The wild life story of a Hillman Avenger rally car

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by Ivan Ostroff |

After performing motor show duties in Paris, this 1600GT went to Scotland to go rallying with a succession of enthusiasts, including a raw but keen newcomer by the name of C. McRae Esq

1973 – A glamorous first assignment for OKV 571M

After rolling off the production line Hillman Avenger 1600GT, chassis number R48441 00169W5A, was registered on December 19 to Chrysler UK Ltd and put on display at the 1974 Paris Motor Show.

1974 – Rallied successfully by Maconochies

After the show, the car went to Chrysler UK’s competition department where Wynne Mitchell was chief engineer. ‘Maconochies was the best Scottish dealership then and our competition manager Des O’Dell wanted to support them. He got us to convert the car to Group 1 spec.’

The Avenger was then campaigned by Ian Gemmell, Maconochies’ sponsored driver in the British Rally Championship. ‘Gemmell was a great driver,’ says Mitchell. In the 1975 Circuit of Ireland he finished eighth overall, first in 1600 Group 1 class and second overall in Group 1. A brilliant result.’

Gemmell has fond memories of the Avenger. ‘It was a great car. We won the Tour of Mull and the first-ever Knockhill rallycross, and we were third in Group 1 of the British Rally Championship. And we got an award for getting the most publicity for Chrysler worldwide. That car stayed on top of its class for about five years.’

One bizarre experience with the Avenger sticks in Gemmell’s mind. ‘I was competing against Jimmy McRae in Ireland and we both broke down.

‘Eventually we got the Avenger going again but Jimmy’s Firenza was finished. So, after the rally I towed him all the way to the Belfast Vauxhall dealer, who arranged to get Jimmy’s car back to Scotland. This was during the worst of The Troubles. We had to drive through the Shankill Road with these two very brightly marked rally cars. It was terrifying.’

1976 – A rally car for £1500

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Jim Clark Rally, 1976. ‘I nearly finished the job on the next corner!’ says driver Macpherson

On April 1 the Avenger was bought by Angus Macpherson of Auchterarder, Perthshire. ‘As a young man in the Seventies I drove the service car for rally driver Arthur Jasper,’ says Macpherson. After the Mintex Rally presentation at the Grand Hotel in Scarborough in February 1976 Arthur, Jimmy McRae and I were chatting when

Ian Gemmell joined us. Ian revealed that Maconochies was switching to Ford, so he would be getting an Escort RS2000. That meant Avenger OKV 571M was going to be put up for sale.

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Course car on the Hackle Rally, 1976

‘At that time I wanted to get hold of a competitive rally car. Thanks to Ian, OKV was very well-known, still fairly modern, and I was told I could have it for £1500. I sold everything I could, then pleaded with my mother to lend me the rest of the money I needed. She agreed. So, with £1500 in my pocket I charged off to Kilmarnock. Soon OKV 571M was mine.’

Macpherson entered most of the smaller Scottish events to get experience, and his times began to improve. Ian Gemmell, who soon became a good friend, persuaded Macpherson to take advantage of the Avenger’s proven strength on tarmac by rallying it in Ireland.

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The Avenger liked its trips over the Irish Sea: Ulster Belfast Rally, ’76

‘The first Irish event that year was the Tour of Ulster. I was rubbish,’ admits Macpherson, ‘but I’d already got the bug for tarmac after servicing Arthur Jasper’s car on the Tour of Mull; I knew that OKV and me just had to do it!’

1977 – A year of great results

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OKV and Macpherson in typically all-out action on the Galloway Hills Rally, 1977

This was Macpherson’s best year with OKV. He finished fifth in the challengers’ (novice) class in the Scottish Rally, and recalls a raft of other fine results. ‘I did the Cork 20, and the Cork Rally too, where I was second in class and won the prize for Best Scottish Crew. I was 12th overall on the Isle of Mull, and won the Challengers’ Trophy there too.

‘But I got the most satisfaction from coming 19th overall and third in class on the Galway International.

‘I never rolled the Avenger – although it came close on a tarmac stage towards the end of the Jim Clark Rally at Charterhall. I was up on two wheels on two occasions but thankfully it never went over.’

The Avenger never let Macpherson down in competition, but he did have to rebuild the engine once. ‘It happened on the way back home from one of the Scottish events – luckily, Arthur Jasper was following me in his Ford Escort. Suddenly the Avenger lost all power – I seem to recall it was the piston rings. We got as far as the village of Blackford in Perthshire and stopped there for a pint to think about what we were going to do. We took two tyres and hung them off the front of Arthur’s Escort. He pushed me the last five miles home.

‘I’m proud to have owned and rallied the Avenger; I lived at a time when muppets like me could actually compete alongside their heroes. Just imagine, Roger Clark, Billy Coleman, Dessie McCartney, Brian Nelson – and me, Angus Macpherson – all on the same programme!

‘That simply doesn’t happen any more for amateurs.’

1977 – Avenger gets a series of new owners

Ken Adamson from Thornton, Fife, begged, borrowed and saved his way to the £1000 he needed to buy the Avenger on April 27, 1977. OKV had been a high-profile, highly visible car virtually all its life – until now.

It pretty much disappeared off the radar until it was passed on to Robert Bruce from Cupar, just a few miles away from Thornton, in the days leading up to Christmas 1980.

Less than a year later the Avenger was sold again – on August 10 its next owner became Alistair Hardie of Holytown, near Motherwell, Lanarkshire.

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On the way to Challengers’ Trophy success on Mull, 1977

On August 29, 1984 another resident of Holytown, David Burden – a regular participant in Scottish rallies in the Eighties – bought the ex-Works Avenger.

1985 A first ‘proper’ rally car debut for Colin McRae

It was at this time that a rather young Colin McRae was just getting started in rallying. In September 1985 he had the idea of entering the Kames Rally, run by the East Ayrshire Car Club.

The late Colin’s father Jimmy and his brother Alister recall that Colin didn’t have a car for the event, so he asked David Burden if he could borrow the Avenger. Although by that time the Avenger was more a club level car and getting on a bit, this would to be McRae’s first outing in a competition prepped rally car.

However, the Avenger’s gearbox was broken. Burden said that McRae could use the car for the Kames if he would install a gearbox for the event. McRae agreed.

With Gordon Gracie in the left seat 17-year-old McRae was doing well until he hit a boulder and the car ended up on its side. There were plenty of spectators on hand to help right the car. They finished the rally a fine 13th overall and 1st in class.

1992 New owner and a resto

On August 30 Colin’s mate Barrie Lochead of Lanark bought OKV and began a restoration. ‘I repaired the chassis rails, sills, wheelarches, inner and outer wings, and front panels. The whole front end from the bulkhead forward was repaired as well as the bottoms of the rear quarters and the back panel. The A-posts were strengthened, the whole car was seam-welded, and skid plates were fitted as appropriate.’

1996 Paint-job blues

It was the wrong white and the wrong blue, and the colours were placed incorrectly. I was so disappointed, I put the shell in a corner and left it for five years.

On October 12 Lochead sold the repaired body shell to Alan Clark of Blackwood, Lanarkshire. The new owner – who was already rallying an Avenger – set about restoring the car to its original specification.

In 1997 Clark got a friend to paint it, which didn’t work out well. ‘It was the wrong white and the wrong blue, and the colours were placed incorrectly,’ he recalls. ‘I was so disappointed, I put the shell in a corner and left it for five years.

‘Finally in 2012 I grit-blasted the shell back to bare metal, had it repainted properly, then fitted all the correct period running gear and the right period Dunlop alloys. I rebuilt and fitted a correct-spec 1600cc engine, a rare Talbot Sport close-ratio gearbox with a 2.65:1 first gear ratio and a 4.41:1 limited-slip differential.

The car was totally rewired. The final touch was a set of correct stickers from Steve Conry of the Avenger and Sunbeam Owners’ Club.’

2014 ‘Too good to use’ Avenger sold for £23k

Alan decided that OKV was simply too good to use, so he put it up for sale. Barrie Jordan has been running a rally-prepped four-door Avenger for the past three years in historic rallies – so he couldn’t resist this one.

‘Once I got hold of it I stripped it down to check it over. Happily, the jobs carried out by the previous owner had been done well.

Jordan plans to enter the car in an RAC Historic Championship round. ‘Considering some think of it as a bit of an underdog car, I think it’s better than a Gp1 Escort. And the Avenger is far cheaper. A top Escort can cost £100k; I paid £23k for the Avenger.’

Considering the McRae-led provenance, that seems like a shrewd buy.

2014 Festival of Speed

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No horses spared at the 2014 Festival of Speed

The car was invited to Goodwood last July, where it was driven by Barrie and his son Tom on the rally course. It proved totally reliable, even though it was driven hard.

‘The car was great,’ confirms Tom. ‘It handled well, and if I went into a corner too fast I’d just grab the handbrake, keep my foot in and hope it pulled itself out. It always did. It’s terrific fun to drive.’

Says Barrie, ‘Hopefully it’ll be invited back to Goodwood again next year. It creates more interest than any other car I’ve run and it’s a great piece of history.’

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Barrie Jordan enjoys using OKV as it was meant to be used

This article was first published in Classic Cars magazine in 2014.

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