The London to Lisbon HERO Rally Is Quintessential Classic Road Rallying Across Europe
Photography by Will Broadhead
I’m on top of the world, figuratively and literally, or at least that’s how it feels. As I survey the scene from Portugal’s highest peak, where the snow still covers the ground and the rays of the early morning spring sun struggle cut the chill—I’m buzzing. I can see for miles, down into the valleys of the Star Mountain Range and back towards Spain, back towards the beginnings of a journey that stretches all the way to the banked walls of the historic Brooklands circuit in England.
Ok, so in reality it’s only 6,500 feet up in the air, hardly Everest, but it’s significant as from here the 47 classic cars that were on this year’s London to Lisbon Rally, laid on by the evergreen HERO, are on the last legs of a 2,000-mile, ten-day odyssey that saw them take in some of the most breathtaking scenery France, Spain, and Portugal have to offer. There was still a lot of rallying to be done after I traversed back down, and I am snapped sharply out of my daydream by the bark of an approaching 911, the crisp air-cooled engine note clattering across the tundra between us.
What an adventure it has been, the literature of the rally describes it as an introduction to tougher events for the novice and intermediate crowd, heck some people even pronounced that this was more of a tour than a regularity rally, and whilst it is no LeJog (Lands’ End to John ‘o Groats), it’s been no drive in the park either.
Up at the top of the leaderboard sit the Chicks, Stephen and Alex, the father and son team in their Austin Healey 3000. Unusual for this sort of event, they share the in-car duties, with Alex driving the regularities whilst Dad handles the tests. They’ve been out front since day one, but hot on the heels is experienced pairing Dan Gresley and his hotshot young navigator, Elise Whyte. Both have come close to winning HERO’s annual driver and navigator titles in the past, and both have finished in the runner-up spot on this very rally before. Dan is ever flamboyant in his stunning 911, and is chasing the Chicks hard for the glory come the finish in Estoril.
For the remainder of the rally, positions in the peloton changed almost by the hour, with the endless regularity tests that are the theme of this event. The regs take place at a controlled pace, with the teams attempting to finish them at an exact average speed and without making any navigational errors using the Tulip-based directions. Maintaining an average of 30mph might not sound all that tricky, but the roads these guys are driving on are of the more remote and elbows-in variety, where the verges are close and the drops in the mountain ranges are on the frightening side of steep. Add to that the confusion of various tributary roads, well-hidden timing points, and even swathes of pilgrims to get in the way (no really), as well as the horses, cows, and donkeys that roam free in these parts, and you’ve got a difficult challenge on your hands.
Judging by the smiles at the coffee stops though, it is great fun to be competing, and really, how could it not be when a route is as inspiring as this? There seem to be endless switchbacks and each change of direction produces another snapshot of stunning scenery that has one continually updating his highlight reel.
Even rattling around in the hire car I’m having a ball, although I’m wishing more than anything that I was in one of the scores of classics, throwing it at the yet another gravel strewn bend, tossing a rooster tail of delight rearwards. These may be classic cars, with a hefty street value in some cases, but here they are rally cars and are being used as such. The response from the other road users in the mountains and at rest stops is welcoming and similarly envious, with other drivers, cyclists, and on-foot pedestrians intrigued by our band of driving enthusiasts.
All too soon though the journey is complete, and the engines silenced. Whilst the competitors celebrate into the night with well-earned glasses of cold and fizzy, I take the opportunity for a solitary walk around the now motionless cars that have reached the conclusion of this event with the scars to show for it. I look at the dust and mud that are plastered on the wings, the rows of dead insects, temporarily mashed into bumpers like rust pocks. I allow my hands to rest on the occasional car, enveloping my mind’s eye with memories of roads conquered and miles ticked off. I can hear the snarl and rhythm of high performance cylinder banks echoing off of mountain walls and smell the unburnt fuel from over-rich engines as cars fizz and bang on the overrun on testing descents. I’ve done a few of these rallies now, each different to the last, but what is ever-present is just what a tangibly “worth-it” experience it all is, how the memories last and last. As wholly consumed by exhaustion as I am at it’s end, I can’t wait for the next one.