DTV and Gerry Marshall were giants of 1970s British motorsport. Dave Richards looks back…
From the outside, Dealer Team Vauxhall was a mixture of immaculate presentation, manufacturer tuning, product development.., and winning. But bald statistics can’t begin to describe what the team did for racing in the ’70s. It had fans flocking to witness Gerry Marshall at the wheel of the latest hot Vauxhalls. And it provided access to all the components it used itself, for anyone who wanted to enter any branch of motorsport in a Vauxhall.
Team founder Bill Blydenstein got approval for a competition programme from Vauxhall dealership Shaw & Kilburn in December 1966. He knew the still-secret belt-driven OHC `slant-four’ engine was to be dropped into the HB Viva hull as a range topping sports-saloon called the Viva GT for launch in March ’68. He moved into the former railway station at Shepreth and Gerry Marshall joined him, along with Gerry Johnstone — the secret ingredient to DTV success.
Initially Marshall doubted Johnstone’s suitability as a racing mechanic. He didn’t panic or rush, so Marshall thought he didn’t care, but after a few meetings working together Big Gerry said: “It was hard to know what Johnstone was thinking, but that he was thinking, and thinking usefully, was obvious from the car’s progress.” Blydenstein reckons: “The 2-litre Viva GT was absolutely the key. And the new engine was magic.”
For 1968, Blydenstein says: “If we solved the problems with the head gasket blowing, which we did by recessing the block, then we would have a race car strong enough for Gerry Marshall to take by the scruff of the neck and win with.” But the ’68 season was initially a slow starter: Marshall’s first race for Blydenstein was on November 12 ’67, in a 1258cc HB Viva. “Slower than the opposition, but a good handling car” was his initial reaction. At the start of ’68 he was joined by Eddie Heasell, though they had countless engine problems and championship success eluded both drivers. The Viva GT broke its duck with an outright win at Lydden Hill in July, and by October Blydenstein had developed the GT2 profile cam: “We had an instant 1.5-second per lap advantage. I fettled all the cams by hand myself, using a dial gauge and T-bar to plot the lift curves.” By December, Tecalemit-Jackson fuel-injection appeared on the slant-four Viva, and the engines were already producing 160bhp. Blydenstein: “We were lucky in that the Tecalemit boys worked out all the fuelling cams; everything else was down to us.”
DTV entered the 1969 season with the injected car, and it proved legal for Group Two because the system fitted the standard manifold. Straight away the team had a marked improvement in race results. Heasell won first time out in the number two Shaw & Kilburn Viva at Lydden Hill in June ’69. Then Marshall and Heasell won the Birkett Six-Hour relay at Silverstone. Marshall finished the season with a second place overall in the Redex Saloon Car Championship.
Dick Waldock and Geoff Hall joined Blydenstein in 1970 and became known for perseverance, continuing to work on the car in any corner of the paddock whatever the weather. They shrugged off distractions from Gerry’s friends too! Some thought the injection system was cheating, but scrutineers confirmed its legality and Marshall finished the year by winning the over-1300cc class of the Osram-BARC Special Saloon series, 25 points ahead of Dave Brodie’s Escort.
The HC Firenza was introduced in 1971, along with Group One, for cars to showroom spec. As this category took off, Vauxhall dealers soon began to scent a ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ marketing tool. DTV-Dealer Team Vauxhall — was formed in June of that year, when a group of dealers banded together under Alan Maidens, MD of GN Croydon, and Lionel Altman, director of Shaw & Kilburn. For Blydenstein it meant that more finance was available, and the cars had a livery change from white and orange to silver and orange. But one thing Blydenstein didn’t like was that: “Vauxhall took over all the marketing for the tuning parts we did. They raised the prices and our sales dropped.” Viva GTs were now producing over 200bhp, and the detail work on reliability was paying off.
Later that year a 2.5-litre Firenza was presented by DTV chairman Alan Maidens to its new sponsor, Thames TV. Eamonn Andrews received the car, and on September 16 Marshall practised it at Crystal Palace, but raced the HB Viva GT as it was slightly faster. Blydenstein later worked out that although the chassis of the two cars was effectively the same, the Firenza had “a lower C of G — so we softened off the antiroll bars. I think we may even have removed one!” Next the new car appeared at Llandow, where it won two races and set a new lap record. Blydenstein’s cars were always immaculately prepared, and Big Gerry took great delight in calling this car “just an old nail”. The name stuck, and it began a career in which it was to become the most prolific Vauxhall race winner ever. On November 20 1971 ‘Old Nail’ won again, in a BBC televised event from Lydden Hill (the Thames TV logos had to be taped over!).
Marshall had carried off a second victory in the Osram championship, but Blydenstein knew that the team needed to win more in 1972: “It was what we set out to do — we were only interested in winning outright.” After more victories, Marshall and the team members were paraded around the Luton factory site on an electric buggy train, though Marshall wasn’t allowed to drive. “I’d have loved to have got one of those sideways — ideal for a 12wheel drift!” was a typical Big Gerry comment. Marshall’s increasingly exuberant driving style started to stress other components on the car, and twice at Brands he lost rear wheels: “I can feel it two-wheeling as it goes up in the air, and then — bang — it comes down and ooh, the diff’s taking the punishment.” The season finished with Marshall in the DTV Firenza as winner of the BARC President’s Cup and Forward Trust Special Saloon Championship, along with class wins in the Group One Production Saloon arena.
Old Nail received a 16-valve version of the 2.2-litre engine for 1972 and initially ran with ‘flat front’ and tall bonnet centre to accommodate both 16V and injection trumpets. Later, Vauxhall announced the HP — for High Performance — Firenza. To promote the new road car, Old Nail gained that important ‘droopsnoot’ front end, which improved aerodynamics, and a new five-speed ZF ‘box provided better ratios. The result was another class championship victory with Old Nail in the ’73 Forward Trust series.
Meanwhile, Vauxhall was intending to launch a V8 road car, the Ventora, so DTV was commissioned to build a new racer. Frank Costin was employed to design the suspension — Marshall had previously raced a Costin Amigo fitted with a DTV engine. John Taylor at Vauxhall provided aerodynamic assistance — the body had been considerably widened, though Costin said: “My suspension won’t work properly with the bloody thing so near the ground.” Blydenstein reports his involvement as: “All I seemed to do was sign the cheques.” Vauxhall management created the biggest setback for the project: they wanted the car to appear at the Earls Court Motor Show, so it was reworked with perfect panel shutlines and four fully operating doors. Costin scathingly called it “a poseur’s car now” and he didn’t expect Vauxhall to win races with it.
The car was powered by a Repco-Holden V8 engine, tuned by Nicholson-McLaren. Two units were supplied, but ‘Big Bertha’ was plagued by misfires. It was cured when DTV modified a Rover V8 distributor and applied this. The Repco is now estimated to have been producing around 460bhp.
“During 1974 we worked all the hours God gave,” says Blydenstein. “We were taking on extra staff all the time; whenever we heard of a good mechanic we’d offer him a job.” Eventually Shepreth had 45 staff. Marshall took the Ventora for six outings, winning three and retiring from the remainder. One of these retirements was when the adjustable seat, insisted on by Blydestein so that journos could try the car, broke. “Boy, was my face red!” he laughs. The last was a spectacular shunt at Silverstone which comprehensively wrote the car off. The team was “secretly relieved,” claims Blydenstein. “We needed a car with the smallest body and the biggest engine. Big Bertha was too heavy.” Meantime, Old Nail’s season was enough to take the Forward Trust title outright, and Marshall used both it and the Ventora to score a class win in the Simoniz series.
Big news for DTV’s 1975 campaign was a sponsorship deal tied up with Castrol. Marshall scored his 60th win in the Firenza at the Brands season opener: Old Nail was now running a 2.2-litre short-stroke development engine for the event, but Blydenstein was confident of “remarkable torque when used in 2.5 and 2.6-litre capacities.” He began to realise that few circuits and events needed full-on horsepower, but that a hearty torque curve could make the car more driveable, competitive and reliable.
In January of ’75, construction had begun on what would become DTV’s most iconic race car, ‘Baby Bertha’. John Taylor, Wayne Cherry’s right-hand man at the Vauxhall styling department, took two weeks’ holiday from the Vauxhall factory to spend it at Shepreth. Construction involved using Big Bertha’s parts in a Firenza shell that had been reduced to practically nothing. Its debut came at Brands, where Marshall retired with a broken driveshaft while third, but from there on the car dominated: Baby Bertha won 18 races in ’75 and easily claimed the Tricentrol Super Saloon Championship. On Boxing Day at Brands, Marshall even finished fourth in a Formula Libre race, behind only single-seaters.
Baby Bertha carried on winning for 1976 in the Tricentrol championship, only losing once, to Jonathan Buncombe’s ‘Chimp’, a Chevron B21 with an Imp outline superimposed — but it was later disqualified. But Blydenstein points to the huge success of Baby Bertha as prompting its own demise: “We were so successful we spoiled Super Saloons: no one could beat us.”
Further down the power scale, Gerry also won his class in the Radio 1 Production Saloon series with a Magnum. DTV also entered the Spa 24 Hours, where Tony Lanfranchi joined Marshall in a Shepreth-prepared car formerly used by Michel de Deyne in Belgium. After making it into eighth place, the clutch began to slip for Marshall in the 23rd hour and the car retired.
Spa would receive special attention a year on. Blydenstein knew that “we had to go back because this time it felt like we had unfinished business.” A new Magnum was built for the event, and no-one had driven it until practice. DTV “built two engines to a lower compression, and each one showed 172-174bhp, and I thought, ‘That is likely to last.’ Partnering Gerry was Peter Brock, who had flown from Australia to join the squad, while Jeff Allam and Jock Robertson both led teams of drivers in two other Magnums. It was a close event, with changeable weather, and Marshall was insistent that Brock should carry on using slicks in the wet conditions. After spinning and knocking off the back bumper, he cruised into the pits and in his dry Australian accent said: “I think we’ll have the wets on now.” Blydenstein reports: “Gerry Johnstone said something to Goodyear [the tyre sponsors] and borrowed some Michelins.” From that point on they were able to haul in the opposition. After 24 hours of racing Marshall and Brock finished second (behind the Joosen/Andruet BMW 530i) and first in class. With the two other Magnums in eighth and ninth, the Vauxhalls also took the Coupe de Roi team prize.
DTV’s time in racing was drawing to to a close: Vauxhall knew the only way was down, and the only route to go now was rallying (see panel). It was the end of an era, one that is now regarded as perhaps the best yet witnessed in British racing.
Quite simply, DTV livened up British motorsport. Gerry said in an interview with George Bishop for The Vauxhall Motorist in 1974: “If you can lean on someone’s bootlid and shake your fist, it upsets ’em. But I am the original believer that a damaged car won’t win races. There’s not a bent panel on my car. That proves it.” The DTV record shows how right he was — Marshall bent very few cars and took over 100 Vauxhall victories, 63 in one car (Old Nail), along with many lap records, pranks, parties and memories. Thirty years on, mention DTV and the instant memory conjured is a silver Firenza, sideways with Big Gerry at the wheel. All these years on Bill Blydenstein’s mantra still holds true: winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
Roll-call of Vauxhall superstars
Gerry Marshall: hero of the hour. Could drive sideways at the drop of a throttle, and could party longer and harder with the last drop in a bottle.
Bill Blydenstein: clinically efficient, whether searching for the last reserves of power from an engine or the last salmon in a loch on his famed fishing trips to Scotland. This was a long day’s drive from Shepreth, hence his utilisation and promotion of torquey, efficient engines for road cars!
Gerry Johnstone: laid-back, bandit-moustached mechanic who became DTV’s team manager. Never seemed in a hurry, but was usually quietly solving problems in his head.
Vauxhall slant-four engine: the raw material behind the winning. Successfully powered Viva GTs. then race Firenzas. even caravan racing VX4 / 90s and, with 16-valve head, took Chevette HSR to rally success. There’s a sectioned example at the Science Museum. A stormer.
Old Nail: famed Firenza coupe started life as the Thames Television Firenza, in a sponsorship deal devised from the building that now houses MotorSport magazine! The winningest Vauxhall ever built.
Big Bertha: beautiful barge. “Handles like a double-decker bus around Woodcote,” according to Marshall. Blydenstein sold the remains at the end of the 1970s. They’ve never resurfaced.
Baby Bertha devised and built using components culled from Big Bertha. Baby was not the product of a committee like the Ventora, but so successful that Vauxhall halted further involvement in circuit racing.
Chevette HS/HSR: the final and best Incarnation of DTV knowledge, distilled into a devastating rally package. Tellingly, none of the Chevettes had their own names…
Bedford CF support vans: no truth In the rumour that they all had stroker cranks. ZF gearboxes, big-valve heads and Tecalemit Jackson fuel injection. Really. No truth at all. Really…
Let’s off-road! DTV Chevettes in the forests
The Chevette HS was a parts-bin special, utilising Magnum engines with race-inspired 16-valve heads, the ZF gearbox from the HP Firenza and a torque tube-mounted rear-axle arrangement first seen on the A-series Opel Manta.
On its first outing, in the hands of Will Sparrow, it only lasted a day. Six months later Pentti Airikkala gained a victory on the Welsh International, but six months after that the Chevette’s homologation was under question. Blydenstein and Weslake in Sussex worked together to get as much power from the narrow valve angle Vauxhall ‘head as the team was getting previously from the wide valve angle Lotus ‘head which was no longer accepted.
The Chevette went on to win the ’77 Manx, ’78 Hankiralli and Hitachi rallysprint, the ’79 Circuit of Ireland and Ulster, and the ’80 Galway. By spring 1979, DTV felt the car still had untapped potential, so 50 HSR Chevettes were all built from HS base units. Each had the ZF gearbox replaced with a Getrag item, foam injected into the body structure for rigidity, and the torque-tube rear axle replaced with a four-link and Panhard rod set-up, along with lightweight body panels.
DTV Chevettes therefore took the 1980 Circuit of Ireland, Donegal and Cork 20 rallies along with the’ 81 West Cork, TV Rallysprint, Scottish and Manx. For ’82 Group Four was changed to Group B, and the Chev’ was re-homologated, but little extra development occurred due to budget constraints. Still, in ’82 and ’83 DTV cars gained many top-six placings with Terry Kaby, winning rounds of the Pace-Autosport National series.