Night of the Hunter

There’s a great book by racer-turned-journalist Innes Ireland, entitled Marathon in the Dust, which tells the eventful story of the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon. The ‘race’ was in fact, a 10,000 mile test of endurance, the works Cortina of Clark/Andersson proving the bookies’ favourite amongst a strong field of proven rally winners, including Hopkirk/Nash/Poole and Aaltonen/Lidden/Easter in BMC 1800s, Staepalaere/Lampinen in a Ford Taunus, Bianchi/Ogier in a Citroën  DS; more works-backed entries from Daf, Porsche, Simca and Moskovich; and privateers including the British Army, the RAF, and a Cortina entered by Mr. Terry-Thomas. Ireland himself took the wheel of a Mercedes 280SE, appropriately sponsored by Beefeater Gin, with fellow Grand Prix veteran Mike Taylor and BMC racer Andrew Hedges. True to form Roger Clark dominated the early stages, only to be delayed with mechanical issues, leaving what looked like certain victory to Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier. Just 100 miles from the finish though, the Citroën was involved in a head-on collision with a reckless driver on a supposedly closed section of road, second-placed Hopkirk arriving at the scene just in time to extinguish the burning Mini, while Nash and Poole worked to cut Bianchi free from the wreckage before the fire spread. Through the wreckage – with the selfless Hopkirk’s blessing, I should add – drove the victor, an outside bet if ever there was one: a Hillman Hunter, driven by Andrew Cowan with Colin Malkin and Brian Coyle.


Simply put, the Hunter had been built like a tank, Cowan and crew having listened well to the “horror stories” coming back from the reconnaissance teams, and testing every component accordingly. They certainly weren’t the best financed team, but they were the best prepared and the result proved a testament to Cowan’s request for “a car to come last”. Victory for the struggling Rootes Group was an enormous boost, given their recent disaster with the Hillman Imp and workforce troubles, both of which had left them facing serious financial difficulties, and ripe for a takeover by Chrysler. Sadly it would take more than one fortunate win to recapture the days of rallying success with Sunbeam marque, and by this time Rootes had travelled too far down the road of badge-engineering the ‘Arrow’ range – of which the Hunter was part – to take full advantage of an undeniably prestigious achievement.


Development of the ‘Arrow’ project began in 1962, the aim being to create a range of cars sharing a common platform, though given the developmental issues being experienced with the ambitious Imp, Rootes elected to keep things simple, opting to utilise existing components and know-how wherever possible. Thus the Hunter turned few heads upon its appearance in 1966, the neat, workmanlike styling by Rex Fleming and William Towns looking like a straightforward, if slightly bland relation of the Mk II Cortina (introduced later the same year) with which it would be in direct competition. If the adverts were to be believed though, the Hunter was the “finest family car ever designed”, and it’s true to say that the model proved an appealing package to suburbanites and fleet owners alike, being as it was, reassuringly steady in both performance and handling, with excellent fuel economy to boot.


The Arrow range would encompass not only the popular Hunter, but also the elegant Sunbeam Rapier ‘Fastback’ coupé which appeared the following year, the Singer Gazelle and the upmarket Humber Sceptre Mk III. Chrysler however were preoccupied with a new range of Simca-based cars for Europe, and no sooner had the Arrow range been introduced than it was placed on the proverbial backburner, the various incarnations limping undeveloped to their graves over the next ten years. Fittingly the Hillman was the last to go, in 1979, having received a number of superficial upgrades along the way and a more powerful 93 bhp Holbay engine (74 bhp had been standard).


After their success in the London-Sydney event, a pair of Hunters took part in the 1970 London-Mexico City World Cup Rally, but alas lighting didn’t strike twice, with Rees/Thomas/James coming home 15th of the 23 finishers. The Hunter’s time in the sun might have been fleeting, but it was at least immortalised in the best way possible: by Corgi Toys, whose beautifully packaged replica not only featured detachable wheels, but also a little kangaroo…


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