This piece of American muscle hopped across the Pond to duff up British saloon cars in the early ’70s. And it’s still throwing its weight around in today’s historic series
By Richard Heseltine
The urge to say ‘I told you so’ must have been overpowering. Nobody thought it stood a chance. ‘Not in Blighty; here we also turn right,’ screamed a chorus of doubters. Top-flight touring car – or rather saloon car – racing was the preserve of Jaguar and Jaguar alone. Except somebody forgot to tell Dan Gurney. The ever-likable Californian had seemingly rocked up for the 1961 International Trophy support race with only his tow car. But no, this was his entry. A Chevrolet Impala ‘409’? A race car? Really?
After the race, nobody was laughing, least of all Gurney. A wheel had departed company at Becketts but not before he’d stormed into the lead, leaving a trail of overstretched Jaguars in the Detroit barge’s wake. Point made. Obviously someone in Coventry read the writing on the wall as Gurney never got to race the self-financed Impala again: the Chev’ was denied an entry for July’s Empire Trophy meeting. The American ace even went as far as to fire off a missive to Autosport, railing: “I will, in time, get over the fact that I spent a lot of time and money in bringing the Impala to Great Britain, but I will not readily forget the suspicion that there may have been some behind-the-scenes sabotage to prevent the Chevrolet from running at Silverstone.”
Whatever the validity of the great man’s claims, and somehow you suspect political chicanery was the root cause, the era of American dominance was but a few years away. But it wouldn’t be Chevrolet that got to bask in the rosy glow of trailblazing posterity. Sure, Charlie Kelsey and Peter Sachs occasionally beat up on Jaguars with the shoestring Alexander Engineering Chevy IIs in 1962, but it wasn’t until John Willment Automobiles entered ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears in a Holman Moody-built Ford Galaxie in the 1963 British Saloon Car Championship that US iron really metered out a sustained kicking. As Paddy McNally wrote in his end-of-season review in Autosport: “Jaguar’s dominance of the over 3-litre class was completely broken by the spectacular and extraordinarily fast 7-litre Ford Galaxies…” Chevrolet’s time would have to wait.
Meanwhile in Detroit… General Motors was under siege from negative publicity for its ‘personal coupé’ Corvair following Ralph Nader’s coruscating – and career-defining – book Unsafe At Any Speed. While it didn’t actually single out the rear-engined Corvair, GM’s knee-jerk reaction to smear Nader by all means necessary spectacularly backfired. With Ford racking up record sales with the Mustang, the Chevrolet brand desperately needed a shot in the arm. With the Camaro, it got just that.
Unveiled at its Dearborn proving ground on September 12 1966, this most vanilla of American marques was making its own entry into the galloping ‘pony car’ market. US racing – and by proxy British tin-tops – was about to embrace one of the most charismatic and brutish production-car based racers ever to turn a wheel.
Filching a bit of this and a bit of that from the corporate parts bin, Chevrolet produced a handsome machine with a bewildering array of engine options including small and big-block V8s. And here we’ll conveniently forget about the in-line six-equipped horrors, which bore as much resemblance to a muscle car as a tabby cat to a Bengal tiger. Although GM had not been officially involved in motor racing since the 1957 AMA (Automobiles Manufacturers Association) ban on factory racing, it did allow a certain degree of backdoor assistance. Unlike Ford, which conveniently ignored the pact when it ushered in its Total Performance programme in 1962, Chevrolet never made a big play of its motor sport involvement (“We don’t think racing is economical or necessary,” claimed GM chairman Fred Donner at the time), and instead left it to outsiders to promote its wares trackside; media savvy sorts such as Roger Penske.
Having tied up Sunoco as a sponsor, Penske’s eponymous Pennsylvania squad raised the bar in the SCCA’s Trans-Am series. Driver/engineer Mark Donohue honed the Chevy with typical efficiency and scorched his way to back-to-back manufacturers’ (and unofficial drivers’) titles in 1968-69, the team often, cough, ‘interpreting’ the rules; the same ones that didn’t allow significant modifications to a car’s body. In an effort to reduce the Camaro’s heft, bodyshells were acid-dipped. Problem was, the metalwork was so thin that it visibly wrinkled. Penske’s response was to slap on a vinyl roof while claiming that it reduced aerodynamic drag. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before rivals followed its lead…
Equally predictable was the adoption of the Camaro by British drivers. By the end of the 1960s, the Ford Falcon had been developed out of all recognition. Of the 12 races held in ’69, these by now largely glassfibre-shelled leviathans claimed six wins. Four of them were accrued by 1965 BSCC champion Roy Pierpoint who switched part-way through the year to a Bill Shaw-run Camaro, Syd Fox also swapping allegiances for the McNamara Racing squad. With the move to stricter Group 2 regulations for 1970, whereby cars had to be more standard, all things being relative, the Camaro was about to come into its own on UK circuits. And how.
One such early adopter was racer and preparation ace, Martin Thomas: “What really started it was Jack Brabham buying a bunch of Camaros for a charity race at Brands,” he recalls. “I think there were maybe eight or 10 cars, all with the Dealer Pack. They had uprated small-blocks, bigger tyres and so on. Well, I bought one and at first raced it at club level. In the BSCC, it needed a lot more work to get on top of the Falcons which had enjoyed a good four years in Group 5. When the regulations changed, the Camaros had a fighting chance.
I bought Pierpoint’s car, which he’d rolled into a ball, and rebuilt it, and landed some sponsorship from Ovaltine. Then Brian Muir started going well in the Wiggins Teape car and, before long, Chevrolet had the top class sewn up. This was in the era when we were running the original [1967-69] bodystyle.
“We were helped a lot by Penske and were able to get a lot of parts homologated by GM Europe; airdams, rear deck spoilers and so on. I think the principal reasons why the Mustangs were never quite able to get on top of us was because that generation of car was a bit heavier than the Camaro. That and the pace of engine development; remember companies like Mathwall and Richardson were building F5000 Chevys so there was a lot of carry-over. Of course in historics, the pace of development has equalled out but back then a lot of parts just weren’t available for the Fords.
“Engineering-wise, the Camaro was actually quite sophisticated. With the Group 2 rules we were allowed 10mm wheelarch extensions so we ended up with 14in wheels at the back and 11½s at the front so there was a lot of grip. Of all the cars I’ve been involved with, and that includes the Dolomite Sprints, Rover SD1s, Capris and so on, the Camaros were the most fun. At Silverstone, we were pulling 153mph before the bridge before lifting off between entering Woodcote and down to Copse. You tend to remember things like that!”
The results rolled in, Frank Gardner taking class honours in the 1971 RAC British Saloon Car Championship, and sealing the overall title two years later driving Adrian Chambers’ big-block SCA Freight/Castrol-liveried example (with the ‘70½’ body style). Wins outside the BSCC such as James Hunt’s on the ’73 Tour of Britain aboard Richard Lloyd’s example, or former motorcycle TT winner Stuart Graham’s exemplary solo runs to take four-wheeled Tourist Trophy victories in 1974-75, only added to the model’s lustre. Although ultimately overtaken by rule changes, homologation running out in 1977, the Camaro’s copper-bottomed status as a touring car legend was assured.
There would be future outings for the model in Europe, including the short-lived – and frankly rubbish – ASCAR series that soaked up old BSCC warriors, those that didn’t disappear off to Sweden for its domestic Camaro one-make series. There were even Le Mans appearances (evergreen NASCAR legend Hershel McGriff being among the two-car driver line-up in ’82), but the era of US heavy metal was over.
Until now, these compelling machines being eligible for a raft of historic race series: the Classic Touring Car Racing Club’s Post Historic Touring Cars and Classic Modified Saloons contests; the HSCC Historic Road Sports Championship and the Masters’ Stars of the Seventies series plus the Heritage GT championship, the latter often witnessing past BTCC veterans Pete Hall and four-times champion Andy Rouse blowing away the cobwebs in the former’s rumbling muscle car.
Though never a purists’ idea of proper motor sport, saloon car racing has often produced some truly epic moments, and few eras were as exhilarating as the early ’70s. Truth is, the great years of the Camaro, whether on track or Tarmac, were over within a decade of its launch. This being a car for which GM actually under-quoted horsepower figures so as not to upset the safety-first lobby – or the insurance industry
for that matter. Somehow a diesel-powered Seat Leon just doesn’t have the same allure as a malevolent V8-propelled blunt instrument…
“I raced one”
A factory rider for Honda and Suzuki, this former motorcycle star found equal fame as one of the premier saloon car racers of the 1970s aboard a series of Camaros
“I still blame Jack Sears for getting me hooked on big V8s after I saw him driving the Galaxie. Well, Jack but also my brother Chris who was always reading Hot Rod and the like. I stopped racing bikes in 1970 but the competitive element was still there. At that time I was looking to replace my Jaguar E-type road car and bought a Camaro Z/28. It handled well and there was nothing to touch it for performance. Les Leston actually got me racing. He was going on a business trip and suggested I race his Camaro at Oulton Park.
I put it on pole and won. He came back and said, ‘Well I suppose you’d better drive it at Silverstone.’ This was in the Castrol Production Saloon Car Championship.
“From there it was a gradual progression. We got sponsorship from Fabergé and moved into the BSCC [he was class champion in ’74 and ’75]. At one point we were also running a big-block Camaro in modified saloons but it wasn’t as good on tight circuits as, say, Nick Whiting’s Escort. We also did some European championship rounds, and I was third in the Kyalami 1000km in ’76 sharing with Reine Wisell. They were cars with real charisma and people still recall how they stirred their enthusiasm.”