A Mystery Solved
A call from Mr Angus Clark, who has been rebuilding a Thomas Special "Flatiron" over…
Super Saloons brought the maddest variations of production car models ever to be seen on British racetracks. Marcus Pye looks back on a movement that flourished briefly before burning out
Super Saloons were the biggest, baddest ‘tin-tops’ ever to hit British racetracks. They were steroidal monsters, most of which packed powerful V8 engines beneath skins caricatured from production machines. On paper they were capable of duelling at 170mph on the balls-out expanses of Silverstone, Snetterton and Thruxton. Reality, however, was rarely like that.
The raw muscular appeal of the ‘Superloons’, which made the ground shake as they roared away, endeared them to a loyal fan following in the mid-1970s. And their equally burly star drivers — Gerry Marshall, Tony Hazlewood, Mick Hill, Ian Richardson and Tony Strawson — added to the charisma of a unique racing ethos.
Hurtling hybrids were nothing new: Anglia ace Doc Merfield had shoehorned a 4.7-litre Ford GT40-type engine into his ‘Fraud’ Lotus-Cortina in ’64 and, while it was initially a scary beast, this creation spawned a minor revolution. Terry Sanger made Terry Drury’s similar machine into a winner, and soon alternative thinking abounded.
Among those early V8 contraptions, on which bulging Carlos Fandango-style wheels appeared de rigueur, were Martin Maudling’s Ford Corsair, Bill Shaw’s Rover (which past master Roy Pierpoint and Irish comingman Alec Poole drove), Mike Bennion’s Morris Minor, Brian Tarrant’s Austin A40Chevrolet and Dennis Clarke’s Vauxhall Viva HB. Many sustained club Special Saloon events, alongside the bunch of proprietary Ford Falcon Sprints and Mustangs.
Mick Hill got bitten by the bug when he bought Richard Scantlebury’s Janglia’ — a Ford Anglia 105E motivated by a straight-six Jaguar engine — and enjoyed a fair deal of success for a very modest outlay. “Steering it on the throttle was great fun. I thought it made sense at the time,” he recalls.
The Derbyshire GPO telecom engineer yearned to go quicker, so he and a group of pals set about building the first of two home-brewed Ford Capris. Known as Boss Capris after the Ford V8’s factory designation, despite having switched to gruntier Chevy powerplants, they used parts from a wrecked Lola T70 sportscar bought from Sid Taylor for £450.
Having given the first proper Super Saloon its debut in ’71, Hill became Britain’s most successful racer of hybrids, racking up dozens of wins and lap records up and down the country. The presence of the Luton Motor Company/Tricentrol Capris guaranteed fireworks, and inspired rivals to dream up mean machines of their own.
One of the finest was the DAF coupe, built by Tony Hazlewood as the successor to the ex-Merfield Cortina, in which he served a hairy apprenticeship. “Having only raced Minis until then, it seemed like a great thing, but it understeered terribly,” he recalls. “It would push and push, to the point where I began to think the grass had as much grip as the track. Having explored a lot of countryside, I sold it to a hillclimber who soon wrote it off.”
DAF’s concessionaires were based on the same trading estate as Hazlewood’s company, and the Dutch car’s rear-mounted transmission layout appealed as much as its compact dimensions, because Special Saloon regulations stipulated that the base car’s engine and gearbox location had to be mirrored in the racer. This would allow the use of a Hewland FT200 transaxle and give optimum weight distribution, with an all-alloy Oldsmobile-based small-block V8 up front.
A new 55 bodyshell came cheaply. Tony and Ray Kihninster grafted the engine into a subframe carrying F2 March suspension. The machine evolved from 1972 throughout the following season, scoring the odd result between teething problems. By the end of ’73 it was flying on wider wheels and, while narrowly beaten by Gerry Marshall’s Vauxhall Firenza in the BARC’s Forward Trust finale at Thruxton, Hazlewood set the first 100mph lap of the circuit by a Special Saloon.
With interest growing, Hill and Hazlewood were already working to formalise a set of regulations to draw the ever-expanding band of wild V8 cars together. The Westwood Cup race at Silverstone — a horribly wet affair won by Bedfordshire Jeep dealer David Howes’s superb Group Two-spec American Motors Javelin — focused attention and galvanised racers behind the new Super Saloon Association.
“We decided to keep it simple,” says Hill. “The production car’s silhouette had to remain correct above the wheel centres [except for boot-mounted spoilers] and the engine could not be moved backwards or forwards beyond the centreline of the original, depending on whether it was mounted front or rear. Beyond that [apart from an RAC wheelbase tolerance rule carried over from Special Saloons] there were really no rules to break.”
Despite the SSAs ambitious plans, and a lot of motorsport press hype, the governing body (doubtless with Tarrant’s death at Thruxton in ’71 still sounding alarm bells) was not overly happy about the cars’ construction. Some major promoters also envisaged Super Saloons diluting their own Special Saloon races. While the BRSCC got behind it, dates were hard to come by and the proposed championship was dropped in favour of a short series of races in ’74.
Gerry Marshall’s weapon, the fearsome Dealer Team Vauxhall Ventora FE built by Bill Blydenstein’s boys at Shepreth — with input from Frank Costin — was ready by then. The one-tonne silver leviathan, with its Aussie Repco-Holden engine, had already shown its colours with a debut victory in a Silverstone clubbie. Was the writing on the wall for the amateurs who squared up to a works effort?
Not so, apparently, for while Big Gerry started from pole at Snetterton, the suspension collapsed and the honour of winning the first official Super Saloon race fell, perhaps appropriately, to Hill in his Tricentrol Capri from Tony Strawson in the earlier version. On a day when many cars struggled, Nick Whiting’s pristine 2-litre Escort (prepared by his brother Charlie, now Formula One’s safety supremo) finished third.
While it non-started at ‘Snett’, John Turner’s Skoda-Chevrolet S110R coupe made an inauspicious debut at the second John Player-backed race at Mallory Park the following day. The original Czech steel shell of the Dorset timber merchant’s machine was ingeniously underpinned with the engine, Hewland DG300 transaxle and running gear of a Formula 5000 Leda. Once sorted, the yellow peril would be a front-runner, and within three months had claimed a lap record of 98.61mph at Oulton Park.
Essex engineer Colin Hawker’s magnificent Toleman’s Delivery Service Ford Capri, powered by an ex-Tyrrell Cosworth DFV F1 engine, had its day at Silverstone, where renowned engine builder Ian Richardson’s Can-Am McLaren-based Chevrolet Corvair was a promising second on its maiden run. Hill won the season-closing races at Castle Combe and Thruxton, and was lauded as the series winner. At the finale, Turner’s Skoda — which had broken its duck at a Combe Special Saloon clubbie — had led before wilting again. Fed up with continual disappointment and high running costs, John sold it to Irishman Arthur Collier.
A fully-fledged championship did emerge for 1975, courtesy of Tricentrol’s Brian Mayes. Support grew and the first three rounds fell to different drivers: Alec Poole starred at Edinburgh’s twisting Ingliston Showground track in Derek McMahon’s 2-litre Skoda-BDG (designed by Ray Jessop for Chris Meek around his old Rondel F2 car); Richardson wound the big Corvair up at Silverstone to beat Martin Birrane in the later Hillbuilt Capri; but Marshall — armed with Baby Bertha — blew everybody away at Mondello Park’s doubleheader for the car’s first win.
At Oulton Park, Hawker wheeled out his latest immaculate confection. The stunning but at first ill-handling DFVW married a VW 1600TL coupe body to the DFV-powered Duckhams Special Le Mans racer, designed for Main de Cadenet by Gordon Murray. Sadly, it was badly damaged in a Brands Hatch clubbie the following day.
Meanwhile, Hawker’s Capri bodyshell returned with Scottish borders farmer Doug Niven up, and the 5.7-litre Chevrolet engine from his Escort, the bulbous ex-Meek wagon having been trashed when he hit a toilet block at Ingliston!
The invitation to support the British Grand Prix at Silverstone should have been the high-spot in Super Saloon history. A big field was mustered, but Marshall wiped the board with the awesome Firenza, fishtailing it clear on the full track just as he had dominated the Club circuit event a fortnight previously. “Marshall’s monster bore” read the following Thursday’s headline in Autosport. Not the publicity the movement sought. The die was cast for the rest of the season, and wins at Thruxton, Mallory Park and Oulton Park left Gerry Marshall a clear champion.
Beating the best driver in the best car was a challenge beyond any of the contemporary crop. Having seen his DAF change ownership to Colin Folwell and Alan Minshaw, Hazlewood’s new Jaguar ‘XJ8’ project, motivated by a 7-litre big-block Chevrolet V8 acquired from John Surtees, looked the part. But, entrenched in trying to establish a new business, he only drove it four times: “It had immense potential, but needed sorting. I hadn’t the time or the money to do it justice.”
Others were determined to give Marshall a run for his money in ’76. And with some ingenious kit. Jonathan Buncombe, in Tony Wadsworth’s four-year-old Chevron B21 sports-racer buried beneath a bizarre Hillman Imp-esque body, and good old Mick Hill with his new VW Beetle-Chevy looked the most likely to offer some resistance.
After an unsatisfactory season in Formula 5000, Hill and his crew abandoned single-seaters and went back to what they knew. Built from scratch around F5000 parts, it looked promising: “It was neat, compact and very light, probably our best car, and it enabled us to get close.”
Buncombe had the trump card, however, and the most controversial bolide, in the 2-litre Cosworth FVD-powered ‘Chimp’, which made a monkey of what few rules there were through an interpretation by Peter Jowitt, a senior RAC scrutineer, that its high boot-mounted spoiler, which looked like an extension of the roof or an open rear screen if you squinted at dusk, was in fact legal.
Buncombe harassed poleman Marshall mercilessly at the 1976 championship opener and, despite the odds on the Grand Prix circuit, managed to snatch victory on the line. Whether Marshall’s intermittent power loss was for real, or whether he was out to underline a point, nobody was certain, but the Chimp’s wings were clipped.
At the wheel of Baby Bertha, Marshall would make this another title season, ahead of the Escort of Nick Whiting.
Although one or two more cars appeared for the finale — including the interesting Formula One Iso-based Cortina Mk3 of Dr Alistair Thompson and former Chevron fabricator Dave Taylor — the series was falling to pieces.
“Most of us weren’t wealthy guys, and having to work all hours to fund building the cars, so we often didn’t get to the meetings if there were problems,” says Hill. “Starting a build of a Super Saloon car with the best equipment in the world from a used sportscar or single-seater enabled us to compete, but keeping going was another matter.”
The Tricentrol series was discontinued for ’77 and, while there was a half-hearted attempt at a revival the following season, the remaining cars found a home in the spectacular Donington GT Championship.
Super Saloons’ reign of terror had been all too brief. The best cars built for it were works of art; beautiful pieces of engineering. Science did not always influence development though, and the worst were little more than wayward jalopies. Of barely 20 races, spread randomly over three frontline seasons, Gerry Marshall won almost half in Baby Bertha before the cars priced themselves into oblivion. But, like the pungent post-event aromas of spent oil, tortured tyres and singed glassfibre, some great memories still linger three decades later.
Hulme and Moss drove ‘Superloons’
Five Formula One drivers exercised Super Saloons in the series’ period.
Denny Hulme track-tested John Turner’s Skoda-Chevrolet S110R for Skoda GB’s newspaper in 1974. The ’67 World Champion and twice Can-Am champ came away from Brands Hatch impressed.
Stirling Moss, wearing his Herbert Johnson cork bone-dome, drove Tony Hazlewood’s 7-litre Chevrolet-powered Jaguar ‘XJ8′ on a test day while driving in the British Saloon Car Championship.
Frank Gardner, the triple British Saloon Car Champion, former Willment-Brabham GP driver and ’71 Formula 5000 champ, won a Super Saloon race at Silverstone in ’74 in the SCA Freight Chevrolet Camaro.
Chris Craft, who made a single GP start and won the 1973 European 2-litre Sportscar title in Martin Birrane’s Lola, raced the DFVW at Oulton in ’75. Three years earlier he’d finished 12th at Le Mans in its chassis the de Cadenet Duckhams Special.
Reine Wisell, the former Lotus, BRM and March F1 driver, finished fifth at Brands Hatch in ’76. The Swede was at the wheel of the Zip-Up Chevrolet Camaro he had been racing in Europe.
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