December 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Shoalhaven’s dramatic role in the epic 10,000 mile Daily Express London to Sydney Marathon.
The incredible race is the topic of former journalist John Smailes’ book The World’s Greatest Road Race now released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the event.
Smailes had in fact covered the race 50 years ago as a ‘raw, car-mad young journalist’ for Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph.
The Shoalhaven played a significant role in the final outcome of the race.
Leader, Belgium superstar, Lucien Bianchi and co-driver Jean-Claude Ogier in their Citroen DS21 were crashed into by a private motorist on the final run home to Sydney, on what was then known as the Nerriga Road [now Main Road 92].
The pair had just traversed the water crossing at Tianjara and about four kilometres further east collided with a mini, driven by a member of the public on the gravel rally stage.
Brothers Robert and Keith Bridge, both keen motorsport fans and members of SKDAC (Shoalhaven and Kiama Districts Auto Club) along with some mates, including clubmember Paul Hoffmann, who was also a keen photographer, had placed themselves right next to the water crossing to watch the rally go by.
Paddy Hopkirk, who passed through the crossing soon after and would eventually finished runner-up in the works Austin 1800, came across the accident and returned to the spectators to raise the alarm.
Bianchi was trapped in the mangled Citroen.
Some spectators ran to help, with the pair taken to Shoalhaven District Hospital for treatment.
The mini was also extensively damaged, with its two male occupants also taken to hospital - ironically placed alongside Bianchi in the emergency ward.
At the time there were all sorts of crazy rumours about the mini’s occupants, Greg Stanton and Allan Chilcott.
Ogier, who was driving at the time as Bianchi dozed in the front seat, had insisted the crash was ‘deliberate’.
Bianchi, a Formula One driver and winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that same year, was tragically killed during Le Mans testing in early 1969, just months after the marathon finished and didn’t have any input.
Smailes spoke to Ogier, who recalls much detail, saying the road was narrow, but with just enough room to pass.
He said the Citroen was in the centre of the road but moved out of the path of the Mini.
But the Mini kept coming, slamming into the rally car in the right front.
His conspiracy theory extends to the red-hot rivalry between the factory teams entered by British Leyland, Citroen, Ford, BMC Australia, Porsche and Rootes Motors.
His unshakeable belief the Citroen was a victim of foul play was fuelled by a throwaway comment at the finish from Aitken, the chairman of the sponsoring newspaper and the father of the marathon: Realising the win was now going to a British car, Aitken observed: “Thank God. It would have been a disaster if it had been won by a Frog or Kraut.”
Smailes lays the rumours and innuendo to rest in his book.
The teenagers involved in the accident were actually car club members from Campbelltown who had gone to Nowra to check out the marathon cars.
Stanton, died some years ago, and had made a pact with Chillcott not to talk.
It was the first time either had spoken to journalists about the incident.
“They were enthusiasts looking for a good vantage spot near a creek crossing. No-one tried to stop them entering the stage. They weren’t speeding,” Smailes said.
Bianchi and Ogier’s accident happened on the last day of the event, just hours from the finish at Warwick Farm.
They held an 11 minute lead over eventual winners, Scot Andrew Cowan, Brian Coyle and Colin Malkin in their Rootes factory Hillman Hunter. Bianchi and Ogier only had 39 penalty points as opposed to Cowan's 50.
Second placegetter was Paddy Hopkirk in a works Austin 1800, while Ian Vaughan was the best-placed Aussie who took third in his works Ford Falcon GT.
The race had started on November 24, 1968, with 98 competing competing crews setting forth. Having crossed the UK Kingdom, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and by boat to Australia where they raced from Perth across to South Australia, Victoria and NSW, where four weeks later only half the field wobbled into the finish in Sydney.
Daughter proud of father capturing a piece of local history
The 50th anniversary of the 10,000 mile London to Sydney Marathon has raised plenty of excitement.
For former local, Kerrie Hoffman, who now lives at Coffs Harbour, the anniversary has taken on even more meaning.
Her father Paul along with other Shoalhaven and Kiama Districts Auto Club (SKDAC) members travelled to the Tianjara crossing to watch the cars as they made their way to Nowra.
Paul, also a keen photographer, captured a number of photographs of the cars as they negotiated the water crossing, including Lucien Bianchi’s Citroen DS21 which was involved in a serious accident shortly after.
Kerri has posted some of the photos on her Facebook page and said the interest and excitement around the upcoming 50th anniversary had been amazing.
“Close to 10 years ago I had my Dad's old slides reproduced to photos,” she said.
“When these were printed some photos emerged of the Nowra stage of the first London-Sydney Marathon in 1968.
“Dad told me about the event, being there and the subsequent accident involving Bianchi.
“Paddy Hopkirk came back for help and some went to see what they could do.
“We think he [Dad] even captured a photo of the mini believed to later have been involved in the accident.
“It’s an amazing part of history and part of the Shoalhaven history and it feels great my Dad was part of it.”
She said quite a few people ended up at the crash scene, with a number of the SKDAC members later going into Shoalhaven Hospital and visiting Bianchi and Ogier.
“I have since found photos on the internet of the crash and even film footage,” she said.
“There is even footage of them coming through the watercourse where Dad and his mates were at Tianjara.
“The accident was not far from the Nowra control point, 156 km (98 miles) from Sydney, with Bianchi and Ogier virtually almost had the race won. They only had to get to the finish line in Sydney.”
Wangaratta to Warwick Farm leg, including Nowra visit as part of 50th anniversary
The final leg from Wangaratta to Hindmarsh Station and eventually on to Warwick Farm will be recreated to mark the 50th anniversary of London-Sydney Marathon.
Sydney based motor enthusiast Laurie Mason is organising the event starting December 14, with around 21 cars will take part, including six from the original race.
“While we can’t make the event competitive, we will be able to remember some of the incredible feats of those drivers and teams from 50 years ago,” he said.
Mr Mason’s interest in the race was sparked when he found an original 1968 program of the event in the Telegraph.
“I got it into my head I’d like to drive it,” he said. “But I’m 66-years-old - there is no way we could go through some of the countries now, like Afghanistan.
“Perth to Sydney would be possible but even that is a big drive.”
He spent 18-months researching the Perth to Sydney route.
“The road is a lot different now,” he said.
“Some of the route followed by the road now is totally different to the tracks used back in ’68.”
After researching he came across some original rally pace notes by Castrol, prepared for the Daily Telegraph’s Holden Monaro team.
“I used those to find some of the roads,” he said.
And when he discovered a copy of the BMC pace notes for the factory BMC cars, he was able to put the two together and find all of the route.
“Roads have been upgraded, routes change, roads realigned,” he said.
“For example in the South Australian outback, the highway from Port Augusta to Alice Springs up through the Flinders Ranges is about a kilometre to the west from where the original road was.
“But we will follow the exact route from Wangaratta as closely as we can.”
He said the assistance given by people, including numerous authorities, to recreate the final leg of the marathon had been fantastic.
He said meeting John and Jeanette Hindmarsh, who still own Hindmarsh Station, had been incredible.
“They are just both the salt of the earth,” he said. “They have lived on the land for more than 50 years and done it hard but they will again welcome cars into the station, into their home to mark the event.
“I was welcomed into their home as a stranger and come away as a friend - they have been absolutely priceless. Two of the most beautiful people you would meet.”
Both in their 80s, incredibly they even have the original control banners from 1968 which were left on their fence after the event moved on.
“They will again be on display for our 50th anniversary event,” he said.
“It is a chance for people to get together, bringing memories and reflections along to remember those who travelled before us.
“It is a very unique event - possibly an event that could never be held again - literally a race across the world.”
The 2018 version from Wangaratta to Warwick Farm will take three days to complete.
A far cry from the 1968 event where competitors actually travelled from Perth to Warwick Farm in the same time.
“Back in ’68 they did it non-stop – incredible really,” Mr Mason said.
He said John Smaile’s new book on the event had been ‘mind blowing’.
Mr Mason himself will drive a vehicle from the original race.
While researching the event he came across a ‘barn find’ and eventually purchased car number 40, a semi-factory Vauxhall Ventora driven by David Walker, Doug Morris and Brian Jones.
“David is a story on his own,” he said. “Apart from around three hours he had to drive the car all way from Istanbul to Sydney by himself,” he said.
“They had an accident in Turkey where Doug Morris was trapped under the car and severely injured and wasn’t able to participate as a driver for the remainder of the event.
“The teams needed to have a navigator and a driver, so David ended up driving the rest of the route.”
Mr Mason found the Ventora in Karuah, north of Raymond Terrace.
“There was a comment on Facebook that suggested the car was still in Australia,” he said.
“I contacted a friend in the Vauxhall Car Club and got some info the car had been for sale years previously, I rang the number and got onto Brian who still had the car.
“I ended up buying it, did some restoration, mainly mechanical. I didn’t want to touch the car itself.”
The Ventora finished 52nd of the 56 cars which finished the event.
Other cars from the original event which will take part in the anniversary event includes - car 4 Tony Fall and Mike Wood’s Austin 1800 MBC Factory prepared car which finished 24th overall; car 45, the second of the Hillman Hunters of RAF Motorsport car driven by Carrington and King, which finished 32nd and was a backup for eventual winner Andrew Cowan (car 75) and would have been sacrificed if Cowman’s car had trouble; car 43 the Gerry Lister and Andre Welinskis Volvo 144s which came 13th; car 76 the Holden Monaro of Barry Ferguson and Dave Johnson now owned by Shoalhaven local Steve Byrne will take part; and car 2 the Ford Falcon XR GT Harry Firth and Hoinville Graham finished 8th.
The anniversary event will be in Nowra on Sunday, December 16, having paid respects to Bianchi at Tianjara on the route from Hindmarsh Station.
If you would like to see the cars some will be on show at the Shoalhaven Ex-Servicemen’s Sports Club at Worrigee from around 5.30pm
Bridge brothers weren’t going to miss seeing the rally, even if it did cost one of them a job
For motorsporting mad brothers Keith and Bob Bridge, the chance to see the London to Sydney Marathon was simply too good to pass up.
The brothers had already started their racing careers, both on the track and in the dirt rallying, following in the footsteps of their late older brother Alfred, who actually raced a Peugeot 203 at Bathurst in 1960-61.
Incidentally a car Keith still owns and drives today.
Bob was 23 and Keith, 10 years older at 33, when the rally came through the Shoalhaven.
“We had gone and watched the Redex Round Australia Trial in the ’50s when it went near Wollongong,” Keith said.
“We just decided where would be the best vantage point to watch the cars come through and we thought that would be the water crossing at Tianjara,” Bob said.
“It’s different to what it is now, the crossing is actually in a different spot.”
“They had to come down a tight bend and then down into the creek crossing,” Keith said.
“There wasn’t a lot of water in it but they made a lot of splash when they went through. Sometimes you couldn’t pick the cars as they came across.”
The were joined by another well-known local, the late Bob Taylor and Paul Hoffman, among a crowd of about 40 to 50 people at the crossing.
Keith’s wife Hilma and eight-year-old son Trevor were also there.
“It was quite a gathering,” Keith said.
Along with Paul Hoffman, Keith was also snapping away photographs and has 30 odd slides that are still a prized possession today.
They were there to witness Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier come through in their Citroen DS21.
“Bianchi and Ogier came through first,” Keith said . “They weren’t messing around, you could hardly recognise what car it was.
“A few more cars came through and then this car came screaming back, it was Paddy Hopkirk’s Austin 1800. Paddy got out and was yelling for a doctor or nurse, saying there had been a terrible crash and Bianchi and Ogier had crashed into a spectator’s car.
“Paddy coming back is something I will never forget.
“The cars kept coming and when we got down there the crash had pretty much been cleaned up.”
They later went in to see Bianchi in Shoalhaven Hospital and if there was anything he needed or had affairs to be looked after.
“He had suffered a broken leg and badly cut face,” Keith said.
“He didn’t know anyone the poor bugga.
“We had a short chat with him. He was very disappointed and upset about the whole thing. Especially considering he was in the lead at the time and just had to get to the finish line.
“He had been leading for the last two days, although it was only a narrow lead. I think there was something like 14 points between the first six cars. Even though the competitive stages had finished, they still had control points they had to make.”
Bob said he was extremely disappointed for Bianchi.
“He had geared up for the event, was in the lead and to be taken out and fail just before the finish post,” he said.
“He was a race driver, not a rally driver and he drove that thing like you wouldn’t believe. To drive that far and that hard and fail that close to the finish would be very hard to take.
“Tragically he was dead within four months at Le Mans.”
Mind you, Bob’s enthusiasm for motorsport did cost him a job on this occasion.
He was actually working in Nowra for McLean Ford at the time.
“McLeans had been asked do a service point check on the Ford cars,” he said.
“At the time, I was the only motorsport orientated person in workshop but I was totally ignored, so I took a day off - I took a sickie to go and watch the rally.
“I walked back in next day and they sacked me - they didn’t actually say the words - I got in first - I told them how I felt and if they wanted a fortnight’s notice they had it. It just rubbed me the wrong way. The foreman knew my motorsport connection with my family and that I was actually competing, yet I was ignored.
“So I watched the race and it cost me a job.”
Keith on the other hand had his own building business and gave his apprentice the day off and they both went to watch the rally
There remains a lot of local interest in the event with a number of members of the SKDAC (Shoalhaven and Kiama Districts Auto Club) and the Shoalhaven Historic Vehicle Club set to either go to Hindmarsh Station or to meet at Bianchi’s crash site.
Berry’s Peter Hale, a member of the Shoalhaven Historic Vehicle Club has a DC21, known as a Goddess, and it will be part of the golden anniversary celebrations.
It’s not sure if the car will be taken to Hindmarsh Station where the final official race leg was completed or to the site of the Bianchi's accident.