1968 London-Sydney Marathon

....The rally, open to any 2WD four-wheeled car, ran virtually non-stop to Bombay, when the crews enjoyed eight days' rest on the ship to Perth.

In Australia the organisers had set a number of "horror stretches" which were intended to be virtually impossible to "clean-sheet".

Around 23 cars failed to make the boat from Bombay, and around 20 more succumbed in Australia.

The first horror stretch was between Marvel Loch and Lake King in WA, which only three drivers - Clark, Lampinen and Bianchi - covered without loss of points.

On the second-last day of the rally Bianchi was quoted, quite ironically as it turned out, saying that the ease of the event was a little disappointing. "A show like this could be made harder the next time around."

Not all competitors were enjoying a trouble-free run. Evan Green's team had been in fifth place when they reached the Flinders Ranges, but a rear wheel bearing seized and the wheel sheared off. A BMC service aircraft spotted the hapless crew, who wrote in the sand what they needed. The plane sped off and located a ground crew and the required parts were soon on their way to the car, but four hours were lost.

Earlier, Green had towed Andrew Cowan's Hillman Hunter back onto the track, after Cowan had run off the road and got stuck on an anthill. Green always defended the decision to help a competitor in this way, saying; "This is motorsport, not war".

Roger Clark had his share of problems, but had been lucky to hold second place, only a few points behind Bianchi in one of three Works Citroens. Clark had burned out valves crossing the Nullarbor, and at Ceduna his team-mates Erik Jackson and Ken Chambers, who were a long way off the pace, sacrificed their own chances of even finishing the event, by giving Clark the head off their own Escort.

Clark's luck wasn't to hold, though. Arriving at Omeo, in the Victorian high country, his car was suffering from a noisy differential that needed to be replaced.

However, the Ford service man was nowhere to be found so Clark had to push on. The diff expired about half way to Bairnsdale, and by the time repairs could be effected, the team had dropped out of contention.

The reason for the Ford service mechanic's absence was no secret to the BMC crew, as Owen Peake explained recently. "He had a drinking competition the night before, with the BMC team, and he lost."

Peake was one of a number of BMC service mechanics at the control, as he recalls. "I was a fourth year apprentice at Kellow Falkiner, and was picked out to go up there with two other apprentices. We drove up to Omeo, in an Austin Freeway I had. I loaded a trailer with all sorts of parts and jacks and stands, and goodness knows what else, and we spent about three days at the Hilltop Hotel at Omeo. Arthur Scott was the guru from BMC in charge of us there."

"I had to tighten the back engine mounting on the Austin 1800. For some reason they just came loose. I don't know why, but they knew they would be loose any time they came into a control point, so that was my job."

The night before, German driver Gilbert Staepalacre had been booked by the police, for doing 75mph on a special stage. Police held up his car, while the ticket was written out. A very angry Staepalacre roared away from the control, spraying spectators with gravel. Further on, he misjudged a corner and damaged his steering, dropping him from third to 16th place.

Only 200km or so from the finish, with no chance of losing any more points, Bianchi's rally came to a sudden end.

After negotiating an easy water crossing, the car rounded a bend and collided head-on with a spectator's Mini coming the other way. First on the scene was Paddy Hopkirk, who darted back to the creek, where there were numerous press photographers and spectators, to get help.

Bianchi had been asleep in the passenger (right-hand) front seat, while co-driver Jean-Claude Ogier was at the wheel. Much has been said in the ensuing years about possible causes, but it seems to have been just a terrible accident.

Although one or two papers and magazines made erroneous reports about the Mini, with one book on the rally squarely blaming the Mini for the crash, most of the drivers at the time were critical of the police - for being pre-occupied with the speed of competitors rather than manning control points to prevent such an occurrence.

Perhaps the most critical of all was Paddy Hopkirk, who described NSW as a police state. "If they had been on that road where Bianchi had his accident warning people that rally traffic was coming there would not have been an accident", he said.

Clark was almost as critical, saying; "the police could have spent more time making sure that the roads were clear instead of checking speeds of the rally drivers."

Aussie Barry Ferguson also complained about the police attention. "Between Nowra and here (the finish at Warwick Farm) there were about 100 police vehicles...At one time I had a Rambler in front of me and a Mini behind. I thought that was a bit hot."

To be fair to the police, although there was still one control to go at Nowra when the crash happened, it was on a transport stage that was not time critical, and was an open public road.

The result of the crash was to hand the victory of the Marathon to Scotsman Andrew Cowan - who only a day earlier had been in fourth position. Hopkirk was second, with Ian Vaughan and crew in a Falcon GT third.

After 40 years of silence, the passenger from the Mini gives his recollections of the crash and its aftermath on the following pages.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 20 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>28</plumshop> <plumshop>27</plumshop>

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