Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Touring: Western Cape, South Africa

There are hundreds of ‘Great Drives’ along spectacular coastline in many places around the world, but one of my most memorable is the drive from Hermanus, along the coast of the Western Cape, to Capetown.


In 2002 I headed a North American press group flying in to Capetown for the press launch of the Bentley Arnage T saloon. We stayed at the quiet, secluded and luxurious Grand Roche Hotel in Paarl, close to South Africa’s wine country. This hotel is beautifully decorated, but also very understated and comfortable.

Hotel Grand Roche

After a brief pit stop for breakfast in Frankschoek, we followed the R45 to Villersdorp, joining the R43, and Route 2 to Caledon. We took the R316 and the R320, to Stanford, and then made a detour to the fabulous Grootbos Private Nature Reserve for lunch, and a chance to get up close and personal with some wildlife, including a couple of very curious Ostriches.
Grootbos Private Reserve

Then the driving changed from hilly terrain dotted with eucalyptus tress, and open sweeping roads, to a winding, scenic drive along the rugged coastline.

As we crested the last hill before joining the coast you look west towards False Bay. So named because many early sailors heading for Capetown, mistook the sweep of this bay as the Capetown Harbour, thus the area a few kilometres offshore is littered with shipwrecks from centuries past.

Cape Point

Had they sailed just a few more miles further out to sea they would have rounded Cape Point, and the spectacle of Table Mountain would have confirmed they’d arrived safely in Capetown.

Capetown and Table Mountain

Today the road edges around the base of huge cliffs under the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. Following the R44 past Betty’s Bay, Pringle Bay, we leave the coast at Strand to head for Stellenbosch.

Bentley Arnage T near Kogelberg Reserve
Stellenbosch is the true heart of the wine district hereabouts, and also a university town. It’s a cosmopolitan centre with great restaurants and hotels. We then turned north for a fabulous, mountainous drive along Helshootge Road, to rejoin the R45 and return to the Grand Roche. Then it was time for cocktails, and the inevitable ‘Presentation’ of the new car, with all its associated technical details, sales forecasts and the Q&A.

Hotel Grand Roche

The ‘business’ end of any launch event is a small price to pay for the chance to drive in far-flung and exotic locations all over the world. More about some of the other Bentley ‘Great Drives’ in future posts.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Fiat 16

Badge-engineered cars turn up in unusual places sometimes, and on a recent trip to Italy I noticed how popular the Fiat Sedici has become – especially with smart, chic, young Italian women.

 The Sedici (Italian for sixteen) is made in Hungary by Suzuki, and about one-third of the production is sold in Italy with either 1.6 petrol, or 1.9. diesel (guess which one is most popular in Italy). It’s a by-product of the original links between Suzuki and General Motors, and then later General Motors and Fiat.  

The car was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ital Design and launched at the Geneva Salon in 2006, and it’s a really smart looking vehicle. It’s a 4x4 or 4x2 drive configuration (as 4x4 makes 16, that’s why the Italians decided to badge it Sedici).

We know the car in Australia by its Suzuki moniker, SX4. I drove one a year or so back, and I can easily understand its popularity.

Given its short wheelbase it is easy to park, is quite roomy, has acceptable luggage capacity, and the occupants get a nice high driving position with a commanding view of the traffic.

If you’re a young woman doing battle in Italy’s chaotic cities, I can definitely see why this car appeals.
As an all-wheel-drive, it’s not in the Range Rover class of off-road machines, but for dashing about at ski resorts, and coping with occasionally rough terrain on a picnic in the Tuscan woods, it’s quite competent.
The Suzuki SX-4 I drove handled confidently and competently and was great around town. On the motorway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast it was stable, quiet and very economical, with fuel economy around 7 l/100km. Not bad given all the drag induced by an awd system, and a less-than slippery shape.

Suzuki has massively undermarketed this car in Australia, and after the success it achieved with the tiny Swift hatchback, I can’t work out why they didn’t put more effort and marketing dollars into the SX4 SUV. It broadens the range, offers something completely different, and is well-priced.

Clearly, young Italians got the message.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Doc's Domain

When Martin Clunes first graced television screens as grumpy Doc Martin, who could have believed the grouchy, grumbling GP would have become such a popular character? Who could warm to a guy apparently suffering a form of Asperger’s syndrome, whose general attitude seems set to aggravate?

The answer lies in the making of the fifth series, set in mythical Portwenn. However, it seems that the locale for the series might be the real star. Viewers the world over have fallen in love with the village of Port Isaac (the real town), nestled among cliffs on the North Cornwall coast.

Since the show first aired in 2004, visitor numbers to Port Isaac have skyrocketed. Tourists come to check out the pub, the Doc’s surgery, the pharmacy, the school, the harbour, the shops, and the rolling hills that border the town.

Port Isaac’s permanent population is roughly 1,000 people - but in the British summer, the 
population can be three times greater as outsiders jostle with natives to sample some of the magic of
the 18th century fishing village.

British interior designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and his wife were quick off the mark, establishing a shop in the town, and ringing of their cash register almost drowned out the sound of the seagulls.

Another (more commercial) star of the television series is the Lexus LS400, in which Doc Martin terrorises the countryside and frightens the horses. Lexus says it has been a very successful partnership, and so we thought it might be nice to cruise down to North Cornwall in the latest Lexus model, the new petrol-hybrid CT 200H.

Smaller than Doc Martin’s long wheelbase luxury car, this new Lexus is a compact five door hatchback, and adds a third hybrid model to the Lexus lineup. On North Cornwall’s compact country lanes the smaller hatchback also probably makes much more sense as a doctor’s conveyance.

We picked up the test car at London’s Heathrow, and joined the M4 motorway to head towards the southwest. It’s a pretty easy drive, joining the M5 south near Bristol. You leave the motorway at Exeter, and then it’s well-surfaced A roads all the way to Port Isaac.

Whilst the motorways make for fast travel, the Lexus does not return very good fuel economy at a sustained 70mph (Britain’s national motorway speed limit). After just over four and half hours we refueled in the village of Camelford, which revealed surprisingly high fuel consumption figures of 11.5 l/100km for the 250km journey!

The trip from Heathrow also revealed the CT200H might be a comfortable car for motorway cruising, but narrow country lanes showed up its stodgy steering, and quite a bit of pitching in tight corners. After a week of highways, lanes and B roads it’s highly likely this is a car which Jeremy Clarkson would not be raving about.
Having said that, there’s a lot to like about the car. Most important to me, the excellent sound system makes the most of high fidelity from an iPod, and music sampled at a high bit rate.

Lexus introduced the CT200H to the Australian market at the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit in the Celebrity Race. After the silently-whirring petrol-electric hybrids had completed their laps of the race track, Lexus sales people sat back in their showrooms and waited for the orders to come in.

Not so fast! Australian car buyers are shunning ‘green’ cars and it’s highly unlikely a pricey hybrid will make any sort of impact on this ‘no-love’ affair. However, the cheapest Lexus does have some genuine appeal for environmentally-conscious luxury car buyers.

The primary feature set is what will sell this car. It’s quiet, with a great ride, nice seats, smooth to drive, finished like a Lexus, and good value. The price leader is modestly-equipped (how else could you price it at $39,990), so you’ll need to spend around $9,000 to get the full range of luxury features you might expect in a proper luxury car.

On the road it’s willing, but the boot is pretty limiting - we struggled to get two 62cm rollaway suitcases stowed under the removable rear shelf. However, taking a long trip in a Lexus CT200H will be a pleasure, because of low wind noise, good ride and confidence-boosting grip. It's also great for a Pommy pub crawl!
The petrol-electric hybrid powertrain is identical to Prius, in fact the whole platform is pinched from Toyota’s first hybrid, and it delivers no surprises. Fuel economy is claimed to be 4L/100km, but as our drive down Britain’s Motorways suggests, the Lexus doesn’t have a wind-cheating shape, and driven hard (above 110km/h most of the way), it can’t deliver decent fuel efficiency at high speed.

There are four, adjustable, driving modes. You could easily use the EV mode around town, but our suggestion would be to stay away from Sport mode and go for Normal. In Eco mode the air conditioning didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the demands from an Aussie summer. Conversely, a British summer didn’t worry us at all in Eco mode.

Lexus says this model is a vital element of its policy to widen the appeal of its luxury range in Australia, but this car is also incredibly important in the UK and Europe too - where Lexus has, to date, made little or no impact on sophisticated buyers.

However, the beautiful village of Port Isaac made a big impact on me, and I will return one day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Delivering A Dream

Undoubtedly the most successful British luxury car in recent history, the Continental GT coupe did more than rebuild Bentley’s fortunes. It was a dream, fully realised …..

The main styling studio in Volkswagen AG’s Wolfsburg headquarters is known colloquially as ‘Walhalla’ and is located on the topmost floor of the building. In November 2000 Bentley’s 14 most senior executives gathered there, expectantly, around a full-size clay model, draped in a simple silver cloth.

As the cloth was whipped away, the 14 men gasped, in unison, as they saw their future, represented by the coupe before their eyes. From this initial reveal, to the first production model, little changed from the prototype. The designers’ dream became the reality, which was the Bentley Continental GT coupe, and start of a whole new era for the venerable British car company.
The coupe spawned a sedan, then a convertible; and each of those models was used as the basis for other variations, meaning that in total more than 50,000 of the whole range of Continentals have been sold.

Of course, the story begins much earlier than that first viewing in Wolfsburg, and the success of the Continental GT was a story of the blending, refining and moulding of a series of themes, designs and concepts.

Like all good tales this one begins a while back, in the early 90s in fact. At this time the Bentley team were arguing with the current owners of the company, Vickers plc, about the need to modernise the Bentley brand, update the design language and create an identity for Bentley which was very much separate from the staid Rolls-Royce image.

At the time Vickers was working up to selling off the company and didn’t want to spend any more money than was absolutely necessary. In 1997 it had already agreed to fund two new sedans – the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and the Bentley Arnage, which would give the company two new cars to help make it attractive to a potential buyer.
So Bentley designer Graham Hull, leading a very small team, on a miniscule budget began to pull together several design ideas into a cohesive concept.
Bentley 'Java'
In 1993 the company had built the Bentley Java concept car, and revealed it at the 1994 Geneva Salon, to great acclaim.
Simon Loasby

However, by 1997 the Java concept had dated, and it was then designer Simon Loasby’s job to further develop the Java design cues, which led to the creation of a concept nicknamed ‘MSB’ (Mid Size Bentley).
MSB Concepts

The Java concept model had been a ‘runner’- in that the designers had simply sliced the top off a BMW 5-Series sedan, and built the show car on that platform. This necessarily dictated all the key dimensions. However, by 1996 the relationship with BMW had fallen apart, and Bentley was on its own.

The MSB concept ideas were defined, re-defined and refined until a new set of design criteria for Bentley– the muscular rear haunches, the four round headlights and the more compact dimensions were born.

In late 1997 an MSB concept with a retractable hard top was shown to various potential buyers for the company, which included Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Then in late 1998 Volkswagen AG won a bitter bidding war and successfully acquired Bentley Motors.
Hartmut Warkuss

In the meantime, stimulated by Bentley’s advanced design work, the VW styling team led by respected chief Hartmut Warkuss had independently developed a Bentley coupe/sedan concept based on Volkswagen’s Ypsilon platform. In early 1999 the design ideas whirling around between the Bentley and Volkswagen teams were distilled into a singular vision.

Dirk van Braekel
Following the Bentley acquisition Volkswagen Chairman Dr. Ferdinand Piech personally appointed Skoda’s head designer, Dirk van Braekel to the job of Design Director for Bentley Motors.

From this time on Bentley Motors began to benefit from the vision, talent and generosity of spirit which resided in both Hartmut Warkuss and Dirk van Braekel. The two men acted as ‘fathers’ of Bentley design work, guiding the efforts of young Brazilian-Italian Raul Pires as he refined and blended all of the previous exterior work into the concept which would become the Continental GT coupe.
Raul Pires

Robin Page
At the same time van Braekel was encouraging talented young British designer, Robin Page, to blend some of the exterior design cues into a brief for a stunning interior.

Dirk van Braekel took the two young designers back to Bentley’s historic heritage. Using both the 1931 ‘Blower’ and the 1961 Continental as thought-starters, the team combined both historic and contemporary themes to create the car we first saw in 2002.
Design development

Simon Loasby credits both the Warkuss and van Braekel for the support and encouragement of Bentley’s work on the Continental range, which later led to cars like the outstanding Mulsanne sedan.
Original Pires sketch

As good it looked, the Continental GT coupe would have to be based on a VW Group platform. Ferdinand Piech was anxious to take advantage of the new engine designs he and Dr. Martin Winterkorn had been developing, like the W12, W16 and a new V10.

In 1999 it was decided that the platform for the planned Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan, would be the donor for the Continental GT. This meant that the Bentley would have a 6 litre, W12 engine.

Volkswagen originally appointed Dr. Ulrich Hackenberg to lead the work to graft the Phaeton platform under the Continental GT design model, and he was succeeded by Dr. Joachim Rothenpieler, who brought the car to production stage. However, the man responsible for the ongoing refinement of the rolling platform is Dr. Ulrich Eichhorn, Bentley’s most recent Chief Engineer.
Ing. Dr. Ulrich Eichorn

2012 Bentley Continental GT

To reiterate, the Bentley Continental GT has been an outstanding emotional and commercial success, and has underwritten Bentley’s future security as a high end luxury brand. The restyled model shown in Geneva in March 2011 is, unsurprisingly, another triumph of sophistication, and refinement of a brilliant original concept.

From the first iteration, in 2002, up until the Second Generation was revealed in January 2010, more than 22,800 Continental GT coupes had been sold, making it possibly the most commercially-successful British luxury car since Sir William Lyons’ epic Jaguar XJ6 in 1968.

It has been a singular honour and a privilege to have been associated with this car, and this company.

Holden Hits Another Home Run

I hate to bang on about this, but in a tiny market like Australia, when one global giant makes a momentous decision (which affects its competitors) it’s big news. 

Holden has now announced that 12 months from now it will launch the Extended-Range Volt in Australia. Why is this an important strategic decision, and why should it affect its major competitor, Ford Australia? 

Ford Australia, by dint of decisions taken by its parent in Detroit is committed to a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), the Fiesta EV. GM Holden has chosen to pursue its ‘Green’ credentials by opting for an extended-range vehicle. 

Australian’s have not embraced pure electric vehicles (BEVs), and my guess is that this will continue, for one very important reason – “Range Anxiety”. We travel longer distances than Europeans, or city-driving Americans, and the short range offered by BEVs simply won’t cut it – and Australians are smart enough to realise this. 

GM Holden has provided not only an answer to this conundrum, but it has once again one-upped Ford Australia. 

There’s another reason why anyone should question the suitability to Australia of pure battery power – substituting carbon emissions from petrol-powered cars, for greater drain on the electricity grid in this country, which is fuelled by carbon-emitting coal-fired power stations is not a ‘Green’ solution! 

There’s other, more commercial considerations. First, the business model of the oil companies does not envision thousands of BEV drivers deserting service stations; and also, if BEVs were to flourish, the increased drain on the electricity grid would be dramatic. In addition, if you recharge your BEV from your home power supply, your power bill of course would take off like a Saturn rocket! 

But, back to Holden. Here is a company which, in a rapidly changing market not only enjoys relatively strong sales for its big Commodore, but its junior player, the Cruze, has taken off. In addition, it has the ear of its parent in Detroit, and again, enjoys increasing patronage and confidence to develop a range of vehicles to be sold globally. Meanwhile Ford Australia gets lumbered with whatever Dearborn hands down! 

Despite its great success with the Ranger project, and the outstanding job it has done with rejuvenating Falcon and the Territory, Ford Australia has consistently ended up on the wrong side of the best choices. Strategically, GM Holden stays ahead of the game – and said, as recently as this week, if Commodore drops in a big sales hole, the company is ready for it, and it will reshape its business plan. 

Now that’s big thinking! And, Volt looks like a winner to me, before it sells a single car.


Driving & has been on vacation, enjoying cruising both Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean, aboard two of the best cruise ships afloat, Cunard’s ‘Queen Victoria’ and Holland America’s ‘Eurodam’.

It’s been a peaceful and serene escape from the volatility of the car business, and a chance to sit on the sidelines spectating, as the global car makers make inspired, as well as dumb, decisions.

Queen Victoria

There’s also been an opportunity to reflect on what faces car manufacturers, car buyers and governments of all persuasions. In a way, it’s a bit like watching the European governments failing to deal with Greece’s debt crisis. Everyone knows instinctively what to do, but failing to do it.

With the oil crisis looming, I believe it’s incumbent that governments to make decisive and parallel policy change and take a leadership role. Car manufacturers can and will operate within a legislated framework, and that leaves car buyers to go along with the best solutions.

The internal combustion engines, petrol or diesel, still have life in them as low-cost, low-polluting powerplants, and petrol/diesel hybrids are a good short-term solution, as are ‘extended-range’ models. We should be seeing the development of policies within a framework utilising the immediate benefits of these technologies, whilst the electric car future is decided over the next 20 years.

BEVs (battery electric vehicles) are NOT a final solution. FCEVs (fuel cell vehicles) also have a long way to go before being commercially viable, but somewhere in that mix there lays solutions for the coming decades – just don’t ask any of the ‘Green’ parties to get involved – they’ll have us back on pushbikes before you can blink!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Whither Saab?

For anyone unfamiliar with this word and it's use in this context, it comes from an olde English phrase “Whither Thou Goest?” The slightly rhetorical query loosely translated means “How goes it?” In Saab's case, badly!

In the context of this post, maybe the heading should read “Saab Withers – (and dies)” Because we seem to be just waiting for the death notice in the morning newspaper.

Okay, so this week it took an order from China for just over 500 cars! Wow! The company says that will keep it going for at least another week or so! Yikes!

General Motors did not 'sell' Saab to Spyker Cars, it 'jettisoned' the tiny Swedish car company (with the emphasis on the first three letters, j-e-t), in its efforts to improve its own chances of self-preservation.

However, and here's the rub. Despite its piddlingly small output Saab is not only a small company, but also a 'global' company. It suffers because it has no economies of scale, there's a huge drain on its resources just to maintain its position in the number of markets where it sells cars.

Victor Mueller, who runs Spyker, is an entrepreneur and a dreamer, but I believe he is full of good intent, and what he needs to locate, and mine, is a bottomless pit of money right now. However, I think I'm right in assuming that Saab's new Chinese partner, Pang Da, is NOT the bottomless pit of unrestrained cash Saab is desperate to find.

Last week's news that Saab continued to suspend production, because it can't pay its suppliers, or its workers, follows a decision by the Swedish Government to release some emergency funds, and its Chinese saviour Pang Da agreeing to step up with some progress payments. But, despite the cash injection, it still wasn't enough and it looks like Saab may not last the year out, let alone the decade.

Seeing Hawtai as a saviour for Saab was misplaced confidence. Let's face it, Hawtai is a provincial Chinese vehicle maker, with no international experience, and probably very few street smarts for a volatile, global industry.

I suspect there's little sophistication in its executive, resource and fund management processes, and it is not up to the task of leading Saab back from the brink. Saab's new deal with Pang Da may work out, but this company too is a regional operation, which is essentially distribution. Not sure it has the street smarts to 'manage' a car maker. Mueller's ideal scenario might be "Just send money."

One very telling moment for me was when the respected auto executive Adrian Hallmark came and went in three months. He was barely settled in his chair at Trollhatten when he was head-hunted to help Jaguar. The speed with which he departed Sweden for Gaydon, England, was noticeable.

I've known Hallmark for more than 12 years, and he knows his stuff. He's highly-experienced and highly-regarded, and has run Sales & Marketing successfully for Bentley Motors globally, and Volkswagen in America and China. His integrity and his respect for protocol would never see him admit it, but I reckon he got in the door at Saab and saw what a bunfight lay ahead. Never one to shirk a difficult challenge, Hallmark was nonetheless very quick to leave for more manageable hurdles at Jaguar. That says lots to me about Saab's potential.

So the survival of Saab remains a dream in the misty eyes of Saab enthusiasts and the current management. Mind you, Saab is run by a very good team, and is a very innovative group, but it just needs a guaranteed supply of funds. General Motors sold it for a song, and left it with a couple of new cars in the pipeline – but it needs lots more than that to succeed, and survive.

There's another, more philosophical issue. Saab's current lineup, and its immediate future models are all conventional vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Despite a flaky concept car, there is no plan, or money to diverge into electric cars, hybrids or fuel cells – so how is Saab going to face the future? Its engineers are certainly clever enough to conjure solutions to that question, but it hasn't the resources to realise it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Futile Force

It was almost an unbelievable scenario, but when Leyland Australia was in its death throes as a vehicle manufacturer, thanks largely to the failure of the P76 to generate sufficient return on investment, the Product Team continued to work on what can only be called, a folly - the Force 7 coupe.

New to the editorial team at MODERN MOTOR magazine it was my job to dig up some news on the car, and report on the latest testing. The Leyland Australia engineers were a pretty canny bunch when it came to hiding their work from prying eyes, but at MODERN MOTOR we were also a pretty crack team at infiltrating security, and snapping sneaky photos.

The editor at the time, Rob Luck, had a very switched-on network of informers, and amateur scoop photographers, and he himself had been known at times to find himself ‘inside the fence’.

However, as is often the case, a big Force 7 scoop story fell in our laps. One evening I was addressing a car club, and over a cup of coffee one of the members casually said to me: “If you want to snap Leyland’s new car, I can tell you when and where to be.”

Turns out he was a part time Ranger at the Royal National Park, south of Sydney. For the past few weeks he had been on duty collecting entry fees at the main gate, and religiously every morning at 7am, an orange Force 7 coupe entered the park, with a Marina chase car right behind it.


It was pretty easy to hide off the road, near the entry gate, and snap a few photos with a long lens over a period of three days. Then we would drive south on the Princes Highway, and enter the Park from its southern gate, and set up on some twisty bits where the cars would have to slow down, and that gave us some driving shots as it exited the Park.

Sadly, while the scoop was newsworthy and well documented the end was fast approaching. In 1974 Chairman David Abell announced manufacturing had ceased, and the company would revert to the status of an importer. The Force 7 was stillborn, and several in-process cars were crushed, leaving just 10 finished cars to represent the futile efforts of the Product Team.

I’m indebted to my friend John Shingleton for this hastily-snapped photo of six of the last coupes, parked out front of the Leyland Australia head office, just before they were auctioned. John had been asked to meet with management to set up parts supply from the UK for the Triumph Dolomites which were soon to be imported, and as he arrived for his meeting he managed to snap off this one photo on a half-frame camera he always carried with him.

Now, there are plenty of photos available of some of the last cars, which ended up in the hands of enthusiasts, or more precisely, ‘Force 7 Tragics’. It was the biggest hatchback most of us had ever seen, and whilst it wasn’t exactly beautiful its lines were easier on the eye than the P76 sedan.

Three of the last 10 cars

Like the sedan, it was initially designed by Giovanni Michelotti, however more of the original Italian Force 7 sketch survived into production than did the sedan.

There’s a great story that when Michelotti saw what the Australian design team had done to his original drawings to produce the final production P76, he packed up the quarter scale P76 model, and all the drawings and sent them to Australia saying he did not want his name associated with this ‘abomination’.

One huge hatchback

The P76/Force 7 was a brave, foolhardy, move by a tiny company, with a tiny budget and not a great grip on reality. It truly was a folly, but parts of it were brilliant. I drove a Force 7 for half a day, before the auction – and the team had done a good job of refining it.

The aluminium V8 engine in particular was world class, the ride and handling were impressive and the styling (whilst controversial) was completely different to the American offerings from Holden and Ford.

Would the Force 7 have been popular if it had survived? Given the mediocre response to the P76 sedan, I’m not sure either would have survived for long, but I think the Force 7 would have attracted a lot of interest. It was new, different, edgy and appealing - but would that have been enough?

(Photos from John Shingleton and P76 Owners Club)

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I stepped off a Singapore Airlines 707 in Copenhagen at 7:40am on July 29, 1977 after flying from Sydney, with refuelling stops in Singapore, Athens and Amsterdam, to be met by my friend and co-pilot Hans Tholstrup. He dropped me off at the BP building, and said: “The Moke’s in the basement car park, I’ll see you at my Uncle’s place. Here’s the address.”

Never mind I had just flown non-stop for 28 hours, I guess he figured if I couldn’t find his uncle’s chateau just outside the city, then I would be pretty hopeless navigating from London to Sydney!

Tholstrup family chateau, outside Copenhagen

The first photo in this gallery confirms I was able to follow his directions, in the environs of a city I had never been to before. The rest is history. We were the seventh car away from London’s Covent Garden, and we were classified the 35th finisher at the Sydney Opera House, and, coming home second in class we won AUD$250! That’s right, $250!

Looking back, I think I would gladly have paid that, and more, for the experience of driving 30,000km through 30 countries in 30 days. The 1977 Singapore Airlines London to Sydney Car Rally was, and remains, the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done, and I thank my wife of 50 years for releasing me from family responsibilities to drive halfway across the world with one of the most amazing people it has been my pleasure to know.

JC and Moke at Big Ben
Hans Tholstrup’s adventures are well known, as are his achievements. However, I am privy to his skills, talents, intuition and tenacity. In addition I have witnessed his resourcefulness, intelligence, canny understanding of human nature, and quite frankly, his bravery and chutzpah. I thank my lucky stars I met him, competed with him and remain his friend – he is a living legend!

The colour slides I still have are the best living testament of the adventure, but they can never record the emotions, the tension, the fear and wonder of facing the unknown, and the sheer relief of arriving at the Sydney Opera House.
Terrier in Paris

Many people have said to me that we must have been crazy to compete in a Mini Moke. Of course it was unusual, but Hans’ preparations were so thorough I never doubted for a minute we would make it. And, along the way I photographed some great memories which will live with me forever.

Driving from Turkey into Iran

There was considerable comfort that our support vehicle, the 5 tonne Terrier truck was also entered as a competitor. The truck carried our luggage, tools, spare parts, supplies and copious quantities of our staple diet – cellophane bags of toasted muesli flakes and Coca Cola!

As Hans had warned us all about eating food prepared out of our sight, and drinking dodgy water, we supplemented the muesli and Coke with naturally-packaged foods like bananas, hard boiled eggs, chocolate bars and Lebanese bread.

I lost a lot of weight, but survived the diet, albeit with an addiction to Coca Cola which took me six months to shake! 

One of the greatest elements of the whole adventure was the fabulous, and different personalities we met along the way. Hans and I were already good friends with the Rally promoter, Wylton Dickson and his cohorts Ken Tubman and Jim Gavin, but in every country we met amazing people, and struck up terrific friendships with officials and fellow competitors. The camaraderie which existed among the competitors was warm, helpful, co-operative and generous. Despite the intense competition at the head of the field, every one of the teams was willing to help another.
Once the Rally left Athens, everything changed. We drove north east out of Ankara to a remote part of Turkey where the locals stood, gobsmacked, by the side of the road as the modern rally cars flew past. Quite a contrast to mud huts and donkey-drawn carts.

We stopped in the village of Tatvan to repair a bracket on our radiator, and needed welding equipment. No problem. We were led to the local service station, cafĂ©, hairdresser and public toilet (a hole in open ground at the back of the main building), where the owner provided modern welding gear, and we were on our way after thick Turkish coffee, cakes and a lot of back-slapping.

Wylton Dickson seeing us off in Mumbai
All through Iran, our car was shadowed by a team of SAVAK agents from the Shah’s secret police force. In Afghanistan in 1977 the overland highway from Herat to Kandahar, Kabul and the Khyber Pass, was the country’s only continuously-paved road. The Afghan government was so concerned the rally field would be attacked by tribal bandits it had stationed a policeman or an army soldier every kilometre along the way, for 2000 kilometres! And swept the field with helicopters.

Hans buying spring water from Hindu holy man

In India we stopped to refill our water bottles, and were led to a spring where the local Hindu holy man sold us natural spring water for 20c a bottle. We refilled six bottles, and the profit endowed him with considerable riches!

Also in India, between Pune (Poonah) and Bangalore we stopped to make repairs and within minutes were surrounded by 27 ‘helpers’ who all insisted they do the work. Hans stood on the side of the Moke and shouted at them to step back, threatening to fire shots in the air! We didn’t have a gun, but that moved everyone back at least 18 inches from the car!

'Helpers'near Bangalore

In Chennai (Madras) we relaxed at the Connemara Hotel while the rally cars were shipped to Penang. On the last day room service stopped as the Indians came to grips with the death of Elvis Presley. Also on that day I succumbed to a hamburger by the pool, and caught an attack of the runs.

Loading the Coke Moke in Chennai

Aboard the Singapore Airlines flight from Chennai to Penang I shared the First Class toilet with my friend, and the eventual winner of the Rally, Andrew Cowan. As one would finish in the toilet, the other would take over. We solved our problem in Penang by following advice from Australian rally legend, Doug Stewart, who said when he got the ‘runs’ he took five anti-diarrhoea pills first up, then followed that four hours later with another five! I don’t think either Andrew or I used our bowels for a week after that treatment. It was very effective!

In the desert west of Giles Weather Station

Roadside repairs, just west of Kata Tjuta
The Australian leg of the event was very tough. We had difficulty keeping up, because shipping delays meant the time to get from Perth to Sydney had to be truncated, and we were pretty much flat out every day just to stay in sight of the leaders. Our service crew had to drive west from our planned meeting point at Uluru to find us in the desert near The Olgas to repair a broken engine mount, but apart from that the Moke was trouble-free all the way to Sydney.

Filling up at Uluru

Getting directions

Passing Prive's burning Range Rover

Greeted by Australian racer Colin Bond at the Sydney Opera House

In the final run from Queensland to the Rothbury Estate in the Hunter Valley (which was the official finish of the event) we endured wrong directions issued by the organisers, missed Controls which had been established on the wrong road, and as we motored slowly past Jacky Prive’s burning Range Rover, it reminded us how much we’d endured, and how lucky we were to have our road book stamped and signed at the final Control.

The Singapore Airlines London-to-Sydney Rally remains the world’s longest rally to this day, and of course could never be run over the same roads, given the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and Asia, but I'm glad I was in it.

Tired, dusty, but happy

Funny, I never did see any part of the $250 prize money. I think Hans must have shouted himself dinner and wine with one of his many girlfriends.

But what a blast!