It’s tough being a rally car. Instead of finding a comfortable home with a private owner, it’s stripped, tuned and campaigned to within an inch of its life before being retired and falling into obscurity. Just watch any Herbie film and you’ll get the idea. So imagine our surprise when we stumbled across what has to be one of the most historic rally Beetles of all time at Porsche specialist Francis Tuthill near Banbury. The ex-London to Sydney and RAC Rally warhorse was looking pretty shabby a few years ago – and was destined to be scrapped. However, we’ve discovered CBW 457K miraculously survives so we spoke to its owner, rally legend Francis Tuthill to find out a bit more about its remarkable history…
The car took part in the 1977 London to Sydney Marathon, sponsored by Singapore Airlines. At the time it was the longest-ever rally, covering 20,000 miles, traveling through Western Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Singapore, and ending with a grueling 7000 mile burn up around Australia. Two Beetles were among the 77 competing vehicles; one was Francis Tuthill and co-driver Anthony Showell’s then five-year old 1302S, the other a 1200S (with a 1600 engine) driven by a Franco-German crew.
In anticipation of the huge task ahead, Tuthill packed a vast amount of spares – including a spare engine which was stored just below the rear windscreen. “Cartune sponsored us and built the overbored 1800cc engine – and I put together a replica block myself with cylinder heads attached which we took as a spare,” confirmed Francis. Unfortunately Tuthill’s seemingly unwarranted pessimism proved well founded as the Cartune engine only got as far as Paris before developing a death rattle. “We had to fit the replacement engine by the roadside, swapping the exhaust, tinware and all the other ancillaries.” Fortunately, Francis had the insight to make a removable back panel for the Beetle so the whole process, using a miniature trolley jack, only took an hour and a half – a feat Francis is still understandably proud of. “A lady nearby was stranded with a snapped fanbelt, and we’d managed to whip out our old engine, fit the new one and get it up and running before the recovery services arrived to help her.”
Not everything went according to plan, though. Unfortunately co-driver and close friend Anthony was so eager to get back into the race that he threw forward the specially made bucket seat with headrest and smashed the windscreen in the process, costing the intrepid crew a 24 hour penalty while they went in search of a replacement.
There’s no doubt the rally must have been a pretty full-on affair with four-day non-stop stints, and only short breaks in between with a full six-day, adrenalin fuelled foot on the throttle stage in Australia. But that didn’t stop Francis doing a bit of tinkering in between. “At the end of that first leg to Milan, I took the head off the broken engine to find out what had gone wrong and discovered a collapsed piston.” Mindful of the fact that he had fitted the same pistons in the replacement engine that he’d just installed, he ordered a complete short block from VW in Milton Keynes, calling on several favours to get it flown direct to Tehran. “When we got there I took all the salvageable bits off the original engine and put them on the new short block, leaving what was left of the Cartune engine under the stairs of the British Embassy.”
By the time the Beetle got to Perth, Francis realised that the only way they were going to be able to tackle the outback was if they shed some weight, so many of the spares, including a complete gearbox, were left behind at a VW specialist in the city. However, the decision to jettison a hoard of suspension parts subsequently proved disastrous when they rolled the car on a snowy stage in NSW. “We bent the driveshaft and suspension, so Anthony had to get a lift back with a friendly police officer the whole 500 miles back to retrieve the necessary spares that we’d left behind. That cost us another 24 hour penalty!”
Eventually, the hapless Beetle crossed the line but time penalties which amounted to several days in the end meant they finished 36th. Their fellow Beetle companions fared slightly better, finishing a creditable 17th.
Tuthill drove the same Beetle on the 1978 RAC Rally and finished 56th and again in 1984 when it raised money for the Rainbow Club charity – hence the colourscheme.
According to an entry on the Tuthill website in 2009, three classic Beetles were destined to meet their maker, but Francis confirms two, including CBW 457K, are being stored in a barn at their premises. And he forwarded some up to date pictures to prove it!
It’s obviously true what they say about old Beetles never dying!