Albania 2002

Why are we doing this?
A report on the 2002 World Cup Rally
London – Dubrovnik – Albania – Athens

We have never been rallying before but the 2001 London – Sahara – London rally sounded interesting and we thought we would try it out. First step was a weekend practice (in a Mercedes 300TD!) in Northern France and Belgium. This was entirely on tarmac and seemed pretty straightforward, no racing, just navigation and a few timed sections where the challenge was to drive at exactly 27.5 mph. I could not do that (ok I can when its speed cameras on the M11!) so Allison drove and I navigated.

The organisers then sent us the prospectus for the 2002 World Cup but were not happy that we entered our 1967 Lotus Elan S3 – we haven’t got a modern car under 1400cc so the Classics section seemed the answer and the Elan the only car we have that fits the class.

“No Lotus has ever finished any of our rallies”, “Of all the cars you could have chosen, this requires more preparation than any other”, “We only have two backup trucks, they can’t spend all their time looking after you”.

So it’s a challenge!

The target was to drive over “rough tarmac and smooth gravel” the 3000 miles to Athens (and 1500 back, just to make sure it wasn’t too easy!). Our route would take us over parts of the Acropolis rally stages in Greece, an alpine hill climb in Austria, sundry unmarked (on our maps) forest tracks in Slovenia and Croatia and then there was Albania!

To put months of preparation and discussion in one paragraph, I had to fit a sump guard, a trip meter, full harness seat belts, a roll cage, sort out the cooling system and most importantly lift the rear of the car by about 3 inches. The car had to be in top condition and we had to carry all the tools, spares and tyres that we might (or might not) need. Then there was the small matter of two adults plus maps and the odd piece of clothing for 12 days there and however many days back.

The sump guard was made from 1/4 inch aluminium by the son-in-law of one of the back-up crews and extended from the air intake at the front to behind the gearbox. The front mountings were solid but the rear one was weak and suffered on the rough stages when the guard knocked the exhaust and broke the welds on the down pipe.

The rear suspension required negotiation, Rally regulations were “Showroom standard” but they were sympathetic to the plight of our silencer (well dented when the springs fail to do the job) and we were allowed adjustable suspension. This was designed by Pat Thomas using Plus 2 springs – far stronger than the feeble Elan version now available – with a threaded section on the struts to carry the lower mounting plate. Rally HQ suggested 165*16 6ply van tyres in place of our Uniroyal 145*16, which may be good at holding the road but have zero tolerance to sharp objects and rejoice in punctures!

We have owned the car since 1974 and I reckon to have a personal acquaintance with every nut and bolt! The chassis was replaced in 1993 and the engine rebored in 1995 with an unleaded conversion in 2001. We had not modified anything, so ignition, dynamo and oil pump are all original. For the rally we replaced all wheel bearings, brake fluid, discs & pads (competition on the front) and the radiator – it still had the original one and we knew from past experience that it had an aversion to the Alps and that was without a hill climb!

Rally regs advised taking 6 tyres all of which had to be marked, if you used extra unmarked tyres there were penalties. Weight and space were at a premium so we took 5 rims and stuffed the 6th tyre with all our spares. One of the back up crews suggested a list, mainly kits, seals, plugs & points etc and bearings but add in a couple of donuts and bolts – it gets heavy!

No expedition is complete without a last minute panic and in our case it was the oil pressure. This was potentially terminal and I tried to persuade myself it was the oil pump. A few phone calls revealed that I did not want it to be that – a new style oil pump and filter system with an hour before the off and the nearest spare 200 miles away was not a good idea! “Change your oil” I was told, so I threw away a sump full of brand new Castrol GTX and filled up with Duckhams 20/50. The oil pressure was steady for the whole rally and yet we’ve used GTX for years…..don’t ask, I can’t explain.

The rally started at Blenheim Palace where each car was set on a podium for the driver to be interviewed before screeching away across the once pristine tarmac. “Why are you entering such an unsuitable car” he asked Allison. “Its my husband” she replied – not sure whether that makes the car or the husband unsuitable; but I was more concerned with smoke drifting up from the cigar lighter and getting our time card clocked by the marshal. Fortunately both smoke and marshal vanished and we were off.

They did not expect us to get to Austria; in fact the Organiser was quoted as saying we would not get through France. This may be related to an incident at Dover harbour when I was interviewed with the bonnet up, oil all over the front of the engine, no tickover and the radiator next to boiling. The oil was from the loose timing chain tensioner bolt and the tickover/cooling from a change in fuel mix. I had set the car up on Sainsbury’s best but the last tankfull had been Optimax; the next tankfull was ordinary super unleaded and both tickover and temperature were back to normal. I was surprised both by the car’s intolerance to changes in fuel (in terms of tickover) but at the same time by its tolerance to those changes (in terms of road performance).

The hill climb was straightforward but not that fast – we soon learnt that we had no idea of how to really drive that car! Next morning we did the climb again, from warm bright sunshine to sparkling fresh snow at the top. Then swooping down through Southern Austria with the Elan eating the miles and overtaking at will. Easy this – what’s the problem?

The next stage was gravel; rutted forest tracks with a loose uneven stony surface and ravines across the path. There were hairpin bends and sheer drops – mirrored our speed as the 2CV overtook us! We got maximum penalties. Prior to the checkpoint we were stopped, marshalls in the road, blue flashing lights, it was dusk and another gravel stage was ahead of us. There had been a head-on, two rally cars out and one driver in hospital with punctured lungs. We chickened out and took the main road to Riejka where the band, ready to greet the early arrivals welcomed us with swirling batons and majorettes.

Car casualties came thick and fast. Two cars fell off the stage we missed – one on top of the other and the bottom driver had a broken vertibra. Next day another crash, this time with a local, the navigator broke her neck – though the seriousness of the injury was only spotted two days later by a fellow competitor looking at the x-rays. We continued to achieve maximum penalties on the gravel stages though we never fell below 8th in our class of 16. Dubrovnik was a rest day but with strict parc ferme to reduce the time spent on rebuilding cars. The daily bulletin showed us in a good light “The car-park scene resembled a battlefield, with sumpshields being banged straight, leaking hubs attended to, and surprise, surprise, just a matter of fixing a radiator overflow bottle on the yellow Lotus Elan”

The drive through Yugoslavia took us through deserted villages still showing the signs of the conflict and abandoned fields. One competitor, a policeman who drove aid convoys, told us that we were passing through areas of uncharted minefields. The police knew we were coming and stopped the Elan because we looked as though we ought to be speeding. Their interest in us ceased when a Peugeot 205 came flying along the wrong side of the road. It was mutually agreed that a fine of Euros 150 was excessive and Euros 20 was more appropriate! One Escort driver spent 4 hours in jail after driving straight into the side of the Mayor’s 3 week old Cherokee Jeep – oops!

The Albanian roads had been described as potholes joined together with tarmac but the main hazard was the children. Some stood and waved, some tried to pat the car as it passed by and others threw things at us. Police were out at every junction so zero chance of doing a detour or getting lost. The towns had mud as the main street and everywhere was poor and rundown. The evening highlight was a time trial round the kart-track, shown live on Albanian TV. Returning to the hotel next door to the President’s Palace was fraught, Elan lights are not good, it was raining, there were no streetlights but plenty of potholes and people crossing the road wherever they felt like – I was relieved to get back with no incidents.

The sight of the Chinese steel works with plumes of red/brown smoke drifting down the valley and the mudbath which passed for the main road were pure Tolkien. The Landrovers thought we would vanish into the potholes as they saw the yellow roof tiptoe along, snaking from side to side in an attempt to find a vaguely plausible road surface. More cautious drivers followed us, reckoning if we could get through then so could they!

There was a downpour as we crossed into Greece, we were soaked, the car was soaked and we could have had a bath in the passenger’s footwell. It was dark but somehow the electrics and the wipers kept going – couldn’t see where we were going and if there had been a river beside the road we could not have told them apart!

We opted out of most of the next day. It was more rutted gravel, starting and finishing at the same hotel. We figured that we had committed enough acts of mindless violence on the car and saw no point in doing possible damage when Athens and the END were so close. Cars were still crashing out. A Ford Focus fell off the side of a bridge so the driver phoned his secretary in London to fly out with the spares, everyone (not us as our mobile didn’t do overseas) was phoning their mechanic at home to ask about this squeak or that whine. The Saab 96 replaced all 4 shock absorbers, the Lancia rebuilt his steering and suspension, the 2CV phoned a Greek club member for a steering rack, a mini had smashed his sump and seized the engine, someone rolled off the road – twice!

The road to Delphi was less severe and we did 2 of the 3 stages (the 4th was under 3 metres of water). Our day was marked by the interest the locals showed in the Elan; if there was one car they wanted (and were allowed) to sit in and be photographed beside it was the Elan. The organisers were not convinced that the middle of a stage is the time for a photo opportunity but what the hell, how often are we going to rally an Elan in Greece? That night we used our first and only spare – one spark plug!

And on to Athens. We did all four stages that day, Allison was most chuffed that she managed them all within the maximum time. They had been described as like marbles and certainly steering was shared between the driver (the first half of a turn) and the rear wheels (the second half). More than once we ended up across the road when this 50/50 rule was not followed. We motored from sunny open hillsides to smog and traffic filled Athens. We deserved the cold beer and the greeting at the finish line “You proved my boss wrong”; that car was one of the most reliable on the rally though we drove (mostly) within its and our abilities.

We were 42nd out of 64 overall and 7th of 16 in the Classic section. The organisers’ verdict? “The Lotus Elan has got here with just one door mirror having dropped off and the only breakage is a bonnet catch – truly remarkable”. We shared the award of the “True Grit” trophy for “Outstanding Achievement” as one of the cars least likely to get to the end. Sorry but the photos were in the pre-digital age – we’re working on it!

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