Nicely in tune

Once a grass-roots staple, Special Saloon racing is flourishing again – and this year welcomes back a sponsor that first became involved in 1978. We reflect on the category’s genesis and its original golden age

Mick Hill. Gerry Marshall. Peter Baldwin. Doug Niven. Tony Sugden. Dave Brodie. A clutch of names that might mean little to the wider world, yet resonate loudly with anybody who set foot in a motor racing paddock during the 1970s. All were quick, some were intuitive engineers – and they represent but a small sample of the characters who did much to inject life into period British motor racing. It was an age of flamboyance: wide trousers, wider cars, exuberant driving and the distinctive musk of Castrol R.

It’s tricky to pinpoint when the term ‘Special Saloons’ was first formally used. It appeared occasionally in race programmes during the 1960s, but tin-top fixtures were for the most part labelled ‘saloon car races’, with a multi-class structure in which the most potent division was sometimes for machinery ‘over 1300cc’: at the time these were mostly highly tuned Ford Escorts or Anglias, with 5.0 litres of Ford Falcon or similar occasionally interloping.

Escorts, Minis and Hillman Imps were plentiful, but there was ample scope for lateral thought: examples included Roy Yates’s Mk3 Zodiac, Andrew Talbot’s Triumph Herald, Tony Hazlewood’s Daf 55 Coupé, Ginger Marshall’s Mini Countryman (succeeded by a Reliant Kitten), David Enderby’s VW Karmann Ghia and Peter Day’s Fiat 500, whose two-cylinder engine was half a 1.7-litre BDA. It was colourful, noisy, inventive and diverse, as far removed from one-make racing as it is possible to get.

By 1972, with Production Saloon racing introduced to the UK, the ‘special’ prefix became more widely used and the class remained popular throughout the decade, spawning the even wilder Super Saloon concept during the mid-1970s (Motor Sport, April 2006) and continuing through the ’80s before withering. Some cars raced on in combined sports/saloon or GT championships, while most of those based on single-seaters or sports cars were restored to their original purpose, which made them eligible for historic racing – and significantly increased their value.

In August 2011, the Classic Sports Car Club organised a revival race for Special Saloons and Modified Sports Cars at Mallory Park, precursor to the rebirth the following year of two popular ’70s staples. Some bygone originals compete still – not least the Repco-engined ex-Gerry Marshall Vauxhall Firenza of Joe Ward – and share the track with newer cars built in the spirit of yore. A 6.1-litre Morris Minor? Step this way… In 2018 the series will be sponsored by Wendy Wools, returning to the sport it first graced 40 years ago as backer of the British Automobile Racing Club’s Special Saloon championship.

Motor Sport tracked down a few of those who played their part first time around.


Worked on Mick Hill’s Capris and later ran the ‘DFVW’, a Cosworth-engined VW Type 3 Fastback

“Walter Robertson bought the DFVW from Colin Hawker. It was based on the 1972 Duckhams Special Le Mans car, basically a Brabham BT33 that Gordon Murray had modified. We ran it like that for a season,
but then widened the front track and grafted on a Hesketh 308 rear end. That improved it, but made it even more like an F1 car beneath the skin.

“Previously I’d helped prepare Mick Hill’s early Capris, when cars were philosophically closer to the original Special Saloons. I did have something of a moral conscience about the way things changed, because I loved single-seaters and sports cars and here we were converting them into these mad behemoths. But that’s what drivers wanted and I had a family to feed, so there wasn’t really much choice.

“You basically approached it as though you were working on a single-seater, because that’s what it looked like once you removed the body. I know there were a few slightly botched home-built specials at that time, but lots of the engineering was very, very good.

“There were some superb races between the likes of Mick, Walter, Doug Niven and co – and the cars became fairly reliable. Everyone tried to get the latest injection systems, which helped, and it was the same with Chevrolet-powered cars. There were lots of tuning parts – and if the driver could handle the consequences, you’d stick it on. It did start to get quite expensive for what was essentially club-level racing, though, with people spending very serious money on engines. That was just a reflection of how competitive it became. In some ways, every race was a bit of an adventure simply because there was so much power unleashed. I really enjoyed it.”


1970 Scottish saloon champion in an Escort, later very successful in the ex-Mick Hill Beetle

“To me they were the good old days, when bigger was better and everybody was running around with V8s and stuff. I started with a Ford Anglia in 1969, bought Graham Birrell’s twin-cam Escort and eventually ended up with a 5.7-litre Escort V8. I raced mostly at Ingliston and Croft at that stage, but when the Super Saloon era arrived it encouraged me to travel more widely.

“I enjoyed taking on the likes of Gerry Marshall, Nick Whiting, Mick Hill and Tony Sugden. Mick was very inventive and came up with some great cars – the Beetle was based on an F5000 Trojan. Being based so far from the action, I tended to favour buying second-hand cars that were already proven in the hands of others. It was a lot of fun and I considered guys like Gerry and Mick to be pals, as well as rivals. We’d stay at each other’s houses before races and have barbecues and so forth.

“Do I remember driving the Beetle at Longridge? Aye, that was a one-off. I was racing at Oulton Park the previous day and the clerk of the course asked whether I fancied popping in on the way home, perhaps just to do a demo run. That was 1978, when I was chasing a prize Shell was offering to whichever driver scored the most victories. It was a chance to add to my tally so I agreed to race – but the circuit was so short that my mechanic fell over at one point while wrestling with the pit signalling board. We were coming around so quickly that he was struggling to remove the previous lap time and post the next one.

“I didn’t quite get the Shell award: I had 28 wins but finished second to Kenny Acheson, who managed 31 in Formula Ford. It was my most successful season, though, and I sold the car afterwards because I didn’t feel I had much else to prove.”


Built a Mk3 Ford Cortina V8 in a hen shed; now owns the ex-Hill/Niven/everybody VW Beetle

“I hadn’t previously raced Special Saloons, but got involved simply because I liked building cars and racing them, the kind of thing that doesn’t seem to engage people nowadays. I teamed up with Alistair Thompson, a local GP. We didn’t have much money, but we installed a stove and welding gear into a Nissen hut that had been a hen shed and put our hearts and souls into it for about 18 months.

“We built a spaceframe chassis and wanted some sophisticated suspension, so I made enquiries and found that Trojan had one of Frank Williams’s F1 Iso-Marlboros lying around. We were offered the suspension for £350, so hired a van locally [he’s based near Bolton] only to be told there was a mileage limit and that we couldn’t take it beyond Knutsford. Answer? We disconnected the odometer, and off we went to Croydon. When we arrived we discovered the suspension was still attached to the rest of the chassis, but Trojan owner Peter Agg said we could have the whole thing for £350. We later bought a Ford Falcon V8 for about £800, mated it to a Jaguar gearbox and picked up a few nuts and bolts free of charge from contacts at Chevron.

“As we were the only people building a Mk3 Cortina there was nobody making suitable front bodywork, so we created our own using a friend’s car as a fibreglass mould – I don’t think we did much paintwork damage, and as it was a company car he wasn’t that bothered.

“The paddock was generally a very friendly place. Mick Hill always used to host parties at the end of Donington Park meetings. Once, we were about to head to his place when we encountered Tony Strawson in the paddock, absolutely covered in oil because his Capri had been leaking all over him. His solution was simply to turn his pullover inside out so the oil was on the inside. He went like that…

“On another occasion, given the limited facilities at Aintree, we were washing our hands in a bucket at the end of the meeting when another mechanic came over and asked if he could share our water. It was Charlie Whiting, who I believe now works in a more sophisticated environment.”


Serial winner in the late ’60s/early ’70s, particularly in Run Baby Run, the Ford Escort he is presently rebuilding

“It was a sociable time for some, but I was perhaps a bit of a loner because I didn’t like chatting to people if I thought we might be running side by side on the final lap! I tended to befriend those in smaller classes, guys like Jonathan Buncombe and Roger Williamson who weren’t direct rivals on the track.

“There were some great drivers, though – and the bravest was probably Martin Birrane. You’d see his Ford Fairlane in your mirrors, lurching around, wheelspin in every gear. I remember one race on the old Snetterton – me in my Escort and Martin in one of his V8s. I hadn’t fitted a 16-valve head at that point, but was using big valves – more or less the size of hub caps. Every lap he’d come rumbling past me on the Norwich Straight, then I’d dive ahead at the hairpin. This went on until we were approaching it for the final time. I knew he wasn’t going to give me much room – he left about three feet so I put my two right-hand wheels off the circuit and onto one of the old runways, which probably hadn’t been used since the war. We touched and went off, bounding towards the hairpin in a huge cloud of dust, but eventually I beat him to the line…

“I was quite dedicated by the standards of the day. I used to test at Thruxton, because they’d let me use it if aircraft movements allowed, then head back to work. I’m not sure anyone else bothered with testing. People used to say I had the means to race, but I didn’t really – I had an electroplating business and saved money by not going to pubs.”


Enormously successful in a series of rapid Minis; Miglia champion as recently as 2013 (aged 72)

“The thing I loved was that you were able to develop your car to go ever faster, although it still looked essentially like a Mini from the outside.

“It was mostly great fun, though I had a big accident at the Mallory Park Esses when the front suspension failed. I got out of the car to check for damage, then keeled over. The next thing I recall is waking up in hospital. My mechanic turned up later – being chased by a nurse who wasn’t happy that he’d brought the rear suspension into the ward, to show me where it had broken. That was actually effect rather than cause – I went back the following day and found a perfect imprint of a front Minilite on the asphalt, from where a broken rosejoint had caused it to fold back underneath the car.

“I must have enjoyed it, because I’d sometimes organise a plane to fly between circuits so that I could compete in two races on the same day. I was very fond of the cars and the people – we had our ups and downs, but they were sociable times with lots of parties.

“I had some particularly good battles with Alan Humberstone in his Imp – he and his dad were always trying to get the best Cosworth BDAs, while I was preparing my own engines. We were often very close – and things could become quite heated on and off the track. Once, I had to restrain him when he was trying to leave the paddock after the clerk of the course had summoned him for a chat… Things were a bit different then, weren’t they?”


ex-Broadspeed engineer who won Special Saloon titles with both Ford Anglia and Escort

“I started out with an Anglia powered by a one-litre F3 screamer – and won the Forward Trust championship in 1974, my first full season. After that I moved on to a 1300 Escort and my experience with Broadspeed was useful, because I knew how to set the car up very well. I had some terrific tussles with Peter Baldwin, but I also kept beating more powerful cars and things eventually came to a head at Mallory Park, where everybody was accusing me of running an oversized engine.
It was all fairly light-hearted, but we ended up stripping the thing down in the paddock to prove that it wasn’t.

“I sold that car to Holland and built up a Mk2 Escort with a 2.0-litre BDG for 1978, still with a traditional steel shell, but the writing was probably on the wall because there were so many spaceframe cars appearing. I uprated to a Hart engine for ’79, but went to Brands Hatch and came up against Rob Mason, who had a plastic-bodied Imp on a sports car chassis. He had problems in practice and started near the back, while I was on pole. I was leading and watching my pit board, which went from ‘+6sec’ to ‘+3sec’ – and then he blasted past before we’d reached Paddock.

“They were great times, full of innovation and improvisation – I remember Alan Humberstone’s dad trying to use a scaffolding pole from one of the spectator fences to fix a broken Imp driveshaft at Thruxton – but by the end of the ’70s I felt it was time to go off and race something else.”


Lover of Americana who raced Fairlane, Falcon and Mustang before moving on to an ex-Mick Hill Capri V8

“It was a fabulous era, with lots of different machinery, and it certainly gave me an adrenaline fix. I loved it. I started out with an Anglia, but in my third or fourth race I got sideways at Snetterton and rolled. The whole car just fell apart. I broke my neck, but have absolutely no idea how I came out of it alive.

“I should probably have given up there and then, but decided a better option was to buy a V8 and so acquired a Ford Fairlane – a terrible thing that ran out of brakes after a single lap and wasn’t interested in turning right.

“I recall leading at Oulton Park, with Gerry Marshall second, and for some reason I looked in the mirror at Lodge on the final lap, ran wide and spun into the bank. Gerry got through and I hurt my wrist in the impact,
so I bandaged it up and raced one-handed at Mallory Park the following day.

“That irritated Richard Longman and a few of the other Mini racers, because I got away first and spent most of the race sideways. As the car was about 18ft long, there wasn’t much room for them to get past. I couldn’t have done that on the full circuit, with the hairpin, but fortunately we were on the short loop.”


Son of Gerry, whose car control tamed many an outrageously potent Vauxhall (not least Baby Bertha)

“Dad had a reputation as the paddock’s life and soul and that’s how it seemed, wherever we were. We’d arrive at 7.30, he’d sign on, chat to a few people, practise, slip me a few quid to amuse myself and arrange to meet me near the bar at lunchtime. He’d usually have a couple of pints before he raced…

“He always asked where I’d be standing and then either wave to me, or do something spectacular to amuse me. Afterwards there’d be more paddock chat – it was impossible to walk more than 20 metres without somebody stopping him – and then he’d return to the bar, usually until it closed. On the way home we almost always stopped for a curry.

“He seemed to be friends with most people, though there were exceptions. He and Mick Hill never got on while racing, but when Dad went into hospital for a quadruple bypass
in the mid-1990s he found Mick was there at the same time for a heart transplant. They subsequently became the best of friends.

“When I was researching his stats I found that he’d done 1441 races and won 625, which isn’t a bad strike rate. I accept that he wasn’t necessarily the best dad, but he was my hero.”


Multiple champion with Ford Escort and, later, Škoda Coupé. Now a regular safety car driver… at 85

“I began grasstrack racing in 1949 – earning the fourth-highest prize money of the day, £2 10s – and carried on in cars until the end of 2003. There are so many memories that it’s hard to pick out individual moments. I stuck with the same Ford Escort from 1969 through to 1977, but there had been a cultural shift by then, when cars morphed into silhouettes.

My Escort had been one of the last genuine Special Saloons and began struggling to keep up, so I had to change. I spent a year in Alan Minshaw’s ex-Hazlewood Daf and then put a Škoda body on a Chevron B23 sports racer. By the time I stopped I’d won 523 races – more than 600 if you include bikes.

“Did cars feel tame after racing in the Isle of Man TT? Don’t you believe it. The Škoda had 550bhp that came in all at once, although there was no lag so long as you kept it above 5000rpm…”