Friday, February 26, 2016

The American International Rally of 1959, where even Walter Cronkite was a driver

The 1959 rally ended in Las Vegas, but started elsewhere. Many elsewheres.

The idea was to make it like the original Monte Carlo Rally used to be - "setting off from all four corners of Europe and 'rally,' to Monaco to celebrate the end of a unique event."

 In this case the starting points were Miami, Detroit, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, and Mexico City (those last two being the "International" bit), finishing - as mentioned - in "What better place than Las Vegas for a victory celebration or a consolation vacation?" as a writer for the Triumph Sports Owners Association (TSOA) newsletter put it.

"All cars will be timed on Pacific Standard Time, regardless of starting point and cars will leave one minute apart, even though #1 may go from Vancouver and #2 from New York." The Porsche 356A in the above picture started in Los Angeles, as noted on the front fender.

The rally was sponsored by the American Rally Club and sanctioned by the United States Automobile Club and the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile. TSOA noted "The rally will be run in four legs. The first three are the 'reliability' section where the idea will be to get to the checkpoint in the allotted time with no average speed, etc. Leg number four is the 896 mile Santa Fe--Las Vegas 'regularity' run where the fine hand of the navigator is most important." It went "3200 miles of highway driving, the last leg of which will be dotted with hidden checkpoints."

A Triumph team was sponsored by Triumph with one car being driven by Walter Cronkite with Stu Blodgett navigating. Denice McCluggage also drove for the Triumph team, with Eleanor Halmi alongside in what they called the "Coupe des Dames."

Cronkite made it as far as Tennessee, where he drove into a fog, then into a lake, his car rolling over twice on its way into the water. Although he and his navigator walked out unscathed, their Triumph drowned. After losing himself and his car in the Tennessee fog and water, CBS took him out of the game. He was too valuable a property to be deriving around in a sports car crashing into lakes.

In addition to the Triumph TR3s/New York and the Porsche 356A/Los Angeles, three Corvairs/Detroit, which is kind of cool, since new 1960 Corvair had just debuted on October 2, 1959 and the Rally started October 13!

 Also competing were an Austin-Healey Sprite/Los Angeles,
-Morris Minor Traveler/Los Angeles (or San Francisco, since the owner was from Santa Barbara),       -Lancia Flaminia/San Francisco, Citroen DS/(California),
-Aston Martin DB2/4/San Francisco (the final run into Las Vegas required an average speed of 63 mph, but they got some bad low-octane gas and the detonation and over-heating had them limping into town, and then home to San Francisco where the Aston had to get an expensive engine rebuild), --a Fiat/Los Angeles (San Diego), and a
-1953 DeSoto/Mexico City (Sinaloa)!

So who won? Les Scott/Ted Sparks in a 1959 Rambler/Los Angeles. A Rambler. They were a mere 33 seconds off of perfect. They won those huge trophies and split $2,767 between them.

In the fourth car were Doug Kennedy/Alex Thompson.

Kennedy was the editor of "True" magazine, so the entire Triumph team was made up of New York media personalities (Denise was, of course, a New York sports writer, and Halmi was also based in NYC, as were Cronkite and Kennedy).

69 cars started and 60 of them made it to Las Vegas. Besides the aforementioned Saab, Corvair, and Triumph teams, other factory teams were fielded by Mercedes-Benz (drivers were Rudy Claye, Jim Simms, and Dean Mears), Rambler(!), Jaguar, Volkswagen, Austin-Healey, Citroen, and DKW.

It was a 3,200 mile course and Los Angeles-based cars took the top five spots.

The second-place T-Bird was only 42 seconds of of perfect - they HAD to have been hovering on the winner's bumper - finishing only nine seconds behind. And the third-place Fiat must have been hooked to the T-Bird's bumper, finishing only one second later.

A 1959 Corvette was used to lay out the course, although the guy running the Sprite noted that a "Volkswagen had been used to check the route during the planning stage and had made it in good shape." This thought comforted him after Maxine Royer (wife of the Rallymaster Don and one fine rallyist in her own right) opined the she admired their (the Sprite's team) "courage in tackling the event in a little car." The Sprite ran on Pirelli recaps.

Thanks Steve! Steve did all the research (as he often does, that great guy!) for the info, all I did was find the color photo of the Porsche!

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