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Marcus Chambers was of course in charge and he entered five MGAs in the 1956 Alpine Rally, run from the 6-13th July. Four of the cars were red and the fifth car, driven by John Gott, was white, all fitted with hardtops.
This was the first entry in an International rally for the MGA, and coincided with new technical developments. Ferodo Ltd., leaders in the manufacture of brake lining material, had introduced the VG95 lining. To keep an eye on this new product, Syd Henson of Ferodo travelled down to the south of France with the team.
Also for the first time, the cars were fitted with oil coolers. On the run down, the flexible hoses from the crankcase to the filter began to leak. This was a little surprising as the same type of coolers had been used during the Le Mans 24 Hour race the previous year. Despite a telegram to Abingdon requesting new pipes, on the advice of Alec Hounslow, the oil coolers were removed and the engines run on the new Castrol’R’ vegetable-based racing oil. This was another new product developed by Castrol for Mercedes and used by them and M.G. at Le Mans in 1955. (The problem with the oil cooler pipes was later found to be a manufacturing fault).
The event itself was over 6 Stages starting and finishing in Marseille, a distance of 2600 miles. In these early days of factory team participation in International rallies, ‘umbrella type’ service networks had not yet been developed. However, it was decided to use the new BMC transporter as a service vehicle and this was trundled down to the south of France with two service cars, where the team was based at La Ciotat. The weather was very hot is Marseille which was hosting the start and after scrutineering, the cars were all held in the customary ‘parc ferme’.
The team, entered in the 1300-1600 cc class, was made up as follows:
MGA 1500 (MJB191-John Gott/Ray Brookes (324)
MGA 1500 (MJB314)-John Milne/Douglas Johns (314)
MGA 1500(MJB167)-Bill Shepard/John Williamson (308)
MGA 1500 (MRX42)-Jack Sears/Ken Best (330)
MGA 1500 (MBL867)-Nancy Mitchell/Pat Faichney (326)
There was strong opposition from Porsche, Triumph and Sunbeam, Talbot with drivers such as Peter Harper (Sunbeam), Raymond Baxter (Sunbeam), Paddy Hopjirk (Triumph) and Maurice Gatsonides (Triumph) taking part.
Eventually 83 cars departed at 19.00 hrs in very hot sunshine from Marseille. The first stage from Marseille to Cortina wound its way to Aix-en-Provence, Gap, Briancon, across the Col de Montegenevre, a pass of just over 6000 ft, and then down to Turin and Monza in Italy.
The service crews made it to Monza test, Jack Sears was the fastest MGA lapping his car at 83.2 mph and was now lying 3rd in Class behind two Porsche Carreras. The fastest Porsche driven by Wayne achieved a time of 90 mph at Monaz. All the M.G.s were in front of the ‘works’ Sunbeam Talbots.
The next service point for Marcus and his mechanics was on the road to the Passo di Gardena. Three of the cars were still unpenalised (Nancy Mitchell, Jack Sears & Bill Shepard) but the gearbox on Nancy Mitchell’s car had a serious oil leak.
The route continued beside Lake Garda to Riva with the last section crossing over the pennes and Giovo passes.
However John Milne had suffered penalties after going off the road in the dust, only getting going again after help from Jack Sears.
More serious was the damage incurred by John Gott (Team Captain) who had also had visibility problems in the dust and hit the N/S rear wheel on a stone marker at the side of the road. This had knocked the axle back, broken the spring and bent the half-shaft. The crew had made temporary repairs, lashing the axle in place with help of a block of wood. This had resulted in 22 minutes penalty. The mechanics found a garage and soon had the spring replaced but as the axle casing was bent, there was struggle to locate the centre bolt. Unfortunately, as the mechanics strained to rectify the problem, Doug Watts let out a yell as his knee gave way; he had had a weakness in the knee after damaging it playing football in Italy during the war. The doctor who was called suggested that Doug should be taken on to Cortina where the clinic was equipped to deal with that sort of injury. At the clinic Doug had his knee put in plaster and would not be able to assist further with the servicing arrangements.
The Dolomite Cup Circuit was shorter than planned as the organisers had not been able to gain permission to close the route. The next section was from Cortina to Zagreb but Marcus decided not to send the mechanics into Yugoslavia. There were numerous punctures on the rough roads and the poor petrol caused detonation and overheating on some cars. The section back to Cortina from Zagreb sent the weary crews over the Stelvio (48 hairpins), Gavia and Pordoi passes before all the MGAs arrived back in Cortina.
Bill Shepard and John Williamson had lost marks when they checked out of the San Candido control five minutes early, which annoyed Marcus. On a brighter note, Jack Sears had clocked a time of 96.3 mph over the flying kilometre at Zagreb, with John Gott’s ‘lame’ car managing a creditable 92 mph!
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