Saloon racing in the Fifties and Sixties

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A thing of the past

Back in the days when you could eat your breakfast egg without expecting to die, when only young girls worried about slimming diets, when American vigilantes were unnecessary on London’s Underground, and when all the Mary Whitehouses would have fainted simultaneously if condoms had been shown on television, saloon cars which are now regarded as Classics could be seen on the circuits, often in the hands of top racing drivers. Now that Motor Sport is proposing a “Supercar GT” Championship for production sportscars, it is amusing to look hack on those times.

Races for what in the 1950s were classed as Production Touring Cars made useful support events on big weekends such as at the British Grand Prix or Daily Express Silverstone meetings, though at first closed cars competed alongside the sports-cars. Thus, at Silverstone’s International Trophy day in 1951, before hail caused the big race to be abandoned and Reg Parnell’s Thinwall Ferrari declared the winner, there was a one-hour Production Car event (divided into separate races for cars of up to 2000cc and over 2000cc) in which the saloons competed with TD MGs, HRGs, Le Mans Replica Frazer Nash, Silverstone Healeys and XK120 Jaguars.

That this thing was pretty serious, however, was endorsed by the sight of Stirling Moss in a Jaguar, winning from Charlie Dodson and Duncan Hamilton in similar saloons. No doubt, too, some members of the Riley RM Register remember Grace going well in a 21/2-litre Riley until a tyre burst. Peter Morgan drove a Morgan Plus Four coupe which out-accelerated some of the Healeys, but Sydney Allard’s 4-litre Allard was outclassed by the Nash-Healey; Parnell turned out in an Aston Martin DB2, Abecassis’ sister car spinning off with a seized transmission.

A Bristol saloon was first away from the Le Mans-style start (later banned as unsafe by John Eason-Gibson), a team of flat-twin Dyna-Panhards battled amongst themselves in winning the 750cc class, Morris Minor tourers ran with aeroscreens, a 2.3 “Inter” Ferrari was 11 mph slower than the works DB2 Aston Martin with which Parnell took the 3-litre category, and the Team Prize was wrested from the Jaguars by the Gerard/ Clarke/Winterbottom Frazer Nashes; this was about the first of these jollies, and it set the scene for future saloon car capers.

Almost anything went: even Daimler Conquest Centurys, believe it or not, tuned by the factory to develop some 116 bhp at 5800 rpm, took a class 1-2 in 1954 for Parnell and Abecassis. I also recall a very noisy flat-twin BMW 700 which made many of the larger saloons look distinctly pedestrian, rising from thirteenth place to third (behind the two Jaguars) in the Silverstone rain at the 1961 British Empire Trophy meeting, driven by Herbert Linge.

Dick Jacobs used to drive his class-winning YB MG saloon (standard except for a larger choke and 150 lb valve-springs) to and from the circuit to beat the Jowett Javelin team in the early Fifties, and George Phillips was successful with Gregor Grant’s somewhat more souped-up YB against side-valve Morris Minors, Austin A40s, Rileys, Simcas and Javelins. BRDC regulations were much less strict after 1954, and Jacobs was able to use Martlett pistons giving an increased compression ratio, an XPEG camshaft and a MkII TD inlet manifold with twin thin SUs, which gave his MG 88 mph at 6100 rpm in top gear. With an XPEG manifold and thin SUs, that went up to 95 mph at 6900 rpm, sufficient to wipe out the Borgward opposition.

By the late 1950s proper Production Saloon Car races were being staged at Silverstone on British Grand Prix day. Motor Sport observed that 120,000 spectators watched Peter Collins win the 1958 GP for Ferrari, ahead of team-mate Mike Hawthorn, but only 119,999 went home because one sustained a broken leg when Tommy Sopwith’s 3.4 Jaguar shed a wheel.

The Jaguars of Hansgen (in John Coombs’ car), Sir Gerwain Baillie and Crawley dominated, but we were now into the era of Austin A35s lapping on their door-handles and, as the cars were still pretty close to standard, there was considerable interest in what Fords, Austins and Rileys could do on the track.

On this occasion Jeff Uren rolled his Zephyr, the 1.5-litre Rileys of Grace and Les Leston put Jack Sears’ Austin 105 to shame and Graham Hill could not get enough steam from his A35, whereas Sprinzel got too much from his, retiring due to loss of water. The Speedwell A35s had standard inlet manifolds, single Amal carburettors, flat-top solid-skirt pistons and Speedwell heads, giving a compression ratio of about 9.5:1. Bob Gerard was not ashamed to race an A35 with an Alexander head, giving a cr of 9:1, a 32mm Solex carburettor and standard manifold and pistons, winning the 1100cc class.

Around this time spectators could associate the cars they arrived in with those out on the circuit, and isn’t that the real point of saloon and sports-car racing?

Prototypes had been permitted at Le Mans since 1949 but, although the victorious Jaguars of the 1950s did not resemble the catalogue XK two-seaters, and the C-types gave at least 10 bhp and the D-types 60 bhp more than an XK, they all at least had basically similar in-line six engines, to the brilliant Bill Haynes’ specification. However, when Mercedes-Benz came along it did so first with 300SLs not then catalogued and later with straight-eight twin-cam desmodromic-valved cars which were unlike anything in its production programme and could not be bought for money or anything else; and how many road-going Ford GT40s were made, compared to all the various twin-cam Jaguars? Sports-car racing lost something as a result of these changes.

Saloon racing at Silverstone and elsewhere emphasised what was missing at Le Mans. Thus we remarked in 1959 that these cars “although obviously tuned, bear reasonably close resemblance to those the onlookers can buy”, and they loved it!

During the BRDC Daily Express meeting lunch-break a 60-mile Touring Car battle was dominated by the 3.4 Jaguars of Hawthorn, Sopwith and Flockhart, while Graham Hill (then running a tuning business) won his class with an Amal-carburettor. A35, Leston’s Riley took the 11/2-Iltre class and Uren’s Ford Zephyr (with single downdraught SU and increased cc) scored in the 3-litre category after an exciting battle with Sears’ twin-carb A105. Ford actually ran a team of Zephyrs with automatic transmission, but these lapped much slower than Uren’s standard car, which ran on Michelin X tyres.

There were prangs, as there always will be in saloon contests — a Riley rolling after hitting a Sunbeam Rapier and an MG Magnette after shedding a wheel — but neither driver was much hurt. The variety of competing cars was underlined by entries of Skoda, Bristol, and Citroen DS19s from Connaught Engineering, though the latter were withdrawn when forced to lap in third gear because the standard axle ratio was too high and the regulations did not allow it to be changed…

On International Trophy day in 1960 the touring cars were reduced to a 12-lap race, but the presence of four Volvos and a couple of two-stroke Auto-Unions still gave it international status! Lapping Silverstone at 89 mph in John Coombs’ 3.8 Jaguar, Salvadori won from Moss, who had made a bad start in the Equipe Endeavour Jag.

Later on that year the 12-lap British Grand Prix support race showed that Colin Chapman had lost none of his competitive skills, although Innes Ireland (who finished third in a Lotus-Climax in the main event) was heard to say that if The Guy’nor crashed he would be out of work! The story was that, as a potential customer, Chapman had asked for a demonstration run in a 3.8 Jaguar, and that was it! He won by the length of the luggage boot from Sears and Baillie, Equipe Endeavour thus taking the Team Prize.

By this time the Issigonis Mini (in Austin Se7en guise) had joined in the fun, enlivening the proceedings by passing Jaguars and Fords on inside or outside with impunity. Though at first these tiny cars shed wheels spectacularly and dangerously, the crowd adored them, and after this problem was cured they became a feature of saloon racing. As Rob Golding said in his book Mini (Osprey, 1979), “In 1959, when racing cars were racing cars, the start of the saloon car race was the signal for the initiated racegoer to make for the beer tent. But the sight of Minis arriving at Silverstone’s Woodcote corner, all at once, and leaning on each other’s door-handles, was enough to empty the tent for the rest of the season and transform the attitude of spectators to saloons”.

By the early Sixties Formula Junior, GT and Historic races began to erode the appeal of saloon supporting events, but they were not finished yet. At Aintree in 1962, where the 3.8 Jaguars had it well buttoned up — Sears winning from Parkes and Baillie with Peter Harper’s Sunbeam Rapier a class-winner — the Mini-Coopers had arrived upon the scene: Love’s won its class with Christobel Carlisle second and showing great talent for a girl who had previously driven nothing more lethal than a piano.

A newcomer in 1963 was Sears’ 6.9-litre V8 Ford Galaxie, winning the unlimited class while the Zephyrs split theirs with a Mercedes-Benz 220SE and the Cortinas wrested the 2-litre division from Harper’s Rapier. Even the new Vauxhall VX 4/90s, with long exhaust pipes, had a go: they were slow, but steadier than the Ford Zephyrs.

Mini Coopers were 1-2-3 this time, John Whitmore’s faster than the best Cortina, but the thing I shall never forget is how Graham Hill inveigled his fellow aces, all in Mini-Coopers, to go backwards in a demonstration caper as the flag fell!

Maybe watching jimmy Clark’s Lotus-Climax coming home only 2.8 seconds ahead of Graham Hill’s BRM in the 1964 Grand Prix took some of the edge off the 83.5km saloon car race, for Motor Sport observed that it was “not very exciting, being a procession of Lotus-Cortinas cornering on three wheels and Jackie Stewart losing to Sears when he got a bit crossed up at Clearways”.

The thrill of Mini-Coopers understeering around all and sundry was replaced at the traditional International Trophy 12-lapper that year by the sight of Sears’ 7-litre Willment Galaxie beating Brabham in the Alan Brown Galaxie; Ford Mustangs beat the Cortinas in 1965, and the Ford Falcon V8s emerged from the inevitable spins and collisions in the ascendant in 1966, while the fast Broadspeed Anglia of Anita Taylor vanquished the Frazer Hillman Imps. Indeed, for the remainder of the 1960s Fords of various kinds had things all their own way in these contests.

There were longer, far more important saloon races, of course, but the attraction of those remembered here is that they allowed Grand Prix spectators the opportunity of seeing the kind of transport they used themselves engaged in furious combat. Sufficient has been written, I hope, to recall those bygone days when, perhaps, it was all more fun. Saloons still race as actively us ever, though all too often, now, the shorter support races are for “celebrities” from walks of life other than motor racing.

Moreover today’s racing saloons, apart from those in the road-going production car classes, are not only much more powerful than the cars driven by the ordinary racegoer, but look outwardly very different. How many Skoda owners, for example, would recognise the car in which John Meredith goes so quickly up Prescott hill? In the Fifties and Sixties it was all rather different … WB

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