Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, driving Mark Stokoes (knackered) van all the way to the Inner Hebrides, to race around in a knackered old Talbot Sunbeam for a few hours. Admittedly it was a great incentive that someone else was footing the bill (Philips Electronics), and since I'd been screaming for rally sponsorship for years I thought I'd better make the most of the opportunity when it arrived.
It all started with a short story in a local Philips newsheet, about me co-driving in this years Skoda Trophy with Charles Hutchinson (we gave up after three events 'cos the competition was a bit hot...). For some reason the Managing Director of Philips in the UK saw it (John Whybrow), and apparently he's a bit of a rally freak, so he suggested that the division I work for entered a car in the 1994 Tour of Mull - the 25th anniversary of the event.
And thats where the problems started. A 1300cc group N Skoda was going to be no fun at all, so something a little more exciting was required (i.e. twin 40s and rear wheel drive). At this point DWK 226T was acquired - a rather tired Sunbeam Ti, needing a little bit of care and attention...
The problems with the car didn't take long to surface - about 25 miles to be precise, when it stopped fairly permanently on the M1 hard shoulder while driving it home. Three days later it arrived in Whyteleafe on the very familar large yellow truck, and didn't move for another two weeks - well I was busy at work.
Next thing to sort out was the logistics of getting six people 700 miles to Mull, with two cars, van and trailer. This was a major headache in itself, the only accomodation we could find being 30 miles across the island in Calgary Bay. There was no accomodation left in Tobermory in July, and the rally wasn't until 14th October - it was going to be busy. The service crew were going to be Phil Puttock and Steve Morgan also from Philips C&P, and Durdana and Sam - me and Pauls girlfriends. A gearbox rebuild was going to be out of the question.
At this point the car preparation started in earnest, with a nice new set of Colway Intermediates (cheap remoulds), 500 watts of Super Oscars and a new Demon Tweaks exhaust system for good measure. A full set of blue Philips C&P stickers finished off the bodywork nicely (though I can't get the bloody things off now), and we even got a half page story/photo in the Croydon Advertiser - fame at last.
In fact everything was going fine until driving back from Newdigate Tyres, 4 weeks before the event, when I came across a white Cortina rolled on the main A22 south of Purley. Just pulling around the scene of the accident, with police everywhere and no tax/MOT/whatever, and there's this quiet 'pop' noise from the rear end, followed by no drive in any gear. Yes the LSD had gone in a big way, the most expensive part of the entire car. The next two weeks were an absolute nightmare, getting all sorts of parts sent from all over the country, and consequently being told they couldn't be fitted to my car. The repairs were finished about 10 days before we were due to leave, and the MOT test passed first time - a miracle. At this point the exhaust manifold decided to go (I had previously only bought the back end - a serious false economy) - this needed welding again so the car eventually arrived back in a drivable state the week of the rally - with my pockets very empty indeed. So much for the practice runs and S/V tarmac event to get used to the car...
It's hard to appreciate how far Mull really is, but 18 hours solid in the Stokoes van still seemed very excessive. It didn't help when the trailer tyre punctured and we almost died on the M40 - then ran out of diesel on the slip road to the services at 04:00 in the morning - that gauge doesn't half go down fast.
Anyway we eventually arrived on the Island, and made our way to our accomodation - it was then that we realised why it hadn't been booked earlier in the year - the driveway was bang in the middle of the main Calgary Bay/Dervaig stage - and since the event ran for most of Friday night/Sat afternoon/Sat night, we weren't going to be able to get back there to sleep!
Then we had to try and fathom out the pace notes - a kind gentleman called Roy Hunnywell had lent us his old notes from 1989, but we kept getting lost on them. My co-driver was going to be Paul Bartlett, and this was going to be his first EVER rally - never mind using pace notes, so you can imagine the trouble we had. Still the company Astra Estate proved very useful for blasting around the Island, getting used to the smooth fast single track lanes, with blind brows every 40 yards - we didn't dare use the Sunbeam in case it packed in again. And all of a sudden it was Friday evening, with big crowds on Tobermory Main Street, and John Whybrow wishing us luck for the rally. I must say it's the most nervous I have ever been before a rally - the roads were terrifying, first time out in the car, first time on pace notes, first time co-driver, first time on tarmac too.
Me and Paul actually cheered out loud when we got to the end of Glen Aros/Hill Road - the first stage, all 17 miles of it. I was amazed the car had made it that far, and it was actually going quite well apart from the rear brakes, that were binding on quite badly (the stage finish marshalls thought we were on fire there was so much smoke). The next few stages passed without much drama, though we were well off the pace - at least we were still going, there were cars littered all over the place.
Then the fog set in - and did it set in! We were near to last on the road for the first Calgary Bay stage (the most daunting part of the island, lots of cliff edges and sea views, with violent hairpins and 90's over blind brows) - with the Cibies on we couldn't see two feet in front of us. We basically drove 20 miles in first gear with the sidelights on (didn't have any foglamps), and no cars came past - we must have lost 15 mins on the cars further up the field. Then the service halt marshalls decided to give us a service halt of 1 minute (yes, 1 minute) so things started to get a little tense. The fog stayed for the rest of night, especially on the coastal sections, so we struggled round best we could. The pace notes were working out OK, though we got lost several times on them, which hardly inspired confidence in the hundreds of 'flat right over sharp crest' calls.
We were certainly glad of a few hours kip Saturday morning, though that's all it was as we had to make our way back to Tobermory before the road closed. On the way across we came across a traffic accident, with the relevant parties being in no hurry to clear the road - we ended up pushing the Sunbeam through a ditch to get past in time, things were so tight the chase car following behind us didn't actually make it - they were turned back by the police.
Saturday afternoon was great fun - for those of you who don't know the Tour of Mull is 180 stage miles on closed public roads, covering much of the Island. Its a mass of hairpins, twisty fast sections and blind brows, all single track roads with passing places - absolutely ideal for blasting around in a RWD rally car. We made up a bit of time in the daylight, the disadvantage of driving 'blind' being not so great. Unfortunately a big spin cost us some time just North of Torloisk junction, we were lucky not to end up in a field - this was on the corner with the most spectators on the whole rally, very embarassing.
Then came Saturday night, and by this time the brakes were really starting to suffer. With all the sharp corners and sudden hairpins, one thing you need on Mull is good brakes - I was having to pump the pedal on the straights to stop for the corners, which is not good - and by the start of the 27mile Calgary Bay stage, the brakes had almost gone completely. In then end we were lucky to finish, the last stage from Dervaig to Tobermory was done at half speed with the rear brakes jammed on solid - but we were there!
Driving back to Calgary after handing our time cards in, Paul noticed something strange with the steering. Further investigation show the nut holding the steering wheel on was on the last circle of thread and about to drop off, and all the screws holding the wheel to the boss were less than finger tight. All told there was about 2-3" of play, and it was going to drop off any second - well you don't notice these things in the heat of a rally...
So we finished the event first time out - 80th overall out of 103 finishers, with lots of memories to take home. There is no event like Mull - everyone is so friendly and the atmosphere is superb, none of the 'uneasy' competitiveness you sometimes get on BTRDA/National events. Facts have to be faced though, its a tough event to get through. You really need a week recceing to get your own notes, and another week to 'practice' on the roads if you're going to be anything like competitive. And like I said at the start, it's a long way from Croydon to Tobermory.