The cost of motoring sport

2: Autocross

Introducing this series last month we cited the many letters from young readers wanting to take up motor racing, and probably put them all off by estimating the cost of marque sports-car racing, with an E-type, at not less than £I,000 a year. Now we turn to a very new type of motoring sport, autocross, which could be undertaken by the most impoverished enthusiast in his Austin Ruby for not much more than the cost of entry fees, and in which the most successful driver in 1966 spends an average of £200 per annum.

Two or three motor clubs claim to have instituted autocross, but it is commonly held that the late Ken Wharton made it a popular sport after the war. At any rate, driving round a field, preferably with a few hazards thrown in, has been a popular pastime since the wheel was invented, and the Romans take credit for introducing a spice of danger and excitement. Not to be confused with trials, which involve trying to climb steep and muddy hills, autocross is designed chiefly for the production car and competitors drive round a closed circuit against the clock, fastest times taking the awards. To speed the programme and keep spectators and drivers amused, cars are often sent off in pairs, or even four at a time. The average circuit length is about 1,000 yards and may not run within at least 60 feet of spectators or trees.

The Royal Automobile Club have overall responsibility for autocross, in drawing up the standing regulations, but the British Trials and Rally Drivers' Association have for the past six years promoted the sport by organising a national championship, with overall victory going to the most consistent class-winner. The 1966 B.T.R.D.A. Champion was 39-year-old Laurie Manifold, a Fleet Street journalist, driving a 1963 Volkswagen progressively modified year by year to the point where it is undoubtedly the fastest rear-engined saloon competing, often the fastest saloon of all. This competitor refers to autocross as " poor man's motor racing," having the bills and the trophies to prove his point.

Twelve years ago Laurie started competing in an M.G. TF, concentrating on autocross, sprints and hill-climbs. It was a useful initiation period but, he says, the car was always in a garage on Monday mornings having some fault put right. Influenced by Britain's largest circulation motoring journal, he bought a Volkswagen ("a reporter has to have a reliable car ") and has been faithful to the make ever since. From the early days on Dunstable's chalk downs he realised that the handling characteristics of the VW beetle could be used to advantage, since the tail can be swung round easily to line the car up for a straight; drier courses are preferred, although the rear-engined cars have more adhesion than others when it comes to climbing on muddy slopes.

In 1961, the first time he entered the B.T.R.D.A. Championship, Laurie finished the season with enough points to be among the first ten, though successes were spasmodic and the pleasure of competing was sufficient. The current VW, his fourth, was bought in October 1963 but although a total of £169 was spent during the winter on preparing the car—easily the largest amount spent on modifications to that date— he did not enter the Championship in 1964 as he was busy moving into a new home near Bishop's Stanford, Hertfordshire. The best result gained during the 1964 season was an F.T.D. in the Billericay Autocross, earning the driver some encouraging mentions in the weekly motoring press. It would not be fair to say that Manifold went autocrossing in an amateurish way previously. Since 1961 he had been running cars equipped with a Fish carburetter, lowered and stiffened rear suspension, a heavier anti-roll bar, and various tuning schemes to get the most out of the flat-four air-cooled engine. The specification for his car in 1964 was as follows: Larger inlet valves, heads machine and 8.5-to-I compression, engine balanced and flywheel skimmed, cost £55. Half-inch wheel spacers made to order cost £10. A heavy-duty clutch from a VW Transporter cost £6. Suspension modifications included lowered rear springs (£4), strengthening the front anti-roll bar (£3), and a set of Variflo adjustable shock-absorbers (£20). The Fish carburetter, which is claimed to give a 20% increase in power, bolts onto the original manifolding, and is said to be as effective as any 2-carb. conversion, as the latter is often upset by engine vibration. The Fish carburation costs £30, and the conversion bill was rounded off by an assortment of tyres—Town and Country, Michelin Allgrips and a special set of tractor-tread tyres accounted for another £35, but the last-named were promptly banned by the B.T.R.D.A. and have only been used once. Entry fees during the season added up to £15, so a genuine reckoning for the year, apart from the value of the car itself, was £184.

A similar amount was spent during the winter of 1964/65, making the Volkswagen highly competitive. The engine capacity was increased to 1,298 c.c. by fitting a VW 1500 crankshaft, machining and polishing the heads, raising the compression ratio to 9.7, fitting bigger inlet valves from a 1500, balancing, lightening the flywheel, and moving the battery forward to the spare wheel compartment. Including the cost of a rev-counter and oil-temperature gauge, the bill came to £72. It was considered necessary to fit a close-ratio gearbox, and one was eventually taken from a crashed Formula Junior car at a cost of £35.

To improve handling, 15-in. Porsche wheels were obtained secondhand, at £3 each, and oversize Pirelli Cinturatos fitted (£24). Spax competition shock-absorbers cost £16, Cartune wheel spacers £6, and a Speedwell anti-sway bar £7. Maintenance on the Fish carburetter cost £5, concluding the preparation, and including the cost of entry fees during the year—£21—the 1965 season cost £198.

The success of the beetle was by now renowned. The name Manifold was the suffering subject of more puns from announcers than its owner thought possible. At the end of the year Laurie finished up fifth in the B.T.R.D.A. Championship, and including some non-championship successes he recorded 20 class wins during the year. In the first and fourth events of the season he was narrowly beaten by the Renault Gordini entered by B.R.T. (Racing) Developments Ltd., and went home from another Championship meeting without any points because the throttle linkage kept jamming.

Up to this time the VW, now with over 30,000 miles on the odometer, had been running on a standard camshaft, but for 1966 £9 was invested in a Blydenstein camshaft rebuild. This was one of the least items in a comparatively heavy budget, however, as a further £70 was spent increasing the engine capacity to 1,470 c.c. by using E.M.P.I. " big-bore " pistons and cylinders, the heads were further machined and valves were replaced, so that for the year the engine was delivering 75 b.h.p. at the flywheel, 58 to the wheels. It cost £8 to rebuild the carburetter, £12 to fit a Roland Kerr competition exhaust system, and £16 for Swedish competition shock-absorbers. Still better handling was required, and since it is difficult to lower the front of the car Laurie had a special pair of 13-in, wheels made up with 5-1/2-in. rims, costing £24, but for the back he used 14-in. wheels from a transporter, again with 5-1/2 -in. rims but costing £5 the pair. Oversize Cinturatos added £28 to the bill.

To his credit, the owner has always taken a pride in driving his car to the venues, continuing the practice in 1966 and undoubtedly saving heavy overheads of another car and trailer. At the request of the insurance company, and to suit Mrs. Manifold, a power braking system was fitted at a cost of £45. Replacing damaged and worn wheel spacers cost £10, and with entry fees of £21 again the season cost exactly £250.

A fine investment it was, too, winning the Championship outright, with Keith Malkin's well-tuned 850 Mini hotly disputing the title to the end of the season. In 14 Championship outings the Volkswagen recorded 12 class wins, a second and a third. It took outright F.T.D. once, fastest saloon overall three times, was second or third fastest saloon four times.

Now with more than 50,000 miles on the clock, the three-year-old Volkswagen has been described as the fastest beetle in the country, although it has not been lightened. While the racing fraternity talk gaily about "doing 10,000 revs down the straight," Laurie states that he never exceeds 4,500 r.p.m. except when really pushed, and will not go over 5,000 r.p.m. He admits it has been tempting to get more F.T.D. awards, but has concentrated on his class wins and sternly denied himself any risk of breaking the engine.

The car is very rarely touched between events as winter-time preparation is considered sufficient. As Assistant Editor of The People, Laurie does not have time to work on his car between meetings—not all his rivals may realise that he often gets no sleep the night before an event, working in Fleet Street until 3.30 a.m., then driving direct to the event if it is far from London. His advice to people starting their competition career, incidentally, is to save the car for the event; the Volkswagen is never driven fast on the road, even on motorways. Spectators are often amused when the VW arrives at a meeting with occupants, but highly impressed when it departs with a trophy, husband and wife, and four pugs! Jean Manifold is a dog-breeder and owns the 1966 Cruft champion pug bitch (" worth more than the car ").

In 1967 the Autocross Championship is likely to be even more competitive as the Players cigarette company is putting up £6,600 prize money in a total of 32 qualifying events between May and September, the final being on September 24th. Newcomers are not recommended to cut their teeth on the big-time these days, though it would do them no harm to gain more competitive experience in a Championship event later in the year.

For the season, Laurie Manifold will again drive a Volkswagen, but his beloved " 1200" will give way to a modified 1500 beetle increased to 1,600 or 1,700 c.c. Many of the components will be transferred, and for the first time in his career he will be arriving at meetings with his car on a trailer. The car's weight will be trimmed by some 3 cwt. by using glass-fibre rear wings, Perspex windows and other lighter parts, especially at the back, while the battery will again be moved foward. It looks as though he will still be the man to beat.—M. L. C.