Testing the John Britten Racing Team Morgan 4/4, winner of the BRSCC Production Sports Car Championship, and hairy Plus 8
Traditional triumphed over modern in last season’s British Racing and Sports Car Club’s Production Sports Car Championship, a Morgan 4/4 taking the overall Championship from a strong contingent of contemporary tin-and-glass-fibre-ware. This victory for Malvern Link was achieved by Chris Alford, Sales Manager for John Britten Garages at ArkleY, Hertfordshire, famed for their Morgan agency and those acres of amusing words in Motor Sport advertisements. Britten himself heroically mastered a Plus 8 to give his two-car equipe fourth overall in addition to Alford’s Championship win. Alford recently assembled both cars at Silverstone to give me a taste of what this Morgan racing motoring is all about.
Increasing interest and competitiveness in the formula evolved by the BRSCC’s Peter Browning brought with it a few squabbles over driving habits and eligibility of machinery, but one thing undisputed in 1975 was Alford’s right to the Championship. The 4/4 won its class in every round and in three non-Championship races as well a total of 15 wins in 15 starts. It set fastest lap in its class in 12 events, was fastest in its class in practice on 11 occasions, and holds no fewer than six lap records. Pretty conclusive stuff! The Plus 8, with some rather more fearsome class and overall opposition, managed two outright wins, five seconds and two thirds in 11 starts, and captured one lap record.
Production sports cars, Prodsports for short and not to be confused with the highly-modified Modsports category, are to two-seater sports cars what the Group 1 Club formula cars arc to saloons. Nothing more power-stretching than blue-printing is allowed on the engines, bodywork, transmission and suspension must be standard, although uprated or adjustable shock-absorbers of the same type and mounting may be substituted, and, most significantly, approved production road tyres are mandatory. Like the Group 1 saloon formula, classification is by price, not capacity: up to £1,400, largely a Spridget benefit and won by Terry Grirnwood’s Midget 1500; £1,400 to £2,250, a haven for Morgan 4/4s like Alford’s, MG-Bs and TR6s ; and over £2,250, in which the Britten Plus 8 mixed it with V12 E-types, TVR 3000Ms and Lotus Europa Twin-Cams, Chris Meek’s controversially quick example of which usually tied up the class.
On the day of my test fog shrouded the entire lower half of England apart from the flat wastes of Silverstone, or so it seemed. But the day was less kind to former Modsports MG-B driver Bob Shellard, who was “nicked” for a trailer offence while towing the 4/4 in the wake of Alford and the Plus 8. Yes, both the Britten cars are “trailerised”, to reduce wear and tear and for general convenience, especially to avoid the need for changing over from silenced to unsilenced exhaust systems twixt road and track. In fact many Prodsports competitors do drive their cars to and (hopefully) from the circuits, using them for commuting during the week, one of the few National Club formulae in which this flashback to cheap amateur fun-type motor-racing is still possible.
On the basis that the dog with the mildest bite should be tackled first, I was pointed towards the 4/4 while Alford went out to warm up the Plus 8’s more numerous horses. The dark blue 4/4, new at the beginning of the season, was Alford’s first venture into Prodsports—employer Britten had a few races with thz: Plus 8 in the formula’s first season last year —though behind him are 10 years of racing experience. A Jim Russell Lotus 20 baptised him at Boxing Day Brands, 1965, after which he progressed through an MG TC, an unlikely Saab 850 in Special Saloon events, a Cooper S in long-distance Continental events, to Formula Ford. When Britten offered him the Prodsports Morgan his ageing Merlyn was thankfully sold.
This immaculate blue 4/4 boasts 102 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. from a Ford 1600GT engine blueprinted by Formula Ford engine specialist David Minister, of Dartford. The regulations allow less latitude for a shrewd engine builder than they do for Formula Ford insomuch as there can be no question of any cylinder-head “fettling”. On the other hand I would imagine that any Prodsports engine builder worth his salt would gain a modicum of extra urge from a wise choice of standard camshaft, for only the base circle is specified in the regulations. . . .
One of the faults with Prodsports and Group 1 regulations is that they do allow a certain amount of cocktail mixing; demised features of earlier models in a model production run can often be advantageously mixed into later cars. Thus this 1974/5 4/4, which should have a 4.2-to-1 final drive, has adopted the 4.5-to-1 ratio dropped from two-seater 4/4s in 1969 and four-seaters in 1972 and no longer available from the factory—but available when you’ve got a stock of used Morgans in your back-yard. The regulations are equally if not more advantageous to other competitors; late-model, low-power TR6s can use early, higher output engines, for instance. Both Morgans benefit too from Malvern Link’s occasional use of aluminium panels in production when steel stocks run low; the Britten 4/4’s alloy doors and bonnet and Plus 8’s wings, doors and bonnet are thus legalised. The 4/4’s sliding pillar front suspension is unmodified save for the substitution of secondhand Spax telescopic shock-absorbers for the standard items; at the rear the leaf-springs and lever-type shock-absorbers are unadulterated. Both Morgans have had their steel fuel tanks replaced by Grand Prix Metalcraft safety tanks and their spare-wheel carriers are missing, but outward appearance is otherwise unchanged from standard, save for decals, competition numbers and roll-over bars.
Alford settled for Avon Wide-Safety GT tyres for most of the season, finding that what they lost in roadholding over radial tyres was more than made up for by improved handling, which is why the Avons became favourite Formula Ford wear. On the other hand their life expectancy is a mere five races, which is why I found myself scrubbing in a brand-new pair of Avons on the 4/4’s front end, accompanied by a warning that behaviour would be poor until they were scrubbed. Regulations insist they be mounted on the narrowest production wheels, only 4 in. wide in fact, though the first couple of races were inadvertently run on the wider wire wheels on which RA 444 was mounted at the factory.
The unsilenced bark served as a reminder that though the Alford 4/4 started from cold as easily, and pottered out of the paddock and along the pits as flexibly, as any road car, this was a Championship-winning racing car. This immediate impression of lack of temperament is reflected in a 100% record of reliability and an almost zero requirement for servicing throughout the season, a sensible low-budget way to go motor racing.
Both Alford and Britten are firm believers that Morgan motoring is best enjoyed sans hood, which didn’t seem a particularly good idea on the perishingly cold test day. But as the long, louvred bonnet and sweeping wings disappeared ahead of a misted-up visor, rapidly detached and thrown on the passenger’s floor as Maggotts approached, I changed my mind about Morgan weather protection and, gaining perspective, remembered that I would never have dreamt of wearing helmet or visor for faster speeds on the road with my open TR6. First impressions were of that almost rigid Morgan suspension, every ripple of the Silverstone tarmac reflected in the movement of the front wings, and the need for a telescopic left arm to reach the lever controlling the Escort Mexico gearbox because the Corbeau bucket seat is much more reclined than the standard bench. Fortunately only 3rd and top were needed on the Club circuit. “How many revs shall I use, Chris ?” “Oh, just keep it going until the power starts to fall off.” So that’s what I did, the needle bouncing off the end of the red sector on the possibly over-reading 7,000-r.p.m. tachometer, season-long abuse which has failed to disturb the still crisp Minister engine.
Unlike W.B. I am neither a confirmed nor an experienced Morganophile, so the vintage chassis characteristics felt strange in a car with modern performance and engine behaviour; that taut suspension, almost bereft of movement, good feedback from the light, cam-andpeg steering, though less precise than I expected and that peculiar phenomenon of practically zero camber change on the front wheels which, though independent, remain upright and parallel. But this little Moggie will do practically anything you ask it to, so controllable on those Avon cross-plies. I can’t say that I got the hang of it fully, because Silverstone’s wide, open spaces weren’t its natural environment; it would be more at home on a twisty circuit where handling would overcome the effect of those barn-door aerodynamics. Maximum speed down the Club Straight wasn’t more than 100-105 m.p.h. and performance tailed off above about 80 m.p.h., so it’s hardly surprising that Gerald Vaughan’s TR6 holds the Silverstone class record— though Alford managed to win the one Silverstone round. Round Woodcote and Copse this Morgan understeered moderately, the tail drifting slightly wide to compensate on nearing the exit, all gentle, forgiving stuff; not an example of tenacious roadholding but splendid handling. Stamping on the firrn brake pedal for Becketts and Woodcote produced reassuringly powerful braking, so it was a surprise to learn later that standard pads (for the big 11-in, front discs) and linings are used. Competition DS11 pads, tried early in the season, were discarded when they glazed in only four laps. Becketts, taken in third, revealed the engine’s flexibility and a lack of traction from the inside wheel, churning out a pall of blue rubber smoke with the car on opposite lock and the tachometer hitting the 7,000 r.p.m. mark, though with no chance to change gear, for the revs dropped a good 3,000 r.p.m. when the Avon gripped as the car straightened itself out for the Straight.
The Plus 8 might have looked much the same as the 4/4 but boy, it was a different proposition entirely. From the deep roar from the twin, unsilenced exhausts to the probably not ridiculously optimistic 140 m.p.h. registered on the working speedometer towards Woodcote, this Morgan reflects brute performance. And what a brute to drive! There have been times when I have felt elated at having tested a racing car, without pushing too hard, in the same lap time bracket as its regular driver; there has not been a time when I’ve felt quite so dejected as I did about my performance in this Plus 8. Spinning twice at Becketts, indeed! And making a complete pig’s car of that hairpin in this wilful car on practically every lap, growing worse with increasing demoralisation. “Don’t worry, the car’s still driving me, too,” served as something of a palliative from Alford, but better still was the news that the experienced Britten, who dominated the smaller Modsports classes from 1966 to 1970, winning some 60 races with the famous Spridget, SS 1800, had contrived to Spin this latest bearer of that registration number two or three times in the course of the season.
Britten claims that the Racing Services-prepared 3 1/2-litre Rover V8 engine has a mere 9 b.h.p. more than standard, at 169 b.h.p. From feel, I’d have guessed at over 190 b.h.p. Peak torque lunges in at only 3,000 r.p.m., which means that there’s some pretty instant power available in this 16-cwt vehicle. Apart from being properly put together, the engine is helped by richer needles, while a Mallory twin contact-breaker distributor controls sparks more reliably. The car started life as a narrow-track early model which Britten has updated by widening the track and fitting the later wider wings, but for racing it was advantageous to retain the early 3.58 to 1 final drive instead of changing to the current 3.3 to 1. Chassis modifications are limited to fitting Koni front shock-absorbers and adjustable, lever-type Armstrong rear shock-absorber bodies mated by Armstrong to Morgan arms. Mintex M48 competition front brake pads are used with standard rear linings.
An unhappy tendency for flying straight on at corners when Britten first raced the Plus 8 was cured by having the overtight and nonadjustable, standard fitment, limited-slip differential “worn in” by Salisbury to reduce its effect. “This made more difference to the speed of the car on the circuit during the season than anything else we did,” says Britten. Tyres too were critical and the 215/60 x 15 in. Pirelli Cinturato CN 36 used on the standard alloy 5 1/2J x 15 in. rims at the beginning of the season were changed for 195/70 x 15 in. Michelin XWX with good effect. They’ve also lasted out the season, but unhappily had been displaced by the Pirellis for my test.
A rolling start from the pit lane hid one of Britten’s main problems with the car: taking it off the line. Apparently wheelspin is dreadful; he finds the best way to cope is to let in the clutch at 2,500 r.p.m. and, take it to only 5,000 r.p.m. before changing into second, though the wheels continue to spin. He’d prefer to start in second, but the clutch is far too “soft” to allow it. The floor-hinged clutch and brake pedals and slightly sticky roller-type throttle bore the same relationship to the special bucket-seat as those in the 4/4, but at least the stubby gearlever for the Rover 3500S gearbox was mounted within reach. Constant fast changes at high revs had made the presence of synchromesh fairly academic, the crunchy change recalling the old Moss box. The planting of a heavy right hoof in the deeper regions of the cockpit wasn’t advisable without a wise sense of awareness if there was a corner within shouting distance; smooth throttle and steering control appeared to be essential, though that was easier said than done and surely Britten’s advice of “just pour it round on the right lock but don’t try to straighten it up” must be pretty hard to achieve in race traffic. Copse was the only corner where I achieved any sort of rapport with the Plus 8 where it checked its gentle understeering drift nicely on the cambered exit kerb, the tachometer hitting 5,800 r.p.m. in 3rd gear as it did so, some 300 r.p.m. above the recommended limit (though with no sign of hydraulic tappet pump-up), because earlier upward change promised disaster. Alford followed the same practice. We toyed with the idea of using top for Copse but felt 3rd offered more control. I don’t think I managed the same line twice at Woodcote, which is probably just as well as they were all pretty awful while I tried to decide how best to use the throttle to control the understeer and to keep out of the way of a horde of Formula 3 cars.
But Becketts was where the real vices came to light. Whereas most cars can be turned in sharply and powered round after coming off the brakes this Plus 8 needed treating with the delicacy of a ballet dancer on a banana skin. Slightly too much power threatened to send it plunging into the Northamptonshire hinterland on full understeer. Backing-off eventually brought the front tyres to heel, accompanied by a vicious tail swipe and a pendulum effect (or spin!) while trying to regain control; low-geared steering and the retention of the standard big steering wheel made the application and removal of corrective lock too slow for comfort. A light, feathered throttle followed by progressive opening was the only way round Becketts without drama, but even then the understeer remained a problem as the car dictated its own line. No wonder our photographer ran for cover behind the marshals’ post! One thing this Plus 8 did well was braking, even though the pads were on their way out and the pedal was soft.
Britten has obviously got the measure of the Plus 8, witness his lap record at Croft and third in the D. C. Cook in Direct Tapes Northern Championship, in which the 4/4 won its class, but he agrees it to be a car which needs a great deal of respect and acclimatisation. In retrospect I wished I could have tried it on the usual Michelins and on a different circuit. Alford and I both agreed that a smaller steering wheel would have improved control considerably. It was all a very edifying experience from which I came away loving the Championship-winning 4/4 and hating the Plus 8.—C.R.