The last Trans-Canada Rally took place in 1971, the same year the Trans-Canada Highway was completed.
Knowing there was a paved highway to cross the country must have taken some of the thrill out of it.
The rally – which took place from 1961 to 1968, and in 1971 – sent competitors 6,400 kilometres across farmer’s fields, through sucking mud, over gravel roads and sometimes snow, with no GPS and often only each other for support. Amateurs like Myrna and Bill Williams and Tinkerbell, their miniature poodle, competed against professionals like Monte-Carlo Rally winner Paddy Hopkirk, Formula 1 driver Pedro Rodriguez, and three-time Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti.
“It’s a very well-kept secret,” said Marcel Chichak, who runs the website Shell-4000-Rally.org. His comprehensive archive of photos, documents and press clippings paint a picture of a gruelling, anything-goes event.
It’s another half-forgotten chapter in Canadian motorsport history that deserves to be remembered, if only because it seemed like so much fun.
“Well, of course everybody cheated,” said Don McQuirk, who ran the rally four times. “It was sport. You didn’t get all mad just because you’d done something stupid. It’s probably a young person’s thing. There were a few people in their 30s, but not many older than that.”
McQuirk and his younger brother Colin drove an old Bentley through the mud – a 1951 MK IV that Don had restored himself. Always dressed in shirts and ties and jackets, the brothers garnered local and international media attention. There’s a newspaper photo of McQuirk in his Bentley, smoking a pipe while running a special stage.
“That caused some amusement, to see us two among a room full of coveralls,” McQuirk said.
The rally route changed over the years, but most often went from Montreal to Vancouver, or vice versa.
“The impetus came from rallyists, and CASC [Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs],” said Chichak. Jim Gunn, chief organizer, was also instrumental in making the event happen.
“As the President of CASC, [Gunn’s] wish was to promote motorsport in Canada, and upon joining Shell, he saw the opportunity to ‘marry commercial sponsorship with the sport,’” according to a 1966 issue Canadian Track and Traffic magazine.
Shell became title sponsor in 1962, and the event was re-named the Shell 4000 Rally.
It was the only rally in North America sanctioned by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), the sport’s governing body.
Car companies sent factory teams and professional drivers to grab headlines. The rally organizers were so happy to have such high-profile entrants racing across rural Canada that they occasionally turned a blind eye to a certain amount of rule-breaking, Chichak explained.
Ford brought in a hot-shoe from Europe, Bo Ljungfeldt, only to have him wreck the team’s Falcon rally car somewhere in Alberta. Rumour has it that he went to a local dealer, got another Falcon and stuck his number plate on it. He promptly wrecked that car too.
“I’ve got pictures of him sitting on his upside-down car. That was pretty much last time he drove for Ford,” said Chichak.
Officially, only the driver and co-driver were allowed to work on the cars. But Don McQuirk remembers a smashed-up Ford Cortina screaming past and taking a sudden turn off the course. “At the next checkpoint, along comes the Cortina looking just as sprightly as ever. Just off-track they had a big semi-trailer with a workshop and parts and mechanics. Everybody knew it was done, but kept quiet.”
For privateers like the McQuirk brothers, the experience was quite different. He estimated the whole rally cost them $300.
“I’d come home, take the junk out of the car, and off we went to the rally,” Don remembered. “There was really no preparation other than making sure you had a full tank of gas and the radiator was full.”
“You didn’t spend a lot on food because you didn’t have time to eat. You were more in survival mode: couple waffles and coffee.”
In 1956, he bought the Bentley with a broken motor for around $3,000. An electromechanical engineer by training and a self-taught mechanic, he fixed the motor himself.
The privateers relied on each other and the kindness of strangers. They didn’t have any secret repair trucks waiting just out of sight.
Disaster struck the brothers’ Bentley during the 1963 rally. Going over the Rocky Mountains, a landslide had strewn boulders across the road. Rocks ripped open the gearbox and oil pan and broke the brake rods. Stranded by the side of the road, a reporter stopped to ask what was wrong. “He wasn’t allowed to help, but he did point out there’d be a case of oil around the next bend.” The oil left by the reporter was enough to get the Bentley to a garage, where a local mechanic welded a patch onto the oil pan. “We just wrapped a towel or something around the gearbox hole, and we didn’t have any troubles after that. We made it all the way to Montreal,” remembered McQuirk.
They finished 24th out of 47 teams that year, beating a diverse range of cars, including a Studebaker Lark, Austin 850, Karman Ghia Coupe and a Corvette.
A five-page feature in Car & Driver magazine announced the winners: “A couple of lanky, relaxed, middle-aged Wisconsin engineers walked off with the biggest prize in North American rallying, first overall in the Shell 4000.”
Marcel Chichak hopes that by keeping his online archive of the event alive, someone will pick up the torch and re-establish the Trans-Canada rally.
“I’ve had conversations with probably 100 competitors,” he said. “Sometimes we’d be having a conversation, and they’d just go silent. They’re gone. They’d pass away.”
Don McQuirk is 86 years old. He still has that 1951 Bentley and keeps it in fine running order.
Motorsport isn’t like it was back then, he says. “In those days you take your little car and off you’d go to one of the little racetracks around. It was easy. It was a pleasant day out. Almost like a picnic.”
The completion of the Trans-Canada Highway marked a kind of symbolic end to this rough-and-ready motorsport. Crossing Canada became something to do on a family vacation, rather than a wild adventure. The west has been tamed, and so has motorsport.