Driving Toivonen’s first WRC winner

It's 40 years since the RAC Rally's last two-wheel-drive win, and the end of a Ford-led era. We got a go in the car that did it

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Four decades ago today, history was made. Right here. Right where I’m sitting. Or at least in the seat next to the one I’m sitting in.

On November 19, 1980, Henri Toivonen and Paul White won the Lombard RAC Rally. In doing so, Toivonen eclipsed a five-year-old record held by his fellow Finn Markku Alén in becoming the then youngest driver ever to win a round of the World Rally Championship. He was 24 years and 86 days old, some 70 days younger than Alén when he won his first in Portual, 1975.

And the seat, to be honest, is a very comfortable one for history to be made in.

Just as well. When Toivonen and White departed Great Pultney Street in Bath on Sunday November 16, they wouldn’t have any significant rest until arriving in the Lake District for an overnight halt on Monday night. By then 37 stages were done, including a short tour of the Midlands before a run up the M1 into Yorkshire, across to the Lakes, up into the Borders, down into Kielder and back over to Windemere for the overnight halt.

Twelve hours later and the Talbot Sunbeam was fired up and fired south down the M6 towards Wales with a top to-bottom dash down the principality signed off in the Forest of Dean.

Between Sunday morning and mid-afternoon Wednesday, the 2.2-liter Lotus engine sitting just in front of me would have been singing for more than eight hours and 467 competitive miles.

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Today, that same engine is sounding just as strong as ever. But today we’re only asking it to perform for 10 minutes or so.

KKV444V belongs to DirtFish owner Steve Rimmer. And is tended by Ian Gwynne’s BGMsport firm.

Back in the day, few people knew this car as well as David Lapworth. He cut his teeth in Des O’Dell’s then-Chrysler team, and is now Prodrive’s technical director.

“It was my job to run the engines in on the rally cars,” said Lapworth. “Don’t forget, back in the day, we didn’t have dynos or anything. The only way to put the miles on those cars was to get out and drive them. Trust me, there’s not many of the lanes around Warwickshire that I don’t know.

“I had to put 300 miles on each engine and it was all done in a uniform fashion with so many revs for the first number of miles, then an extra thousand revs for the next 50 miles or something like that.

“I remember running the engine in on that car for that event particularly well – because it lost a cylinder while I was doing it. I was a junior member of the team at the time and was pretty worried about what had happened. A new engine had to be prepared and Des had a decision to make: did he stick with the big-valve version of the engine (which would offer more performance with slightly more questionable reliability) which had just failed during the run-in process. To his credit, he did stick with it.”

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As with all the cars under Gwynne’s care, the Sunbeam is in beautiful condition. But keeping these cars behind locked doors isn’t want Rimmer’s about. Every now and then he wants to get them dirty.

Today is now. And then.

There’s something surreal in following the #16 entry on the 1980 Lombard RAC Rally down the road towards its next stage. Ironically, we’re not a million miles from the exact road section it would have taken from SS2 in Blenheim to SS3 in Silverstone 40 years ago.

And every aspect of the car remains identical.

Gwynne blips the throttle to encourage the last of the condensation from the twin pipes at the back of the car. We’re ready.

Pulling at the door handle which sits just above the Lombard door plates offers time travel straight back to a time when one question apparently dominated the western world.

Oddly, that question wasn’t whether anybody could break Ford’s domination of the RAC Rally (you had to go back to Stig Blomqvist’s 1971 success in a Saab 96 to find a non-Escort success). No, November 1980 was more about who might – or might not – have shot a Dallas-based chap called JR.

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Not in our world.

Ford had withdrawn officially from the world championship at the end of 1979. But David Sutton was still building and running some of the fastest RS1800s ever seen on the stages. And, arriving on the back of wins in 1978 and ’79, Hannu Mikkola was chasing an RAC hat-trick which few could see him being denied.

Jim Little was part of O’Dell’s Coventry-based factory team running a trio of Talbot Sunbeam Lotuses for Toivonen, Guy Frequelin (co-driven by current FIA president Jean Todt) and Russell Brookes.

While Toivonen had driven Escorts, his affinity was with Chrysler and Talbot. And O’Dell.

“He was just a youngster at that event,” said Little. “I was working mainly on Russell’s car, but we were all part of the same team. That rally just ran like clockwork for us.”

It wasn’t the same for everybody. Mikkola was off the road and running a distant eighth, four minutes down on early leader Anders Kulläng’s Opel Ascona 400.

It was in Yorkshire that Toivonen’s challenge really came to life. Fastest in Wykeham, Hamsterley and Stang, he continued that push through Kielder and into Cumbria with more stage wins.

Toivonen stepped out of the Sunbeam third, 1m21s down on Kulläng, at the halfway point.

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Before the run south to Wales, the crews tackled the two Grizedale stages. The shorter, more southerly of the two, went without incident. But the 16-miler that followed changed everything. Leader Kulläng dropped eight minutes with two punctures, while Björn Waldegård’s Toyota Celica GT stopped with engine problems after an oil filter worked loose.

Toivonen was leading. But Mikkola was a couple of minutes back. The expectation was that Mikkola would fly through Wales and emerge with a result to equal Timo Mäkinen’s RAC hat-trick.

“Not that time,” said Little. “Hannu held his hand up in that event and said, simply: I can’t beat the boy today.

“Henri was phenomenal. He was so relaxed about everything. He was just driving and enjoying himself. And it was a big, big deal to beat the Escorts. Don’t forget, it had been a long time since anybody had beaten an Escort on that event. But Henri did it.”

And he did it in this car.

Opening the door, the inside of this car is, by today’s standards, shocking. Protection from a side impact? Well, there’s the door and, er, that’s it. No door bars. The belts, again, the same ones Toivonen and White used, are four, not five-point harnesses. The Recaro seats are comfortable and offer some support at the side.

But there’s no feeling of being part of the car. In those days, you were still very much sitting in the car.

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And in the car, it’s very much a standard Sunbeam with heater dials and controls sitting above switches for the ignition, spotlights and fuel pumps. With a clockwise twist of the big red master switch and turn of the key, we’re up and running.

On my side, I have a pouch in the door to hold maps and roadbooks, a map light and a big fuel gauge staring at me. The top of the screen is masked by the Talbot Sunbeam sun strip, quite a necessity at times with the autumn sun sitting low in the sky. But mostly, I’m looking out of the side window.

“It’s a lovely car to drive,” said Gwynne. “Hard work, but lovely.”

Off the start, we’re immediately into a series of tighter corners, where Gwynne’s working hard at the deeply dished wheel. Out of one final square left and we’re away up a hill and onto a straight. The last corner is taken in second gear, so the shift to third is straight back, courtesy of the dog-leg first.

And now the thing is really starting to move.

“It’s a lovely engine,” added Gwynne. “There was always lots of torque with this, you never had to wait for it to come on cam, there was always plenty there and available.”

Back down the hill and the four decades tell their story. Gwynne is working hard, setting the car up on the brakes, heel-and-toeing the Sunbeam back down the ’box before the front is hooked into the apex and then it’s all about the balance, poise and power.

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“It feels skittish,” Gwynne shouted while the car was darting between corners. “I love that… I love it when the car feels nervous, you’ve really got to be positive and drive the car.”

Tires that are 30 years old and off-the-shelf Bilstein suspension probably helps with that feeling of nervousness. But at the time, this was a proper piece of kit. Little helped build this car.

“The engine was always a little bit fragile,” said Little. “Once it had done one event it was usually rebuilt. You had to be careful with it, we red-lined them at 9,250rpm. It didn’t like it, but it would do it. But it was a good engine, good bottom end.

“And a good chassis. I think that’s where it was better than the Escort, it gave better grip. Coil springs at the rear instead of leaf-spring helped and we really dialled the geometry in at the front of the car. I think it was a bit easier to drive.”

And Little would know. He drove some of the Sunbeams, but spent most of his time at the wheel of a Talbot Avenger estate chase car. Not any old Avenger, mind. His had the same Lotus engine and uprated suspension.

“We had a lot of the parts from the rally car on the chase car that made it easier if we needed to take something off the Avenger to put it on the rally car,” said Little, who remained together with Toivonen on-and-off for the next five years.

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“He could drive anything. He was a phenomenal talent. We went all over the place together. Won the [manufacturers’] championship with him and Guy [Frequelin] in 1981. That was a special year.”

Special in no small part thanks to Todt helping keep Little in his job.

“Des O’Dell sacked me three times,” he said. “I remember Jean Todt saying goodbye to me in Portugal. He said: ‘See you in Acropolis’ I told him I’d been sacked. He smiled and said: ‘See you in Acropolis’. I was in Acropolis!”

That was then. This is still 1980.

And O’Dell’s team was on an absolute high today 40 years ago. It wasn’t just Toivonen’s history-making win, it was all three cars in the top four. Frequelin third and Brookes fourth.

Mikkola made it in second place in the end, but his hopes of showing his countryman the way home through Wales were dashed.

Like Little said, this time he couldn’t beat the boy.

By way of celebration, O’Dell took delivery of a roadgoing Sunbeam Lotus which was registered RAC 134. Lapworth ran that one in as well.

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A couple more runs and we’re done with the Sunbeam. And we’re definitely back to the RAC. The mud is baking its beautiful aroma on the exhaust, the leaves are falling and there’s definitely a chill in the air.

Shut the door. Maybe one more run. The heater works a treat.

And then we really are done. As the final run came to a close, Gwynne gave the last couple of corners a real Toivonen touch while I tried to read a map (admittedly, it was a map on the phone, but it was a map nonetheless). One thing became quite apparent at that moment: it really was cosy. Try as I might, it was impossible not to get in Ian’s way as he went lock-to-lock to keep the car on the straight and narrow.

“You’re right,” said Gwynne. “These seats are comfortable and it is cosy. But for four days and two nights…”

He’s right. But, as my time with this incredible piece of history comes to a close, four days and two nights seem to be less of a problem.

Rimmer’s Sunbeam Lotus really is one of the most special cars in rallying history. And what happened in 1981 only furthers that fact.

Toivonen was back in the same car 12 months on, but this time he rolled out after being distracted by the oil light coming to life. There would be no back-to-back RAC glory.

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So what did happen in 1981? One word: quattro.

From 1981 onwards, the winners’ circle of the RAC Rally would become the sole preserve of the four-wheel drive car.

KKV444V was the last two-wheel drive car to win Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship. Another reason not to rush getting out and going back to the office.

It’s not just DirtFish paying attention to this historic car, as a lengthily worked-on plan by the Avenger Sunbeam Owners Club to show off the car this year at the NEC Classic Motor Show, along with KDU 111V, EVC 666T, RAC 134W and the employees who worked on them had looked to come to fruition this year.

Circumstances means that arrangement will now be made reality in 2021, when further celebrations are planned.

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