How a Jeep Wagoneer Broke the FIA ​​Rally and Caused the 4WD Ban

How a Jeep Wagoneer Broke the FIA ​​Rally and Caused the 4WD Ban

a jeep wagoneer running a rally race

A Jeep Wagoneer Broke The FIA ​​Rally And Was Banned From 4WDProperty of Hearst

In the 1972 round of the FIA ​​Constructors’ Rally Championship, each country had its hero. At Rallye Monte Carlo that year, Sandro Munari’s Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF held off the Porsches and Datsuns in a home victory for Italy. In Sweden, Stig Blomqvist scored another victory for Saab, shining a legend where decades later “Stig” would simply mean “racing driver”. Mk 1 Escorts finished first and third in the East Africa Safari Rally, the former being driven by a Flying Finn, the latter born in Kenya. Compact, quick-witted drivers in small sports cars were everywhere, setting a blistering pace from Austria to the Acropolis.

But, in 1972, the FIA ​​also came to America, and here a Leviathan emerged.

Between the trees, a white flash. Hear it before you see it, not a cameo Lancia with its oddly rasping V-4, but a bellowing 5.9-liter V-8, sucking fuel through a Holley carburettor and spitting thunder through dual exhausts. A huge large whale of a thing, sides splattered with winter mud from the Michigan peninsula. A quick brake and the driver throws the big beast aside, all four wheels spinning in the gravel. The most unlikely of rally machines, a Jeep Wagoneer, its sides painted with the name “Moby Dick 1”.

jeep wagoner rally 1972

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Walter Röhrl, lean and lean, started out as an alpine ski racer. Sébastien Loeb, small and muscular, made his debut as a champion gymnast. Gene Henderson, driver of the Wagoneer, was a bear.

A former naval signalman, he had served in the Pacific during World War II, among the first on the beaches to direct the artillery fire of Allied ships. Back in Michigan, he went to work for the Dearborn police and spent two decades doing that job. At 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, he was the kind of cop who could walk into a rowdy bar and defuse a brew fight just in his presence.

There were a lot of hot-rodders on the force in those days, but Henderson was different. He spent his summer weekends racing a Volvo PV544, and in the winter he drifted his cruiser through empty, snowy parking lots. A hidden talent has emerged. He was sort of the American version of Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally champion who was the husband of Pat Moss. Like Carlsson, Henderson was a big guy, but he could roll anything.

gene henderson rally 1972

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Eight years before the FIA ​​stamped its stamp on the Press On Regardless Michigan rally, Gene Henderson and co-driver Scott Harvey Jr. campaigned in a V-8-powered Plymouth Valiant in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally Famously, Paddy Hopkirk won that year in a Mini Cooper, cementing the Mini’s reputation as a scrappy underdog. Paralyzed by French roadmaps – other teams had local translators to help them – Henderson and Harvey nevertheless managed a respectable fifth.

Back home in Michigan, Henderson made a name for himself in Time-Speed-Distance rallies, SCCA competitions, and almost any other kind of racing he could find time for. He founded his own performance parts company, Competition Ltd., in 1969, and the business grew. By the early ’70s, Henderson had driven for everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Ford. John Buffum, the American rally driver with the most national championship titles, once said: “Gene Henderson and Scott Harvey are the Lewis and Clark of ProRallying in the United States”

plyout valiant rally

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

As November 1972 approached, AMC was flying high. The race-prepared Javelins had clinched back-to-back championships in Trans-Am racing, and the gamble of buying the struggling Jeep brand was paying off. For the 1973 model year, the popular Wagoneer received a new full-time four-wheel-drive system marketed as Quadra-Trac. What better way to market it than with a victory in America’s first FIA-sanctioned rally?

Henderson thought he could pull off a win despite the short development window. With Press On Independently in just two months, two Wagoneers have arrived at Competition for development work. Returning the big V-8’s power was pretty standard: Aggressive timing, a hot cam and more fuel brought it up to around 400 hp. Getting the Wagoneer’s nearly 5,000-pound mass to glide over the gravel was something else entirely. In conjunction with Monroe, a multi-shock system was developed to allow the Wagoneer to hit high-speed bumps without bouncing off the road.

The shakedown race took place at the local Moonlight Monte rally, where the two big Jeeps looked somewhat ridiculous in the Parc Fermé. The rest of the field was made up of sports cars, Datsun 510s and 240Zs, Volvos, Ford Escorts and 2002 BMWs. sixth. People stopped laughing.

1972 jeep wagoneer rally

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Although much heavier than anything else in racing, the Wagoneer had an ace up its sleeve with an ace behind the wheel. Quadra-Trac was built by Borg-Warner and had a center differential lock, capable of sending partial power to the front or rear depending on slippage. Gene found that downshifting the three-speed automatic aggressively dragged all four wheels and lost speed while remaining stable. On-the-move braking threw the heavy-nosed Wagoneer around the corner and brought the rear end back. It’s pretty much the same technique you’d learn today on a modern, rally-prepared Subaru: the brakes are for turning, the throttle lets you go straight.

Still, the Wagoneers hadn’t won the Moonlit Monte, and the competition at Press On Independent was world-class. Buffum was there in his Ford Escort RS1600, as was European rally champion Harry Källström in a Lancia Fulvia HF. The rally was grueling, around 330 miles, mostly night stages, and there was plenty of experience in the eighty cars lined up.

But that’s where Gene Henderson comes in. Mike Van Loo, who later co-drive Henderson in a number of rallies, describes how the big man was quiet behind the wheel before the car was launched on stage. It was absolute concentration, like flipping a switch. In his last POR run in 1984, Henderson would make no mistakes over 270 miles. In 1972, he was driving with the same near perfection.

1972 wagoneer rally michigan

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Buffum crashed on the first night, but the Wagoneer couldn’t quite catch Källström’s Fulvia on most stages. The Swede was more than eight minutes ahead, when Henderson stopped in a stage to see the Fulvia limp. Källström was struggling with brake issues and Henderson chased him. With all four auxiliary lights on in his rear view mirror and that roaring V-8 beast right behind, Källström overcooked a corner and rolled the car.

1972 Jeep Wagoneer Rally Victory

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Henderson and his co-driver Ken Pogue stopped to check everyone was okay, rivals or not, then rushed to the next checkpoint. Retaining the top spot the following night was more about preserving the Wagoneer and not blundering, but Henderson extended his lead nonetheless. He was so far ahead of the Datsuns that he pulled over and hosed down the Wagoneer to be clean as it crossed the finish line.

AMC and fans loved the win. Much of the rest of the local and international rally scene was outraged. The big Wagoneers seemed to go against the spirit of rallying, their four-wheel-drive systems an unfair advantage. It was the first FIA rally victory for an American driver in an American car, and the first for a team using all-wheel drive, but, in April 1973, the FIA ​​banned four-wheel-drive rallies altogether.

However, the European teams paid attention and observed that four-wheel drive continued to be legal in the SCCA ProRally. Henderson won the 1974 Pro Rally Championship in a Jeep Cherokee and would go on to campaign for AMC in an Eagle SX-4. Audi, and later Porsche, would bring all-wheel drive back to FIA rallying, but a Jeep got there first.

1972 jeep wagoneer rally

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

Henderson continued to rally well beyond his professional racing career, in several time-speed-distance rallies, including the long-distance Al-Can 5000. He was inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1989. Upon his death in 2005, stories emanated from the rally community. Many gray-haired rally drivers had once been rookies and took Gene’s advice. Many remembered him as a man with a code, not to be broken, but there with help even for his competition. A pillar of the community, his contribution even greater than him.

In 1972, each country had a rally hero. America was a big man in a big Jeep, setting the stage for what modern rallying would become decades later. A trailblazer in a Wagoneer, as it should be.

jeep ad 1972 rally victory wagoneer gene henderson

Courtesy of Mark Henderson and Randy Graves

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