Featured: In The ’60s, Canada Hosted An Epic Long-Distance Rally

In The ’60s, Canada Hosted An Epic Long-Distance Rally

By Michael Banovsky
December 10, 2015

One of the things I like most about my country, Canada, is that it’s still a pretty new place. It’s also a pretty big place. 

Things were a bit newer and no doubt felt even more expansive in the early ’60s, when a small group of enthusiasts held the first long-distance rally in Canada, the British Columbia International Trade Fair Rally. It was 4,075 miles long, it was won by a Studebaker Lark, and it was 1961.

Over the next few years, the event would receive title sponsorship and probably the most eclectic bunch of competitors, ranging from a ’30s Rolls-Royce Phantom III to Pontiac Stratochiefs and D.K.W.s—and these are just cars that ran in the first year! Factory teams mixed with locals, and as a long-distance rally the fast competitors from the likes of Ferrari and Porsche weren’t all that interested in competing. 

As a result, American muscle cars, Volvos, and comfortable French sedans tended to do well, and the most serious entries were often quite sedate in terms of outright pace. BMC even sent its star driver, Paddy Hopkirk, to compete in the event with his star car, the unforgettable 1965 Morris Cooper S, registration “GRX 5D”.

As serious as the competitors could be, however, humor found a way to make its mark. The non-factory teams tended to have hilarious names, such as Ecurie Confusion (Renault R8 and Volvo PV 544), The Hedonists (Triumph TR-4 and Morris 1100), and the Ralligators (Lotus Cortina and Plymouth Barracuda). These names are in keeping with the spirit of the event, which tended to be of mutual inclusion (men and women’s champions) and lighthearted humor. Along the way, competitors could win a certificate for eating a moose burger, or scribble on a few pages of the rally’s hilarious coloring book.

Its decline happened toward the end of the decade, with four additional events held between 1971 and 1997, and even as a historic rally event didn’t quite have enough gas to continue through today. Why? To start with, it’s simply a daunting task to plan—just the route itself may take the better part of a year to get right, and if run as a historic rally, few are happy to push their beloved cars to the limit on sometimes-rough roads. 

Some do, however—earlier this year, a team did the drive by tracing as much of the original routes as possible, raising money for charity along the way.

So if you’re daydreaming today and a bit tired of fantisizing about the Col de Turini and Stelvio Pass, wish that you were in Canada, in the ’60s, with a well-oiled Volvo 122S at your command and a long ribbon of asphalt to unfurl before nightfall. I have a feeling it’ll be an epic drive.

Special thanks goes to the people who help keep the memory of this event alive today, including the excellent shell-4000-rally.org and canada5000.ca. Head on over and who knows, maybe your car was once driven across Canada in anger.


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3 years ago

As Rally Secretary from the wrap-up of the 1965 Shell 4000 to its end in 1968 I would like to clarify something. Jim Gunn was the Rally Organizer for Shell Canada from its inception to its end. The Shell 4000 Rally ended in June 1968 and Jim Gunn, Rally Master Peter Bone and I went on to earn our living doing other things. However, at various times Jim Gunn was asked to organize other events, and he often called me to assist. The British Columbia Centennial Rally in 1971, while organized by Jim, Peter and I had noting to do with Shell Oil. We no longer had the use of the Shell DC3 and had to fly commmercial. That rally had an entirely different flavour than the Shell Rallies. Jim and I also organized other motorsport events such as a Canada Day celebration in Ottawa sponsored by the Government of Canada, and Jim (without me) organized The Air Dash where he lost his front teeth in a less than smooth landing. As the sole survivor of the Shell 4000 crew from the 66-68 rallies, I feel I really should set the record straight. There are probably others that may be able to post more information on the earlier rallies. My involvement started in 1965 when I manned a checkpoint in Northern Ontario for the British Automobile Racing Club – Ontario Centre and met Jim and Peter for the first time. When they needed a new Rally Secretary, Jim contacted me.

Randy Graves
Randy Graves(@rwgraves)
5 years ago

The 1968 Shell 4000 Route Book (and results) are viewable online on Flickr at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rwgraves/sets/72157675648600776/

6 years ago

We should totally revive this event along similar lines to the charity banger runs in Europe. Teams buy a car that has to be less than $1,000 and drive the route over a couple of weeks. Like a LeMons Cannonball run but much more sedate and for charity. Who’s with me?

Dave Clark
Dave Clark(@davesclark)
6 years ago
Reply to  chuckjaeger

Chuck, I was one of the guys who retraced the routes of the rallies this summer. I’m already working on bringing it back in a fashion not unlike what you just proposed. I’m starting small and hosting an event around Alberta next summer just to work out all the kinks. I’m going to need help though. Email me at traveldriverace@gmail.com if you are interested in helping or following along with my progress!

Shawn Bokaie
Shawn Bokaie(@ayrton91)
6 years ago

Fantastic article!

Bob A
Bob A(@bacteson)
6 years ago

Michael – thank you for this article! Great photos and I remember it well as my father, Henry Acteson and his buddy/driver Pip Graham competed in this 3 times – 64,65,66 I believe. They did as a privateer entry, Volvo 122s they prepped and did it during their holidays. Their last year they placed 2nd overall behind a Team Ford car which Dad said couldn’t have gone another 10 miles – yet, they cleaned up, filled up and drove back to Calgary from Montreal! He has many great stories from the 4000 and loved the event.
Bob Acteson