The 1977 London to Sydney Marathon

The 1977 London to Sydney Marathon

In the winter of 1967, Sir William Maxwell Aitken, the respected owner of the renowned British newspaper, the Daily Express, gathered with two of his trusted editorial executives for a lunch meeting. As they indulged in a lavish feast, the trio embarked on a mission to create a remarkable event that would uplift the spirits of a nation grappling with the tumultuous devaluation of the pound. Their goal was to devise an endeavor that would not only benefit their esteemed publication but also showcase British engineering prowess and boost the nation’s exports. The outcome of their brainstorming session was the idea of a daring 7,000-mile (11,000 km) rally, a journey from London to Sydney.

Named the London to Sydney Rally, this audacious adventure spanned 11 countries, beginning with a swift seven-day traverse from London to Bombay. From Bombay, 72 cars embarked on a nine-day voyage by sea to Australia, their final destination. The last leg of the rally took four arduous days, transporting the intrepid drivers from Perth to Sydney. Ultimately, it was Andrew Cowan who emerged victorious, steering his valiant Hillman Hunter to triumph. Although the rally achieved tremendous success, it would take another nine years before the next edition materialized.

Enter Wylton Dickson, an Australian advertising publicist who conceived the idea of organizing a grand marathon in 1977. This second edition, known as the Singapore Airlines London to Sydney Marathon, was hailed as the toughest and most grueling rally in existence. It presented an ideal opportunity for Singapore Airlines to commemorate their 30-year history in aviation. Spanning three continents and traversing an astonishing 30 countries, this monumental undertaking covered a staggering distance of nearly 22,000 miles (35,000 km). However, unlike its predecessor, this much more extensive rally required three sea crossings before ultimately reaching the vast expanse of Australia.

On the 14th of August, 1977, a total of 68 cars embarked on their daring expedition from London’s iconic Covent Garden, with their sights firmly set on the illustrious Sydney Opera House. The rally attracted a diverse range of teams and drivers from across the globe, capturing the attention of motorsport enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike. Alongside international rally drivers, two Formula 1 racers eagerly joined the fray, and for many others, it marked their debut in the world of rallying. The participants showcased an impressive array of vehicles, including Mazda’s rotary-engine marvel, Fiat’s prototype diesel rally car, and Subaru’s inaugural entry into the realm of four-wheel-drive rallying. Some daring individuals even opted for unconventional choices, such as a rally truck years before trucks would participate in the Dakar rally, a mobile home, and even a freshly purchased car straight from the dealer’s lot. Notably, the event also featured factory works teams from prominent brands such as Leyland, Citroën, Peugeot, Ford, and maybe Mercedes-Benz.

One question lingered in the minds of both participants and spectators alike long after the victors passed the checkered flag in Sydney: did the Mercedes-Benz cars belong to a works team? The Mercedes-Benz contingent, consisting of five formidable W123 280E models, appeared to be a works team in all but name. The meticulous engineers at the Mercedes-Benz factory discreetly modified and impeccably prepared these cars for the grueling journey to Sydney. The demanding rally propelled the vehicles through a meticulously planned route, encompassing various cities before reaching their final destination. The drivers had to cover a staggering 1,000 km (600 miles) each day, maintaining an average speed of 100 km/h (60 mph). The European leg posed little difficulty initially, with smooth asphalt surfaces facilitating swift progress, but the true challenges awaited at Europe’s edge.

The rally became a remarkable odyssey through treacherous gravel tracks in Greece, hair-raising mountain passes in Turkey, and indistinct trails across the vast expanse of the Afghan steppe and desert. In India and Pakistan, the resilient drivers encountered mud tracks nearly washed away by relentless monsoon rains. However, the ultimate test awaited them in Australia.

The Australian stretch of the rally proved to be a formidable adversary, presenting the drivers with daunting mountains, wild rivers that proved capable of whisking away a Datsun downstream, and sprawling deserts. Unfortunately, shipping complications caused a delay in restarting the rally in Australia, forcing the competitors to navigate the vast continent in a compressed timeframe. To meet the unalterable original finish date, average speeds were increased and planned rest stops were ruthlessly skipped. Australia would become a grueling trial, spanning 13,200 kilometers in just seven days and sixteen hours, a relentless day and night endeavor, maintaining an average speed of 72 kph for a staggering 184 hours.

Yet, the challenges faced by the Mercedes-Benz W123 280E models were not limited to the treacherous terrain alone. Minutes from a preparatory meeting held on May 6, 1977, documented a statement by Mr. von Brockhusen, an employee of Mercedes-Benz Australia, suggesting that the 4,300-km (2,670-mile) stretch from Darwin to Perth was “impassable” for Mercedes sedans.

Fully aware of the forewarned difficulties, Mercedes-Benz embarked on extensive reconnaissance of the route, conducting rigorous test runs while simultaneously preparing the cars and organizing logistics, all with the clock relentlessly ticking towards the start date, August 14th. Leading the preparations was Erich Waxenberger, the mastermind behind the endeavor. Waxenberger, who had recently taken charge of the Sports department at Mercedes-Benz, showcased his strategic prowess and meticulous attention to detail throughout the process.

Reports from the test drivers, however, provided little solace. They painted a grim picture of the Australian landscape awaiting the rally participants: “Of the 13,500 km (8,400 miles) of the route in Australia, about 2,000 km (1,250 miles) are asphalt and roughly 3,000 km (1,850 miles) dust tracks, while the rest is gravel and compacted earth. On the earth roads, there are sections of up to 500 km (300 miles) where the earth has been washed away, with exposed rocks sticking up as much as 100 mm (4 inches).” These revelations indicated that some sections of the Australian leg would subject the vehicles to surfaces far more treacherous than even the most ferocious test tracks could simulate. And then there were the native creatures, a unique challenge all on their own. The test drive report recounted the grim tally of roadkill along the Australian route, totaling approximately 200 cows and 20 kangaroos.

To protect against potential collisions with these roaming animals, the Mercedes-Benz 280E models were equipped with makeshift “cow-catchers” that could swiftly be detached and repurposed as sand ramps to extricate the vehicles from deep sand patches. These additional safeguards proved their worth when Andrew Cowan, the seasoned rally driver who had clinched victory in the inaugural London-Sydney Marathon in 1968, found himself in a close encounter with a kangaroo. The impact resulted in the destruction of the car’s front lights and left pieces of trim protruding from the radiator. Nonetheless, Cowan’s remarkable skill and the swift actions of the service crew, who accompanied the rally in their own Mercedes-Benz 280E, ensured that he could quickly resume his victorious pursuit.

Waxenberger had meticulously orchestrated an extensive service network, comprising 26 service and refueling points between London and Singapore alone. Fuel became a critical concern, as the team aimed to avoid engine damage due to the low-grade fuel commonly found along the route, particularly in Afghanistan. To mitigate this risk, the fuel depots stocked premium-grade gasoline. Furthermore, each car carried a spare tank of premium fuel to supplement any low-grade gasoline they were compelled to use. The drivers were also instructed to utilize methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as an anti-knock additive and retard the ignition by up to ten degrees, albeit at the cost of 15 horsepower.

From a technical standpoint, the Mercedes-Benz 280E models largely resembled production vehicles, although numerous optimizations had been made. The chassis underwent reinforcement, and the body was raised, providing a ground clearance of nearly 200 mm (8 inches) with the aid of 15-inch wheels instead of the standard 14-inch ones. Two of the rally cars even served as mobile test beds for the evaluation of ABS anti-lock brakes, a technology not yet released for series production. In addition to the cow-catchers, the vehicles featured an underride guard on the bodywork, while powerful 100-watt headlamps ensured excellent visibility during nighttime stages. For enhanced safety and structural rigidity, a roll cage was incorporated, and the rear of the car served a dual purpose, functioning as a sleeping berth and accommodating additional equipment.

With such comprehensive preparations in place, what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately, even the most meticulous planning cannot guarantee an entirely smooth journey. The car driven by Achim Warmbold, along with co-driver Jean Todt and mechanic Hans Willemsen, experienced a broken shock absorber while leading the rally in Iran. Undeterred, Warmbold pressed on, unaware of the subsequent damage that would befall his car: an irreparably broken propshaft and a severely damaged fuel line. Despite the team’s best efforts to rectify the situation at the subsequent service point, the car arrived at the next checkpoint eleven minutes behind schedule, leading to disqualification.

This turn of events propelled Sobieslav Zasada of Poland, driving a Porsche 911, into the lead. However, Zasada’s fortunes soon waned as his front axle gave way, and a wrong turn further dashed his hopes of victory. This twist of fate cleared the path for Tony Fowkes to assume the lead. Yet, in a display of seasoned expertise, Andrew Cowan summoned all his experience and unleashed his formidable driving prowess. On the 28th of September, 1977, to the resounding applause of onlookers, Cowan triumphantly crossed the finish line at the iconic Sydney Opera House, securing his second London-Sydney Marathon victory.

The significance of Mercedes-Benz’s accomplishment cannot be overstated. The one-two victory exemplified the team’s unwavering dedication and showcased the remarkable resilience and capabilities of the Mercedes-Benz 280E. After enduring 32 days on the road and a further 14 days at sea, four of the five Mercedes-Benz 280E cars that embarked from London proudly claimed top positions among the first ten finishers in Sydney.

The Singapore Airlines London to Sydney Marathon of 1977 remains etched in the annals of motorsport history as an enduring testament to the skill, endurance, and determination of both the drivers and their machines. It was a grueling test of man and automobile, pushing the boundaries of what was thought to be possible in a rally event. The challenges faced, the triumphs achieved, and the indomitable spirit displayed by all participants will forever be remembered as petrol-fueled insanity at its best.

Back to Last Page