One lady owner, 39,000 miles only, never...
If standard of preparation reflects on performance, then the Toyota Celica GT driven by Winston (Win) Percy in the Southern Organs/RAC British Touring Car Championship just has to be a winner. Indeed it is and in the 1600 cc class the immaculate WIN 1 has WON 6 of the seven rounds it has started. As a result Percy is leading his class and lying third overall in the Championship, at the time of writing, with just five points separating him, Richard Lloyd in the Simoniz Camaro and leader Andy Rouse in the British Leyland/Broadspeed Triumph Dolomite Sprint. With six rounds to go, the nine best results to count and a remarkably high standard of consistency and reliability from Percy and the Toyota so far, the pairing stand a good chance of challenging for the coveted crown.
The orangy-red and metallic brown Celica is one of an identical pair prepared for the Championship by Samuri Racing of Kingsley Garage, Kimpston, near Bedford. By common consent they are the best turned out team of cars in the Championship. Percy's car is financed by Samuri, the second, driven by Motor scribe Rex Greenslade and numbered predictably REX 1, is supported directly by Toyota GB, the concessionaires owned by Pride and Clarke. Recently Bob Gathercole, the man behind the Samuri Motor Co. and its racing team, risked his pocket and the championship by letting me loose in Percy's car during a Silverstone Club circuit testing session. It survived! If "Samuri" sounds familiar to many MOTOR SPORT readers they might recall the quite magnificent, tuned, Datsun 240Z Super Samuri tested in our July 1973 issue. That was prepared by Spike Anderson, then of Racehead Services, Harbury in Warwickshire and bore the same colours now adopted by the racers. Subsequently, Anderson was joined by Gathercole and the partnership formed the Samuri Motor Co., moving to the Kimpston one of Gathercole's two Bedford garages. Gathercole, former Marketing Manager on the retail side of Shell, numbers his own marketing and publicity company in Bedford and the post of Press Officer to, and a senior committee member of, the Aston Martin Owners Club amongst his other interests. He looks after Samuri's racing while Anderson largely concentrates on his forte of road conversions, 240/260Zs, Datsun Sunnys and 120As and Toyota Corollas and Celicas being amongst the Japanese cars he is adept at making perform way beyond standard.
Weymouth garage owner Win Percy was one of the country's best-known rallycross and autocross exponents before venturing briefly onto the tarmac circuits with his own Spridget. His Samuri connections began when he read an article I wrote about the Super Samuri in our sister weekly newspaper, Motoring News. As a result he became Anderson's and Gathercole's first customer to have a 240Z converted to that specification and last year was contacted by Gathercole to drive the firm's hairy "Big Sam" modsports 240Z. Percy proved to have as much form on tarmac as on the loose and in a magnificent season won the hotly contested 3-litre class in the Blue Circle Modsports Championship, believed to be the first time a 240Z has won a road-racing Championship outside the USA. Gathercole saw the 1600 cc class as the most likely way to a Championship win this season, as Bernard Unett and the Avenger proved last year, and the very quick, 1588 cc, 110 bhp twinoverhead-camshaft-engined Celica GT as the best weapon to beat the Avenger at its own game. Those class wins and lap records at Oulton Park, Thruxton, Silverstone GP and Mallory prove a correct prediction, though Unett and Jenny Birrell are getting steadily faster and giving Win a run for his money. Surprisingly, the Penthouse-entered Alfa Romeo GT Juniors of Stan Clark and Tony Dron have yet to prove very competitive.
WIN 1 was originally prepared for the last few rounds of last year's Championship by John Markey, loaned by Toyota GB to Samuri to race this season at their own expense — and then totally written off when a tyre burst at South Bank in practice for the second round at Brands Hatch. With only a week to go before the next round, Gathercole desperately bought a 39,000 mile-old, one lady owner, Celica ST (the pushrod-engined model) for £800. Much burning of the midnight oil by his enthusiastic Kingsley Garage team to race-prepare and convert the car to GT specification was rewarded by a class win in that next round. Brands has been an unlucky circuit for the team — apart from that second disastrous meeting, the only other class win to go by the board was when the car was beset by understeer problems at Brands in another round and finally had a coming-together with Jenny Birrell's Avenger, demoting Percy to fourth.
The main credit for success obviously goes to the driver and certainly Percy has developed into a quick, safe, smooth, clean and remarkably consistent driver (only 0.2 sec variation in 25 laps of Silverstone club circuit in the last round!). But Gathercole heaps additional credit on Barry Hudson, his sort-of-honorary Team Manager. An ex-Broadspeed employee, like Spike Anderson, Hudson gives all his services voluntarily as a hobby, running the family specialised precision grinding company, Exhall Grinding Company, in Coventry, as a full-time occupation. Hudson is responsible for development, building the engines for both Samuri Celicas, final preparation and co-ordinating the mechanics, who include the enthusiastic 16-year-old Stephen Wiffin, the envy of the rest of his year at Technical College.
In those few races Markey tackled with the Celica last year, Gathercole reckons that the car was very quick in a straight line, but it suffered in the roadholding department. Now, he claims, they've developed a combination of power, cornering performance and reliability. And, even if the two cars are run on less money than any other team in the Championship, enthusiasm and concern for appearance help towards success: "Smartness doesn't cost money, just a gallon of T-Cut and elbow grease."
Apart from neat preparation and a good driver there's probably nothing special about the Percy car to produce such formidable results. In fact this Celica is considerably heavier than it could legally be, weighing 905 kilos against the homologated weight of 820 or 830 kilos. Hudson reckons there's no way he can see to reduce the weight any further, though Greenslade's car is inherently slightly lighter.
Two Broadspeed-prepared 1974 engines arrived with the Markey car at the beginning of the season, now split between the two cars. Both were stripped and rebuilt by Hudson, most of the effort going into sorting out the camshaft profiles, while Spike Anderson "fettled" the heads within legal bounds. Neither have been on an engine dynamometer, nor the cars on a rolling road, so Hudson's 135-145 b.h.p. is very much a "guesstimate". When the Percy car's engine was stripped and found legal by the RAC's Chief Group 1 Eligibility Scrutineer Peter Jowitt after Thruxton the team was thankful rather than dismayed: it meant that the engine was sealed for "free", and once sealed there could be no questioning its legality nor reason for success.
Question the builder of a Group 1 car about the secrets of roadholding and handling success and the answers never reflect the amount of detail work which has gone into the preparation. "Bushes and linkages are bog standard," says Hudson, "And we've messed about' with the coil springs on each corner. We've fitted Koni dampers all round and took a chance on the less strict new regulations saying that if a tyre punctures, no part of the body must touch the ground. Now we've got probably the lowest car in Group 1, but we had to tuck the exhaust well up to do it." In fact the standard Celica is pretty well endowed in the suspension department; the front has McPherson struts, while the coil-sprung live rear axle is well located by twin trailing radius arms and a Panhard rod. There is even a limited slip differential fitted as standard in the GT — allowed in the RAC Championship whether standard or not — though so loosely set as it comes from the factory that it's practically ineffectual. Listen to the 'clunking' as you manouevre the Percy car and you realise that this one is properly torqued up.
This day of testing was as much for trying a new carburation and valve specification as an excuse for letting out the Assistant Editor for one of his nowadays rare circuit sessions. Percy's engine so far this season has been running with the earlier small inlet valves rather than the current production, large, and homologated, big valves. For this occasion WIN 1 was fitted with REX 1's big-valve engine, with various adjustments made to cure a high-rev misfire which had plagued it. Our early lappery proved the misfire to have gone, so then the two twin-choke, horizontal Solex (made under licence by Mikuni Kogyo) carburetters with 32 mm chokes used so far this season were exchanged for the homologated 34 mm choke variety.
This Celica's well-laid-out interior is stripped of carpets, has additional oil pressure and temperature gauges, a huge, amber oil-pressure warning light, a battery master switch and starter button. All surprisingly civilised for a racing car, but such is Group 1. A folded towel and numerous anoraks had to be stuffed behind in the fixed competition seat before I could reach the controls. If the raucous, silencer-less exhaust sounds like a "real-racer", the engine didn't behave like one, trickling along the new Silverstone pits exit road at 2,500-3,000 rpm in third gear, yet picking up rapidly to the recommended 7,500 rpm maximum before hitting fourth gear prior to the "flat" left-hander at Maggotts. With this 1600 engine the chassis has more than enough in reserve to cope without reaching the tight-rope of roadholding on the Minilite wheels and Dunlop Racing slicks. Round Maggotts there's sufficient neutral understeer to keep it stable and give positive steering over towards the left-hand braking and entry area for hairpin at Becket's. That same neutral to under steer keeps this Celica stable even when it is upset by the slight drop inside the kerb at Woodcote apex and Copse can be taken on practically any good or bad line without the tail becoming ragged; it remains manouevrable even near the limit, essential if you're in "traffic". Try too hard at Becketts (and which is the right line round that silly hairpin?) and the tail comes round, easy enough to catch even if you're half asleep. It must be a difficult car to spin.
Steering felt hard work, largely because of my poor driving position, a bit low geared and not the most delicate of arrangements, explained when I looked under the bonnet later to find a steering box when I'd expected a rack. On the whole it is a very well balanced, safe and forgiving car, easy to drive quickly. The only disconcerting habit is a tendency for the tail to twitch under heavy braking for Becketts. The front discs (which have their dust-covers removed and de-glazing grooves cut in them) are stopped by Ferodo DS11 competition pads, but there are no competition linings available for the rear drums; I think that the more instant bite of the soft linings must cause that uneasiness.
Only four of the five available gear ratios are needed for racing, the fifth being an overdrive and for four events that 39,000 mile-old ST four-speed gearbox, with identical ratios, was used successfully. The gap between second and third is a bit gross and for Becketts an in-between ratio is needed, second being too low and third too high, though whichever gear is used this Celica pulled 7,500 rpm in third at exactly the same change-up point on the straight. This Castrol-lubricated Pirhana-ignited, little twin-cam unit revs magnificently and happily pulls 7,000 rpm in fourth into Woodcote on the small carburetters, 7,100 to 7,200 rpm with the big carburetters. On those small carburetters Win lapped in a bit under 1m 11sec with me down to 1m 11.5 sec after just four laps, which shows just how easy the car is to drive. In fact with the small valve head Win had lapped in 1m 10 sec in the race a couple of weeks before. Once "in the groove" with the big carburetters in place, Win gradually reduced his to 1 m 9.1 sec, well inside the lap record. In the few laps I did with that setup I stuck at 1m 11.4 sec, my excuse being that Bob Gathercole had just pointed out that Lloyds had refused to insure the car for me!
The fact that Win, myself and his West Country special saloon car driving friend Brian Cutting completed no less than 88 laps that day without protest from this Toyota speaks adequately about its reliability. This small, unsponsored Samuri Racing team can be justifiably proud of its preparation and achievements; a win in the RAC Championship would be well-deserved. C.R.