As Des O'Dell himself asked, "Where else are we going to find an actual competing test bed, where else are we to be seen proving our products competitively?"
When the Simca 1000 Rallye turned into a successful rally car, O'Dell wanted to do the same with the Hillman Imp.
Des O’Dell was ahead of his time and is one of motorsport’s biggest improvisors. He often made the point that the adventure of motorsport was to keep the finest technology running when abused by the driver, being in the middle of the wilderness and being equipped with nothing but a hammer and a screwdriver - having to find solutions for the weirdest problems when under pressure.
After making high-tech Aston Martin engines reliable by implanting diesel-tractor oil pumps, Des O’Dell was involved with Ford’s GT40 project. But he got the sack when he was silly enough to tell Ford management: “If you want a rally winner, you need a Capri with 4x4!” – that was over 15 years before the Audi Quattro!
He realized he needed a bigger engine for the Imp, but Rootes' management balked him. So every Sunday O'Dell broke into the factory and replaced pistons and cylinder liners at the engine assembly line, and every following Monday the first 20 Imps produced had a bigger engine - while O'Dell took careful note of all the chassis numbers. Eventually O'Dell homologated a Hillman Imp for rallying of which Rootes directors never knew it existed!
Rootes made the mistake of asking O'Dell to run a touring car program. O'Dell decided that it was such a simple thing to do, he didn't need a highly paid driver: his friend and team head-mechanic, Frenchman Bernard Unett could do the job just as well - and the mechanic turned into a triple British touring car Champ!
The touring car world was turned upside down by Rootes and their improvisor rally director, who shocked the competition in the pits. When they were slowly lifting the cars by pumping the hydraulic bottle jacks, O'Dell came out with a compressor bottle and had his car sitting on 4 pneumatic stands within split seconds!
O'Dell shocked his drivers and the competition when he forbid them to pull over to urinate, he told them to use a plastic bag while driving, and save minutes instead.
One of his biggest adventures was the first London-Sydney Rally in 1968. Des and his department prepared a Hillman and sent it into the event with Andrew Cowan and Colin Malkin sharing the driving and Brian Coyle as navigator and they celebrated a mindblowing victory.
The car was so incredibly prepared, when in 1993 the event was repeated for its 25th anniversary, Des took the car out of the Coventry museum, replaced the battery and added fluids and it fired up 1st try. He entered it again with Andrew Cowan, who didn't hesitate to dump his own Mitsubishi team for two months at the prospect to be reunited with Des and Talbot.
While there was little hope on winning the event again, the only problem the car had all the way was when it overheated in Turkey for its small radiator. The solution was typical O’Dell: the windscreen washers were pointed onto the radiator and every time the car showed signs to overheat, the driver had to operate the wash-wipers and everything was fine again!
WRC Talbots were next to see his improvised preparations. The works cars featured little lights behind the radiator grill, a different colour for each driver so the team knew even from the distance and at night which car was coming.
The cars also featured a little clear plastic strip behind the windscreen for the purpose of guiding the air stream away from the drivers' faces should they roll and lose the windscreen.
It is no surprise that of the 13 works Sunbeam Lotus that Talbot Sport built, 22 years later in 2003, all 13 of them are still competing!
Because O'Dells successes of development of effective rally cars, Britain's most promising rally driver - 32-year-old Tony Pond - ignored offers from the Leyland TR7+ 8 and Fiat. Instead, Pond drove the Sunbeam works entry in ten 1979 events.
Chrysler-Rootes Competitions Manager Des O'Dell: Medium height, middle aged, greying hair, comfortably chubby and with a very disarming genial smile.
A warm greeting and firm handshake, together with the immediate offer of a cuppa indicated a man who shunned affectation, but who could administer with ruthless efficiency whenever the need arose, and who always preferred to encourage rather than cajole.
This impression was amusingly exemplified by an instruction contained in the Rally notes issued to crews on the first London to Sydney Marathon. 'Rally crews please note that on crossing the Iran border two pick-up trucks with mechanics and spares will attempt to follow you across Iran. Should these trucks overtake you during this time, your future Rally careers may be in doubt.'
The winning Hillman Hunter MKV 15G weighted 35 cwt, some 18 cwt heavier than standard and yet produced only 103 bhp on a low compression Holbay unit, the low compression being considered essential in view of poor fuel octane ratings encountered on route.
Right from the word go the Rootes Department had realised that back-axles could cause problems on such a long rough event and secret steps were taken to eliminate possible problems. A move that was to pay handsome dividends particularly in the light of Ford's demise with broken axles. [the first London-Sydney Rally in 1968]
A walk around the workshops and stores soon demonstrates the 0'Dell influence and reflects his earlier experience as youngest REME Staff Sergeant, Racing mechanic to Ron Flockhart, senior executive with Aston Martins as chief trouble-shooter and finally, before joining Rootes, as Managing Mechanic to the John Wyer Racing team, both Aston Martin and John Wyer posts giving valuable experience as senior mechanic with successful Le Mans teams.