The first hill rallies

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06 February 2018
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Series I Peak & Dukeries LRC : credit: © The Roger Fell Archive, Graham Birch and Gary Pusey
The first of their kind in the UK, the 1971 and 1972 hill rallies came about because of one man’s vision, enthusiasm and commitment. This is Roger Fell's story…

After the first hill rally in May 1971, the late author and broadcaster Michael Frostick concluded his narration of the BBC2 Wheelbase film with the words “We’ve been at the birth of a new form of motorsport, and although mother and child had a rather rough night, they’re looking forward to a very exciting future”. He was certainly right in terms of the ‘rough night’ although he could have better described it as a ‘rough nine months’ because the work involved in bringing that first-ever hill rally to fruition had been complicated, difficult and time-consuming, and often painful. Although there were many willing volunteers to assist, it is unlikely it would ever have happened without the efforts of one man: Roger Fell.

Roger’s passion for travel and adventure in a Land Rover had begun while he was still at school. Two of his teachers had Land Rovers that were used to take pupils, including Roger, on field trips into the Derbyshire countryside. After he left school, Roger started work as a trainee in the Nottingham City Council town planning department and was soon the proud owner of a 1953 Series I, bought for £15. Roger says: “I rebuilt it around a new chassis and it was fully finished and ready to go for a total of £64. 

“In 1965 three of us drove it to Istanbul via the newly-opened borders from Yugoslavia into Romania and Bulgaria. This kind of travel off the beaten track was really my first passion, and I still think this sort of activity is the main opportunity with off-road vehicles. It does not have to be extreme Sahara dune-bashing. Just wandering through the rural landscape and meeting people is enough. It’s a cliché, but I have always believed that travel broadens the mind.

“The following year I traded in the Series I for a Series II, and in September 1966 we drove it down to Greece via the Balkans and Austria. I remember struggling up the incredibly steep Wurzen Pass from Villach in Austria to Podkoren in what is now Slovenia, where the gradient was as steep as one in three or four in places. It was amusing to see the skull and crossbones road sign indicating the really challenging sections! But looking back the thing that is quite fascinating is how little gear we took. No overloaded roof rack, no winch – we just got in the vehicle and went. The innocence and enthusiasm of youth!

“Around this time I was persuaded by my good friend Godfrey Orrell to join the TA on a short-service commission. Godfrey was an expert rally navigator and I soon got into it as well, and we had the idea to create a competitive trial for four-wheel drive vehicles. The Army had been very active in running various events including a televised winter driving challenge between the London Motor Club and the British Army Motoring Association, using a range of different vehicles to drive across an off-road ‘point-to-point’ route. And then there was the BAMA 5-Star which was a major military event on Salisbury Plain using Land Rovers with Sankey trailers. It was a three-day and three-night endurance event that tested the teams’ navigational capabilities using a variety of methods, including aerial reconnaissance photographs. Godfey and I thought we could create a new event that would appeal to the military but also be open to civilian entrants.

“Our Army contacts were very interested in the idea and proved very helpful with logistics and other assistance and the very first Proteus Trial was held in 1966. Most civilian off-road events at that time were either safari-type drives, or trials which involved the now familiar set-up with a challenging off-road course incorporating navigation between a series of pegs or canes. There was rarely any driving against the clock, and you couldn’t use a Land Rover in mainstream car rallying or autocross because four-wheel drive was forbidden by the regulations.”

The Proteus Trial ran until 1972 and was very popular indeed. It was held on a redundant tank training area in Nottinghamshire and involved three disciplines, including for the first time in the UK a timed 2.5-mile assault course circuit. Entry was restricted to 90 vehicles and would invariably be fully-booked within days of opening, and generally the entrants were evenly split between civilian and military teams. Holding it in November meant that conditions were invariable wet and muddy!

“A major turning point was the 1969 BBC Wheelbase programme on the French Rallye des Cimes narrated by Michael Frostick,” says Roger. “I remember presenter Stuart Turner, head of the Ford rally team and an ex-British Leyland man, saying at the end how important it was that the UK should have such an event. The Rallye des Cimes was founded by Sauveur Bouchet and first held in 1951 in his local region, the Basque Country, and then held annually from 1960 onwards. In the 1960s there was nothing quite like it in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter. The event still runs every year, which is a remarkable achievement.”

Roger was Secretary of the Peak & Dukeries Land Rover Club and the Proteus Trial brought him into contact with many of the other leading clubs and triallists of the time, as well as the founders of the All-Wheel Drive Club. All this arguably placed him in rather a unique position when the opportunity came to create the first UK hill rally. And that opportunity was not slow in coming.

Roger takes up the story: “I was one of the Peak & Dukeries club members at a National Trial at Bredon Hill in Worcestershire in mid-1970, and Brian Sperring from Land Rover’s press department came over for a chat. I was with fellow club members Reg Parker and Richard Howard and Brian made some rather oblique comments about the potential for a new kind of off-road event. It seemed that Land Rover had been approached by a PR firm representing a sponsor bearing gifts of money and media coverage, but Brian intimated that Land Rover did not feel that it should take a leading role in exploring or staging such an event. It all sounded very interesting and Reg, Richard and I were quite excited by the bait that had been dangled in front of us. We spent the whole of the journey back to Nottinghamshire discussing it!

One of four Range Rover entrants in the first hill rally

“A telephone call on Monday morning to the factory revealed a little more information, and within a couple of hours it had been arranged that I would meet the PR firm’s representative in London the following day. When I arrived at the venue Michael Frostick was waiting to meet me and introduced me to Patricia Lotery of the PR firm Good Relations. Over the very long lunch that followed it became clear that the unknown sponsor with money to invest was the tobacco company Gallaher, owners of the Senior Service cigarette brand, amongst others. Suddenly, here was the opportunity to create a new 4x4 event at the level enjoyed by the rest of motorsport with all the media and TV coverage that went with it – as well as the razzamatazz .  With ill-considered rashness, no doubt overwhelmed by the opportunity to become involved in what was perhaps the biggest innovation in off-road motorsport at the time, I found myself offering to take on the whole project.  My offer was immediately accepted, and the lamb was on the first part of the trip to the slaughterhouse!”

It’s interesting to consider why Land Rover did not choose to take a more significant role in the event, and Roger concedes that he has often thought about this over the ensuing years. “I’ve often wondered what Brian Sperring’s agenda was, and on balance I think Land Rover’s real interest was in the potential for the new event to showcase the recently-launched Range Rover, and therefore Land Rover themselves could not be seen to be a significant player in the organisation of the event.”

George Turner and AT Vaux in their new Range Rover

Either way, it was immediately obvious that there was a great deal of work to be done and not much time to do it. Gallaher’s plan was to sponsor two events, an initial pilot rally that would then be followed by a second international event, and all makes of four-wheel drive vehicle would be eligible to enter. Gallaher, which was headquartered in Belfast, had suggested that the event should be held in Ireland where they were already significant motorsport sponsors, but this idea was quickly dropped and the final location chosen was Wales. 

“We chose Wales for a number of very important reasons,” says Roger. “We needed to base the event somewhere that was reasonably accessible for competitors, crew, marshals and spectators. Alternative locations such as Ireland or Scotland did not offer that level of accessibility. We also needed to be able to house hundreds of people in a single place, and the Victorian spa town of Llandrindod Wells was able to offer that, with a number of large hotels and plenty of smaller accommodation available. There was also quite a strong tradition of motoring events in the area, dating back to before the Second World War, and there were numerous active motoring clubs of one form or another.” 

Roger was given an unbelievably aggressive timetable to work to: Gallaher wanted the pilot event to take place in May 1971 with the international event following just six months later, which meant all the initial route planning work would have to take place in the depths of a Welsh winter. “The major factor affecting the timing was the agreement between Gallaher and the BBC that the pilot event would be filmed for the Wheelbase programme, and the show’s schedule meant that we had to hold the first rally in May. I thought we could probably just about meet this deadline, but I was much more concerned about Gallaher’s insistence that the second event should take place in the autumn of the same year. Would it really be possible to go from a UK club level event to a fully international hill rally in just six months? It was already clear that motorsport’s governing body, the RAC, did not really have any existing regulations for our proposed pilot event, let alone an international hill rally. And would competitors be prepared to enter two similar events so close to each other?” In the event, Roger’s concerns were to be proved correct.

Roger Fell during the route recce

“Gallaher had a total of £30,000 to invest in the two events,” Roger remembers. “And I was the only person on the payroll. It was obviously going to be a full-time job and so, excited by the potential of the new event, I decided to take a sabbatical from my job at Nottingham City Council and gave up my embryonic career in town planning. To be honest it wasn’t really a tough decision because I had become disillusioned with the job, which at the time was heavily influenced by people with political agendas and an interest in social engineering in the Soviet sense of the words! I was more than happy to throw myself fully into something that was exciting and challenging and associated with my love of trialling and Land Rovers.

“It was equally obvious that I would need a great deal of help and support from a wide range of organisations and people if we were to stand any chance of pulling it off. I immediately contacted my friends in the Army, who offered to help and would also commit to entering military teams. The Welsh motor clubs were also of great help and the Mid-Wales Tourist Board embraced the event wholeheartedly. And of course I contacted all the Land Rover regional clubs and explained what we were proposing. Their support was heartening, as was that from the AWDC which would help in ensuring there would be entrants in vehicles other than Land Rovers.

“Gallaher held a press conference in London at the end of February 1971 at which they announced that the first Senior Service Hill Rally would take place at the beginning of May that year. All the mainstream motoring press were there and it was obvious that there was a great deal of interest in the new event. I was particularly pleased to see that the renowned Bill Boddy, editor of Motor Sport magazine, was there, because I thought this was a sign that the new event was being taken seriously.”

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Gallaher’s press release summarised the key elements of what they described as a “new motorsport”. The competition would be open to all four-wheel drive vehicles but applicants had to be members of four-wheel drive clubs. The event would start in Llangollen on Saturday May 1 at 8.30 am and run for a distance of 156 miles across hill and mountain terrain, ending at nightfall. The following day the course would continue for another 44 miles around Llandrindod Wells, and finish with a tough test circuit on Sunday afternoon.

The disused Llangollen station was rally base

“I saw the press release for the first time that day,” recalls Roger. “When I read the words ‘the competition is being organised for Senior Service by Roger Fell’ I knew I was very publicly on the spike in terms of making the event a success. There was still a great deal of work to do, and very little time to do it! Finalising the route was clearly a top priority, but so was ensuring we had the support of the RAC regulatory body. And then of course we needed to attract competitors. And secure the voluntary commitment of hundreds of marshals. And I needed to find a helicopter for the BBC film crew to use.

“The final location was settled on the Cambrian mountains between Llangollen and the Brecon Beacons, allowing us the potential use of the wilderness of Plynlimon, the gentle hills of the Marches, the military land at Eppynt, and other large areas that were either Forestry Commission land, the water catchment area for the City of Birmingham, or private estates. Part of the problem was that rights of way were not shown on maps in those days, and we relied on the various county surveyors to dust off their detailed maps and offer us their personal knowledge of the potential routes.

“And finally we found a means to allow us to actually run the event! The first issue was to determine who would actually be responsible for hosting it. The factory-run Rover Owners’ Association did not want to take on this responsibility, and their view was that a Land Rover club should do it. As secretary of the Peak & Dukeries Club this seemed a logical choice, but not everyone at the club agreed. There was a degree of hostility to the idea, based on concerns that local clubs were founded on amateur and unpaid contributions from members who competed or marshalled voluntarily and for social enjoyment. The concern was around how this sat with the big money coming in from the commercial sponsor and whether this would change the dynamics and cause the costs of competing to escalate and put the sport out of reach for many. In fact, you could argue that this has actually happened over the subsequent years, with competition at the top end of the 4x4 scene now being a very expensive proposition. However, it soon became clear that there were many who were supportive of this new and exciting direction and the club embraced it.

REM Webber and PJH Smith of Anglian Rover Owners’ Club

“Around this time I was contacted by Richard Beddall who was to become a pivotal player in bringing in a small team of people from the AWDC to help with the organisation, and later many of the essential marshals who joined forces with the volunteers from the Land Rover clubs. Richard’s enthusiasm and his extensive list of contacts were to prove invaluable.

“Concerns among club members regarding the high costs of vehicle preparation, as well as travel and accommodation, support crews, fuel and entry costs were resolved when Gallaher agreed to cover all the running costs up to a maximum of 45 entrants, in exchange for a £10 entry fee. Few of the vehicles presented at scrutineering would meet with approval nowadays. The question of fuel spillage from under seat tanks with leaky filler caps was dealt with on a ‘blind eye’ basis – the overall approach was to be ‘flexible’ in a way that would never be possible today!

“And at last we found a way through the RAC Motorsports Regulations by describing the hill rally as a ‘touring and regularity event’ and this description, together with a large dose of pragmatism, meant that over a few hours at RAC headquarters in Belgrave Square we agreed a new set of regulations that covered barely three pages of A4. After months of effort and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the first hill rally was ready to go! And I had found my helicopter, kindly provided by the David Brown Organisation!”

But things got off to an inauspicious start when Roger crashed his Series II on a difficult section of mountain track during some final course preparation the night before the rally was due to begin, and went down a steep ravine. “I rolled three times before coming to a standstill. The vehicle was a write-off and to this day I’m not sure how I walked away from it with only a few scratches, especially given that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt!”

Number 35 comes to grief in the same place Roger rolled the previous day (his vehicle can be seen in the background)

But Roger was at the disused Llangollen railway station at dawn the following morning as the 45 competitors prepared for their timed departures. Land Rovers made up the majority of the field with 27 of various models and engine capacities including three entered by BAMA, together with four Range Rovers. The remainder were Jeeps, a solitary Toyota, four Haflingers and three specials, two of which were also Land Rover-based. A total of 34 completed the course, although the first hill rally was not without incident. 

“Vehicles got stuck and without a comms system things got a bit confused,” remembers Roger. “We didn’t have enough recovery vehicles and the timing often went to pot, and our sheer lack of experience at running an event at this level really showed, but we made it work and this was without doubt due to the many volunteers who gave up their time to be part of it. One competitor in a Land Rover overturned nose-first on exactly the same section that I had come to grief on the previous evening, creating an opportunity for some interesting photographs, but overall there were no serious incidents.”

At the end of the first day Land Rover number 25 was announced in first place, driven by Michael Green of the Peak & Dukeries Club, but at the end of the second day the overall winners were Roger Crathorne and Vyrnwy Evans in Range Rover YVB 166H, which was entered in the name of the Rover Owners’ Association rather than the factory, creating a degree of official plausible deniability had the new vehicle not acquitted itself well! Michael Green came second and third place went to Keith Kennington in a Land Rover. Class winners of interest to us were Crathorne in the Range Rover, L/Cpl. Eric Price for the British Army, and Michael Green.

Despite the undoubted teething troubles, most commentators were full of praise and hoped the event would become a regular fixture. In Motor Sport magazine Bill Boddy wrote: “For our part, we liked what we saw”, while Rover and Alvis News’ said: “We sincerely believe we have seen the birth of a new form of motorsport. A sport that will be with us for a long time to come”.

Roger had no time to rest on his laurels, though, because Gallaher wanted the second event to be held in September, just five months away, and they wanted to badge it an ‘International Hill Rally’. But Roger suddenly found himself ousted as Clerk of the Course for the second event, ostensibly because of ‘insufficient experience’. 

“The sponsors appointed Tony Ambrose,” Roger recalls. “He was a veteran navigator from the international rallying world but had far less experience than me in the four-wheel drive scene. We didn’t really get on and fell out pretty quickly after he announced that he wanted to open the event to two-wheel drive vehicles and I found myself out of a job. I should probably have cared more about this than I did at the time, but I was given a free entry and did it with Andy Anderson of Custom Car magazine.”

Given the way he was treated it is a credit to Roger that he continued to support the event and took up his free entry, although he does not consider the second hill rally to have been a great success. “Despite the ‘International’ branding,” he says, “there were only three or four overseas entries and they were all two-wheel-drive buggies. The number of 4x4 entries was actually lower than the first event, and there were far more damaged vehicles as a result of the chosen route, with only 22 finishers.”

Bill Boddy in Motor Sport seems to have agreed, writing about numerous incidents including Ford’s V8 Bronco bursting two tyres and tearing off its back axle, plenty of electrical trouble caused by the numerous river crossings, a Land Rover that toppled down a gulley and was not righted for half an hour, together with allegations of unfairness after marshals were positioned to the advantage of some competitors but the detriment of others who had already passed that spot, leading to protests at the end of the rally. The eventual winner was R S Hart, followed by Brian Bashall and D Johnson, all in Land Rovers. Class winners were the Range Rover driven by Roger Crathorne, and R S Hart in a Land Rover, while the under 2.0-litre class went to D Johnson in a Land Rover. 

Gallaher pulled out, but Roger and Michael Frostick decided to organise a third hill rally in October 1972. “It was a great success in many ways,” says Roger, “and was filmed for the Blue Peter programme, but it was clear to me that the costs were more than the potential entry revenue and without substantial sponsorship it seemed to me that such large off-road competitive events were financially doomed.”

Since then, the hill rally has been reincarnated on numerous occasions by others, but Roger’s enthusiasm for Land Rovers took him in a new direction and he eventually set up an overland vehicle preparation business that was highly-regarded for the quality of its work. Recently he completed the nine-year restoration of one of the last of the 3.5-litre classic Range Rovers, intending in retirement to use it to fulfil an ambition for a European Grand Tour. “I might also have one last itch to scratch,” he says, “because I’ve started thinking about how to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first hill rally in 2021!” 

You can’t keep a good man down!

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