Designer Tony Southgate insists the troubled endurance racer could have brought success back to Ford in the mid-1980s By Keith Howard
During the 1960s and ’70s, Ford of Europe built itself an enviable motor sport reputation across a wide range of racing genres. In endurance racing, it wrested the initiative from Ferrari to win Le Mans four years running from 1966-69, with the Mk2, Mk4 and GT40. In Formula 1, in a deal brokered by Colin Chapman, Ford funded the design of the Cosworth DFV, an engine that won its first championship in 1968 and its last in 1982 before going on to dominate F3000. In touring car racing the Cologne-built Capris whitewashed the European Touring Car Championship in 1971, winning every race but one. And on the world rally circuit, the Boreham-built Twin-Cam RS1600 and RS1800 Escorts racked up the victories.
But when Ford attempted to renew and refresh this success in the early ’80s, the Blue Oval – like an object in a Dali painting – morphed into something pear-shaped. Its magic touch deserted it. The first debacle was the RS1700T, a rear-wheel-drive rally car born into what Audi was clearly demonstrating to be the new world of 4WD. When Stuart Turner became Ford’s head of motor sport in early 1983, he quickly identified the RS1700T as a lame duck, and throttled it. In its place would come the RS200 – a 4WD car that in time might well have bested the Audis, Peugeots and Lancias had it not arrived too late. Before it could mature, Group B was abandoned in the aftermath of Henri Toivonen’s and Sergio Cresto’s deaths in the 1986 Tour de Corse.
The designer of the RS200 was Tony Southgate, who’d been hired by Ford on a very different mission – to redesign the C100 endurance car, the other failing project that Turner terminated in early ’83. The C100 had been announced in 1981 and seemed to have just the right DNA. Initially designed by Len Bailey, co-creator of the GT40, its Cosworth engine, shovel nose and high rear deck bespoke a car that would one day be king. But its ascendancy soon came into doubt. Bailey left the project and a redesigned Mk2 started 1982 in depressing fashion, which is when Southgate was called in.
“John Thompson had a little fabricating business, making chassis frames, monocoques and the like, and I’d been working closely with him. Peter Ashcroft of Ford called him to ask whether I’d fancy going over to Germany to look at the Mk2 version of the C100, which wasn’t working well.
“Zakspeed were running the C100 in 1982 so the three of us went over to them to take a look. The car wasn’t too impressive. It looked as if whoever had designed the front hadn’t designed the back. It was very untidy, very bitty. There were areas crying out for improvement. You could tell just by looking that the steering geometry was miles out because the steering rack was in the wrong position. The rear subframe looked as if it was meant for a different car altogether, and it obviously wasn’t very rigid, so the rear suspension wouldn’t have worked properly either.
“I thought I could easily improve things so I said I would work on the car for a month. I left the body the same because that would be a whole new deal, and I left the cooling unchanged for the same reason. The chassis frame was a pretty basic aluminium construction, a bit like a Porsche 956. I knew that John Thompson had another C100 chassis under way for Alain de Cadenet, which was basically the same but made in aluminium honeycomb. It was much neater and tidier, as well as much stiffer. So we grabbed it for the revised C100 – Ford said to use it and they’d square it with de Cadenet.
“I redesigned the front suspension geometry and made a whole new subframe for the rear suspension. We then did a back-to-back test and the revised car was 2.5 seconds a lap quicker. We were quite pleased with that, but it was still slower than the opposition! It was obvious as far as I was concerned that an all-new car was needed.
“Ford were very impressed that we’d gained 2.5sec without spending a vast sum of money, and had done it quickly. After a while they came back with a contract for me to design a new car for 1983 – the C100 Mk3.
“It was completely new except for the windscreen. Windscreens in those days were fiddly to manufacture, so I made do. I didn’t like its shape and it was a bit tall – if you look at photographs of the Mk3 you can see that it affects the roof line a little. It would’ve been flatter if I’d designed a screen from scratch. But the rest of the car was new. It had an aluminium honeycomb monocoque – we still weren’t into carbon by then – and the body was glassfibre to get it out quickly. But it would have ended up a Kevlar composite or lightweight glass sandwich construction.
“Even the engine was going to be a trick new variant of the Cosworth DFL, and I worked closely with Keith Duckworth on its installation. We realised that we needed a turbocharged version to be competitive and at the time it was thought that inlet charge temperature – of the air leaving the intercooler before entering the engine – was critical. The lower you could get this, the better the engine performance would be. So Duckworth decided that we needed a large fan on the engine, driven off the front of the crank via a belt, to blow air through the intercooler. When I say large, it was about 2ft in diameter.
“So the Mk3, unlike previous C100s, had air intakes on both flanks – the one on the left for the intercooler with this fan, and the one on the right for the radiator. The fan speed was variable, so that it turned slower in a fast corner and faster in a slow corner, to keep constant airflow. Because the engine vibrated so much, it was also going to have a big external countershaft added.
“The prototype car was finished well before the engine was ready so we put in a regular DFL for testing at Paul Ricard. We were very pleased with the results. The car had a little high-speed understeer and ran about 5 deg C hotter than I’d have liked on the water temperature, but I’d have improved those areas. Then with a lighter body we would’ve been ready to go racing. But we’d only been back about a week when we got the call saying the whole project had been dropped. As you can imagine, we were mystified.”
In his autobiography Twice Lucky, Stuart Turner cites as his reasons for the cancellation the £660,000 that Ford would spend racing the car with Gordon Spice in 1983, and Keith Duckworth’s estimation that the chances of the DFL lasting 24 hours at Le Mans were ‘nil’. Tony Southgate offers an alternative explanation involving high-level Ford politics and a strong dose of nepotism – but to publish it would require hard evidence or a good lawyer, and probably both.
Ford certainly didn’t save itself all that money because Gordon Spice had a contract and had to be bought out of it. He used the cash to help become a constructor himself. And the claim that Duckworth was negative about the project doesn’t sit easily with the fact that Cosworth built 36 DFLs in total, or that DFV-powered cars had already won Le Mans twice – the Gulf Mirage Ford GR8 in 1975 and the Rondeau Ford M379B in 1980. On both occasions a sister car finished third. The high level of vibration from the flat-crank DFL – which, because of its increased stroke, was even more severe than the DFV’s – was certainly a problem but the proposed balancer shaft would have quelled it.
Southgate recalls Duckworth’s attitude differently. “He was never negative about the project when I visited, he thought it interesting. We used to kid ourselves the engine would give 750bhp. I called him when the car was cancelled. He said he remembered Stuart Turner asking him ‘Are we going to beat these Porsches?’ to which Keith – who would laugh and joke a lot – said ‘No bloody chance’ or something to that effect. But he was joking.”
How good could the car have been? “John Thompson and I tried to buy the project but Ford didn’t want to know. It would certainly have been a front-runner. The chassis was superior to the Porsche 956 and so were the aerodynamics. We were achieving 4000lb of downforce in sprint configuration. That’s about the same as the Jaguar XJR-9 achieved, but the split on the Jaguar was better – it had a good 40 per cent of the downforce on the front whereas the Ford was more like 33 per cent, which is why we had high-speed understeer. But I could have tweaked that with bigger louvres in the wheel-arches, a bigger splitter and a more concave nose. That would probably have been enough.
“So it was just a matter of making the engine do the job. We knew that the standard DFL wasn’t good enough but I’m confident that, with the turbo and balancer shaft, Keith would’ve come up with something…”