Thousands of Brits arrived in the hope of seeing Jaguar beat Porsche. They were to be disappointed, but a tiny Brentford team upheld our honour, writes Gary Watkins
Spice had the big organisation, Argo had the big horsepower and Ecosse had the big name. A tiny British team with a bitza car built by a band of enthusiasts in Germany was never going to feature as one of the pre-race favourites for Group C2 honours heading into the Le Mans 24 Hours of 1986. Yet ADA Engineering and its Cosworth DFL-powered Gebhardt came away from La Sarthe with a famous class victory and an amazing eighth place overall.
ADA, from Brentford in West London, had built its reputation as parts supplier and gearbox specialist, rather than via its exploits on the racetrack. The company’s Group 5 Triumph TR8 and the sit-upand-beg ADA 01 Group C Junior had hardly set the world on fire. Gebhardt, meanwhile, was one of Europe’s leading producers of automated warehouse systems: building racing cars was a sideline for the Gebhardt brothers, Fritz and Gunther.
This 1986 success looked all the more unlikely after the ADA Gebhardt JC843 swiped the barriers at Arnage early in the race. British amateur Tom Dodd-Noble had suffered a blowout in the early evening and was lucky to make it back to the pits.
“The rear of the car was quite badly damaged,” remembers Chris Crawford, the racing brains behind ADA. “As I remember, there was no suspension damage, but the body, a lot of ducting and the oil-cooling system were badly mauled.
“We had one quick stop initially to get back out there, and had the new bits made up and waiting to be put on the car at the next pitstop.”
Just under 30min were lost in total, and this clever strategy allowed the Londoner and team-mates Ian Harrower, Crawford’s business partner at ADA, and Evan Clements to stay within 10 laps of the C2 lead.
The faster cars, meanwhile, were failing by the wayside. First to retire had been Martin Schanche’s works-run Argo JM19C. The non-arrival of the latest version of its Formula One-based Zakspeed turbo motors had forced the rally-cross legend to start with an engine damaged during qualifying. The car was out after just one lap.
The pole-winning factory Spice had been delayed by the clutch problems that had dogged it throughout the week. A later-spec Gebhardt, run by the German constructor’s in-house team, then hit the front before two incidents put it out of the race.
Further delays for a number of bit part players in the class promoted Harrower, Clements and DoddNoble to second as early as the 11th hour, albeit seven laps down on the leading Ecosse-Rover C286 of David Leslie, Ray Mallock and Mike Wilds. The complexion of the race then changed dramatically when the last-named spun on oil and was clouted by an equally out of control factory Porsche.
Wilds made it back to the pits, but time lost to repairs eroded the Ecosse’s lead to just two laps. Four hours later, the ADA Gebhardt moved into first when Leslie suffered a tyre failure on the Mulsanne Straight, holing a radiator in the process.
The British-run Gebhardt now held a clear lead, though there were nine hours still to go.
“My overriding memory of that race is being asked at eight o’clock in the morning by Radio Le Mans if we could keep it going to the end,” says Harrower. “I could barely speak because I was so nervous about our chances.”
Crawford’s ultra-conservative tactics ensured that the team did get to the end and with an eight-lap advantage over the second-placed C2 car.
“Apart from the smash, the car ran like clockwork,” he recalls. “We always set ourselves a pace and ensured that our drivers stuck to it. That was the way you got to the end at Le Mans. The biggest problem, if we had pushed, would have been the wheel-bearings. They were a bit marginal at Le Mans with all its high-speed corners.”
The JC843 had been substantially re-engineered since ADA had taken it over 18 months previously. Crawford insists that its car was very different to the JC853 that Gebhardt was running that year, though Fritz Gebhardt maintains that the major differences were in the British team’s attention to detail.
Whatever, ADA was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of a little operation that only became a constructor when Gunther, a handy Super Vee racer of the mid-1980s, realised he didn’t have the wherewithal to make an impact in Formula Two.
The first Gebhardt utilised drawings from the defunct Toj concern, was built around a March F2 rear end, and was powered by an unraced F2 engine built by Toyota Team Europe. It also had an allenveloping body that had to be removed to change the wheels. By the time the car became a regular on the world championship scene in 1984, there was new bodywork and a BMW F2 powerplant
ADA happened to be one of the German squad’s suppliers while at the same time looking for a way back into the secondary Group C division. The result was that the British leased a car — at least the front half of it—for the 1984 sportscar finale at Sandown. ADA installed an ex-F1 Cosworth complete with the entire rear end of Williams FW06 for that race and went on to buy the chassis. It remained in this configuration throughout the following season, which included a C2 win against limited opposition at Selangor in Malaysia.
The works team repeated this feat twice in 1986, but the Le Mans victory was the high point in the histories of both Gebhardt and ADA. The following year, the Germans looked to pastures new, though privately entered Gebhardts still graced the world sportscar scene. The Brits, meanwhile, produced their own chassis built on the lessons learnt from the JC843.
Fritz admits he and Gunther lost interest once their favoured pilots, Frank Jelinski and Stanley Dickens, were picked up for Cl drives: “Racing was more or less a hobby for us. We tried to make money out of it, but we stopped too early.”
ADA’s own chassis were much admired but never achieved the same results as the Gebhardt A major deal to produce a run of cars fell through and the team eventually bought a Porsche 962C before being disbanded in the mid-1990s.
“I believed the Le Mans win would be the start of something big,” says Crawford. “I thought that, after all the euphoria had died down, the company would go places. Unfortunately, it led nowhere. Nor, for that matter, was there any euphoria.”