Typical Rally Navigator’s “Office” During The 1950s

I was looking through Marcus Chambers’ book “Works Wonders” the other day and I saw a photo that I, as a rally navigator, found interesting.  Marcus Chambers was the competition manager at BMC before Stuart Turner had that position.  The photo below shows a typical rally navigation set-up in the 1950s.  The photo shows John Williamson sitting in the navigator’s seat discussing something with John Milne.  John Williamson was a navigator who occasionally was part of the BMC rally team.  In 1958, he was the navigator for Bill Shepherd in an Austin A105 during the Monte Carlo Rally and it appears that this rally set-up is in that car.  John Milne was an occasional rally driver, but he was not part of the 1958 BMC team entered in the Monte Carlo Rally.


A 1950s Rally Navigation Set-Up

It is important to remember that during that period, the major European classic rallies were timed to the minute.  In other words, the teams had to arrive within the required minute.  Therefore if you were required to arrive at a control at 11:20:00 am, then you would receive no penalties if you arrived from 11:20:00 am to 11:20:59 am.  In addition, there were no intermediate speed changes.  The teams were given a total time or speed to travel from control to control.  These events were meant to be a challenge to the drivers and the cars to get to the controls on time – not to be a timing event where the teams had to run on time, all of the time.

The equipment that is visible in front (left to right) of John Williamson is as follows:

  • Grab handle for use during cornering
  • Time-of-day clock
  • Two Heuer stopwatches.  I suspect that one of these stopwatches would have split capabilities.
  • Halda Speedpilot located below the stop watches.  The Speedpilot would be used to provide information about how the car’s actual traveled average speed was comparing to the required average speed.
  • Speedometer with a total odometer and a trip odometer capabilities.
  • On the roof is a movable exterior light for the navigator, so that he could shine it on road signs or some other object during night rallies.

The piece of equipment above and to the right of the speedometer is not clear to me.  It could be a navigation light, as there only appears to be a small light above the speedometer.  The Halda Speedpilot and the speedometer would have their own internal instrument lighting, but the time-of-day clock and the Heuer stopwatches would have no internal lighting.  In addition, the navigator would need a light to read the route instructions, notes, and maps during night rallies.  If anyone reading this has other ideas about what that item is, then I would appreciate hearing from you.

In addition to the equipment that is visible in the above image, the rally navigator would have a set of timing tables and maps that would be used for reference during the rally.

I mentioned that teams would be given times or average speeds to get from control to control.  There was at least one exception to this approach – the Liege-Sofia-Liege Rally.  This was actually a thinly disguised road race.  The route instructions gave average speeds that the teams had to achieve, but these were (deliberately, I believe) misleading.  An outsider or non-competitor would see that the required average speed between controls was within the bounds of the law.  But the key to not getting any timing penalties was to look at the times that the controls would actually be open.  In order to arrive at a control while it was still open, the teams had to travel at an average speed considerably faster than shown in the route instructions.  This rally was last held in 1964, when the speeds had become just too high for the roads and traffic conditions.

All of this shows what the typical rally navigator’s “office” looked like during the 1950s.

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4 Responses to Typical Rally Navigator’s “Office” During The 1950s

  1. Mike Mazoway says:

    To me, it loos like a type 1 Curta. If the speeds were not changing then all you needed to do was set it, put it in the holder and crank as needed. The angle indicates to me that it would be easier to read the two registers, one for distance and one for time.

    • You might be right Mike. The size is comparable to the Type 1 Curta, which would also be period correct. My concern about the Curta is that it best applies to navigation mathematics done using a decimal-minute approach rather than the minute-seconds approach which I thought had widespread use in England and Europe. Perhaps some English navigators did use the decimal-minute system. Or it might be that the Curta was just used for general arithematic calculations.

      Steve McKelvie

  2. Mrs Angela Walters says:

    I was fascinated to come across this item . John Williamson was my father .
    I remember as a child, being shown these panels of instruments before he went off to a rally. I am pretty sure that I saw one of which he had constructed the basic panel out of a “wood like ” material ( hard board?) .

    • Hello Mrs. Walters,
      Getting the rally navigation equipment securely in the proper place has been a challenge for rally navigators since before your father’s time and remains an issue today.
      I would be interested in other pictures of rallying from that era, so if you have some rallying pictures of your father that you would not mind sharing with the rest of us, please scan the images and email them to me at: shanna12@comcast.net
      Steve McKelvie

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