The most relaxing three days I have had for ages! That is my verdict of the recent Avon Motor Tour of Britain which took place amongst so much ballyhoo last month. But don’t get the idea I was cruising about reporting the odd race and special stage; I was in the actual event like umpteen other motoring journalists. Like most of the other journalists it was a relaxation to be away from the phone!
But unlike most of the other scribes in the event I was at least sitting alongside a driver whom I know well and with whom I have taken part in events before—professional rally driver Andy Dawson.
Andy, like the true professional he is, had found an excellent sponsor in Woolworth. They entered into the spirit of the event and, before we knew what was happening, we were the subject of a 20-minute film about the event. Furthermore, Miss United Kingdom was brought along to cheer us on our way. Just before the event the High Street chain, who were making their entry into International motor sporting, also put their name on several others.
The Dawson/Marriott duo were actually backed by Sabre at Woolworth, Sabre being a brand of men’s toiletries, and there were soon press releases flying around claiming us to be the sweetest smelling crew. Well, we might have been at the start, but I am not sure if we were at the finish!
The film making was an absolute riot with us happily buying out the motoring shop at the Hatfield Woolco and hamming our lines like mad. Stars at last! In fact it was quite a serious business and the Formula 1 Film boys were marvellous. After our shopping spree they filmed us “on location” on the rally and we are looking forward to seeing the final result in a couple of months’ time. There was a helicopter following us around and needless to say it caught our desperate spin on the very first special stage. But that is jumping ahead.
Our car was a Ford Capri 3-litre, at least that was what the entry list said. Ten days before the event a car was still to materialise from the source we expected. So Dawson trotted down to a local auction, bid for a Capri and, in association with John Willment of Mitcham, became the proud owner of a motor car with 86,000 miles on the clock many of them apparently towing someone’s Formula 5000 around.
A week later it hardly looked the same car. Andy Dawson and the enthusiastic John Willment mechanics worked night and day re-building the car with as many new bits as they could get their hands on. They fitted an engine, which had been prepared to the strict Group 1 regulations by Racing Services, and the body was sprayed up in the special Sabre brown colour. In fact the finishing touches were added in the scrutineering bay while Andy’s mother’s Capri was suddenly missing quite a few vital parts. But our brinkmanship paid off.
The Tour itself
One of the most controversial aspects of this event was that of tyres. The sponsors, Avon, did not expect all the competitors to run on their rubber but they hoped everyone would play fair and use genuine road tyres. It was a vain hope because Group 1 racing is currently so competitive that a couple of firms, Kleber and Michelin, produce tyres which are little more than thinly disguised racers. The Michelins, known as X TA3 or TB5s, cost about £40 each, if you can get them. The Klebers are rather less expensive and, as my driver was runner-up in the Kleber Rally Scholarship last year, we intended to use their specials.
As it turned out we made a last minute decision to switch to Avon’s normal Wide Safety GT which gave us a chance of winning a special prize for the highest placed car on Avons plus another award for the highest placed car on any tyre not on Avon’s “black list”. We justified the decision by winning both awards.
The event covered 1,000 miles at three days, starting and finishing in Bath. When Peter Browning of the BRSCC first conceived the idea as a British version of the Tour de France, he did not expect the incredible response he received. Everything was originally organised for a quiet little pilot event with forty or fifty competitors—it all got out of hand. The entry list was expanded to 100 cars, and there were works machines from Ford, BMW, Chrysler. As well as racing and rally favourites like Graham Hill, Howden Ganley, James Hunt, Roger Clark and a host of others there were personalities like Sheila Scott and Prince Michael of Kent. Avon’s publicity machine moved into action and all of a sudden the Avon Tour was big news.
But there just wasn’t time to make the route a real challenge and we were left with only three real rally special stages, a blast up a drag strip, two laps of an airfield perimeter track plus five races, including the night one at Snetterton—which proved to be the best part of the whole event. This suited the racers but left the rally drivers out in the cold.
My man’s sole racing experience was a five-lap handicap at Silverstone in a Mini! But by the end of three days he had packed in more racing miles than he would normally be able to manage in over a month. As he is keen to get circuit driving experience he was delighted. By the end of the event he was starting to look like a Group 1 regular with the Woolworth Capri taking up alarming attitudes on the corners. I was glad that the co-drivers were confined to pit signalling and timekeeping!
On the rally sections it was a different matter and we were the old hands—until we spun spectacularly on the grass section at Dodington Park. But we came back with some good times at the other stages, particularly at Knebworth House just off the A1 in Hertfordshire, where the crowds were fantastic. We had a lot to lose because Bernard Unett in the works Hillman Hunter looked like overtaking us and pushing us out of the top ten.
Probably the hairiest section of all was the drive from Long Marston on Friday night through Stratford-upon-Avon and back to the halfway halt. We spent rather too long servicing and got caught up in thick Friday evening traffic. The final few miles were hectic as we looked like losing some road penalties. But we made it to the Great Barr Post House with seconds to spare, arriving. almost broadside and passing a couple of Moskviches in the drive of the hotel! Those film cameras were rolling again Catching the action.
But it was definitely all worth it and we were finally classified tenth overall and won the special awards as mentioned. Two other Capris joined together with us to form “Team Woolworth” and we scooped up the non-manufacturers’ team award, thanks to Gordon Spice and Mike Crabtree who finished second and eighth respectively.
Unett’s Hillman Hunter did overtake us and knock us out of ninth place overall but we held on to tenth place despite pressure from the Alfa Romeo GTV of Peter Hilliard.
Only about four cars dropped by the wayside but one that was expected to do so and didn’t was the A. J. Rivers Racing Chevrolet Camaro of James Hunt. This car is usually driven by Richard Lloyd but he had injured his back and couldn’t take part so gave Formula One man of the moment, Hunt, the drive. Normally the car finds trouble in finishing a ten-lap club race and throughout the event we heard tales of its falling oil pressure, worn-out clutch, lack of brakes and various other disasters which threatened to halt its progress. But when the starting flag dropped, more often than not, James blasted off into the lead. On the rally sections he drove sensibly and his effort was rewarded by overall victory. He had nursed the car most of the way and when Gordon Spice spun his Capri at Knebworth that was the end of any challenge. At the half-way stage Roger Clark had been leading but a faulty ignition switch lost him a lot of time, and he already had Hunt breathing down his neck.
BMW had a very unhappy time—two cars dropped a great deal of time when their exhaust systems fell off at the very first race at Llandow (they don’t normally race with exhausts) while the favourite, Tony Lanfranchi, lost a lot of time when an oil pressure relief valve jammed and subsequently arrived at a control out of time.
So Hunt ran out the popular winner and a word too for co-driver Robert Fearnall. It was the young motoring journalist’s first ever event but he handled the co-driver’s tasks most capably.
Next year Peter Browning has promised the event will be much tougher and give the rally drivers a better chance. I hope so because the potential is there for one of the most exciting motor sporting competitions of the season.—A.R.M.