1968 London Sydney Marathon

The 1968 London Sydney Marathon was a transcontinental rally of epic proportion. Organised by the London Daily Express and the Sydney Daily Telegraph in conjunction with the Royal Automobile Club of GB and CAMS. In reality, the marathon was organised by Tommy Sopwith and the route laid out by Jack Sears.

The marathon was limited to 100 cars and they filled the field with a mix of works, semi-works and private entries. The works  teams include:

  • 3 Austin 1800s from British Leyland plus another from BMC Australia
  • 4 Cortinas from Ford UK, 3 Taunas from Ford Germany and 3 Falcons from Ford Australia
  • 2 DS21s from Citroën
  • A lone Hillman Hunter from Rootes plus another from an RAF crew
  • 2 Dutch DAFs
  • 4 Russian Moskvitchs
  • 3 Simcas
  • A team of 3 Volvos from Australia
  • A team of 3 Holden Monaros from Australia

The most common vehicle was the Ford Cortina (21) followed by the Austin 1800 (13).

The event started from London’s Crystal Palace on November 24th, reached Bombay late on December 1st, restarted from Perth on December 14th and reached Sydney just 3 days later on December 17th.

The story of the event is so thoroughly and entertainingly covered in John Smailes’ book that there is no point in trying to cover it all here. It has become part of rallying folklore that the wily Scotsman, Andrew Cowan, brought the unlikely Hillman Hunter home in first place after the dramatic exit of the leading Citroën of Lucien Bianchi, who crashed with a member of the public on the very last section.

It is interesting to review the progress of the event among the top contenders. On the 8 day run from London to Bombay, there were effectively only two competitive sections. The first was 298 km from Sivas to Erzincan in Turkey, run at night. Using pace notes, Roger Clark was fully 8 minutes clear of anyone else. Next of the rest was Gilbert Staepelaere and Simo Lampinen (we will refer to Lampinen from here on as it appears the Finn did most of the competitive driving even though Staepelaere was listed as the first driver) in the Taunus, 2 minutes ahead of Bianchi in the Citroën. Eventual winner Cowan, was 15 minutes behind Clark.

The second competitive was shorter at 80 km in an hour, but the rock strewn track over the Lataband Pass in Afghanistan was daunting, run in the early hours before dawn. With a rest break in Kabul beforehand, some crews even went and recce’d it during the rest break! This time while Clark was quickest he was matched by Bianchi and Hopkirk with Lampinen, Cowan and Neyret (in the second Citroën) just a minute adrift.

So at Bombay the leaderboard was as follows:

  1. Clark 11
  2. Lampinen 20
  3. Bianchi 21
  4. Hopkirk 22
  5. Aaltonen 24
  6. Cowan 27
  7. Firth 29
  8. Green 30
  9. Jackson 31
  10. Hodgson 36
  11. Vaughan 37
  12. Ferguson 37
  13. Zasada 40
  14. Neyret 42
  15. Kleint 44

After the nine day voyage on the S.S. Chusan, the cars and refreshed crews arrived in Perth for the seemingly ridiculous 3 day dash across Australia.

While in theory every section was competitive, some were less so than others, and certainly some passed through major towns. The generally fast run from Youanmi to Marvel Loch was cleaned by 21 cars but the section to Lake King, later partly used in the 1979 Repco, was another matter. Towards the end of the section the track became vague and treacherous. Only three cars cleaned – Clark, Bianchi and Lampinen. Green was next on 2 and moved ahead of Firth to be equal fourth with Cowan. Hopkirk dropped a bundle (14) and fell to eighth. 

The long run across the Nullarbor was not easy in 1968 with about half unsealed and following the old alignment in South Australia, but most were on time. From Ceduna through Port Augusts and up to Quorn was all tarmac. But on the way to Port Augusta Clark’s Cortina dropped a valve and was running on 3 cylinders. The Ford team sacrificed their fourth car of Eric Jackson (lying 9th), transferring the head to Clark’s Cortina in quick time. It was the second of the works Ford Cortinas to fail – Söderström’s had died back in Turkey. Clark lost 14 minutes to be on 25, falling to third behind Lampinen (20) and Bianchi (21).

The first stage in the Flinders Ranges was through the fast country west of Hawker and half the field cleaned, including all the leaders. The next section through Moralana Gorge and Brachina Gorge was tighter and rougher, with 18 cars clean, including all the leaders except Lampinen who dropped 8 with failed shockers after trying to pass Bianchi in dust. Clark was flying and was back to first on the road although gained no great advantage by being early in each section. But with Lampinen’s troubles, the Cortina was back up to second.

The long 336 km competitive across through Parachilna and Curnamona to Mingary west of Broken Hill was no doddle. This is mostly station country, sandy in places, and lots of gates. The 1979 Repco used the second part. Nineteen cars cleaned, but Evan Green’s fine run ended while lying fifth, when a wheel bearing seized on the Austin 1800 somewhere before Curnamona. They lost 4 hours but continued to finish twentieth. Fellow countryman Barry Ferguson lost a wheel on the Monaro when lying tenth and dropped 47 minutes, but continued to finish twelfth.

The Marathon raced across the Riverina and down to Edi south of Wangaratta where the serious competition resumed. There was a lot of service activity in Wang and Lampinen in particular dropped 2 precious minutes at Edi. The leaderboard was thus:

  1. Bianchi 21
  2. Clark 25
  3. Lampinen 30
  4. Aaltonen 31
  5. Cowan 32
  6. Firth 34
  7. Hopkirk 36
  8. Vaughan 42
  9. Hodgson 43
  10. Neyret 52
  11. Kleint 55
  12. Zasada 56

The 80 km section to Brookside, south of Bright, included the treacherous Goldies Spur Road under the bottom of Mount Buffalo. No-one was expected to make the target time of one hour. But Bianchi had other ideas, making it by seconds as he slid to a halt on the tarmac at Brookside, studded tyres lighting up the night. The closest to him was Zasada, dropping 1 and climbing to 10th. Hopkirk was next on 3, climbing to equal 5th with Aaltonen who dropped 8. Clark dropped 4 to maintain second and extended his lead over Lampinen, who dropped 6, the same as Cowan who was now in fourth.

The 150 km section to Omeo included Tawonga Gap (some gravel in 1968), the tortuous gravel run across the Bogong High Plains and the twisty run down the (then) gravel Omeo Highway. Not all cars had recce’d this because it had been closed by snow only a few weeks prior to the event. It took a lot of crews by surprise who thought it should be cleanable but it was anything but and it shuffled the leaderboard. Aaltonen in particular was caught out, dropping 24 and falling to ninth. Team-mate Hopkirk was also affected  dropping 11 but held onto fifth. Clark’s diff was going but he soldered on into Omeo dropping 10 to fall 1 point behind Lampinen who had dropped only 4. Bianchi was not immune and dropped 13, but still held a 6 minute lead over Lampinen. Firth dropped 15 and fell behind team-mate Vaughan who only dropped 9. But the big winner was Zasada who matched Lampinen on 4 and climbed to 8th.

The run down the tarmac highway through Bruthen then up through Buchan to Murrindal was straightforward, except for Clark whose diff gave up near Bruthen. They scrounged a replacement from a spectator, but dropped an hour and half, finally finishing in tenth. The Melbourne University Car Club manned the control at Murrindal. A report appeared in the January edition of Unicar.

The 122 km section up the Snowy River Road cum Barry Way was run in the early hours, and no-one was expected to be on time. But in fact Zasada, Lampinen, Vaughan and Hodgson all cleaned. Bianchi dropped 2 to now be just 4 minutes clear of Lampinen. With Clark’s loss, Cowan was now comfortably in third, 8 minutes behind Lampinen and surely with no chance of victory with just one competitive section remaining. Hopkirk had dropped 5 and was now only 3 in front of Vaughan while Zasada had climbed to sixth after Firth dropped 3.

After the easy run across through Cooma, the stage was set for a tight finish on the final competitive, a 58 km run up the Badja Road from Numeralla to Hindmarsh Station (now known as Jinden). Second placed Lampinen fancied their chances of picking up the required 4 minutes on Bianchi but they crashed. It was over. They limped out dropping nearly 3 hours and finished sixteenth. Bianchi drove calmly, dropping 3 while Hopkirk did the best on 1, not enough to catch Cowan. who dropped 2 together with Zasada, Aaltonen and Clark (with the borrowed standard diff). Zasada had got within 1 point of Vaughan who had dropped 4. His team-mate, Firth should have been next, but the diff on the Falcon failed after “the fox” ignored the advice of his service crew to change it back in Wangaratta. They eventually dropped 52 and finished eighth.

So there it was, Bianchi on 39, Cowan on 50, Hopkirk 56, Vaughan 62 and Zasada 63. All that really remained was the straightforward run up the (then) mostly fast gravel road through Nerriga to the outskirts of Nowra, then the neutralised run to the finish at Warwick Farm racecourse. What happened to Bianchi was undoubtedly a travesty, but in the end, it was perhaps no-one’s fault. The young spectators in the Mini thought the cars were still some time away so they headed down to get a better viewing spot, only to be confronted by the oncoming Citroën being driven by Ogier. No-one had warned them. It was a terrible accident. Bianchi had a broken ankle, one of the occupants of the Mini a broken leg. Both cars were wrecked. Hopkirk stopped to assist but made the section on time, inheriting second place behind Cowan, who inherited an unlikely win.

See our gallery of photos from one of the Victorian stages of the 1968 London to Sydney.

Results and entry list

The following documents are essentially sourced from John Smailes’ book.

The following section-by-section results (points = minutes) are drawn from the table in the back of John Smailes’ book which shows cumulative scores. There are many instance of 1440 points, which is 24 hours, the penalty for a missed control. There are a few instance of  4320 (3 days) and 5760 (4 days) which are somewhat more difficult to explain.

Detailed Results – London to Bombay

Detailed Results – Perth to Sydney


The route of the 1968 London Sydney Marathon was not in fact specified. Rather, as is stated in Regulation 9 (a), “Competitors are free to select the route between Controls unless instructions are issued by the organisers to follow a specified route.” In fact this was only done is a handful of places, specifically the Lataban Pass in Afghanistan, and six places on the Australian route where passage controls were located. The Lataban Pass was enforced by requiring entry to the Sarabi Control from a specific direction upon pain of exclusion!

Plot of the Australian Route


Other event documents