Obituary: Roger Clark
Friday 16 January 1998
Roger Clark, a legendary character in the world of rallying, was Britain's most successful driver in the 1960s and 1970s. Many think him the best of all time.
Although justly famous for twice winning Britain's RAC International Rally in Ford Escorts - in 1972 (with Tony Mason as his co-driver) and in 1976 (with Stuart Pegg) - in a glittering career he won 25 other major international rallies, in Britain, Europe, Canada, and South Africa. For two decades he was not only the best of British, but was warily respected by rivals all over the world.
Once he was established in "works" teams in the mid-1960s, his flamboyant driving and his refusal to be overawed by any event, car or rival, changed the face of British rallying. Before this time British stars, in general, had been well-to-do motor traders, not used to loose surfaces and aggressive competition from Scandinavians. Clark, by contrast, was young, fit, well- balanced and skilful on all surfaces - and not at all impressed by any other driver.
Not that he ever knew - or cared about - the origin of his superlative talents, which he accepted as there, built-in and supreme, to be enjoyed and exploited. He often said, at the chat shows and interviews he so readily gave: "I don't care how sideways I am. As long as I'm not actually looking out of the back window at the time, I should be able to get it all back into line."
In sport, and in most things which ever attracted his attention, he usually took the simple approach, yet far too many people missed the deep thinker hidden away behind the affable front. Analysts trying to dig deeper were airily dismissed, for throughout his career Clark took a straightforward view of what life, and competition motoring, had to offer. Weight training, or any vigorous exercise, was anathema to him. As he freely admitted: "All the exercise I need is to walk down to the pub from home" - he was certainly more at home close to a bar than to a gymnasium.
Clark was born just before the Second World War in Leicestershire, where his father ran a small garage business. By the late 1950s, when he left Hinckley Grammar School with five O levels, but with much more interest in sport, the business had taken on several new-car franchises. With his brother Stan, he then joined the family business which would be his sheet anchor for 30 years. Starting at the bottom, with oily hands and a growing knowledge of the workings of the motor car, he took up motorsport in cars best described as old bangers, but then shot to fame in British club rallies with a BMC Mini Cooper. He forged, too, a long-time partnership with Jim Porter, who stayed on as his co-driver for 20 years. Bizarrely, though, Porter did not share in either of his RAC Rally wins: he was working for the organisers on both events.
Except for one category success (in a Rover 2000) in the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally, his early "works" drives were unsuccessful, but after he joined Ford (his first full season being in 1966), his sheer driving pace, and ability, were obvious.
Clark, Ford and (from 1968) the fastest special-engined Ford Escorts were inseparable until the end of 1979 and even in the 1980s (when his factory-backed career was over) he would still take every opportunity of driving one again. When the London-Sydney Marathon "retrospective", for classic cars, was held in the early 1990s, it was the Clark/Escort combination which set almost every fastest time.
Throughout the 1970s he was a permanent, and much- admired, member of the celebrated Ford factory rally team, usually driving Escorts, but sometimes testing or campaigning strange models to which the bosses had taken a fancy. Sometimes his chances of success - in a Zodiac (in Eastern Europe) or a Capri (in the Tour of Britain) - were remote, but he never complained: "It's always exciting, and I'm getting paid to go mad in someone else's car. It beats working!"
His best was always wondrous to watch, on any surface, but he was at his most spectacular on loose surfaces, where he could use the Escort's finely balanced handling to get the car sliding sideways, and able to "dance" to his command. No other British driver could match these skills, for when in his prime Clark was the equal of world-class Scandinavians like Hannu Mikkola and Bjorn Waldegard. Not for nothing was his best- selling 1976 autobiography (which I helped him to write) entitled Sideways . . . to Victory.
When not rallying, which was rarely, he helped run the expanding family businesses in the Leicester area, and opened Roger Clark Cars in Narborough in the 1970s. Hit hard by the collapse of the economy in 1990, these had to close down, but in his final years, even though in precarious health, he set up Roger Clark Motor Sport, which prepared cars for others to use in rallying.
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