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The term “Living Legend” tends to be a little overdone these days, but somebody would have great difficulty in convincing me that the term was misplaced when talking of legendary rally competitor, John Bryson. Mention Bryson’s name these days and those ‘in the know’ will immediately associate him with many other great names in rallying – Andrew Cowan, Roger Clark, Evan Green, Ken Tubman, Barry Ferguson, Doug Stewart and so on. In his heyday one of Australia’s most capable and experienced competitors on both sides of the car, John Bryson has probably had more successes in his competition history in a wide variety of events than almost any other rally competitor. Need proof? His record of outright wins and significant placings in the Southern Cross Rally (three wins), the 1968 and 1977 London-Sydney Marathons, the London – Brighton Veteran Car Run, the Mallee Desert Rally, the Papua-New Guinea Safari, 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial, Total Economy Run, the BP Rally, the ARC, the New Caladonia Safari, the Peking to Paris, the London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally and the Trial to the Nile, stand as testament not only to his love of the sport, but to his amazing ability. His epic journey in a Leyland P76 through the Sahara Desert with the late Evan Green must also go down as one of the rides of his life.

John Bryson has put together an extraordinary CV of rallying events from around the world.

Bryson may have slowed down a little, but the rallying fire in his belly is still very much a-flame. Although most of the events that he has contested in his long career are memorable, the young Bryson first came to real prominence in 1972 when he was chosen by the crack Mitsubishi rally team in Japan to guide Scotsman, Andrew Cowan, in the Southern Cross Rally. Based in Port Macquarie at a time when there was increasing interest in Australian endurance rallies, Bryson was chosen for his record of being a top-class navigator and a great tactician. He teamed up with Cowan as senior navigator for its team to record Mitsubishi’s first Australian rally win, leading a classy field of works, semi-works and privateer cars home in their Colt Galant. Working perfectly as a team, the pair went on to repeat their victory in both the 1972 and 1973 ‘Crosses, driving a Lancer with full factory support from Japan. Despite concerted efforts from other factory teams, particularly Datsun and Holden, the wily Scot and the laconic Aussie recorded decisive victories and were widely recognised as being an unbeatable combination. That they established star status both here and in Japan is not surprising. Mitsubishi’s participation in motorsport, and in particular rallying, can be indirectly attributed to John Bryson. It was a result of Doug Stewart’s fourth outright in the 1964 Ampol Trial that caused Mitsubishi to think about entering one of their Colt 1000s, a small family car with transverse leaf front suspension and column gearshift, in an Australian endurance event for evaluation. Stewart teamed with Bryson to enter the Colt in the 12/12 Mountain Rally, an event which they won outright by more than seven minutes. Their win was the first for Mitsubishi outside Japan, the factory so pleased with the result that Stewart was asked to evaluate the next model Colt, the 1100.

John Bryson spent plenty of time beside the great Scotsman, Andrew Cowan, in Southern Cross Rallies.

Two cars were tested over an 8,000 mile course and stood up to the conditions so well that they were handed over to be used as rally cars. One was used in competition by Doug Stewart, who had as navigators Barry Lloyd and Bryson at different times, the other by Colin Bond and Brian Hope. With testing proving successful, factory-prepared Colts were entered for the 1968 Southern Cross Rally, marking Mitsubishi’s first step into international rallying. When Andrew Cowan and Bryson won the ‘Cross in 1972 in a Galant, Mitsubishi’s rallying career really began in earnest. Although he’s probably not so bold as to take credit for it, it was partly as a result of Bryson’s expertise that the Japanese manufacturer, from that moment on, became such a dominant force in rallying worldwide. Much of Bryson’s reputation can be attributed to his navigational skills, map reading ability and “office management”, but he was equally proficient on both sides of the car. No doubt when Mitsubishi were looking for an accomplished all-rounder to accompany Cowan, Bryson would have been on top of their list. As well as having amassed around 180 trophies for his navigating abilities, the Bryson trophy cabinet has even more trophies for driving – 188! If that’s not enough, the list of cars that he’s competed in, either as a driver or a navigator is like a “Who’s Who” of makes. That’s not surprising considering Bryson often contested 50 events or more each year, such was his fascination with rallying and motorsport. Always a little unconventional, perhaps a touch eccentric, Bryson really had the media working overtime during the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial when he decided to marry his long-time navigator, Sonia Kable-Cumming, at Broken Hill during the event. It was hardly the best time to get married (they weren’t to experience their wedding night until they arrived in Perth 48 hours later), but it was an opportunity that guaranteed them media coverage. Competitors had just two hours to service their cars and grab a bit of rest before they were on the road again, but Bryson’s date with his bride was made even more perilous when their turbocharged Mk.2 Escort, in which they were competing, broke an accelerator cable and speared off into the scrub on the first stage out of Melbourne. The car nevertheless made it to Broken Hill, with its occupants, in time for the ceremony. As long-time friend and rally companion, the late Evan Green, once said: “Bryson is to navigating what ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray was to driving – he does outlandish things, sometimes purely for effect, but usually for a more serious purpose’. The young John Bryson grew up in far north western Queensland on a sheep and cattle station, an upbringing that obviously whet his appetite for ‘the great outdoors”. He was educated at Brisbane Boys College and went on to become a Civil Engineer, seeing service in the Australian Regular Army when just 18, and spending four years in Japan and one in Korea. Early in his life he became interested in car rallies and trials and took leave from his civil engineering career to work as a journalist for the Sydney Sun newspaper so he could participate in long-distance car rallies. His army experience taught him all about map reading and, more importantly, survival in harsh conditions. The stint at the Sun was followed by a spell at the Daily Telegraph and Modern Motor, his first assignment for Modern Motor was his report on the 1964 Ampol Trial. His time with these organisations was a very rewarding one and he met a number of rally competitors with whom he was later to forge a strong friendship.

John Bryson (right) and Andrew Cowan celebrate another Southern Cross Rally win.

He credits his introduction to motorsport to Evan Goodwin, who was not only an excellent driver but imparted much of his navigational knowledge on Bryson. “He was the epitome of the average club member who passed the love of rallying on to me,” Bryson said. “Then Max Winkless and Jack Forrest re-enforced on me that rallying is a sport, even when sponsorship is involved. “I still believe that today, although many people tend to forget that fact. The aim of the game is always sport and enjoyment.” One of these friends was Evan Green, a journalist, motor racing commentator, rally driver, car preparer and long-distance rally fanatic. Green and Bryson teamed up to compete in a number of events both here and overseas, including the Australian Rally Championship, the Rally of New Zealand, the New Caledonia Safari and the 1977 London to Sydney Marathon, in which they finished 10th outright and won their class in a Range Rover. However, their biggest single effort was taking a Leyland P76 V8 on the London - Sahara - Munich World Cup Rally in 1973, the dramatic story of which has been told in that fabulous book “A Bootful of Right Arms.” At the time, Bryson was running a motorsport equipment outlet at Roseville, a Sydney suburb, and had a number of contacts in the sport who he was able to call on to assist with the building of the P76, and the financing of the project. When Bryson and Green teamed to enter this event, they had only been together as a team for one season, but Green was impressed enough with Bryson’s ability to know there was no-one better to share this epic with. Bryson’s never-say-die attitude and his unorthodox, but successful, methods of achieving success at all costs, were one trait Green admired in his navigator. “An example of his unorthodoxy occurred in a NSW rally when John was riding with another driver when a stone broke their windscreen,” Green tells in “A Bootful of Right Arms”. “They were driving without a windscreen when, on a tight section, a farmer in a truck pulled out of a paddock and drove down the road in front of them. The road was narrow and the farmer, being a typical bush motorist, was reluctant to glance in his rear-view mirror, so he blocked the road and prevented the rally car from passing. “Dust and stones were pelting into the cabin, horn blowing and light flashing had no effect. At a slow pace, the farmer continued to block the road, unaware of the car behind.” Instructing his driver to pull up as close as he could to the back of the truck, Bryson climbed through the windscreen and onto the car’s bonnet then leaped onto the back of the truck and poked his head through the driver’s window. “Excuse me,” he said, “but would you mind pulling over?” The startled driver did, as Bryson jumped back into the car and took off.

John Bryson was just as comfortable helping on events as an official, as he was competing himself.

Bryson’s career is best remembered for his navigating and co-driving abilities, but despite his expertise in those areas, he is a driver of some repute as well. His mounts have included the mundane and the exotic – from an FB Holden through to a 1934 Wolseley Hornet and a Rover 90. Other mounts have included an Alfetta GT, Aston Martin DB6, Morris Cooper ‘S’, Ford Escort BDA, Mazdas, Peugeots, Falcons, Cortinas, Volkswagens, Volvos and a Subaru FF1100, which he describes as ‘better than a Cooper ‘S’. Having ridden with so many drivers in his long career, Bryson has no hesitation in naming Andrew Cowan as the best driver he has been with, an opinion gained no doubt from partnering the Scotsman to three Southern Cross Rally wins. “Cowan is closely followed by Doug Stewart, Gerry Crown, Roger Clark, Barry Ferguson, Evan Green and Brian Hilton,” he says. “Roger Clark was certainly the fastest driver I’d been with, but I felt safer with Green, Stewart and Crown.” His opinion of the cars he has co-driven vary enormously, as you might expect, dependent on the types of events the cars were being used in. “For long distance events, the Leyland P76 we used in the London-Sahara-Munich World Cup Rally was without doubt the best car for that event; for twisty stuff I’d go for the Lancia Stratos (he navigated for former waterski star, Ron Marks, in a Stratos some years ago). “I love the LA Lancer for club events, but it needs a good driver to get good results. I think a big horsepower, rally prepared Escort is the way to go.” Having competed in so many car trials and rallies over the years, you’d get the impression that John Bryson would have little time for anything else, but that’s far from the case. His personal high points include being President of the North Shore Sporting Car Club, an honorary member of the Thornleigh Car Club in Sydney, and President of the NSW-based Society of Advanced Motorists for a 10 year period. His rallying career has also seen him, often with wife Sonja (who he credits as being the best navigator ever to share a car with him) officialling, directing and administering hundreds of car club events throughout Australia. He and Sonja were the inaugural road directors and route selectors for the highly-successful “Camp Quality Capers”, which not only raised considerable sums of money for children with cancer, but introduced many people to rallying at a higher level. John Bryson is one of Australia’s rallying legends, yet he doesn’t wear this badge on his sleeve, preferring to let others think of him as one of rallying’s most successful pioneers. There is so much more to the John Bryson story that this article has not even touched on – it would take many thousands more words to do that. Though a large majority of Australia’s current rally competitors may have never heard his name, his achievements stand in the record books for all to see. Not too many of those competitors will ever achieve the dizzy heights of success that he can lay claim to. People like John Bryson are undoubtedly one of a kind.
  • Bryson’s major events:
  • Rally New Zealand
  • Australian Rally Championship rounds
  • Grand Prix Rally
  • Criteriium d’ Antibes
  • Esso 500 (Winner)
  • 1970 Ampol Trial
  • Mountain Rally (Winner)
  • Mini Monte (2nd.)
  • NSW Clubman Series (second twice)
  • New Caledonian Safari
  • London to Brighton Run
  • Total Economy Run (Class win)
  • 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial
  • Jaamtlands Rally, Sweden.
  • Southern Cross Rally (3 wins)
  • Peking to Paris
  • Trial to the Nile
  • Redex Re-run
  • 1964 Ampol Trial
  • 1968 London – Sydney Marathon
  • Round Australia in under 6 days.
  • S.A. ARC round
  • Papua-New Guinea Safari (Winner)
  • World Cup Rally
  • Mallee Desert Rally
  • 1977 London – Sydney Marathon (10th.)
  • BP Rally
In addition to the above major events, John Bryson has competed in hundreds of other rallies, trials, hillclimbs, club events, motorkhanas etc. since 1961.
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