Would you know much about – or even have heard of – Lanark had the McRae clan not taken the world of rallying by storm?
If you aren’t a native of Scotland’s central belt, perhaps not. But as it stands, very few settlements across the world have produced as many world class rally drivers as this little town south-east of Glasgow.
The McRae family’s roll of honor is frankly ridiculous. It of course starts with Colin’s 1995 World Rally Championship title, but the family has won titles in Asia, Ireland and a combined eight back home in Britain. What this lot don’t know about winning in a rally car isn’t worth knowing.
But it could’ve been so much different. The McRaes wouldn’t have been known for their rallying exploits at all had a couple of key decisions been made differently by Jimmy McRae.
“My father, he was a local blacksmith in the village near Lanark and he was a great bike man,” he tells DirtFish.
“He loved them, he had different types of motorbikes and he was going to get a test on a Speedway bike but then his father put the clamp on that and said if he went Speedway riding he would put an axe through his road bike. So he had a competitive spirit but he never really got to use it.
“And I think I must’ve got that from him, because I was into bikes from an early age. A friend of my dad’s said if we could get his to run we could have it, so we got it to run and ended up running round about the fields in it, and finished up running it on paraffin because it was cheaper than petrol!”
A different time, but this was the mid-1950s after all. The key point however is rallying wasn’t at the center of the McRae family. It was two wheels – not four – that they were making a name for themselves in.
“I had watched the Scottish Rally a couple of times,” says McRae. “Went down to the [Scottish] Borders and watched that but never really followed the Scottish championship or anything, I was always interested in bikes. At the time I couldn’t afford a rally car so bikes were the main interest.”
After the first couple of rallies I thought s***, I’m pretty good at this!Jimmy McRae
McRae managed to find success at a regional level, but wasn’t able to compete as frequently as some of his rivals due to budget constraints.
Eventually though his bike career drew to a close as life, and responsibilities, took over: “I was a quantity surveyor for a plumbing and heating company in Glasgow and when it looked as though they were going to go bust, I bought the plumbing and heating company in Lanark. And when I did that I thought I’ll give up bikes in case I get injured.
“But when things were going alright, I was going to buy a new bike which I’d never had – I was always running with second-hand bikes. Margaret, my wife, she hated the bikes and said ‘why don’t you try rallying?’.
“There were friends of ours, Tom Clark, he did a bit of rallying and I was friendly with Alan O’Neill, and she said why don’t [I] try it. And well that was it. She didn’t want me going back on another motocross bike.”
His first event was in 1974 behind the wheel of a Lotus-engined Ford Cortina Mk1, and quickly the results started to roll in.
“It wasn’t something I set out wanting to do, it just came,” McRae reiterates. “After the first couple of rallies I thought s***, I’m pretty good at this!”
The Burmah Rally that year was a particular highlight as driving a Ford Escort Twin Cam, McRae finished eighth overall in illustrious company, despite his inexperience.
“That was among people like Andrew Cowan, Billy Coleman, it was like the British championship then,” McRae says. “In fact Ian Muir, who was the clerk of the course, at the prizegiving – I can always remember – he said ‘I think we’re going to see a lot more of this man’. And he ended up co-driving for me at one point!”
McRae’s natural talent was therefore apparent – both to him and the watching world. It didn’t take him long to begin taking rallying seriously, even selling his revered Escort in favor of a Vauxhall Magnum – something McRae believes “everybody in Scotland thought I was mad” for doing.
But it wasn’t without reason.
McRae was receiving sponsorship from a major Vauxhall dealer, SMT, which had links to the factory Dealer Team Vauxhall operation so McRae was keen to fully commit to his competition program in all aspects. He even drove his new steed on the Lindisfarne Rally and took ninth overall.
“Everybody was there testing for the RAC Rally and I went there with my own personal Vauxhall Magnum and I beat the two works GTE cars,” he remembers.
“Gerry Johnson who was taking over Dealer Team Vauxhall the following year, he was there and he came up to me and said ‘I think you and I should have a word’. A couple of years after [starting] rallying I wasn’t getting paid for it but all expenses were paid and I was driving somebody else’s car.”
McRae was a talent in demand, and it had seemingly come from nowhere. But not quite. His success on four wheels was undoubtedly aided by the skills he’d acquired on two wheels; most specifically with balance.
“On a bike it’s all balance but when you jump into a car it’s [about] balance as well, it’s just not the same that if you stop you don’t put your foot down to stop you falling off,” he explains.
“But it’s a big balance between the throttle, the brake and the steering. It’s getting the balance right, getting the timing right and on motocross bikes you’re always looking for the best line where you get the best grip and it’s basically the same when you jump into the car.”
The Vauxhall relationship was one that McRae would become synonymous with. After a couple of years in the Magnum, the iconic Chevette HS became McRae’s rallying weapon and would bring him great success, including his first overall rally win (Lindisfarne 1979) and first title: the 1980 Irish Tarmac Championship.
Change was afoot for 1981 though as McRae moved sideways from Vauxhall to Opel, tasked with driving and developing the supposed cumbersome Ascona 400.
“Tony Pond said it was the bus and truck division of the group,” recalls McRae. “The Opel Ascona 400 was more like a taxi compared with the Chevette. But I did a test with that in Ireland before I drove it and thought ‘this car’s a lot better than a lot of people think’.”
And so it would prove. McRae won his first of five British Rally Championship titles that year – despite Pond’s Chevette winning more events – and doubled up on his Irish Tarmac success from the previous year.
It was a similar story in ’82 as McRae beat team-mate Henri Toivonen and Audi’s Hannu Mikkola to the BRC crown, and was a close second in the European Rally Championship to boot.
The rallying landscape was beginning to change though, and suddenly four-wheel-drive was the answer. Despite Opel launching the Manta 400 in 1984 – a year after McRae ceded the BRC title to Audi’s Stig Blomqvist – winning titles had to be scratched from McRae’s agenda.
“It was better, it was lighter, it was more powerful – it was definitely better but by that time all we could do was try to be the best of the two-wheel-drives because the four-wheel-drives had come in and just annihilated everybody,” says McRae of the Manta.
“When Audi were coming in with four-wheel-drive quite a few people said ‘bloody Land Rover that’s never going to work’ – how wrong were they! [But] I think the Manta was the best two-wheel-drive car I had driven.”
Despite wielding a knife in a gunfight, McRae did still manage to snatch the BRC crown back in 1984 with a fantastic win on the Manx International – making use of the level conditions with rear-wheel-drive less of a handicap on asphalt.
But having watched some of his rivals eat him alive for years on the loose, McRae’s chance in one of the fire-breathing Group B monsters would eventually come in 1986 when he clambered aboard an MG Metro 6R4.
This time, the Manx would bite him hard as a broken engine would cost what would’ve been a fourth BRC title in six years from his grasp.
“On that last day we had turned the rev counter back a bit; instead of revving it at 9500 we put it back to 8500rpm and just drove sensibly,” McRae explains. “We drove up to a 90 left, everything was perfect, braked, turned around the 90 left and bang, the cambelt broke. And that was it.
“I could’ve had another British championship to my name had that cambelt not gone.
I’m a bit deaf, I need hearing aids because of that bloody Metro!Jimmy McRae
“We were taking 30% of the stress out the car, the brakes, the engine, everything, so that was a hard retirement to swallow that one. We had the championship in the bag.”
Nevertheless, McRae “was glad that I got the opportunity to drive that year” even if it was tinged with frustration in more ways than one.
“The car was just completely different from a two-wheel-drive, 280bhp Opel. You jumped into this, a lot more horsepower, you had four-wheel-drive but the thing is I’m a bit deaf, I need hearing aids because of that bloody Metro!” McRae giggles.
“The fact that they were banned at the end of the year, it was a disappointment really because we thought with the help of Austin Rover and Rothmans we were going to get a bit of a go at the world championship but it didn’t happen.”
The WRC is the one big omission from McRae’s glittering CV: “I just wish, you always wish now, but I just wish I had started a bit earlier,” he laments.
“I was 31 by the time I started and I just feel that I could’ve done pretty well in the world championship if I had got a real go at it.”
McRae did contest a handful of world championship rallies – his best results a pair of third places on the RAC Rally in 1983 and ’87. But his outings were only ever sporadic, and instead the vast majority of his rallying was done back home.
Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, as he believes the 1980s were “the best time ever” in terms of British rallying as he got to test himself against the very best rally drivers, just on slightly different turf.
“You had everybody: [Per] Eklund, Blomqvist, [Ari] Vatanen, Mikkola even Walter Röhrl came and did a few events,” he says. “The British championship was the championship then, and the people you competed against, they were world championship drivers.
“And the events: Circuit of Ireland was 500 to 600 stage miles over four days.
“The Scottish Rally started in Glasgow and went round the south and then all the way up to Inverness, Aberdeen. It was a Scottish rally, it did the whole of Scotland.”
McRae’s rallying career didn’t end when Group B did in 1987 though, despite his still lingering disappointment of not progressing into the WRC. He struck a deal to drive a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and duly took the next two BRC titles in 1987 and ’88 – which included a gratifying Scottish Rally win following six successive years of second place finishes on the spin – to boost his total to five.
But by now, McRae had something else on his mind. His son, Colin, was rapidly rising through the ranks and won the Scottish title the same year Jimmy scored his final BRC success. Alister was also on the way up; suddenly there was more to think about than just his own career.
Jimmy did what any good father does and sacrificed his own ambitions for that of his offspring. He had been handed the keys to a Toyota Celica GT-4 for the 1988 RAC Rally and there was interest from Toyota’s side to hire him for the following season. But Jimmy was keen to sort a drive for Colin, and Ford was willing to make space for both Jimmy and Colin to compete so McRae stayed where he was.
For context, Toyota would acquire the services of David Llewellin and won the next two BRC titles.
“If in ’87 we had a few events in the world championship with the Metro I’m sure I would’ve continued on a bit longer but then with Colin coming on the way he was and there was Alister, it was maybe time that I thought I should maybe concentrate on them and help them the best I could,” says Jimmy.
“That was the reason then. There was nothing for me, I would need to have worked a lot harder to try and find something so I just decided that we would take a back seat and help the boys.”
It was a decision that didn’t exactly backfire. Colin joined Prodrive and Subaru and won both the 1991 and ’92 BRC titles before progressing into the WRC, winning the ’95 title and becoming arguably one of the most famous and iconic drivers of all time.
Alister meanwhile took a similar route, winning the ’95 BRC title but never quite got the same breaks as older brother Colin. He was however a fully-fledged professional rally driver in his own right.
Imagine how different history would have looked if Jimmy had never been persuaded to go rallying.
“I’m glad I sat in a rally car,” Jimmy chuckles. “I’m glad Margaret didn’t allow me to buy another bike.”
The rallying world owes Margaret McRae a large degree of thanks.