Maintaining a strong identity for two once distinct marques which have come together commercially is not an easy task, as witness Peugeot/Talbot. But the amalgamation of Vauxhall and Opel has been so complete that it is the parent company of GM which visually dominates the group’s image, while British customers are apparently perfectly content with a car which differs only in name from its German counterpart. Part of this happy situation is due to the promotion of the name in motorsport, and particularly its rallying successes. This year, the GM Dealer Sport Team have dominated the Shell Oils RAC Open Championship, winning not only the Drivers’ title (the fifth in seven years), the Manufacturers’ title (the third since 1981), but also a spread of other awards including GpN overall and class wins in GpA.
What kind of organisation is behind these achievements? Not the huge-budgeted factory team determined to win at all costs, but a surprisingly modest team whose finance and direction comes not exclusively from Luton, or for that matter from Opel at Russelsheim, but from all the GM dealers in Britain, who pay a levy on every unit sold. How that money is spent is decided by a Dealer Sport committee of some dozen members, each of whom represents one of the Dealer regions, all under the Chairmanship of David Wardrop. He, with Competition Chairman John Nixey, is at the head of a thoroughly democratic organisation whose members are not only active in selling GM products but are themselves enthusiasts for the sport.
This can, of course, lead to a double role for some of those involved, and one such is Melvyn Hodgeson, who apart from being MD of a GM Dealership in North London, holds the position of Team Manager overseeing rallies. GM’s presence on the racetrack, he says, tends to be in the form of package deals with individual teams — very different from the rally set-up where the Dealer Sport structure has effectively become the British arm of the factory’s European efforts. But such tacit official approval has come only as the result of many years of steady progress, from the earliest Vauxhall days leading to Dealer Team Vauxhall’s first successes in 1973 with Firenzas and Magnums. It was at this time that Donny McRae began to make his name in Gpl and then Gp4 in the Chevette HS developed by Blydenstein Racing, while the arrival of Pentti Airikkala underlined the growing stature of DTV. Airikkala took the new RAC Open Championship in 1979, while the following year McRae drove a Chevette HSR to victory in the Irish Tarmac Championship.
At the same time a similar pattern was developing on the other side of the fence. Dealer Opel Team was formed by Tony Fall in 1974, Russell Brookes, Tony Pond and Ari Vatanen all making their mark in Asconas, before Walter Rörhl’s 1977 season in a Kadett, and Brian Culcheth’s 100, victory in Gpl the following year in a simila car. In 1981 Jimmy McRae took over as new Ascona 400, developed in Germany it response to the introduction of the Gpf rules requiring a homologation run of 400 and sped to victory.
By this time the Chevette was reaching a plateau of development in its HSR form and there was no Vauxhall successor fat when its homologation ran out. However, this problem was by-passed by Genera: Motors’ decision to amalgamate Vawchal, and Opel sales outlets in Britain and tc emphasise the corporate GM identity, which led to the formation in 1982 of the preseni GM Dealer Sport team. At first, it was a Chevette HSR driven by Brookes which carried the flag, while the Rothmans Opel team used the Ascona and then Mama 400 in the British Open series. For better concentration of resources, the team was moved to Russelsheim where it was in direct touch with the factory, but that lasted only two years and the GMDS headquarters are now in a very smart and spacious unit in Milton Keynes, though still in close contact with developments in Germany. From this new base, a pair of Manta 400s in GMDS colours contested the ’84 Open, McRae marking his return to the team with the title.
Not all the team’s operations are at Milton Keynes: the GpA cars of Andrew Wood (Astra GTE) and Harry Hockly (long-time Mini exponent but now in a Nova Sport) are prepared at Luton. In addition, there are a number of “supported drivers”, who this year included Phil Collins in a self-prepared Manta 400 in GpB, and Pentti Airikkala, who returns to Vauxhall-Opel after four years, in a GpA Astra GTE, while a bonus scheme offers generous rewards to others achieving successes in GM products in almost the whole range of rally activity in Britain, whether GpA, B or N, the “showroom” class. This scheme is co-ordinated by John Horton in Sutton Coldfield. One GpB Mama is prepared in Ireland by Sidney Meeke for Bertie Fisher.
Although the Milton Keynes workshop is technically devoted to Brookes’ and McRae’s cars, other works Mantas come and go, either being prepared for British events or to help out the German operation, and when Motor Sport was there two Andrews-liveried cars (Brookes has been synonymous with the Heat for Hire company for years) were accompanied by two in Marlboro livery ready for Cyprus — one being McRae’s, normally in AC Delco colours, and the other being prepared on behalf of the German workshop. This flexibility of sponsorship can be an advantage to both team and driver who can negotiate individual deals for single events.
Although 400 Manta 400s must have been built, the GpB version is of course rather rarer, and in charge of assembling the handful of examples in Britain is David Whitehead, Chief Engineer for the GpB cars. Each shell takes some 300 man-hours to build, differing from a standard GTE not only in the strengthening and roll-cage, but having extra locating links for the rear axle. Body panels in Kevlar and GRP help to keep the weight to about 980 kg depending on specification. The dohc dry-sumped 2.4-litre engines are built by Swindon Racing, and in latest Phase 3 form produce some 280 bhp via drainpipe-like twin 50 DCOE carburetters, driving a Getrag five-speed gearbox and a heavy-duty axle, both of which are assembled at Milton Keynes. Although simplicity is one of the car’s strengths, making it very popular with privateers who scramble after ex-works machines, there are many small differences between cars built up for different events: for Paris-Dakar, a heavy strong shell with a 300-litre fuel-tank, for tarmac or “smooth” forest, a “lightweight gravel” specification whose plastic rear window flexes in a breeze.
The unique structure of the Dealer Sport idea takes the burden of finance away from GM’s Luton base, but the factory provides support in kind: research, promotion and especially transport such as the big Chevrolet vans which act as service bases. With the huge number of tyres necessary for a big event (240 for Cyprus alone) these vehicles are indispensable.
However, the small improvements which continue to be made to the Manta cannot forestall for long its being overtaken by the new generation of sophisticated 4WD machines, even in the British series, and at Motorfair last month GM showed a replica of the 4WD Astra being developed to contest the new GpS class, which requires a mere 10 examples (though this number is yet to be confirmed) to be built. With a longitudinally-mounted 16-valve turbo engine, a six-speed gearbox, and manual or automatic torque split, the car cannot claim the Manta’s virtue of simplicity. But externally it looks very similar to an everyday Astra, a big advantage in image promotion for the company, and in the coming year its development will be the subject of considerable effort by a small workshop in Milton Keynes. — G.C.