In which the Assistant Editor looks back on a varied, exciting and sometimes dramatic year
All this excitement has to be put into perspective before readers gain the impression that such a way of life is the everyday norm for me. Far from it: most days are taken up with fairly tedious office-bound editorial work; usually this writer is the only editorial man in the office and somebody has to put the magazine together . . . Thus most activities have to be crammed into whatever other hours are available, which leaves little time for putting my feet up in front of a roaring fire.
The year began propitiously, the first week’s motoring done in the comfort and smoothness of a Mercedes 450SE, a solid piece of Teutonic saloon car engineering which performs and handles better than most Italian exotica. From such luxury I descended into the mire of the Forest of Dean for it first-ever taste of special stage rally co-driving. Not for me a gentle education with some amateur learning his driving techniques in a modestly-tuned Mini. Instead it rash acceptance of an invitation to co-drive Andy Dawson in nothing less than the Chequered Flag Lancia Stratos, potentially the fastest and certainly the most exciting car in British rallying. Pre-start butterflies melted away in one of the most satisfying sensations I’ve ever experienced, an adventure totally drama-free in the so-safe hands of the accomplished Dawson. Dawson took the Stratos on this first drive as though they had rallied together for years and on my very first special stage I had the glory of being driven at a pace which even beat the legendary “Albert” Clark, to be joint fastest overall with Russell Brookes. On the second stage we were fastest and took the lead in the rally, but any hopes of being a winner first time out as a navigator were dashed when the gearbox locked up on the third stage. It took 1 3/4 hours to make repairs and Dawson’s efforts to make up time had to be experienced to be believed. He had pulled its back from 63rd position to 24th by the end. Dawson’s skills with the Stratos were justifiably rewarded the following month when he won the Mintex International Rally, co-driven by my predecessor at Motor Sport, Andy Marriott.
My instant enthusiasm for rally co-driving must have shown through clearly at the end of the Dean, for it prompted Dealer Opel Team press officer June Beedham to arrange a co-drive for me with York turkey breeder Mike Rawson on the Knutsford Motor Club Plains Rally, based on Barmouth, North Wales. This time the mount was an Opel Kadett, entered by the enthusiastic Stockshill Garage people at Scarborough. I’m not sure whether Mike realised just how inexperienced I was as a co-driver; the situation with Dawson had been different because of the tolerance which exists in it close friendship and because we always had Dawson’s own considerable navigational skills to fall back on. On the other hand I hadn’t much knowledge of Mike’s driving capabilities, so we were quits. In fact the whole event flowed remarkably smoothly. Mike put it wheel wrong only once, which fortunately he retrieved skilfully from the edge of a deep drop and I found only one minor wrong-slot. The rugged Opel held together with hardly any attention and considerately left the rejection of its Panhard rod till the end of the last stage. We finished third overall, it credit to an excellent drive by Mike in it heavy car of modest power and with an unsuitable four-speed gearbox.
Dawson confesses to preferring an amiable atmosphere between himself and co-driver in the cockpit to sheer co-driving skill and experience. Thus it was that this inexperienced “sack of potatoes” found himself seated alongside his St. Albans near-neighbour in the forests of South-East Scotland and North East England for the Jim Clark Rally in July. This time we were in Japanese machinery, a works Datsun Violet 710 with twin-carn, 16-valve 1.8-litre engine, sponsored by Sanyo and prepared by Glovers of Ely. There were some tense moments in the afternoon prior to the start when the engine proved to have a chronic misfire, which was never totally eradicated and various essential modifications had to be hurriedly carried out before Dawson considered the Datsun to be worthy of competing. Based on Duns, in homage to the great World Champion, the Jim Clark Rally had some new experiences in store for me in the shape of a rallycross-type stage at Charterhall, an incredibly demanding tarmac stage over the Otterburn army ranges, where cars had been searched at the start for pace-notes, and the horror of hurtling blind through clouds of previous competitors dust in the forest at night. Worst of all were the hungry midges, which threatened to devour us while we surreptitiously delayed our stage starts on long as possible to let the dust settle. There was the education too of being driven at almost undiminished pace through the last six miles of a Kidder forest stage on a flat front tyre, the terror of the unknown over unmarked brows flanked by steep drops and “dead” tanks at racing speeds on the tarmac Otterburn ranges, the ignominy when Roger Clark caught us on a stage when we slowed with a slipped distributor. The heavy Datsun wasn’t quick enough over the steeps of Otter burn, but our forest stage times were quick enough to give us sixth overall and a class win. Ford’s shooting star Ari Vatanen won.
It was back to Scotland with Dawson and the Dotson for the fabulous Burmah Rally in August, a Dunoon-based event which took on through some of the most superb scenery amid the forests and lochs of the Western mainland. And my chauffeur excelled himself, blowing off the might of the works Escorts to hold the lead for the entire first half of the rally. But Ari Vatanen/Peter Bryant were gradually eating into our lead by the breakfast/halfway halt, in spite of the nerveless Finn bouncing his Escort off practically every piece of scenery in sight. Then we made a fundamental error in selecting Kleber racing tyres for the long Minard stage. It was worth a try but there was much more loose surface than we anticipated and we couldn’t compete with the Dunlop A2-shod Vatanen. As the hot Saturday morning wound on Clark took his Escort ahead of on to, as the Datsun’s handling deteriorated when the not suspension began to break up. Back in Dunoon we remained confident of at least third overall and Castrol’s Roger Willis on the podium thought we had won, because there was no sign of the two Escorts. No such luck. The pair arrived within their allowed lateness, so we shook hands on third place. Again our luck was out, for when the results appeared, Russell Brookes had beaten us into third by not one second. Fourth it had to be. I still feel that with more experience I could have found that vital second somewhere, but Dawson was philosophical. His brilliant showing against the might of the Ford team did not go unnoticed and no doubt it is partly because of that display that Dawson has found himself in the Ford team for 1977. In that star position it is unlikely that he will be allowed to put any further national or international rally invitations this inexperienced way. I shall be alongside him in a “works” Leyland Princess on the British Caravan Road Rally, however, which is some consolation, I suppose.
I had some non-competitive “hot-seat” experience in February when Castrol held a Press open day in the Forest of Dean to introduce their Rally Championship. There were exciting rides with Colin Malkin in a Porsche Carrera, Russell Brookes in his RS1800, Rod Cooper in another RS and Vauxhall-mounted Will Sparrow, but it wasn’t the same without the thrill of competition.
If my rallying year was exciting, my racing season was horrendously dramatic. It began safely enough, though without glory, in a Brands Hatch modsports race with the same Datsun 240Z Super Samuri I road tested for Motor Sport in 1973. The car had been returned to Spike Anderson,the builder of the tuned Super Samuris, for resale and because of a project we were involved in, which I’ll come to later, Spike suggested I give the well-used old faithful a whirl round the circuit. Unfortunately, two days before the race an ominous rumble announced run bearings and when we took the sump off the crankshaft proved to be beyond saving. The mysteriously alien bottom end transpired to have been taken from a crashed 240C after the original had thrown a rod when low on oil. Some frantic phone calls and the help of a friendly dealer in Leicester located a new crankshaft. Spike and a friend worked through the Saturday night to rebuild the engine, drove the car to Brands without sleep, we bolted on a set of slick-shod wheels and pitted this road car against full-house modsports cars. The car went well for a few laps until the front dampers faded completely, creating appalling understeer, but I finished thirteenth and wasn’t last.
The project I mentioned had been at the back of Spike’s mind for some time. It was to take an innocent 1200 Datsun Sunny Coupe, chop it around, install a Datsun 240Z engine tuned to Super Samuri specification, with triple Weber carburetters and on on, and develop it into an ultra-quick, yet docile, road car cum Super Saloon racer. Instead of just thinking, he actually got round to doing it, with some financial help from Brian Harvey, of Grand Prix Models in Radlett. Initially this projectile used a Cortina rear axle, sold to Spike as having a limited slip differential, which was grafted on to the Sunny with a system of trailing links and coil springs. The great day came when I was to try it at Silver stone for the first time. It fired up with the deep, throaty “brrumph” of a D-type Jaguar and went well. . . for all of 1 3/4 laps, when the differential, which it transpired had never seen a limited slip, seized solid and smashed the housing. The Panhard rod broke off too.
Back to the drawing board, or chalk on concrete, from whence this Sukati Samuri, as Spike had christened this superb-looking, red, white and bronze device, emerged with a Capri 3-litre axle and a limited slip differential. Ten days later I found myself chewing my finger nails in the paddock at Mallory Park while the time for my special saloon practice approached, with no sign of Spike or the car. He arrived just in the nick of time (driving it on the road, of course), we rushed it through scrutineering, had no time to change from the Lotus Elite-type Dunlop road tyres to slicks, so off I went on a tightrope of rubber. The engine felt absolutely beautiful and the handling terrifying, but all went well until I hit the brakes for the Esses on the third lap. No brakes! And at an approach speed on road tyres which would have been the same for racing tyres. Whether by good luck or good judgement I reacted correctly, whipping the wheel over to the right to put the car into a spin, which went on. . . and on. . . and on, with little tyre “stiction” to slow the car down. I ended up the wrong way against the Armco, with just a small ding in the front wing to show for the drama. The problem proved to be growth of the front ventilated discs, which had expanded against the four-pot AP calipers and boiled the fluid.
The brakes were modified (using a hammer and screw-driver . . .) for the race, for which the heavens opened. Back to the road tyres, for wet-weather racers did not exist in our vocabulary. Surprisingly, the Sukati Samuri was able to keep pace with the famous Rover V8-engined Berpop, correctly shod, until I lost it at the Esses, without hitting anything. I recovered to finish tenth overall, which was better than nowhere.
The big day came for our first venture into Super Saloons, a gloriously sunny June 6th on the Silverstone Club Circuit. This time we had racing rubber in place and the Sukati looked prettily functional, if rather square in the wheelbase. Practice was not without its problems, for one of the new coil-spring/ damper units broke off and the rear axle moved laterally to that a trailing-arm locating bolt ate away the inner shoulder of one of the Dunlop slicks. Handling? What was that? But I qualified, by no means last, though a noticeably long way back on the grid from Gerry Marshall’s Baby Bertha.
The leading pack roared off from the start with the Datsun, for some reason down on engine revs, spinning its wheels in their wake. Safely round into Club Straight, foot hard down and everything in front drew further and further away. They obviously sensed what was about to happen. Into Woodcote, with the brakes feeling more reassuring now, on with the lock and the power . . . then a sudden lurch sideways, which I automatically tried to correct, the tail lifted in the air, the horizon changed and suddenly I felt as though a huge hand was shaking me around violently. I glimpsed intermittent patches of tarmac and sky, felt my crash-helmet chattering against the roll cage as incredible forces tried to tug me out of my seat amidst dust and fumes. So this was the end. After an eternity the holocaust stopped. No, that wasn’t an angel reaching in through the gap where the screen had been, it was a fireproofed BRSCC marshal. The Sukati Stood, or what was left of it, was on its side on the grass right by the Woodcote marshals post, rather convenient, for the car was on fire. I climbed out and shook myself while the marshals played their extinguishers.
Apparently I had thrilled the grandstand crowd with one of the most spectacular rolls at Woodcote in years. The sequence had started when the nearside rear wheel had come adrift, rolled under the car and acted as a launching ramp. I won’t get into the arguments about what had caused the wheel to abandon ship. Suffice to say that miraculously I escaped without to much as the shadow of a bruise, or even delayed shock. That Double Diamond certainly Worked Wonders. Anyhow, that was the end of Sukati Samuri, though Spike Anderson has just built a revised version purely for the road.
I went into racing retirement for all of fourteen days, after which ShellSport and Leyland squeezed me into their “guest-driver” Mini 1275GT for a round of the 1275GT Challenge at Mallory Park. Unfortunately, Leyland ST had not had time to keep this car’s development in pace with the competition and the leading cars left it standing still. “My” car’s Dunlop SP Sports were no snatch for the specially-buffed Avons, essential wear for quick lap times. I finished well back in 12th place, where I just held off the small class prodsports cars, mixed with our race.
Just to ring the changes, the next time I sat on the Mallory Park grid was in the driving seat of a Renault 5TL in a round of the Renault 5 Championship. My immaculate Renault was owned and entered by Sid Pemberton’s creative co-ordination company, Unitam and prepared by motorcycle racer Roger Keen from Aylesbury. The drive was available because regular driver Sid was on holiday. I don’t think Sid’s earlier performances had excited two-wheeled racer Keen, but when I put up a respectable practice time with a down-on-power engine and too high suspension Roger got quite fired up and soon had the rear torsion bars readjusted for the race. In the race, I’d pulled up to something like fifth place with Renault employee Andrew Dent chasing hard, slower than me round Gerrards and the rest of the short club circuit, but quicker into the chicane where my car had a violent oversteer problem. It had an even more violent oversteer problem when Dent decided to drive into my tail when it was hanging well out. There was no avoiding the ensuing spin into the Armco on the inside of the chicane; my Renault was quite badly damaged thanks to a stupid piece of aggressive driving. Unpoetically, Dent was able to recover to finish sixth.
My next event, a Celebrity Escort Race for Journalists at Brand Hatch, ended even more violently. I qualified on pole position with Motor’s Tony Scott and Triple-C’s Terry Grimwood sharing the front row. The pole position dip in the ground at Brands is not the best place to be in a low-powered Escort and Scott and Grimwood pulled ahead of me up the hill to Paddock. Scott led Grimwood out of Druids and down towards Graham Hill Bend with me hanging on behind. Then the circus started. Grimwood tried to take Scott round the outside, Scott wasn’t having any of it and moved over and the two slid on to the grass together. Nothing to do with me, I thought, pulling towards the inside of the bend to make certain. Then Grimwood’s car performed the classic violent recovery which was to cost a Formula Ford driver his life at the same place later in the season: sliding sideways half on and half off the grass, his car suddenly found grip and catapulted at right angles across the circuit. Guess who was in the way! His car’s nose hit my car’s tail a violent “thwack”, I piled on opposite lock, but there was no grip to be found and the Escort hurtled into the Armco on the inside of the circuit at practically unabated speed. Once again I thanked the Almighty for safety belts and ShellSport counted the cost of yet another Celebrity Escort write-off.
After all these shunts I began to think seriously about packing up motor racing. Then Graig Hinton put much too strong a temptation my way with an invitation to drive his Jaguar 2.4 Mk. 1, part of Lord Bradford’s Weston Park Racing Team, in a round of the Classic Saloon Car Championship at a 750 MC Snetterton meeting. Waft an old Jaguar under my nose and there is no holding me back, and surely my luck had to change, anyway. Hinton’s disc-braked car, an early small-grilled example, immaculate in British Racing Green, had a 200 b.h.p. engine prepared by Ron Beanie in Kenilworth. Graig had done some work on the suspension, including fitting the inevitable Konis, the brakes were from a Mk. 9 and the chrome wire wheels shod with XJ6-size Dunlop SP Sports. Most of the upholstery had been removed and a competition seat fitted, but the woodwork remained. After that Silverstone experience the lack of a roll cage concerned me, although full-harness belts were fitted. With rny own three Jaguars having been non-runners for some years, climbing into TVC 254 was like rejoining an old friend. We clicked quite well in practice in spite of a “getting to know you” spin, and the start found us sitting in the centre of the front row, with Bob Meacham, in the second Weston Park Racing 2.4, on pole. The signs looked good.
When the flag dropped it seemed as though my luck was to run true to form, this time through my own silly fault. The steering-wheel spokes were a little off centre and straightening them had put a touch of lock on the front wheels. What with the lock and wheelspin the 2.4 tried to whip sideways as soon as I dropped the clutch; the sheer effort in trying to straighten the car with one hand upset the directional ability of the other as I made a grab for second gear; I ended up with neutral! By the time I’d sorted it all out the fifth row of the grid was upon me and with steam pouring from my ears and fire from my eyes I swore that this time I had to resurrect something from my dreadful season. That beautiful Ron Beattie engine wound itself round to 7,500 r.p.m., a usable figure with the shorter-stroke 2,4, as I hurled TVC through the pack, coping with the girth of huge Mk. VIIs which seemed to fill the track. Mk. VII-mounted Graig waved me past gallantly, but I had trouble with Stuart Jones’ Mk. VIII into Russell’s chicane, where the 2.4 was well into the rev, scale in top gear and felt very light on the road. It took some quick opposite lock and use of the inside of the inside kerb to get out of that one. Eventually I whittled down the leaders to two, Bob Meacham and Michael Bennion’s Zephyr. The Jaguar’s brakes were beginning to feel very rough under pressure and a rear one locked up at the end of the pits straight, with a hint of a nasty moment. The handling was tremendous fun though, and the sensation of rounding Corams on full-blooded oversteer in third, then popping the box into top in mid-slide will long remain with me.
On the sixth lap (I think) I was right up with Meacham and Bennion, but the latter closed the door on me abruptly on the back straight and kept it shut for another lap. On the next lap I hung back a bit and when the two of them confused each other on the third-gear bend before the back straight I popped the Jaguar into second and accelerated into the distance towards my first ever laurel wreath. It had been my most enjoyable race of the season, not just because I had won, but because of the sheer fun of commanding that rolling Jaguar and its beautiful engine, the spectacle of the other old saloons and the friendliness of the regular Classic “Salooners”. As an added confidence booster I equalled the lap record which Motor’s Gordon Bruce had set in the same car earlier in the season.
After those “smashing” experiences earlier in the season an invitation from Jan Odor to race a new Datsun Sunny Coupe special saloon he intended to build, to run under his Janspeed banner, came as something of a surprise. As I have long had a high regard for Jan and his work I was more than keen.
Jan built the car up from a repaired crashed shell around a full-race, 130 b.h.p., carburated engine and five-speed close ratio gearbox, similar to the units he has run successfully for the Dutch Datsun Dealer Team for the last few seasons. He fabricated a totally new rear suspension system incorporating a Watt-linkage, amongst other things, to locate the live rear axle. In all respects other than the rear axle the car was virtually to the heavy Group 2 specification, with all its steel panels, glass windows and winding mechanism and even the door trim retained.
The idea was to have the car ready for testing before I went on holiday in the last two weeks in September, but the Dutch racing schedule intervened and the first time I set eyes on it was in the paddock at Silverstone prior to running it in the final of the Esso Uniflo Special Saloon Car Championship, on the Grand Prix Circuit. It was totally untested and I was bleary eyed, having arrived back from Spain at 3 a.m. that morning, but I went out and let things take their course and we qualified on the fifth row of the grid with a satisfactory 1 min. 51.9 sec. The Datsun handling felt rather nervous, but the engine and gearbox were delightful and the ever-helpful Norman, Jan’s chief mechanic, and I looked forward to a good race.
Then the heavens opened, making conditions so had that the race before mine had to be stopped. The track was awash and I’ve never been so frightened in my life as I was when heading into Copse from the start, totally blinded by the spray from the fat tyres of Marshall, Hawker and co. The Datsun’s unscrubbed “wets” had hardly any grip and I discreetly fell back into the clutches of the smaller Minis. Blinded by the spray of one of these I failed to see a deep puddle on the exit from the fast Abbey Curve; one side of the car practically stopped dead before spinning the car instantly. I clipped the tail of the innocent Mini, which spun down the circuit, fortunately without hitting anything else, and then the Datsun careered off towards the Motor Bridge. Luckily I collected the concrete wall before the bridge at the right angle with the nearside front wing and bounced off to come to rest with the tail against the wall. The damage looked worse than it was and the Janspeed lads had the red, white and blue car back in pristine condition in four days.
I had a further two races in this Datsun, interspersed with a fascinating test session at Goodwood, sharing the car with Also Poole. With Alec’s help we were able to improve the handling, but the big problem remained with the tyre compound—too hard to warm up. It was the consequent lack of grip which caused me to run out of circuit and spin on the first lap of a Mallory Park race, but at least I finished. I had better luck in the Simoniz Special Saloon Car Championship finals at Brands Hatch, finishing fifth in the hotly-contested 1300 class and 10th overall.
This little Datsun’s vices were finally cured by swapping the hard compound Dunlops for a set of lower-profile, softer compound Goodyears from Poole’s Group 2 Escort. These transformed the car and late in the season Also went on to finish third overall and win his class in a Thruxton race.
For 1977 Jan intends to turbocharge the car, but the chances are that Poole will drive it most of the time.
One other semi-competitive event I took part in last year (apart from playing a charity football match for the Graham Hill Fund, when our team of racing drivers and journalists lost something like 12-3 to the Happy Wanderers team of TV stars) was . . well, I can’t really remember much about it. . . something to do with wine… hic… and a rather large racing driver called Marshall. It was all the fault—sorry, idea—of Tony Mayes, Public Relations Manager for Tricentool, the British-controlled natural resources exploration company, which has a familiar involvement with garages and motor racing. Tony wanted to put on a race for the new Beaujolais release in France, with a different emphasis to the Sunday Times event. Brave man that he is he decided to pit rivals Marshall and Chris Craft against one another, the former in his Group 1 Tour of Britain Magnum and Craft in a special 3.3-litre Capri developed for customer sales by Tricentrol. Me to go with friend Marshall and Motor’s Peter Doss with Craft.
Not content with Beaujolais, after collecting our red 1977 plonk from Beaune, we were to hurtle through the night to Riquewihr to collect the latest vintage of delicious Alsace wine and then surface in Erpernay at the Champagne houses of Pol Roger and Moet and Chandon for breakfast. Here we were to collect bottles of 1911 champagne and magnums of ordinary vintage to rush them back to London for a celebratory gastronomic meal at Bill Bentley’s restaurant, Bishopsgate. The “race” was finally decided by the toss of a coin in the gardens of Moet and Chandon, when we decided that the competition was becoming distinctly hairy. Marshall and I were declared “winners” but the gentlemanly “drivers” finally gave the trophy to Peter and myself, who had done 70% of the driving in any case. Amongst blurred memories of this Tricentrol experience remain that of a blue Citroen SM, whose uniformed occupants fined Marshall 300 francs for a slight excess of speed (112 m.p.h.) and that delicious meal at Bentleys. Other memories are better left buried.
As might be imagined, the more normal routine of road tests and new car introductions paled slightly against the background of the foregoing. Yet a trip to Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Opel, Ford, etc. in Germany in a manual Jaguar XJ-S was far from mundane. For silence, smooth speed and sheer effortlessness the XJ-S has to be the finest car in the world and I will for ever remember clocking 151.5 m.p.h. on an autobahn in this silver V12 coupe laden with three people and luggage and putting 240 miles into two hours. That was motoring at its finest level. Lower down the Leyland tree the new Rover 3500 impressed equally in its own way, but I hope Leyland soon overcome complaints or poor finish and trim parts falling off.
The year also saw the appearance of myself and TR6, Pig in ‘ell, on Thames Television’s Drive-In programme to introduce the new TR7, a car which in an earlier test session J.W. and I had found to be appallingly short of brakes. In August, dear old Pig in ‘ell (hyprocrite!) went to pastures new, to be replaced by an Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider Veloce, which to date has spent eight weeks of its six months’ life in Alfa’s workshops.
There were flights in a Bell Jetranger to see a Rover 3500 sold off at BCA’s Frimley auctions on the day of announcement, to Exeter in a Navajo Chieftain for the introduction of the Colt Sigma and some fun driving a Winnebago mobile home from the London Sports Car Centre to the International Trophy. Of more interesting production road cars to come my way there was the BMW 633 CSi, an Aston Martin V8, brief drives in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Camargue, a brief session with Maserati and De Tomasos on the Modena circuit in Italy and, almost at the end, a week with a new Porsche Carrera 3, which spent most of its time in my driveway whilst I recovered from cockle-inspired food poisoning contracted at the Guild of Motoring Writers’ Dinner.
Oh, what a boring life !—C.R.