It would be easy enough to write off the go-faster business as one of those outlets for British ingenuity that died with the fuel crisis. After all cars are much more expensive than they were, speed limits abound, an Abbey National deposit account comes in handy to raise the deposit on a gallon of petrol and, only a few months ago, Daniel Richmond’s widow decided to sell the name in the business . . . Downton Engineering. As ever the truth is a little more complicated than such sweeping generalisation, and our recent sorties into the World of Speed show there are still some very healthy companies.
Naturally, the repressive motoring climate of the past few years has had its effect, but my impression is that these smaller companies have shown such flexibility that they have stayed the course, or in some cases added more profitable side-lines to the main activity.
There has been a change in emphasis. Many of those retail outlets, which were confronted by low sales of things like highlift camshafts and big-valve cylinder heads, opted for what we could call the cosmetic side. Such things as bucket seats and leather rim steering wheels are good examples of this kind of trade, but the biggest expansion has been in the sale of wide wheels.
To begin with there is the outstanding case of a comparative youngster, John Brown, who has built up a sizeable empire in John Brown Wheels during some of Britain’s most difficult economic years. I believe Brown actually started in business with small classified advertisements and a friendly telephone box, but now he has four shops (the latest in London’s Edgware Road) and he sells hard, via mail order, to both motorcycle and car enthusiasts, especially in car road wheels and crash helmets. All the companies I discussed this article with had been established originally in the Sixties, save another specialist outfit that shows you can make money in today’s climate, without being a marketing mail order dynamo. That outfit is called Safety Devices, has two partner-founders (Brian Wilkinson, Tony Willis) and four employees. Their annual turnover is £70,000 p.a. That is double Britain’s industrial average, and it all comes from making roll cages for the popular sporting saloons.
There are many more examples of small businesses really pushing out work, but let us return to our small sample of speed industry opinions.
First I talked to a pair of well-established speed shops in the London area, which still sell equipment that is intended to make a motor car faster, rather than different, or prettier, or whatever. Some five years ago a young sausage salesman with a penchant for driving Mini Cooper S types as well as the best in rallycross established his first Ripspeed branch. Keith Ripp rapidly gave up sausages for his new-found proprietorship and has largely prospered since then, operating two outlets in Middlesex, one concerned with mail order.
Ripp commented, “I reckon 20% of our business is for cars people want to go faster on the road. Of them our trade is split between Ford and Leyland’s Mini as the most popular, with Vauxhall coming up well. I think Opels are going to be the coming thing, but there is a problem over getting the parts if you don’t want to deal with Dealer Opel Team.
“I would say 40% of our trade is export now land I’d say I’m astonished—J.W. I with most of our stuff going to Japan, Hong Kong and Holland. Most of our competition business is from circuit racers, but I’m still involved with rallycross myself and there’s some rallying interest to be found in this part of the World.
“Our most popular accessory is the £5.95 steering wheels: we sell around 100 a week!” Chris Montague is another young speedshop owner with faith, and sales in speed equipment. His business has been established eight years, recently moving into new Finchley Road premises, and benefited in the past from the owner’s exploits in a Mini Cooper S. Today Montague says of competition, “we spend our money purely on advertising, but there’s no doubt that racing helped in making our name.”
In contrast to the general pattern Montague reported, “I should say 80% of our tuning equipment is supplied for road use. The Mini is still most popular with our customers, and we do a fair number of complete conversions. For example, a cam, cylinder head and carburetter kit would cost about £125 fitted, but I find there’s little call from the public for braking modifications to match the extra speed.
“I have noticed an increase in sales of items like the Kenlowe electric fan with the increased consciousness of fuel economy. Even if people do not buy conversions, as they didn’t during the fuel crisis, they still seem to spend money on maintaining their carburetters, so we were able to struggle along quite well.” Montague represents many of the older established names who have survived the years—Minilite, Janspeed and Restall (“still a fine seat,” he says with satisfaction)— but Ripp represents the interests a some useful younger additions to the performance field. For example there’s former Downton and Janspeed employee Richard Longman, now recovered from major surgery, who has a very respected engine assembly and parts manufacturing business at Christchurch in Wiltshire. Then there are the Maniflow exhaust manifold people, who, like Janspeed, are based in Salisbury. Turnover of Maniflow products, just in the Ripp emporium, exceeds £500 a week, so there’s still money in better breathing.
A regular competitor and proprietor of All Car Equipe opposite Brands Hatch, Nick Whiting has some fascinating insights into the psychology of the converted road car owner. Whiting says, “most of our business in the workshops is concentrated on road cars rather than competition models. We find that speed limits have very little effect indeed on what our customers want: no matter what they say most of them are still interested in top speed! They still want to know how fast it will go.
“Most of the cars are Fords, but by no means all, and we find that custom is most strongly affected by cost, For instance Weber prices went up just recently, and that really does make a difference to the amount of business.”
Another specialist that has done well in recent years goes under the name of Demon Tweaks. Based near Chester and founded by Alan Minshaw some four years ago, this company concentrates on competition customers, and especially their shock-absorbing needs. They stock everything from their own modified (new valving for their own bump and rebound rates) dampers, up through all the popular brands to the extremely efficient, and expensive, gas-filled Bilstein units.
The shop manager says, “I suppose only 20% of our people are normal road-going motorists, but it is very hard to tell, as a lot alternate between competition and road use on the rally side. You can tell they are not normal road customers, usually, when they ask for adjustable shockers! We do find our business is a bit seasonal in that racing demand lasts through from March ’till roughly October, when we start to get more rallying folk in.”
Next on our agenda were a couple of conversion companies who typify the middle of the road approach between the large specialist like Janspeed (who maintain their position as the leading source of manifolding in Britain, as well as running a very successful racing association with Datsun Holland) and the man round the corner with a rotary drill.
First we talked to Malcolm Richards at OseIli Engineering near Oxford. He told us, “before the fuel crisis we had a ratio of 70% road customers to 30% competitors: nowadays I would say there’s more like 40% of our work going out for road use and 60% competitors.
“We concentrate on engine engineering. I think we have every conceivable machine available to us on this side, save any heat treatment devices. Thus we get a pretty fair cross-section of buyers. Ford and Leyland owners are our biggest customers, but we did work last year on racing Group I Alfa Romeos (the Clark Cars/Penthouse team 1600 GTi models) and Renault R5s as well.
“In single-seater terms we tend to stop short at FF2000, but we have a £50 bonus scheme in operation this year to help us establish our engines with a wider number of competitors. We have been trading as Oselli for 11 to 12 years, but our previous concentration on road-going conversions means that we have to make a special effort to establish our name in competition circles.”
Some of you may remember OseIli for those “big bore” range of engine enlargements that they used to offer to Mini owners. Unfortunately these died of inflation: in the beginning new engine units cost about £90— today it is more like £205. Up in the West Midlands, Aldon Automotive have been trading for seven years. Co-founder of the company, Alan Goodwin, reported that “we do get more competition customers since the fuel crisis, but there is still a lot of road work about. I would say that 80% of our trade concerns high performance vehicles—Aldon operate a bread and-butter servicing side, a rolling road (and are accredited Lotus Service Dealers) and that over half of those cars are used in competition.
“I think fuel prices and speed limits have had an effect on our kind of business, but we still do a lot of conversion work, primarily on Leyland cars.” Aldon built a reputation for quite radical Spridget modifications, and they deal with such work today. Mr. Goodwin commented, “we find quite a demand for our 1,950-c.c. MG-B conversion, which is typical of the sort of work you have to do today to get emission-controlled cars hack to the performance figures we used to get several years ago . . . In fact it can he quite a job to get them to go as quickly as the standard cars of several years back!” It was very interesting to hear the kind of work that Aldon customers ask for on the various models, for it varies quite sharply. As an example Goodwin says, “on a B it’s more power every time. For the Dolomite Sprint there’s the demand for extra power, but there are those who simply have the suspension modified to give better handling, which effectively gives higher speeds anyway. For the Marina, we have to start with the brakes and suspension, then modify the car. Of course, in an ideal world all cars should be modified this way, first the brakes and suspension, then the engine, but we have to persuade people to have this kind of work.”
“Another interesting change in business has come from people trading up or down, using the tuning side. For instance we have had customers opt for fully tuned Dolly Sprints in place of Jaguar XJs, and even a chap who had several hundred pounds-worth of modifications made to cheer up a Mini as a replacement for a Sprint.
“So far as competition is concerned, we’ve had a couple of surprises lately for we have supported cars in three rallies. I reckon there’s been more customer interest than that generated in the previous ten years’ racing! This has a lot to do with the fact of where we are located, which is a bit of a blank spot on the racing map. Customers are really pleased when they’re starting number one hundred and something and we have a car in the top ten on the same rally.
“We’ll carry on with the racing. I think we could be behind three cars in Leyland’s various Mini racing series, and there’s Formula Ford for our engine side. We found FF a challenge, so we were really pleased when the engine ended the season with, we think, the same performance as anybody else.”
Finally we talked to potentially the biggest tuning organisation in Britain, and a very successful exporter, Leyland ST. I spoke to John Kerswell on the marketing side, and was disappointed to find that no figures for turnover are released to the Press, presumably because the taxpayers could then balance that possible income against the company’s competition activities and discover an inevitable deficit. Kerswell says that only 25% of Leyland ST’s performance customers will be buying for road use (the department also carry equipment to help caravanners and the like) and that those competition customers seem to divide pretty evenly between rally and racing aficionados.
“We are now concentrating on the kind of premium product that carries complete engineering approval and which customers can really only buy from us,” began Mr. Kerswell. He added, “such things as straightcut gears are a good example. However, we are very pleased with the amount of equipment that we send abroad, as we feel that the European market is going to provide especially good racing business with the Dolomite Sprint in Group 2 form. “For road use we have put a package together to suit the Sprint. It consists of the 2-in. bore SU carburetters (£55 approx.), an air cleaner that is unfortunately expensively hand-made at present, an inlet manifold, and the camshaft developed as part of our Group 2 competition programme. Total cost of the parts would be in the £110-£120 bracket. We also do harder bushes for Sprint suspension, and adjustable shockabsorbers that lower the rear end by half an-inch, give a good ride, and improve the handling.”
Development of a V8 performance kit for the owners of MG-Bs and Range Rovers is still going on, which I find a mystery as I can remember writing about such a programme in 1972. These things take time? Well, the engine used in the B is to Range Rover spec., so why not simply offer a restitution of the power that went missing when the eight-cylinders crept out of the 3500S and into the B? Access within the B engine compartment from a bonnet line and exhaust manifold viewpoint could be tricky, but I should have thought we could have tried something by now. Ford engineers cooked up the old RS2000 in six months and that included getting the four-cylinder Pinto mounted in the right position to give good handling, deleting the radiator fan, drawing up and manufacturing a bellhousing and sump in alloy. In fact that Ford offshoot regularly had to deal with engine transplants, or the consequences of turbocharging, swiftly. I am sure the Chrysler men, who had to produce the Tiger Avenger variant, could let Leyland have a couple of tips on getting Rover V8 performance improvements to the public. There must be sufficient Rovers, Morgans and MGs around to make it viable.
More cheerfully Kerswell can reflect on a 1975 where the volume of business is said to be over 20% up on the previous year, primarily owing to internal marketing changes, Kerswell feels. The overall impression is an optimistic one of a British tuning business that has adapted to the times. Specialisation, accompanied by the highest possible standards at a price most can afford, can still produce some healthy offspring from the main speed business.
So far as the Press is concerned things have changed in one important respect. We do not have demonstration cars from the tuners any more. Most who had wide experience of modified motor cars could he inclined to relief at that lack of current experience. So often the process of extracting extra speed was accompanied by an unacceptable degree of noise, or a sharp drop in the chances of ever reaching A from point B. However, the good tuned cars do make up for the black sheep—most of which were produced in the Sixties rather than recently.
I can recall some really outstanding machinery, such as some excellent Capris, notably from Broadspeed and Superspeed, a fantastic Special Tuning MG Midget (over 110 m.p.h. any time you were brave enough to try); a Holbay-tuned Lotus Seven, which sported a radio and white leather upholstery; a glass-fibred Mini floorpan that was propelled by a full race Mini engine, and given the rudiments of Jeep-style bodywork. I also enjoyed a turbocharged, Mk. III Cortina with V6 power unit and a habit of exceeding 130 honest m.p.h. on any occasion that the development engineer was not awake to the possibility of my shattering his consistent 20 m.p.g. consumption figures. C. R. is the man who has enjoyed the ultimate in tuned machinery though, still sighing as he recalls Alpina’s 152 mph., 0-100 m.p.h. in 13.9 sec. BMW 3.0 CSL and a Samuri-modified Datsun 240Z.
Perhaps my son will survive the next coming of the tuned car. Then Britain will be glutted with North Sea Oil, abandoned mass-production lines, and Government committees investigating where the committees went wrong in their treatment of the motorist during the 1970s.—J.W.