Rally People: Peter Houghton
By Ron Fraser with a word from Peter Houghton.
Whats he ever done? Could he handle a 10,000kms gravel type rally where in a couple of weeks with full on driving over some terrible roads, and otherwise great stretches of smooth stuff to get excited about and to have a navigator who didn’t get sick and didn’t miss anything. This is where experience would play a big part.
I have known Peter for more than thirty years, and I knew he would be up with the best of them in the rally, subject to just reasonable luck. My first encounters when I joined M.G. Newcastle and paid $300 for what I considered a potential winning rally car, a Pug 203 keeping in mind that the first Round Australia had been won by this French beauty driven by Ken Tubman from Maitland. It would be good in the gravel, very competitive. It was, but at that I wasn’t in the hunt realizing that the quick boys were that quick in every sense of the word, and their cars were miles ahead of my Pug.
It was then when someone named the real movers, I heard the name Peter Houghton. Those days a short event was in the vicinity of 500klms and a senior State Round 500klms give or take and with a field always being with 40 to 60 cars, you had to be good to have anyone give you a rap when it came classing you as a performer. The cars were a great variety in make, with Minis, Cortinas, Holdens, Vanguards, V.W’s being the most popular choices. Those days pre Datsun’s of course.
|Peter Houghton after winning the 2008 Night Owl.|
I was standing at an end control late one afternoon with a lot of other envious spectators who wanted to compete in the sport one day, and among the first half dozen finishers, a white M.G. B drifted in. I couldn’t believe it, a sports car being thrashed over hundreds of klms of gravel, the mob expecting to see body damage, the doors loose on their hinges, and a motor with an unhealthy rattle. Anyway the driver door opened, and a tall thin bloke with a good head of hair eased out of the cockpit, clicked the door shut, and pulled out a pipe, gave it a couple of taps on his boot, and lit up. It was my first sighting of Peter Houghton. From the passenger side, the navigator got out, a middle aged man with a neat moustache and a route card in his hand, and he said, Peter I’ll put the route card in to control”, Peter nodded, and whilst the rest of we spectators circled round the MG, Peter stood back having a quiet chat to someone he knew. His manner hasn’t changed over the years, not even now. He just stands back and let the others relate their hair raising exploits to fellow story tellers who had taken part in a rally at some time in their careers.
Peter and his pipe became a part of the rally scene for a long time, his quiet stand back out of the way attitude very well known, and if it were possible to discuss an event he took part in, it would be to talk of where he made a driving error, not the fact that he was always among the quickest in the field. M.G.’s were a part of his early motor sport activities, and when driving an M.G. A2 he won the N.S.W. Motor Khana Championship. In the B he got a 4th outright in an 800klm N.S.W. Championship event in a field of over 50 cars. Always in the top ten.
It has to be recognised that over the years, he has had to do his own thing in relation to paying for his motor sport whilst he was competing against people such as Evan Green, Mini, Jack Murray, business owner, Barry Ferguson supported by V.W. distributors, the Collier Brothers supported by Renault Australia and wealthy privateers all of who had the best gear available. Peter was a carpenter, single, but had to watch his rally budget very carefully.
In another move forward he bought the first of his 4 Peugeots, cars much more suitable to move over gravel and forestry roads but once again he had to depend on his driving ability as well as reliability because 404’s were never renowned for their power, but were outstanding in soaking up country roads, and handled so well. The earlier models only carried drum brakes which were more than sufficient for domestic running, but with Peter full on at all times in an event, they tended to shudder a little and get tired. However when he got his hands on a 69 model, with disks up front, it made all the difference.
The Southern Cross had been born around this time he got the 69, 404 the events held over several days and well into the event, as expected he was up with the front runners, and these included were overseas drivers who had heard what great events a Cross rally was.
It was the 97 Cross where he was making his presence felt until the rain started to pour, and the forestry roads became stretches of muck and slush. He and Mick caught a competitor who was both bogged and right in the centre of the track. They pulled the Pug as far as they dared, got out, and helped to push out the bogged vehicle. He got moving, but whilst Peter and Mick were going back to get in their car, some of the really sporting types, (you get them in all sports) who had been behind Peter, but who had not helped with the pushout, drove around Peter’s Pug (as mentioned before he had parked off the track) they drove around him as he buckled up etc, and in doing so pushed him down in the field far enough to miss out on a top ten finish. Talk about it with him, and you got at that time, a shrug of the shoulders, a quiet grin, and light up of his pipe.
In 1969, he decided to move makes again, but hung onto his 69 Pug as his private around town car, and felt a Mitsubishi Colt might help out and get closer to the big movers, and entered that years Cross again, he worked the little Colt over carefully, still maintaining that reliability was the most important factor so the 1000cc motor was left alone. He won the class, and was 7th outright. Keep in mind the power ratio compared to the other competitors would be almost and better then double he had under the bonnet. He surprised them all of course including the organisers who felt that something was amiss. You just couldn’t get that far up the field with a little 1000cc hatch, so they had him get the head pulled off so they could measure the bores. I can see Peter standing back whilst the mechanics pulled it off, having a quiet puff on the pipe, a quiet grin on his face. Unbeknown to the officials and without complaint, the car had developed a head gasket leak which meant he had to be more careful during the running then normal. In other words it cost him time nevertheless.
Then he decided it might be a thought to join the powerful and got himself a V Capri, some sort of a change of course. Peter contacted my old navigator, Jim Williamson, who I owe so much to in that the events I had won earlier in my career, were down to Jim’s wonderful calling and map reading. They went on to win a State Championship round in the Capri and once again, never out of a top ten finish, but Peter was never all that happy with the beast, and I am, sure that a part of the trouble might have been its handling in his view as well as working on it consistently. Then came the Datsun.
Kevin Mason known as the best man in Newcastle in his knowledge of suspension treatment and an excellent mechanic had built up and rallied a Datsun for himself and one for his son. Peter went to Kevin and a very competitive car was put together, so good that in 79 Peter and Jim won the 1979 N.S.W. Rally Championship against the best punters around. But that car was really prepared with all the good suspension bits, gear box etc, and Peter knew how a Datsun should be driven.
Then came a spell taking quite some time. He was a bachelor, and had looked after his dear mum till she passed on, after living to a wonderful late time of life. And then he decided to build himself a house, and if it was built with as much love and care as he puts into preparing his cars, it would not have been a rush job.
In the meantime, I would ring Peter and ask if he could spare the time to sweep some of our local events, and even had the cheek to ask him to come out to Mudgee one year, and run around the track looking for anyone in trouble. He was always available, and I had to fight him to take a few bucks to help pay his costs for helping us out. He still does it to this day.
Well, when the news of a real older style event was going to be run, called The Red Centre To The Gold Coast, something stirred him up and when he looked into it, he could see it was the real thing, hard driving over real rally roads, with a start in Alice Springs and a finish on the Gold Coast. He was bitten, rang Jim W to see if he could make it, got a yes, then started to find a suitable car, and sensibly for this type of event, the most competitive car and it had to be historic in nature, a Datsun. He got in touch with Kevin and from my recollection, the Datsun available was one that Kevin had built years before for his son. But to get it to comply they had to replace the roll cage, the seats, but would run the engine that had been built twenty years before. But new timing chain, gear box (5 speed) from a K Datsun coupe Bollinger ratios which involved cutting the tail shaft a rebalanced K Diff, new suspension from Murray Coote, new brakes from Stuart Wilkins, four wheel disks, extra fuel tank, a winch, two spare wheels and personal gear. Peter can’t take part in anything unless everything is absolutely fully tested with a reputation as being the best available. He intended to give the rally a good shakeup.
They drove out to Alice Springs, attended the briefing, get together and noted that there was a field of 70 cars. Just like the good old days.
First day out of Alice Springs on the 15th was a loop with the worst roads and tracks that could be thrown at them, with cars bogged in sand, edging through rocky out crops and with a lot of competitors definitely not happy. Peter and Jim finished 8th outright however.
He had decided that he could push hard from the outset to get away from the pack and to avoid the dust that was surely to come, and further out on the road to Mt Isa struck some good roads where he could let his hair down. They got into it. After a rest at the Isa they headed up the gully to Normanton, then over to Cairns and then back to Normanton. This is rally out in the back blocks.
After a rest in Normanton, they had a 2am start, which is not always something to look forward to as half the time on this type of event you do not sleep all that well, half asleep and half awake, re running through your mind what happened during the day and what might happen tomorrow.
Daylight helped matters and Peter settled down to a good days pedalling on a reasonable stretch of road when he whipped into a concrete causeway and he says matter of factly misjudge what came next, in other words driver error, clipped a small outcrop and slid off the road and hit a bank very hard so much so that in coming to a sudden stop, Jim suffered damaged ribs which he had checked out medically before coming home. At that stage they were up to 6th outright, and had won 2 stages with the fastest time. What a buggar! Heartbreaking. He had to get the car home, and had suspension damage and steering problems but managed to get a trailing arm from a wreck in a paddock and in the run back home scrubbed out six worn tyres that had been used previously. Jim has recovered from the rib dramas and Peter has a damaged Datsun in his garage at Boat Harbour waiting for him to get some enthusiasm back to straighten it out. He will, but he is not ready yet.
Peter acknowledges that the winner Dinta Officer and his wife Kate, did a marvellous job in putting a G.A. Galant first on the podium. I still would have loved to see how well he would have finished with any sort of luck.
Anyway, next time you run in one of our rallies, and you see a tall quiet looking man pull up in a Peugeot 504, or a 505 both white in colour, and see him having a cup of coffee with a mate, you will know that he is doing what he has been doing for years, either sweeping our rally, or helping out in some other way. But you won’t hear him talking all that much, he just stands back and waits till the last car leaves, and then tootles out to make sure that no one gets lost, and he’ll pick up our navigator boards as well. That’s Peter Houghton. Just as a matter of interest, he is aged 72!
Forget about age in this branch of motor sport.