Book Review by Hugh King (Chairman, AMHF)
Another superb book in our growing library on Australia’s motor heritage, this new tome is an authoritative insider’s account of an unrepeatable event that went beyond the world of motor sport. Skillfully the contest was framed and conducted as an ultimate test of human and machine endurance in the most hostile of environments, with a tight and tiring schedule, and always fate and ‘externalities’ influenced all participants. It was a fast-moving and exotic ‘news event’ with dramatic highs and depressing low lights for most.
The London-Sydney Marathon of 1968 was funded by two media moguls (Frank Packer in Sydney, and Sir Max Aitken in London) as a public spectacle with nationalistic overtones to attract major advertising revenue and boost sales of their daily newspapers. The big motor sport and industry players did not bring it into being, all feared the possibility of failure, and some had to be coerced to participate, but soon the English-speaking world was paying attention.
Australia was the setting for the grande finale and the last days of the event riveted the nation, particularly as so many of the survivors (both the cars and the exhausted drivers) were recognizable to us. Like the Redex Round-Australia Trials in the 1950s, this event served to bring the nation together by emphasising the dangers difficulties and huge distances we must overcome.
This very accessible telling of the tale is both easy reading – and it is also a well-researched new reference work.
The Sydney-based author John Smailes has form, both ancient and modern. His valuable book on Allan Moffatt (‘Climbing the Mountain’ in 2017) is one of a kind; his long interview with Norm Beechey for Muscle Car magazine earlier this year was something of a coup. His book co-authored with the late David Mackay (‘The Bright Eyes of Danger’ in 1970) is the best early account of the 1968 Marathon from an Australian viewpoint – Mackay drove an early Holden Monaro in the event. But for this reviewer there is one outstanding item that really ‘pings’ John. A full-page advertisement in the program for the Australian Grand Prix Race Meeting at Oran Park on 17 November 1974 gives us a photograph that does not flatter him, above a bold statement by the Sunday Mirror – ‘Smailes Triggers the Action! – When John Smailes writes about motor racing he gets deep inside the high-speed sport – he’s not afraid to be controversial….’
Our author was in the fray, one of three reporters representing Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph who were following the competitors throughout, deep inside the event with superb access to it all. Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Marathon he has published this excellent review with the benefit of interviews with survivors around the world and extensive new research (undertaken it seems by him at all points). Happily he has included occasional editorial comment and other conclusions which might appear ‘controversial’ to some, but which are all supported by facts as reported.
Smailes has cast this new book as a sequel to his 1970 work ‘The Bright Eyes of Danger’ but this reviewer sees it rather as a whole new thing, a resource worth having for its own sake alone. We can look at other books on the Marathon* and see that Smailes has given us a resource that we have needed in order to gain a better perspective on the major, special event that hit our national consciousness fifty years ago. The motor cars and their drivers were the players but the Australian car-buying, motor-reliant nation was a principal, if not the only, major target of the whole fascinating media show. Frank Packer and his colleagues did well to back it.
Author John Smailes: published Allen & Unwin 2018: 352 pages: ISBN 978-1-76063-253-3
* Earlier notable books on the London-Sydney Marathon of 1968 include these by competitors:
- Innes Ireland – Marathon in the Dust (1970, William Kimber)
- Andrew Cowan – Why Finish Last? (1969, Queen Anne Press)
- Paddy Hopkirk – The Longest Drive of All (1969, Geoffrey Chapman)
- Evan Green – A Bootfull of Right Arms (1975, Cassell Australia)
- David McKay/John Smailes – The Bright Eyes of Danger (1970, Shakespeare Head)