In the 1972 round of the FIA Constructors’ Rally Championship, every country had its hero. In that year’s Rallye Monte Carlo, Sandro Munari’s Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF held off the Porsches and Datsuns to a home win for Italy. In Sweden, Stig Blomqvist scored another victory for Saab, brightening a legend where decades later “Stig” would simply mean “racing driver”. Mk 1 Escorts took first and third place in the East African Safari Rally, the former being driven by a Flying Finn, the latter being born in Kenya. Fast, compact drivers in small sports cars were everywhere, setting a terrific pace from Austria to the Acropolis.
But in 1972, the FIA also came to America and here a Leviathan appeared.
Between the trees, a flash of white. Hear it before you see it, not an eccentric Lancia with the odd V-4 rap, but a dazzling 5.9-liter V-8, slurping fuel through a Holley carb and belching thunder through dual exhausts. A great big whale of a thing, its limbs drooping with the winter mud of the Michigan peninsula. A stab at the brakes and the driver flings the big beast to the side, all four wheels screeching into the gravel. The most unlikely of rally machines, a Jeep Wagoneer, with the name ‘Moby Dick 1’ painted on its sides.
Walter Röhrl, spare and thin, started out as an alpine ski racer. Sébastien Loeb, short and muscular, started out as a champion gymnast. Gene Henderson, driver of the Wagoneer, was a bear.
A former Navy signalman, he had served in the Pacific in World War II, among the first on the beaches to direct artillery fire from Allied ships. Returning to Michigan, he went to work for the Dearborn Police Department and spent two decades on the job. At 6’2″ and over 200 pounds, he was the kind of cop who could walk into a rowdy bar and defuse a brawl just by his presence.
There were plenty of hot-rodders in power in those days, but Henderson was different. He spent his summer weekends racing a Volvo PV544 and in the winters he spent his cruiser in empty snowy parking lots. A hidden talent emerged. He was a sort of American version of Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally champion who was Pat Moss’s husband. Like Carlsson, Henderson was a big guy, but he could kick the wheels out of anything.
Eight years before the FIA put its stamp on Michigan’s Press On Regardless Rally, Gene Henderson and co-driver Scott Harvey Jr. they campaigned a V-8 Plymouth Valiant in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Famously, Paddy Hopkirk won that year in a Mini Cooper, cementing Mini’s reputation as an underdog. Lost to French road maps – other teams had local translators to help – Henderson and Harvey nevertheless managed a respectable fifth.
Back in his hometown of Michigan, Henderson made a name for himself in Time-Speed-Distance rallying, SCCA competition, and just about any other type 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 seventies, 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 USA.”
As November 1972 approached, AMC was flying high. The race-prepped Javelins had won back-to-back championships in Trans-Am racing, and the gamble to buy the struggling Jeep brand was paying off. For the 1973 model year, the popular Wagoneer was getting a new full-time four-wheel drive system marketed as Quadra-Trac. What better way to top it off than by winning America’s first FIA-sanctioned rally?
Henderson believed he could win despite the short development window. With Press On Regardless just two months away, two Wagoneers arrived at Competition for development work. Power output from the big V-8 was pretty standard: aggressive timing, a hot cam, and more fuel cranked it to around 400 horsepower. Getting the Wagoneer’s 5,000-pound mass to drop the gravel was something else entirely. Working with Monroe, a multi-damper system was developed to allow the Wagoneer to hit bumps at speed without bouncing off the road.
The shakedown run took place at the local Moonlight Monte rally, where the two big jeeps looked a bit ridiculous in Parc Fermé. The rest of the field was sports cars, Datsun 510s and 240Zs, Volvos, Ford Escorts and BMW 2002s. The elephantine white wagons were the recipients of the derision, until they took fifth and sixth place. People stopped laughing.
Although much heavier than anything else in the running, the Wagoneer had an ace up its sleeve along with an ace at the wheel. The Quadra-Trac was manufactured by Borg-Warner and featured 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 reduced speed while remaining stable. Braking on the move threw the heavy Wagoneer into the corner and brought the rear end. It’s about the same technique you’d learn today in a modern rally-prepped Subaru: The brakes are for cornering, the throttle keeps you going straight.
However, the Wagoneers had not won the Moonlit Monte and the competition at Press On Regardless was world class. Buffum was there in his Ford Escort RS1600, as was European Rally Champion Harry Källström in his Lancia Fulvia HF. The rally was grueling, some 330 miles, mostly night runs, and there was plenty of experience in the eighty-plus cars in the field.
But here comes Gene Henderson. Mike Van Loo, who later co-drove for Henderson in any number of rallies, describes how the big man would go silent behind the wheel before the car was unleashed on stage. It was absolute razor-focused concentration, like the flick of a switch. In the POR’s last run in 1984, Henderson was faultless over 270 miles. In 1972 he drove with almost the same perfection.
Buffum crashed on the first night, but Wagoneer couldn’t catch Källström’s Fulvia in most of the stages. The Swede was more than eight minutes ahead when Henderson entered a stage to see Fulvia limp away. Källström was experiencing brake problems and Henderson gave chase. With four auxiliary lights flashing in his rearview, and that V-8 beast roaring close behind, Källström over-sought a corner and rolled the car.
Henderson and co-driver Ken Pogue stopped to check everyone was OK, competitors or not, then raced to the next checkpoint. Keeping the top spot the next night was more about keeping the Wagoneer at bay and avoiding mistakes, but Henderson still extended his lead. He was so far ahead of the Datsun that he stopped and let the Wagoneer clear as he crossed the finish line.
AMC and the fans loved the win. Much of the rest of the local and international rally scene was outraged. The big Wagoneers seemed to fly in the face of rally spirit, 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 four-wheel drive.
However, the European teams had paid attention and watched as four-wheel drive continued to be legal in SCCA ProRally. Henderson won the Pro Rally championship in 1974 in a Jeep Cherokee and would go on to campaign for AMC in an Eagle SX-4. Audi, and later Porsche, would bring AWD back to FIA rallying, but a Jeep had gotten there first.
Henderson continued to rally long before his professional driving 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. When he died in 2005, stories poured out of the rally community. Many gray-haired rally drivers were once novices who received advice from Gene. Many remembered him as a man with a code, not to cross him, but there with help even for his competition. A pillar of the community, his contribution even greater than it was.
In 1972, every country had a rally hero. America’s was a big man in a big jeep, setting the stage for what modern rallying would become decades later. A pioneer in a Wagoneer, just as it should be.
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