I wrote this article in September 2002 after returning from the first Targa Newfoundland.
When the Targa Newfoundland was first announced in June 2002, I was immediately interested in competing in my Austin Healey 100S. I have owned my 100S, Serial # AHS3903 and one of only 55 built since 1983, but I have not been able to use it much. I had built it up as a competition car and, as a result, it did not make a great road car. The restoration of 3903 from a total derelict took more than six years and was completed just in time for the 1990 Healey Challenge Series. Although I enjoyed circuit racing the 100S, I found my Bugeye more fun to race and a lot less expensive. The 100S was put into retirement, emerging for the occasional show or meet.
When the Targa Newfoundland was announced, I discussed the associated risks with my wife, Judy. Always tolerant and very supportive, Judy agreed that the car was built for such an event. We both agreed that the blood sweat and tears that had gone into the restoration would be sufficient incentive to ensure that I would not take unnecessary risks.
In Targa rallying, the specifications for classic cars are extremely comprehensive, and 3903, having not seen competition for more than 10 years, needed a lot of preparation. My long-time buddy Dick Paterson, an accomplished racer himself, barely hesitated when I asked him to co-drive the Targa so, with one major decision behind us, we set about putting the car in shape. With only 50 days until the event, we rebuilt the engine, brakes, front suspension, gearbox and diff, fitted Weber carbs and a special exhaust system, modified and re installed the roll bar, extinguisher system, and heavy duty front and rear anti sway bars, made and installed special racing seats, replaced the fuel tank and some of the fuel connections, installed air horns, a special period headlight flash stalk, a Brantz Pro 2 tripmeter, my own design of next-turn indicator, new Yokohama tires, five point harnesses, intercom system and roll bar padding, fitted a pair of NOS SLR700 driving lamps on special brackets, and attended to a host of other small details, all without drilling any new holes in the car.
By the beginning of September, after seven weeks of preparation and several shakedown runs, we were confident that we had a safe and competitive car. By an amazing coincidence, as this work was proceeding, my Parts Manager, Van Worsdale, won an entry to Targa Newfoundland. While he and his wife, June, were anxious to participate, they did not have a suitable car but, as luck would have it, I was able to lend them my 1965 Mini Cooper, guaranteeing them a berth in the trials section of the Targa. In another bit of luck, the organizing committee wanted to have 3903 on show at their inaugural event and, to ensure it would be there, they offered to ship both 3903 and the Cooper to Newfoundland and back, free of charge. The cars left by truck on September 9th, while Dick and I hopped a milk run for St. John’s, Newfoundland.
We arrived on Friday the13th, a superstition I had never put much stock in. When we got there, 3903 and the Mini were already inside the huge Mile One Arena, and we set about cleaning the cars and installing the sponsor decals. We were a little disappointed to find that there were fewer than 50 entries at an event that was expected to attract some 200. We were also quick to note that there was some awesome competition, including a 1939 Alfa Romeo Mille Miglia Spyder from Australia and a Viper Coupe from Detroit.
The first day was devoted to documentation and a car show at One Mile Stadium. As we had never entered this type of event, we took this opportunity to find out exactly what we had got ourselves into. There was a very steep learning curve, but with help and guidance from experienced ex-Targa Tasmania crews, we soon figured out that we were in a very competitive position. In this type of event, cars are classed according to age and modifications. In each “Targa” (read competitive) stage, a car is allowed a specific time to complete the stage before penalty points begin to accrue. Given its age and mods, 3903 was allowed some 20 to 30 percent more time than the modern cars and, since the only other car in our class was a 1947 Citroen, driven I might add by the local vicar, we just had to keep 3903 on the road and running to capture a top spot.
The first day of driving was a demonstration day around the government buildings in St John’s on a route that had previously been used for a Formula Atlantic race many years back. This was to be a driver observation day for the organizers, and an opportunity for the entrants to run their cars at speed. As we had hoped, 3903 performed flawlessly and both Dick and I were observed and “Okayed” for the event.
Some of the driving by other competitors was a bit hairy and a 1964 Falcon was almost put on its roof. Although we all got through, a couple of drivers had ‘interviews’ with the organizers regarding — their driving “techniques” as I recall.
This was to be the prologue day, consisting of four ’transit’ stages and two ‘Targa’ stages. A steady rain was falling and, being one of only two open cars, we were forced into our wet weather gear, but we were ready and quite comfortable.
The purpose of the Prologue was to determine starting positions for the “real” start the next day. The cars would be starting in the main event slowest first, at 60 second intervals, so we figured that there was no need to go “balls out”, as the Australians put it. The chances of our having to pass anyone, when most of the stages were less than six miles long, would be unlikely. Everything went well for the first prologue stage; no ’offs’, no snags.
The second stage got exciting when a Sunbeam Tiger, did a big ’off’ on a fast left-hand curve. No one was hurt, but the underside of car was sufficiently damaged to put them out for the week. We cruised nicely through both prologue stages with a performance that put us in eighth start position. Things were lookin’ good!!
After this day’s running, we found that we needed to install a new battery. The capacity of the one that we had fitted wasn’t up to running the car for long periods with all the lights on, particularly as I had made and installed an oversize pulley to prevent over-speeding of the generator. We also adjusted our accessory wiring set up so that the intercom would not come on until the headlights did, thus avoiding penalty points for driving without them.
There was another big car show at Mile One that night and the locals crowded around 3903 and the Cooper. The people of Newfoundland are really fantastic. We were overwhelmed with their generosity, kindness and enthusiasm for the event. From little things like running us up to the local hardware store for some wiring connectors to inviting cold P.F.A. (People From Away) spectators into their homes for a cup of tea and scones.
This was the big day, as it turned out, in more ways than one; the first day of real competition. Again, 3903 was running flawlessly and although the roads were wet, the rain had stopped and the sun was threatening to come out. The first stage was a transit to get us from town out to the first “Targa” stage. When we didn’t get lost getting there, despite serious butterflies, we began to feel a true sense of optimism.
As we arrived, we found how tricky the course could be. Regrettably, the pace car, a brand new Jaguar X type, had crashed out in the first two kilometers resulting in some long delays. At last the stage got under way and we were to be eighth car out.
“GO” and the red Volvo P1800 of McCrory and McCrory went out in front of us with tires spinning on wet asphalt and a howling engine that was clearly reaching the rev limiter. This produced an enquiring glance from co-driver, Dick. Our turn…..FIVE, FOUR, “The road is still wet. I’m going to take this real easy”, THREE, “we forgot to put the video camera on, OK next stage” TWO, ONE, GO! We are off on our first “Targa”, driving hard, but with the caution necessitated by the damp road conditions. Our average speed is about 10 K.P.H. above what we needed to “clean” the stage and, according to the route book, the second half of the stage was going to open up and be much faster.
This stage was the reverse of the second (prologue) stage of the day before, and despite having only driven the road once I could pretty well remember the turns and nature of the road. Why can’t I remember people’s names like that? We didn’t even see the Jag off the road as we passed; such was our concentration on the course ahead. Four kilometers in we came upon a fast left-right-left “S” curve. I could see the exit and remembered that there was an off camber left after the fast, swooping right.
We entered the curve at about 100 K.P.H. We were both comfortable with our speed and the handling of the car. And then everything went wrong. Ten feet from the position of the above photo we were confronted with a racers worst nightmare. The P1800 had, for some inexplicable reason, continued straight ahead at this corner and crashed badly. It had gone into the ditch directly below the pole (in the centre of the picture), launched into the air off a driveway culvert, bounced off a high bank beyond the driveway, spun clockwise 180 degrees, skidded down the road on its side and fallen back onto its wheels completely blocking the road ahead of us (it was still very close to this position when I took the above picture). There was a huge ditch directly to the right and the back of the Volvo was about 3 feet from a very hard looking Armco barrier to the left. We were doing 100 K.P.H. on a wet curve and had only 60 meters of clear road ahead of us. We saw the driver of the Volvo wandering up the road to the right, just a few meters from the car, there was no sign of warning triangles and his navigator father was just starting to get out of the crashed car on the side facing us!!
Despite the terrific brakes on 3903, there was just not enough adhesion or room to pull up. I can remember making about 10 decisions before the impact, but I had to aim for the rear fender of the Volvo and just hope that the navigator was smart enough to jump to the right.
There is no noise that I can remember quite as sickening as the one we heard as the two cars collided. The 100S punted the Volvo around 180 degrees and off the road into the ditch on the right.
We were out of the car with our safety triangles in about four seconds, sprinting up the road to warn the cars behind us. Believe it or not, after our incident one of the cars that had already started into the stage behind us went off right beside the Jag about two miles back. In the aftermath, the organizers and locals were fantastic. Everything was done for us that could possibly be done. And our special thanks goes to Officer Roach of the St John’s division of the Newfoundland Royal Constabulary who was of immense help in arranging for the transportation and storage of 3903 and for running us back to our hotel A close examination of the car revealed that the damage was too severe to allow us to do any running repairs and continue; although not so bad that we won’t be able to have 3903 back on the road in a few months.
After a day of getting over our disappointment and arranging things with the organizers, we decided to accept an extremely kind offer from Van and June to use the Cooper to continue the rally. June insisted she wasn’t enjoying being bounced around in a little green box anyway. In the Cooper, we managed to run three days of competition and pretty well cleaned every stage, despite the penalties of running a kilometers rally with a very inaccurate M.P.H. speedometer and no trip meter. With 65 horsepower and 90,000 miles on it (without ever having had the head removed) the Cooper performed flawlessly. I had a fabulous time howling through the suburbs of Gander in a continuous four wheel drift and Dick gave the Viper a big scare by staying hard on his tail through the downhill twisty bits into Leading Tickles. (You should check the names of some of the towns in Newfoundland) We will be back next year, perhaps not in 3903. It was a great rally, and the hospitality and friendliness of the people of Newfoundland are very addictive, fond memories we will have forever.