Every country had its hero in the 1972 FIA Manufacturers’ Rally Championship. At this year’s Monte Carlo Rally, Sandro Munari’s Lancia Fulvia 1.6 HF held off the Porsches and the Datsuns in a home win for Italy. In Sweden, Stig Blomqvist scored another win for Saab and revived a legend where decades later ‘Stig’ simply meant ‘racer’. Mk 1 Escorts placed first and third in the East Africa Safari Rally, the former driven by a Flying Finn, the latter born in Kenya. Everywhere were quick-witted, compact drivers in small sports cars, who set a breakneck pace from Austria to the Acropolis.
But in 1972 the FIA came to America too, and here a Leviathan was born.
A flash of white between the trees. Hear it before you see it, not a souped-up Lancia with its odd V-4 rasp, but a roaring 5.9-liter V-8 sucking fuel through a Holley carburetor and belching thunder through dual exhausts. A huge great whale of a thing, flanks spattered with the winter mud of the Michigan Peninsula. One step on the brakes and the driver throws the big beast sideways, all four wheels skidding in the gravel. The most unlikely of all rally machines, a Jeep Wagoneer with “Moby Dick 1” painted on its sides.
Walter Röhrl, slight and skinny, started out as an alpine ski racer. Sébastien Loeb, short and muscular, started out as a master gymnast. Gene Henderson, driver of the Wagoneer, was a bear.
A former Navy signalman, he had served in the Pacific during World War II and was one of the first on the beaches to direct artillery fire from Allied ships. When he returned to Michigan, he worked for the Dearborn Police Department and spent two decades on the job. At 6ft 2in and over 200 pounds, he was the kind of cop who could walk into a rowdy bar and defuse a brewing brawl just by his presence.
There were a lot of hot rodders in the squad back then, but Henderson was different. He spent his summer weekends driving a Volvo PV544, and in the winter he drifted his cruiser across empty, snow-covered parking lots. A hidden talent emerged. He was sort of an American version of Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally champion who was Pat Moss’s husband. Like Carlsson, Henderson was a big guy, but he could ride the wheels off anything.
Eight years before the FIA Michigans Press On Independent Rally made its mark, Gene Henderson and co-driver Scott Harvey Jr. fielded a V-8 powered Plymouth Valiant in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Paddy Hopkirk famously won that year in a Mini Cooper, cementing the Mini’s reputation as a rowdy underdog. Paralyzed by the French roadmaps – other teams had local translators to assist – Henderson and Harvey still managed a respectable fifth place.
Back home in Michigan, Henderson made a name for himself in time-speed-distance rallies, SCCA competitions, and just about any other type of racing he could find time for. In 1969 he started his own performance parts company, Competition Ltd., and the business grew. By the early 1970s, Henderson had driven for everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Ford. John Buffum, the US rally driver with the most national championship titles, once said: “Gene Henderson and Scott Harvey are the Lewis and Clark of ProRallying in the US .”
As November 1972 approached, AMC was flying high. Race-ready Javelins had won back-to-back championships in Trans-Am racing, and the gamble on buying the ailing Jeep brand paid off. For the 1973 model year, the popular Wagoneer received a new full-time four-wheel drive system marketed as the Quadra-Trac. What better way to market it than with a win in America’s first FIA-sanctioned rally?
Henderson believed he could pull off a win despite the short development window. Just two months before Press On Independent, two Wagoneers joined Competition for development work. Making power out of the big V-8 was pretty standard: Aggressive timing, a hot cam, and more fuel brought it up to around 400 horsepower. Getting the Wagoneer’s nearly 5,000-pound mass to whiz down the gravel was something else entirely. A multi-damper system was developed in collaboration with Monroe to allow the Wagoneer to hit bumps at high speed without bouncing off the road.
The shakedown run took place at the local Moonlight Monte rally, where the two big jeeps looked a bit ridiculous in parc fermé. The rest of the field consisted of sports cars, Datsun 510 and 240Z, Volvos, Ford Escorts and BMW 2002s. The Elephant White Wagoneers were mocked until they finished fifth and sixth. People stopped laughing.
Despite being far heavier than anything else in the race, the Wagoneer had an ace up his sleeve, along with an ace at the wheel. Built by Borg-Warner, Quadra-Trac had a central differential lock that could send partial power forward or backward depending on slip. Gene discovered that downshifting the three-speed automatic aggressively dragged all four wheels and lost speed while remaining stable. Braking on the fly threw the nose-heavy Wagoneer into the corner and brought the rear end around. It’s much the same technique you’d learn today on a modern rally-prepared Subaru: brakes are for turning, throttle is for going straight.
Still, the Wagoneers hadn’t quite won the Moonlit Monte, and the competition at Press On Independent was world class. Buffum was there in his Ford Escort RS1600, as was European Rally Champion Harry Källström in a Lancia Fulvia HF. The rally was strenuous, around 330 miles, mostly night stages, and there was plenty of experience in the 80+ cars entered.
But this is where Gene Henderson comes in. Mike Van Loo, who later drove for Henderson in numerous rallies, describes how the big man behind the wheel fell silent before the car came on stage. It was absolute razor-sharp concentration, like the flick of a switch. At his last POR race in 1984, Henderson made no mistakes over 270 miles. In 1972 he drove with the same near-perfection.
Buffum crashed on the first night, but the Wagoneer couldn’t quite catch Källstrom’s Fulvia on most stages. The Swede was over eight minutes clear when Henderson turned into a stage and saw the Fulvia limping away. Källström struggled with brake problems and Henderson gave chase. With all four auxiliary headlights in his rearview and the roaring V-8 beast close behind him, Källström overcooked a corner and rolled over.
Henderson and co-driver Ken Pogue stopped to check everyone was okay, rivals or not, then sped on to the next checkpoint. Maintaining first place the next night was more about keeping the Wagoneer and not making mistakes, but Henderson still extended his lead. He was so far ahead of the Datsuns that he actually stopped and hosed down the Wagoneer so it rolled clean across the finish line.
AMC and the fans loved the win. Much of the rest of the local and international rally scene was outraged. The big Wagoneers seemed to go against the spirit of rallying, their four-wheel drive systems being an unfair advantage. It was the first FIA rally victory for an American driver in an American car and the first for a four-wheel drive team. But in April 1973, the FIA banned all-wheel drive from rallies entirely.
However, European teams had been paying attention, watching as all-wheel drive continued to be legal in the SCCA ProRally. Henderson won the 1974 Pro Rally Championship in a Jeep Cherokee and continued to fight for AMC in an Eagle SX-4. Audi and later Porsche would bring AWD back into FIA rallies, but a jeep had gotten there first.
Henderson continued to rally in several time-speed-distance rallies, including the endurance Al-Can 5000, long after his career as a professional driver. He was inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1989. When he died in 2005, the stories flowed from the rally community. Many of the now grey-haired rally drivers had once been beginners and had taken Gene’s advice. He was remembered by many as a man with a code not to be broken, but who lent a helping hand even to his competition. A pillar of the community, his contribution even greater than he.
In 1972 every country had a rally hero. America was a big man in a big Jeep, setting the stage for what would become modern day rallying decades later. A pioneer in a Wagoneer as it should be.