British sportscars - A chequered history

For 75 years, the British have taken on the world in the sportscar arena and, often as not, come out on top. Gordon Cruickshank flies the flag for the UK entry

The borderline between the sportscar and everything else is often argued whether a slow two-seater qualifies more or less than a rapid four-seater. Even harder is the definition of nationality, through the 100 years since Daimlers began to be assembled in Coventry as well as Cannstadt.

But there is one field where the definitions are set down in print, and where achievement is clear for all to see. International competition requires all makers to comply with the same rules, and, barring the odd stewards’ enquiry, success is unarguable, and failure unconcealable. Road races and endurance challenges – these are the testing ground for the sportscar, and success here brings prestige and fame.

British teams have been as active as any in the hunt for trophies, and if we take the most famous long-distance race, Le Mans, as a focus of sportscar achievement, there has been only one decade, the war-riven 1940s, when a British-built car has not triumphed at least once – a claim unique to this country. In fact only Germany boasts more Le Mans wins – 17 to our 15; but that is crediting the Ford run from 1966-’69 to the US. If we were to claim those four (for which there are considerable grounds) we could feel pretty proud.

In overall terms we have no single marque with the record of Ferrari, which has nine wins at the Sarthe, or Porsche, which has contested more Le Mans than any other, and boasts an unsurpassed 15 wins, including recent privateer victories.

But one could argue that a range of winning marques indicates a healthy diversity, which suddenly alters the standings: Britain has provided six winning makes, and France eight, while Germany and Italy have relied on two apiece, counting the Saubers as Mercedes.

In this issue we have selected four particular eras of British success, exemplified by that gruelling contest at the Sarthe, which are arguably our proudest contributions to international sportscar racing. These selections do not diminish the other British achievements: Hindmarsh and Fontes in their Lagonda in 1935; Aston Martin’s magnificent year of 1959, when the team collected the sportscar championship as well as winning Le Mans; that 1975 Mirage effort vindicating JW Automotive’s determination; and of course the TWR jaguars which in 1988 broke the run of seven Porsche triumphs, the longest continuous stretch in the listings. Nor does it ignore the brave but unsuccessful challenges for honours: the Listers and Lotuses; Morgan and Marcos, de Cadenet, Lola and Spice.

There are, of course, many other arenas of sports-racing where the Union flag has shone: look at Chevron’s domination of small-capacity classes in the ’70s. Yet human memories tend to reduce complex matters to their highlights, and in sportscar racing that simply means Le Mans the most famous race in the world.

What links the cars with which Bentley, the 1950s Jaguar, Ford and McLaren carried off their victories is simple enough the word `sportscar’. No-one could deny the technical impressiveness of the Group 6 and Group C monsters, but their relevance to everyday motoring was tenuous. Walkinshaw’s decision to use the Jaguar V12 in the XJRs was a welcome road-going connection, but the rest of the machine had little to offer back to production.

Bentley, on the other hand, was racing a true production car. Sir William Lyons, too, went to Le Mans with variants of his showroom sportscar. Its evolution from XK120 into D-type was rapid and profound, but customers could buy a D and use it on the road; a substantial total of 87 were built (plus 16 XKSS), and all used a recognisable road engine. Even Ford’s GT40 made a driveable road-car albeit not a comfortable one, but useable, and Ford always intended to sell it as a flagship showroom model. A history fluid with repairs, rebuilds, reconstructions and resurrections makes total numbers a minefield but it’s around 136 units, many more than the D-type.

From then on the pretence fell through, as the escalation of cost and complexity caused an ever wider gulf to appear between sportscars and sports-racers. The new age brought its own values, a fabulous new breed of racing car, and some memorable racing, but, barring only Porsche, depended on specialised race firms whose names had no street value and whose skills were for sale to any taker. It was waning interest through the 1980s which finally prompted the new regulations which allowed, in 1995, the first true road-car to win since the Fords the McLaren F1. Yes, the V12 central-seater was staggeringly expensive, but it was designed first of all for the road, and you could buy it.

Is there a pattern to our chosen periods of greatness? A national climate conducive to determination, or technical success? Perhaps not. Following the 1924 win, a run of four Bentley victories from 1927 to 1930 gave us a flag to wave when there was no serious British Grand Prix contender. Those cars grew from one man’s dogged pursuit of engineering excellence, but despite crystallising a reputation for toughness, the company never actually covered its expenses, and collapsed the year after its last win.

On rising within Rolls-Royce, the name pursued the ‘sporting’ rather than ‘sports’ route. Barring the praiseworthy TT achievements of Eddie Hall, the Derby Bentley was never to be a machine the continentals feared. On their demanding open road courses it was the likes of state-backed Alfa Romeo and the industrial might of Mercedes which ruled, benefiting from Grand Prix technology. Even Britain’s own version, the Tourist Trophy run over the Ards course in Ireland from 1928 to 1936, was targetted by the Europeans after the inaugural home win for Lea-Francis, though Riley and MG recovered home honours when foreign interest waned.

It was an artificial situation, though. Shockwaves from the 1929 stockmarket crash made motor racing suddenly look frivolous and expensive, and only where state prestige was concerned was cash made available for it. There was no such movement among Britain’s rulers, and while privately-funded ERA, with public donations, clung to the skirts of single-seater racing, international sportscar successes broadly depended on privateers gaining armfuls of class wins in neat, nimble affordable little sports machines based on conventional parts. Rileys, Singers, and especially MGs popped up everywhere, winning 750 and 1100cc classes, helped by their sheer numbers. In time, perhaps MG might have built a rival to, say, Alfa’s advanced 2900B, but from the middle of the decade, the shadow of war began to siphon manufacturing facilities towards a different sort of heavy metal.

In a climate of war recovery, Jaguar’s five mid ’50s Le Mans victories were a godsend for a company desperate to exchange as many cars as possible for the life-saving US dollar. There was real technical feedback to the showroom, and William Lyons’ brilliance at offering beautiful looks plus more go for less cash than his rivals meant that race wins actually brought in sales.

And it helped that privateers could both afford and run the race cars, providing valuable back-up to the works. So different to Aston Martin, England’s Ferrari, whose products were just too dear for even a Sarthe victory to boost sales.

By the 1960s, a new affluence in a stable western economy meant more private pounds looking for products to buy. The stakes were higher, and so correspondingly was the investment. Ferrari’s tradition of hand-built racing cars relied on a relatively small number of wealthy clients buying his road cars to fund the operation. But at least one of the main stream manufacturers wanted a share of the glory, and Ford had big money to spend in all branches of racing, following the NASCAR adage ‘The car that wins on Sunday sells on Monday.’

It’s a matter of record that the huge company at first wanted to buy a proven product — Ferrari’s whole operation. It almost happened; but when the deal collapsed, there was only one option left: start from scratch. And where did Ford turn? To Britain, of course. The result was the GT40, which provided Ford not simply with the ’66 and ’68 Championship for Makes but also a straight run of wins at Le Mans from 1966-’69.

That 1969 victory, remarkably with the same car as the previous year, was an unexpected swansong for the ageing and overweight Fords, about to be swamped by a new generation of Porsches and Ferraris with no road-going pretences whatever. We had nothing with which to face such awesome clout even though its victory in the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours briefly suggested the Lola 170 MkIIIB might. National pride had low priority in the self-indulgent 70s, and neither manufacturers nor sponsors could see the benefit of building a 917 rival. Brief hopes for the Alan Mann Ford P68/69 project had faded for lack of finance, and only when the Gulf-Mirage came good in 1975 did we interrupt a decade of Continental domination as Germany and France divided the spoils, Matra-Simca giving way to Renault-Alpine as the spanner in the works Porsches.

From the 1970s onward we saw a shift in the fruits of sportscar racing: track victory still brought sales, but of the technology itself rather than the cars. Race teams, not high street firms, deserved the credit. Yes, Porsche made cars, but who were Joest, Kremer, Spice and even TWR? Even for Mazda and Peugeot the aim was to invoke faith: success at international level said ‘our technology is ahead of our rivals and while our race cars bear no resemblance to our road cars, if we can beat them on the track we can beat them on the road too’. Ironic, when the race machine in question had more than likely been designed, engineered and run by a specialist team and might have carried any badge which brought enough cash. Britain’s role had been marginalised, at least in public, despite the valiant but ultimately futile efforts of Aston Martin at the start and finish of the 1980s. And it was to remain that way until that legendary word ‘Jaguar’ reappeared.

Now the ‘production car’ regulations have reopened Le Mans to the small concerns, and to passionate individuals. Marcos and Lotus run, and rumours abound of a carbon-fibre Morgan. Will they gain real commercial benefit? Despite McLaren’s 1995 Le Mans win, the F1 road car went out of production having sold less than a third of the projected 350. Yet victory proved the wealth of technical expertise within the company, and the skills which McLaren can offer to outside clients, often unannounced, could not have been better advertised.

Already, however, the stakes have been raised again. Just as Weissach staggered the racing world by building a ‘production run’ of 917s, it has driven a coach and horses through the spirit of the rules with the latest GT1, a racing car which, it promised, would be available for road sales. Mercedes soon followed with its astounding CLK. Which British outfit can follow? None of our traditional marques, Jaguar, Aston Martin or Bentley, seem interested despite now possessing parents with a wealth undreamt of in their respective heydays. We may soon be back to scrapping over class wins.

But if sportscar racing is meant to reflect, however distantly, something of driving on the road, then Britain can perhaps claim that its four greatest winners so far, those profiled in the following pages, have their feet firmly on the public highway.