40 years ago: Rally tour half-way round the world

On 28 September 1977 the Mercedes star shone at its brightest outside the Sydney Opera House: Andrew Cowan and Tony Fowkes and their teams had won the London–Sydney marathon, both driving Mercedes-Benz 280 E (W 123) saloon cars. Two more of the Mercedes-Benz upper mid-range vehicles were among the top ten finishers.

For the 123 model series, the rally was convincing proof both of the cars’ sporting endurance and performance and their comfort and reliability. It is these qualities that now make the 123 model series a sought-after modern Mercedes-Benz classic. The 123 series was launched in 1976 and remained in production until the beginning of 1986. It was available as a saloon (W 123), a coupé (C 123) and an estate (S 123), and also as a chassis base for special bodies.

From opera house to opera house
The start of the marathon 40 years ago was the overture to an event of operatic proportions: 69 cars set off from Covent Garden Opera House in London on 14 August 1977 to compete in the toughest rally in the world, with the teams needing to cover well over 30,000 kilometres across three continents in 30 days and nights. Three sea crossings were also on the agenda. The finish line of the 1977 Singapore Airlines London–Sydney Rally was situated at another famous music venue on the opposite side of the world: the Sydney Opera House in all its architectural splendour.

This rally revisited the concept of the first London–Sydney Marathon, which was held in 1968 and also won by Andrew Cowan, but the second incarnation of the rally, organised by the British entrepreneur Wylton Dickson, was significantly longer and even more demanding than the first.

A total of six teams took part in the rally in Mercedes-Benz 280 E saloons. They were not officially registered as works teams but were given substantial support from the manufacturers under the direction of engineer Erich Waxenberger.
Meticulous preparation
Eight different Mercedes-Benz test departments were involved in readying the 280 E for rally use (including bodyshell, brakes, engines and overall vehicle) as well as central customer services.

The saloons were fitted with new wheels (15-inch), plus sport shock absorbers and so-called tropical springs – both of which were available as optional equipment items. These measures combined to raise the cars’ ground clearance by 35 millimetres.

In place of the standard gearbox, the rally cars were fitted with the four-speed manual gearbox from the V8 engine used in the S-Class (W116) of the time. A striking addition was the robust sand plate mounted at the front in place of conventional bumpers.

Even the quality of the fuel supplied along the route was factored into the planning: as the octane rating of the available fuel was liable to be as low as 82 RON, the vehicles’ ignition was specially adapted.

Tony Fowkes described his personal equipment in an interview with the weekly magazine India Today in September 1977: along with spare parts for the car, other essential items included malaria drugs, insect repellent, water purification tablets and toilet paper – as well as fruit and Kendal Mint Cake.

Service network
The rolling support points implemented by Mercedes-Benz covered the entire route of the rally. Additional back-up was provided by support vehicles accompanying the rally. Mercedes-Benz provided a 280 E as a service vehicle from Persia to India, driven by Erich Waxenberger and Joachim Tilgner. In Australia, where the rally had to cover long desert stages, Mercedes-Benz brought in a Unimog.

For the Stuttgart brand the London–Sydney success story marked the beginning of a new era of rally involvement, the highlights of which included successes with various SLC Coupés of the C 107 model series in South America and Africa from 1978 to 1980.

The original winning car from 1977 is on permanent display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. It is part of “Legend Room 7: Silver Arrows – Races and Records”.