Britain’s absence from the World Rally Championship has offered events aside from the RAC or Rally GB the chance to shine. Step forward the Mull Rally. Formerly known as the Tour of Mull, this Scottish island event sells out a 150-strong entry in a matter of minutes every year.
Last weekend was the 50th running of the event and Ian Grindrod – one of the world’s most successful and renowned co-drivers – has been part of this party from the very beginning.
Sit back, pour yourself a wee dram and let Ian tell you a very Scottish story, written in Lancashire.
In 1966 I became an apprentice mechanical engineer at a factory in Blackburn, Lancashire. The factory was Mullard Blackburn Limited and their main purpose back in those days, was the production of radio and TV valves. If you don’t know what they were then Google it. Basically, they were what warmed the telly up for three or four minutes after you had switched it on while you looked at a black screen. Oh, how things have moved on!
Now this Mullard factory had a Sports and Social Club, part of which was the Mullard Motor Cycle & Car Club (MMCCC which Nero counting as Romans did would recognize as 2300) and, after a couple of years – and having passed my driving test – I thought I would join this motor club to avail myself of the opportunity to buy cheap engine oil and spark plugs and the like. Never once did I know of any motorsport affinity with this club, I had no interest in any kind of motorsport and had no family connection to it either.
That was until my best pal Art, a fellow apprentice, mentioned something called the Mullard Trophy Rally which he was going to watch the following weekend. His brother-in-law was the rally secretary apparently, so I tagged along to see lots of spotlights flashing through the sky and hear some very nice engine noises. I can’t say I was overly impressed. This was 1968.
The 2300 Club had run the Mullard Trophy Rally for a fair number of years in and around the Lancashire, Lake District and Yorkshire Dales area, but it had become more and more difficult with PR problems that were generally due to folks from the big cities like Manchester and Leeds moving into these areas to buy retirement homes and wanting peace and quiet.
Now what transpired was that a very big cheese in both the Mullard factory and the 2300 club had been on holiday during the course of 1968 to the Isle of Mull and thought that it would be the ideal place to run a rally.
The big cheese was one Brian Molyneux, the sort of person that if you crossed paths in the factory, you were expected to touch your forelock and doff your cap. Actually, that’s not true, Brian was not like that whatsoever, I just put it in to show how important he was.
I had learned a little more of the rallying world during the course of the next 12 months, which is how I came to travel to Mull in October 1969 along with Art, his brother-in-law, the rally secretary (who I had come to learn was called Taff Edwards) and Taff’s rallying pal Tony Dutton. So, after we had all finished work at 4.30pm on the Friday, off we set in Taff’s Wartburg Knight, a two-stroke machine of 998cc produced in East Germany.
He had bought it from the local Wartburg dealership owned by Edgar Simpson, which later became a Peugeot dealership and is now a thriving Škoda dealership run by Neil Simpson, a fine rally driver in his own right. Wartburg even had a rally team that competed each year on the RAC Rally.
Me and Art in the back, Taff and Tony in the front and journeyed up to Oban in about seven hours. Only short sections of the M6 were open in those days and no M74. We drove onto the North Pier at Oban around midnight and the ferry was tied up alongside waiting for the morning departure.
Taff informed us that he had booked cabins on board to get some sleep, but we quickly realized by his hasty retreat that the cabins were for him and Tony; Art and I had to sleep in the car.
Taff informed us that he had booked cabins on board to get some sleep, but we quickly realized by his hasty retreat that the cabins were for him and Tony; Art and I had to sleep in the car.Ian Grindrod on his less than luxurious accommodation
Shame, I hear you say, but it gets worse. The following morning upon their return, Taff told Art and me to get down on the rear seat and cover ourselves with coats and jackets as he hadn’t booked any tickets for us two. We had to go aboard as stowaways so to speak. You couldn’t make it up!
Setting foot on the island for the first time came as somewhat as a culture shock. Being a budding navigator I, of course, had the latest edition of the Ordnance Survey sheets covering the island and off we went in search of the designated road north, the A849 from Craignure in the direction of Salen. Well, where was this red road shown on the map? All we could see was a single-track road that we thought should have been depicted as an unclassified road anywhere else.
Lesson number one: ‘A’ roads on Mull are not like ‘A’ roads anywhere else. Remember this single-track road ran all the way from Craignure via Salen to Tobermory in those early years and would form part of the competitive route for the rally, Salen to Tobermory was a selective in both directions as was Salen to Craignure. Our accommodation for the weekend was a self-catering cottage in Dervaig, so after dropping off some equipment in Tobermory, we went over Mishnish Lochs to Dervaig.
The cottage was half-way between Dervaig and the bottom of the “Hill Road”, it was pink with a tin roof and made a terrible racket when it rained. It was just fine for the time we would be spending in it. It was the next-door neighbor who reminded us of the PR problem that had encouraged Brian to move the rally to Mull.
The chap next door was a Londoner, who was very skeptical about the rally taking place on his doorstep and made his point by emerging from his house to show us his latest noise meter and was keen to point out that he was aware of the latest RAC noise regulations governing rallies. Oh dear!
Saturday afternoon came and went, with a visit to the Mishnish for a swift half at lunch time. It was here that I stood next to Anthony Hopkins at the bar, who along with other notable actors was filming “When Eight Bells Toll” on the island. He didn’t buy me a drink, probably because he’s Welsh. Too late now Anthony, you can’t have my autograph.
After completing all the usual pre-event formalities like scrutineering and signing on, the rally finally got under way at 10.30pm. We were all designated to marshal the control at the bottom of the Hill Road. After setting everything up, Taff informed me and Art that we were to be the marshals as both he and Tony had to spend their event in Tobermory.
We didn’t realize at the time that most of the event was controlled from the telephone box at Gruline which forever more was referred to by its phone number Aros 33X. The only reason that Taff could possibly have for wanting to be in Tobermory was that there was more than one pub there.
Anyway, being relative novices, we marshaled the control as best we could, and it was used both as a selective finish and start. It is quite amazing to think that the rally had a competitive route around the whole island, the road through Glen More between Craignure and Loch Kinloch had been upgraded but much of the old single-track road was still usable and formed yet more selective mileage.
All this in the dark controlled from a telephone box with no safety crews and the daunting thought that had someone had gone over the side nobody would know where. they were Thankfully this never happened, and everyone was accounted for come the finish in the early hours of Sunday morning.
No boats ran on a Sunday, so everyone was still on the island for the prize giving on Sunday evening in the lounge of the Western Isles Hotel. The awards were presented by Nathalie Delon, a French actress who was also appearing in the film.
The choice went down well with the competitors. Much drinking went on in the various hostelries into the early hours of Monday before everyone made a dash for the ferry back to the mainland. I vaguely remember six of us in the back room of the “Mish” drinking half a pint of vodka through straws!
It was a long drive home to Lancashire, especially in a Wartburg Knight, but the memory always sticks in my head that I couldn’t wait to return to this magical Isle, October 1970 couldn’t come soon enough. Walking through the factory back at work on the Tuesday, I happened to meet Brian Molyneux in one of the corridors and was totally in shock when he thanked me for marshaling.
I was mightily impressed, but that was the mark of the man. He later wrote a book entitled “The Best Rally In The World”. Who knows where he got that title from. Get a copy if you can, but they are as rare as a sunny October week on Mull.
Thinking back over all these years since, I have been honored to have been both a marshal, a steward, an assistant scrutineer and on a few occasions a competitor on “The Best Rally in the World” with little success. But the best memories are from all the people I have met on Mull over the years and the many islanders who have become friends, also the legacy of the number of rally drivers from there who have started rallying themselves very successfully. In 1969 I doubt many folk on Mull knew what a rally was.
The most frightening from my point of view is the realization that in 1969 I was 19 years old and by the time you read this I will be 73. On that note, I would just like to wish anybody who visits the event all the very best. Just don’t be drinking vodka through a straw.
This article first appeared in the Beatson’s Building Supplies Mull Rally program.