Iron Giant - 1972 Jeep Wagoneer Competition Limited "Moby Dick"
Until the second half of the 1950’s, rally racing had always been a dangerous hobby undertaken by well-spirited pipe-smoking gentlemen in their personal high-end vehicles. The events were contested over very long distances and did not feature traditional timing. Instead of completing the stage faster than their competitors, contestants in the early 1950’s were expected to beat a certain benchmark time. Every second over would result in a penalty.
As the years went on however, the world of rally racing became increasingly competitive. At the 1953 French Rallye des Alpes, organizer Automobile Club de Marseille et Provence declared the cars would have to be driven flat out all the way through the tough mountain passes, and awarded a Coupe des Alpes for the fastest driver. With this decision, the concept of fast-paced, stage-based rally racing was born in earnest. The discipline quickly managed to garner interest from major manufacturers in this format, which necessitated a change.
To keep up with the rapid development of the category, the Federation International de l’Automobile launched a more globally oriented counterpart to the European Rally Championship which had been in existence since 1953. This International Championship for Manufacturers finally gave ambitious car makers an area to pit their designs against each other for 1970.
The inaugural season featured six events in Europe and one in East Africa. The series featured lightly modified ordinary cars like the Saab 96 V4, Ford Escort Twin Cam, Lancia Fulvia HF and Datsun 1600 SSS. Also present were sportscars like the Porsche 911S and Alpine A110, but the recipe was still the same. All were small, light and nimble vehicles with revvy engines.
Porsche took top honors in 1970, while their biggest rival Alpine secured the 1971 championship. The calendar had expanded to eight rallies in 1971, and was set to gain another round in 1972. The FIA had been looking to expand the series international appeal even further, and decided to sanction the American Press-on-Regardless rally as a round of the ICM.
Set in the cold, endless forests of Michigan, the POR had gained a reputation for being one of the toughest events on the planet. Covering 1500 miles through increasingly rough rutted roads and spanning three full days, the rally was not for the faint of heart. In light of its grueling nature, the event borrowed its name from a quote by professional hardliner Winston Churchill, who would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
One man who could definitely identify with that sentiment was someone by the name of Gene Henderson. Henderson had served in the American Navy during World War II, and found work as a police officer on his return home. He rose to the rank of sergeant, but found himself drawn to racing in 1958. His main goal was to improve his driving skills to help him chase down criminals in his patrol car, but he found himself hooked to the sport soon enough.
After a brief stint in club racing, he won 10 out of 12 events in the National championship with a Ford Cortina. His extraordinary success lead to a start in one of the first Trans Am races at Mid-Ohio, where he recorded a fine fifth placing. Soon however his passion took him off-road, leading to stints as a factory driver for Mercedes, Chrysler and American Motors. In 1964, he managed to finish fifth in the legendary Rallye Monte Carlo with a Plymouth Valiant.
In 1969, he founded Competition Limited, a mail order business specializing in rally parts. His achievements on the national rally stage helped build his company, and eventually saw him team up with a title sponsor in the form of American Motors Corporation.
AMC was in the midst of losing the war against the Big Three of Detroit, and needed a way to stay in the limelight and boost sales. Rally racing was relatively unknown in America, but AMC still saw it as the perfect way to promote the ruggedness and dependability of their profitable Jeep brand. With this in mind, the company gave Henderson a pair of their flagship Wagoneer model.
Naturally, this choice was completely unconventional and borderline insane to the rallying world. How could a gigantic high-riding station wagon powered by a lazy V8 possibly beat the light and agile machines coming over from Europe? After all, Group 4 regulations allowed for very limited modifications. The thought of the massive soccer-mom monster even keeping up with a Porsche 911 was completely bonkers.
Ignoring the blaring warning signs, Sgt. Henderson proceeded to do anything he possibly could to bring the obese machine up to speed. The weight was brought down slightly to a feathery 2000 kg (4409 lbs), and then brought back up again to 2177 kg (4799 lbs) because of extensive strengthening of the chassis, the addition of safety equipment and much larger fuel tanks.
Power came from an untouched 5.9L 360 V8, which belched out a modest 260 horsepower. To cope with the immense forces of a two ton car bouncing over rough terrain at high speed, Henderson made sure the suspension and braking systems were up to the job. Even so, the mighty Wagoneer still sported drum brakes on the rear axle.
Unsurprisingly, when word got out of the project, Gene Henderson received little in the way of praise. Competitors and friends alike constantly made fun of his overweight monstrosity. To them it was unfathomable that the titanic truck would be competitive against anything more than a school bus.
In response to their ridicule he named his two cars “Moby Dick I“, and “Moby Dick II“ respectively, comparing them to the famous large white whale. Staying true to the spirit of the race, he pressed on regardless of what the establishment thought of his outlandish project.
With the cars finished, Henderson focused on the preparations for the Press-on-Regardless rally. To his relief the European factory outfits decided to skip the event, leaving only Polski Fiat as a factory entry. Because of this the field was filled with privateers, with some of them enjoying the backing of a major manufacturer.
As a result the entry list presented a quirky mix with on the one hand classic rallying machines from Volvo, Fiat, BMW, Datsun, Saab, Opel, Renault and MG, while on the other there were oddities like the Chevrolet Corvair, AMC Gremlin, Ford Pinto and the enormous Jeeps.
Not long after the start of the rally, the laughter Gene Henderson had to endure while building his cars was swiftly turned into an awkward silence. Backed by veteran aviation navigator Ken Pogue, Henderson had taken the first stage win for an American car. His competitors were stupefied. How the hell could this be?
What his fun-loving colleagues had failed to take into account while cracking fat jokes, was the fact the Jeep was four wheel drive. In the world of rallying this kind of technology was virtually witchcraft. On the incredibly rough stages, the cumbersome SUV was able to keep traction at all times and plow through virtually anything standing in its way. Helped by three locking differentials and, the four wheel drive system ensured the power was always going to the wheel with the most available grip.
Thanks to the four wheel drive system, the monstrous Wagoneer was able to overcome its significant weight, acceleration and speed advantage. As the lighter European and Japanese machines struggled to keep their speed up, the rugged off-roader just kept on marching at the same pace.
In addition to its relentless drive forward, the Jeep also benefited from its oversized parts and under-stressed engine. Its competitors struggled to get through the ruts and had to keep the revs up to avoid bogging down. In contrast, the Jeep comfortably burbled its way through on a mountain of torque. As a result it outlived many far more sophisticated machines which buckled under the constant stress.
As the advantage was clearly with the Jeep team, the stage was set for a historical victory. Henderson and teammate Erhard Dahm were running virtually unchallenged, save for the quick Datsun 240Z driven by Tom Jones (USA) and Ralph Beckman (USA). The quicker Datsun managed to split the two behemoths to take second overall, pushing Dahm down to third. Still the team failed to deny Henderson the top spot.
With this amazing achievement Gene Henderson had taken the very first victory for an American car in a FIA rally, and the first for a four wheel drive vehicle. Those that had laughed at him were now cheering him after witnessing his spectacular win.
Back in France however, the voices were angrier. Talk of banning four wheel drive arose almost instantly after the news of Jeep’s victory reached the FIA. In classic fashion, the ban was instated right away. European manufacturers had no clue how to counter the Jeep’s off road prowess, which made the ban a much easier option.The FIA’s condemnation of his cars did little to hurt Gene Henderson however, as he had no intention of running the Wagoneers overseas.
Luckily, the officials governing the Press-on-Regardless decided not to uphold the FIA-ban for 1973, even though the event had become part of the new World Rally Championship. As a result the Jeeps kept competing until 1974. Sadly the car’s never enjoyed the same success as uprated 300 horsepower engines proved to be too high-strung to survive the harrowing journey. Despite messing with his own winning formula and losing out in the end, Gene Henderson could be content with writing motorsport history in the most unlikely car imaginable.
The Jeep Wagoneer Competition Limited “Moby D!ck“ was one of the most unusual machines ever to hit a rally stage. Starting life as a home on wheels for adventurous outdoors-men and the people who like to imitate them, the Jeep had not even the slightest indication of being a competitive rally weapon.
Yet with the skill and determination of a war veteran turned police sergeant turned racing legend, the big bruiser was able to shock the world of rallying into submission. Barreling through the inhospitable freezing wilderness of Michigan, the gentle giant left everything behind in a pile of steam. It simply would not give up in a relentless pursuit of the best time. Despite all its shortcomings and obvious lack of natural talent, it pressed on regardless and etched itself into the history books forever.