Driven: 1968 Austin 1800 London-Sydney Marathon Car

Minis were the rallying surprise of the decade, but could the 'big Mini'- the 1968 Austin 1800 Landcrab- with some help from Abingdon, echo its little brother's successes? 

Words: Murray Scullion
Pictures: Stuart Collins

Antipodean adventures don’t come much thicker, faster or furious than one with prizes, adventures, the threat of wilderness breakdowns and Landcrabs.

In late 1967, Sir Max Aitken, proprietor of the Daily Express, decided to create an event his newspaper could sponsor, as well as showcase the ingenuity of British engineering. He felt that the streams of British machinery passing through far flung colonies would encourage export sales.

Within weeks, the first marathon was announced for November 1968, with a prize of £10,000 offered by the newspaper for the winning team. The newly-formed British Leyland concluded that it must take part in these events – and it was the 1800 Landcrab that was deemed perfect for the mission. Its super-rigid shell combined with beefed-up Hydrolastic suspension made the 1800 the most suitable car on paper. 

A works team of six, plus a service car, were prepared for the marathon. Five of the cars were built by Abingdon’s Competition Department, with the remaining two to be built by the Special Tuning Department, with Basil Wales taking charge. One was for the Royal Navy, and one was for the RAF.

This one was the Royal Navy’s. It was painted all white– unlike the other cars that were painted the BMC colours of red with a white roof. 

 

VLM 128G was driven by three Navy men – J Hans Hamilton, Philip Stearns and Ian Lees-Spalding. These men piloted the Landcrab through thick and thin, across varying road surfaces and through countries as wide ranging as Italy, India and Australia. They finished 31st out of 56 finishers – considering 99 cars set off from London, this was an outstanding achievement.

Andrew Cowan and Brian Coyle won in their factory-backed Hillman Hunter. Paddy Hopkirk and Tony Nash were placed second in the BMC 1800, and Australian entrants RH Forsyth and Ian Vaughan completed the podium in their Aussie-built Ford Falcon GT.

After being brought back to Britain, the ‘Crab was used by BSM for use as a fast pursuit training vehicle. In 1981 it was purchased by the current owner, who had it extensively restored and put back together in 1985. In true spirit of the event, it was road and rally raced until 2013 – when it was once again extensively rebuilt. 

On the Road

Landcrab is a good analogy for this car – it can pretty much go anywhere, but it’s fairly slow and awkward for anyone who’s not driven one before. Initially, you’ll think it’s cumbersome, especially in 1800 form without power-assisted steering – but looks are deceiving, wait until you get it cornering.

Even without the rally paintjob, and oh-so cool roof-mounted wheels, this car screams competition at you. But the interior is far from stripped out – there are some neat features to surprise and delight, not least it retains the five seats and wood trim from the production Landcrab, making it a comfortable bruiser to do a few thousand rough miles in.

Watch out though – a few of the buttons and switches are quite hot. The light for the windscreen washer on the navigator’s side is really bright, and rather scalding. Was it used to keep their leg warm or is it just a coincidence?

 

A lot of the instruments and buttons are on the left hand side of the cockpit, so the navigator has easy access to them. The driver has no need be worried about trivial things like windscreen washer switches, rear fog lights or even speed. The tachomoter sits right in front of the driver, like they’re driving an Italian thoroughbred, which is easy to read between the big rimmed wheel.

Get behind that wheel and the driving position is also reminiscent of an Italian thoroughbred – your legs are facing left but your body is bolt upright, as is the steering column. Not as upright or as bus-like as a Mini, but definitely a reminder of why it’s often referred to as the Mini’s big brother.

 

Start the uprated 1894cc B-series on the button and it explodes into life with urgency and gusto. Engaging the clutch for the first time is surprising as it’s so light and usable. The long-throw gearbox is surprisingly smooth to engage and highly user friendly, with synchromesh on all four gears. It was built for longevity and ease of use, not for 0-60mph times. Natty wooden BL gearknob is a nice touch, too.

Part of the joy of this car is how highly strung it is – it really doesn’t like going slowly. Forget town work, that’s out of character, and truly wearisome. No, what it really wants to do is get on the open road, and bound playfully through the bends. Once up to speed, it wakes up, and truly rewards you.

The initially crashy suspension smoothes out surface irregularities, while the fat-rimmed Moto-Lita wheel delivers large chunks of feedback, too. The ride is set higher at the back than the front, and is tuned especially for a variety of terrains with lots of weight (spares for both the cars and driver) in the back. It’s here that the true benefits of interconnected Hydrolastic suspension are shown in full.

Having only four widely-spaced ratios to choose from, with no overdrive, does blunt acceleration, but fourth is long and results in relaxed high-speed running. And the B-series is a torquey old lump, which at least you’re not left floundering too much waiting for the revs to rise.

It’s easy to imagine spending 12 or more hours in this car without being drained. Braking is sharp and full of feel with very little fade. The pedal has a strong and sturdyfeel – befitting of the car. It’s not the be all and end all of refinement, and neither is it the last word in acceleration. But what it is is a  genuinely impressive and refined way to travel more than 10,000 miles, often foot-to-the-floor. Not a lot of cars can do that.

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