1976 Ulster Rally

Another win for Cahal Curley and Austin Frazer in the Chequered Flag Porsche Carrera which moved up as the Ford "domination" crumbled.

This article is reproduced from Motoring News, 9th September 1976.
Report by Paul Phelan, photos by kind permission of Les Ashe Photography.

Ford challenge fails in Ulster – Porsches dominate.

SO FAR as the hierarchy at Boreham is concerned, Russell Brookes must have a lot to answer for at the moment. Due to Russell’s decision to take the Andrews Heat for Hire Escort RS1800 to the Ulster Rally, last weekend’s round of the Motor/RAC Rally Championship, Ford felt that they had to give their contracted drivers a chance of staying in the points race, so this second Irish round of the championship suddenly had a really star-studded entry list to add to all the local top tarmac crews. However, on looking at the results, one of the first things which springs to attention is the fact that there was only one Ford in the top ten – an RS2000 in ninth place . . . .

Russell Brookes left Ulster feeling like he should have stayed at home! Photo Les Ashe.

To explain the background of the Ulster Rally would take far too long, but briefly, Northern Ireland motor sporting history has a long drawn out saga known as “The Road Closing Order”. Two such orders are made available to the Association of NI Car Clubs annually, and one of these goes to the Benson and Hedges Circuit of Ireland. For many years clubs have fought long and bloody battles for the right to the remaining order, and for 1976 a compromise was agreed whereby all the Association clubs would jointly organise the Ulster Rally. The Belfast Telegraph newspaper, already sponsors of the NI Special Stage championship, stepped in with the necessary financial support for this tarmac event.

With probably the highest class entry list ever seen in an Irish rally, the Ulster Rally promised a truly titanic battle for supremacy over its 31 stages, the two main factions being Ford and Porsche, with Lancia and BMW waiting in the wings. The first eight seeds all had one or more International victories to their credit, and topping the bill was Roger Clark, with Jim Porter in the Cossack Escort, hoping for his long-awaited return to top form. Ari Vatanen and Peter Bryant had their sister car, in Allied Polymer colours, at 5, just behind the man who started it all — Russell Brookes, with Ron Crellin in his usual Andrews Heat for Hire car.

The Chequered Flag had completed their second Lancia Stratos, built from the ex-Vic Preston machine, and “an arrangement” had been reached for Billy Coleman to drive it accompanied by Peter Scott. The Stratos was at 2, followed immediately by the same team’s 3-litre Carrera for Cahal Curley/Austin Frazer. Dessie McCartney’s 2.8 Carrera was at 6, but a last-moment move saw Joe Law replacing Terry Harryman.

Billy Coleman and Peter Scott are watched by a star-studded crowd in the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos. Photo Les Ashe

One place later came Donegal victors Brian Nelson and Malcolm Neill in the Tuca Tiles car, fitted for scrutiny with a carburettor fed 2.6 motor, but the regular injected 2.8 unit, fresh from a rebuild in Germany, was installed for the start. Twice Circuit winner Adrian Boyd had Frank Main riding shotgun in Reggie McSpadden’s Carrera at 8, whilst David Agnew and Robert Harkness had the immaculate BMW which Achim Warmbold used to win Donegal in 1975, still in the striking colour scheme of KWS Autotechnik, although entered this time by Bromac Ltd. Pat Barrett again brought his Escort RS1800 over from the Isle of Man to complete the top ten runners, with Seamus McCanny as co-driver.

The battle for Group 1 honours was expected to be every bit as fierce as for the overall win, with top Irishman Sean Campbell and his wife Yvonne at 12 in the Lindsay Cars/Northern Excavators RS2000, with additional support this time from Bluematic Heating. Defending RAC Champion Robin Eyre-Maunsell, with Neil Wilson was next in the familiar Chrysler Dealer Team (Ulster) Avenger 1800, with the Magnum of Jimmy McRae/Colin Wilson entered by SMT Rallying with DTV/Castrol.

Ronnie McCartney and Derek Smyth were right behind McRae in the Lloyds of Stafford/Woolworths Escort RS2000, and these four crews were all set to decide just who was tops on tarmac. There were 99 entries in total, mainly from Northern Ireland, with just a smattering from. across the Irish Sea and a very few indeed from the Republic.

Scrutiny formalities were held at Antrim Forum on Friday afternoon, with the start and the first stage to take place at the same venue at 1900 hours. There was last-minute news that Belfast Telegraph championship leader David Lindsay would be non-starting, as his Lindsay Cars/Northern Excavators Escort RS1800 blew a head gasket on the way to the start.

The opening stage was a short, three-quarter-mile burst around the grounds of the Forum, laid on mainly as a crowd-pleaser, and straight away Roger Clark showed that he meant business, taking two seconds from Dessie McCartney; Curley was another two in arrears, equalled by the ex-works Escort of Roy Cathcart. McRae was best of the Group Ones by just a second from Ronnie McCartney. The first “proper” stage, Kilcross, again saw Clark on top by a second from Ari Vatanen, followed by Curley, Brookes, and Adrian Boyd. However, that was as far as Clark was destined to go, as his throttle pedal came away from the pedal box after the stage and there was no way of repairing it in the time available. So after an electrifying start, it was another disappointment for Clark.

The pair everybody came to see was Roger Clark and Jim Porter in the Cossack Escort, setting fastest time on SS1 and SS2, but that’s as far as he would go. Photo Les Ashe.

Billy Coleman, trying to get used to the Flag Stratos after only half a day’s testing at Chobham, struck the first of many problems which were to dog the car’s progress when the front brakes locked on, thanks to the fluid pressure building up. This was cured at the service point but at the expense of road penalties. The early runners were through the third stage, Friar’s Hili, in the twilight, and Brookes, D. McCartney, and Vatanen were all covered by just two seconds. For Cahal Curley, there was a puncture and although memories of Donegal must have kept crowding into his mind he drove to the end of this six-miler, dropping 55 seconds to Brookes in the process.

This gave him the incentive to give of his best, for he sometimes needs a setback such as this to switch him on. However, it was the Andrews Escort again on the fourth section, one of the longest of the rally at 12 miles. Ari Vatanen and Cahal Curley were close behind, but Coleman was almost caught by Brian Nelson.

At petrol in Ballinderry, it was unofficially reckoned that the two surviving Escorts were tying for the lead, with D. McCartney, Nelson, Curley, and Boyd next. In Group 1 Jimmy McRae was showing all the Irishmen the way, 20 seconds in front of Ronnie McCartney, with Campbell and Eyre-Maunsell some way back. Ken Shields found his brakes vanishing on the long stage but a quick bleeding job restored them, although he was still feeling out of practice, not having been out since the Circuit.

Ken Shields had brake problems early on the event but once sorted, he contributed to the Porsche clean-sweep by taking 5th place overall. Photo Les Ashe.

Fred Crawford’s RS2000 overheated, and this was later found to be caused by a blown head gasket which led to retirement. The Magnum of Donegal’s Jim McDaid punctured early in the fourth stage, but he completed the section and went all the way to the petrol halt before changing it. With three stages before the first Main Control at Larne, the only cancellation of the rally came when a watch failed at Lyle’s Hill, stage 5. The timing was by a mixture of digital clocks and “old-style” watches, and it was one of the latter which packed up. Knockagh saw local man Adrian Boyd share top place with Russell Brookes, while on Craiganbuoy the jovial Worcestershireman was in a class of his own, taking 13 seconds from
Curley and D. McCartney in just 7 miles.

Torr Head and Glendun were having their effect on other runners as well, and Sean Campbell burst his sump on one of Torr’s infamous jumps, having to stop on the next stage for oil and losing over 90 seconds in the process. Noel Smith was another in bother, when a strange electrical gremlin struck his Porsche, leaving him with dipped headlights only, except under braking, when these went out and two spot lamps came on.

Placings at breakfast showed Brookes still leading, on paper at any rate, by a scant 16 seconds from the hard-charging Curley, with Nelson, D. McCartney, Boyd and Shields strung out behind. McRae again led Group 1 thanks to Campbell’s stop, and the four contenders were covered by just 65 seconds – stirring stuff indeed.

Cahal Curley and Austin Frazer lost time with a puncture and spent the evening working their way back up the order. Photo Les Ashe.

Billy Coleman, suffering from lack of alternator, front brakes which still stuck on from time to time, and various other problems was struggling manfully in a lowly sixteenth place, including road penalties, and Graham Warner was critical of the tight time schedule which forced the team to send the car away several times while they were unhappy with the
braking system.

The first stage after breakfast, Brackagh Bridge, saw Sean Campbell quickest overall in his RS2000, obviously hopping mad about his oil stop and doing his damnedest to get back in the hunt. One stage later Noel Smith was out, with two punctures and a broken damper on the same section. At about this time the rain began falling, and wet tyres became the order of the day just as dawn appeared. For Ron Neely daylight was welcome as his Tuborg Mini’s lamps weren’t adequate, and he immediately began picking up places. Dessie McCartney began picking up time on Brian Nelson but Curley, now leading, found that his wets made the car too low, and had to revert to higher-profile dry tyres to reduce bottoming over the narrow twisting stages which make up this portion of the rally.

David Agnew and Robert Harkness would be the first non-Porsche crew at 6th place overall in their ex-Warmbold BMW 2002. Photo Les Ashe.

Suddenly Coleman had the measure of the Stratos, and with everything working as it should the Corkman took best times on three successive stages into the Omagh service halt. A change of transfer gears had lowered the car’s gearing dramatically, and Billy drove it as a man possessed. At the same time, Curley lost a little time with his second puncture, but still he led fairly comfortably. Ronnie McCartney’s drive came to an end when the clutch failed on Syonfin, which was incredibly slippery, and there were many tales of coming down the hill climb section in huge slides. Robert McBurney’s 2.7 Carrera powered VW Beetle had a leaking gearbox side plate, and Robert decided to stop rather than risk further damage. By Omagh, the Nelson-McCartney duel was the battle of the rally, with just five seconds between them and nine stages to the finish.

Billy Coleman had to do three stages in a row with only third gear which made things very interesting, especially on the final hairpins of Knockagh. John Gilleece spun his RS2000 on one of these hairpins and had to reverse quite a distance before he could turn, delaying the Ballycassidy Sawmills Escort RS1600 of Ernest Kidney/Nicky Moffett. Unfortunately, Gilleece’s seat belt buckle was hanging out the door and got torn away, so he decided at the start of the next stage not to continue.

Jimmy McRae ran part of the evening with no service after the service van was involved in a road accident. He would take Group 1 honours at the finish. Photo Les Ashe.

Jimmy McRae found himself without service as the DTV Bedford van was involved in a road accident, and he had to continue unaided for some five or six stages until a friendly local Viva owner was persuaded to carry some spares. Official positions at the Larne Main Control showed a Ford 1-2, with Russell 16 seconds in front of Ari, followed by the Panzer division in the order Dessie McCartney, Brian Nelson, Cahal Curley, Adrian Boyd, and Noel Smith in his 3-litre Carrera. In Group 1, things were getting closer with McRae, Campbell and Eyre-Maunsell now covered by a mere 17 seconds as the rally headed into North Antrim. Sean Campbell had put the pressure on and was rapidly overhauling his two rivals, but strangely Robin Eyre-Maunsell wasn’t featuring, being forced to give best on the tarmac to
the bigger capacity Escorts and Magnum.

On stage 9, Sallagh, Dessie McCartney and Brookes were fastest from Vatanen, but one stage later the Finn took his first “fastest time” on Tamnabrack. On this 3.25 mile stage, Ari was a clear five seconds ahead of the pack, and then on Glenariff, Cahal Curley beat the Escorts by seven seconds. Dessie McCartney was having the first signs of his familiar misfire, and his times were suffering as a result. On the remaining three stages before the breakfast halt, McCartney found that the misfire lessened when he switched off the spot lamps, so he lost over two minutes to Curley on these three stages alone. It was then found that the fan belt was slipping, and the cause of the miss was merely that the alternator wasn’t charging fully. Curley continued his effort with the best time on Orra Lodge, well clear of Vatanen and Brookes, while on the next stage, Torr Head, Russell
Brookes really flew over the jumps to record a time 22 ahead of Brian Nelson, who belied his lack of night rallying experience by setting a fine time.

Dessie McCartney had Joe Law as a last-minute substitute for Terry Harryman. Joe was treated to a tremendous second place overall. Photo Les Ashe.

The big story of Torr Head was the spectacular retirement of Ari Vatanen. The Allied Polymer Escort rolled heavily on the final corner, Ari’s second roll within a week, and was out of the rally. Roy Cathcart’s ex-works Mk 1 Escort had its gear lever pull out of the box, and Roy’s good run in the top ten came to an end when he had a maximum.

Vatanen’s retirement left Brookes with a healthy lead of over a minute and a quarter from Curley, making it seem that his decision to come to Ulster was a wise one after all. However rallying is nothing if not unpredictable, and on the next stage, Glendun, Brookes and Crellin heard ominous noises from the diff one mile from the end of the stage. They managed to get the car off the stage, but the diff was finished. Then began a series of incidents which would be hilarious if they weren’t so serious.

The stricken Escort was towed the 13 miles to the breakfast halt, the Toll Bar Inn near Ballymena, where the car was pushed into parc ferme in the hope that the escapade hadn’t been seen. Russell then rushed off to Dunadry where the Ford team was staying, to get the diff from Roger’s car. But the hotel night porter proved most uncooperative, and when our hero said that it didn’t matter, he would just take the car, the police were sent for! This took some sorting out so Brookes left, sans Escort, sans diff, heading for Torr Head to get the diff from the remains of Vatanen’s car. However time ran out, and a disappointed Russell was left thinking that they might all have been as well off staying at home.

Cahal Curley, with 1m 40s over his pursuers, kept the pressure on and took the first five stages out of Omagh. However, a heavy landing on Slieve Gallion bent the under-shield, and may have been the cause of a gear selection problem which beset him on the final four sections. He found himself without second and fourth gears, but things all held together and he nursed the car through the final main road blast from Bushmills to Portrush to give the Chequered Flag team their second RAC series win of the year. Just to make Graham Warner’s weekend, Billy Coleman got the Stratos home in seventh place, despite a catalogue of troubles, and in fact, on stage times alone, the car would have been in a fine fourth position – a total of 3m 50s road penalty costing three places.

Brian Nelson lost his battle with Dessie McCartney by just 15 seconds. Photo Les Ashe.

Dessie McCartney and Brian Nelson continued their dogfight to the end, with the Larne driver coming out on top by just 15 seconds after 180 competitive miles, whilst Adrian Boyd held off Ken Shields by the same amount for the fourth spot. Jimmy McRae held off the challenge of the Campbells by 30 seconds, and was joint fastest on the last stage in the process, while Robin Eyre-Maunsell was another 83 seconds down. Ron Neely upheld Leyland honour by getting his 1425cc Mini home in tenth place, taking a class win, but felt that he could have been a few places higher if he had only had lights.

For Ford, the rally was an absolute disaster, with Sean Campbell’s the only Escort in the first dozen. It showed that when reliability is on their side the Irish Porsches are indeed a force to be feared, and must augur well for the always strong Ulster contingent on the Manx. As far as diplomatic relations between Millstreet and Boreham are concerned, Billy Coleman professed himself very impressed by the Stratos. He feels it has plenty of potential and would like to drive it again. Graham Warner, in his turn, liked Coleman’s approach and rated his mechanical sympathy very highly.

Paul Phelan.


  1. C.Curley/A.Frazer (Porsche Carrera) 191m 24s;
  2. D.McCartney/J.Law(Porsche Carrera) 193m 00s;
  3. B.Nelson/M.Neill (Porsche Carrera) 193m 15s;
  4. A.Boyd/F.Main (Porsche Carrera) 198m 54s;
  5. K.Shields/P.Lyster (Porsche Carrera) 199m 09s;
  6. D.Agnew/R.Harkness (BMW2002Ti) 201m 10s;
  7. W.Coleman/P.Scott (Lancia Stratos) 201m 13s;
  8. J.McRae/C.Wilson (Vauxhall Magnum) 202m 03s;
  9. S.Campbell/Mrs.Y.Campbell (Ford Escort RS2000) 202m 33s;
  10. R.Neely/R.Kernaghan (BL Mini Cooper S) 202m: 42s.

Class winners
Group 1 to 1600 cc: W.McVicker/G.Harvey (Avenger GT) 213m 10s;
Group 1 over 1600 cc: J.McRae/C.Wilson (Magnum) 202m 03s.