Matters of moment, March 1976

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Competition Shop-Window

It is excellent to know, as another intense competition season is about to commence, that in the field of saloon car racing and rallying, Ford, Leyland and Vauxhall will meet the challenge from Continental makes, in spite of a general recession in the Motor Industry. It behoves all enthusiasts to see as much as possible of the Sport while it continues to flourish and we wish competitors, mechanics, organisers and spectators great enjoyment in 1976.

We are naturally very pleased when prominent manufacturers accept that racing and rallying-are of value to them from publicity/ improving-the-breed standpoints. We wonder, however, whether the best possible use is being made of motor racing from the “shop-window” aspect? There was a time when near-standard ears could be assessed by their prowess or otherwise on the circuits. Le Mans was run originally for a period of 24 hours to test electric lighting and starting systems as well as the cars themselves, and the logical French even instituted “rough-road” races, to show up the merits and demerits of vintage suspension systems. At that period of motor-racing history there were many contests of this kind. Britain copied Le Mans and Spa, etc. with long-duration contests for catalogue-type cars; the Ulster TT bringing such races into great prominence. The Junior Car Club even put on the “Double-Twelve” marathons at Brooklands, than which no race surely, could have been more commercially viable?

The point was that this was all excellent “shop-window” stuff. Such races must have created considerable interest in the then-current sports cars and must surely have sold a useful number of Bentley, 12/50 Alvis, Salmson, twin-cam Sunbeam, Lea-Francis, Alfa Romeo, MG and Riley cars, following their victories in the various races of this kind.

There were scrutineering problems, it is true, pacé the non-detachable cylinder heads of certain TT Alfa Romeo and f.w.d. Alvis entries and the oversize supercharger on Caracciola’s 1930 38/250 Mercedes-Benz. But such contests were possible, popular, and fairly frequent. Quite normal roadgoing cars competed, for instance, in the Light Car Club’s 1938 Three Hour Race at Brooklands, the outcome of which must have made many people crave a Delahaye and helped materially to put the 328 Frazer Nash-BMW on the sales-map.

Even after the war this sort of racing continued to publicise catalogue-type cars of the kind that you, if not the writer, could spend money on—the revived TT, Le Mans, that English race invented by the late Gregor Grant to include some night motoring, and the Goodwood Nine-Hour races, are good examples. More recently, because time and so-called progress marches on, the position changed. “Prototype” cars were admitted to former “catalogue-car” events, and these were joined by very costly and specialised sports cars. Technical advancement there may have been, but at the expense of a useful “shop-window”, until the latter has receded almost to vanishing point.

Group 1 saloon-car racing is nearer the mark. But the races for such cars are far too short to intrigue “shoppers” in the way the old-time, long-duration, important national and international races did, and the multiplication of “Championships” does not help. Would it be worthwhile reviving just one race, over a decent time or distance, for standard-type cars, including open sports cars?— the latter rendered safe by the addition of roll-over bars, of course!

We are well aware of the arguments against such a race. Scrutineering, we will be told, would be impossible. This we doubt, for nothing stands still and the need to check different Groups and the 750, 1172 and other Formulae, even to measuring the size of valve throats, port areas and suchlike, has advanced the task of scrutineering to a fine and accomplished art. A race of this kind would be too slow to bring the crowds, they will say. But this we doubt too, if it were confined to one well-publicised event a year, if necessary with supporting items such as an Historic Car thrash, a demonstration by a famous or indecently quick car or motorcycle, etc. The danger aspect of allowing almost-standard cars to race may be raised—wheels flying from Minis, brake-fade on XK120s, etc. remembered from years ago. It cannot be valid now, surely, when tyres last a full 24 hours at Le Mans and brakes have vastly improved. In any case the regulations could he made to cover such matters.

We cannot see rallying reverting to the state it was in during the 1950s, when near-standard cars took top awards. We feel sure that our Rally correspondent will confirm that for on-the-road, or in-the forests, events such a change is now out of the question, at all events for the Big Time.

There may be no rub-off, prestige apart, for the Lancia customer who learns of rally victories by the Stratos and much of the “shop-window” value of rallying departed with skilled servicing and rebuilding en route and the acceptance of specialised cars; such as Roger Clark’s Ford Escort RS1800. But the cars need to be serviced at intervals during a hard rally in order that they remain safe and it would be very difficult, one presumes, for such work to be confined to safety aspects alone, apart from which, the thousands of keen rally supporters would not take kindly, one supposes, to any dimunition in the top speed and other high-performance-aspects of the competing cars. If we are wrong, no doubt GP will quickly correct us!

Racing, however, presents less-involved problems of safety (a dangerous car can be flagged-in) and scrutineering (which takes place before and, if necessary, after the event, not while it is in furious progress). And sustained interest (think of refuelling through normal fillers!) can compensate for reduced lap-speeds. So we are tempted to venture the opinion that a Catalogue-Car or Group I long-duration Race might just succeed. It might be of six-hours duration, which would enable spectators to arrive in comfortable time for a start at noon, and get home equally easily after the finish at 18.00 hours. There should be classes (perhaps on a price basis, as once added to the publicity value of doing well in the East African Safari Rally) and an outright winner, and it might be interesting to specify tearns of three one-make, one-type cars, and run the race on a Team basis.

Whether any organiser would be prepared to “buy” such a shopping-spree race is a question to which we would like to have an answer. But never let it be said that the BARC, BRSCC or others of our leading Clubs would be incapable of putting-on such a contest—not when the 750MC can hold a six-hour Relay Race at Silverstone without any panic or apparent insurmountable problems…Oulton Park would have made a nice circuit for our proposed fixture, had it not been fore-shortened. So perhaps Silverstone would oblige, or would Tom Wheatcroft, keen as he is on potent single-seaters, see Donington staging such a “shopper’s spectacle” in 1977?

At one time the publicity side of motor racing, intended to sell a manufacturer’s ordinary products, ranged from breaking the Land Speed Record or winning a Grand Prix, which were achievements put forward by Sunbeam for instance, as endorsing the engineering prowess of a Company, to winning something like the TT, Le Mans, or a Production-Car Race with a car so close to standard specification that the customer could buy, or have one tuned, to be exactly like it.

We have moved on a long way since. How many of you remember those Silverstone “Touring Car” races, that acted as curtainraisers to bigger events, in which bulbous Jaguar saloons, 2k-litre RM Rileys, two-stroke DKWS, Jowett Javelins, Ford Consuls and Daimler Conquests, etc. battled furiously for honours, watched by spectators who had arrived at the circuit in more or less the same sort of cars? In those days it was deemed worthwhile to put famous GP drivers in such cars. But that was more than 20 years ago.

Would there be any interest in reverting, if only once a year, to a punishing race for the sort of cars ordinary mortals buy and drive?