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17 Mar 2017


The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon

It’s been almost 50 years since an adventurous group of drivers in 98 cars set off from London on a long road race to the Antipodes (aka Sydney) on the other side of the world.

The idea for the race came from the owner of the Daily Express newspaper, who reasoned that the stagnant UK economy could be bolstered by the world-wide attention that the race would create.

He put up £10,000 in prize money and off they went.

The rules were simple.  Go as fast as possible and try to get to Sydney first.

Repairs could be undertaken en route, but no one was allowed to touch their vehicle whenever it was being transported by boat.

The field was made up of a range of vehicles from Hillman Hunters to Falcon GTs and the drivers were as diverse as privateers and seasoned rally drivers such as Andrew Cowan.

I was 10 years old when the race was run and I recall being mesmerized as I followed the field across the globe.

After all, this was all before Apollo 11 and man setting foot on the Moon.

There were still remote places on Earth and National Geographic maps were still being used for navigation.

Unbeknown to me, a family from Australia were making the same trip from London to Sydney in a recently purchased Kombi van.

Their route would be more circuitous taking them first to Norway, across Scandinavia and down through Europe into Spain.

From there they were finally heading in an Easterly direction towards the Middle East and onwards.

I recently met the driver who is not far off becoming a Centenarian.

He has so many stories to tell and I had so many questions to ask.

For starters, “Did the Kombi break down?”

The answer being, “No, never.”

“Did you have any dramas on the trip?”

The answer being, “Only in Afghanistan!”

No surprises there I thought, after all even today Afghanistan is still a remote and dangerous place.

“Oh no, not at all,” I was told.

“We’d camped for the night in a field. We were just about asleep when there was a knock on the window. It was a police officer. He told us that there’d been some problems between a local tribe and another traveller recently. He thought it would be safer if we camped in the police station compound, which we did.”

“What was the highlight of the trip?” I asked.

“The roads, how great the roads were, in … in Afghanistan,” came the reply.

I thought I’d misheard the last sentence. 

Afghanistan and great roads, could that be possible?

Well, yes.

Between 1960 and 1967 the US Army Corp of Engineers built 2,700 miles of paved highways in Afghanistan.

According to my research, the purpose of the regional transportation project was peaceful with no mention of the politics of the Cold War and the northern Russian neighbours.

The construction of just one highway between Kabul and Kandahar would shorten the journey from 10 days to six hours.

I’m not sure how many of the 50-year-old highways still remain, but since November 2016 they are being re-built again with the US stating that: “The most effective weapon America possesses in the war on terrorism may not be its military capacity, but rather rural roads and access to technology.”

Andrew Cowan won the London to Sydney Marathon in a Hillman Hunter and that model continued production in Iran until 2005.

My almost Centenarian friend also got to Sydney and is still running his marathon.

Safe motoring,

Doctor Clive Fraser

Published: 17 Mar 2017