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Marking 30 years of LeJog – Europe’s toughest Historic rally

WORDS: ELLIOTT HUGHES | PHOTOS: HERO-ERA

‘LeJog’. In the world of Historic rallying, that simple portmanteau represents a tumultuous 1500-mile odyssey through the British mainland – much of it through the inky darkness of night, and all of it through inclement December weather. To many, it is the most challenging regularity rally in Europe. 

The first Land’s End to John O’Groats Regularity Trial was held in 1993, and was the brainchild of internationally renowned rally co-driver John Brown. After a successful rally career during the 1960s, John founded the Historic Endurance Rally Organisation (HERO), which continues to function as LeJog’s organising body as HERO-ERA, after merging with the Endurance Rally Association in 2018.

As if organising a vast, 1500-mile route spanning from one end of Britain to the other wasn’t enough, John also used LeJog to introduce an innovative medal system that meant there was no overall winner. Instead, the goal was for competitors to finish the route and each of the regularity sections in a pre-determined time. The medal system rewards precision and reliability over outright speed – and achieving a coveted gold remains a significant accomplishment.

Several crews were marooned that year, and one of the course officials was stranded on the M9 for 19 hours

Several crews were marooned that year, and one of the course officials was stranded on the M9 for 19 hours

2023 marked 30 years since the first edition of LeJog, and while it has evolved significantly, it remains true to its DNA of being one of the most difficult events of its type – certainly in Europe. Its hardcore reputation attracts crews from all over the world, curious to see if they and their machines have what it takes to conquer this automotive feat of endurance. Entry is open to unmodified, road-legal cars built before 1984, and navigators must rely solely on maps for directions.

LeJog’s 30th birthday certainly stoked the fires of debate in the Magneto office. For each of us who had the bluster – or naivety – to suggest that they were up to the challenge, there was a realist who would politely raise an eyebrow or suggest that nonsense was being spoken.

For better or worse, I fell into the former camp, stating that I would love to one day experience this automotive gauntlet first-hand. In the meantime, however, I decided to celebrate LeJog’s 30th by contacting some of the event’s most seasoned organisers, Peter Nedin and Guy Woodcock, as well as to Bob and Sue McClean, who, as 20-time LeJog veterans, are clearly gluttons for punishment. After speaking to them, my bravado could well be reduced to back-peddling by the end of this article…

“The event that really sticks in my mind was 2010, when the whole country was blanketed in snow,” says Peter Nedin. Born in Swansea, Peter spent his youth rallying a Ford Anglia, before becoming heavily involved in HERO as a marshal. He then became LeJog’s clerk of the course in 2005, and served in that role until 2014.

Now known as ‘The Big Freeze’, December 2010 is thought to have been the coldest December the UK has seen since 1659, with some areas of the country engulfed in five feet of snow. “Several crews were marooned that year, and one of the course officials was stranded on the M9 for 19 hours,” Peter ominously recalls.

“2010 was a total one-off,” Guy Woodcock concurs. He spent 40 years successfully competing as both a rally driver and navigator, before becoming HERO-ERA’s competition director and LeJog’s current clerk of the course. In 2010, Guy was participating in LeJog as both an organiser and a competitor. “Peter wanted to stop the rally in Glasgow, and I said: ‘No, we’ve got this far; we need to keep going.’”

“Plenty of crews asked if we were going to cancel, but we decided against it. We didn’t want to put anyone at risk, and plenty of them would have pushed on regardless,” Peter reveals. In the end, compromise prevailed, and he cancelled several sections and tests before the crews reached Livingstone in Scotland. The rest of the route was modified to evade the most dangerous and impassable sections of road. Miraculously, 27 of the 39 crews reached the finish line, but only three managed to secure gold medals. 

“Unfortunately, we might have been responsible for someone in the Scottish government losing their job that year,” Peter continues. “I was told afterwards that questions were being asked in Holyrood about why a group of 60-year-old classic cars managed to get to John O’Groats, when the Scottish Minister of Transport couldn’t keep the motorway open. I think he resigned after that…”

Commendably, Bob and Sue McClean and their 1962 Rover P4-100 were one of the 27 crews that reached John O’Groats that year. “We’ve finished all 20 events that we’ve entered,” Bob beams. “We did our first LeJog in 2000 after seeing an article about it in the Daily Telegraph. We had done rallying in the past, and thought: ‘That sounds like a good idea.’ Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for…”

2011 was also unseasonably cold, with snow falling at Land’s End for the first time in 25 years, before the rally got underway. It also happened to be the most difficult edition for the McCleans. “We set off to go down to Land’s End, and got as far as north Exeter, and the Rover’s clutch was slipping like mad. After a quick inspection, we discovered that the crankshaft oil seal had failed, and oil was being thrown onto the clutch,” Bob explains.

At this point, the obvious course of action would be to retire from the event. For Bob and Sue, this wasn’t an option – so they quickly came up with a back-up plan while sitting stranded on the motorway slip road. The plan seemed simple: travel some 300 miles north back home to Cumbria, and use their other car, a 1962 Ford Anglia 105E, instead of the stricken P4.

The only problem was that the Anglia’s gearbox was being refurbished, and the engine was out of the car. Undeterred, the McCleans returned home and managed to reassemble the Anglia in the nick of time, before heading back down to Land’s End for scrutineering.

That level of dedication has rewarded the couple with bronze, silver and gold medals over their 20 years of competition. But arguably, finishing each and every one of these LeJogs is even more impressive – particularly after what occurred in 2011. 

“The only worry is that we might break our streak if we come back next time – but we’re definitely tempted,” Bob admits. I’m no gambler, but his and Sue’s obvious enthusiasm and affection for LeJog mean that I wouldn’t be surprised to see their names on the entry list.

The need for endurance and determination are clearly huge components of LeJog’s DNA, but that doesn’t mean the event isn’t free of levity. Humour, after all, is a very human and effective way of dealing with adversity.

“We have a tour event for people who don’t actually want to compete, but who still want to drive from Land’s End to John O’Groats in a more difficult way,” Peter says. “This runs alongside the main event on a slightly different route, but they meet at the same controls, lunch venues and so on.

“One year, when John Brown was running it, somebody turned up to the tour in a Ferret armoured car. It was like a miniature tank. I’m not completely sure whether they managed to finish, because there are no records or results kept for the tour. I believe they did actually finish, but the fuel consumption would have been extraordinary – gallons-per-mile rather than miles-per-gallon. That certainly sticks in my mind.

“Another year I remember a pair of brothers who entered LeJog in a Mk1 Ford Fiesta. I remember saying: ‘What on Earth possessed you to attempt this in a Mk1 Fiesta?’ And they replied, ‘Bragging rights – think about how many free pints we’ll get in the pub if we get to the end.’

“By the time they reached the finish line, the co-driver was in the back; he was so uncomfortable he couldn’t even sit in the front seat. I asked him how he was doing, and he just said: ‘Well, I’m not doing that again!'”

It was fascinating to hear what Guy, Peter, Bob and Sue have experienced during their lengthy LeJog careers. The level of difficulty LeJog represents is certainly not to be underestimated; the distance, weather, lack of sleep and mechanical sympathy required make crossing the finish line a major achievement. 

Am I deterred? I could well regret this, but LeJog sounds like an adventure not to be missed – although certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Find out more about LeJog here.