“I got paid to see the world while they were sitting by the phone” Rallying’s Mr Versatile Brian Culcheth recalls his outings in Lotus 26R, Marina and Triumph 2.5PI. Brian Culcheth kept himself busy by rallying everything from a Lotus 26R to a Morris Marina, and he enjoyed them all. Richard Heseltine listens in. Photography Tony Baker/autopics.com.au/Brian Culcheth.
Clockwise: Culcheth today, with his fabulous model railway; in the Elan on the 1966 Lyon-Charbonnières; with his first competition car, a Sebring Sprite, at the Nürburgring during the 1963 Tulip Rally.
He is clearly not one to waft along on the fumes of his former persona. Brian Culcheth may once have been one of Britain’s top rally drivers, a man capable of extracting improbable results from the unlikeliest of cars, but that was then. His mind is now centered on completing his intricate model railway and diorama of his adopted home, Porlock. It’s huge in all directions, and has an oddly calming effect on anyone who hasn’t outgrown their fascination with steam trains. It’s only when you scan the walls that you’re reminded that your affable host isn’t just another retiree rekindling a childhood interest.
Few professional drivers who were active in the 1960s and ’70s competed in such a wide range of events as this Kentish Town-born ace. From Monte-Carlo to Trinidad and Tobago, Scotland to Papua New Guinea, he put on a show wherever his paymasters sent him. Some of the cars he campaigned were great, others r h less so, and more often than not they were BMC or British Leyland products. Culcheth was nothing if not loyal.
When I started,” he says, “the route to getting involved in motorsport was to become a member of a club. Everyone did it. You got to know people, learned the ropes.”
In 1959, he joined the Harrow Car Club future alumni including Gerry Marshall and Steve Soper: “My first event wasn’t a proper rally, more a ‘social’ than anything. I took my dad’s Austin A50 and the first car we passed was Pat Moss’ Abingdon-prepared MGA. I remember thinking I was set for the big time!”
There was, however, a slight problem: “I didn’t have a car of my own so saved up to buy one. My first was an Austin-Healey ‘Sebring’ Sprite. I drove it on a few events, starting in 1960, and also co-drove for other people. I don’t mean to sound immodest about this, but I realised I was a better driver than any of them so I should stick to what I was good at. When you’re young and ambitious, you look ahead and I desperately wanted a works drive. More than anything, I wanted to compete internationally.”
So did more experienced rivals. There were opportunities for decent navigators, though: “I didn’t enjoy being a co-driver, but I took the view that it would be better for me to be on a major rally as a navigator than not at all. It was the only way I could mix with team managers and so on. I also knew that I was never going to be able to go on long-distance rallies unless I had a job in motorsport. At that time, I was an office clerk at the Daily Mirror. I gave that up and went to work for [Speedwell co-founder] John Sprinzel, who was well connected and also divided his time between driving and navigating.
“John did the 1961 RAC Rally reading notes for Porsche driver Hans-Joachim Walter and I ran the service car for them. That was my ‘in’ and the following year I was asked if I would be Eugen Böhringer’s co-driver on the RAC Rally in a works Mercedes-Benz. Böhringer was a big star so I jumped at the offer. Unfortunately, we crashed out but it was still good experience.”
Culcheth would go on to act as wingman for the likes of Peter Moon, Ian ‘Tiny’ Lewis and Roger Clark internationally, while campaigning his Sprite and a Mini closer to home. He also raised eyebrows when he started rallying a Lotus 26R, the track-orientated Elan variant, in 1965: “By then, I was the sales manager at Ian Walker Racing in Finchley. Ian was great friends with Colin Chapman and also had a Lotus franchise. He was very supportive of my career and talked Chapman into doing a rally car, which we tweaked in the IWR workshop.”
Despite it proving blisteringly quick, reliability was an issue: “I honestly believe that the 26R could have been a winner on tarmac had Lotus taken rallying seriously. All it needed was development. It was much faster than the Porsches.”
Despite showing promise, our hero was still no closer to landing a works seat: “By the end of 1966, I was thinking of calling it a day. Then I got a call from Peter Browning. He had taken over running the BMC team and offered me an Austin 1800 for the 1967 Coupe des Alpes.
It was a full Group 6 car with no bumpers, Perspex windows and so on. It also had no power-steering so it was pretty physical to drive. We finished 11th overall and won our class ahead of the Citroëns, which really annoyed the French.”
A year later, he became a fully fledged factory driver, although the BMC (later BLMC) Competitions Department’s future was bleak: “The big names – Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and so on – didn’t have their contracts renewed for ’69. From memory, it was just Paddy Hopkirk and me. I drove everything I could get my hands on: 1800s, Minis and Triumphs.”
One of which was an intriguing curio: a four-wheel-drive 1300 saloon with a Le Mans-spec Spitfire engine: “Rallycross was the new thing. I did a few events in ’69 and found it tricky to drive because it had a reverse-pattern gearbox, but we won at Lydden Hill and Croft. I wish they had pursued the idea and tried four-wheel drive in rallying because that car’s traction was phenomenal.”
Then there was the Triumph 2.5PI, arguably the car with which Culcheth is most closely associated, not least because of his sensational run to second on the 1970 London to Mexico World Cup Rally.
“That became the core of our programme,” he says. “Everything revolved around it. After the ’69 RAC Rally, I went straight to South America for what was the start of a six-month adventure. We visited all the major dealers and factories that assembled BL cars out there, arranging recce cars, technical help, logistics and so on. I was a single man with a works contract, going to all these amazing places; life was a dream. And the World Cup was a tremendous event. It was obvious from the start that the Ford Escorts were going to be dominant, but I honestly didn’t expect to be beaten by Hannu Mikkola. At that point, he had crashed out of just about every rally he had started, but Hannu kept it together through 26 countries and all those miles.
“It was exhausting, though. There was one section from Santiago to La Paz in Bolivia that included three special stages: one of 200 miles, one of 270 miles and another of 500 miles. And then there were 1000 road miles. I had to be carried from the car at the end of it. And we didn’t nurse the car, either. Our Triumph went 16,000 miles with only one slight problem when the clutch slave cylinder failed. Peter Browning and the team did a fantastic job.
“That same year we also won the Scottish Rally in the Group 6 2.5PI, which had triple Webers, plastic windows and lightweight doors. I absolutely loved that car, and was really proud of what we accomplished with it.”
The sense of achievement would be shortlived, however, because Lord Stokes closed the Competitions Department in October 1970: “Following the World Cup, I went to Australia to do three rallies and then the call came through that he had pulled the rug from under us. It was heart-breaking because it was a brilliant team.”
Aggrieved but unbowed, Culcheth then went over to the dark side: “I phoned [Ford team principal] Stuart Turner and asked if there was a chance he could give me a drive for the RAC at the end of the year. He couldn’t, but he would loan an engine. He also knew that Roy Fiddler, who usually drove Cal Withers’ Escort Twin Cam, had been hired to drive a works BMW 2002 so there was a seat going there. I got the nod and couldn’t believe how good the Escort was. Our car wasn’t quite prepared to the standard I was used to, though.”
Despite the small matter of the dashboard falling onto his lap early on and the works engine running mostly on three cylinders, Culcheth and co-driver Johnston Syer came eighth overall and won their class. Theirs was also the leading Escort. Then came an unexpected offer: “Going into 1971, I was trying to work out what to do when I got a call from [production director] Bill Davis at Triumph. He wanted to keep the name in motorsport, albeit unofficially. I was told that he would give me some money if I could organise something. Dunlop then came on board and we got other sponsors. It ended up becoming Brian Culcheth Team Castrol.”
Culcheth then found himself armed with a Morris Marina for much of 1972-1973: “What you have to remember is that back then there were maybe 30 or 40 pro drivers, most of whom didn’t have a fulltime seat. They might have thought what I was driving was crap, but I got paid to see the world while they were sitting by the phone.”
With support from Leyland International, Culcheth campaigned Marinas across the globe: “It was all about promoting the brand. We did events in Finland, Hong Kong, Lebanon, North America, you name it. And the funny thing is, the Marina rally car in 1.3-litre form was fantastic. It weighed nothing and handled really well.”
But Culcheth in anything other than a Triumph didn’t seem right. From toe-in-thewater runs in 1972-1973, the fully homologated Dolomite Sprint came on-line for 1974. Unfortunately, it wasn’t competitive: “I still think it was a very brave car for Triumph to make, especially with the 16-valve head and so on. I had an outright win on the 1975 Hackle Rally and was also runner-up twice on the Tour of Britain, but generally it wasn’t fast enough to beat the Escorts. It also had heavy steering. Then we had the TR7s from 1976.”
And a new team manager: “When John Davenport joined, I thought it would be a positive thing. I took him on his first international event – the 1963 Tulip Rally – in my Sprite, but let’s just say that our relationship wasn’t a happy one. My contract wasn’t renewed so I joined Dealer Opel Team for ’78 and had a great year in the British Rally Championship driving the Group One Kadett GT/E. We won our class each time out.” Culcheth and DOT seemed ideally suited, with good friend John Handley running the show, but a smaller budget for ’79 and political ructions prompted him to retire at the end of the season. He was 42, had a young family and settled down to running a hardware store.
The 76 year old appears to be contentment personified, but there’s a question that nudges to be asked: does he have any regrets? “I could have been more successful if I’d had more competitive cars, but I don’t think I did badly,” he replies. “I wouldn’t swap places with the current rally stars, though. They complain about having to do stages that last only a few minutes. Heaven knows how they’d cope with having to do hundreds of miles between stages. It was a different world back then. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Aboard 2.5PI on London-Mexico. Inset: security foiled Cyprus Rally bid with Prince Michael. Culcheth’s only circuit race came at Bathurst in 1970 – he finished fourth in class. Below right: in the pre-production Sprint, on the 1972 Scottish Rally.
“THE MARINA RALLY CAR WAS FANTASTIC – IT WEIGHED NOTHING AND HANDLED REALLY WELL”
From top: rallycross at Lydden in 1969 aboard the four-wheel-drive Triumph; with the factorysupported TR7; Culcheth rated the Marina, here on 1971 RAC; winning the Scottish Rally in 1970.
“I DROVE EVERYTHING THAT I COULD GET MY HANDS ON: LANDCRABS, MINIS AND TRIUMPHS”