It was Canada's unique contribution to world motorsport. It was the longest rally in the world. It was colorful, exciting, dramatic, and attracted drivers and manufacturers from several countries. And it died before the rally could grow into the lasting event it deserved to be. I'm talking about the Shell 4000, a potentially great national rally spoiled by a combination of commercial needs and indifferent media coverage.
The event was initially known as the Trans Canada Rally but everyone called it the Shell 4000 because it was sponsored by Shell Oil and the route was, more or less, 4000 miles from start to finish. The original choice of "Trans Canada" was to create the impression that the rally ran from coast to coast when, in fact, it started in Vancouver and ended in Montreal (or the reverse in alternate years). The Shell 4000 was the only FIA sanctioned rally in North America.
A promotor and sports car enthusiast named Jim Gunn was the man who conceived the Shell 4000 and remained its chief organiser throughout the brief period of its existence. It was the indefagitable Gunn, aided by Peter Bone, who encouraged Shell to sponsor the event and never stopped working to make the rally a success, but in the long run he was defeated by the same apathy that Canadian media had shown to all forms of motorsport.
I should explain that the Shell 4000 had little in common with modern world championship rallies, now better known as "rally races." Nor was it identical to famous European events like the Monte Carlo and Tulip rallies, themselves like racing on snow or ice but still demanding navigation between sections with points lost for being early or late. Canadian speed laws were too low for fast highway driving, while local authorities seemed unwilling to temporarily close a few miles of road. Tenacious police, particularly in the prairies, looked upon the rally as a harvest for radar traps. (I should add that a few special speed stages were added from 1965.)
Yet that didn't mean the rally was a long-distance cruise. It attracted several well-known international competitors plus a modicum of manufacturer support. Ford, Studebaker, Rootes, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Chevrolet participated, directly or through dealers.
It was tough and it was hard on cars and drivers. Stirling Moss' sister Pat was an experienced European rally champion, as was her co-driver Ann Wisdom. They gave it their best, driving factory-sponsored cars, but never won. NASCAR stock car racer David Pearson surprised everyone with his entry but ended up frustrated and defeated. One of his competitors was Belgium's Olivier Gendebien, multiple LeMans 24-hours winner and South African Rally champion (he did finish fourth in Canada). After years of trying, American rally ace Scott Harvey, a Chrysler engineer, finally won the last running of the event. The great Alpine rallyist Henry Taylor finished second in 1965, the same year that F1 ace Pedro Rodriguez participated, saying the rally was tougher than any race he'd ever driven.
The country's vast size plus its topography and weather meant that every leg was different from the last. British Columbia and Alberta offered twisting mountain roads with nasty drop-offs. With the event being held in early May many prairie roads were often deep in gumbo (mud). Ontario and Quebec provided a variety of weather and driving conditions. And everywhere there continued a relentless push to maintain times while getting little rest during the brief hours alloted for sleep. Fatigue was often a deciding factor. Little wonder that even the big names lost multiple points or went off the road.
The Shell 4000 lasted from 1961 to 1968, when Shell opted out, and with no major sponsor willing to take over, Canada's first and only international rally came to an end. Shell Oil never saw the press coverage it needed to cover the cost of its participation and the conventional Canadian media (enthusiast publications aside), already prejudiced against motorsport, was reluctant to treat the rally as much more than a novelty.
I believe the Shell 4000 needn't have died. What it lacked was a budget large enough to hire a major public relations firm, rather than leaving the job to the organisers. The pr people would undoubtedly have found ways to get the press involved while at the same time developing community events along the way where locals could participate, meet the competitors, and safely watch the cars in roped-off spectator areas. Could it be revived? I doubt it. Too expensive to meet modern standards. But a retro rally for vintage cars, running from Halifax to Vancouver, would not be impossible. All we need is a modern day Jim Gunn and an imaginative sponsor. Try the Tar Sands operators. They could use some positive publicity.
The above photo was taken by Nigel Matthews at the 2012 Birmingham classic car show. It was one of six built for rallying by Triumph's competition department. Three cars, identical to this, were shipped to Canada for the Shell 4000. All the black & white photos originally appeared in Canada Track & Traffic magazine.
I covered the rally for CT&T in 1965 under my former pen name "Phil Murray." You can read that vintage article by clicking here.