‘To Cut a Long Story Short…’- George Mullins and a Lifelong Obsession with Rallying
‘Ooh, I must tell you about the time I bribed a load of Croat road workers with a crate of beer, so we could run a regularity uninterrupted…’ says George Mullins. I’m two hours into a phone call with him, in which we’ve covered all manner of topics and escapades related to the history of the man, but it feels like the stories and anecdotes could carry on all day. Not that I mind, I’m enjoying listening to George, who speaks with passion and fervour about everything, from caravan rallying with his Dad (no, really), to switchblade wielding Italians and of course his hobby that has become his day job. In fact, across the course of the conversation I have barely said a word, it’s the interviewers equivalent of the tail wagging the Dog, but George’s narrative is as entertaining as it is engaging and whilst George keeps apologising for rambling, like all of the best entertainers there is a call-back to anchor the whole lot. In this case, somewhat obviously, it is cars.
George’s story begins in the West Country, growing up on a Somerset farm, a somewhat idyllic setting, but before things get a bit Laurie Lee there was a bit more going on in George’s formative years than scrumping for apples and terrorising the local teaching staff. As well as the farm, his Mother ran a B+B, with visitors arriving all over the world, giving George first-hand experience of people from many different cultures, which he says were very much the building blocks for making him a people person. Dad too, had other interests besides working the land, with a fascination for motoring and laterally rallying, that would rub off on his son. “Dad came to farming late, and promised my Mum that he wouldn’t be absorbed by it as many other farmers were. He had to pledge that we would still get away as a family every year, but with his interest and desire to go rallying the two crossed over and he got into caravan rallying.”
Caravan Rallying is as daft and simple as it sounds, essentially road rallying with a caravan strapped on. Clarkson and Hamond et al may think that they have the intellectual copyright on doing oddball things with caravans, but after a quick bit of internet-based research, I can assure them they don’t. I’m intrigued by this particular chapter of George’s life, but it’s a subject that could be an article in itself, but to cap it off it went on for some years and ended with factory caravans being provided by Astral; Google it, you won’t be disappointed.
For Georges own interest in motorsport, the ‘lightbulb moment’, as he refers to it, came when he was 9 years old when family friend David Star knocked on the door of the farm one evening to say a road rally was happening down the road, at which point the family traipsed out to see the event unfold. “I think I had a broken leg” George tells me “but it didn’t matter, I remember the exact location we watched from even now and for me it was mind blowing, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.” So that was it, the young lad was hooked and began reading the motoring news and mithering his Dad at every opportunity to go and watch and eventually to enter. “We went to watch the RAC rally when I was about 10, that was another key moment, that really grabbed me and eventually I managed to convince Dad to enter a local 12 car rally in the family Triumph P1. Miraculously, to everyone else at least, we finished sixth, but whilst nobody expected anything from this youngster navigating, as I was into the whole sport, I’d educated myself on the ins and outs of navigation, so knew what to do with everything as it was handed to me.”
This progressed to the first proper road rally The “Palador”, probably one of the toughest road rallies in the SW, in Dad’s Dolomite Sprint, which was barely a few months old and not really the right thing for the rough white roads that the event had on offer, but the pair persevered and began to climb the classes and get results, at a time when a certain Bob Rutherford was one of the men to beat, one of several characters that would weave in and out of George’s story and become part of the HERO chapter as well. Away from the recreational pursuits George had begun an apprenticeship with Ford, but spannering wasn’t really for him and he came back to work on the farm, helping out his old man for another seven years. His return to the farm coincided with a desire to move towards the driver’s seat in the rally cars, but for this he would need money of course, something that wasn’t exactly forthcoming, as he was very much working under the pretence of “all of this will be yours one day my son”. A bit of the resourcefulness that would stand George in good stead on HERO duty many years down the line, also helped him negotiate his way into a rally car with local Lada and Moskvitch dealership owner Franco Rizzuti. “Franc was into rallying his Escorts” says George “and would later form Avanti Tuning. He was a little fella, with a fierce temper, he never had an issue with people keeping up with their credit payments! His cars were quick, but he was always banging them against something. He had got his hands on an ex works Lada, but it wasn’t that well suited to Franc, the diminutive Italian standing at around 5’2”, it needed someone with a bit of muscle to manoeuvre it about.” The Lada was group 1 spec, at a time when the classes were divided based on a machines RRP, which made it a well sorted and competitive machine. That was until the class divisions were changed to engine sizes and this thing didn’t stand a chance, so sat there getting cheaper and cheaper until George bought it to go rallying in, which of course prompted much mickey taking from those in more desirable machines.
Whilst his competition machine may not have been so desirable, on the road a bit of wheeler dealing had seen George trade his way up to a MG Midget, the buying and selling skills learnt here would stand him in good stead in later years as a car salesman but for now George’s priority was getting his hands on some bricks and mortar so the Midget had to go to free up some cash for a deposit. “The plan was to run the Lada as my road car for a bit, and knock rallying on the head whilst I found my feet again after the house purchase. I decided I would do one more rally, and predictably disaster struck and a mishap with a tree that was stronger than the Lada left me with no MG, a house to pay for and a Lada that was going nowhere.” So, with a need for transport a £50 Corsair was bought to plug the gap, and save George’s legs and a return to sitting in the navigator’s seat for competitions had to suffice for the time being.
As well as driving, the farm was also behind George at this point, after seven years he had moved on to working in sales at a Volvo dealership, after a leg up from future HERO marshal Steve Whitefield. Professionally, the motor trade would make up a lot of George’s working life, working for several different manufacturers including Mercedes, Saab and Vauxhall, as well as eventually owning his own dealership and working from a pitch buying and selling, all of which he has fond memories of, not to mention some great stories, although not all are suitable for transcription here. He also had an elongated stint delivering training seminars, which is where he met his wife of 21 years Liz, whom many of you will know as the much better half of the Mullins household.
It wasn’t all work though, and with a desire to drive rally cars again George practically invented the Fiat Challenge, and managed to convince his old friend Franc Rizzuti, now the owner of a Fiat dealership, to sponsor the series and, provide him with a car on top! Oh, to be a fly on the wall to have heard how that conversation went with the formidable Rizzuti, as brazen attempts for sponsorship go, that has to be up there with the best of them. It worked none the less and the single manufacturer series saw George driving again, this time in a 128, swiftly followed by an UNO. Such was the success of the series, it eventually attracted the attention, and sponsorship, of Fiat themselves and in the years that it ran George would win the championship twice. The Fiat connection would also allow competitive forays abroad and entries into the RAC rally, which George competed in five times overall, three of those as a driver. “It wasn’t all Fiats though”, says George, “I also competed in a Sunbeam, a Peugeot 309 and a Volvo 360. There was even a season of circuit racing in a Fiat UNO that Franc built, in which I gained a reputation for being a bit wild, especially in the wet!”
Circuit racing wasn’t the same for George though, he enjoyed the more social aspect of the rally scene and this was always going to be the nucleus of his competitive activities. One of his last involvements in rallying was in a Nissan Micra, built by future HERO colleague Nick Reeves. “It was an expensive car” says George, “Too expensive really, I was a bit scared of banging it so sold it eventually and bought a motorcycle instead, a new passion.” The Nissan would wing its way back to the Mullins household though, as shortly after selling it foot and mouth hit and the young chap who bought it drifted away from rallying. George managed to buy the car back at a snip and competed in it for another ten years. “It was a great car, Nick really knows how to put one together and as he had refused to let me skimp on the spec, as I normally might, it was a really top-notch machine. I probably did two or three rallies a year in it, often with Des Wood and with Liz as well, which was really great.” The car would eventually move on, its exit hastened by a back injury suffered by George.
With such a busy history it’s a job to know where HERO came into the equation, the origins of that can be seemingly traced back to George’s friendship with Chris Elkins, another veteran of the Fiat Challenge and someone who George would navigate for. Through Chris came a link to the CRA, and George became involved in all sorts of things, including sorting out Vauxhall course cars through his work connections. “The Winter Challenge to Monte Carlo was the first event I got involved in marshalling wise. I loved it, being outdoors in the mountains, in the snow and the remote areas, and then the social aspect with all of the competitors, it was absolutely brilliant” I’m told, enthusiastically. “I got involved in my first Classic Marathon as the Competitor Liaison Officer, the year it went to Cortina, which was a role that I relished. Liz got involved as well and that event has become a really special one over the years, one I’ve worked on many times.”
George tells me about the work he has done with the likes of Philip Young and Jeremy Dixon over the years, as well as people like Kim Bannister and the variety of different jobs on events. It’s clear that his experience is far greater than perhaps people realise, although he is most proud of the Poppy Rally in Ypres, an event he see’s as his baby and one that was just ‘right’. Then, as HERO evolved, George remained involved and kept badgering Patrick and Guy for opportunities to get involved full time, “at times I was even trying to invent roles for myself to get me in the door.” His industry would pay off when, with the acquisition of the ERA, an opportunity came up. “Eventually I was told there might just be something, and almost on my first day of the job I was sent off to New Zealand to complete the final recce for the New Zealand Classic.”
Not a bad gig, but is it the dream job? “Yes!” is the instant answer. “When I took the job with HERO friends would say to me ‘do you really what you want to be doing at your age?’ and my answer is absolutely!” The conviction in George’s voice tells me that this is no show for the interview, he loves what he does and he continues to wax about how it is the perfect mix of travel, meeting people and seeing great cars being rallied. “I’ve turned my hobby into a job, how many people get to say that?!” Not many George, and indeed not many have such an engaging life story either. I look forward to being along for the ride for some of the next chapters.