Lancashire hot shot

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The name of Chevron is so familiar that it’s almost a surprise to remember that it was a major manufacturer only for about 12 years. The car that put the company on the map was the B8, still highly successful in Historic racing.

The main force behind Chevron was one man: Derek Bennett, who first made his reputation as a midget racer on Northern speedway tracks during the 1950s. He was a fine driver, a natural engineer, and one of those rare individuals who can inspire others to both follow his lead and also realise their own potential. Colin Chapman had the same gift, but while Chapman’s has been widely acknowledged, Bennett remains relatively unknown.

Paul Owens, now MD of Reynard Composites, was one person who fell under Derek’s spell. By day he worked with the Salford Corporation Bus Company, but he spent his evenings and weekends building Bennett’s cars — and Paul came to look on him as an elder brother.

Paul Brown, whose design portfolio includes F1 and Group C cars, plus the Chrysler Patriot, was another to learn his trade with Chevron. Hired as a draughtsman, he recalls that he had been working for the company for a fortnight before he realised that the chap who swept the workshop floor was actually the boss. Bennett was a special man: that much is clear from speaking to anyone who dealt with him, either as a colleague or customer.

To understand Chevron one must realise this, and also that the company was based in an old Bolton cotton mill. During the 1950s, and for much of the ’60s, a lot of British motor racing was on a regional basis. For example, the two most successful drivers of AC Aces were Ken Rudd (from Worthing) and Peter Bolton (from Halifax) Ken ruled the South, Peter the North, and the first time that they competed in the same race was when they shared a works AC at Le Mans.

Chevron did not go in for glitzy press hand-outs, and as far as the media was concerned the company was “somewhere up North” in the land of clogs and ferrets. This is another important strand in the story, because too many people assumed that it was a one-man band: Bennett became well-known despite his reticence, but little was made of the strong team around him, and this was crucial when he died.

Mike Earle, whose F2 team switched from March to Chevron during 1974, recalls “You’d phone March and be met with something like, ‘Ah yes, you’re customer No36, I see that you’ve bought three cars from us, but you’ve been complaining.’ If you phoned up Chevron you’d usually be put through straight to Derek Bennett who would say in his broad Lancashire accent, ‘You want to buy a car, lad? Come up Saturday and we’ll make you a pot of tea while we knit one up for you.’ They were lovely, lovely people to deal with.”

Derek built several Bennett Specials for the 750 and 1172 and Junior formulae, and also prepared cars for other drivers while racing Lotus Elites with great success himself. Long before he was regarded as a star designer, he had built a solid reputation in the North. It was local, certainly, but credible because people liked doing business with Bennett and his small band of helpers.

The breakthrough came in 1965 with a Clubmans car. Since he intended to make two for himself and Brian Classic Bennett began to think of a company name. One day in his local sub-post office, he saw an advertisement for the Highway Code and was struck by the chevrons on the poster. And thus, the Bennett Special Clubmans car became the Chevron B1.

It won first time out, and the two cars went on to take 28 race wins in 1965. Naturally, other people took an interest and so, in the time-honoured way, a special builder became a manufacturer. Chevron relocated to the mill in Bolton, and Owens gave up his day job.

The following year saw four production Clubmans cars (B2) and the first mid-engined GT, the Ford-powered B3. This featured a fully-triangulated spaceframe made from round, square and oval tubing, with monocoque sills and bulkheads making for a particularly strong cockpit area, and a very pretty, aerodynamically efficient fibreglass body fabricated by Specialised Mouldings. With only slight modifications, the body featured on all Chevron GT cars for the next few years, and was to become a classic.

Although only two were made, the B3 was as successful as the earlier cars even if it was largely confined to Northern club races. Chevron was on its way.

Over the next two or three years the GT concept was developed through the BMW-powered B4, B5 (a one-off with a 2-litre BRM V8 engine) and the B6, available with either a Ford or BMW unit. All three won first time out, and were successful due to talented drivers in the North who believed in them: John Lepp, Digby Martland, Brian Redman and Bennett himself. Lepp took the 1967 Motoring News Special GT Championship with his B3-Ford, and Martland’s B6-BMW matched him for race wins.

Incidentally, it was only at the end of 1968 that Chevrons actually received type numbers, so it was only in retrospect that they were called B1, B2 et cetera. It is often assumed that the ‘B’ was for Bennett, but in fact it stood for John Bridges, a longtime Bennett supporter who entered cars under the Red Rose Motors banner. He was also a director of Derek Bennett Engineering, and invested money in the company in return for getting cars and spares at cost.

Throughout the ’60s GT racing was popular at all levels, and the Motoring News GT Championship became one of the most important series in Britain. The 1,600cc Formula Two had arrived in 1967, and with them came new engines from Cosworth and BMW. It is a broad rule in motor racing that when powerful, reliable, and readily-available engines appear, there will grow a series to use them: it was a short step from 1,600cc to 2-litres, and for a while 2-litre sports car racing would be very popular.

By the time the B8 appeared in 1968, however, only 18 Chevrons of any description had been made. Bennett and Owens worked for a pittance, but things had begun to look up when Paul Ashcroft took a hand in selling cars and promoting the marque. Ashcroft looked beyond club racing, and soon Chevrons began to appear in international events. An impressive performance by Martland’s B6 in the 1967 Nurburgring 1,000kms convinced BMW that Chevron was a company to support; when Martland left his car with BMW while he went on holiday he returned to find that the nice men at Munich had rebuilt his engine. Thirty-five of the 44 B8s made had BMW engines.

The B8 was essentially a production version of the earlier GT car, and the plan was to homologate it into Group 4. The snag was that 50 had to be built – a huge stride for a small company. Bennett recruited more workers, production lines were set up, and when the officials arrived to monitor homologation they found a centre of teeming activity — and also eight 1967 cars, which then would become known as the B5 and the B6.

Once the eight pseudo-B8s, parts being made, and names in the order books were added together, the magical figure of 50 was somehow reached, and on May 1 1968, the B8-BMW was duly homologated into Group 4. A scam, certainly, but the wording of the regulations was ambiguous and Chevron did have the intention of building the required number – if customers could be found.

The B8 was the right product for the time and it was soon winning races, although most of them were fairly minor. An indication of the car’s potential came in April 1968, though, when Martland and Classic brought their B8 home eighth overall in the BOAC 500 World Championship race, only narrowly beaten in the 2-litre Group 6 class (it was not homologated at that stage into Group 4) by a Porsche 910.

Since most of the quicker drivers concentrated on overseas events, there were no major successes for Chevron at home. In international terms the B8 was no match for the better Porsches, but it didn’t disgrace itself at the highest level, and Barrie Smith won the Ford Grand Prix in Denmark.

Meanwhile, Fred Opert had begun to import Chevrons into North America, and it was his enthusiasm which saw a B8 finish sixth and win its class in the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours. That year Reine WiseII and John Hine finished seventh and first in class in the BOAC 500, Lepp won his class in the Tourist Trophy, Barrie Smith returned to Denmark and won his second Ford Grand Prix in his Ford-engined car, Guy Edwards and Mike Franey took class honours in the Barcelona 12-hour race, and B8s performed with distinction in the South African Springbok series. Outstanding among numerous club victories, Lepp also took the British Sports Car Championship.

Within five years, Chevron had grown up from building two Clubmans cars to major player status — a rise which paralleled that of Lotus. By the end of 1970, 44 B8s had been made, and at the same time the company was making its mark in Formula Three, Formula B (Atlantic) and Formula Two and also introducing the B16 in GT and Spyder versions. In 1970 it took five major championships, including the European 2-litre Sports Car series.

The European Championship win was achieved with the B16, but as late as 1971 Mike and Richard Knight took their B8 to a class win in the Targa Florio, and Tony Goodwin and Ray Nash won their class in the Nurburgring 1,000kms in a B6.

An interesting variant was the Gropa CMC (Chevron-Mylius-Curl), which was a Spyder conversion for the B8 built by graphic designer Andy Mylius and Bob Curl, who made Nomad sports cars. In 1970 Mylius, with Gerry Birrell, won the Group 6 2-litre class in the BOAC 1,000.

The B8 is still a strong performer in historic racing, and it’s not hard to see why. When Stirling Moss drove one in 1982 he declared it was the best-handling car he’d ever driven and he backed that opinion by buying one. Indeed, for many, the concept of a roadgoing B8 has been a recurring fantasy, and Chevron Cars – now owned by Roger Andreason in Dorset – did build a prototype B8R with a 2-litre Warrior engine, an Alfa Romeo transaxle, and a leather interior. It was capable of over 150 mph which, combined with its legendary roadholding, made it a very desirable proposition indeed. For various reasons (including cost) plans to put it into Type Approved production were shelved, but the prototype was recently sold at auction.

Chevron went from strength to strength, and the full story of the marque is told in David Gordon’s splendid book Chevron – the Derek Bennett Story.

When Bennett died after a hang-gliding accident in 1978, however, too many people assumed that the company was finished. But because Chevron had never been strong on talking to the press it was not widely known that all of its designs were collaborations, and that with men of the calibre of Paul Owens and Paul Brown on board the company was fit to continue.

There were other reasons for its subsequent decline, but the way that the marque was perceived was perhaps the main one. The Chevron name has since been bought and sold a few times, and Andreason can still run you up a B8 but the original team who created a big impact with such small resources is now widely dispersed.

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