Seats of yearning
It's a brisk autumnal afternoon in southwestern France, where in two hours' time the final…
Schuppan’s Road Porsche 962C
An anti-hero is Vern Schuppan. Working from a small factory unit in High Wycombe, west of London, the quiet, totally unassuming Australian has worked in some secrecy to beat Tom Walkinshaw to the draw. This July the first of 50 roadgoing Porsche 962CRs will roll out of the door, bound for Japan with a 195 million Yen price tag on the windscreen.
A press release from Schuppan’s Japanese backer, Art Sports, early in February alerted the world to the arrival of a car that will comfortably out-perform JaguarSport’s XJR-15. . . . the JaguarSport XJ220 due next year won’t even be in the same league. Walkinshaw’s road-racer weighs 1050 kg and the V12 develops “over 450 horsepower”, which was enough to capture everyone’s attention.
Schuppan’s Porsche, though, will weigh less than 1000 kg, and the Andial-prepared 3.3-litre twin-turbo engine will push out something in excess of 600 horsepower. Top speed? “You can work it out for yourself,” says Schuppan. “Porsches do, what, 240 mph on the Mulsanne straight. This is a bit heavier and is down on power, but it has better aerodynamics, so you can safely say over 220 mph. It depends on the gearing, of course.”
As a racing driver Vern Schuppan, 48 in March, was always in the upper professional bracket yet he didn’t become a household name, except perhaps in Booleroo, his birthplace.
In Formula 1 he drove for BRM, Ensign, Hill and Surtees; in CART he drove a McLaren M24 to third place at Indianapolis in 1981; in Formula 5000 he drove an Eagle for Dan Gurney, and in sports car racing he enjoyed extended contracts with JW Automotive and with the Porsche factory, winning the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1983 with Hurley Haywood, who now drives for Schuppan at Le Mans, and Al Holbert.
As it happens Schuppan is a Porsche millionaire, owning several 956 and 962 models including his ’83 Le Mans winner, his Eagle F5000 and McLaren M24, a Porsche 959, a WW2 Mustang P51 fighter, and in contrast, several 1930s Ford V8 coupes. You have to work hard on him to extract all this information, though, and few people except his associates knew about the Porsche road car project.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time,” he admits. “We’ve been working on it for two years, though it started up in earnest about nine months ago.” One backer, Kosho in Japan, was thinking too small and would order only a handful of cars, if built, street legal versions of the Le Mans cars.
Interest from Toshio Terada, head of the Art Corporation of Osaka, made the whole project viable. His company is the largest importer of exotic European makes, and will be sponsoring one of Team Schuppan’s Porsches at Le Mans this year.
“Mr Terada could see that we needed to think in higher volumes, and that the cars needed a fair amount of development,” says Schuppan. “He is prepared to order 50. I think he plans to sell about a third of them in Japan, a third in the States and a third in Europe.”
The price tag will be astronomical, equating to £750,000 in Sterling, but prices outside Japan haven’t been established. The only figure Schuppan will disclose is £45,000 for the bare, composite material monocoque which is only the starting point.
Unlike the XJR-15, Schuppan’s 962CR (R for road) will be fully crash tested, emission controlled and type approved for legal road use in key markets. Ron Mathis, formerly with JaguarSport, was hired midway through 1990 to work specifically on these aspects, but more recent signings have had repercussions in Australia as key engineers from GM’s Holden operation in Melbourne have defected to High Wycombe. The arrival of Ray Borrett, formerly Holden’s chief engineer, on a snowy day in February caused something of a seismic tremor back home!
Before leaving Melbourne, after 17 years with Holden, Borrett explained his departure: “There are concerns about the way the industry is going. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot resting with the government. You have to be realistic about how big the Australian car industry is going to be, and how many positions will remain for people of my level, long-term.”
Standing ankle deep in snow, outside an unprepossessing workshop, Borrett didn’t have any second thoughts. “I’ve come over because Vern’s a great guy,” he said with a smile. Seriously though. . . . “Alright, it’s a big challenge, I’m going to enjoy it. There’s no bureaucracy here. I’m not going to go through ten committees to get something done. The commercial side interests me too, and my brief is to expand that.”
Borrett, 42, is credited with a lot of Peter Brock’s Holden successes, and in addition to his normal duties with road car development he spent a lot of time working on the SLR 5000 and Torana programmes, and more recently the VN Holden. It was he who prepared the contract for TWR’s involvement with Holden, and it was he who helped Schuppan’s team for three years at Le Mans. The relationship is much more than purely commercial.
Borrett joins as vice-president of Vern Schuppan Limited, leaving Vern to concentrate on what he likes doing best, managing the race team and negotiating with sponsors. His driving days are finished, though. “It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I don’t think I’ll drive again.”
On the commercial side, Borrett will oversee a major expansion in the manufacture of parts for the racing car industry — Schuppan already owns his own composite shop in Bicester, having bought-out Bill Stone last year, and will make all the 962CR bodies there. The first ten chassis have been made by Advanced Composites (five have already been used by Team Schuppan, three by customers), but the production car chassis will be made by an aerospace company called CML at Birkenhead, supervised by Schuppan employee Adrian Fox.
The Melbourne connection is very strong. The sleek road car styling, with a family likeness to the Porsche 961 competitions car development of the 959, was executed by Holden stylist Mike Simcoe, whose design was favoured above others from a top British designer and a leading, but anonymous Italian house.
“No, Mike is not joining us,” Schuppan emphasises. “He has a very good career with GM, and he’s going soon to the Saturn plant in America.” Russell Naime, a production engineer from Holden, joined Schuppan last year and before him Michael Gutch, an expert on emission controls.
Schuppan’s operation may be small, but it’s not tin-pot. It’s based, at the moment, in the former Tiga racing car factory and Howden Ganley continues to work there as Schuppan’s technical manager. At present the payroll is around 20, but it will increase to about 35 by the end of the year. Schuppan forecasts that ten cars will be made in the second half of this year, the rest in 1992.
Why the secrecy? His response is very much the same as Gordon Murray’s, at McLaren Cars: “I didn’t want to generate publicity before the car was ready. I couldn’t stand all the hype. Really, I wanted to be certain that it was all going ahead before talking to anyone about it.” To know Schuppan, a man of few words, is to understand what he means.
There are two parallel projects going at the same time. One concerns this year’s Team Schuppan Group C Porsches which will race in Japan, and at Le Mans, while the other concerns the road cars. Apart from the preparation of Porsche’s flat-six, twin turbo engines, the two cars are identical within the wheelbase.
“The differences you’ll see are at the front and the back,” Schuppan explains. “They have the same composite monocoque, the same Alcon brake system, same everything really, and they share the new air ducting system at the sides, for the radiators.”
While the road car’s styling is a credit to Mike Simcoe, the racing car has new bodywork developed by Max Boxstrom, designer of the recent Aston Martin AMR-1.
“We talked to a number of people, and really Max had the best ideas,” says Schuppan. “He was prepared to give our car a hundred per cent commitment, and that’s very important. I know he’s had a lot of stick over the Aston, but it was a very competitive car in a short space of time. The further we went down the road with him, the more we realised that he was the right man for the job.”
Critics say that the Porsche 962C is an antique design, in racing car terminology, and they’re right. The Schuppan team, however, has a carbon monocoque (raced for the first time at Spa in 1990), new bodywork and aerodynamics, a new brake system and developed suspension, and even the 3-litre water-cooled engine is far removed from the one that carried Schuppan, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert to victory at Le Mans in 1983.
The Group C car scales 850 kg, which makes Schuppan certain that the road car will be well under 1000 kg, even with air conditioning and basic creature comforts. In passing, the racing car has to be ballasted to 900 kg for this year’s Japanese championship, and right up to 1000 kg for Le Mans.
How will the road car differ? The engine, for a start, is more akin to the 935 than the 962 in being 3.3-litre capacity, and fully air-cooled. The Porsche factory, which dropped plans to make its own roadgoing 962C, is being very co-operative with the venture, supplying the engines to Alwin Springer’s Andial concern in California.
Andial does the road conversion, including silencing and emission control, and will crate them over to Schuppan on a regular basis. “We’ve aimed for the maximum power output compatible with noise and emission requirements,” says Schuppan.
“They’ll be lovely to drive on the road, as docile as a Volkswagen! Really, we drive 962s on the road all the time, down the pit road, through the paddock, they’re not jerky or difficult at all. I’d be happy to drive one in traffic.”
He’ll be doing just that, early in April, and a great many people using the M40 motorway between London and Oxford are going to experience seeing — perhaps overtaking — a Porsche 962CR. There’s little chance of blasting the speed limits in a car like that and getting away with it!
The road car will have Porsche’s superb synchromesh five-speed racing gearbox, four-piston brake calipers from the British Alcon company, and standard steering and suspension components. The ride height will be increased to 10-12 cm, Koni adjustable dampers installed, softer springs fitted and the spring travel will be increased. Softer brake pads should make the pedal effort acceptable without a servo, Dunlop will supply the tyres and Koito the headlamps.
Like a Volkswagen. . . . could that really be? Anyone lucky enough to have driven, or ridden in a 962 will know that the car is surprisingly tractable, even comfortable at normal speeds, and it has certainly crossed my mind that the Group C machine would make a superb road car. I’d go so far, in fact, as to predict that it will be quieter and more comfortable than an XJR-15, and preferable for a day of joyous driving. — MLC
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