Down a back alley in Romford, Essex, is a large shed attached to a garage. The shed is nearly empty, except for one corner, where jacks, tool chests, and piles of tyres surround a single car — fairly conventional saloon, except that it squats so low on its fat slick tyres that it would be in serious trouble on the public highway. The car is an Alfa 75, and the small team which operates from these modest premises is Alfa Romeo Dealer Team — a small in extent and budget, but one of the longest-running and most consistently competitive, not to say successful, in saloon car racing. In the last four years, contesting the premier RAC British Saloon Car Championship, the team has notched up several class wins, plus a second, and a third outright against heavily financed opposition. Yet she team has no full-time mechanics, and a budget which varies unpredictably from one racing season to the next.
It is a team of enthusiasts, and some of these have been involved for the whole of the ten years that the outfit has existed in its present form. The Dealer Team was the result of an approach to Alfa (GB) Ltd by three men who had in 1974 and 1975 organised a private team known as Squadra Alfa. The three were Jon Dooley, Michael Lindsay, and Leo Bertorelli, and both Dooley and Lindsay are still at the centre of the organisation, though Bertorelli was killed in a road accident in 1982. Even at that early stage, the team must have looked a good proposition, since under the Squadra Alfa banner it had had some good results not only in circuit racing but also in the RAC Rally and the Avon tour of Britain. This was when the Alfasud was beginning to make an impact, and in 1975 Dooley took one of these little front-wheel-drive saloons to runner-up position in this hotly-contested endurance event.
Alfa GB was sufficiently impressed to offer some help, and in 1976, Squadra Alfa became Alfa Romeo Dealer Team — an independent outfit, but with factory blessing. That was the year that the RAC British Saloon Car Championship introduced a 1300 cc class, and the ‘Sud quickly proved itself a strong contender, Jon Dooley’s car finishing the season second in class. Simon Kirkby and Rex Greenslade had also joined the strength by this time, and in the following year, the team fielded five entries in the RAC Saloon round which supported the British Grand Prix. It was not, however, a good season; the Alfetta Coupe had arrived, but the 2-litre version seemed very little faster than the 1600.
In 1978, though, with Greenslade in a 1300 cc ‘Sud and John Lyons and Dooley in improved 2-litre Alfetta Coupes, ARDT made itself very prominent.
By 1980, Dooley, who the year before had taken over Greenslade’s old ‘Sud, was looking for a car to replace it — after all, it was the veteran of the ’75 Tour of Britain — and he soon found the ideal vehicle: an eight year old ‘Sud with only 85,000 miles on it. Unpromising though it sounds, once it had been stripped and turned into a racer, this car won the 1300 cc class in the ’81 Saloon Car championship against the works Metros in the Tricentrol series. What helped to keep the ‘Sud competitive was the 1980 rule change for Group 1 cars: a slackening of the regulations allowed ARDT to throw away the long intake manifolds which normally connect the central twin-choke carburetter to the opposing banks of the flat-four. Instead, a Weber 48 IDA carburetter with one of its two chokes blanked off was mounted directly on each cylinder head — the same number of chokes as the standard car, but a significant increase in power, which jumped by about 20 bhp to a maximum of 144 bhp.
Such careful housekeeping as successfully racing an eight year-old car is bound to please a racing sponsor, and helps to explain why the dealer team maintained a particularly close and loyal relationaship with its major sponsor over many years. Napolina, which imports Italian foods into this country, first lent its support to the team in 1976, and its colours of black relieved by red and green striping (to reinforce the Italian connection) became synonymous with ARDT cars for many years.
Loyalty to the Alfa Romeo marque goes without saying, of course, and it is an indicator of the company’s sporting heritage that there has been such a wide range of raceable cars over the years. Just as the Alfetta Coupe succeeded the saloon, so the ‘Sud Sprint arrived in 1981 and became the mount of Rob Kirby, who had joined the team in 1980, driving a 2-litre Alfetta Coupe.
As a diversion from the Saloon Car series which the team continued to contest as main objective, the new Willhire 24-hour race at Snetterton was also tackled. Although it was the first endurance event that the team had attempted since the days of the Tour of Britain, the Alfas won their class in both ’81 and ’82.
It was in 1982 that the next stage in Alfa’s racing evolution hit the track: the GTV6. Throughout the ’80s, the RAC Championship grew increasingly professional and therefore more and more expensive, but ARDT’s hard work and enthusiasm helped to redress the balance, and give the team the confidence to take on the new car, which at last was a vehicle capable of challenging for outright victory. The new GTV6 with its 2 .5-litre engine would be at the top end of the 2,500 cc class with plenty of scope for development, even taking an honest view of the notoriously bendable regulations in what had become the senior saloon racing series. In fact, the new car showed its class straight away, Jon Dooley finishing its first season as runner-up, and enlivening the racing with that distinctive V6 wail. The following year the same car was third overall at the end of a season when Andy Rouse dominated the field, and again in 1984, Jon Dooley won the 2 1/2-litre class, though only after protesting Graham Goodge’s car.
In the same year, a second GTV6 joined the strength for Rob Kirby, with backing front the Canned Salmon Bureau. This developed in 1984 into sponsorship from the John West canned salmon organisation, Kirby’s car abandoing its Napolina livery for a new white and green style, and it was this car which again carried off the class title.
This year, the black Napolina colours have disappeared entirely from the cars, John West taking over both GTV6s, although Kirby still carries the older livery on his helmet. But an even bigger change occurred mid-season: the two and four-year-old V6 Coupes were replaced by Alfa Romeo’s latest Group A hope, the 75.
Although it is a four-door saloon, the race-prepared 75 is actually lighter than the old coupe, and has the advantage for the British ARD Team (operating on a considerably smaller budget than its European equivalents) of using essentially the same mechanicals. The rear-mounted clutch, gearbox assembly, suspension units, and the engine itself can be — indeed have been — transferred directly from the old to the new shell. However, the V6 that the team has raced so far is a temporary measure: in 1987 the power will come from a newly-developed four-cylinder turbo unit with more potential than ever before.
Over the years the structure of ARDT has changed to some degree, but it remains a small loose-knit organisation, and none of those involved is employed full-time by the team. Michael Lindsay acts as co-ordinator and publicity officer, combining this with his position as full-time Secretary of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club, which also runs a very active race series for all Alfas at a variety of meetings across the country. (And it is interesting to note that Dooley, Kirby, and many of the team race at these meetings as well as at the major RAC rounds, just for the pleasure of racing— sometimes in a tramcar, but often in a car of their own.)
Rob Kirby does much of his own preparation, being a partner in a garage near Bishops Stortford, with some help from RS Race Engineering of Cambridge who also build the engines for both cars. Jon Dooley’s car is looked after by Bob Dove, who during weekdays is principal of the foreign business section of a City bank, but whose spare time is devoted to the upkeep of the car. Even the tools he uses are his own— a big contrast with other professional teams either here or on the continent, who may have three, four, or five mechanics concentrating on a pair of cars, plus elaborate workshop facilities.
After 12 years driving with ARDT and Squadra Alfa, Jon Dooley remains as enthusiastic, and as quick, as ever. Although he is usually to be found at one race-track or another behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, he too has a separate profession: Finance Controller of the British operation of MacDonnell Douglas, the computer giant, which has two establishments in Hemel Hempstead. Dooley has had a range of interesting Italian cars, and raced most of them, but like his fellows in the team, is aware of their responsibility to their sponsors. For this reason, non-race weekends will often find ARDT at Goodwood or Mallory providing the directors, staff and families of supporting businesses with the chance to see the cars at close quarters, and to ride in them, or even (depending on the size of the purse they control) drive them. In addition, guests are well looked after during race meetings; but what has changed over the years is the role of the dealers.
At its inception, interested dealers were invited to contribute towards the overall budget, and would benefit from the hospitality and perhaps some advertising exposure. The system was never as formal as, for instance, that of the GM dealer team, whose rally programme is underwritten by fixed contributions from every Vauxhall/Opel outlet in the country. With the increasing involvement of first Campari, then Napolina and now John West, the dealer element has faded out. Alfa Romeo (GB) Ltd has naturally been a steady and welcome support throughout the team’s history, making parts and complete cars available, together with varying amounts of financial help. However, events uncertain one, for Alfa in Italy, AR GB Ltd, and for ARDT.
With the possibility of a buy-out by Ford of the parent company, which turned into a rather reluctant purchase, under pressure from the Italian government, by Fiat instead, and the takeover in Britain of AR GB Ltd by the TKM Group, all Alfa Romeo policy decisions were halted in July. With the settling of the dust, and the recently announced decision to start work on a new 3.5-litre normally-aspirated engine for Formula One, to be ready for 1988, it seems that the company’s competition plans are under way again. And at the end of November some of the new British management watched Jon Dooley stretch out a large lead over the field in the final of the AROC races at Brands Hatch.
That race was contested with the intermediate 75 — fitted with the V6 from the previous car. But in the workshop, shrouded in plastic wrapping, sits next year’s engine; the 1.8-litre twin-cam turbo four. In its final form, the V6 hit about 240 bhp, but the turbo unit is expected to give a reliable 270 bhp. “Theoretically”, says Chief Engineer Bob Dove, “300 bhp is the maximum that the Garrett T3 blower can flow, but if anyone tells you they’re getting that, they’re lying!”
The 75 is also lighter, though not by much. “We err on the side of strength, and anyway we’re too honest” says Bob Dove wryly. But for the moment, the weight is not the problem: this latest incarnation of the classic alloy four is claimed to churn out an astounding 70% more torque. In fact, those turbo 75s which have so far raced have broken their transmissions, because the necessary straight-cut gear clusters have not yet been manufactured. Nevertheless, the excellent specification of the 1.8-turbo in Group A homologation form augers well for Alfa Romeo Dealer Team next season. GC