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The 1968 Daily Express London to Sydney Marathon

The great adventure of the decade 


In 1967, over a luncheon date, Sir Max Aitken proprietor of England's Daily Express newspaper, Jocelyn Stevens and Tommy Sopwith dreamed up the idea of a great adventure to try and counter the despondency felt in Britain by devaluation of the pound and anti-establishment feelings which were to manifest themselves in unrest in cities all over the world the following year.
It was felt that such an event would act as a showpiece for British automotive engineering and would result in export sales in the countries through which it would pass.
A committee was set up to organise the event - a 10.000 mile/16.500 km rally from London to Sydney with a £10.000 first prize and a £500 trophy to be won. The Daily Express newspaper was to sponsor the event.
In order to cover the greatest distance overland with the most varied terrain, it was decided to route the rally from London to Dover, then by ferry to Calais and then on to Paris, Turin, Beograd, through Bulgaria to Istanbul and then to Sivas and Erzincan and then to Teheran in Iran, Kabul in Afghanistan, Sarobi in West Pakistan and on to Bombay via Delhi.
The first 72 cars to arrive were to be taken by sea to Fremantle in Western Australia where they would be disembarked and then drive across the continent to Sydney.
A pair of experienced rally drivers, Jack Sears and Tony Ambrose were given the task of reconnoitring the route to Bombay, making contact with and winning support from governments, motoring organisations, police forces and highway authorities. They then travelled to Australia where they mapped out the last 2.800 mile/4.500 km leg.
The P & O Line agreed to ferry the cars in the s.s. Chusan from India to Australia.
Over 800 applications were received and 100 were accepted.
Most of the world's major motor manufacturers entered teams: BLMC, Ford of Britain, Ford of Germany, Ford of Australia, General Motors of Australia, Rootes, Daf, Volvo, Simca, even Moskvich. A number of private entries were also admitted.



Three CitroŽn DS 21s were entered; two by the factory crewed by Bianchi/Ogier and Neyret/Terramorsi and the third, crewed by Vanson,Turcat/Lemerle was sponsored by the Automobile Club de France.
The three cars were lightly modified compared to the production vehicles - the engines were detuned to enable them to cope with low ocatane fuels, rear wings featured cutaway wheelarches to enable rear wheels to be changed without removing the wings, hydraulic pipes were mounted inside the cabin, modified dashboards were fitted with additional instrumentation and the obligatory `roo bars'.

On 24th November 1968, at Crystal Palace in London, Miss Australia flagged away the first car, a Ford driven by Bill Bengry.

The Marathon had started! A total of 92 cars were entered.

The first leg of the great adventure was the run from Crystal Palace in South London to the Channel port of Dover.
Cheering crowds lined the London streets to catch the unforgettable sight of the most international rallying event yet to be staged.
The cars were loaded onto the Maid Of Kent ferry and 75 minutes later, disembarked at Calais where the reception hall was jammed with photographers, journalists and well wishers - a phenomenon that was to be repeated across the world.
Leaving at 1 minute intervals, the 98 contestants sped off into the night towards Paris. An unexpected hazard on the road to Paris was thick fog which at times reduced the cars to a walking pace.
Ice and freezing fog continued to be a hazard on the early morning run to Turin. French customs men decided to enforce currency export rules and checked all the crews' money at the Mont Blanc tunnel.
A number of cars suffered mechanical problems on the Italian leg but the three CitroŽns stormed on although one of the teams had their passports given to another team in an hotel in Turin which caused some anguish. 
Yet another hazard awaited the contestants - in Turkey, children threw rocks at the cars, denting the bodywork and smashing windscreens.
By the time the leading cars had reached Sivas, several competitors had dropped out. The first `big killer' stage, the route from Sivas to Erzincan lay ahead. 170 miles/272 km of twisting mountain trail, at night in driving sleet.
Roger Clark broke away from the rest of the field, covering the stage at an average speed of very close to 60 mph/100 kph.
The competitors had a break at Teheran while the cars were handed over to the mechanics prior to the longest single stage of the Marathon, the 1500 miles/2400 km stretch to Kabul through the Elburz mountains.
First into Kabul was Harry Firth in a Holden entered by the Sydney Telegraph. Only 33 cars managed to arrive within the allotted time.
The next stage, Kabul - Sairobi - Delhi, added a new hazard - dust. Paddy Hopkirk in his works BMC 1800 lost five minutes on this stage as did Roger Clark who still remained in the lead. The well tarmaced road through the Khyber Pass and into Pakistan presented few problems and surprisingly, both Pakistan and India chose to forget their political differences and co-operate in allowing the competitors to cross the border that had been closed for the previous three years.
The last Asian stage - Delhi to Bombay, brought more crashes and breakdowns but at last, 72 cars were loaded onto the P & O Lines ss Chusan for the nine day voyage to Fremantle. Still leading the field was Roger Clark in his Ford Lotus Cortina, second was Staepalaere in a Ford Taunus 20 MRS and third was Bianchi in the DS 21. 

The nine day voyage to Australia gave the competitors the chance to relax and unwind after the hardships of the previous week.
Many of the drivers went down with stomach upsets and the Australian crews decided it was time to put the frighteners on their rivals, describing the perils of dust covered potholes and suicidal kangaroos.
At dawn on Friday, December 13, the Chusan docked at Fremantle and the cars were unloaded.
Local police booked 26 of the competitors for mechanical defects and illegal equipment such as sirens and flashing headlamps.
The hostility of the Australian police was to continue throughout the rest of the rally.

The following day, the cars were lined up for a Le Mans style start at Perth's Gloucester Park.
Western Australia's Premier, Mr David Brand and other celebrities flagged the cars off at three minute intervals.
Somewhat ironically, it was the Australians who first had kangaroo problems although other nationalities had their share too.
The Marathon was turning into a three-cornered race between Roger Clark, Simo Lampinen (The `Flying Finn') in the Ford Taunus and Lucien Bianchi in the DS 21. Unfortunately for Clark, his Lotus Cortina suffered a piston failure and despite cannibalising Eric Jackson's car, he dropped to third place. He made a fantastic recovery however and managed to pass Lampinen and push at Bianchi's lead.
Peter Vanson's DS 21 limped into the Mingary check point with a suspension failure.
Bianchi however was still going strong and at Omeo, he had incurred but seven penalty points against Clark's 12 and Lampinen's 40.
Bianchi appeared unstoppable. By now he was five points clear of Clark who was lying third. The Taunus then broke a tie rod leaving Andrew Cowan in the Hillman Hunter to assume second place.

And then, disaster... 

The race was all but won by Bianchi and Ogier. Not far from the Nowra control point, 156 km (98 miles) from Sydney, with Ogier at the wheel and Bianchi dozing in the front seat, the DS 21 hit a Mini head on in a section of road that was supposed to be closed to the public.
The DS 21 was wrecked and Bianchi was badly injured.
Paddy Hopkirk arrived on the scene and promptly threw up any chance of winning the rally by turning round and going for help.
It was rumoured that the occupants of the Mini were a pair of off-duty policemen who were both `drunk as skunks'. 
Andrew Cowan went on to win the Marathon in his Hillman Hunter. 

The Final Reckoning

Okay, so Bianchi's DS didn't win and Neyret was placed ninth but this fourteen year old design showed it was a match for anything else on the road.
The high pressure hydraulic system which had been so troublesome when the DS was first launched had finally come of age and demonstrated that it was utterly reliable, even under the most extreme conditions imaginable.
Since we Brits manage to turn defeat into victory (Charge of the Light Brigade - Dunkirk, etc.) I feel perfectly justified in saying that Lucien Bianchi was the moral winner of this incredibly gruelling rally.
It was primarily the size of Bianchi's lead - he had an eleven minute lead over Cowan and only 39 penalty points as opposed to Cowan's 50 - that tells the true story.
The three CitroŽns were essentially unmodified - such modifications that were performed were designed to increase the range and provide more information to the occupants and to detune the engine to enable it to cope with the low grade petrol encountered throughout Asia.
The hydraulic system was unmodified apart from re-routing the pipework inside the car to protect it and to enable roadside repairs to be made more readily. 
Many of the competitors' cars were extensively modified with tuned engines, raised and reinforced suspension, etc.

There are some pictures of a replica of the Neyret Terramorsi vehicle in the Bruno Jammes PhotothŤque.





Above the P & O Line ss Chusan

Lampinen and Staepalarae were booked by the police in Victoria for speeding after a 75 mph/120 kph chase. The police threatened to impound the car at one stage.
Soon after leaving the Omeo check point, Clark suffered a broken differential but, encountering a Cortina by the roadside, tried to buy the rear axle. The owner initially refused but then said `You're Roger Clark, the English driver, aren't you?' and parted with his rear axle. After an 80 minute delay at the local garage while the axle was fitted, Clark was once again back in contention.

So confident where CitroŽn Cars Ltd that Bianchi had won the rally that they put a full page advertisement in most of the British newspapers of the day. 

Acknowledgments: A number of people assisted me in this project, including, in Europe, Fabien SabatŤs, John Reynolds and Andrew Minney, and in Australia, John Stafford who was absolutely invaluable in providing the antipodean perspective and John Waterhouse who provided the two colour pictures of Bianchi's car in the Outback.The Daily Express was singularly unhelpful, declining to respond to either e-mails or letters. 

© 1996 Julian Marsh