Looking back at Britain’s most iconic rally

It's been 90 years since the RAC Rally was born, so how did its maiden event pan out?

1961 RAC Rallyecopyright: Mcklein

It’s more than three years since the World Rally Championship graced British shores. And it could be a good while yet before it returns. So let’s look back, briefly.

We could go back 10 years to Jari-Matti Latvala’s second and final win on a rally he enjoyed so much. Or we could go back 20 and find Petter Solberg taking his first win in the world championship. Maybe even 30, where we could consider the RAC Rally success which led to an unexpected second title in three years for Carlos Sainz.

Or maybe we go back the full 90 and think about where Britain’s biggest – and one of the world’s most feared and famous – rallies started.

The 1932 event started in Edinburgh. Or Newcastle. Or Liverpool. Harrogate or Buxton. Leamington Spa, Norwich, Bath or London.

Fortunately, there was just one finish in Torquay.

The thinking was very much along the lines of the Monte Carlo Rally, which had been running 21 years by the time Britain’s Royal Automobile Club caught up.

“Enter the rally and see Britain” was the tag line.

Regardless of the start point, the route to the finish was around 1000 miles – all of which had to be completed at an average speed of 22mph for a 1.1 liter car or 25mph for anything with more cubic capacity. Understanding that the timing aspect of the event might not pick a winner from an impressive 341-strong start list, the RAC added in a couple of tests at the finish in Torquay.

The first test was to drive 100 yards along the promenade in top gear… as slowly as possible. The second was an acceleration and braking test. And if that didn’t decide it, there was a Concours d’Elegance element which would favor the car looking the most lovely.

It all sounded very civilized, until you consider there was no rest halts and no service areas. Off the start, it was a straight run to keep the average speed up to the finish, driving through the night. Predictably, it got a bit lively back in March 1932.

One driver fell asleep at the wheel and whacked a telegraph pole near Exeter, while the absence of ice-note crews 90 years ago was painfully exposed when one car rolled on a patch of ice further into the route.

British publication The Autocar was at the very forefront of the event and ran a 12-page report on what would become Britain’s WRC counter when the world championship began 41 years later.

Within those 12 pages, there was the opportunity to discuss the trials and tribulations endured by the crews.

“During the night,” offered The Autocar, “near Cambridge, a rabbit committed suicide beneath A.G.D. Clease’s Jaguar SS1, and in the early morning a partridge did likewise near Chester while a few minutes later a pheasant just cleared the windscreen. R.M.V. Sutton killed a pheasant with his Lea Francis and sent it home to his wife.”


As we know, Ott Tänak won the last Rally GB in 2019, but who landed the big prize in Torquay, nine decades ago?


Step forward Colonel A.H. Loughborough. Pipe in hand, the Col. happily posed alongside the mighty Lanchester he’d used to land that maiden win. How did he do it? Slowly. Averaging 0.66mph for 100 yards did the trick.

The RAC Rally was up and running.

Thanks have to go to my friend and colleague Maurice Hamilton for this story – the details of which were all ‘borrowed’ from his exceptional book, the aptly named RAC Rally. 

Words:David Evans

Photography:McKlein & Toyota