Tiff's quick turnaround

This EMKA-Aston Martin was “a disaster” for Tiff Needell when it first raced at Le Mans in 1983. The comeback two years later was a very different story
Writer Andrew Frankel, photographer Jayson Fong

Which was the last Aston Martin to lead Le Mans? I always thought it was Project DP212, the DB4GT-based prototype whose slippery shape combined with the right foot of Graham Hill to stun the crowd by leading the works Ferraris at the end of the first lap of the race in 1962. And, depending on whether you consider the car before you to be an Aston Martin or not, I may still be right.

But the EMKA-Aston Martin C84/1 was, I believe, at least the last Aston-powered car to lead Le Mans, which it did shortly after the start of the 1985 race, partly because of Tiff Needell’s driving and mainly thanks to a little opportunistic pit-work, of which more in a minute.

First, however, let me remind you what we’re looking at, and what we’re not. What it is not is a Nimrod, although the careers of the EMKA and the works-backed, Aston-powered, Lola T70-derived cars created by Robin Hamilton did overlap, notably at Le Mans in 1983. It’s not a Cheetah Aston Martin either, a Swiss-based effort that should have done better than it did, not least because it had a carbon-fibre monocoque. Instead the man behind this machine was the late Pink Floyd manager Steve O’Rourke and his company EMKA Productions, named after his daughters EMma and KAte.

EMKA and O’Rourke first went racing a few years earlier, the latter making his Le Mans debut in 1979 in an EMKA-sponsored Ferrari Boxer. The following year he got to the flag again in the same car despite 37 pitstops and the green car crossing the line sporting the red tail section of the retired Bellancauto car. But after an only partly successful interlude with an ex-Niki Lauda BMW M1, O’Rourke decided he wanted his own racing car and the EMKA Aston, as it is colloquially known, was created.

The idea came from a conversation in the pub between O’Rourke and Michael Cane, the man whose race team would come to run the EMKA. “It was largely born out of the frustration that developed whilst Steve was trying to get an agreement with the Aston Martin factory,” recalled Cane. “He decided that if they were not going to help him he would do it himself!” And as Aston’s patronage went the way of the Nimrod project, he did.

The car was the work of the late Len Bailey, best known for his work on the Ford GT40. For EMKA he penned a simple aluminium monocoque with ground effect to suit the new Group C regulations and clothed it in a sleek and attractive GRP body. Power would come from the same Tickford-developed Aston V8 that would propel the Nimrods and Cheetah.

It gave around 570bhp from a standard 5.3-litre capacity, nowhere near enough to worry the Porsche 956s that gave an easy 650bhp on sensible boost, but without the turbo Porsches’ attendant fuel consumption issues. The chassis was built up by Maurice Gomm and the body created by Protoco.

It wasn’t a success. “Couldn’t get out of its own way in 1983,” recalls the ever cheerful Needell today. “It really was a disaster – as the speed rose it just ran out of power.”

The car made its debut at the 1983 Silverstone 1000Kms, boasting the red bodywork of its Virgin sponsor and carrying a C83/1 chassis plate. In Tiff’s hands during qualifying it proved only slightly slower than the Nimrod that had made its debut in the same race the year before and gone on to record a highly creditable seventh place finish at Le Mans. The race itself proved somewhat trickier, perhaps inevitably for such a new car. Tiff drove with O’Rourke and Jeff Allam but electrical issues slowed the car before wheel-bearing failure brought its run to a halt after 165 laps.

At Le Mans the car’s paucity of power was shown in rather starker light, especially against Porsches running qualifying boost in practice. With Nick Faure replacing Allam in the driver line-up, it managed a 3min 42sec lap, 26sec off the pole time, 7sec behind the Nimrod using the same engine and good enough only for 25th place, a scant half second quicker than the fastest car in the C2 category. “The car got up to 180mph and just stopped,” Faure remembers today. “That would be pretty inconvenient anywhere, but at Le Mans without the chicanes? It was completely hopeless. Porsches were pinging past us going 50mph faster, and more…”

The race was a grind, the car suffering a litany of faults and failures and circulating slowly even when functioning properly. But it got across the line, 17th of 20 finishers and last but one of the Group C contenders, at least earning the Motor Trophy for the first British car home. And that, it seemed, was that. The EMKA didn’t race again in 1983 nor the following year. But its moment in the sunlight was still to come.

A very different EMKA-Aston Martin appeared at the start of the 1985 season. It was developed from the ’83 car but was so heavily evolved it was given a new chassis number, the C84/1 it wears today. “You’ve got to mention Richard Owen,” implores Tiff. “He was the man who did all the work. He transformed the car.” And so he did. Owen is a race car designer and engineer who had been responsible for the Shrike and Aquila racers. His career involved stints at BRM, TWR and Williams and he was drafted in by Cane to see what could be done to make the car quicker.

“The brief was to find another 20mph top speed,” says Owen from his Towcester office where he remains as busy as ever. “I had a look and saw pretty quickly that the problem was the intake into the engine: it was simply being starved of air. So I did a new rear wing for it, and new suspension for some reason or other, but the big difference was redesigning the air intake in the tail.” Owen does not recall removing the ground effect tunnels, but there is no sign of them today.

Whatever he did, it worked. This time in Le Mans qualifying Tiff went nine seconds faster than the car had gone in 1983, good enough for 13th, ahead of three Group C Porsches and, gratifyingly, both of Bob Tullius’s IMSA Jaguar XJR-5s. It was the fastest normally aspirated car on the grid.

Needell started the race. “I had a riot. All the Porsches were being quite conservative with their fuel so I just weaved my way past. Having been so slow in 1983, the thing now just flew down the straight.” Owen had found the required 20mph and quite a lot more. By the time of the first fuel stops and entirely on merit, the EMKA lay third, an almost impossible turnaround in fortune from its previous visit to France. “I could see the Joest and Canon cars up ahead and had no trouble staying with them,” says Tiff.

Needell’s first pitstop was somewhat shorter than anticipated. “We had no radio so I didn’t know they were going to short-fuel me.” The plan was to get Tiff back into the race so that by the time the first hour was over and all the other front-runners had pitted, the EMKA’s name would be recorded for posterity as an official leader of Le Mans. Sadly the plan was stymied by David Hobbs somehow persuading a Porsche to travel for more than an hour on a tank of fuel. But as soon as the 956 dived for the pits, the EMKA led Le Mans, and continued to do so for the next four laps until Tiff’s fuel light came on. “Yes, Michael Cane arranged for the car to be first,” he says, “but once we were there, there we stayed. Nothing came past…”

“For the most part the race was good,” says Faure. “Tiff was the quickest of the three of us, while I was Mr Consistent. Steve drove well too, I suppose about 5sec off the car’s ultimate pace, which isn’t so much around Le Mans.” Clutch problems held them up on Sunday morning and with barely an hour to go Tiff pitted reporting a loss of power and smell of fuel. “They took off the engine cover and saw fuel spraying from a broken pipe filling the middle of the vee of the red-hot engine. I can remember someone leaning in and saying, ‘I think you’d better get out of the car.’”

The patched up EMKA duly finished 11th, and given that the top 10 places were filled with Group C Porsches and works Lancias, recorded a fairly extraordinary feat for a car conceived in a pub on a budget of £150,000 with a normally aspirated road car engine and no ground effect.

How do its drivers remember it today? With unalloyed pleasure. “Once Richard Owen had sorted it out,” says Tiff, “it was a brilliant little car. Such fun to drive and with no downforce you just spent your time sliding it around. It wasn’t as quick as the Porsche I’d raced the year before [a Kremer 956], but it was far nicer to drive.”

Faure concurs. “Given where it started, it was phenomenally quick in 1985 but really good to drive too. It went like a bomb down the straight and was lovely around the rest of the lap too. Very fond memories of that car…”

Today the EMKA sits in the pitlane at Silverstone looking like new, having been rebuilt to a superb standard by Michael Hibberd Motor Engineers. “We did everything, starting with a bare monocoque,” says Andrew Hibberd. “We rebuilt the engine and gearbox and made a whole new body for it. We still have the original body which could be used for making spares, but it’s too tired to put on the car now.”

I never cease to be amazed at how old the interiors of early Group C cars look, and this one is no different. I know 30 years have gone by but look at the spaceship cockpit of a modern LMP1 and then at the EMKA and it’ll seem more like a century. You sit on a tub of folded, riveted metal looking at the simplest set of scattered instruments and a single perfunctory line of switches. Still, after a bit of jiggling with the seat and belts I’m comfortable enough. There’s nothing remotely complex about how it operates, visibility is surprisingly good for such a car and I have the entire circuit and a fresh set of slicks at my disposal. I grip the simple little steering wheel, unadorned save for its EMKA badge, thumb the button and hear my world explode.

Even through an Arai, balaclava and ear plugs, the Tickford V8 is loud enough to make you fear you’ll not be able to think. Across and back goes the lever of the trusty Hewland five-speed ’box and up comes a heavy but progressive clutch.

Even driven slowly the EMKA promises unlimited fun. The car feels small and tight around you, the engine urgent and keen. Despite knowing the car weighs just 900kg and that in its rebuilt form it misses 600bhp either by a tiny fraction or not at all, it intimidates less than other Group C machinery I’ve driven. It’s geared to do a little more than 170mph in fifth gear and I’m betting it’ll take very little persuasion to get there.

The tyres are warm now, so it’s time to see exactly what this thirty-something-old race car can do.

You can tell just how fast a car like this is by the rapidity with which your helmet fills with expletives. In this case, there was just one, but it stayed audible over the unsilenced V8 all the way through third, fourth and fifth gears. The car understeers a lot in slow corners but with ultra-tight or even solid differentials, Group C cars tend to, and besides this is its first serious run since being rebuilt so I don’t feel inclined to be hard on it. But through the quicker curves it feels sublime, so fast, quick and accurate I can’t believe there’s no meaningful downforce coming off that body. It’s very physical: I can tell that by the strange panting noise that appears in my helmet after a few laps, and I find myself marvelling as always at how drivers wrestled these things around Le Mans for all those hours.

And there is no dark side to this car, or none that I found. While captivated by the power and mesmerised by the grip, I was never frightened by the EMKA even though it would indeed show 7000rpm in fifth almost at will. And coming past the Wing in fifth gear, gently braking, nudging down into fourth and angling into the curve beyond was an instant of sheer joy.

It is so easy to see why Needell and Faure fell in love with this car: for all its speed and power, its greatest strength is its viceless nature. I am sure it remains slower than a well-driven Porsche with the boost turned up and anyone wanting to win outright might want to consider that. But a driver of a gentlemanly rather than professional standard should consider also he’ll likely use far more of the EMKA’s potential because it is so wonderfully accessible; he might even end up going quicker than he would in a less forgiving car. I’ve been blessed to drive a few Group C cars but for sheer driving pleasure, there is none I’ve enjoyed more than this.

Our sincere thanks to Rudolf Ernst, Michael Hibberd Motor Engineers and Silverstone Circuits for making this feature possible. The EMKA-Aston Martin is now for sale at William I’Anson Ltd. www.williamianson.com

Silver service
Silverstone Classic will mark its 25th anniversary by packing 20 races into three days of action

Our featured EMKA-Aston Martin joins a field of sports car legends when July’s Silverstone Classic stages another evocative night-time Group C contest. Owner Rudolf Ernst and Michael Hibberd will be up against Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes endurance racers battling into the dusk of Saturday evening, in among a weekend packed with racing of all types. Proudly celebrating its own 25th year, the vast Silver Jubilee event on July 24-26 boasts the biggest ever field of Formula 1 cars of the glorious DFV era, including eight Williams and six Tyrrells, another outing for the sensational Super Touring cars, dramatic Cobras, E-types and Astons in the Pre-66 GT event, and rumbling Lola T70s and McLarens among the Masters sports cars.

British pride will fly high in the Battle of Britain event for home-grown marques while Spitfire and Hurricane soar overhead, sports cars of all eras get to show their pace culminating in the tense RAC TT battle, and the smaller U2TC saloons will again bring knife-edge competition to the famous track where 20 races cram the timetable.

Close on 10,000 classic cars will form a fascinating backdrop to anniversary parades for Triumph, Honda NSX, MG and others, driving and drift demos, 120 car club stands, funfair, shopping village and aerial displays at the world’s biggest car festival – and yes, Status Quo again perform on Saturday night.