What really happened in 1968.
Tipsy press baron launched a legend.
Press baron Sir Max Aitken, proprietor of the London Daily Express conceived the London-Sydney Marathon in 1968 over a boozy lunch at the Savoy Hotel, just a stagger from his Fleet Street offices. Within the week it was announced in his paper with a £10,000 first prize for the winner. Things happened like that in those days.
To make sure the Australian end worked well he enlisted the help of his Australian opposite number Sir Frank Packer, owner of the Sydney Telegraph.
It made headlines from the first day it was launched and fired the imagination of newspaper readers around the world. It was a true adventure at a time when for Brits a trip abroad meant a package holiday to Spain. Bulgaria was still behind the Iron Curtain and India, Iran and Afghanistan were countries vaguely remembered from school geography lessons.
Few people know the real reason why the event was born. The truth is that Sir Max was furious that his great Fleet Street rival the Daily Mail was putting on circulation with its promotion of the London to Paris air race.
It ran for a week and offered £1,000 for the fastest journey between the Post Office tower to the Eiffel Tower. He wanted something that would blow the Mail out of the water.
London to Sydney for a ten thousand pound prize certainly did that. The Daily Mail sank back onto the second rung of Fleet Street's papers.
A road race from London to Australia was an awesome prospect that few could fully understand. A bit like today announcing a race from London to Mars with Buckingham Palace as first prize.
It caught the imagination of the motor industry too. In Australia Ford and Holden immediately created 3-car factory teams to take on the challenge. In England the British Motor Corporation mustered their stars to drive a 3‑car team of Austin 1800s, Ford did the same with Cortinas as did Rootes with Hillman Hunters. From France, Citroen and Peugeot joined in and Russia surprised everyone by coming out from behind the Curtain with a team of lumpy little Moskvitches.
Normally when newspapers sponsor an event other papers try to ignore it. The Marathon was so big that no paper could afford to ignore it. Even The Times, London's poshest paper, sent a man on the route to cover it.
Once the 98 starters hit the road there were stories aplenty for only 56 of them would get to the finish. There were incidents, accidents, crashes, smashes and rivalries between teams for news hounds to feast on.
Roger Clark, one of the great legends of British rallying, romped away from the start and was first into Bombay in his Ford Cortina partnered by Swede Ove Anderson. Asked how he'd trained for the event he famously replied, "Every evening I walked the mile to the pub." The man from The Times, determined to get a story from the event leader then asked, is it very tiring. "No," replied Cark, "I'm getting more sleep on this rally than I normally get at home."
On the 9-day boat trip from Bombay to Perth the Aussies, determined that on their own turf they'd show the Europeans a thing or two, started a war of nerves. There were tales of 12 foot high man-eating kangaroos, pot holes in outback roads so deep you couldn't drive out of them and deadly poisonous spiders that crept into your shoes at night
Clark smiled and took off from Perth driving like God's messenger. With two days to go he still lead and then a rear axle snapped. Lucien Bianchi in the Citroen DS took over the lead until, with a day to go, he crashed head on with a spectator's car.
Andrew Cowan, the canny Scot in the Hillman Hunter moved into the lead and that was it. Suddenly the car with almost no competition history became famous and desirable. Cowan pocketed the £10,000 cheque with a smile -- that was the price of modest house in London at the time. Hillman dealers in Australia were inundated with orders, but there were only nine cars in Australia at the time. They weren't big sellers and the next consignment was two months away.
Paddy Hopkirk in an Austin 1800 was second and Australian Ian Vaughan was third in his V8 Ford Falcon.
And so the London-Sydney Marathon passed into motor sport and motoring history as the first and most famous of all trans continental rallies. And all because Sir Max Aitken, over a boozy lunch, dreamed up a way of putting one over a rival newspaper.
Things like that don't happen any more.