Colin McRae’s Rally winning Escort

The Hackle Rally winning Escort

This Ford Escort NUS 877P has been in the McRae family for over 30 years, it belonged to his uncle Hugh.

Loaned to Colin McRae to compete in the 1990 Hackle Rally with fellow Scot Robert Reid as co-driver, which they won.

Both men would go onto become world champions. Robert with Richard Burns.

We have no intention of selling the car, we just wanted to share it with you.

Colin McRae, 1968-2007

Written by Jaggy Bunnet on December 28, 2012

Full Throttle – Nothing Less …. The Early Years …. a very personal tribute …. first published in ‘Motorsport News’, September 2007 ….

Over recent weeks we’ve heard from the great and the good, now it’s my turn. I’m no jet-setting foreign correspondent flitting from one World Rally to the next, but I feel privileged just the same, because ‘I was there’ when an extraordinary talent first started to blossom.

I don’t use the word ‘hero’ lightly, but in this unique case, that one single word sums up how I regard a prodigious talent. Indeed, I was disappointed when he left the WRC behind because I felt there were more world titles to come and records to be broken.

I have witnessed Sunbeams that defy gravity, Novas that flew, and big, lumbering Ford Sierras that could have danced in Swan Lake. I have seen Subaru Legacys go ballistic, Metros sprinkled with magic dust and mental MkII Escorts. All down to just one man.

Don’t get me wrong, he was no angel. Infuriating? Yes. Stubborn? He could teach mules. Timekeeping? Hair-raising stuff, often accompanied by the screech of hot rubber on tarmac with a heat haze rising from the brake discs. Returning phone calls? Forget it. Then out of the blue the phone would ring: “John? Colin”, no remorse, no apology, it was as if he had just been speaking to you an hour before.

There was another irritation which bothered me but not him. Other journalists, some rally officials and even spectators wrote or spoke disparagingly about him, and that got me annoyed. Invariably these things were written or spoken by people who did not know him.

In the early stages of his career he found it difficult and uncomfortable having to deal with the demands of the media and with the adulation of a rapidly growing fan base. Single word responses and throw-away remarks were regarded by some as ignorant or even arrogant.

That was most certainly not the case. Colin McRae was a shy, and very modest young man. Yes, he was confident, cocky thought some, but basically a shy bloke shoved into the limelight. All he wanted to do was drive, and let his driving do the talking. Only later on in his career did he relax into the role thrust upon him and which further endeared him to a world wide following.

His talent transcended national borders and national favourites. What they got was 100% commitment, full throttle – no less. Team managers knew this, even if it did infuriate them at times. As one remarked at the time, “asking Colin to back off was like p*ss*ng into the wind!”

His first ever rally drive was in late 1985 at Kames, East Ayrshire Car Club’s self built facility just outside Muirkirk in Ayrshire. He had borrowed club member Davie Burden’s Avenger on the basis of: “If you put a gearbox in it, you can have it for Kames.” Job done.

Gordon Gracie had signed up for the passenger seat and things were going well until the 4th stage. They were actually in 4th place when the Avenger clipped a rock and tipped over. Spectators quickly pushed it back on to its wheels, and the youngster took off. He finished 14th overall.

With his first rally finish under his belt, he contested his first ‘proper’ forest rally the following month, the Galloway Hills Rally. As a mark of how serious this attempt was, he and co-driver Colin Smith entered his 1.6 Talbot Sunbeam Ti under the ‘Redundant Parent Rally Drivers Association’ banner, seeded at 76 in the 100 car entry, while the number 84 seeds, a certain Derek Ringer and Anne Cavanagh had entered their Clan Crusader under ‘Oor Wullie Cooking & Drinking Recipe Books’.

Coincidentally, up at the other end of the entry list I was actually co-driving (not the term he’d use) for Murray Grierson who later went on to become Colin’s Route Note checker on World rallies. We actually finished 2nd overall that day, Derek was 27th and a certain Barrie Lochhead finished 41st. As for Colin, he didn’t.

“The radiator burst,” he said. So why didn’t he fix it I asked. “Well, when the tree hit the radiator, it pushed it back into the fan, shoved the engine into the gearbox, which then smashed the prop shaft through the back axle!”

That meant a big repair job for Barrie and the youngster ahead of the 1986 Esso Scottish Rally Championship. Barrie was in fact the McRae’s secret weapon. Throughout Colin’s early career, Barrie was the guy that kept all four wheels turning and his skills were later appreciated by the likes of Andrew Cowan who was running the works Mitsubishi team in the World series when Colin joined Subaru.

Nicky Jack was Colin’s first regular co-driver, which was lucky for Colin. Nicky was a pretty, laid-back sort of guy who didn’t frighten easy. He also had trouble trying to rein him in. Colin’s progress was punctuated by highs and lows that year, but a 9th place finish on the Weldex Rally was pretty impressive, the Sunbeam outgunned by much more powerful machinery on the hills, which Colin made up for on the downhills.

He rounded off that season 18th overall at his first attempt in the Esso series and was 3rd in the Newcomers Championship. He was also presented with a ‘Jaggy Bunnet Flying Brick’ as the year’s hardest trier.

The Sunbeam was sold after that, but he needed a car desperately for his second attempt at the Galloway Hills Rally – because his Dad Jim said that if he did well in his first season he would co-drive for him in Galloway.

“I thought I was off the hook when he sold the Sunbeam,” said Jim, “but he bought Harry Hockly’s Group A Nova two days before the event.” It also provided Colin’s first taste of front wheel drive.

“He didn’t frighten me as much as I thought he was going to,” said Jim afterwards, “I can’t make up my mind whether it was his driving, or just that I’m getting used to it! Had it not been for punctures and fuel pump failure, we might have finished 7th – not bad for a totally unfamiliar car.”

Colin’s first event of the 1987 season was the Citroen Stages, a round of the British national series where he finished 26th, and was then invited to the Swedish Rally as part of the British Junior Rally Team effort. Jim had persuaded Ian Grindrod to co-drive (against Ian’s will!) but a road accident while recce-ing left Ian with a broken rib, although Colin escaped scot-free, so Mike Broad stepped in at the very last minute. They finished 36th overall despite emulating a snooker ball at times, ricocheting off the Swedish snowbanks.

Back on home soil, Derek ‘The Professor’ Ringer was re-installed as regular co-driver and the duo celebrated with a roll on the Skip Brown Rally, but crossed the finish line with no windows, 21st overall and 2nd in class. That was obviously good practice for the Granite City, where they rolled twice, on two separate stages, but this time didn’t finish.

The highlight of that year was probably the Manx National where the youngster scored a class win and finished 16th overall, then celebrated in style – by rolling on the last stage! Equally noteworthy was Colin’s 11th overall and class win, with no rolls, on the Hackle Rally where Barrie stood in for Derek in a Vauxhall Nova on stages renowned for their steep, power sapping climbs. According to Barrie, the descents would have provided future NASA Shuttle pilots with good experience.

In 1988 came his first major title. He won the Scottish Championship, and in 1989, he finished second overall in the British Championship in the RED Ford Sierra. The Association of Scottish Motoring Writers also recognised this new talent when they awarded him the Jim Clark Memorial Trophy for that year.

He then joined the Prodrive Rothmans Subaru team for 1990 winning the British title that year and the next, justifying David Richards’ faith. He was no longer just a successful Scottish driver, he was now public property.

But typical of the man, Colin borrowed his ‘Uncle Shooey’s’ MkII Ford Escort (with a Pinto!) in 1990 to contest the Hackle Rally and simply trounced the opposition.

It was the year of the gales and heavy rain, with rushing rain water causing landslips and turning gravel roads to rivers. And through it all danced a daring MkII with McRae at the wheel and Robert Reid on the maps.

He beat Scottish Champion Jimmy Girvan that day in a four wheel drive Toyota Celica GT4, plus six other 4WD cars. Colin won by 32 seconds on an event more suited to powerboats, let alone four wheel drive rally cars!

And the rest, as they say, is history, but it was the manner of his winning that attracted the almost cult following that grew with every public appearance.

Now concentrating on events outwith Scotland, he preferred to let his driving do the talking. His succinct and terse comments may not have found favour with journalists but they struck a chord with spectators. No PR-speak here, just pithy, celtic humour which some found difficult to comprehend.

Even at the height of his World Championship career, Colin never forgot his roots, and he often felt most at home and relaxed at Coltness Car Club social nights. There was no public adulation or clamour for autographs, just a bunch of guys watching Jim Barclay video films, having a drink and having a laugh.

So it was only natural that when Coltness Car Club took up a vacant Forestry Commission allocation to stage a round of the Scottish Championship they approached Colin for help. Big Jim Brown and myself went up to see him at his Mum and Dad’s house. We didn’t get past the kitchen.

The kitchen was the family hub, and as we sat down at the table, Margaret poured the coffee and opened the biscuit tin. We outlined our plans and our hopes and he said: “How much do you need?”

The McRae Motorsport Stages Rally was in business, and both he and the rest of the family have supported it ever since. Indeed, the first time Colin undertook Course Car duties, wife Alison, already an accomplished co-driver, was on the maps.

The annual kitchen meeting continued when Colin moved to his own house where latterly visitors had to be careful not to step on toys or small wellingtons. In fact Colin later joked that he only sponsored the event because Big Jim asked – and you don’t say ‘No’ to Big Jim.

It was Colin’s way of putting something back into the club and the sport. What is less well known is the number of younger drivers that Colin spent time with individually over the years and more recently on a formal basis with the Albar Junior Scholarship in the County Saab Scottish Championship.

He also helped in other ways. At a time when the MSA was bringing in new and tougher rules regarding the compulsory wearing of fireproof race suits, the Coltness contingent looked like extras from a Rothmans advert. They all turned out in blue and white, cigarette emblazoned racesuits with embroidered ‘Colin McRae’ name badges. As each season and rally contract came to an end, Colin would give his old suits to club members. Onlookers must have been bemused, with dozens of ‘genuine’ Colin McRaes running about!

He loved anything with an engine, even jet-skis. Indeed he and Barrie fitted a Ford Escort Cosworth engine and drivetrain into a Ford Transit van, just so he could get to the water quicker! That passion extended from quads and Rage buggies to race bikes and race cars and ultimately to helicopters.

It was a passion matched with talent. He was competitive in everything he drove from a BTCC BMW at a wet Knockhill round to a Jordan F1 car, from a Nissan pickup on the Paris-Dakar to Ferraris at Le Mans, and even a works Suzuki Moto GP bike.

Outwardly, his was an attacking, flamboyant driving style, but inside that same car, the picture was very different. Colin’s hand and foot movements were almost slow motion in comparison with the speed-blur that was happening on the other side of the glass. In fact, he reminded me of another boyhood hero, Jim Clark – another prodigious talent who was humanly faster than any mechanical device he was given.

As a helicopter pilot, he had a meticulous approach and deft touch on the controls. Shortly after he got the Squirrel, he gave Jim Brown and myself a lift up to Perth. I found it very hard that day to reconcile the image of the professional pilot with my first recollections of a hell-for-leather motor cyclist.

He was about 12 or 13 at the time and I had taken Jim and Colin and their trials bikes to an area where I used to practice. At one end of the ground was a near vertical grassy slope, which I claimed to have climbed on my bike.

The youngster looked at it, “Did you really get up that on your bike?” I winked at Jim and said, “Sure, I started it in third and changed down to 2nd half way up.”

It was the high revving buzz of a two-stroke that alerted the chatting Jim and myself to the tearaway in the background. He launched himself at the climb in third and changed down half way up, but failed to reach the top, so he calmly turned the bike around, rode back down and went at it again, full throttle in third. All the way to the top and finished off with a wheelie over the crest before plopping the front wheel down and giving me a smug look.

I said to Jim: “That kid is something special” and you know something, I was right. I also told a fib, I hadn’t ridden my own bike up that cliff face at all!

I feel very privileged. I watched a boy grow into manhood and become a hero.

Amongst the many, many memories, on a recent evening visit to the house I got no further than the garage. Willie Kirkhope’s Transit was sitting outside and I could hear them inside. When I looked in, Escort bits were strewn over the floor, the car was up on axle stands and the two of them were in old clothes. I suddenly had a flashback to the unit at the top of Lanark where Colin and Barrie were often working against the clock to get a car ready to rally and had called in Willie for an extra pair of hands. The banter was good, the coffee tasted of engine oil and the lights burned well into the night. Some things never changed.

Those memories keep flooding back, and I can’t help thinking of the four who are no longer with us. My heart goes out to them, their families and their friends

 

 

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