My Word: The Lotus-Etc I Left Behind

May 22, 2014 Comments (2)

By Denise McCluggage

There were two of them on a recent cover of the British magazine Octane. I smiled. Two mid-‘60s two-door sedans, simple and appealing, with narrow racing green stripes leaking from the side of the headlights to fill a little channel in their swelling sweep—door-handle high—aft to the taillights. Surely you’ve seen pictures. Imagine a wheel in the air, maybe two, with Jimmy Clark placidly sweeping his way to a saloon car championship (to go with his Formula 1 pair).

Jim Clark

Three names involved—Ford, Lotus, Cortina—used variously in differing order. My smile was in memory of these toothpaste-fresh cars and the fact that I walked off and left one in Yugoslavia. That was in 1963. It’s still in Titograd as far as I know except that Titograd is gone. They call it Podgorica now. As they had for centuries before.

I was one of few American drivers who got involved in rallies at the works-team level in the 1960s. Mixing rallies and races was common in Europe but American rallies were then, as the saying went, run by watchmakers and mathematicians. Racing folk were not drawn to them. European rallies were races with check points. I was to drive a number of them for BMC, Rover, Ford America, Ford of England and a few privateers.

In 1963 I was asked to share a Ford Cortina in the incredible Liege-Sofia-Liege with Anne Hall, one of England’s great rally drivers. The event really started at Spa, the race course, near Liege, aimed generally eastward over various routes including some famous rally sections and thence into the Balkans and on to Bulgaria’s capital—Sofia. There we had our first official rest stop.

En route we slept while the other driver was at the wheel or grabbed clumps of minutes if we managed to be early at a check point. But in Sofia we were each provided a hotel room in a grand but weary old hotel for a lie-down sleep of one full hour. You think Edison was a proponent of sleep-deprivation, try rallies. Then it was back toward the west, out of Iron Curtain countries, headed “home” to Belgium. Or so ran the plan.

The Cortina Lotus, Ford Cortina or even ‘Tina—call it what you will—arose out of cooperation between Colin Chapman of Lotus and Walter Hayes, a British journalist brought into the Ford public relations department to perk things up. He did. Delightful guy. The car with its assorted quirks—Chapman was involved after all—proved to be a newsworthy project and the various manifestations of the car made their mark on race courses and rally routes wherever they appeared. One of those chance happenings in car development that enliven the sidebars to history.

The rally had once been the Liege-Rome-Liege but the increasing traffic in Europe on roads straining to meet post-war demands was making it clear that open-road rallies were in for some restrictions. The destination was switched from Rome to Sofia to use the less-trafficked Eastern Europe.

Switzerland had already banned many such events from crossing its borders or imposed strictly enforced limitations. The organizers of the Liege-Sofia-Liege had placated the Swiss authorities by showing them the rules and route book which specified truly moderate average speeds in the high 20s at most. Ah, but there was a hidden catch, as we drivers were to discover. Maybe 20-something mph was the average called for on a certain leg, but not so obvious was another rule: the specification of a time range for each car in which each check point would be considered “open” for that car. As progress was made eastward those time ranges constricted like a boa until there was one “open” moment to check in. And that demanded the fastest motoring you were capable of. It was “whew” time in spades. Sorry Switzerland. (They must have caught on. The rally lasted just one more year.)

Anne and I had a great time pushing the Cortina to its max and getting a willing response. We made all the check-points in time, the car’s sides heaving appropriately as were our own. We pulled into Sofia for our lie-down rest still error-free. Maybe ten others were similarly clean.

Back across Yugoslavia. It is said when God made the universe He dumped all the leftover rocks in the mountains there. I’m sure of it. We laced our way up and over in long slightly tilted traverses with hairpins at the end. Children were at roadside selling fist-clumped flowers and waving. Many minutes later was another bunch of grinning kids. It took three such clusters before we realized they were the same damn kids! They climbed up the steep, rocky but short way and easily beat us to the next level.

Titograd, capital of Montenegro, was a major service spot for us. The station wagons loaded with parts, tires, oil and whatever else a rally car or crew might need took shorter routes when they existed or started earlier and drove like the clappers. Whatever, they were always parked and ready for us near the check point. We had a latish starting time out of Titograd and watched the service guys pack up and sweep off northward toward Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast. We would catch up with them beyond that. Ha!

Why our start time was so late I don’t know but we began our climb out of Montenegro following the crowd and feeling great. “Anne,” I said, “We’re going to win this.” She was horrified. As though I had uttered a forbidden name in a sacred place. “Don’t say that! You’ll jinx us!” Maybe I had gone through childhood carefully avoiding putting a foot on a sidewalk crack thus protecting my mother’s back from a break, but superstitions did not plague me. I shrugged and shut up.

Was it five or fifteen minutes later that the engine quit? Not a rarity among early Cortinas particularly, but a brutal shock to this rally team. Anne, to her credit, never even cast an accusing look in my direction. I flagged down a motorcyclist heading back toward Titograd and hopped on behind in the buddy seat. Maybe a Ford service vehicle was taking a late start. I’d look. Or I’d send a tow truck for Anne and the Cortina.

Nothing is so ended as a motor competition when the car dies. It’s as if it never existed. Zap. Total erasure. Passing-through becomes stuck here. And were we ever stuck. Nothing related to Ford was left. Nothing connected to the rally was in evidence.

Yugoslavia had several religions, a handful of languages and two quite different alphabets but somehow through all this I got someone to fetch Anne and the car. I also found a place to stay the night (plus plus plus as it turned out) and started looking for a way to get out of there.

Yugoslavia had strict rules as one might expect for a Communist country, particularly for one which wasn’t trusted any more by the Soviet Union than it was by the western nations. Tito was sui generis and I admired him for that. We were allowed to come in but we were expected to get out. And we signed promises to take everything—cars, jewelry, art, fur coats—we brought in with us out with us. Everything except money. We had to leave any unspent Yugoslav currency behind.

So how do you get a disabled Cortina, struck into immobility while as far from a permissible border as possible out to the world known as free?

Hire a tow car? Put it on a boat? Order a new engine? All costly and beyond our pay level to authorize. Remember, too, the world was technologically deprived in the early ‘60s. No computers or internet. No cell phones. Even land lines were sparse, particularly where we were. The fact that we didn’t show up for the next check point was the first indication that we had met with something untoward.

I don’t remember how we communicated with the folks on their way back to Belgium. Maybe Anne did that some way. Some moments are very clear from those Stranded in Titograd days. More have eddied away outside of memory.

I recall we had only the clothes on our backs so mine were dunked in a sudsy bathroom basin nightly. Fast-drying nylon was with us and my bright blue pants, styled in the then fashionable manner of ski pants complete with elastic stirrup that hooked under one’s heel, were of that fabric. Rinsed and dripping, I hung them in my open window to hasten drying until one morning I found them whipping in the wind about to take flight at tree top height. I hated to think what the crisis of being pant-less as well as car-less would be like so I took to completing the drying cycle with body warmth.

And, happily, we did have some great good luck as well: two Brits had suffered the same fate de la route we had. Their car, a Reliant Sabre 6, had also been towed lifeless into Titograd but they did not seem as concerned as I did that our names had been scrawled on a piece of paper with a wax seal that we had come with a car and would take one with us. Their Reliant was already in someone’s home garage as he rubbed his hands in glee.

The driver of the Reliant was no less than Raymond Baxter, former RAF pilot who now had one of the best and best known voices on the BBC. I had met him several times before and liked him a lot. His co-driver was Douglass Wilson-Spratt. Can one get more British? They were delightful companions and Titograd became almost a resort. We watched the nightly courting scene around the plaza as the young men strolled in one direction and the young women in the other in that universal manner of ignoring with rapt attention. It was good theater if rather plotless.

I don’t know why the task fell to me but on the first morning I went to see a state official about the car and how we could repatriate it. I had little experience conferring with officials of Communist states in their lair. What to expect? Most certainly not what I got. Immediately as I entered the office a thought simply presented itself as the most sensible thing to do: I should stay in Titograd with the car until Ford figured out some plan. And maybe with luck they never would. This guy who stood, smiled and gestured me to a chair was the singularly most attractive man I had ever seen. I did a quick check to make sure my mouth was not hanging open, smiled, nodded and sat.

I’m not sure what language carried our ensuing conversation. Maybe the Cyrillic alphabet was involved. But I got a quick impression this lovely man was less interested in what happened to the car than I was. Or rather than I had been. We did discuss the wounded car and the important signed papers but the sub-text was airier, more important and more fun. It was charming. But it ended.

I did leave with a decision about the car which could be summed up with so what? The Brits weren’t concerned about their Reliant, and as I later discovered lots of rally cars were left behind in strange garages in distant countries. And given the cost of recovery, why not?

I can’t say for sure how the now-four-of-us stranded rally drivers left Titograd except for a brief scene in the Zagreb airport involving not enough seats. Worked itself out I suspect because we were soon in London. I was more drifting in my recently richened fantasy life than paying attention.

Cortina

No one said much about the lost Cortina. Eugen Bohringer, a Stuttgart innkeeper who really knew what roads were for and how to direct a Pagoda Mercedes 230 SL over them, won the rally. Indeed, he did it twice.

The next January—1964—Anne and I kept a Ford Falcon running (and I never uttered the word “win”) and won the Ladies Cup in the Monte Carlo. We left the Falcon in Monte Carlo but with the Ford America people.

Speaking of fantasies, which I was somewhere, I like to imagine that the darling Communist in Titograd and the Ford-Lotus-Cortina we left there somehow found each other.

Well, it’s something.

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Comments (2)

  1. Joseph Thaler:
    May 23, 2014 at 08:47 AM

    Denise, you are a universal treasure. Your talent for painting with words gets better with age. Long may you write.


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