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‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’ goes the popular nursery rhyme, but they also climbed mountains, crossed deserts and battled through rainforest.
Forty years ago, two standard Minis returned from an epic world tour to raise funds for and awareness of polio research.
Lifelong adventurer Tony Clarke instigated the charity challenge and, together with his 19-year-old mechanic Tim Ferris, completed the remarkable 60,000-mile drive in the patriotically painted Minis donated by British Leyland and nicknamed ‘Jack and Jill’.
The BBC news programme Nationwide covered the trip, with cameramen joining the adventure along the way. Several celebrities backed the venture, too, including Princess Anne and rockstar Ian Dury, who’d contracted polio as a child, aged seven.
Clarke lived in Cornwall, where the Minis were prepared by Leyland dealership Mumfords in Truro.
Needing a second driver, Clarke was impressed by a young apprentice working at the garage and invited him to join the team.
Ferris, who’d already rallied his own Cooper ‘S’ locally and crewed on the Sir Winston Churchill schooner, eventually accepted and was launched into the spotlight with interviews and television appearances on a preview tour around the UK.
In the early summer of 1980, the Minis headed from Cornwall to the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios for the official send-off.
The inaugural stop on the other side of the Channel was in Paris to pick up the first of several cameramen, Previn Thakur, but sorting visas for the trip ahead took five days and the war-torn region between Algeria and Morocco was deemed to be too dangerous to travel, so the Minis were driven to Marseille for shipping to Algeria.
The daunting challenge of the Sahara then lay ahead, with the duo required to join a convoy because it was illegal to traverse the desert alone.
“We were very naïve and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” recalls Ferris.
“The Minis were totally unsuitable and were beaching all the time – we stopped more than 50 times to dig them out.
“The frustrated French convoy eventually abandoned us and, low on food and drink, we were lucky to make it.
“Fortunately a group of German missionaries in two ex-military 4WD trucks agreed to tow us to Niger, but it took all the money I had saved for the trip.”
This first major hurdle was tiring for the team but the Minis suffered worst from the sand, which got everywhere and quickly wore out bearings and brakes.
Broken shock absorbers had to be changed six times, but on 5 June they arrived in Lagos where they were delayed by waiting for vital spares from England.
Lagos presented an unexpected problem, as early rains flooded the roads and made them impassable even for trucks.
This left no option but to fly the Minis to Nairobi on a Pan Am 747, then upon arrival the team learned that the cars and camera equipment had been impounded and it was a week before they were released.
As with many sections of the trip, the route from Kenya through Tanzania to Malawi raised safety concerns and, after several warnings, Clarke decided that the safest course to take was through the Serengeti National Park.
The unplanned safari was a treat for the Brits, with animal distractions including elephants, hyenas, hippos and a lioness.
At one water stop Clarke got a bit too close to nature – and quite a scare – when the head of a crocodile appeared.
The roads were tough on the Minis, and it took nine days to arrive in Blantyre, Malawi.
One mountain route proved impassable, but thankfully the contractors of an unfinished new road enthusiastically waved the duo on to test it.
The warmest welcome in the country came from a group of 35 youngsters crippled by polio, which underlined the immunisation challenge facing Save the Children.
In 1980 the disease was widespread in the central regions of Africa, where there were more than 20,000 sufferers.
After camping by the beautiful Lake Malawi, the Minis travelled on to Zimbabwe via Zambia and the Kariba Dam.
The media in the capital Harare (then Salisbury) made a fuss about the venture, but the first stage had taken its toll and new engines had to be fitted for the next leg.
“The development workshop was fantastic,” says Ferris. “The 1275cc units gave more power, and we improved preparation with stronger sump-guards and air filters developed for trucks.”
After South Africa, the Minis were shipped across the Atlantic to Montevideo, Uruguay, while Clarke and Ferris enjoyed the comfort of a Jumbo jet to Buenos Aires.
Following a VIP welcome, the cars and gear were unloaded and they struck out.
The incongruous sight of two brightly coloured Minis chasing across cattle ranches and through pine forests greatly amused the friendly locals.
Only a 12-hour thunderstorm hindered progress with more flooded roads. In contrast to the much-missed African sunshine, the cold weather and damp atmosphere made camping uncomfortable and the sleeping bags would take days to dry after the heavy dew.
Into Brazil, from Porto Alegre to Rio de Janeiro, the driving challenge became very different.
Convoys of colourful trucks made overtaking perilous, while the local police were vigilant about any transgressions.
After a late arrival in São Paulo the team set up camp in the dark, only to discover the following morning that they were in the grounds of a TV station; thankfully the staff proved very hospitable.
The South American stage got really hard once the crews joined the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Estreito.
The further north they travelled, the hotter it became for the long spells cooped up in the Minis.
During the day, blood-sucking flies were a pest while mosquitoes kept the team awake at night.
They’d sling hammocks between trees close to the highway for safety, but there was still the constant worry of large snakes and one night Clarke was stunned when a black panther stalked across the camp.
Petrol also became an obstacle, its poor quality causing regular problems with the Minis’ performance, and stations were few and far between.
Into the jungle, the Tarmac soon ended with the prospect of only dirt tracks for the following 3000 miles.
‘This became a real issue for the Minis,’ wrote Clarke in his log. ‘We’d only cover 15km on some days, despite setting off before sun-up, which was demoralising.’
The deeper into the jungle they got, the more frequent the storms became and in the steaming heat the cars began to develop major mechanical problems, particularly with the suspension: ‘Between Itaituba and Jacareacanga we split the rubber cones three times, and had to camp in the jungle while I went for help. The delay lost us a week.’
Constant rain turned the road into a mudbath, made worse by heavy trucks. The Minis were laden with equipment and the extra weight of 14 20-litre cans of petrol; when crossing deep pools, the mud would reach high up the door sides.
Through the jungle the track got as narrow as 2m, with trees often blocking the route and requiring tiring clearance with machetes.
“The Amazon adventure and the friendly people were the highlight of the trip,” says Ferris. “It was dangerous, but I was young and loved obstacles such as the river crossings. The most dramatic moments were never filmed because there were only three of us and we needed all hands.”
At one point the rains had washed away the embankment, leaving an exposed 50ft drop to the forest floor.
After a nerve-racking pass, the mud became even more of a problem. The build-up in the wheelarches eventually acted as a brake, which forced regular stops to jack up the cars and scrape out the muck.
In the intense heat the engines regularly boiled, and the poor petrol finally caused a piston to melt.
The Minis struggled on to Manaus, where the repairs took six weeks, but just before Christmas they were back on course for the 2700km journey into Venezuela and the capital Caracas.
The Equator was crossed and, relieved to be leaving the rains and jungle of the Amazon basin behind, spirits rose as the roads improved through open fields.
But the prospect of the Cerro El Ávila mountain range brought further dramas with brake failure.
The only option to slow Jack the Mini during the 14,000ft descent was by using the transmission, which eventually caused gearbox failure. For the final 1250km Mini towed Mini, with Ferris in the lead.
“It was illegal to tow in Venezuela and we had to watch out for the police,” he says. “With no radios, hand signals were the only way to communicate.” Tired and dirty, the team was relieved to finally complete the brutal South American section.
From Caracas, the cars were shipped to Miami for the drive across the States to Los Angeles, from where they were transferred to Singapore.
There, the local British Leyland garage set about the task of preparing the Minis for the leg across Asia.
‘They had taken a terrible battering,’ wrote Clarke. ‘As well as new subframes, plus suspension and brake overhauls, the engines needed a total rebuild with reboring, new pistons, and a crankshaft regrind.
‘The petrol tanks had to be welded up, and we needed new windscreens, headlights and dials. The horn had been stolen in Brazil, and that had to be replaced. Not your average 3000-mile service.’
The Minis’ departure in February coincided with Chinese New Year but, despite the distracting local celebrations, the team was concerned that increasing troubles in Iran and Iraq would rule out access.
By early March they were heading across Thailand, on a 2000-mile route to the capital Bangkok where they hoped to visit a nearby refugee camp and view more of Save the Children’s work.
The government granted permission, but nothing prepared them for the scale of the site with more than 36,000 Kampuchean refugees behind wire fences.
In stark contrast to the camp, the Mini team also visited some famous temples along the route to Penang.
‘The monks were fascinated by the cars and asked us about our trip,’ reported Clarke. ‘They gave us lucky charms to keep us safe on our travels.’
From Malaysia’s northwestern coast, the Minis were shipped across the Indian Ocean on a five-day voyage to Madras (now Chennai), where the biggest challenge was unloading the cars upon arrival.
While in India, Clarke and Ferris stopped to report on the impressive work Save the Children was doing to help struggling families.
‘There were no nursery groups, playgroups or child health centres,’ recalled Clarke. ‘Many of the children were living in builders’ yards, and it was unthinkable to see newborn babies being fed by mothers surrounded by rubble.
‘Save the Children had set up mobile crèches to help the suffering. My mind still goes back to those youngsters; I’ll never forget their smiles.’
The experience of travelling through India was a highlight of the adventure for Clarke, but it wasn’t without its complications.
‘From Madras we motored through the hot plains and by the time we reached the border with Pakistan at Amritsar, the temperature had cooled. But we still had to cope with swarms of flies that got everywhere –in our food, drinks and clothing.’
Compared to India, Pakistan seemed a far richer country.
‘We were only there seven days for the journey from Lahore to Quetta,’ wrote Clarke. ‘En route we really enjoyed the refreshing treats of juicy oranges and sweet ice cream, but the hurdle ahead of the Balochistan Desert filled me with dismay.
‘I’d lived in hope that we’d seen the last of sand and dirt roads, but as we came over the top of the purple-coloured Quetta mountains, all that lay ahead were dunes.
‘The journey through the desert to Tehran was more than 1500 miles and again the shovels were regularly used to dig out the Minis.’
In comparison, the Iranian roads were excellent but the unstable situation with Iraq made progress tricky at times.
‘In remote areas the locals were very friendly, but every 100km we were stopped by armed patrols who searched us.
‘My knowledge of Persian was negligible and explaining our journey proved difficult. We were eventually taken off to an army detention centre where we were held while our passports and travel reasons were checked. This, thankfully, was the last dramatic adventure we experienced.’
After all the troubles of the previous months, the most memorable moment of the last long stretch was a snowball battle in the Turkish mountains before the seemingly endless drive across Europe to France.
In Calais, the team was greeted by Nationwide reporters for a final broadcast about the 13-month, 60,000-mile charity fundraising trip. The final total gathered for the Stop Polio campaign was £25,000.
The Minis made it back to Cornwall, where they remained in a compound at Mumfords in Truro, the garage that originally prepared them.
Ownership wasn’t clear and finally, in return for a donation to Stop Polio, the Minis became a popular exhibit at a local car museum.
When the museum closed, ‘Jack and Jill’ were transferred into storage but unfortunately the damp barn resulted in rapid deterioration of the historic pair.
At some point Jill’s engine and gearbox were removed but the rebuild was never finished, and the components were abandoned inside the cockpit.
Many of the original features including the twin petrol tanks and roof-racks were complete, but the cars required major restoration.
The owner had planned to restore Jack, the best preserved of the pair, but Mini enthusiasts were critical about the prospect of Jack and Jill being split up.
Various attempts to sell the cars failed to find a saviour, and in 2014 they first appeared for sale on eBay.
Finally, in 2017, the cars found a safe home.
“I’d just returned from a great day at the British Grand Prix and at 11:30pm, with a drink in hand, I ended up looking on eBay,” explains Valentine Lindsay.
“When I discovered the Transworld Minis, I couldn’t resist them. I’ve always been fascinated by great motoring adventures because my father tried to drive a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost back from India. He’d also done the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon in a Bentley 8 Litre. I remembered the 1980s Nationwide reports about the Minis, and felt they had to be saved.”
The condition of the cars when they arrived was shocking, but with no miles since the world tour they were original and complete.
“I enlisted Lenny Thackray for the restoration, with the aim of saving as much of the Minis as possible.”
In his Kent workshop, Thackray stripped both cars to bare shells before sand-blasting them.
All of the panels were saved, but with a full repaint required there was no option but to recreate the sponsorship livery. A new bootlid was fitted, so at least one panel could be retained with its original colours.
While the rebuild progressed, Lindsay set about researching the history of the expedition: “I had loved the story of a 19-year-old Cornish mechanic agreeing to become the second driver, and through the internet I tracked down Tim to his garage. He was really helpful and provided thousands of slides for reference.”
Thackray then enlisted a local signwriter to hand paint all the logos and wording on the restored shells, and the finished graphics look fantastic.
As the mechanical side was rebuilt, various unique details were discovered that Ferris later confirmed.
At the startt he cars ran with 998cc engines, but when new motors were fitted in Africa they were Marina-specification with bespoke oil filters.
All the special fitments including body guards, rollbars, lorry air filters and Jack’s original roof-rack were rebuilt.
For the interior, Lindsay found a pair of Corbeau seats and fitted four-point safety harnesses for the planned demonstration runs, while the rough original chairs were saved and stored.
The final touch was a Blockheads band sticker, just as was given to the team by Dury back in 1980.
After a meticulous two-year restoration, the Stop Polio Minis made their debut at the 2019 London Classic Car Show where, chasing around the ExCel exhibition hall, they were a hugely popular feature of the live action.
Lindsay also invited Ferris up to see Jack and Jill. “I was over the moon when I saw them,” he says, “and finally sitting in the driving seat again brought back all the amazing memories. They’d done a fantastic restoration job – far better than new!”
Last year would have marked the 40th anniversary of the epic trip, but Lindsay’s plans were thwarted by pandemic lockdowns: “I’d love to have taken them to Goodwood with Tim.”
Inspired by the restoration, Ferris has started posting his expanded diary from the journey on Facebook, with a new report every Tuesday. “With no chance to travel, it seemed a good time to relive the trip 40 years on,” he explains.
“I’d moved on to other things [four sorties on the RAC Rally among them] but now realise it was a hell of a thing and am proud of the achievement.”
There’s now no stopping Ferris, as he plans a retirement adventure across South America in a 4x4 with wife Mary, to whom he’d just become engaged prior to the Mini world tour.
Images: James Mann