At the start of the 1980s, a small British team decided to take on the mighty Group C Porsches at Le Mans and bring back Aston Martin’s glory days. Matthew Franey remembers the Nimrod project
In the early summer of 1982, a British sportscar spluttered its way across the finishing line at the 24 Heures du Mans. Just three other cars in the new Group C class had finished above it all were new Porsche 956s, led home by Derek Bell to every place on the podium.
The British car limped home in seventh place, with just five of its eight cylinders still firing. It was the end of it’s first marathon at Le Mans and also the beginning of the end for the car itself. Though no-one knew it, the mighty Nimrod the first purpose built Aston Martin racer to race at La Sarthe for almost two decades had already had its finest hour.
But the failure of the Nimrod project to return British-built and powered sportscars to the top of the fledgling Group C formula cannot be blamed on the endurance races that took their mechanical toll on the cars. The reason for the Nimrod’s lack of success lies somewhere between one man’s ambition to win Le Mans and the industry’s failure to provide the support that would possibly have allowed him to challenge Porsche’s 956.
That man was Robin Hamilton, an Aston Martin dealer in the Midlands with a formidable reputation for preparing some of the marque’s best historic club racers and an enormous modified Aston Martin V8 saloon for the 1977 and ’79 Le Mans races.
The engine that powered Hamilton’s car at Le Mans was heavily rebuilt by his own dealership and had proved bomb-proof. It wasn’t the most powerful lump on the Mulsanne, but it was the most reliable, and at the end of the ’70s, Hamilton began to explore the idea of an Aston-powered Group C racer – a car that wouldn’t just compete in the great race, but a car that could win it. It was the driving ambition of a man that would, within five years, bring financial ruin to an otherwise admirable dream.
Looking back, there is a sense of foreboding in the very reasons that persuaded him to make the leap.
“Round about 1977 I decided to stop pouring an increasing amount of money into a car that would never win races,” recalls Hamilton today, “and put a similar effort into a car that we could learn from. But sponsorship was extremely difficult to get and I don’t think anyone of our stature doing a Group C project was getting any credibility.”
Credibility or not, the start of the 1980s saw a change in ownership of Aston Martin that was to give Hamilton’s sportscar project the green light. That change was the arrival of the flamboyant and wealthy new chairman Victor Gauntlett.
Desperate for Aston Martin support “It would have been suicide to consider anything else” Hamilton approached the company’s new head announcing “a desire to go into serious sportscar racing, unashamedly wave the flag and get Aston Martin back into something that it used to be very good at” Gauntlett, who wielded tremendous financial clout with his company Pace Petroleum, liked the idea. What’s more, he was prepared not only to take a 50 per cent stake in Nimrod, but to authorise Aston’s Tickford engine department to produce a steady supply of the 5.3-litre V8s that Hamilton had run successfully a few years prior.
From a position in which Hamilton had been unable to finance the building of the Nimrod, he suddenly found himself with the backing of an oil magnate who happened to be chairman of his engine supplier. Things couldn’t have been any better.
Until, that is, Aston Martin’s US distributor asked for a slice of the action. Peter Livanos was the son of one of the world’s biggest shipping owners and Hamilton now found himself with two multimillionaire backers. After several years spending his own hard-earned money on the Nimrod, finding two such impressive supporters was “a relief”.
The pitch to Gauntlett had produced the results, now it was up to Hamilton and the newly-formed Nimrod Racing Automobiles to produce a car. He already had one of sorts, for he had approached Lola’s Eric Broadley to build a tub capable of holding the considerable dimensions of the Aston V8, now it was just a task of slotting everything together for the start of the 1982 season a year which was intended to put Nimrod on the map and mark the beginning of a plausible five year project.
Things, however, didn’t get off to the most promising of starts for the new car, as Hamilton’s right-hand man David Jack recalls:
“We had a lot of skills in the team in at that time but chassis design was not one of them. We didn’t know how to start from scratch and in those days racing cars were just rivetted together tubs. So Robin struck a deal with Lola for the tub and we set about doing the bodywork in-house, which with hindsight was the wrong way to go.”
Hamilton admits that the resultant skin for the Nimrod was heavily over-engineered to the point of being just too heavy “we were not world authorities” but even he could not have imagined that the very thing that had led him into the project was the thing that would be its undoing the engines.
Tickford’s responsibility for engine building seemed on paper to be ideal, in reality it was a disaster. In pre-season testing the V8s suffered failure after failure and the thought of tackling Le Mans at that moment was beginning to scare Hamilton stiff.
Nevertheless, there were encouraging signs. Fellow Aston dealer Richard Williams purchased a chassis on behalf of Viscount Downe to look after the driving talents of Ray Mallock and sportscar veteran Mike Salmon, and the rival effort helped spur Hamilton’s own team on and gave them vital reference points as the development continued.
The Nimrods made their debut in 1982 at the Silverstone Six Hours, the ‘works’ car driven by Geoff Lees, Tiff Needell and Bob Evans suffering the inevitable engine failure, but the Williams-prepared car came home sixth, ahead of Ford’s C100 and on the same lap as Le Mans victor Jean Rondeau’s M382C. Hamilton was much encouraged.
But despite the celebrations at the car’s first outing, there were ominous signs. Peter Livanos’s financial support had already evaporated, the young businessman persuaded to “concentrate on his other activities”, while the relationship between the team and Tickford was being stretched to breaking point.
Just a month after Silverstone, Hamilton and Williams took the cars to Le Mans. It would be the last time the founder would run a car in the 24 Hours.
“We actually expected to do well,” laughs Hamilton. “I don’t think you go into this sort of thing unless you are fairly confident, but it was ‘lump in the throat’ stuff for all of us. My greatest satisfaction was the way that we worked together as a team and enjoyed it, because without the team there was nothing. In some ways the challenge from Porsche spurred us on. It was good working in that sort of environment, and we learnt a lot from being in it. Sometimes you just have to do it and learn from your mistakes. The car was never a front-runner, but it picked up a good result just by keeping going.”
The Viscount Downe car did indeed finish well, seventh overall at the flag, but Hamilton’s car was eliminated in a huge accident when Needell suffered rear bodywork failure at 200mph and was pitched into the barriers. The driver walked away, but it was arguably further evidence that the project was worryingly short of testing and development.
Just as galling was the relative success that Williams was having with his own chassis. Ray Mallock was proving invaluable in terms of development and car set-up and, as team-mate Mike Salmon recalls, the pair seemed able to overcome many of the car’s lesser qualities.
“It was actually a very good car,” Salmon says. “But the Nimrod was too heavy to be particularly exciting. It handled very well, had plenty of leg room, was very comfortable to drive and I think that Ray and I complimented each other quite well. We were kind on the engine and drove to finish.
“Richard and Ray were instrumental in putting the second car together from the word go and they knew that if you drove it like a sprint car it wouldn’t last. The engine was fragile and once you over-revved it, it would just bend valves. You only had to go a few hundred revs over the top and you had major engine trouble.”
Trouble, too, came in the shape of worsening finances for the factory team. Not only had Livanos walked away, but the recession in Britain was having its impact on Pace Petroleum and the pockets of its owner. Gauntlett was having to cope with requests for more capital to run Nimrod, and was stuck in the middle as Tickford and the team slung mud at each other over the quality of the engines. Hamilton realised the writing was on the wall.
“It sounds baffling, I know, but Aston’s own engines were ultimately the weak link in the chain. There is no rancour in that statement, we just had failure after failure. It’s difficult to know why.
“We had developed a racing V8 that was not the most powerful engine, but was completely reliable. It was a good old plonker. But Tickford wanted more power and increased the revs without doing the required development. We just had every component under the sun fail. I would go as far as to say that it lead to the failure of Nimrod to go any further.”
Hamilton took his team to Spa-Francorchamps in September of 1982 but again the engine let him down. Just weeks later Gauntlett announced the Withdrawal of his support. Less than a year after its official launch, Nimrod Racing Automobiles found itself without a leg to stand on. Its founder could easily have wound the team up there and then, but took what he now refers to as a “shit or bust” decision and hauled his team to America for the start of 1983.
“We had been through some major setbacks but I thought we could pull it off in America or l wouldn’t have done it. I had plans to build a carbon-fibre car, the NRA C3, which was meant to be the culmination of the Nimrod project, not the one that everybody remembers from 1982-’83.
“We had a designer and even built a tub and did wind-tunnel work. With hindsight our budget just wasn’t sufficient but I was pretty determined and pulled out all the stops. In motor racing you have to.”
Once again things started on a high note with Hamilton securing sponsorship from Pepsi-Cola for the Daytona 24 Hours. But once again both engines ingested themselves during the race. Even when the cars lasted, events conspired to rob them of a good result. David Jack recalls the frustration of a damp Miami Grand Prix:
“We were running Doc Bundy and Lyn St James and were lying in the top three when the heavens opened. There was an absolute deluge and they sent out the pace car. Doc was driving at the time and we were watching them rolling round when I realised that the car’s lights were starting to dim.
“Doc didn’t know that the alternator was driven off the driveshaft and we were jumping up and down on trying to get him to turn off the lights – no radios in those days, remember – but he didn’t twig. He ended up coming into the pits with a nearly dead engine, we got him out again but he was way down. It was that sort of thing that always happened and was just had luck really.”
Hamilton’s team struggled on for half of the 1983 American season but eventually his bank cried enough. Richard Williams and the Viscount Downe-owned car soldiered on with a much-improved car until a terrible accident at Le Mans in 1984, in which a marshal was killed, destroyed both remaining Nimrods. Two years after the project had reached fruition, it came to a tragic end and Hamilton although long since departed from the scene saw his hard work end in scrap metal.
Tiff Needell remembers the whole affair as “typically British. Robin was a racing eccentric who lost his whole livelihood because of his enthusiasm for the project. He was almost an amateur in racing terms, trying to do a professional job without much money. It’s the classic British motorsports story.”
Over a decade on, Hamilton retains his obvious sadness at the failure to sustain his five-year plan, but also his enthusiasm for the vision that started the whole thing in the first place.
“We put our money where our mouths were and did it. We can look back and have sad memories but I am proud of what we achieved. I would love to see Astons back at Le Mans, but the costs involved now are so great that you have to know the money is there. It’s no good doing it on a wing and a prayer anymore. What we did wasn’t about satisfying egos, we had a passion to do it and we did it. I’ve got no hang ups, but it’s nice when people come up and say, ‘Hey, I was there, and I can remember hearing your car.’ It was a good period but life moves on.”