The 1983 World Rally Championship was as much about the savage Group B Rally cars themselves as it was Audi vs Lancia – two titans gunning for rallying’s greatest prize.
Naturally, two major manufacturers fighting at the sharp end of the field stole the headlines. The likes of Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist and Michèle Mouton battled away at the front of the field in state-of-the-art machinery.
But on Rally Sweden, a little-known Scotsman named George Donaldson was having his own titanic battle further down the order.
Unlike many of the other competitors, Donaldson didn’t exactly have the optimum machine to tackle the icy conditions for Sweden. While Mikkola and Blomqvist were behind the wheel of an Audi Quattro A1 and 80 respectively, Donaldson had to settle for a Mini. It was the only one of its kind in a field of 137 cars.
A Mini was a fine car in its day, but not one that was a match for many of its rivals by 1983. And to compound matters further, Donaldson’s car barely even met the regulations.
“It was a club Mini car, and what we did was, we welded a clubman front end on to the front of it and put effectively a Group A 1275 GT engine in it,” Donaldson explained to DirtFish’s SPIN, The Rally Pod team.
“I think we just had to change the carburetor basically. If anybody had really checked it, it probably wouldn’t have been totally homologated correctly.
Unsurprisingly, finances were a big issue for Donaldson. He was holding down three jobs to keep his rallying dream alive and could only just about afford the bare essentials for his car.
It meant that his Mini wasn’t exactly the most attractive looking car in the paddock, especially when compared to the likes of the Audis and Lancias that had spares aplenty if something got knocked out of shape.
But that didn’t matter. Donaldson didn’t care for the looks. He was in Sweden for the challenge, to see if he could make it to the end of the rally, even though he didn’t have the greatest machinery.
“We never spent any money on making [the car] look nice. We just tried to get nice brakes in it and a decent gearbox and engine in it,” he said.
“We didn’t have much money at all. But the idea of going there was just quite simply there is 400-450 miles of stage driving.”
Despite Donaldson’s Mini barely complying with regulations, he was allowed to start the rally. But only just.
“At scrutineering, the scrutineer just looked at the car, I don’t think he even opened the bonnet. He just looked at it.
“Everybody else was immaculate going into the place and in we popped and he failed us because we had a Scottish flag on the side of the wings with our names and he was kicking us out.
“He said ‘it’s got to be a Union flag’ and he failed us at scrutineering.
“Quick as a flash, one of my service team had nipped round to the garage, got a touch-up tin of red paint from the accessory shelf at the big petrol station that the scrutineering was at the back of.
“He came back and we just painted a red cross on the white and that was it.
“That became a Union Jack very quickly, that was all we did. That was all we did. And that was us passed scrutineering. It was bizarre.”
But that wasn’t the last of Donaldson’s dramas. The easy part was complete. He was allowed on the stages of Rally Sweden. But now the hard work had to begin.
Not only did he need to quickly adapt to the icy conditions, but he also had to cope with the arduous stages that were driven right through the night. It was the ultimate test and one that Donaldson didn’t surmount entirely unscathed.
“Double vision we drove through. The triple vision was really hard and we’re having to get out and bury our faces in the snow.
“Brian [Woodward, Donaldson’s co-driver] was the same. We were both absolutely shattered. And eventually, I slipped off the road, just on a long right-hander over a crest.
“I just let the car slip a little bit wide and we slipped off the road into a snowbank and it was a massive drop on the other side of it. There were a couple of trees and then a huge drop down to a river.
“We were like, ‘Christ, we’re just about down this massive drop.’”
The Mini might not have been prepared in the same vein as other cars in the field, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t capable of taking on Sweden.
As you can probably imagine, the road conditions weren’t exactly ideal, with Donaldson explaining that there were massive ruts akin to “chariot tracks”, but despite that, he still plowed on and manage to spend considerable amounts of time holding a good amount of speed.
Donaldson did eventually complete the rally, finishing 62nd overall out of 67 finishers.
His rally may not have been at the front end of the pack, fighting for an outright win, stealing all of the headlines in the papers. But did it matter?
Not for Donaldson.
“Driving on the snow wasn’t maybe just exactly the dream we thought it might be, but it still was absolutely amazing. We had an absolute ball.”