Derek Bennett never was one to be consumed by low ambitions. An intuitive and hugely gifted engineer, nobody worked harder at Haslam’s Mill, Chorley Old Road, Bolton; Chevron’s spiritual home. Usually the first to arrive and last to leave, the fame-avoiding marque founder inspired his troops by example. What he lacked in formal education, Bennett more than made up for in practical, real-world insight. And if his only contribution to motor racing lore had been the Chevron B6/B8, his legacy would still be assured.
The Chevron GT, as it was initially dubbed, remains a copper-bottomed classic in any of its various incarnations. In the words of historics ace Simon Hadfield: “I’ve been terribly fortunate to drive many fantastic cars, but each and every time I get into a B8, I just think ‘Yes! This is fantastic!’ And it is, too.”
Few who’ve driven one would argue otherwise. But then Bennett was a driver first, making it as far as F3 via assorted specials. Manufacturing cars was simply a logical progression. But it was his skill as a wheelman that influenced his designs, even if his output tended to be built before they were ever drawn.
After founding Chevron Cars in 1965, Bennett got the ball rolling with Clubmans sports-racers, but his thoughts were already elsewhere. Two GT cars were built in 1966, the B3 featuring a 1.6-litre Lotus twin-cam unit, the B4 a 2-litre BMW ‘four’. Digby Martland gave the former its debut at Oulton Park in July of that year and scored an outright win. On the car’s second outing, at Crystal Palace, he harried David Piper’s Ferrari 250LM all the way to the flag, claiming an emphatic class victory over the hitherto dominant Lotus Elan 26R of John Miles. An impressive, if ultimately unrewarded, showing by the B4 at the following year’s Daytona 24 Hours proved Chevron’s international credentials. It also resulted in one of its drivers – New Jersey’s Fred Opert – taking on the US concession.
What Chevron needed was a volume model, the definitive production GT – the B6 – being built concurrently with the one-off BRM-powered B5, as driven originally by Brian Redman for David Bridges (the ‘B’ in all model designations after he provided seed money to the fledgling operation). Like its forerunners, the B6 was built around a tubular spaceframe, with the centre section plated in duraluminium sheet that lent it a monocoque-like appearance. That and extra strength. The suspension aped contemporary single-seater philosophy with double wishbones up front and wide-based lower wishbones, single top links and twin radius arms locating the rear uprights. Coil springs were fitted outboard all round, both ends being fully rose-jointed, with anti-roll bars front and rear.
So nothing particularly special then, but it worked. The B6 rendered rivals obsolete but this was just the opening salvo. By the time the B8 was homologated on May 1, 1968 (model designations B1 to B8 were given out retrospectively that year), it had numerous detail revisions over the outgoing model. And of the 44 cars made (rather than the, cough, 50 required for homologation into Group 4…), the majority were powered by BMW’s sturdy slant four, although Cosworth FVA and 2-litre Coventry Climax units also found their way under that shapely glassfibre ’shell.
And still they dominated. At national level, John Lepp took the RAC title with the works/Red Rose Racing example, Trevor Twaites doing likewise the following season. Add in international class triumphs – from Sicily to Mozambique – and the reason behind the Chevron’s popularity obviates much in the way of an explanation: racing drivers like to win.
Evergreen sports car veteran John Burton remains enamoured. “I started my racing career in a Ginetta G4 and enjoyed a lot of success in the later G12s,” he recalls. “I got on well with the Walklett brothers and, when the G16 came out, they offered to loan me a car if I supplied my FVA engine.
“When I first saw the Chevron B6, I was impressed: it was beautifully finished for a racing car. I became increasingly unhappy with the G16 since there didn’t seem to be much progress from the factory on correcting its obvious weaknesses so, at the end of 1968, I decided to order a new Chevron B8. James Tangye, Paul Ridgeway, Paul Bamford and I, among others, had formed the Worcestershire Racing Association [meetings being conducted at the Dog Inn at Harvington…]. We thought we could save money if we went to suppliers with a joint approach. I remember going to Chevron with Paul Ridgeway and another friend, Paul Vestey, with the intention of doing a deal. We ordered three B8s for £2750 each, which included a spare set of wheels. I believe the list price at the time was £2950, so it wasn’t a big discount.
“Driving the B8 was a revelation. It was like a forgiving and immensely fast road car. Most Chevrons have an inbuilt tendency to understeer, which the B8 certainly did, but not to an unmanageable extent. We hardly changed the set-up. I remember that when you sat in the car and fired it up, the internal mirror became a total blur due to the vibration from the solidly-mounted engine. Once you were out on the circuit, this miraculously smoothed out and it was no longer a problem. Another issue was trying to get the spare wheel to fit under the bonnet; regulations insisted we had to carry one for the long-distance events. We always used a smaller front wheel, but even then getting the bonnet shut required a lot of persuasion…
“I only had the car for the 1969 season before selling it on to the Swiss driver Chuck Graemiger. For a short while that year I owned the ex-Brian Redman BRM-B5. The potential was there, but it wasn’t strong enough to cope with the extra torque, since the engine gave around 250bhp when the BMW’s made 180bhp. I was not aware of this until my first race in it at Silverstone. I was sitting on pole alongside John Miles in the works Lotus 47 and looking forward to a good result. On the first lap I was leading down the club straight when the diff broke. It needed a stronger, heavier gearbox and soon after I sold it to Willie Green, who was convinced he knew how to fix the problem (see I Raced One). With the right development, that could have been a great car.”
Though ultimately usurped by the sublime B16, some B8s were granted a temporary reprieve from obsolescence via the addition of an aftermarket GROPA body. The unfortunate acronym aside (Graphics Racing Organisation for Prototype Automobiles doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue…), these typically Group 6-style open affairs were sold by Londoner Andrew Mylius but weren’t sanctioned by the Chevron firm. Or indeed condoned. During the ’80s the B6/B8 found a new home in historic racing (and even in Thundersports, if only briefly). And among the most successful protagonists is Simon Hadfield.
“I remember seeing a Chevron for the first time back in 1966 when my father was racing his Lotus Eleven GT,” says the Merzario F1 man turned restoration guru. “I was very young and naïvely asked him why he didn’t have a car like that. He told me that it was something a bit special; a supercar. And it was, too. During that period successful racing cars had very brief shelf lives: the Lotus 26R won everything until the Ginetta G12 took over. Then Lotus fought back with the 47, which won until the Chevron B6 came along. I’ve raced five B8s since 1984, and have shared the ex-Robbie Gordon car of Michael Shryver every year since then. I mean, we’ve done everything from road rallies to the Spa 6 Hours and it’s everything you want a racing car to be – fast, forgiving and just delightful. I can clearly recall seeing Willie Green’s Chevron battling Peter Sadler’s GT40 at Crystal Palace in period and I’ve adored them ever since. And I’m a Lotus fan!”
The Chevron love-in stretches to relative newbies, too. Hugely successful in speed events, Sean McLurg took a triumphant leap to roundy-round stuff earlier this decade with occasional outings in a Lotus 23. More recently he’s found form aboard a B6 in the HSCC Guards Trophy series: “A friend of mine, Nick Thompson, fancied circuit racing after many years on the hills so he decided to jump in at the deep end by buying a B6,” he says. “I do the preparation and get to drive it in the longer races. A well set-up example is brilliant fun to drive, and it’s easy to get 95 per cent out of a Chevron. Only a few get that last five per cent though!”
Hadfield concurs, adding: “Short of running a ‘big’ engine, there isn’t much between cars. What you see is what you get and most chassis have long and well-recorded histories. Of course they’re getting expensive now. I’ve heard of one car that’s on the market for £300,000. But then they’re eligible for everything from Classic Le Mans to just about every international sports car series you can think of. In that respect, they’re like Formula Junior cars: invited to most of the big meetings. On top of that, there’s a service industry that caters just for these cars. I don’t really see where you can go wrong.”
Hadfield sums it up perfectly: “For me, the B8 represented the last hurrah for the amateur owner/entrant. You could buy a car, go off to the Continent with a mate and live on start money. You’d be on the same grid as the likes of Surtees, Siffert and Rodriguez. Derek Bennett hit the sweet spot with the B8. With later cars it got expensive; it was all add, add, add. For me, the B8 is one of the greatest racing cars ever made.”