Tony Ambrose: Champion rally co-driver
Saturday 26 January 2008
John Anthony Ambrose, rally driver: born Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire 12 August 1933; twice married (two daughters); died Newbury, Berkshire 5 January 2008.
Tony Ambrose was the forerunner of the great British co-drivers who have helped shape successes in international rallying over the last 40 years. Although best known as a member of the remarkable BMC rally team of the 1960s, it was in a private Aston Martin that he first came to fame, as the co-driver in the three-man crew that won the RAC Rally (now the Wales Rally GB) in 1956.
Ambrose grew up in the Cotswalds, where his father owned a small farm-machinery business. He was educated at Chipping Norton Grammar School, gaining a scholarship in 1951 to read Natural Sciences at Jesus College, Oxford, an achievement that won him a 1948 MG TC (red with red leather upholstery) from his father. His interest in rallying began at university, where he sought out fellow motorsport enthusiasts and re-founded the Oxford University Motor Drivers' Club (after a ban by the Proctors), serving as Secretary and then President. The club became one of the strengths in British clubman's rally motorsport in the 1960s.
In 1960 Ambrose was invited to join the fledgling BMC rally team, and competed in cars ranging from 850 Minis to Austin Westminster A105s, though it was the Mini Cooper S and Austin Healey 3000 cars that were most competitive in those days. International successes soon came, with class victories on the 1961 Tulip (in Holland, Belgium and eastern France), the 1962 RAC, the 1963 Alpine (from Marseilles into the Alps) and outright victory on the 1964 Tulip. His greatest win had to be the last traditional Spa-Sofia-Liege event, which took place later on in 1964.
The 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liege was by general consensus the toughest road rally ever held in Europe, an event of a format that could never be held these days. The champion driver Rauno Aaltonen still praises Ambrose's part in their momentous victory in a Austin Healey 3000. Crews faced four days and nights with no scheduled chance to sleep:
Tony planned it all, he forced me to sleep even at moments when I wasn't so tired. He even drove one 77-mile section at night in 52 minutes. We were going at maximum speed, 150 mph, on cobbled roads amid unlit horses and carts, yet he was such a safe driver I slept through it all! He could have been just as good a driver as he was a co-driver.
Nineteen sixty-five was a special year for Ambrose. He co-drove Aaltonen to the European Rally Championship title, then the sport's top international series, and finished the season with a second victory in his home event, the RAC Rally in Britain. During the year BMC concentrated on events in which competition was less daunting but where logistics were very difficult: victories came at the Geneva Rally, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, and then in the Three Cities Rally, which went from Germany to Hungary.
BMC was the only official team in which Ambrose competed, but it was a classic team made up of the top drivers of the day including Paddy Horkirk, Timo Makinen and Simo Lampinen. Ambrose continued with BMC until 1966, when he succumbed to pressure from his business and his family to spend more time at home. This was the year when the British teams were excluded from the Monte Carlo Rally en masse for fitting a controversial lighting system, so Ambrose's last rally was the 1966 RAC Rally. He drove a Mini with Simo Lampinen, who well remembers them rolling their car.
It was a disaster. When we rolled, all of Tony's maps had flown out of the battered car and were scattered around Wales, but we both saw no reason why we could not carry on. In the end the team manager Stuart Turner said the car looked more like a church on wheels than a car, and for that reason we had to stop.
Ambrose still had a lot of time for the sport he loved after he gave up racing, and undertook much of the organisation for the first inter-continental rally, the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon, and the London-Mexico Rally two years later, both ground-breaking projects in their day. He is remembered as a quiet man, unusually methodical in his work and a great enthusiast. Aaltonen is seen as the thinking man's rally driver but he admits, "I learned all that from Tony.
He taught me so much, like rallying was not just about understanding the sport but understanding the culture of the people in various countries. People from my country, Finland, where we tend to look at the world from the top of a chimney, needed down-to-earth people like him to get the best out of us.
The BMC rallying team was very much an effort where people worked together for the best of the team itself. "Tony just wanted the best results. When he had to give up, he openly recommended me to fellow co-driver Henry Liddon. It was good advice. Henry and I went on to win the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally together. Tony relished a challenge, because it was something to think about and solve."
Stuart Turner said: "I always thought of Tony as being the most intellectual part of our team, and he was also an interesting bridge between the old school of gentleman rally competitors and the coming generation of professionals". Turner's fellow BMC team manager Bill Price remembers Ambrose as a most capable driver in his own right, a great asset on endurance events such as the Spa-Sofia-Liege.
He was also instrumental in developing the science of pace-noting, a technique which was then in its infancy. And it wasn't just a matter of finding ways of going quicker round the corners, it was also about finding the correct route, because the organisers' instructions in those days were far from perfect.
Outside rallying Tony Ambrose was involved a family decorating business in Basingstoke and running a tavern in Wales. He was one of the oldest surviving winners of the RAC Rally event, and had hoped to attend the Wales Rally GB 75 years' celebration last month but ill health prevented his appearance.
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