If you’re on this site, you probably already know the story of how Audi convinced the FIA to lift the ban on four-wheel-drive cars in the World Rally Championship so they could start running the genre-redefining Quattro, and usher in the Group B era.
But do you know why four-wheel-drive was banned in the first place?
It wasn’t an early dominant season by one of the big European teams with experimental technology, it wasn’t an arbitrary line thrown into the rulebook when the International Championship for Manufacturers was founded, but instead it was a white whale of a truck that blew everyone away in the first FIA rally to ever be held in the United States, the success of which sealed the fate on the drivetrain on an international level for almost a decade to come.
This is the story of how 50 years ago today, Gene Henderson and Jeep teamed up to put four-wheel-drive at the top of the podium for the first time ever in a professional rally.
Who is Gene Henderson?
Gene Henderson was a Dearborn, Michigan police officer, father, and, at one point, a pretty mediocre driver.
Being that the police often chased speeders in 1950s and 1960s, this wasn’t ideal.
Henderson’s younger son Mark Henderson told us, “[Dad] realized at some point that he was as bad a driver as, you know, the common driver, when he was making these chases [in the police car].”
Around 1958, Henderson joined some driving schools hosted by the local Sports Car Club of America chapter. Enjoying the experiences, he found himself getting more involved, starting to race competitively in the family car, a Volvo PV544.
“So many times he’d get it up on two wheels going around corners and stuff like that,” Mark Henderson said, “and my mother thought, ‘well, there goes my ride on Monday morning.’”
The thing is though, Gene Henderson started to get good. He turned to Time-Speed-Distance rallies for more seat time, and very quickly found success in both his career and his hobby.
By the early ‘60s, Henderson had already got sponsored rides, including driving for Mercedes-Benz. He even went along to navigate with Scott Harvey when he took the factory Plymouth rally team to Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, where the duo finished third in their class.
As he became more well known, Henderson would rally Volvos, Lotus Cortinas, and even factory-backed Ford Falcons and Mustangs.
1972 Press on Regardless chief of controls Roger Turpening remembers the latter quite fondly.
“There was nothing, for me anyway, better than hearing a big Ford Falcon coming through the woods at night. With Gene Henderson, with two four-barrel carburetors, it was just wonderful to hear.”
Long-time friend of Henderson, Mike Van Loo summed up his general style by describing Henderson’s prep-work.
“[Gene] had this amazing checklist that he would go down after we finished an event, we’d take the car and get it in the shop and the first thing on the checklist: check for full throttle.
“Before you put the car on the truck to leave, the last thing on the checklist was: check for full throttle again.”
In late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Gene Henderson and many of the others already mentioned belonged to a club called “The Ralligators,” made up of Michigan locals who helped run the rally community in the state, and put on many of the events in the region.
The Ralligators had some of the best rallies in the country in their backyard, and in 1972, some important people finally took notice of the Detroit SCCA sanctioned Press on Regardless.
A last-minute deal in an unlikely vehicle
The FIA International Championship for Manufacturers (later renamed the World Rally Championship) had put its stamp of approval on Michigan’s Press on Regardless Rally. A three-night, 330+ stage mile event spanning both peninsulas that was known as “the longest, oldest, meanest, toughest rally in the USA.”
Gene Henderson had to be there, but there was one problem, he had no car.
“The previous POR he had wrecked his own car,” Mark Henderson explains. “He didn’t want to just purchase [a car], he was looking to run somebody else’s. So he kind of put it out there, he had lots of contact at this point.
“One of the early calls was Ford, and Ford was coming out with the new Lincoln Continental Mark-IV. A new full-boat Lincoln. They called my dad and said, ‘could you win with this?’
“He goes, ‘absolutely not, it’s too big, heavy, it takes too much work to get it slimmed down.’ But he said he could place it in the top ten.”
Lincoln didn’t like that answer, but luckily for Henderson, The American Motor Corporation called not long after, with a smaller, and lighter, yet just as strange vehicle for Henderson to rally: the Jeep Wagoneer.
Head of AMC Roy Chapin had just come off of a winning Trans-Am season, and wanted a new motorsport project with the newly acquired Kaiser-Jeep brand, marketing the revolutionary new Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel-drive system.
Henderson agreed, promising a shot at a win this time under the condition he got the cars ASAP, as at this point the rally was about two months away. He enlisted Ken Pogue to navigate for him, and German driver Erhard Dahm to pilot the second car on the team with Jim Callon at his side.
Though it was an unconventional vehicle, Pogue was excited.
“[my] reaction was ‘Great, we don’t have to spend our money to compete!’” he said.
Garry Henderson, Gene’s elder son, and a mechanic on the 1972 POR explained how the Jeeps were specced for rally.
“We had a [Hydra-Matic] transmission and we put a Fireball Cam in the car, and dual exhaust. We put a fancy curve on the distributor and shoved that in there and then we zipped it up, and put a big Holly on it.
“Monroe were our OEM shock people, and they’ve got a test track. The pinnacle of the test track was a pair of railroad crossings that were bounded up. That was the hardest thing when you’ve got 5,000 pounds flying through the air, then you hit the second bump. Well they got those Jeeps to go over that like it was a pillow.
“Three shocks on one corner, two shocks on all the other corners and that’s what you ended up with.
“So we had a pretty powerful car, about 400 horsepower, and good suspension, and this transmission, everything was bulletproof.”
The Jeeps made their debut at the Moonlight Monte entering under the Competition Limited team name. The Moonlight Monte was a rally in the area that was commonly known as the warm-up event to the POR, and to say that the Jeeps were a favorite of the 40+ entries would be a stretch.
“Hey Gene! You gonna go whaling in that?” and other similar taunts rang throughout the service park.
The two white Jeeps were labeled the “white whales” immediately, and competitors laughed at the idea that they could compete with the little sportscars ruling the scene at the time.
Turpening said of the Jeeps, “I personally felt that [they] would be overweight, and so any advantage they got from being 4-wheel-drive was going to get swamped by the fact that when you came to a corner, there was an awful lot of mass that you had to turn.”
Competitor Karl Goering said, “If anything, I would imagine the Jeeps would be ill-handling and difficult to push at speed through the woods.”
When the rally finished though, the jabs stopped. The Jeeps had placed fifth and sixth overall, competitors wanted the new threat gone.
“After the first event, everybody that had laughed at them was no longer laughing,” Mark Henderson recalls. “People started to say, ‘hey, ban four wheel drive! This is not a truck rally, this is a sports car rally!’”
The Jeeps had been approved though, so they left the Moonlight Monte ready to finish the prep, and to spite their hecklers, Henderson’s Jeep would be named Moby Dick I, while Dahm’s would be Moby Dick II.
While today the spiritual successor to the POR is the two-day Lake Superior Performance Rally, the old POR was a completely different beast.
Over 330 stage miles alone, most of which were run at night, were spread across four days and 77 different stages. Roger Turpening had set up and planned out over 500 control points, roughly double anything he had ever done before.
There were big names ready to win the historic event. John Buffum and his MkI Escort 1600, the three-car Pacesetter Datsun team, and the favorite, the Lancia Fulvia driven by Harry Källström and navigated by John Davenport. Källström was a European Rally Champion, and was ready to prove himself to the Americans on their home turf.
Despite this, it was Buffum who had the lead early on in the rally, followed by Kälström in second, but Henderson in third.
While it’s easy to think the Jeep won solely on being big tough, it turned out that for its size, it was actually a pretty good rally car.
The Quadra-Trac system worked similar to most modern all-wheel-drive systems. The center differential would sense when there was wheel slip on the front or rear axles, and would divert the power to the wheels with the most traction. Having a similar system to a modern rally car, meant Henderson could drive the Jeep like you would a modern rally car.
Garry Henderson, who rallied in the Jeeps later on explained, “You stab the brakes and that throws the rear end out and gets you around the corner. That’s what they used the brakes for. With that transmission, you pull it down a gear, it dragged all four wheels down, you’d lose 20 mph like instantly, so that was our braking.
“And then left foot braking became popular years later, and European rallies. But we were doing that in the Jeeps.
“Throwing the car sideways we found would scrub off more speed than anything. So, my dad was developing all these techniques that would be the future of rallying.
“When those Jeeps started thundering down those roads, you could just see everybody receding back into the scenery, finding a big solid tree, because we used all the road, every bit of it.”
The Jeep managed to beat the Lancia on one stage by a few seconds on night one, but the big story was Buffum crashing out of a lead on a T-Junction, putting Kälström in the lead, and Henderson in second, despite losing one of the Jeep’s eight cylinders on the first night.
On the second night, the second Jeep of Erhard Dahm and Jim Callon got damaged hitting a tree with the passenger-side, leading to Callon having to remove his belt and wrap it around his window frame to keep the door shut.
Most importantly though was what happened to Kälström.
As Mark Henderson tells it, “[Gene and Ken] came into the start of a stage and the Lancia that had been eight and ten minutes in front [was there]. My dad said, ‘why are they just leaving now?’
“[The control worker responded], ‘they have brake problems and they’re just motoring through the stages.’ So my dad heard that he goes, ‘all right Kenny, we’re going to push them right off the road.’”
Gene Henderson meant metaphorically, of course, more like Dale Earnhardt as The Intimidator bearing down on the competition and causing them to make a mistake on their own.
Mark Henderson continues, “Sure enough, they caught him on the stage. Here’s this honking, big-ass vehicle, and they’ve got all the lights blinding through their back windows. That pushes [Kälström] to drive harder.
“[Kalstrom] kept driving faster and faster to a point where he over drove his car and flipped it.
Garry Henderson adds, “So then my dad says, “S***! I wish I had taken better care of the car!” My dad squeezed every bit of life out of it, and now he had one more night to go!”
After stopping to make sure Kälström and Davenport were okay, Henderson and Pogue took off, and finished the night in first.
Day three’s strategy was simple: hold on to the lead, and get Dahm and Callon as close to the front as possible.
With Buffum permanently out, as well as Kälström, all Henderson had to do was hold off the Datsun of Tom Jones and Ralph Beckman, who started the day about eight minutes back in second.
While Dahm and Callon worked their way up to third overall, Henderson and Pogue made the unconventional decision to stop on the route, and wash Moby Dick I to make sure it was clean when they drove across the finish line as victors back in Alma, Michigan; possibly one of the biggest show-off moments in the history of rallying.
But they had earned it. There, in-front of the entire world, the Jeep Wagoneers of Competition Limited had won the first professional rally as a four-wheel-drive team, and sealed their place in the history books.
The reaction to Henderson and Pogue’s historic victory sent waves around the rallying world.
Fans loved the Jeeps, and AMC branded jackets were showing up at rallies as spectators showed their support. The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan wanted Moby Dick I at an event, but they didn’t realize it was already clean, and Gene had to take it out to get it muddy again before the display.
Mike Van Loo, a longtime friend and future navigator of Henderson and Dahm’s, was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Military at the time, and to this day has German articles written about the Jeeps from the time.
Van Loo experienced the international awe around Henderson’s feat firsthand a few months later at the famous Monte Carlo Rally.
“Sure enough, I’m wearing my American Motors Jeep Racing jacket with my Ralligators patch on it,” he said, “and I had a half a dozen people come up to me and point at it and go, ‘Do you know about the Jeeps?’ and I go, ‘Yeah I know about the Jeeps!’’
It wasn’t all love for the Jeep team though, Pogue said simply, “The other competitors just laughed at us [initially], but when we started winning they cried ‘unfair advantage’.”
Garry Henderson said, “We were preparing for the East African Safari with a four-car team, and we were going to go kick ass over there. They got wind of our entry and they banned us before we could get there.”
Of course, this is where we finally answer the question from the introduction, by April of 1973, four-wheel-drive was banned from FIA rallying, but it wasn’t just the FIA.
Even in Henderson’s community people were upset, they feared the image of a Jeep winning a sports car event was bad PR for the rally community, especially in the face of environmentalists at the time lobbying for laws restricting off-roading. They didn’t want to lose the sport they loved.
According to Garry Henderson, “Nobody was too happy to have those Jeeps, and at all the events they would saw down trees and put the big stumps so the Jeep couldn’t quite get through it and we’d take down a lot of body damage.
“We’d rub on both sides going through these things, and they did nasty things like that.”
Even the Ralligators, the club they’d all been a part of for so long, had started to turn against them. Competitor Scott Harvey (who would enter a 4WD Dodge Ramcharger himself in Sno*Drift 1973) led the charge in calling for a ban on four-wheel-drive vehicles in Ralligators events, and quickly a vote was held to decide.
The Ralligators Bull Sheet newsletter didn’t print a single issue the following year without having something about the debate published in it, and cheap shots were sometimes thrown at the team and members.
Mark Henderson recalls, “We went to the meeting and all they talked about was banning four-wheel drive after the POR. [People] were adamant and my dad had to go up there and defend himself, people got up and shouted and screamed at the meetings. They were really upset.”
Turpening remembers it too. “Yeah, there was hostility,” he said, “I was a member of [The Ralligators] and yep, there was hostility at the meeting, with Scott Harvey leading the two wheel drive club.
“At that time I was beginning to formulate my own ideas, and, you know, I felt that, yeah, the big Jeeps had ruined something, whether it was the spirit or whatever. I would have liked to see the Falcons come through the woods, I guess.”
But while things on the homefront were rough for a while, Van Loo was experiencing what might have been the most important reactions to Competition Limited’s win back in Europe.
Remember all the people asking him about the Jeeps at Monte Carlo 1973? As he puts it, “One of the guys was a fellow by the name of John Davenport. He came up to me and we were talking, and he didn’t really have a lot of questions he just said, ‘is that legal there?’ I go. ‘Yeah, the SCCA Pro Rally rules do not make four-wheel-drive vehicles illegal.
Davenport, co-driver in the Lancia that crashed out of the lead of POR, would become the Head of the Motorsport Department at Austin Rover, and was ultimately the one who spearheaded the famous MG Metro 6R4.
Van Loo continued, “I met with Baron Von Hanstein [of the FIA] in 1973 at Le Mans and he introduced me to this young Porsche engineer. This guy starts asking me questions about the Quadra-Trac in the Jeep. ‘What type of fluid do you use?’ Stuff that you don’t get asked unless you’re an engineer.
“This guy was really, really intense wanting to know, ‘well, can you emergency-lock the drive system?’
“This guy was Jürgen Barth, and Jürgen and I became best friends. He was interested in how the Jeep’s four-wheel-drive system worked, and this would be instrumental later when Porsche developed the 959 for Group B rallying.
“All these light bulbs went off in Europe. With Porsche, with the Ford group, with British Leyland group, with Audi. I met some of the Audi Engineers but we didn’t really have much of a conversation, all the German engineers for Mercedes, Audi, Porsche and BMW, they went to the same technical school.
“They all trade information. They all talk about their projects and stuff like that. There’s very little secrecy in the manufacturers’ individual products.
“And when the four-wheel drive thing hit, Audi jumped on the bandwagon first. BMW was late to the show, probably because it didn’t have as much money as the Volkswagen group was pumping into Audi.
“Porsche was also late to the show, but they wanted to develop a Group B car, that’s where the 959 came from. I want to make sure [people] realize that there were tremendous implications when Jeep won that event, that made people realize that there was something that was going on and maybe they should look a little bit closer.”
While the European rally world was taking notes, the Jeeps were taking names. The SCCA Pro Rally series started just a few months after the POR with Sno*Drift in 1973 – Erhard Dahm and John Campbell won the rally, with Henderson and Pogue taking second.
With the Pro Rally series allowing four-wheel-drive, the Jeeps found a home for 1973, and behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee in 1974, Henderson and Pogue won the SCCA Pro Rally title, likely the second-biggest highlight in their careers. The famous Moby Dick I was rolled by Garry Henderson, and then sold to a family friend who eventually blew up the motor.
Gene Henderson would continue to rally with AMC until 1984 behind the wheel of the Cherokee, a Jeep CJ-7, and finally, an AMC Eagle SX-4. While the competition had long surpassed what it was in 1972 with the Audi Quattro of John Buffum and the AWD RX-7 of Rod Millen entering and winning just about everything, Henderson still proved he knew POR, by placing third out of 66 entries in his final running.
Van Loo, who was navigating, said, “I have notes and the route book, and if you spin, there’s an ‘S,’ if you engage reverse gear, there’s an ‘R’ there, if there’s a star, that means that was really a good stage. So I have all these notes, POR was a two-day event, 270 stage miles, guess how many ‘S’s and ‘R’s I had on that two-day event in that routebook.
“None. [Gene] made no mistakes in that entire event.”
While Gene Henderson wasn’t the one who optimized four-wheel-drive for the insane Group B era like Audi, he certainly was the one who gave four-wheel-drive its first big-break in the rally world, and set off the chain of events that would lead to some of the biggest leaps forward in rally history.