1976 Ulster – Autosport

It all came right for Cahal Curley in the end - even after some last-minute dramas!

This report is reproduced from Autosport Magazine 9th September 1976.
Report by Peter Newton and Photos by Colin Taylor Productions (CTP), and Les Ashe Photography (LAP).

CB and Billy fly the “Flag”

Cahal Curley’s first major win in two years – Disastrous night for the works Ford team – Vatanen destroys his second car in a week – Coleman brings the Chequered Flag’s new Stratos to a first-time finish – Fine drive from Jim McRae in Group One – Tough rally a great success.

With four stages to go, Cahal Curley knew he had the event completely under his control; his lead had widened to over two minutes and the scene was set for CB‘s first major triumph since his epic Manx victory two years previously. It had been a long time during which he had experienced repeated mechanical misfortune and had recovered from a repetitive and damaging eye injury. Now the Ulster Rally was in his grasp. The black and white 3-litre Carrera growled and crackled through the lanes as the driver came down through the gears for a humpback bridge and T-junction right, the 917 ventilated discs hauling the car down from its howling trajectory, Curley felt the gearbox, which had been a little troublesome during the previous hard night’s competition, tighten up .. the stricken car staggered and slowed as the driver fought to find some drive – any gear would do, just some drive to reach the end of the stage and Patsy Donaghy, who was waiting to service the car.

Almost at a halt now, with Cahal desperately hunting through the box, the car reluctantly pulled away again in third gear, the massive torque of the flat-six engine coming to the rescue…Patsy was there and the selectors freed off. But on the penultimate and final stages the trouble recurred to give the crew an impossibly tense last few miles through the, fortunately, blindingly fast sweeps of Portrush Royal.

Having overcome illness during the night and a morale-sapping early puncture on Friars Hill, victory (the first since the Cork 20 last year) was in sight.

After 19 hours of non-stop competition, the Belfast Telegraph Ulster Rally last weekend belonged exclusively to the locals and their Porsche Carreras who occupied the first five places – the three fastest cars among them: Carley. McCartney (“you can buy this car off me tomorrow; it’ll find its own way to second place, you don’t need any driving experience at all!”) and Brian Nelson’s Tuca Tiles car at their head. The Ford works team had long since departed the scene, and as the exhausted finishers fled to their hotel before the icy fingers of an Atlantic rain squall, one could only reflect on the ironic turn of events which had sealed the fate of all three Fords – thus rendering their reluctant appearance totally superfluous.

Russell Brookes was leading the event when forced out with Differential failure. Photo CTP

Portrush is a town to conjure with. There is about it that forlorn, faded Graham Greene aura of mothballs and afternoon tea in musty hotel smoke rooms; the guest houses are all “Sea View” and “Bella Vista”; the ghost train and the sticks of rock, the clock golf, the empty penny arcades and the boat rides…in the sheeting rain of a pinched Autumn greyness, cold grim swells battering in from out of a laden horizon, the decrepid, once grandiose skyline lies heavy on the eye. As a scenario for a rally finish it makes Bindles Ballroom at Barry seem almost nostalgic. It was from here that the Circuit started three years ago, and here that the Ulster Rally made its final haven for the night last Saturday.

To be accepted for the R.A.C. National Rally Championship in 1976, and to be rejected the following year, all without so much as a single trial, must be some kind of administration record, but in truth the Ulster Rally has its own roots very firmly in the past, for its not just the memory of the Larne Motor Club’s Texaco Rally which lingers on. The event last weekend was organised by a committee drawn from Omagh, Larne, Mid-Antrim and North Ulster Motor Clubs, and the route involved old Texaco territory and then much more; each club’s own area being extensively visited.

By the time two stages had been scrubbed, some 185 miles of stages awaited competitors. Timing, as is always to be expected on such events, was very tight and with 15-minutes maximum lateness, plus time controls before every test, there was no hanging back “for daylight” or “waiting for the rain to ease up”; cars went into stages virtually in their starting order and stayed that way unless they incurred road penalties (of which the Stratos accumulated 21 minutes at 10 seconds per minute penalty. Had these been subtracted, the car would possibly have been placed third).

The route was thus compact and gruelling – in fact the mileage represents two thirds of the Rally’s total stage distance but it was completed in rather less than one day – all on tarmac surface which is much harder on transmissions and wheel bearings than the forests. The stages themselves included a number of classics, familiar to both Circuit of Ireland regulars and past Texaco competitors. Starting at 19:00 from Antrim, the route tackled the daunting tests along the North Antrim coastline during the hours of darkness (some felt this to be a wise decision in view of the fearsome drops which the night would thankfully cloak) before heading back South in the dawn around the West coast of Lough Neagh and into Omagh where a brief 30-minute breakfast halt preceded a return North to Portrush. Besides the halt at Omagh, there was one further brief respite to be had at Ballymena, where 90-minutes could be taken from approximately 03:00.

“This car will find it’s own way to second place – no driving experience necessary” said Dessie McCartney after the event, and second place it was. Photo LAP.

The North Antrim coastline can be a daunting place. The special stages to be found on the plateau have about them that featureless nature which makes them hard to mark and remember. There are precious few landmarks on stages like Orra Lodge and Glendun. Only years of experience (or a set of notes!) up there on the wind-blown heights can assure fast times. If Glendun and Orra Lodge represent a stern test of the driver, then the infamous 11.5 miles of Torr Head must rank among the all-time great stages of the rallying world. Torr Head boasts almost every conceivable kind of tarmac conditions as the road winds, dips, climbs and descends along the tortuous cliffs of the North Ulster coastline. Here are to be found some of the most vicious jumps, the most tortuous descents and the fastest flowing moorland roads anywhere. There is never a second to relax and the mental and physical effort required to set a really quick time here is within the grasp of only a few men. Torr Head, as the old cliche goes, ‘sorts the men from the boys’ – it is a sight never to be forgotten. These three critical stages constituted over 3o miles of the competitive route. No wonder then that everyone shared the opinion that it had indeed been a very tough rally.

Organisationally, the Ulster event seemed sometimes to triumph in spite of itself. As far as competitors were concerned timing was excellent and there was only one instance of “Irish arrowing” recorded (i.e. stage arrow pointing in the opposite direction to the desired route!); although it was generally felt that there was inconsistency in the directional signs and some marshals were very inexperienced (scarcely surprising in view of the diversity of the clubs involved). there were certainly a few last-minute panics, not least of which was realised just a few minutes before the start when it was discovered that timing stipulations could be legally interpreted such as to make it conceivable that car number one could run a minute behind the last car of the field and still be only a minute late! Were this option to be taken up, the rally might still possible be in progress – happily no-one chose to take the organisers to task – there were no protests and the rally proved to be a great success in this its first year of inception, (and the last in the R.A.C. championship). What a great shame that the costs of competing in Ireland are so high for British crews.


Certainly there were few from among the RAC regulars who bothered to make the journey. There are clearly a large number who also felt serious misgivings about the wisdom of competing in an event which was to take place entirely in the north and which had a route involving near-visits to the Maze and County Armagh..Certainly Boreham shared these misgivings and there was more than a grain of truth in the fact that their appearance in Ireland for the first time in two years could be attributable to a certain resident of Inkberrow who relishes the tough style of rallying in Ireland, who badly wants to win the RAC championship. and whose enjoyment of Ireland and the Irish is very much a mutual affair. With every justification. Roger Clark was not over-enamoured with the prospect of starting at number one, so a profusion of ’00’ cars led the way through the stages with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Despite the precautions, one feels that Roger was not too disappointed to retire while leading, after three stages and three fastest times when the throttle rod broke between the split pins of the pedal box.

Ari Vatanen and Peter Bryant look at home on the first special stage but Torr Head later would see them roll the car. Photo LAP.

Vatanen was in his usual forest car. He was to be driving on compression front struts for the first time. It was to be the Finn‘s first experience of an all-tarmac event (besides an earth-blasting episode in Donegal two years ago with a standard Opel Ascona). Russell, the third and most enthusiastic team member, brought his old car, suitably refurbished, to Antrim. This RS1800 last saw action back on the Granite City (where it was victorious and it had been re-prepared with a number of experimental suspension modifications which Russell was keen to evaluate before the Manx. The car was also fitted with Lucas/Cosworth fuel injection which gave persistent trouble (due to low fuel pressure) before Russell’s retirement (also while in the lead) but which the team had virtually sorted by that time. With a big valve head and chromium liners, there may well be considerably more power for the Manx.

There were few other groups of overseas visitors, but principal among them was the Chequered Flag team who brought their immaculate ‘new’ Stratos over to Ireland for Billy Coleman to drive. A failed rear wheel bearing at Chobham (necessitating a change of uprights) on the previous Wednesday had so curtailed testing that the Lockheed four-pot-caliper braking system had only been fitted, and scarcely tried on the day before the start, whereupon it began to misbehave continuously, building up pressure in the system to the point where the pedal became rock-hard and front wheels locked solid at the slightest touch. It was a rally-long battle with the brakes and the problem still remains to be solved (a bleed valve was used as a temporary and only partially satisfactory solution) but although this and other struggles with the car severely hampered progress, the team won
through to the finish — a great achievement which bodes well for the future and says much for Billy Coleman, whose reputation could easily have suffered, and who drove with all his skill and car sympathy, as well as the team who have learnt many lessons on Stratos-building this year, and whose ‘new’ car reflected their expertise. The Stratos 2 was a credit to all associates with it and the team returned to Ireland where they were welcomed like long-lost friends.

DTV sent a solitary G1 Vauxhall for Jim McRae whose position in the RAC championship is now of critical importance. Jim was to enjoy one of the best drives of his career to trounce the opposition on their home ground (aided by the generosity of Ronnie McCartney and his service crew!) despite two overshoots and a rear puncture (the former as a result of a lack of warning arrows) on Drum Manor.

The locals were of course out in force, and the Porsches were led by the Chequered Flag 3-litre car driven by Cahal Curley/Austin Frazer. Brian Nelson’s mechanic, Ian Drysdale, removed a 2.6 litre engine from the Tuca Tiles car and replaced it with the 2.8 litre motor (returned at the last minute from Stuttgart) in three hours during Thursday night so allowing Brian Nelson plenty of time to prepare for the event which he started at number seven.

David Agnew was having his first run in the ex-Warmbold Donegal winning BMW 2002 Tii which had been shipped all the way from New Caledonia (where is New Caledonia?!) and was still resplendent in KWS colours, sitting on wheels courtesy of Joe Greenan. Pat Barrett, the ex-patriot Irishman who now lives in the Isle of Man, brought along his RS1800, while poor David Lindsay suffered the frustration of another head gasket failure to his similar car while on the way to the start. This brings Lindsay’s total number of gasket failures on recent major events to three – his previous similar mishaps being in Donegal and on the Circuit of Ireland.

David Agnew and Robert Harkness had their first run in the ex-Warmbold BMW 2002 and would take the fabulous car to 5th place overall. Photo LAP.

At the very last minute Terry Harryman, who had rushed to hospital during the afternoon when his daughter was badly cut above the eye by an errant swing, made the decision to stay at her bedside, so Dessie McCartney drew upon the services of Joe Law for the event – a ride of which many would-be co-drivers were more than a little jealous. Although it was at first feared that Terry’s daughter might have lost the sight of an eye, all was well in the end, the gash being along the line of the eyebrow only. In the gathering gloom of a chilly September evening, Roger Clark led the rally across the road from the Antrim Forum to the first ‘Mickey Mouse‘ stage (used as the final test during the Circuit of Ireland at Easter). There were seven tests before the Main Control and service halt at Larne, and these seven stages witnessed the demise of Clark, followed by a tense battle for the lead which had been commandeered by Russell Brookes and Ari Vatanen. The two Fords seemed in the inevitable process of dominating the event; as Curley, suffering a stomach upset, had been forced to drive for over five miles on a flat rear tyre (again!) in Friars Hill, losing over a minute to the leaders. Vatanen lost some 14 seconds and the lead in Craiganbuoy thanks to an overshoot.

At the windy Lough-side service lay-by, a familiar scene awaited us. The Stratos was up on the jacks, Ron Pellatt grappling gamely with the gearbox. As the feverish activity quickened its pace, the story of those first few stages began to unfold. The pressure in the braking system had been rapidly building-up, solidifying the brake pedal and jamming on the brakes intermittently, heating them until they gleamed red through the spokes of the Minilite wheels. While trying to cope with this problem, the gearbox jammed itself in third gear. An electrical fault then cut the lighting power down to a minimum and at one stage cut the motor completely.

Crippled by these misfortunes the Stratos crawled on for three stages jammed in third gear — only that fabulous torquey V6 and the intelligent driving of Coleman kept it going as it weaved between the white-washed houses, its battery of lights. a twinkle of feeble glowworms in the darkness.. it was an all too familiar sight but Billy made it to service nevertheless. “Just like old times” remarked Ron with grim humour as he battled to unravel the selectors. It was a job which cost them dear in terms of road penalties.

Billy Coleman and Peter Scott persevered through brake problems, electrical gremlins and gear selection issues to finally get the car running properly. Photo LAP.

At this point Curley was beginning to recover from his puncture misfortune and by the time the rally began to encroach upon the Antrim plateau, an area with which he is particularly familiar. Cahal had the Porsche going really well. The last few long stages before the halt at Ballymena were crucial to the event. First to go was Vatanen. His battle with Brookes was hotting up and Ari seemed to be relishing the prospect. In Sallagh he swiped the rear corner (as he is wont to do when trying very hard) – “when they service for me they always carry big supply of rear lights!” But the final bend of Torr Head was his last mistake of the night. After 11.5 miles of winding tarmac taken flat-out. a driver is bound to be very keyed up. Perhaps Ari got the car a little out of shape before that last corner. for the bend itself was a simple open square right. Perhaps he was just too sideways in his attempts to slow down for the corner, but the APG car appears to have clipped the apex and flipped over completely in the air before crashing down heavily on the co-driver’s side, then rolling on some more, destroying the bodyshell in the process.

A black night for the Ford Motor Company. But worse was to come, for two miles before the finish of Glendun the differential pinion in Russell’s car stripped its cogs and he coasted the final downhill distance to the finish. What happened next could easily occupy the remainder of this dwindling space, but suffice to say that the car was towed to the parc ferme at the Toll Bar Inn, Ballymena, where under what was optimistically hoped might be the cover of darkness, Russell and Ron Crellin stealthily pushed the stricken Andrews RS1800 into the parc ferme – still technically in the lead.

Russell immediately went off in search of Roger’s car in order to “borrow” the axle. He found the car in the Dunadry Hotel, but not its driver. He also incurred the surveillance of the hotel security staff who, thinking he was intent on theft, summoned the local constabulary. To cut a long story short, Russell returned to the Toll Bar some time later — at the wheel of Ari’s wrecked car; for the Vatanen/Bryant APG ensemble arrived at the Dunadry Hotel with the crumpled remains just in time to save Russell from the wrath of the eager constables and immediately offered their motor car to Brookes’ disposal. Time was too short, however, and a job such as this would now require two crews working on both cars simultaneously…the race was over, and the RAC Championship still hangs in the balance. Ford may have lost another motorcar, and the situation which had prompted their initial appearance in Ulster remains inscrutably unaltered. Clearly it was a night they would rather forget.

Scotsman Jim McRae enjoyed one of his best drives of his year to win the Group One category. Photo CTP.

Russell himself was philosophical as usual, mentioning that perhaps it had been as well that he had not acquired another axle, for the 13-mile tow from Glendun had not gone unnoticed by other competitors and he might well have been excluded from the results at the finish.

Glenariff, Orra Lodge. Torr Head and Glendun were the critical tests. and Curley made his move here. A light smattering of drizzle now began to make conditions starkly treacherous and Curley, being the first car on the road, took advantage of a dry Glendun to post a shattering time, 42 seconds quicker than the second fastest man, Billy Coleman. Curley knows Glendun very well, but he also had the advantage of a dry stage. It was just the luck of the draw and no other car had a clear dry run here. At Torr Head the positions were as follows:

  1. C. Curley 86.31
  2. 2=D. McCartney 86.50
  3. 2=B. Nelson 86.50
  4. A. Boyd 89.07
  5. K. Shields 91.32
  6. D. Agnew 91.42
  7. B. Coleman 91.49

Dessie McCartney said he had been having trouble with a slipping fan belt on Glendun and Orra Lodge, which owing to a lack of electrical charge, left him with very little light. This lost time might well have been critical to the outcome of the rally, but he now began to press Brian Nelson very hard, and for the remainder of the rally these two Porsches battled out a close-fought duel which was not finally resolved until after breakfast when two punctures to the Nelson Carrera all but settled the issue.

Brian Nelson and Malcolm Neil were nip and tuck with Dessie McCartney but two punctures left him trailing McCartney at the finish. Photo LAP.

It was a thrilling dice and the sight of the two cars pressed to their limits in the wet by these two fine drivers, either on the bump stops of their steering locks, impossibly sideways through the fast downhill esses of Syonfin hillclimb, edging nervously through the 100mph sweeps of Clanabogan, wreathed in fine spray and twitching about like G5 racers on their fat tyres, drifting across the roadway and shaking themselves into the next apex made an inspiring spectacle — this was real road racing; it was a sight infinitely satisfying to watch, for it was a sight which you knew you could never hope to emulate, even in your wildest dreams.

Ken Shields was closing the gap on Adrian Boyd as the latter’s tyre situation became desperate and the greasy wet surface began to seriously affect the ex-Agnew car. This battle for the “standard” Carrera class became really tense as the morning became older, and Adrian was called upon to search further into his vast array of natural talents to stave off the determined Shields who had recovered well from a lost 30 seconds on the second stage when overflowing brake fluid found its way back down the bodywork and on to the discs.

While the leading cars(and those who had the facility for choice) were debating when to go on to rain tyres, the Group One battle was reaching its own climax. After just three tests, Ronnie McCartney’s RS2000 held a slender lead over Sean Campbell and Jim McRae, but by the hours of the morning the roles had been reversed and Sean had opened a gap of around a minute on Ronnie, with Jim McRae pressurising Sean himself. Ronnie stopped on Syonfin, apparently a holed sump, and the battle between McRae and Campbell continued apace, the RS2000 smoking heavily. Sean had sustained another oil leak from the sump — a legacy from a yump on Torr Head. He thought at the time that the engine must have moved forward on its mountings and hit the crossmember. Thereafter the engine was demanding about two pints of oil per stage, despite efforts to plug the leak.

The pace of these two was such that Robin Eyre-Maunsell, who had been trying as hard as ever, was simply being left behind — the Avenger was unable to compete with the power and torque of the leading cars. He was particularly concerned that his drooping radio aerial should not be construed as a reflection upon his physical welfare but there was nothing he could manage to keep in touch with McRae and Campbell, despite a declaration at Omagh that it was going to be “Hari Kari Monday”! McRae led Campbell by 19s that grey morning at the breakfast halt. Jim had no tyres left, and no prospect of more. While he had lost nearly a minute with a rear puncture on Drum Manor, Sean had lost nearly 90 seconds in Glendun when he was forced to stop to put oil in the engine, so both had had their problems. It was McRae who won the day in the end, his speed over the final stages too much for Sean who was forced to concede a further 11 seconds. The power and torque of the Vauxhall, plus Jim’s superb drive were conclusive at the last.

Robin Eyre-Maunsell and Neil Wilson could do nothing about the pace of Campbell and McRae and would have to settle for third in Group One. Photo LAP.

The final four stages into Omagh were particularly slippery but by that time Billy Coleman was setting some really impressive times with the Stratos. Despite a throttle jammed open on Clanabogan and persistently unpredictable braking. he was driving superbly, and the Stratos was racing up the field. Billy was once again thoroughly enjoying his drive in the twitchy beast and his ability to control the car in the wet made a most impressive spectacle. Glazed pads were changed in Omagh. It was unfortunately a prelude to the return of the brakes pressurisation problems and once more the car slowed; nevertheless Billy’s times bear careful scrutiny — what, one may ask, can he manage when he and the team have sorted that car!? It seems they may well have it right shortly and both Billy and Chequered Flag seem to be very happy with a new association which may well continue.

Brian Nelson remarked that he should have gone onto wet tyres earlier. The Porsche was eating through the soft Goodyear wet compounds at the rate of a rear set every three stages – but the tests were short enough for this wear rate not to be a serious problem. However he suffered a slow puncture in Cloughfin, and with no service allowed, was forced to drive the 7.5 miles of Slieve Gallion on the deflating tyre. The seconds lost were enough. and the hard-trying Dessie slipped past them. After a long and hard night’s competition the order at Omagh in the grey washedout dawn was as follows:

  1. Cahal Curley 147.55;
  2. Brian Nelson 149.35:
  3. Dessie McCartney 150.40;
  4. Adrian Boyd 153.47;
  5. Ken Shields 154.22;
  6. David Agnew 155.35;
  7. Jim McRae 157.02;
  8. Sean Campbell 157.21;
  9. Billy Coleman 157.26 — catching up fast.

The final drama was reserved for Curley, but his two-minute cushion was more than ample. The Chequered Flag Carrera is handling about right now, and it even had the measure of the works Fords on some stages; it only remains to speculate how much faster these Porsches would be were the company to spend some of their vast competition budget on rallying instead of racing. If these Porsches benefitted from a fraction of the development which the Escort has undergone, then one can only assume the boot would be on the other foot much more often than it was last weekend.

1976 Ulster Rally RAC Round 9

  1. C. Curley/A. Frazer (Porsche) 191.24
  2. D. McCartney/J. Law (Porsche) 193.00
  3. B. Nelson/M. Neill (Porsche) 193.15
  4. A. Boyd/F. Main (Porsche) 198.54
  5. K. Shields/P. Lyster (Porsche) 199.09
  6. D. Agnew/R. Harkness (BMW 2002) 210.10
  7. B. Coleman/P. Scott (Stratos) 201.13
  8. J. McRae/C. Wilson (Magnum) 202.03
  9. S. Campbell/Y. Campbell (RS2000) 202.33
  10. R. Neely/R. Kernaghan (Mini) 202.42
  11. R. Eyre-Maunsell/N. Wilson (Avenger) 203.56

Group One

  1. J. McRae/C. Wilson (Magnum) 202.03
  2. S. Campbell/Y. Campbell (RS2000) 202.33
  3. R. Eyre-Maunsell/N. Wilson (Avenger) 203.56