YVB 166H, entered by Roger Crathorne with Vyrnwy ‘Vern’ Evans as navigator, and the Series II entered by Brian Bashall and Frank Smith, which was registered VAA 123. Brian’s son, Philip, owns VAA today and the Range Rover is in Richard Beddall’s collection.

“Brian was a keen trialler and was one of the small group of people that founded the All-Wheel-Drive Club in 1968,” says Philip. “When Brian learned about the plans for the Hillrally there was never any doubt that he would enter, and he found VAA 123 via a local advertisement. It’s a 1959 Series II with chassis number 141901474 that was first registered in January 1959. It was only 12-years old when Brian bought it, so it was not particularly cheap, and he started to prepare it for the rally as soon as he got it home.

“Brian fitted heavy-duty springs, dampers and axle cases as well as seat belts, multiple washer jets, engine water-proofing, stops to locate the Elephant Hide sprung seats into place, a single wiper switch, large Hella horns, and 600.16 knobbly tyres. A roll bar was required and next door to Dunsfold was an agricultural supplier run by Albert Wiltshire, an ace welder, and it was Albert that got the job to make and fit the roll bar. No one had any tube benders so two- and three-inch box-section steel was used. Pretty crude by today’s standards, but it worked! Holes were cut in the floor and six-inch square plates were welded on to the chassis, with a bolt-on plate and the box-section welded-in. A steel frame was fabricated to protect the windscreen. Finally, Brian gave it a paint job in Old English White and what I think was Morris Minor dark blue.

“Brian’s then business partner, Frank Smith, took on the role of navigator and a support crew was cobbled together comprising Bob Martin and Roger Marchant from among the Dunsfold Landrovers staff, together with David Cooper who was another keen Rover clubman. They were provided with a Land Rover Dormobile painted in the team colours, and the convoy set off for mid-Wales.

“Brian and Frank had a great time but I remember they were penalised for a technical infringement of some kind so they didn’t figure on the results board. Nevertheless, the Series II was entered in the second Hillrally that September, this time driven by Frank Smith with his wife as navigator. They acquitted themselves very well, coming second overall. After that, the Series II was relegated to Dunsfold Landrovers company hack, although it appeared at many AWDC events around this time.

“Later, it was given a new coat of Marine Blue paint, all the rally modifications were removed, and it became Brian’s company car for a while before it was eventually sold. And that was the last I heard of it until 2018, when I received a tip-off that it was up for sale on eBay! I’d looked for it from time to time over the years but never found it and assumed it had been scrapped. But as soon as I saw it, I realised why it had been ‘lost’ for all those years – at some point an owner had cashed in the valuable VAA 123 number plate and fitted instead a dreadful age-related thing.

“The car also now had a rather tatty all-over red paint job and had been sold on to an activity paragliding club in Lincolnshire as a tow vehicle. It spent many years there until around 2005, when it was sold to Nene Overland who had it sitting in their yard until it was sold to a Series II Club member who had done various odd jobs on it before I got it off the auction site.

“It was still very much as Brian sold it apart from the red paint. I’ve always believed that VAA is a very important part of Dunsfold’s history and it just had to be restored to the way it was during its Hillrally years. It was great fun trying to think the way Brian must have thought back in the day and putting it back to the way I remember it. I’d love to recover the original registration number, which is apparently on an Audi, but pending that I acquired VAA 999 as an alternative.

“I was invited to take it to the 4x4 Expo show earlier this year because the organisers were commemorating a number of the early off-road trials pioneers, including Brian, and I thought it would be nice to have VAA there. It looked wonderful alongside David Mitchell’s impressive display of Hillrally memorabilia. I’m pleased to have it back in the family and now I know how few survivors there are among the vehicles that entered the first Hillrally, it makes me doubly pleased to have been able to save it.”

The winning Range Rover was YVB 166H, a Pre-production example that had been entered under the name of the Rover Owners’ Association. To all intents and purposes it was really a factory works entry, but by entering the vehicle in the name of the ROA the whole thing was distanced just far enough away from the Rover Company and British Leyland that it could not become an embarrassment if things went horribly wrong. Plausible deniability is the modern term for it! In fact, the doubters need not have worried and the plot was rumbled anyway, as Bill Boddy revealed in Motor Sport magazine when he said, “the Overall Winner was R. Craythorne, driving the Rover Company’s Range Rover representing the ROA”.

Roger and Vern had their own support crew comprising company employees Ken Twist, Jim Bickley-Parton and David Woodcock, who were driving winch-equipped sister-vehicle YVB 163H, which would later find eternal fame in Geof Miller’s long-term ownership and is now owned by JLR Classic.

Rover’s employee newspaper, Rover and Alvis News, was jubilant and said of the first day: “Range Rover No. 1 led the field to tackle the afternoon stages across miles of desolate, moonlike terrain, ending in a spectacular thrash through six miles of forest and a swim up the four-foot deep River Wyre”. Reporting on the second day, writer John Connor said “Roger Crathorne and Taffy Evans were driving with great skill and aplomb, smashing the time record on all sections, winning them easily”.

YVB 166H was entered in the second Hillrally as part of a two-vehicle team with YVB 172H, and this time the entry was officially in the name of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Once again, YVB 163H was the support vehicle but this time it was driven by Geof Miller. Sadly, the Range Rover’s stellar success in the first Hillrally was not to be repeated, at least according to the official results. Bill Boddy in Motor Sport magazine announced that Roger Crathorne and Vern Evans came seventh overall, while YVB 172H piloted by David Woodcock and Rob Lyall came eighth. They were beaten by seven leaf-sprung Land Rovers and one Haflinger. 

Perhaps the news of the impending obsolescence of the leaf-spring had been rather exaggerated, but it would also be fair to say that there was a great deal of confusion at the end of the rally as the scores were being added up, and there were many anguished and irritated appeals from competitors who felt unjustly treated. 

Roger Fell, who had led the team of volunteers that had made the first Hillrally such a success, had been obliged to hand over the reigns as Clerk of the Course for the second event to Tony Ambrose, ostensibly because the second Hillrally was supposed to be an ‘international’ event. Ambrose, who had been a very successful rally co-driver
in the 50s and 60s, decided to create two separate courses for the event, one for 4x4s and one for cars. Roger disagreed passionately with this, and so he and Ambrose parted company.

With good grace, Roger accepted an offer to compete in the second event and did so with Andy Anderson of Custom Car magazine. Roger therefore had a competitor’s view of the event and recalls: “There was a great deal of confusion at times and overall the second Hillrally was a bit of a disaster. A major problem was the penalty system: if a marker was hit or passed on the wrong side in view of a marshal it was deemed a fail rather than a notional time penalty. How the organisers actually worked out the results list I do not know, but there was a huge number of objections from competitors when the results were announced. I think the press were as confused as the rest of us in the end”.

One person who was never in doubt was Geof Miller, who was of the view that YVB 166H “should have won” the event “but we backed off and didn’t object, and a Series II won it”.

Whatever happened to 166?

YVB 166H was built in early March 1970 and was eventually sold by the company to Roger Crathorne in January 1972. It became Roger’s family transport and took him and his family on numerous holidays to Greece and Spain, usually towing a caravan. Roger sold it in 1979 and two years later it was acquired by David Mitchell, by which time it was in a pretty bad way.

David kept it for many years, fully intending to restore it, but eventually realised this was not going to happen and sold it to Richard Beddall in 2012. “I had always admired 166 for the contribution it made to the Range Rover story,” Richard says, “and I badgered Dave Mitchell for years to let me buy her and restore her. This finally happened in December 2012 and my good friend, the late Barry Redman, took on the restoration work.

“When we collected her from a shipping container hidden in the depths of a forest in North Wales, we realised the job was going to be far tougher than we imagined. The car had no interior or engine and the rear body was very rusty. I bought an original but tatty Suffix A as a donor and Barry got to work. There was a degree of urgency because she needed to be ready in time for the Dunsfold Collection Open Weekend in June 2013. The rebuild also had to be achieved in complete secrecy as we wanted it to be a surprise to all the Hillrally competitors and organisers, including Roger Crathorne, who would be present at the Open Weekend when Roger Fell handed over the early Hillrally records and films to the care of the Dunsfold Collection. To Barry’s credit the job was completed on time and Roger and 166 were reunited for the first time in well over 30 years!”

Since then, 166 has been displayed at the Musée National de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and at several other Land Rover and classic car events up and down the country. It’s fair to say that YVB 166H and VAA 123 are two very special survivors from a defining moment in the history of both the Land Rover and competitive off-roading in the UK.