Only 6 months after its release the Ford Escort Twin-Cam managed to prove its worth on the rally tracks of the world. Notching up wins on the Tulip Circuit of Ireland and Austrian Alpine Rallies, these victories were the sign of the greatness to come.
But the real proof of the Escorts ability to manage a rally event would come in the Greek Acropolis Rally. The route for the 1968
Acropolis followed much the same pattern as in previous years. From the Athens start at lunch time on Thursday, the cars headed west and then south, into the Peloponese, across the Corinth Canal. Their route took them to Sparti before turning north to Pyrgos and Olympia.
The Bay of Corinth was crossed by the ferry from Patras to Antirroni for the start, on Friday, of the longer northern loops. These formed a rough figure of eight round Mount Olympus up into the wild country round Thessoloniki, almost to the Jugoslav and Bulgarian borders before heading south again through EIasson and back to Athens.
Originally there were to have been 12 sets of special stages and four tests en route, but torrential rain the week before the rally washed out miles of rough track east of Volos, and this 100km loop, with a test and a special stage, had to be abandoned.
Greek roads of the day offered just about everything a rally organiser could wish for, with everything from miles of dual carriageway to sump-shield wrecking tracks, littered with donkeys and goats. There were no scheduled rest halts in the 56-hour event; and, with cars and drivers under such constant pressure, it was not surprising that only 22 of the 60 starters managed to finish. Some of the local entries were little more than jokes, with ancient cars almost totally unpreepared.
Ford were making their first full appearance with the Twin-Cam Escorts, with three Group 2 cars for Roger Clark
, Bengt Soderstrom and Ove Andersson. Ove's car had come straight down from winning the Austrian Alpine and had had virtually nothing done to it, but this did not seem to affect its performance in the slightest until the very last day.
With Paddy Hopkirk away in Canada taking part in the Shell 4000 rally, BMC had only two Minis, for Timo Makinen and Rauno Aaltonen. Brian Culcheth and Mike Woods were in the 1800 "land crab", which went very well in-deed.
Lancia had three Fulvia HF coupes for Harry Kallstrom, Pat Moss-Carlsson and Ballestrieri; as Vic Elford was taking part in the TT at Oulton Park, David Stone had been "lent" by Huschke von Hanstein to Lancia and was co-driving their third car. Pat Moss was going for her fourth, although not successive, Coupe des Dames in the Acropolis. Zasada was in the only works Porsche 911 T, although Pauli Toivonen and Ed Herrman were both receiving a great deal of works support. Lusenius and Mikkola were in the cumbersome Datsun 2000's, and a single Opel 1900 Rallye Kadett had been entered by a GM agent in Athens.
Neither Saab nor Alpine were in Greece; Saab had an important national event on their hands in Sweden, while Alpine probably felt that the Acropolis was just too rough for their rather fragile but fast machines. Thursday lunchtime found Athens sweltering in a temperature of 85deg. F. and 90 per cent humidity. All the starters lined up in Rue Dionysiou, the wide road which runs under the shadow of the Acropolis, capped with the classical remains of the Parthenon.
The two works Minis huddled round one of the "Royal Barge" service cars, having their Hydrolastic suspension pumped up to try to get a little more ground clearance. They scampered into the paddock and up to the start just in time. The first test was a straightforward standing start kilometer on the new National Road just west of Kiaton. Not long afterwards came the first special stage, at Souli, and the rally proper began, with Toivonen and Zasada sharing fastest time with 7min 08sec. Andersson and Clark followed up with times only six and seven seconds behind. Timo Makinen's Cooper S was already starting to overheat, and the fanbelt was tightened up to prevent a repetition of his Monte Carlo Rally engine "cooking" act.
With darkness came the rain, and the two Porsches maintained their lead on the second pair of stages at Kastanea. David Friswell, in his own Cooper 5, was in the passenger seat when Mike Merrick "lost" the road for a second and dropped the car over a bank and rolled it three times. The crew emerged unhurt, got the car back on the road and pressed on, for theirs was the third car in the BMC Cooper team. At Patras, minus windscreen and with the roof looking decidedly sad, they found that Maakinen's Cooper had expired with a blown head gasket round No. 4 cylinder. This meant that there was little point in going on and they too retired. Gone too, were the two Datsun 2000s, Mikkola's without any brakes and Lusenius' with a blown engine.
Tragically one of the Lancia service cars had been involved in a head-on colision with a truck. The driver of the car died in hospital and his passenger was badly hurt. Fiorio, Lancia's team manager, deecided to keep the three rally cars running. From Patras to Antirrion, there was time for a brief rest on the ferry across the Corinth Bay before heading into the dawn and the pair of Bralos stages.
It was at this point that the Ford Escorts started to make their move, beginning to fight back with Roger Clark
fastest with 35min 5sec. Aaltonen's Cooper S was no match for the Twin-Cams and could manage no better than seventh, with 36min 06sec. The crews then started their long haul across to Grinion and towards Arta and loannin, with a pair of stages just before the latter town. This was a complete Escort walkover, with Clark, Andersson and Soderstrom heading the field, followed by Kallstrom and Zasada. Pauli Toiivonen overdid things badly here, going off the road and dropping 4min 7sec: On the second stage he was able to make up a little of his lost time, finishing fourth behind Andersson, Clark and Kallstrom.
From loannin the route turned east towards Elasson and then up to Thessoloniki, with its murderously rough roads. It was here that the Andersson-Davenport Escort had some really bad luck. The long cap-bolts over the right rear wheel studs had been overtightened during a routine tire change, and they sheared. The wheel did not come off, as it had been trapped by a single stud which had bent over. It took 20 minutes hard work to free the wheel, replace the studs and fit a new wheel. Having got back on the road, Ove then pulled out all the stops, and went fastest on both halves of the Kalokasstron stage, with Clark right behind him on the first half and third on the second.
Next came the long haul back south, towards Athens. With the Volos loop cancelled, crews were able to grab a little sleep at around breakfast time on Saturday. By then there were only 22 cars running, and many sounded very sick, including the Statha kis-Lekkas Volvo 1225, which was being nursed every inch of the way. At Thivai on the Saturday afternoon the Aaltonen-Liddon Mini came in for its last service. As the rest of the route was fairly smooth, the battered sump shield and mud flaps were removed while Henry Liddon remarked: "It's the best Mini we have ever had!" Bengt Soderrstrom's Escort chuffed away, its exhaust more weld than pipe. Bill Barnett, Ford's man, recckoned that they had welded the exhaust on Clark's car at least 15 times.
Ove arrived 20 minutes late, filled up with petrol, had an oil check from the ever present Jimmy Simpson of Castrol, and then headed off for the final stages at Amfiarion, where he was again fastest over the first leg, with the "lightweight" Mini second. On Sunday morning the Ford camp found that Andersson's Twin-Cam had expired; two Internationals had been just too much for it. Luckily the 30-minute blind round the barrracks at Tatoi Air Force base was only a test, so that Andersson's non-running would not affect his placing too badly.
It was Toivonen's Porsche which led the pack round on the first lap, with Zasada right behind, and Clark a little way back. After about 10 minutes, Roger out-fumbled the two Porsches at "Water Tower Corner" and drew away. Gunnar Palm, in the second Ford, spent most of the time on three or two wheels, having the time of his life. Then suddenly, Clark was third, Toivonen second and Zasada in the lead, Clark had spun and Toivonen had joined in, Brian Culcheth, in the 1800, clobbered a kerb and retired after about 25min, with the BMC 1800 looking a little knock-kneed at the rear, but happy to be the class winner.