Rallying With Sydney Allard

By Hugh Braithwaite

Passing outside his office I first saw the car that I had agreed to navigate in for Sydney Allard and my attention was immediately drawn to two unusual features. Firstly there was a long piece of angle iron sticking up out pf the floor beside the driving seat, topped off with a rubber bicycle handlebar grip. It was fitted so that the top was close to the gear change lever on the steering column. Secondly there was an enormous thick magnifying glass fitted on the steering column between the dash board and the centre of the steering wheel. I was used to all the usual fittings of flexi light for map reading, horn button on the navigators’ side to save the driver having to take a hand off the wheel and also for helping to steady the navigator's nerves, though I never admitted to this. There would also be the moveable spotlight stuck on the windscreen and powerful spot fitted on the roof with the control handle close to your head and also 3 or 4 other switches whose purposes were not for publication. If I was with David Dixon I would also expect there to be some labels stuck on the dash board under other switches marked as "Overdrive", "Turbo charger" or whatever else he thought would be of interest to the boy racers who might peer in.

But just what was the angle iron and magnifying glass in Sydney's car all about?  I was to find out and be even more amazed by the experience than I had been when navigating for a Swedish driver, (Sam Nordell), and finding that the reason he was able to corner so fast on ice and snow in rear wheel drive cars was that he did not attempt to slow down much or drive on power through a corner, but just put the clutch out and turn. Phew!

My first drive on a rally was 10th May 1952 and the 28th Monte Carlo rally in 1959 was my second Monte, being with Horace Appleby in the first of the Austin A40s. A good little car but the bars stuck to the windows so that you could slide them up or down had both come off and the windscreen wiper motor had not been able to cope with the volume of snow coming down and had expired, so we had a piece of string rigged up to the wipers which looped through the car and you pulled it one way or tether to clear the screen and tried to ignore the icy draught. It was my 70th event having competed in rallies, driving tests, hill climbs, sprints and races when I had of course seen Sydney competing in many events and always sworn that he was the only person I knew that I would defininately NEVER navigate for, though of course I would never be asked to !

I didn't know him but did know that his navigator was always the late Tomn Fisk. Then just after Chambery on that Monte, climbing up a very slippery ice and snow covered D4 or 912 in the dark on our route to the Col'du Grahier, a frighteningly fast set of lights came up behind us and a large car rocketed past in a cloud of snow. It glanced off the snow wall on the left and bounced onto the flat snow platform on the right which had been created by a snow plough pushing the thick snow over the edge of the fairly steep slope. The platform gave way and down went a red and yellow Ford Zephyr sliding down for about 100 meters; Horace and I stopped and watched as the car's headlights silhouetted someone on their own getting out of the car and starting the slow climb back up the snow bank. They were obviously going to need a lift, or help to recover any others from the car. I climbed into the back as Sydney Allard took my seat, told us that Tom Fisk was fine and going to stay and guard the car and would we drop him off at the next control or whatever from where he could organise help. Sydney took over as windscreen wiper as if he had done it often before. We actually dropped him off after a long straight descent down the side of a valley to a sharp right over a bridge, after which the road climbed all the way back up the other side. There were quite a number of people at the bridge and someone there offered Sydney help after they had helped to rescue the crew of an Alfa Romeo which had failed on the ice to make the bridge and was perilously sitting in the boughs of a tree overhanging the river which looked a long way down! I remember thinking that by picking Sydney up we could possibly be disqualified and just how right I had been to decide that I would never navigate for him and how ridiculous to ever consider that he might ask!

The phone call from Mr Allard's secretary came almost exactly a year later. "Would it be possible for me to navigate for Mr. Allard on the B.A.R.C.'s first Pilgrim Rally as Tom Fisk was unable to make the date”. Sydney did not want to win but to come second since he was giving the winning trophy?" What an extraordinary challenge and what an amazing honour. How could I possibly say "No."? Of course I would accept and it would be the experience of a lifetime just to spend time with him. Wow!

We were in the United Dominion Trust (UDT) sponsored red and yellow Zephyr fitted for Tom Fisk, who was probably twice my size. The dash-board was a long way in front of me and the passenger seat seemed enormous with just a lap belt to hold me in since full harness was not yet on the market. Whenever we cornered sharply, which Sydney achieved by pulling on that angle iron which locked the rear brakes whilst at the same time spinning the steering wheel using what looked like a wooden door knob which was fixed to the front of the wheel, I would end up either facing him or the side window whilst trying to stop my map board and all my paraphernalia ending up either under Sydney’s legs or in the well behind my seat.  An “S bend “could cause chaos for me as I swung first one way and then the other and then back again.

When we set off for the start, Sydney explained to me again about coming second and what he used that angle iron for. Then he told me that he could really only see (I think he said) about 20 to 30 yards in front of the car and would I please read the map to him exactly.  He did not want me telling him  that "We should turn right at a junction in about a quarter of a mile". He wanted me to tell him to "Turn right in 0.26." Whereupon he would he would zero the very large mileage trip meter mounted with a light directly on it behind that monster magnifying glass. No joking! At "0" he would turn and if it was still bank or someone's private driveway now facing you or a bend which you had not warned of with recommended speed to take it at, you would be persuaded by your Guardian Angel to do better next time. Coupled with his normal cruising speed of 80 mph, I had and have never had to concentrate so hard in all
my life.  .                           

At the 'breakfast stop', which was probably The Hut at West Meon, which is astonishingly still going, I discovered that we were leading and by how much. Unfortunately at the Finish it was discovered that I had failed to record a code letter on the last section, with the result that although we were 1st in Class we were only 2nd overall. Oh dear! Then, to my consternation it was claimed that we had missed part of a compulsory route check since a marshal's post had failed to record us passing, so we were disqualified. Very odd, so I asked the Clerk of the Course where this marshal had been and he explained that he had been on the South side of the railway bridge. I explained that since the bridge (just N.W. of Horsham), was on a very fast straight road, that Sydney had been doing 80+ and that we had landed probably 20 yards beyond the bridge, (and ! had seen lights down below us, which I did not mention), was it possible that since we had not slowed down for the bridge as had been expected so that the marshals could shine a torch and record our competition number, they could have missed us. It was discovered that one car had gone too fast for them to record but they were not sure that it was even on the rally. We were re-instated.

The next event and only other event I did with Sydney was the 1960 Int. Circuit of Ireland Rally. You stood no chance of winning anything in a Ford Zephyr. You needed a little Healey Sprite or similar since it was won or lost on very tight little driving Tests of the forward cross line, reverse around-corner stop across line and so on type.

Then the Company that I worked for, which was The British Wagon Co., who amusingly were a direct competition with UDT, sent me to Australia to work and where I met up with and helped Geoff Sykes, (remember him?) to get racing started at Warwick Farm. I became a Timekeeper, Circuit Marshal, Water pool sweeper, or Steward, never knowing which I was to be until Goff discovered what he was short of. Great fun!

Sydney did tremendously well on the 1960 Circuit of Ireland considering the conditions. Those (for him) diabolical Little Tests would sometimes take him 2 or 3 goes to manage to reverse around one of the corners and being unable to make use of the angle iron, we lost masses of points. However we were one of only 3 cars to be clean on all the road sections. Road? The maps had last been surveyed in 1907 when it was all donkey tracks. By the time we were there some had been sealed but not widened, and the only traffic was an occasional car with a priest inside or a jaunting cart taking the milk in to town and then returning home in late afternoon. Precise map reading was totally impossible and a few times' we had the experience of hurling over a blind bray to find the track marked as dead straight, in fact went very sharp back left or right and then very sharply back to go straight on the line that we had been on, but now 10 yards to the East or West or was it both? The high banks around most corners saved us many times with Sydney luckily being a professional "Wall of Death" driver- that  angle iron saved us and some donkeys several times. Additional to those tests were three recorded hill climbs and one go fast as you can for 20 minutes around an old airfield and it was on these that Sydney pulled us up to 7th in class from 41 class competitors. Not bad.

I asked one local why it was that on so many of the roads a small track would always exit on the inside of a completely blind right angled bend? Why was it not on the immediately proceeding straight-ish piece so that the person could see that it was safe to exit? "Surely it's obvious", they replied, "the corner is the shortest way to wherever you might be going." That wonderful Irish logic, as was the explanation as to why we could not get a quick dinner at about 7.30pm in a hotel in Killarney. "We don't do dinner. There is none surely. But we could do   lunch. We have some of that left.” If had to be Ireland to be having lunch for dinner.

Navigating for Sydney was a memorable, exhilarating, exciting, rewarding and totally unique experience and if you can think of any more adjectives expressing admiration, praise or whatever, then please add them because they all apply. Nobody, absolutely nobody I am sure ever drove as Sydney did and he did it so well. I am just so very glad to have had the opportunity of those experiences.

16th September 2009

Reprinted with permission from the Allard Owners Club