Borders farmer who cultivated speed, honour and Mitsubishi

WHAT now? Andrew Cowan has been careering through life on four wheels for 45 years and, finally retired, finds himself almost back at the beginning - living in the grand old Borders farmhouse which he visited as a boy to play billiards, and which he bought seven years ago.

He is the son of a farmer, and that's the way he describes himself, though most people will know him as the respected supremo of Mitsubishi's world rally programme. So respected, in fact, that last July he received the Motorsport Industry Association's personal award for Most Outstanding Contribution to the UK Motorsport Industry, joining an impressive list of previous winners that includes names like Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and Bernie Ecclestone.

And when he suggests that, at 69, he could re-ignite his interest in things agricultural, you want to believe him. He wants you to believe him. But the blue eyes in the ruddy face under the bushy white hair don't sparkle about that in the same way as they do about motor-sport. This big, affable man is the second farmer from hereabouts - the area of Duns in Berwickshire - to make a worldwide reputation in that sphere.

The other was Jim Clark, twice world Formula 1 champion, with whom Andrew grew up.

"We were neighbours and very close friends, exactly the same age," he recalls in his bold, precise Scottish voice. "Being farmers, we each had to have a car. We were able to drive in fields, off road, and of course through all the twisty roads around here where there was practically no traffic in those days. That definitely refined our driving skills. We had advantages that other drivers didn't."

The friends developed a love of motorised speed in parallel, which - after being "lucky enough to compete with the very active Berwick and District Motor Club" - they eventually pursued in their different ways. While Clark was honing his skills in F2 in 1960, Cowan was taking part in his first serious rally in a high-mileage Sunbeam Rapier - the RAC Rally of Great Britain - and coming in 43rd out of a field of 200.

His car-loving dad was so impressed that he bought the 24-year-old a newer, bigger-engined Rapier - "and warned me that if I damaged it, he wouldn't buy another."

And when Clark was chalking up his first F1 championship wins in 1962, Cowan was registering his Most Important Moment... "The International Scottish Rally of that year was a significant one for me," he recalls, "with several new developments. Rallying was moving into the forests and performances were being timed to the second through special stages. It featured about 150 top UK and overseas drivers, and of course the fastest man overall won."

Who was that?

"Me!" he answers instantly with an explosive laugh.

When he and his Sunbeam won that event again in 1963, his career took off.

As he had been driving its product and brought much honour to it, the Rootes Group invited him to join its works team. There was no looking back. He went on to register success after success.

Such as? Across the blazing open fire of his cosy-but-elegant living room with its large window view of rolling Borders hills, he hands over two A4 sheets entitled "Andrew Cowan's Achievements 1962-1990".

The list makes jaw-dropping reading, and not just for the tributes he won, such as - all in 1977 - the British Guild of Motoring Writers Driver of the Year Award; the Jim Clark Memorial Trophy for outstanding achievement by a Scottish driver; and the British Racing Drivers' Club John Cobb Trophy for a British driver of outstanding success.

These might have had something to do with his winning of the London-Sydney Marathon in a Hillman Hunter that year, but there were other high points worthy of note, from those two early Scottish Rally victories through five consecutive outright wins in Australia's International Southern Cross Rally (1971-75) to second in the 1985 Paris-Dakar Rally, in which he competed for another five years before retiring from the driver's seat in 1990. He also won the world's longest rally - the 20,000-mile South American marathon - in 1978.

To an outsider looking at the kind of hairy moments rally drivers experience, Andrew Cowan's greatest achievement might seem to have been staying alive throughout that blur of competitions and high placings, from Monte Carlo through east Africa and South America to Australia and New Zealand.

So what was his Scariest Moment Ever? It was a near-death experience in the Andes, as he and Scots co-driver Brian Coyle - in a Triumph 2.5 PI - were chasing another car up a series of dusty hairpin bends in the London-Mexico City marathon event in 1970. His face goes grim with the memory of it...

"We were trying to catch up and we could often see the other car just above us going in the opposite direction; then as we got nearer to it, I saw its brake lights disappearing into a cloud of dust and expected to see them again when the dust cleared. But I didn't. It had been braking to turn into an unexpectedly early right turn, and we went straight ahead - straight over the cliff-like edge and landed on our roof. Brian had concussion and I broke my neck."

It took him another 13 years, however, to move from the thrills and spills of being behind the wheel to being (more often) behind the relative safety of the desk. That was when Mitsubishi, for whom he had been driving since 1972, asked him to organise a European base for it - which he did, in Rugby. Over the years, that corporate entity has changed from Andrew Cowan Motor Sport to Mitsubishi Ralliart - of which he was senior director - and finally to Mitsubishi Motorsport, from which he retired as Sporting Adviser on 30 November.

It adds up to quite a career - and quite a lot of revenue. Over the years, Andrew Cowan's relationship with Mitsubishi has brought more than 200 million of Japanese money into Britain.

Another laurel he could rest on, happy at home with wife Linda and their enviable lifestyle. But there's the office in Rugby to clear up, he says. "It's not a thing you can just switch off."

No, we didn't think so, somehow.