A few months ago I asked for any information that was available on the Great American Mountain Rallye that was held four times from 1953 to 1956. I want to thank those would sent me some information and others who were kind enough to talk to me and send me message with very helpful information.
I’m sure that there is much information and memorabilia out there and I would appreciate anyone who can pass along such information, so I can correct or add to the information provided in this post. I decided to put together this post based on the information that I have. I could have continued to look for additional information and expand the post, but I had got hold most of the easily available information and I was not planning on writing a book about the rally. I thought that it would be best to post what I was able to find out about the rally. Perhaps this post will jog someone’s memory about a source for additional information.
Throughout the post below I realize that I have used is spelling “rallye” and “rally”which reflects the variable spelling used by the organizers and throughout the reporting of that era. As a result, I decided not be concerned about uniformity of spelling.
The Great American Mountain Rallye
The Great American Mountain Rally was first held in 1953. This was an American attempt to emulate the major rallies in Europe of that time – the Alpine Rally, the Tulip Rallye, and the Leige-Rome-Liege rally. The Motor Sports Club of America was the group that organized this rally. The Motor Sports Club of America was a New York rally group that also organized another major rally of this era in the USA – the Continental Divide. The Great American Mountain Rally was the first rally sanctioned by the FIA in the Americas. As a result, this rally caught the attention of some major automotive manufacturers.
The 1953 Great American Mountain Rally was a 1,100 mile long rally that was held over the Thanksgiving weekend from November 25 – 29. The rally began in New York City, went north to the Canadian border, and then returned south to finish in Poughkeepsie, New York. Along the way, there were two nightly stopovers. Winning this rally would be quite an honor plus first prize for this rally was a free trip to Europe with an entry into the legendary 1954 Alpine Rally.
In 1953, because of the high profile of this event, the Rootes Group entered a three-car team in the Great American Mountain Rally. Two of the three cars were Sunbeam Alpines – one for well-known English international rally driver Sheila Van Damm with another Englishman, Ron Kessel, as her navigator. The other Sunbeam Alpine was to be driven by Sherwood Johnson, who was a successful American race car driver. Sherwood Johnson was a very capable driver. For example, earlier that year Sherwood Johnson had finished 3rd in the Twelve Hours of Sebring in a Jaguar Type C and he had won the Mount Washington Hill Climb. The third car, a Sunbeam Talbot 90 Saloon, was driven by Ian Garrad, who was the son of Norman Garrad, founder and manager of the Rootes’ Competition Department. Ian Garrad also worked for the Rootes Group where he had an executive position with the Rootes Group in Canada. In later years, Ian Garrad became the West Coast Sales Manager for the Rootes Group where he became instrumental in the design and eventual production of the Sunbeam Tiger.
Sheila Van Damm And A Sunbeam Alpine
The above photo shows Ms Van Damm with one of the special Sunbeam Alpines with the high performance engine. I note that this Sunbeam Alpine has left-hand drive. One of the visual clues for the high performance Sunbeam Alpines is the presence of the hood or bonnet strap. With very few exceptions, Frank Jenkins’ black Sunbeam Alpine being one of them, all of the Sunbeam Alpines with the high performance engines were painted a light blue color called “Alpine Mist”.
During the scrutinising for the 1953 Great American Mountain Rally, which took place the day before the start of the rally, each competitor had to declare their speedometer’s percentage error. Apparently this was required because penalty points were assigned for differences between the competitor’s odometer readings at the end of the rally and the rally’s official mileage. The Sunbeam team rally cars drove up and down the Jersey Turnpike using the mileposts to accurately determine their cars’ odometer error. In Sheila Van Damm’s book, “No Excuses”, she said that all three cars in the Sunbeam team declared their exact error. However they eventually learned that the smart thing to do was to declare a speedometer error greater than the actual error and manage the odometer readings.
During the running of the rally, specific time control locations were not provided, as with the European rallies, but incremental distances between control points were provided to the competitors. Penalties were assigned at 4 points per minute early or late arriving at a control. Competitors not allowed to stop within sight of a control. Most of the competitors ran a little ahead of the required average speed but as the competitors got close to a control, based on the mileages, they had to be careful not to be seen if they were running a little ahead of the required time.
Some problems began to emerge due to the official mileage provided to the competitors. Apparently when the course was laid out, the course was measured six times by six different cars and the final official mileage was based on the average of these six runs. As odometer calibration did not seem to be part of the official rally route, it is possible that none of the course layout car’s distances were based on a calibrated official distance.
The navigators had to work particularly hard during the Great American Mountain Rally. As the exact location of the controls was unknown and the rule that said cars would be penalized if they stopped and waited within sight of a control, Ron Kessel navigating for Sheila Van Damm, would get out of the car and peak around corners to see if there was a control. If there was no control then they would move on to the next hill or corner to see what was ahead. Timing was very strict.
As noted previously, competitors were also penalized when there were discrepancies between the official mileage and their car’s odometer mileage for each day. This matter was further complicated by problems with the official mileage. What took place was that some competitors who thoroughly understood the rules, stopped their cars on the side of the road near the end of each day, then jacked the rear wheels of the car off the ground and put miles on the car to make their odometers agree with the official mileage (plus their previously declared error). Other drivers disconnected their odometers if necessary to make the odometer reading agree with the official mileage (plus their previously declared error). This was a foolish rule and this regulation was eventually cancelled later in the rally causing an extensive change in the rally scoring order.
In addition to the issues involving mileage, the Sunbeam team claimed there might have been some problems with the clocks in the 1953 Great American Mountain Rally due to the mechanical clocks being affected by changes in temperatures.
In general for the 1953 event the weather was quite good. Many of the competitors had expected snow, but it never came, except for some sheet ice and snow at Lincoln Gap which required the use of tire chains.
The rally was won by two Americans, Stewart Blodgett and J. Bough in an old MG. W. Deuess finished 2nd in a Jaguar. For the Sunbeam team Sherwood Johnston finished 7th Overall and first in the 3 litre Sports Car class. Ian Garrad finished 13th Overall and 2nd in the touring category. Sheila Van Damm finished 18th Overall and 2nd in the 3 litre sports car class. Note that the two Alpines were in the Sports Car class while Garrad in the Sunbeam Talbot saloon was in the Touring class. As a result of the finishes by the Sunbeams, the Sunbeam team was awarded the manufacturers award. Additionally, there was another Sunbeam Talbot 90 Saloon driven by Krag & William Giltzow which finished 8th Overall and 1st in the Touring category.
1954 Great American Mountain Rally
After the 1953 event Sheila Van Damm wrote a scathing article in Autosport about the problems with the 1953 Great American Mountain Rally. Also two members of the organizer, the Motor Sports Club of America, George Freund (Clerk of the Course) and Lew Scott (Secretary) were sent copies of the regulations for the larger European rallies to use as a helper for modifying the regulations for future runnings of the Great America Mountain Rally.
The Rootes Group again entered three cars in the 1954 Great American Mountain Rally. Sheila Van Damm was to paired with her frequent rally navigator from England, Ann Wisdom. This time Stirling Moss entered the rally with Ron Kessel as his navigator. Ron Kessel had navigated for Sheila Van Damm in the 1953 running of this rally. The third car was made up of the American team of Krag and Giltzow back again from their success in 1953 in this rally.
Motorsport Magazine Bill Callahan’s Buick Contrasts The Porsche (16)
The 1954 event maintained a version of matching the Official mileage on each competitor’s odometer, but this year the organizers had provided a 2% allowance, plus/minus, on the competitors’ odometer reading taking into account the declared odometer error. This would have been achievable if the competitors stayed on course. Each day the rally distance was about 350 miles, so the competitors were effectively allowed an +/- error of about 7 miles. But realize that if you drove off course, then you also have to drive back to the course, so if you were off course you would need to recognize that fact quickly to remain within your distance allowance.
The following is a copy of the first page of the route instructions from the 1954 Great American Mountain Rallye. This provides an idea of the style of instructions provided to the competitors.
Page One Of The Route Instructions For The 1954 Great American Mountain Rally (12)
You can see from these instructions, that most navigators would want to have good maps to refer to as the car follows the route instructions.
I Wonder How Many Kaiser-Darrins Were Ever Rallied? This Might Be It(16)
For 1954 all of the controls were secret controls. At the start of each day the competitors were given a timing sheet with the average speed that was required to be maintained between controls. Therefore the competitors had to be on time, all of the time. This kept the navigators quite busy during the rally.
There is a story that this year there was a lot of snow on the road over the Lincoln Gap. Stirling Moss was not able to get his car up the hill. There were a number of cars at the bottom of the hill waiting to get up the hill. Moss was saying that the road was impassable and wanted everyone to agree with him so the organizers would disregard the scores from that leg. Leo Rizzo pointed out that there was a set of tracks going up the hill that must have been left by the course opening car, so would have worked against such a claim that the road was impassable. Suddenly panic ensued as teams retreated to their cars to try to get up the hill. Not everyone made it over the hill, but many did.
A Jaguar XK120 Starts On A Test At The IBM Plant In Poughkeepsie, NY (16)
Despite the Sunbeam Alpines and the Jaguars, I found it surprising that the 1954 Great American Mountain Rally would be won by a team in an Oldsmobile. Apparently it was the Oldsmobile’s performance at the trials at the end of the rally that was the main reason for the win. I suppose having the legendary Oldsmobile Rocket 88 V8 engine helped considerably.
The Rally-Winning 1954 Oldsmobile Convertible (16)
The Overall winners were Bill Grauds with Art Mulligan as the navigator in the 1954 Oldsmobile. Second place was William Buick with Emil Buick navigating in an Austin Healey 100. Third place went to the Canadian team of George William Scully with Neil Bryson in a Jaguar XK120.
1955 Great American Mountain Rally
In 1955 the format of the event changed significantly. In fact it was now referred to as the Great American Mountain Rallye Endurance Run. The rally became a two-stage event lasting 7 days. The first three days made up an optional Stage One where all of the cars met up at Baltimore, Maryland after a drive of about 1,000 miles from various starting locations. From Baltimore, there was a regularity run northerly to New York City. Stage Two started on Thanksgiving Day with the route going from New York City to Lake Placid. The following day, there was a 22-hour route through Vermont and New Hampshire, with an end point again at Poughkeepsie, New York.
Route Schematic Of The 1955 Great American Mountain Rally (10)
The overall winners were determined based on results on elimination trials held in Poughkeepsie, New York. Those eligible were the top 10 teams from Stage One and the top scoring teams from Stage Two. However only the top 10 teams from Stage Two were eligible to be the overall winner.
In order to finally put the timing issues to bed on the Great American Mountain Rally, the organizers placed Ross Merritt in the position of Chief Timer and Scorer. Apparently he placed excellent people at the controls and ensured that they had good time pieces that were updated by frequent checking with the timing signals by radio.
In anticipation of snow, teams were required to have a set of chains. This would help prevent having stuck cars block narrow roads.
As with the previous Great American Mountain Rally there were the tests or trials held at Poughkeepsie, NY. The example below shows an Austin Healey being measured for distance away at a test stop location.
Measuring The Stopping Distance From The End Of The Driving Test (10)
The Overall winners in 1955 were Donald Kripen and Charles Rickert of Indianapolis driving a Porsche Speedster.
Overall Winners Of Stage 1 Including Elimination Trials
Overall Car Driver/Navigator Points
- ’55 Jaguar XK140MC Gingras/C. Bernard 183
- ’55 Porsche Speedster Kriplen/C. Rickert 186
- ’54 Triumph TR-2 J & Cynthia Robinson 318
- ’54 Porsche H & Martha Schweighofer 364
- ’54 Austin-Healey Sheehan & R. Pitbladdo 413
- ’56 Ford Zephyr Bathurst & W. Caddington 440
- ’55 Morgan Oulton & E. Kirtz, Jr. 521
- ’55 Hillman Husky Yount & R. Scott 534
- ’56 MG Magnette Ryan & R. Turner 745
- ’55 Porsche Ford & A. Baron 749
Overall Winners of Stage 2 Including Elimination Trials
Overall Car Driver/Navigator Points
- ’55 Porsche Speedster Kriplen/C. Rickert 257
- ’54 Triumph TR-2 Blodgett/J. Bough 259
- ’55 Austin-Healey William & E. Buick 272
- ’55 Volkswagen Wallbridge & Inge Bailey 295
- ’51 MG TD Baldwin/J. Harrison 329
- ’56 MG Magnette Ryan/R. Turner 351
- ’55 Jaguar XK140MC Gingras/C. Bernard 352
- ’53 Jaguar XK120 Fogg III/P. Bullard 361
- ’54 Austin-Healey Kinne/F.Neyland 368
- ’55 Porsche Speedster Schellenberg/R. Dewees, Jr. 379
Up To 1500cc Touring Award
- Walbridge & Inge Bailey – ’55 Volkswagen
- John Ryan/Richard Turner – ’56 MG Magnette
1500 to 3000cc Touring Award
- Robert Bathurst/Willard Caddington – ’56 Ford Zephyr
- Fidia Guastini/Virgil DiMassino – ’52 Sunbeam Talbot
Over 3000cc Touring Award
- Harold & Catherine Thomas – ’50 Nash Ambassador
- Philip Halzell/Paul Miller – ’55 Buick Century
Up to 1500cc Sports Award
- Donald Kriplen/Charles Rickert – ’55 Porsche Speedster
- William Baldwin/John Harrison – ’51 MG TD
1500 to 3000cc Sports Award
- Steward Blodgett/John Bough – ’54 Triumph TR-2
- William & Emil Buick – ’55 Austin-Healey
Over 3000cc Sports Award
- Roland Gingras/Clement Bernard – ’55 Jaguar XK140MC
- George Fogg III/Peter Bullard – ’53 Jaguar XK120
Dead Last But Finished
- Edward & Robert Spreen – Ford Anglia
Shell Oil Sportsmanship Award
- Martha Schweighofer
Rene Dreyfus Award (furthest distance by car to compete)
- John Ryan/Richard Rurner
- VW Auto Club of U.S.
- Woodstock Motor Club
- Eastern PA Sports Car Club
- Rootes Motors (Hillman Huskies)
- Ford of England (1 Zephyr and 2 Anglias)
Production Touring Team
- Rootes Motors (Hillman Huskies)
Ladies Team Award
- Elizabeth Menino/Virginia Tardif
American Production Award
- Philip Halzell/Paul Miller – ’55 Buick Century
- Melville Collins Sr. & Jr. – ’51 Ford Crestliner
American Modified Award
- Harold & Catherine Thomas – ’50 Nash Ambassador
1956 Great American Mountain Rally
In 1956 the Great American Mountain Rally continued to get the attention of factory teams. Saab entered three cars including one driven by Swedish rally champion Rolf Mellde with an American navigator, Morrow Mushkin. The other two had American crews with Bob Wehman/Louis Braun and Gerald/Doris Lankowitz in the cars.
In other ways the 1956 Great Mountain Rally had an international flavor. The honorary starter was none other than Formula 1 World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio. Also present was famed French racing driver, Rene Dreyfus.
Triumph sent European rally specialist Maurice Gastonides in one of their cars. Triumph also paired Gastonides up with Stewart Blodgett as his navigator, who won the first Great American Mountain Rally as a driver in 1953 and was runner-up in 1955.
The rally route headed north into New England. The route went through Maine, New Hampshire, and into Vermont. Many of the roads were narrow and the required average speeds were quite brisk. Rolf Mellde, who had rallied all over Europe said that in a leg coming into St. Johnsbury, Vermont, that he had never driven harder.
The picture below is perhaps why some people call navigators “ballast”. Actually it was quite common in the 1950s to have navigators ride up snow-covered steep hills while standing on the back bumper of the typical rear wheel drive cars. I’ve even seen cars fitted with special handles fitted onto the trunk lids for the navigators to hang onto when they were called upon to put some weight over the rear drive wheels.
Gatsonides Driving A TR3 Up A Steep Hill With Blodgett In The Trunk (15)
The Saab factory sent over Rolf Mellde, a very experienced rally driver from Sweden, to drive one of their cars. Mellde had competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in the past.
Saab’s Rally Drivers, Greta Molander & Rolf Mellde, At The Start Of The 1950 Monte Carlo Rally (13)
The unexpected victory of the Saab 93 in the 1956 Great American Mountain Rally was a very important occasion for Saab. It made a commercial impact in America that even the rather tight-fisted Saab management could not ignore. From that point forward, Saab took the preparation of rally cars seriously and increased their staff devoted to rally cars from two people to five. This victory in the Great American Mountain Rally really set the stage for Saab rally success worldwide in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The 1956 Great American Mountain Rally Winning Saab Team Of Bob Wehman and Louis Braun (14)
The final results of the 1956 Great American Mountain Rally are presented below.
Final Results 1956 Great American Mountain Rally
Overall Car Driver/Navigator Penalty Points
1 Saab 93 Wehman/Braun 1516
2 Renault 4CV Maclay/Locke 1554
3 Jaguar XK140 Blackburn/Blackburn 1993
4 Volkswagen Young/Fendler 2071
5 Triumph TR-3 Hurtley/Reider 2272
6 Saab 93 Mellde/Mushkin 2277
7 Triumph TR-3 Gatsonides/Blodgett 2325
8 Volkswagen Allen/Allen 2701
9 MG Magnette Yount/Thomas 3105
10 Volkswagen Millard/Bower 3185
Factory Team Award
Up To 1500cc Touring Award
Up To 1500cc Sports Award
- Alfa Romeo
1500 – 3000cc Touring Award
- Jaguar 2.4
- Ford Zephyr
1500 – 3000 Sports Award
- Triumph TR-3
- Triumph TR-3
Over 3000 Touring Award
Over 3000 Sports Award
- Jaguar XK140
- Chevrolet Corvette
Even the Chrysler Corporation made a big deal of its success in the 1956 Great American Mountain Rally. A 1957 Plymouth had finished first in the over 3.0 litre class.
The 1956 Great American Mountain Rallye was the last running of this event. It is unfortunate that America somehow lost this significant, high-profile rally.
- “Essential Triumph TR, TR 2 – TR 8” by David Hodges, 1994
- “From Two-Stroke to Turbo” by Anders Tunberg, 1980
- “No Excuses” by Sheila Van Damm, 1957
- “Sports Car Rallies, Trials, And Gymkhanas” by David Hebb and Arthur Peck, 1956
- “Triumph Cars in America” by Michael Cook, 2001
- “Saab Half A Century of Achievement” by Eric Dymock, 1997
- Leo Rizzo, Personal Communication
- “Motorsport” Jan-Feb 1955
- Plymouth Advertising, Chrysler Motor Corporation
- “Auto Age” April 1956
- Bernie Stolzman, Personal Communication
- “1954 Great American Mountain Rally Route Instructions” Motor Car Club of America
- “The Saab-Scania Story” by Saab-Scania, 1987
- Road & Track, March 1957
- “Gatso, The Never Ending Race”, by Michael Allen, 1993
- “Motorsport”, March-April 1955