Tuesday 25th Sep, 2018

THE SHIPPING LIFE: Race Rally Car Through China


Captain Harry Mansson AM is a Master Mariner, a retired ship’s Captain, with a subsequent varied background as an international consultant to the United Nations/World Bank to a shipping management entrepreneur. He has enjoyed a stellar career at sea and onshore.

Starting with the Swedish Merchant Navy, he also served as an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy sweeping active mines. In 1972 he established Orient Shipping Services Pty Ltd as the general agent for the entry of the Orient Overseas Line (now OOCL) into the Asia/ Australia trade. In 1993 he was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia for services to shipping and international trade.

Sometimes our marketing strategies went fairly “lofty”, to levels and complexities far away from the regular Board Room Lunches. All still associated with that business but involved more adventurous projects, such as this one.

Hong Kong – Beijing International Car Rally 1985

I was never a petrol head. Circuit racing seemed, by definition, very repetitious and unhealthy, and its cousin rally driving was very much an unknown card with its notable IDs of dust and rolling-overs. But I had a very dear friend in the form of Donald McDonald, the shipping manager for Australian Ricegrowers, who exported some 100,000+ tonnes of bagged rice to Hong Kong annually. He reported to me that the first ever full blast car rally in China would come up and be the full blast 1985 Hong Kong – Beijing event, programmed to run for six days, starting at the Hong Kong Ocean Terminal roof and finishing at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Donald wanted us to be in it.

The car would be built by his expert son-in-law and it would feature as sponsors Ricegrowers, its main rice buyer client Lui Hing Hop, Orient Overseas Container Line, Orient Shipping Services and sundry friends and clients. It was a ‘blind’ rally, meaning no pre-race recces (reconnaissance) were permitted, and it was tightly protected by up to 25,000 police! It turned out to be an amazing experience.

China’s interior had seen very few cars other than military trucks. Furthermore, foreigners were an unknown for most of the farmlands and forest populations. The route took us across both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, through deep and primitive farmland without any electricity other than what battery was required to power a communal nine-inch TV-set in the local community hall, on which to watch revolutionary ballets and singsongs. In the town of Wuhan (current pop. 9 million) a public holiday was proclaimed, so that the populace could line up 20 deep, kept in line by the coppers, to watch the passing parade of foreign rally cars and their many support vehicles. We noted how mothers would shield their kids’ eyes with their hands, so that they wouldn’t get “induced” by the foreign devils’ picture taking.

By and large the people were friendly, until we reached the northerly beauty of mountains and clean air, where rocks were thrown, more from fear than from animosity against the international hordes of competitors, supports crews, media and the hangers-on. Accommodation was very Spartan, sometimes only bunks on the floor and with Chairman Mao’s wall picture as the only tolerantly smiling face decoration in sight. Food was dicey due to lack of refrigeration, so we stayed mainly with citrus fruit and boiled eggs as the diet and lost about 1kg each for each of the six days.

We finally ended up at the Great Wall outside Beijing, and then the last racing stage before the Tiananmen Square finish. My wife Julia awaited us together with the wife of one of our service crew, which had us concerned, since their vehicles and passengers had been lost from us for the last three days. The wife started to ask where her hubby was, but I had only gone as far as hugging her and beginning to say: “Dear, you know that sometimes things are not quite as bad as they may seem, you will look back and laugh”, when the guys and car fronted up, having been transported by the courtesy of the howling police car.

The rally had several international champions from Europe participating, and our own ambition was restricted to arriving alive. But having achieved that, I wondered why we couldn’t do better than down the field! So, when the repeat rallies were announced for 1986 and 1987, we did them both, and I was determined to at least get a place; almost 50 years old and with no other rally experience behind me. For the 1987 rally, I recruited the five time Australian champion Ross Dunkerton to drive with me, and we won our class in the top four overall.

So, Australian Ricegrowers and OOCL both got a fair exposure to inland China. The finishes would normally result in big nights like in the Great Hall of the People, where we had a senior uniformed and capped military at each table to give us ‘face’, even if the lack of English and Mandarin on respective sides restrained the joke-telling somewhat.

… and Rally On

After 1987, China stopped further rallies due to “security problems”. But the success from 1987 prompted me to look at other promotional rally events. The first became the Australian Safari, a two-week endurance from Alice Springs to the Kununurra region and then in the Tanami Desert with zero degrees at night, then east to Mount Isa down to western NSW and Sydney. This was in a panel van with Donald and our “road runner” (fence gate operator). We rolled mid-event and drove for four days in the dust and heat with face masks and no windscreen. At “Isa”, a long needed shower and cleaning out dust of ears and other bits for an hour. Wipe dry with towel, which promptly turned dust red. My GP said that the dust remained in my ears for six months.

….and on… London-Sydney, London – Acapulco and London – Cape Town…

Our clients with signs on our car certainly got international exposure, when Ross Dunkerton and myself continued on with these marathons spread over a number of years. This added to the Australian National Championship and the World Rally Championships, in which we saw good success, winning in both.

More of this later. But it made me compare the saying about a sailor on a horse to one with a sailor in a race car. In his 60s!

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