A gathering of rally racing legends
By John Sprinzel
From Fishy Beginnings…
If you have ever purchased a pair of competition driving gloves, they probably came from John Hopwood’s glove business, and if you have ever eaten fish and chips in the Manchester area, it is pretty certain that Roy Fidler’s company supplied the fish.
Back in early ‘50s rallying, Roy was a driver and John his navigator, and they won quite a few rallies, once even in Roy’s company VW Transporter pick-up truck when their rally car was not fit enough to use. Roy quickly earned the nickname King Cod, and, in a dig at all the Squadras and Ecuries of the day, the pair rallied under the Ecurie Cod Fillet title. Soon many of their Northern compatriots (for the north of England and Wales are famed for the best rally country and the best rallies) took to carrying the ECF badge depicting a cod carcass.
The fishy teams won team prizes in many events, and soon ECF became a club. However, there was never any entry fee or subscription, and you certainly didn’t apply to join. Membership was by invitation, and it became quite an honor to be asked to become a member. In the early days, meetings were an informal gathering at the end of the championship rallies, and John Hopwood sent out a very witty and informative bulletin every few months, as he still does today.
The Cod Club Opens its Ranks
When Erik Carlsson and John Brown won the RAC British International Rally in 1961, it was probably the first time a non-British driver was asked to join, but soon the best of the Scandinavians were to be members, as well as Jean-Jacques Thuner and John Gretener of the Triumph team, after winning the Geneva Rally.
Perhaps ECF’s most notable contribution to the sport was their idea to run a rally in the Isle of Man. In conjunction with the Tourist Board, John and Roy set up a splendid route, and then, just before they were due to leave for the ferry, the Board asked whether it would help to close some of the public roads! As this is something that needs an Act of Parliament on the mainland, they jumped at the offer, and one of the UK’s finest events was born, which eventually became an international event with closed stages run over much of the famed Tourist Trophy Motor Cycle Course.
Up until 1980, the ECF awarded their renowned Cod Fillet Trophy to the Rally of the Year—the event voted by the committee as the very best of rallies, but after the more specialized events and growing age of the members, with less participation, the ECF turned the award into an individual presentation for the member who had contributed the most to the world of rallying.
The Golden Anniversary
Nowadays, the members are very active indeed in the realm of classic rallies, taking part in many of the retro events which probably now have more participation than those of the modern era. My once regular co-driver Willy Cave has a calendar of some 15 events annually, has helped a paddock of drivers achieve victory, and is in constant demand as probably the most famous and skilled navigator of the day. He also spends a month skiing (he was on the short list for the British Olympic team in the ’50s) and a couple of weeks sailing in the Caribbean. But then, he is only 78!
Every three years, ECF has held a reunion where an ever-graying membership gathers to spend a weekend telling the tallest of tales in a growing set of Do you remember?s.
This year saw the 50th anniversary of this unusual occasion, and a really star-studded group met in Nottingham. Proceedings began at England’s oldest pub—the Trip to Jerusalem, where the faithful once gathered en route to the Crusades. Living in Hawaii, I have not been a regular visitor to these reunions, but how could I miss the 50th? As the growing list of “Absent Friends” on the back page of the program emphasized, most of us are now well into our 70s. I had not seen some of those present for nearly 40 years, but in spite of the comparison stories of radiation treatment and triple bypasses, the gleam in the eyes of these veterans had not faded one bit, and you could see the enthusiasm for the sport of rallying was still very much in their hearts.
The dinner was held in a nearby hotel, naturally included a course of battered cod and mushy peas in honor of the founder, and sponsorship for the reunion was such that there was a free bar until one o’clock in the morning—though proceedings didn’t stop the remembering until way past three o’clock.
It was great to see Erik Carlsson and his wife Pat Moss-Carlsson, who between them have won an impressive collection of more than 20 outright victories in international championship rallies. Timo Makinen was there, with memories of his dozen or so successes with Mini-Cooper, Healey and Ford Escorts; so was Simo Lampinen, who drove for Triumph and many European teams with great results and exceptionally good humor. He was also the featured speaker.
Donald Morley, whose successes with the big Austin Healey 3000 were the stuff of legends, especially his three unpenalized runs on the demanding Coupe Des Alpes, was with his wife Val Domleo, who co-drove for some of the successful lady drivers of the day. Paddy Hopkirk, winner of more than 10 internationals, including the daunting Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini Cooper S, was beaming from ear to ear, as is usual for this Irishman. His newly published autobiography is an excellent read to give a picture of those classic days of motor sport.
Christabel Carlisle, now Lady Watson, the petite lady who took on the top men on the race circuits (often beating them with her Mini), also co-drove for me and for Timo Makinen in Healeys on the snow and ice of the Monte Carlo Rally, where reading pace notes to allow the driver to go even faster is a talent that is for the very few. She has recently walked the length of Spain on the Pilgrim Trail and from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, traveling throughout England and Scotland (along the tracks and trails of the mountain—not on the normal roads) for charity, still showing the strength and determination of her youth.
Also present was Raymond Baxter, a famous TV personality who rallied Sprites, was a founder member of the UK Healey Club and whose voice you will have heard commentating on many of the classic films shown on Speed TV’s Legends of Motor Sport. Stuart Turner was there, who was the competition manager of the very successful Mini team at BMC, before joining Ford to lead an equally impressive collection of stars with Escorts and their swift successors.
The names filled two closely typed pages, and every one of them brought back memories of those wonderful years, when motor rallying was an endurance sport that lasted for days and nights of furious driving across the less developed roads of the world. I recognized them all, in spite of the years, and my only regret was that there just wasn’t time to speak to everyone for more than just a few minutes.
Oh well! I’ll just have to plan to be there for the next reunion of this wonderfully irreverent club of champions of the sport we love so much.