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Roger Clark's Escort RS1800

Testing Times with Albert

by Jem Shaw

Those of sufficiently advanced years will remember the mighty Roger Albert Clark. This silver-locked poster boy for Cossack hairspray could be found on the world's rally stages or in the bar of the world's overnight hotels. In neither case would the direction in which he was facing necessarily coincide with the direction in which he was actually going. On my first Welsh International Rally I made the shoolboy error of trying match capacities with him on a mid-rally stopover. He was driving again the following morning, so clearly he wouldn't be giving it plenty. By the time I realised my mistake I was already incapable of realising my mistake. The next day saw him in unforgiveably bright spirits, while I repeatedly staggered from car to nearby hedges as a result of "something I must have eaten."

In 1976, the Dunlop A2 rally tyre was rewriting the rule book for forest stages. Essentially a hand-cut race tyre, it was unbeatable on relatively smooth tracks, but its crossply construction made different demands on the suspension from the radial M&S tyres used elsewhere. I met up with the Ford works team at the Bagshot testing ground for a day's experimentation. "Albert" spent the day hurling his signature RS1800 around the forest and considerable data was gleaned.

But then the day got considerably better.

As the gear was being packed away, Mr Clark tossed me a helmet. "Stick that on your head and strap your arse in the car."

Hell yeah! Away we went, tail wagging and gravel flying. This was good. I liked this. I glanced at the speedo. Fifty mph. Yep, I'd not be going anywhere near this speed. As we broadsided through a gate I caught sight of a warning sign: "Start of Rally Testing Course"

And that's when the world exploded.

These days, 240bhp doesn't sound like anything special. Back then, it was supercar power, especially in a stripped-out Escort that probably weighed less than my leg. If, at the final reckoning, we should get the chance of a moment of our lives to relive for eternity, this could be it. The noise was unspeakable and the impact of gravel on the underpan was a constant hammering on my soles. But the sensation of speed - sorry, SPEED - was more intense than I've ever experienced, before or since. While I braced myself against the roll cage, floor and seat, Albert danced. His hands were constantly crossing, and his feet were on every pedal at once. I swear at one point he twisted his arms into a corkscrew and simultaneously planted his left foot on the brake while his right stabbed the clutch.

The title of Roger's autobiography says it all: Sideways... to Victory!. On the approach to every corner, he'd begin by swinging the tail the wrong way, then reverse the swing to hit the bend already facing the way he wanted to exit. He did it every time, right up to the moment when he didn't.

Bagshot used to be a tank proving ground. There are lots of steep climbs, and we hit one of them at some three-figure velocity. It was a brief but jolting climb; think the take-off ramp of Thunderbird 2. Got that in mind? Good, because we left the slope in a similar manner. The Escort carried on going up. The view forward was bonnet and sky. As the nose dropped, it continued to be bonnet and sky. Surely there should be some ground soon?

When terra firma reappeared, it did little to reassure me. We were heading straight for a 360° hairpin, beyond which was... nothing. I anticipated the tail swing to signal that turning was imminent. It didn't come. I glanced at the skipper. He's frozen. He knows he's overcooked it and we're going to die.

As it turned out, we didn't die. R.A. Clark wasn't at his first rodeo. At the centre of the hairpin was a ditch. He dropped in a front wheel, did something complicated with the handbrake and my eyeballs tried to leave my skull through my ears. A millisecond later we were on the return, becoming airborne as we yumped the down ramp.

Mr Clark grinned and punched my leg. "Had you goin' there, didn't I?"

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