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!