Metal and Mettle Meet the Road

Historic Motor Racing News, March 2017

“What needs to be proved today is that as long as a man has a car, he can do anything and go anywhere,” proclaimed the French newspaper Le Matin on January 31, 1907. “Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Peking to Paris by automobile?” Five cars travailed the 14,994 km-course, departing on June 10 with the winner arriving on August 10 of that year followed by three others.

Roads have been cut, cars and tires vastly improved and uninhabited areas populated since that arduous journey yet the tenacious nature and adventuresome spirit of motoring enthusiasts remain constant. Drivers and navigators, steadfastly undaunted by the gambles of the road, are as varied as the routes and automobiles they choose.

Readying for the rigors of long-distance rallying requires a partnership. “The selection and preparation of a suitable rally car is an art form that considers the event, the driver’s style and the range of variables that combine for a successful experience,” relates Kent Bain of Automotive Restorations Inc. and Vintage Racing Services, Stratford, Connecticut, USA.

Rally of the Incas. Photo by Gerard Brown

The four corners of the globe call Hans Middelberg and his 1967 Ford Mustang “Sally.” The convertible has traversed 31 countries, 66,600 km, steered by Hans and his navigators/co-drivers, Jürgen Grolman and Malcolm Rose. This already performance-minded car has been specially equipped and developed into a reliable rally car by Automotive Restorations and Vintage Racing Services. Modifications include tuning and strengthening the suspension, upgrading the drivetrain for the trials to come and installing full skid plates, heavy duty coolers, auxiliary fuel tanks, push bar, auxiliary lighting, tow hooks, proper tires and full rally instrumentation. Add to that, safety equipment and a carefully considered shopping list of other necessities. Next they get to the spares kit and tutoring. Drivers and navigators must have the ability and knowledge to do key emergency repairs themselves at times when Vintage Racing Services’ support teams just cannot be present. All the preparation, instruction and attention to a long checklist of details mean nothing without the right machine. Capable, not overly tuned and tough is just the right combination. In this light, Vintage Racing Services “often finds that some slightly unsophisticated American Iron is a good fit.” “The Ford Mustang is well-suited to these rallies,” explains Tim Ritchie of Vintage Racing Services. “Robust and solid, the car is easily serviceable and parts are available and inexpensive.”

Rally of the Incas. Photo by Gerard Brown

Rallyist driver Hans reports that “(Mustang) Sally has behaved excellently” on Endurance Rally Association-sponsored tours: the Trans-American Challenge across the USA from the East coast to Alaska, the Peking-to-Paris Motor Challenge and the Road to Mandalay from Singapore to Burma. Hans, Jürgen and Sally just completed the Rally of the Incas with Hans recalling that they arrived “in Lima after driving 10,685 km through the challenging and beautiful landscape of Argentina, Chile and Peru. The last four mountain passes were 4,200 to 4,567 meters high. Nine of the 49 cars didn’t make it to the finish line because of irreparable breakdowns. We finished in 16th place with little trouble—a good result, considering our safety-first approach to the competitions.”

Sally returned to Vintage Racing Services for a check-up and repairs before she, Hans and Jürgen head out in April to explore Japan on Rally Round’s Samurai Challenge.

“These tours allow me to see the world like very few other people can and to appreciate different people, how they live and work and what kind of government impact they endure or enjoy,” shares Hans. “In addition, I savor and master the complexities of long-distance rallying with all of the crazy time trials and regulations and good and bad roads, while experiencing the personal physical and physiological limits of both myself and old classic equipment.”

La Carrera Panamericana. Photo by Kenneth Olafsson

La Carrera Panamericana has been the bailiwick of Bill Shanahan, competing in the strenuous race 19 times since 1992. A 1954 Swallow Doretti, 1954 Volvo 444, 1963 split-window Corvette, 1964 Volvo P1800, 1966 Corvette Coupe and 1964 Ford Falcon Coupe have withstood the intensity of the eight-day, 3,000-km contest with Bill and his varied co-pilotos, Danny Vettoretti, Fred Gunther and on one occasion, Automotive Restorations/Vintage Racing Services’ own Kent Bain. Murray Smith has held the seat over the last decade plus, which is the team’s most successful tenure thanks to a superb “roadwork relationship” between Bill and him.

Bill is slotted for the 2017 event with his 1958 Alfa Romeo 1900, which qualifies for the La Carrera Original Pan Am class. Vintage Racing Services has torn the car down to the bare tub and fit it with a restored and enhanced suspension, updated competition-ready drivetrain and creature comforts while preserving all the flavor of the original to the vintage Alfa. Safety is job one and this car is prepared to take good care of its occupants and finish up-front as Bill and his steeds often do.

Bill and Vintage Racing Services Inc. crews have been at it since 1992. “There is no other rally like it in the world,” states Bill. “Mexico is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and the people are fantastic. The mountain stages demand proficient hard rally driving, commanding more than a racetrack and offering few, if any, second chances. The other competitors are terrific; no one except one Mexican driver goes back as far as I do with this event. What is my favorite car that I have driven in La Carrera? That is very difficult to decide. My Volvo 444 handles brutally well; well-balanced and forgiving, it can be put in a corner too hard and saved reliably to get out of trouble. That car and I won 5th overall and first in class against other cars all powered by V-8 engines. My 1966 Corvette is another favorite, having won 3rd overall by time despite not being a qualified Pan Am class car.”

Another draw for Bill has been the Targa Newfoundland, competing in the 1964 Ford Falcon and 1966 Corvette that saw La Carrera action and a 1965 Porsche 911 restored by Connecticut, USA-based Porsche specialist Jim Newton and supported by Vintage Racing Services. Bill and Murray have contested this event five times with consistent class wins in Vintage Racing Services-prepared/supported machinery.

Photo by Max Itin

Si and Vicki Ford had enjoyed “gentle driving” car tours throughout the US when Bill Shanahan invited them to accompany him as tourists to La Carrera. The rally bug bit! They set out to find a fitting car, which Automotive Restorations sourced in the form of a seafoam blue/green 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente Coupe. Vintage Racing Services fit it out to racing-level standards, Si and Vicki attended driver and navigator training, respectively and they were off! “We had no idea what we were getting into,” muses Vicki. “On our first outing, the World Cup Rally from London to Kathmandu with the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation, we successfully met the time-distance requirements, negotiating a few memorable auto adventures en route. Off the ferry into France, our generator broke. A spare one packed for us by Vintage Racing Services was handily installed by the tour tail staff person who we discovered had learned his trade repairing tanks in World War II.”

The Comet took them on La Carrera Panamericana, “the most special rally we joined. Our gained expertise provided us with the skills to drive faster and to place in the middle of the pack. Immersing ourselves in the culture, meeting the people, eating local food, seeing native art and crafts and viewing the landscape during Targa Newfoundland and Targa New Zealand were rewarding for us. Every evening in New Zealand, residents brought their cars to join ours and to swap stories, calling us their ‘American cousins.’”

The HERO Icelandic Saga culminated their adventures with the Mercury, which they recently sold. The Fords are inveterate rallyists though, signing on for “just one more” tour—the April HERO London to Lisbon excursion in a 1962 BMW 1600.

The couple’s teamwork was most striking to both Si and Vicki. “In our fifty-plus years of marriage, we have partnered successfully, balancing work and family and addressing new occurences every day. Rallying reflects our model for living to ‘expect the unexpected.’ Faced with issues as we drove along, we solved each problem in the moment, together.”

Collaboration all around: drivers, cars, organizers, support staff and restoration specialists! These well-traveled cars benefit from continual support during events by the staff of Automotive Restorations and Vintage Racing Services, in-person on the road, by email or phone or in spirit. Kent Bain notes that, “our crew truly enjoys preparing rally cars that both look and perform as they should. We are proud of the accomplishments that our drivers and navigators realize, relying on the tools we create. The rewards are many, and though we don’t take the road risks, we do share in the fun. It has been over 35 years of learning and restoring with real satisfaction in practicing our craft well. Enthusiasts working with and for enthusiasts is the flavor we savor.”