From 1953-’57, the Great American Mountain Rally (GAMR) brought a taste of European competitive driving events to those of us on this side of the Atlantic. The first FIA-recognized rally in North America, the GAMR typically covered some thousand-plus miles over two or three days through New England in late November, ensuring that snow-covered passes and icy roads were part of the challenge. This October, the GAMR is being revived in a kinder, gentler fashion, giving owners of vintage and modern cars a chance to sample the sport of time-speed-distance rallying.
The very first GAMR began on Thanksgiving Day, 1953. Organized by the Motor Sports Club of America (MSCA) and sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA), the event began in New York City and wound through Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, ending in Poughkeepsie after a pair of overnight stops. Thanks to a mild autumn (or a delayed winter, depending upon one’s perspective), conditions were more favorable than planned, with just one mountain pass (Vermont’s Lincoln Gap) requiring tire chains to navigate.
Emphasizing the rally’s significance, the Rootes Group sent a trio of Sunbeam automobiles, including two Alpines and a Talbot 90 sedan. Piloting one Alpine was veteran English rally driver Sheila van Damm (who received a special exemption from the AAA, which typically refused to allow female competitors), with navigator Ron Kessel. American racer Sherwood Johnson drove the second Alpine, with Ian Garrard – who’d later serve as West Coast sales manager for the Rootes Group and was a driving force behind the creation of the Ford V-8-powered Sunbeam Tiger – piloting the Talbot 90.
As to be expected, the first GAMR did not go off without a hitch. Van Damm was critical of mistakes made by the MSCA, which required entrants to submit a calculated speedometer error for each vehicle, something not spelled out in the event regulations. In addition to the timed component, there was also a set distance for each day that prompted penalties if not achieved, or if exceeded. The Rootes Group team protested that this system made no provision for things like wheelspin, and to get around it, other teams either disconnected odometers or ran cars with the rear wheels off the ground to quickly add mileage.
By the end of the event, organizers did away with the daily mileage component, which left the winning team (an MG driven by Americans Stewart Blodgett and J. Bough) unaffected, but altered a significant number of results in the top-10. The Rootes Group cars finished well in the Sports Class, up to 1,500 cc, taking first and second spots along with the Manufacturer’s Team Award, a result good enough to bring the team back to the United States for the 1954 running.
In the event’s sophomore year, regulations were changed to more closely mirror those used in European rally competitions. The Rootes Group again sent three cars, this time including drivers van Damm (paired with her regular navigator, Ann Wisdom) and Stirling Moss, teamed with navigator Ron Kessel. While a mileage component returned to the regulations, this time there was a larger margin of error used in the calculation. All control points were kept secret from competitors, and a daily timing sheet with a calculated average speed between controls kept navigators working as hard as drivers throughout the event.
Despite colder weather (and hence, more snow), the rally’s second year was a further success, and this time the winning car was a 1954 Oldsmobile convertible driven by Bill Grauds and Art Mulligan, which excelled in the trials at the event’s end (once again in Poughkeepsie). As word of the event spread, so, too, did the number of clubs and factory teams competing, and for 1955, Austin-Healey, Rootes Group and Ford of England all submitted entries. The 1956 and ’57 events would further include French automaker Renault and Swedish automaker Saab, which won the event overall in ’56, taking the Factory Team Award in the process. Formula One World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio even waved the starting flag for the 1956 rally, which was described by Road & Track as “long and arduous,” and “not to be taken lightly as a test of either machines or men.”
But then, the GAMR ended. The reason why has largely been lost to history, but chances are good that no single factor prompted the rally’s demise. Perhaps it proved logistically difficult or too expensive to host every year, or perhaps rural municipalities were no longer quite as willing to tolerate spirited driving on public roads. Though stage speeds were set at or below speed limits in the event, delays required drivers to make up time lost. Unofficial event historian (and 2018 GAMR Rally Chair) Steve McKelvie notes on his website that, “Rolf Mellde, who had rallied all over Europe said that in a leg coming into St. Johnsbury, Vermont, that he had never driven harder.”
Don’t expect the re-launch of the event to be quite as spirited, or as hard on equipment. No longer a test of man and machine, McKelvie sees the 2018 GAMR as a chance to drive and enjoy old cars, not break them. To begin with, the event will take place from October 11-14 instead of the end of November, greatly reducing the chance of snow along the route. The overall distance of 800 miles will be shorter, too, and while there won’t be time for sightseeing, competitors shouldn’t expect 15- or 20-hour legs that the original demanded.
Three classes of cars will be allowed to compete, including Original (vehicles built in 1957 and earlier, that could have run in the original GAMR); Classic (cars built between 1958-’80); and Modern (cars built in or after 1981). In keeping with the vintage vibe of the revamped GAMR, modern navigation equipment, contemporary rally computers, and even electronic calculators are outlawed, leaving teams with the option to use rally odometers, mechanical calculators, slide rules, paper speed tables and paper maps only, though stopwatches and clocks of any kind are allowed.
In addition to daily route instructions, each team will be supplied with 1953-vintage Mobilgas maps covering Southern and Northern New England, and every road used in the rally will be present on the maps. Each leg will contain measured stages, but the entire duration will not be clocked, leaving teams a bit more breathing room. Though not exactly a relaxing drive due to the timed and measured competition aspect, McKelvie hopes the 2018 GAMR will attract new competitors to the sport, including those without prior rally experience.
The 2018 GAMR will end at Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vermont, during the afternoon of October 14. The cost to enter the rally has not yet been finalized, but McKelvie expects it to run between $1,000 -$1,200 per one-car, two-person team, which includes a reception at Churchill Classic Cars in Eldred, New York, on Thursday night, two dinners, three nights of hotels, three breakfasts, and any other fees associated with the event. Instead of overall prizes being awarded, those finishing first, second, or third in each class will claim trophies.
If the idea of competing in a European-style rally appeals to you, but traveling Europe to do so does not, the 2018 GAMR may be the event you’ve been waiting for. For additional details, contact Rallymaster Gary Hamilton at GAMRR2018@gmail.com.