The car that came in from the cold

Mighty V8 ‘Yank Tanks’ had their 1972 Saloon thunder stolen by a cheap and nasty Russian buzzbox. Marcus Simmons decodes a very strange tale

Cloak-and-dagger negotiations with Russian agents seem an unlikely prelude to a season of motorsporting dominance. Especially at the height of the Cold War. But that’s what Tony Lanfranchi did during his build-up to 1972. He didn’t quite have to go through the rigmarole of wearing a hat, overcoat and dark glasses, while carrying a rolled-up quality broadsheet, to meet a nameless contact in a London park — but it wasn’t far off.

His covert task could have been lifted directly from a Mission: Impossible script. But he was confident about wishing to accept it. He had done his homework. This project wouldn’t self-destruct.

When it was announced that, after pressure to create a national category for showroom-spec Group 1 cars, there were to be two Production Saloon championships in the UK, most of the tin-top experts of the day opted for the BMW 2002 Tii or Ford Capri 3000GT in a bid for outright race wins.

But, with both the Castrol and Britax series split up into four classes — each providing an equal amount of points towards the overall championships — it was likely that the title-winner would be decided by consistent wins against weaker opposition in one of the lower divisions. And when the organisers decided, uniquely, to split up these classes based on a car’s pre-tax cost, as opposed to its capacity, it became a case of finding a machine for which performance outweighed price.

Cue the Moskvich 412.

With the Soviet Union subsidising its cars so they could be sold cheaply abroad and boost exports, this rustic old girl nestled way down the price list Lanfranchi spotted it and quickly worked out that its 1500cc 80bhp engine, the design concept of which had been ‘borrowed’ from BMW, would easily outperform the Minis, Imps and Honda N600s which were expected to populate the ‘under £600’ class — even with its excess weight

“It was a total secret!” he laughs. “Who was going to think of that? But, to me, there was one car which was obviously going to win its class all the time. So I found out who imported them [Satra Motors in Byfleet, Surrey] and rang them up.

“When I got to see them, I told them, ‘Do you realise you’ve got a car that could win the championships?’ They said, ‘Don’t be silly — it’s not a racing car’. ‘Believe me’, I said. So they went, ‘Er, all right. We’ll give you a car’.”

So, at the age of 36, sometime formulae 1, 2, 5000 and sportscar driver Lanfranchi, forced to give up racing quick machines after hurting himself in a road accident, found himself bidding to prolong his professional career in a Russian road car.

Initial preparation was carried out by fellow Yorkshireman, Bill Crosland. He fitted a set of Koni shock absorbers, checked out the rest of the suspension, fiddled with the ignition, and charged Lanfranchi 130. All that needed to be added before the opening round of the Britax series at Brands Hatch were a rollover bar, bucket seat and set of treaded Dunlop racers.

While Roger Bell sped to a win in his BMW, after a tremendous battle with Bernard Unett’s Hillman Avenger and Gerry Marshall’s Vauxhall Firenza (both from Class B), Lanfranchi survived a cutting-out problem to take Class D.

This misfire was rectified when permission was gained from the RAC to modify the carburettor — the standard item wasn’t capable of coping with ‘high-speed’ cornering.

There was another drama, too. For maximum points to be available, there needed to be a minimum of four starters in the class. There were only three at Brands, and so Lanfranchi returned to Satra to ask for more cars.

“They asked me, ‘Well, how many do you want?’ I ended up with three of them.” Lanfranchi, who dished out the ‘extra’ drives to any of his mates that were available (including the then Brands Hatch boss, John Webb), was onto a winner.

A massive winner, in fact. Of the 29 championship races contested, he won his class in 28, taking both titles outright. The only defeat came in a wet race at Mallory Park, at the hands of Bill Sydenham’s Honda.

“That was total and utter laziness on my part,” chortles Lanfranchi. “We used to buff the tyres to make them quicker [and, at the same time, unsuitable for the wet], but I said, ‘Oh, we don’t need to put wet tyres on’. And Bill beat us.”

The only real midseason development of the Moskvich came when it was sent to BMW preparation specialists Mathwall for its engine to be blueprinted. This entailed stripping it down and rebuilding it without any of the excess road-use baggage.

With power now in the region of 90bhp, it was easy for Lanfranchi: “People used to laugh and say, It doesn’t have disc brakes’, but who needs disc brakes if you’re only doing 90mph on the straights? I just used to drive around with my arm out of the window and the radio on.”

No doubt he was similarly relaxed on the road. Using the Moskvich to drive to work each day, Lanfranchi’s 412 clocked up 17,000 miles in 1972.

It clocked up plenty of prize money, too: “Ooh yeah, it was good money. There was prize money, sponsorship — and we were the champions. “The programme also gave future Williams team manager Jeff Hazen [now at the Cadillac sports-car team] his start in the sport. There were times when Jeff was charged with getting three cars back from Oulton Park with a piece of string between one, two and three. There was always one car going well…”

There was another season of winning fix the Satra Moslcviches, 1973. Lanfranchi and his protege Eric Horsfield took Class D spoils in the Britax and Castrol series respectively, with the former also winning Castrol Class A tide in a 3-litre BMW.

Everyone went their separate ways for ’74, although Tony Stubbs, driving for the rival Kinson Motors team, won Class Din the 412’s last season.

“The Moskvich wasn’t quick,” Lanfranchi says, unnecessarily. “What the rest of my lads used to do was roll them and stuff ‘ern, but really it was like any other racing car. I drove an Fl car three or four times, and it was the same principle: you drive it as quick as you want to go without hitting the wall — and you win.” Simple.

Except for the cloak-and-dagger stuff.