Every nation had its hero in the 1972 round of the FIA Manufacturers’ Rally Championship. In that year’s Rallye Monte Carlo, Sandro Munari’s Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF held off Porsche and Datsun in Italy’s home victory. In Sweden, Stig Bronqvist gave Saab another victory and honed the legend that decades later ‘Stig’ came to simply mean ‘racing his driver’. Mk 1 Escorts took 1st place and his 3rd place in the East Africa Safari Rally. The former was driven by Flying Finn and the latter was a Kenyan-born driver. Witty compact drivers in small sports cars were everywhere setting a furious pace from Austria to the Acropolis.
But in 1972 the FIA also came to America and here came the Leviathan.
A white flash through the trees. Please ask before you watch. Rather than a camouflaged Lancia with a weird V4, the 5.9-liter V8 sucks fuel from Holly’s cab and thunders out of dual exhausts. The flank of a giant whale splashed with winter mud on the Michigan Peninsula. Hitting the brakes causes the driver toss the huge beast to the side and all four wheels slide into the gravel. The most unlikely rally machine, the Jeep his Wagoneer, whose sides bear the name “Moby Dick 1”.
Lean Lean Walter Röhrl started his career as an alpine ski racer. Short and muscular, Sébastien Loeb got his start as a gymnast. Wagoneer driver Gene Henderson was a bear.
A former Navy signalman, he served in the Pacific during World War II and was one of the first to direct artillery fire from Allied ships on the beach. Upon returning to Michigan, he worked for the Dearborn Police Department, where he spent 20 years. At 6 feet 2 inches and weighing over 200 pounds, he was the kind of cop who could walk into a rowdy bar and put down a brawl that was brewing with his mere presence.
There were many hot rodders in the force at the time, but Henderson was different. During the summer weekends he would race his Volvo PV544 and in the winter he would drift the cruiser through empty, snow-covered parking lots. A hidden talent bloomed. He was like the American version of Swedish rally champion Eric Carlson, who was Pat Moss’ husband. Like Carlson, Henderson was a big shot, but he could wheel anything.
Eight years before the FIA made its mark on Michigan’s press-on-relational rally, Gene Henderson and co-driver Scott Harvey Jr. campaigned a V-8-powered Plymouth Valiant in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Famously, Paddy Hop Kirk won his Cooper that year, cementing the Mini’s reputation as a shitty underdog. Henderson and Harvey were plagued by the French roadmap (other teams had to assist with local translators), but still achieved a respectable fifth of his.
Back in Michigan, Henderson made a name for himself in Time Speed Distance Rallies, SCCA competitions, and just about any kind of race he could find time to enter. He founded his own performance parts company, Competition Ltd., in 1969 and his business grew. By the early ’70s, Henderson was driving everything from Mercedes to Fords. “Gene Henderson and Scott Harvey are the Lewis and Clark of professional rallying in America,” said John Buffam, the American rally driver who has won the most titles in the National Rally Championship.
As November 1972 approached, AMC soared into the sky. Race-ready Javelin had won back-to-back races with his Trans-Am, and the bet to buy his brand of struggling Jeep had paid off. For model year 1973, the popular Wagoneer was fitted with a new full-time four-wheel drive system and marketed as the Quadra-Trac. What better way to sell it than winning his first FIA-approved rally in America?
Henderson believed he could come out victorious despite the short development period. Just two months later at Press On About, two of his Wagoneers arrived at the competition for development work. It was fairly standard for him to draw power from a large V8 engine. Aggressive timing, hot cams and more fuel brought it to around 400 horsepower. Carrying his nearly 5000-pound mass in a Wagoneer down a gravel road was something else entirely. Working with Monroe, a multi-damper system was developed to allow the Wagoneer to hit high speeds without bouncing off the road.
Shakedown took place at the local Moonlight Monte Rally, with two large jeeps looking somewhat comical at Parc Ferme. The rest of the field was sports cars, Datsun 510 and his 240Z, Volvo, Ford Escort and BMW 2002. Wagoneer, white as an elephant, was the subject of ridicule until he finished fifth and he finished sixth. People stopped laughing.
Much heavier than anything else on the run, the Wagoneer had Ace on its sleeve, with Ace at the wheel. The Quadra-Trac he was built by Borg-Warner had a differential lock in the middle that could send partial power forward or backward depending on slip. Gene found that aggressively downshifting the 3-speed automatic dragged all his four wheels, slowing it down while remaining steady. Braking on the move threw the nose-heavy Wagoneer into corners and the back end kicked into action. It’s pretty much the same technique you learn today on a modern rally-spec Subaru. The brake is for turning and the throttle is for going straight.
Still, the Wagoneers weren’t able to completely outmaneuver Moonlit Monte, and their competition at Press On Amongning was world-class. Bachum drove a Ford Escort RS1600 and European Rally Champion Harry Kelstrom drove a Lancia Fulvia HF. The rally was grueling, around 330 miles, mostly night stages, with over 80 cars participating and a lot of experience.
But this is where Gene Henderson comes into play. Mike Van Lew, who later co-drivered Henderson on a number of rallies, describes how the big man was at the wheel before the car was launched onto the stage. . It was like flipping a switch, completely razor-focused concentration. On his final POR run in 1984, Henderson said he made no mistakes over 270 miles. In 1972 he drove almost perfectly as well.
Buffum crashed on the first night, but Wagoneer failed to catch Källström’s Fulvia for most stages. The Swede was over eight minutes ahead when Henderson pulled onto the stage to watch Fulvia limp her leg. Kerstrom was battling brake problems, with Henderson chasing. In the rear view he had all four auxiliary lights lit and a roaring V-8 Beast just behind him, while Källström overheated the corner and rolled his car.
Henderson and co-driver Ken Pogue stopped to make sure everyone was safe, rivals or not, before dashing to the next control point. Retaining the lead the next night was to keep Wagoneer and not make a blunder, but Henderson still extended his lead. He was so far ahead of the Datsun that he actually stopped and hosed off the Wagoneer so he could come clean as he crossed the finish line.
AMC and the fans celebrated the victory. Much of the rest of the local and international rally scene was outraged. The big Wagoneer seemed to fly in the face of Rally’s spirit, and their four-wheel drive system was an unfair advantage. This was his first FIA rally win for an American car by an American driver, and the first for a team using all-wheel drive. By April 1973, however, the FIA had banned his four-wheel drive from rallying entirely.
However, the European teams were paying attention, noting that 4-wheel drive remained legal at the SCCA ProRally. Henderson won the 1974 Pro Rally Championship in his Cherokee Jeep and continued his AMC campaign in an Eagle SX-4. Audi, and later Porsche, brought AWD back to his FIA rallies, but Jeep got there first.
Henderson continued rallying well beyond his professional driving career, participating in multiple timed speed distance rallies, including the long-distance Alcan 5000. He was inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in his 1989 year. He is out of the rally world. Many of the now-gray-haired rally drivers were beginners who once took Gene’s advice. Many remembered him as the man with the code to help even for his competition instead of crossing over. It was something.
In 1972, every country had a rally hero. The Americas were big guys in big jeeps, setting the stage for what modern rallying could look like decades from now.
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