The Classic Rally

        Starting in 1992, Western Australia's Classic Rally introduced a whole generation of people to a new kind of motorsport.

Automotive Events Management was created initially to run the Classic Rally, which was inspired by a new kind of event taking the interest of classic car owners around the world. Australia had the Grand Prix Rally, since 1988, which the late John Blanden had created to run from Melbourne to the Grand Prix in Adelaide. In 1990 Paul Blank with Andrew Stevens as navigator entered in the Alfa Romeo Montreal V8 which Paul owned. Only two other Western Australian entrants competed that year, Peter Briggs in his Shelby Cobra 427 S/C and Evan Simeon in a Porsche 911 2.7 Carrera RS.

However among the 220 other entrants were names including Sir Stirling Moss and Denny Hulme. The awards were presented by Juan Manuel Fangio. The event took several days, traversing rural areas by navigation tests, transport sections and a variety of competition driving stages at all kinds of venues. It was a very exciting concept.

Left: The Montreal starts at the Collingrove Hillclimb outside Adelaide, where it finished 20th, ahead of Stirling Moss...

The variety of cars that the Grand Prix Rally attracted was vast. A few vintage cars participated, but the majority were cars from the 1950s onwards. Exotics were in abundance, as the event gave owners of Ferraris, Aston Martins and Porsches a great chance to do more than they could on a track day, and enjoy the whole experience with a partner or friend. Over 30 Ferraris entered that year.

The event provided the inspiration for Paul Blank to create and event along similar lines for Western Australians. Andrew Stevens took up the role of Navigation Director.

In September 1992, the first Classic Rally took place, over two days in Western Australia. A field of over 70 cars entered, with several interstate entries among them. A Lancia Stratos came from the Northern Territory, a De Tomaso from Melbourne and an Aflasud from Tasmania. A tremendous variety of local cars participated that first year.

Good publicity had been generated by the media getting excited by the event and Channel 9 and The West Australian newspaper had entries in the rally. The start was held in Fremantle where a large crowd cheered on the cars as they left. All the events were held on tarmac, closed-roads, carparks, circuits and the like, with the addition of one dirt stage on the final day - the Rally Australia stage built on Langley Park in the city.

Everyone was impressed by the fabulous variety of cars which competed - something which would become a hallmark of the event.

There were dramas, of course. A few cars crashed, some broke down. Farmers ignoring a road closure in one country area caused such delays that a stage had to be cancelled. But overall, the event went extremely well and the feeling of euphoria enjoyed by the participants, organizers and team of volunteers was remarkable. This was clearly the beginning of something very special.

Many of the participants were new to motorsport. Quite a large number were people who'd raced or rallied in the past but had long since retired. This new event gave a unique opportunity for a mix of drivers to use classic and performance cars with a friend of family member co-driving.

Left: Street banner in William Street, Perth, promoting city stages

The next year, with many lessons learnt by the organizers, the event began to grow rapidly. A remarkable 130 cars were entered and there would be 500 people at the Awards Presentation Dinner. With the first of several years of sponsorship from GIO Australia, the event grew to a 3-day rally. The big start was held in Forrest Place with a motorkhana. No doubt the first (and only) time a major motorsport activity had taken place in the very centre of the CBD. Feature driver was TV's Sale of the Century host Glenn Ridge, who went on to win the event in his new Nissan 300ZX. 

Feature car was a stunning Lamborghini Miura from Victoria, which was one of several Eastern States entries.  The very hot Gemballa Porsche Turbo which Natasha Oberoi from Melbourne and Neil Ashmead of Adelaide entered attracted a lot of attention. One course well enjoyed was at the Rockingham foreshore. A big display and street party was held in Northbridge on the Saturday night, which has become a feature of other events since. Overnight on Friday was in Bunbury, where several competition stages were held.

Orbital entered a pair of their developmental cars in the company's first ever motorsport event.

Shopping centres in Perth and regional areas were good enough to provide large carparks for some of the stages. Shires were very helpful in assisting with road closures for faster sprints.

Finding interesting locations for the competitive events became an interesting challenge for the organizers - and getting permission was a breeze compared to the demands of today.

In time, never-before used locations such as Reabold Hill in Floreat (for a hillcimb), the old mine roads at Collie (now a regular motorsport venue), Whiteman Park, Perry Lakes and Wungong Dam were used. The RAAF facility near Gingin was a tremendous venue. Old army roads in Northam also provided great stages.

Left: The Northbridge display became an integral part of Classic Rally

Rally Director Paul Blank worked with the Grand Prix Rally's John Blanden to develop a set of regulations for CAMS under which these rallies would be conducted. The basis of these Touring Road Event rules form the basis of those still in use today for any similar events run in Australia.

1994 saw the first international entrants join the Classic Rally - Driver of Honour was Rosemary Smith, from Ireland. Rosemary was the first woman to win a round of the World Rally championship, and had been a factory driver for Ford, Rootes Group and Porsche. Star car was a spectacular competition-version Ferrari F40 which was flown in from Germany by its Singapore crew. At the other extreme was a 1934 3-wheel BSA Sports. Other highlight cars included a Porsche 911 2.7 RS Carrera, a 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and a magnificent 1922 Hispano Suiza, from Melbourne.  23 Porsches entered. Several new courses were designed, including the  a road course in the old Northam Army Camp, now an immigrant detention centre. The Fremantle Autokhana was run for the first time, attracting a vast crowd of spectators, and it would prove a tremendously popular stage for many years. A new handicapping system was developed for scoring. Bunbury was the overnight stay again.

Left: The Mayor and models welcome entrants under the Rally Arch in Bunbury.

The Classic Rally was well and truly established as one of the leading such events in the nation. By now Targa Tasmania was also established as a more serious tarmac event and its popularity was enormous. Each year its founder John Large would meet with Classic Rally's Paul Blank to discuss their respective events. In the meantime, Paul had become a semi-regular competitor in the Grand Prix Rally. Some smaller local Touring Road Events also popped up, in which Paul competed. One run jointly by the Alfa Romeo and Jaguar clubs was won by Paul and co-driver Hayden Burvill in the Alfa Montreal. The Porsche Club ran a rally based in Albany, in which Paul won his class both years behind the wheel of Porsche 911s. While the popularity of these events was clear, the enormous amount of work and time - especially in planning the navigation tests was too much for these other events to survive.

The navigation test components of these rallies were an integral part, but were immensely complex and required absolute accuracy. Convoluted instructions in various formats were devised - stick maps, tulip maps, Farmer Browns, average speed sections, shortest distance and more would be tremendously challenging both for the organizers and competitors (who always felt they were right even when not!). Under the guidance of Navigation Director Andrew Stevens a whole new set of instructions was created every year.

In 1995 Driver of Honour was legendary driver Sir Jack Brabham - three times F1 World Champion.  Sir Jack had not competed in WA since the 1960s when he raced at Caversham and helped draw huge crowds and a lot of media attention. Star cars were a pair of Grand Prix Bugattis, brought over especially for the event - a 1928 Type 37A and a supercharged 1925 Type 35. Other cars of note included a 1984 Dutton Phaeton, a 1926 Bentley, 1959 Borgward Isabella, 1973 Bolwell Nagari Roadster and the usual Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches etc. A trio of new Eunos coupes was entered by ladies from the media. The Classic Rally was developing into a complex event, in 1995 achieving the highest yet entry, of 150 cars, in 14 classes, competing in 11 competition driving stages and six navigation tests - all balanced against an amazingly complicated but effective Handicapping System. Neville Grigsby's Mini Cooper S won.

Right: Sir Jack pleases the crowd at Fremantle

1996 saw a record 160 cars make the Classic Rally a vast operation. Rosemary Smith returned from Ireland to compete again, and the star cars was a trio of classic Ferraris from the east. A 365 Daytona, 275GTB/4 and a 365GTC attracted attention everywhere. Not to be outdone, there was a stunning wooden boat-tail bodied 1916 Hudson, a Lamborghini Espada, and a record five Maseratis entered. Other well-known names among the entries included Janet Holmes a Court, Peter Briggs, actor Eric Bana and rally legend Ross Dunkerton, competing for the first of several times.  There was even a Goggomobil Dart participating. A wet surface at the Ravenswood drag strip saw it beat a Ferrari 328! Overnight was in Mandurah.

With some support from several businesses, AEM bought and worked on a 1969 Triumph 2000 Mk1 turning it into a classic rally car for the kids from CanTeen to use. This charity entry proved a huge success with two cancer patients and a big support crew entered each year from 1996 onwards.  

A huge range of merchandise was created and lapped-up by competitors and spectators - all kinds of shirts, windcheaters, caps, model cars, pens, stickers, mouse pads, coffee mugs, umbrellas, helmet bags, posters, rally videos and more.

There was always a lot of fun in the event. A Special Challenge was devised each year. There was a Dummy Spit competition (for the longest distance), moon hopper races, hula hoop and grass skirt singing competitions - and there can be no doubt that the only time Sir Jack Brabham went into a bouncy castle was during the Classic Rally.

Entrants took up the opportunity to show some humour too. One year a team of 'priests' entered. The Polizia Alfa Romeo crew (three cars) got a lot of attention as did the occasional unusual costumes...

The City of Rockingham celebrated its Centenary in 1997 by being sponsor of the Classic Rally. Driver of Honour was Sir Jack Brabham, making a return appearance, this time at the wheel of a new Jaguar XK8. Vintage cars entered included a pair of vintage Bentleys and a 1925 MG which came from Sydney (and would return several times). The ex-George Fury Nissan Bluebird Turbo racing car attracted a lot of attention, and many small cars were entered, including a Goggomobil Dart, Mini Jem, Citroen Dyane, Suzuki Cappuccino and NSU Prinz. A 1962 VW Beetle was dressed accurately as Herbie the Love Bug, complete with flapping bonnet. A new hillclimb at South Dandalup was well-received by competitors. As always there was excellent media attention and participation in the rally.

In 1998 a very rare ASA 1000GT came from Melbourne as star car. Also entered was a supercharged Jeep Renagade, Lancia Stratos and a trio of classic Mustangs.  Sale of the Century host Glenn Ridge returned (with a BMW Z3 2.8) and Simon Lingford's spectacular multi-coloured Ferrari gained huge attention. Turbo 4WD cars were gaining popularity, with sufficient entries for their own class for the first time. A new Touring category was introduced, with a less stressful level of navigation and it attracted 15 entries -eventually this category would outnumber Navigation entries. Two sprints in Two Rocks were newly created highlights among the competition driving stages. But probably the best enjoyment was from the stages at the RAAF airstrip near Gingin.  Busselton was the overnight stop for the first time.

In 1999 for the first time the start was outside Perth, the Classic Rally beginning in Mandurah. Interesting cars included a Ferrari 512TR, a new F355 Spider and a Lamborghhini Espada. Among the new competition stages was an exciting new hillclimb in Collie, where the Motorplex would be set up in years to come. Six-times Australian Rally Champion Ross Dunkerton was Driver of Honour, and he was behind the wheel of a Datsun 260Z. The 4WD Turbo class was gaining strength, however all the WRXs entered in the Touring category.

New stages in 2000 included one in a new real estate development at Meadow Springs in Mandurah. A pair of Lamborghini Diablos helped draw crowds to spectator stages, as did the other exotic cars. The media got very excited when news got out that Hollywood actor Heath Ledger was in the support crew for his father Kim's entry. Driver of Honour was successful lady rally driver Jacquie Dines, who entered in a 1949 MG TC. Oldest car entered was a splendid 1927 Bentley 4 1/2 litre Tourer. The Touring class had grown to 40 percent of the field. Winners in 2000 were in a Subaru WRX STi - proving that with the handicapping system, any car could win, provided it was driven and navigated better than any other.

Australian racing legend Peter Brock was Driver of Honour in 2001, helping attract huge crowds to spectator stages in Perth and country areas. With Burswood Casino as the new sponsor for the event, the Classic Rally began with two stages at Burswood - one inside the Dome (a pretty remarkable experience) and one on a new road. The final stage was an outdoor autokhana at Burswood. All stages were new or very much changed from past years. Rain over the 3 days meant the officials had it tough, but the wet surfaces added an additional challenge for competitors. The Collie area was expanded to incorporate several new stages. Winners were in a 1973 Datsun 240Z, with the Touring class won in a 1969 Porsche 911E.

Multiple category Australian racing champion John Goss was Driver of Honour for 2002, driving a 1975 Ford Falcon John Goss Special. Sydney-based Goss had won Bathurst twice (Falcon and Jaguar), and had won the Australian Grand Prix in 1976 among many successes. Cars of note in the event included a Sunbeam Tiger, an Audi TT Quattro and a Smart - making the competition debut for the marque in Australia. New stages included a hillclimb in Roleystone and a long closed-road sprint near Northam. A huge autokhana inside the Burswood Dome was a highlight stage. There were 17 competition driving stages and seven navigation tests.

Driver of Honour in the 2003 Burswood Casino Classic Rally was WA V8 Supercar driver Garth Tander. Like many of the star drivers, it was his first foray into a Touring Road Event. Ross and Lisa Dunkerton also entered, the first time they had ever competed together. An overnight stay on the Friday saw crews in Busselton for the second time in 12 years. Several new stages were run over the 3 days. Among these were the Auto-tests held at the Speed Dome in Midvale, and a reverse direction run at the Katrine Sprint near Northam which had been successfully run the other way the year prior. Cars of interest participating included a twin-turbo Callaway Corvette, Lotus 340R and a new HSV GTO. The Touring category entries outnumbered Navigation entries considerably.

The growing costs and increasing difficulties with dealing with incompetence within CAMS, added to the ever growing complexities in getting suitable venues meant the end for the Classic Rally after twelve great years. The Classic Challenge, a simpler event, had spun off from Classic Rally a few years prior, and this continued for several years after Classic Rally was no more.

In 2012 a special 20th Anniversary Classic Rally was held as a one-off event. It attracted a great field of different cars - as the original always had done. The overnight stay was in Bunbury and some of the old courses used in years gone by were resurrected, in addition to many new stages. A record number of competitive stages were run. Many of the volunteers who'd helped out over the years were involved and happy to see each other and some of the old faces among the competitors.

There was never an injury in the Classic Rally. The only time the ambulance officers were required was at a Kwinana closed road sprint, when a driver hurt his thumb while changing a wheel on his Austin Healey.

Many quite special cars were built specifically with the Classic Rally in mind. And a large proportion of drivers whose competition driving began with the Classic Rally went on to be involved in other facets of motorsport.

There were special moments that the competitors never saw... like when a lawn sprinkler popped up and began watering inside the lunch tent half an hour before 250 people were due...

All photos copyright AEM