Waltzing Over The Khyber Pass

This text is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Robert Connor and is referenced in, or taken from, his new book “The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon – A History of the10,000 mile Endurance Rally”, published in July 2015 and available for pre-ordering now. See below for details.

It would be the rally event of a lifetime. Not since the first decade of the twentieth century had there been such an enormous spectacle of motoring endurance. Two hundred and forty three men and 12 women would drive in competition along a 10,000 mile route from London, England to Sydney, Australia.

Ninety eight cars and crews of 19 different nationalities would speed right across 10 countries before taking on the vast expanse of the Australian outback – the bull dust, heat, danger, ‘flying’ wallabies, and ‘giant’ kangaroos.

For every finely tuned, professionally prepared rally car, there would be a barely more than standard family saloon or estate car. Among the meticulously prepared factory team Cortina Lotuses, BMC 1800s and Australian Ford Falcons was a fascinating, and rather unlikely mix of vehicles, including a little Austin 1300 Countryman, a tiny MG Midget, a Land Rover with its four-wheel drive disabled, and even a 1930 Bentley Sport Tourer! For every experienced international rally or racing driver, there would be many enthusiastic privateers without any experience of endurance motorsports, some without even the experience of driving on ‘the wrong side of the road’!

Car 36 Holden HK GTS
Car 36 on the ’68 London to Sydney Marathon was a Holden HK GTS driven by D McKay, seen here leaving Crystal Palace in South London after being flagged off by Miss Australia.
Austin 1800 of Evan Green , Gelignite Jack Murray and George Shepherd
The Austin 1800 of Evan Green , Gelignite Jack Murray and George Shepherd that finished 21st overall on the ’68 London to Sydney Marathon. This car is expected to appear at the show on May 31st.

On December 17, 1968, the winning car drove into the Warwick Farm Raceway in Sydney, to be met by cameras and journalists, Marathon officials and thousands of excited Australians. In December 1968, much was written about and reported on the individual and team winners, the shocking events of the final stage of the Marathon, and how a major car company was taken by surprise as one of its products beat the rest to secure victory. Forty eight years later, it has all but slipped into the mists of time.

And what of the spear-carriers, the also-rans, those enthusiastic amateurs who saw their hopes of getting to Sydney realised, or worse, saw their dreams disappear on a roadside in India, or a ravine in Turkey? Who were these determined men and women who coaxed their crumbling, collapsing cars across mountain ranges and international borders, through the death-defying throngs that lined the roads of Pakistan and India and over the gruelling, relentless terrain of the Australian outback? What brought them to that bright, wintery day in London, their cars laden to the roof with spare parts, spare tyres, maps and notes, food rations, spare clothes, and even an umbrella?

What started as an idle internet search in September 2010 eventually took me on my own personal ‘marathon’, which included travelling right around the world, and twice to Australia, to meet some of those extraordinary pioneers of endurance motorsports and hear their stories, their memories of the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon.

From the adventures of a young Australian Ford Motor Company employee and works rally driver, to the trials and tribulations of a young British woman who joined an amateur, all-women team, only two of whom had competitive motorsports experience, each person’s experience of the Marathon is unique, compelling and, on occasion, nail-biting!  Along the way, I had the privilege of meeting some of the great luminaries of international endurance rallying from Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom, including Bob Holden, who, in his ninth decade, is still preparing and racing touring cars in Australia, Graham Hoinville, who competed regularly with Harry ‘The Fox’ Firth, Bruce ‘Hoddo’ Hodgson, Mike Wood, Brian Culcheth, Rosemary Smith, Ian Vaughan, who took third place in 1968,  John Hemsley and Mike Bailey – so many stories, all told with great enthusiasm, humour and candour.

In 1968, the London to Sydney Marathon was an international spectacle receiving media coverage across the globe. Subsequent endurance rally events may have been more demanding, more arduous, but this was the ‘grand-daddy’ of them all, taking place during a window of time when international geo-politics was relativity peaceful, when a stream of multi-coloured rally cars could drive across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and be greeted by cheering crowds and fascinated spectators all the way.  With contributions from more than 60 Marathon competitors, this book is for those who enjoy a good adventure story, for those who are interested in personal histories and those who want to know what on earth these 255 men and women were thinking, trying to drive a car all the way from London in England, to Sydney in Australia!

This text is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Robert Connor and is referenced in, or taken from, his new book “The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon – A History of the10,000 mile Endurance Rally, published in July 2015 and available for pre-ordering now. See below for details.

About the Author

Robert Connor
Robert Connor

Robert Connor first  learnt about the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon while on a long train journey.  In 1969, at the age of six, his mother bought him a toy car to keep him occupied – that toy car was a model of the winning Hillman Hunter, complete with plastic kangaroo and rally decals to stick on the gleaming blue and white paintwork.  What was this Marathon? How could a car like the one in which he got lifts to school drive all the way to the other side of the world and win?  Thus began a fascination that has lasted through the decades.  A confirmed petrol-head, and devout fan of 1960’s family transportation, Robert lives in Gloucestershire.  This is his first book.

Hillman Hunter toy with plastic kangaroo
Hillman Hunter toy with plastic kangaroo

You can pre-order a copy of The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon – A History of the 10,000 Mile Endurance Rally via this link http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-9586-3

Among the many anecdotes and recollections shared are: 

  • How the Marathon organisers were able to achieve international co-operation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan, and Pakistan-India borders.
  • How Earl Mountbatten got involved.
  • How help and support was offered and taken from unexpected sources along the Marathon route. 
  • How mechanical troubles dogged many of the British Ford Motor Company Team cars. 
  • How a 1930 Bentley Tourer, with a three-man crew and only a canvas canopy to protect them from the elements, came to fall into a ravine and become the subject of a stand-off between officials and army soldiers in Turkey.
  • How the disposal of a spent cigarette led to a spectacular roll-over for a car and crew in Yugoslavia, with the driver later sheepishly trying to explain that he had had a tyre blow out.
  • How an argument blew up between a crew and event organisers in Bombay, when the prize for leading private entry was awarded to another entrant.
  • Why some cars had ‘roo bars’ while others didn’t, and how some of the Marathon Porsches appeared to be encased in metal bed-frames!
  • How the same mechanical weakness caused havoc for almost all of the big Mercedes Benz saloon cars in the Marathon.
  • How one team escaped a close shave with bandits.
  • How the US military came to aid of another team.
  • How two Australian rally drivers broke all records to get to Bombay before the ship sailed, after their Volvo suffered catastrophic mechanical failure in Turkey.
  • How one crew had to beat a hasty retreat after crashing their car into a house in Turkey and brandishing a handgun at the gathering crowd!
  • Why the captain of the Perth-bound ship reportedly telegraphed P&O to say he was losing control of his vessel!
  • Why the New South Wales traffic police were described by one competitor as being more like the Gestapo!
  • Which competitor was told off for water-skiing on the River Thames a few days before the event?
  • Who told stories about the dangerous horrors of Australian wildlife in the Outback, and who really was the first car and crew to hit a kangaroo?
  • How one car had a nasty encounter with a double-decker bus in Teheran, but still made it to Sydney.
  • How one competitor found herself without a passport in ‘no-man’s land’ between two international border controls!
  • How another competitor sustained a severe head injury in Turkey but, against all advice, insisted on carrying on all the way to Sydney.
  • How a runaway Indian army truck put paid to the ambitions of one of the leading crews.
  • How, during the final stages, the leading car could not be beaten and its crew was all but drinking champagne at the finishing line, when a devastating head on collision with a passenger car coming in the opposite direction robbed them of victory.