TODAY I'm setting off to drive to Sydney from London with my dad, in a 25-year-old Ford Escort. We'll be going with 105 other cars of similar vintage, leaving from Chelsea Harbour at one-minute intervals.

We are jointly celebrating the 25th anniversary of the London-

Sydney Marathon, first of the modern-day long-distance car rallies. Much more important, we are involved in a highly competitive event that takes us through 12 countries in a month, often at speeds of more than 100mph. And we'll be using some of the world's worst roads.

The original rally was as fiercely competitive as it was hugely popular. An estimated 60 million people saw it live, making it the most-watched sporting contest in history.

Factory-backed teams from Ford, British Leyland, Citroen, Lancia, Porsche, Hillman, DAF and Russia's Moskvitch (which came 22nd, but advertised back home that they had won) fought out the 1968 event. They hired the world's best rally drivers and backed them with service crews in vans and aeroplanes.

The drivers had only one overnight stop on the 10,000-

mile journey, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The rest of the time - apart from the nine-day sea crossing from Bombay to Perth, in Western Australia - they drove non-stop. It was as much a test of their stamina as of the cars' speed and reliability.

The Scotsman Andrew Cowan won, and soon established himself as the greatest long-distance modern-day rally driver. He's doing this year's event, in the same Hillman Hunter he used in 1968. The car has been completely rebuilt. Modern technology should help make most of the 25-year-old cars quicker and more reliable than the best from 1968.

There are 24 other London-

Sydney veterans having another go, including Roger Clark, Britain's last winner of the RAC Rally, and my father, who drove one of the four BL factory-

entered Austin 1800s in 1968. He was running fifth in central Australia - equal with Cowan - before a wheel bearing seized. He eventually finished 21st.

A host of former British, European and Australian rallying champions are also competing this year. Most of the entrants, though, are enthusiastic amateurs. Unlike 1968, there are no factory-backed teams, and service crews are forbidden. If you want to fit new parts to your car during the rally, you have to take them with you or get them from a commercial garage en route. This should be especially easy in India, where most cars are 25 years old.

Although the cars have to be of a type available in 1968 - and must use engines and gearboxes from that period - most of the mechanical bits can be new, including the internals for the engine, brakes and suspension.

Our Escort has a specially prepared 147bhp engine. The body has been greatly strengthened, tight-fitting rally seats are fitted, the cabin has been stripped of carpet and sound-deadening - to save weight - and lightweight Perspex replaces all glass, except for the windscreen. A big sump guard is fitted under the engine, to protect it from rocks and broken roads. Minilite magnesium wheels - lighter and stronger than steel or aluminium - are used.

The event's organiser, Nick Brittan, reckons the average value of the cars, all of which have been specially prepared, is about pounds 27,000. A standard 1968 car, fresh from a used-car dealer's forecourt, would have no chance of finishing, let alone winning: the roads will be too rough, the pace too quick. The Russians are there again, along with New Guinea, among 22 countries reprpesented.

Cars vary from Moskvitches to Porsche 911s, and include Australian vehicles such as V8-

powered Holden Monaros and Ford Falcons, bound to be fast on long desert roads. A Sydney travel agent has entered a Rolls-

Royce Corniche, which should give the most comfortable drive, if not the most competitive.

This year's route had intended to follow the original's. However, many of the countries that the 1968 rally passed through - notably former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan - are now too dangerous. Iran was also bypassed when the authorities there increased the visa fee for British nationals from pounds 16 to pounds 504 after the recent conflict over Salman Rushdie.

The competitors now will go through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Turkey. From Ankara, two specially adapted Russian Antonov military cargo aircraft will fly the cars to Delhi. The rally then heads north to the foothills of the Himalayas before turning south to Bombay, across the Rajasthan desert. From there the Antonovs take the cars to Perth for the final 3,500-mile drive to Sydney. The finish is scheduled for 16 May at Sydney harbour.

In deference to some of the veterans, there are no all-night drives: competitors spend every evening in a hotel (or, in India, in two maharajas' palaces). However, there must be only two drivers per car. In 1968, the norm was three. Most days involve about 12 hours' motoring.

As with all competitive rallies, the driving is a mixture of 'transport' stages, in which competitors can drive at a leisurely pace with other traffic - they merely have to get from A to B - and special stages: these being where the rally will be won or lost. For special stages, the roads are closed to the public, and there are no speed limits. Competitors have to drive as hard as possible, or as hard as they deem wise - bearing in mind the rally's length and the need to conserve the car.

Every car is timed to the second. On most days, there are two special stages. The person who is cumulatively the fastest on the special stages - yet still manages to complete the transport stages in the allocated time - will win.

Marathon briefing

The AA will follow the event in two specially prepared Ford Granada estates, carrying four patrolmen, to give mechanical assistance to any car in trouble.

Five Ford Mondeos will cover the rally route, carrying officials.

The original rally was run in November. It took nine days to reach Bombay, and three-and-a-half days to cross Australia. Of the 98 starters, 55 finished.

The Belgian Lucien Bianchi, in a Citroen DS, led in 1968 until 100 miles from Sydney, when a head-on accident broke his leg and robbed him of victory. He was killed soon after during practice for the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Of the 106 entries this year, 46 are from Australia, followed by Britain (33).

A London-Sydney Marathon was held in 1977, but received far less publicity than that of 1968. It, too, was won by Andrew Cowan, in a factory-entered Mercedes 280E.

Central TV is covering the Marathon.

The entry fee for competitors was more than pounds 14,000, including hotels and airlifts, but the event was way oversubscribed, so another is planned next year.

The Lombard London-Sydney Marathon starts at 8am today. The first car to leave Chelsea Harbour will be Andrew Cowan's. The last should leave at 9.46am. Gavin Green will write weekly reports on the event for the Independent.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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