The RAC Rally has had numerous names throughout its varied history.
1932-1939 RAC Rally and Coachwork Competition
1951-1970 RAC International Rally of Great Britain / RAC British International Rally
1971-1973 RAC Daily Mirror International Rally of Great Britain
1974-1992 Lombard RAC Rally
1993-1997 Network Q RAC Rally
And the ‘post-RAC’ rallies:
1998-2002 Network Q Rally of Great Britain
2003-2015 Wales Rally of Great Britain
The event was also known informally first as the ‘rally of the tests’ and following the introduction of special stages the ‘rally of the forests’.
Though the name has changed, the character of the rally has not, and so amongst competitors and fans it has always affectionately been known as simply ‘the RAC’.
The inaugural RAC Rally of 1932 was a 1000-mile adventure featuring 341 vehicles divided into two classes. Class 1 contained cars with engines of capacity exceeding 1,100cc, and Class 2 consisted of cars with engine capacities of less than 1,100cc.
Entrants competed for the Autocar Trophy and £25.00 prize money, equivalent to approximately £1,500 today. To have hope of winning this or one of the other 15 prizes on offer, drivers had to swiftly and successfully navigate the course and also contend with a Flexibility and Brake Test, a Slow Running Test, an Acceleration Test and a second Brake Test.
However, the rally was about more than just technical achievement. The programme opposite describes the event as ‘a monster motor run in which competitors, once having set forth on the long journey, more or less work out their own destinies’. This spirit of adventure would define the RAC Rally for decades, giving it its unique identity and a place in the hearts of motor sport enthusiasts the world over.
In 1959 Jack Kemsley, who had first competed in the 1933 rally in a Riley, was appointed Chairman of the Organising Committee. Kemsley’s task was to increase the rally’s appeal to drivers and spectators, and in particular to encourage more international drivers to compete. His first initiative was to move the rally from March to November, with the increased difficulty of driving in treacherous wintry conditions providing more satisfaction for all parties. An additional attraction of a November rally was that it made the RAC the only British event in which points could be scored for the European Rally Championship.
1959 was also the first RAC Rally to feature ‘Tulip Road Books’, so named after the Dutch Tulip Rally, another incentive to foreign drivers who had hitherto struggled with navigating by idiosyncratic British maps.
It was a year later though that Kemsley’s main contribution would be made. The 1960 RAC Rally was the first to feature ‘special stages’, the highlight of which was Monument Hill, Scotland, described by Autocar as ‘a two-mile dash over the roughest and most stone-strewn unsealed road imaginable, which had to be covered in three minutes’. Following the successful reception of these special stages Kemsley pursued more for the 1961 event. He was initially rebuffed by the Forestry Commission; ‘They said the roads were very rough and would be unsuitable for cars. I said that was exactly what I wanted!’ However, in 1961 200 of the route’s 2,000 miles were on Forestry Commission land. It was in this year that the rally went from being the ‘rally of the tests’ to the ‘rally of the forests’.
Erik Carlsson is one of the most imposing figures in the history of the RAC rally. This is due partly to his 6 ft. 4in. 17 stone frame but predominantly of course because of his impressive record of achievement. In 1960 Carlsson became the first non-British competitor to win the RAC rally, a feat he would repeat in both 1961 and 1962, thus making him the first driver to win three RAC rallies. That this was consecutively achieved in a two-stroke, front-wheel drive Saab 96 is further testament to his driving abilities.
In 1963 Carlsson married fellow driver Pat Moss. Moss, who was runner up to Carlsson in 1961 and finished third in 1962, subsequently drove with her husband for the Saab works team. The couple authored a book, The Art and Technique of Driving, published in 1965 and available in the Pall Mall library.
In 1971 Fred Allen and his co-driver Neil Worsfold endured a miserable evening after the inclement weather caused them to become snowbound after sliding off the road in ‘Killer’ Kielder Forest. Stranded, the pair resorted to burning their rally documents on the floor pan of their Mini Clubman GT to keep warm, before they were invited into a comparatively comfortable Volvo which had also fallen foul of the snow, to await rescue in the morning. The race would be won by the Swede duo of Stig Blomqvist and Arne Hertz in a Saab 96 V4; both car and drivers’ Scandinavian roots perhaps an advantage in such weather.
Another entry of note in the 1971 rally was the Mini Cooper of Stanley Griffin and Christopher Dickenson, who were sponsored by The Who, whose song “I can see for miles” was used in a film about the 1971 rally called From Harrogate it Started.
The 50th RAC Rally would be the first to witness the speed and power of the now famous ‘Group B’ cars. The governing body of motorsport, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), introduced this class to allow for the creation of more specialised and sophisticated vehicles. Many technical restrictions were lifted and manufacturers only needed to produce 200 models a year for their car to be eligible for competition, in comparison to the 5000 units per year stipulated for Group A vehicles.
Naturally companies such as Ford, Audi, and Peugeot began to design and build cars exclusively for rallying, leading to increasingly fast and powerful machines. Increased power led to increased danger for both drivers and spectators, and ultimately fatalities. After several high-profile crashes and the death of Henri Toivonen in the 1986 Tour de Course the Group B class was disestablished. As Maurice Hamilton notes, the Group B cars had “carved a memorable if sometimes painful niche in the history of the sport.”
Though technological advancement, commercialisation and increased safety measures allow modern rally drivers to do more, faster, better, they have in some eyes sanitised the atmosphere of rallying, negating the spirit of ‘automotive masochism’ that the RAC Rally embodied.
Paddy Hopkirk, a former driver writing in Tony Gardiner’s RAC Rally Action!, states:
“Today’s driver, if he were given something on skinny cross-ply tyres, no heater, windscreen wipers that hardly worked at all, and terrible weather, would be sending protest petitions to the powers-that-be. We just got stuck into a great endurance challenge…the fact that there are now Revival Rallies seeking to recapture this lost spirit underlines just how unique it was…”