The worst car I ever drove - The Laughable Cavalier

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John Cleland – 1990 Vauxhall Cavalier

John Cleland is no stranger to tough choices but deciding whether the 1990 BTCC Cavalier or 97 Vectra was the worst car he’s ever driven took some thought. Shaun Campbell names the winner

How could a car that set eleven pole positions a season and took its driver to second place in the championship be considered the worst set of wheels John Cleland ever drove? Yet the 47-year-old stalwart of British touring cars hesitates only fractionally before nominating the 1990 Vauxhall Cavalier as the most frightening thing he’s ever sat in.

Perhaps not the absolute worst, though: That slight pause gives time to weigh up the paltry pros and considerable cons of last year’s steed, the Vectra. “It’s a toss up between the two,” he confesses. “I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t driven many bad cars, but both of those made me question my sanity. You get into the thing, slam the door and ask yourself, Do I really want to win that badly, and I am being paid enough?’ And the answers arc yes… and no.”

In 1989 Cleland had won the British touring car title in a Vauxhall Astra, prepared by the Yorkshire based firm of Dave Cook. In the following season, though, the new 2-litre class took effect and Vauxhall decided to attack the category with its new Cavalier. Clearly it wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the Sierra Cosworths that were slugging it out for overall victory, but it was hoped that the Cavalier would be a match for the BMW M3s in the 2-litre class.

The illusion quickly shattered. The Cavalier was the first of a new breed and, as Cleland recalls with a degree of humour that you suspect was lacking at the time, it took the team a long time to get to grips with it. “It had nothing like the sophistication of today’s cars, nothing like the downforce, nothing like the grip. Basically, you got the bodywork the factory threw out the door, you ripped out the seats and whatever, and went racing. Dave Cook had done a wonderful job with the Astra the previous year, but the Cavalier was all new, it had a longer wheelbase, and we had real problems sorting it out.”

The biggest of which was keeping the tyres on the ground. “It had a constant desire for life on two wheels,” says Cleland. “You didn’t need a kerb, it just went up and leaned over of its own accord. I think the place it frightened me most was the Donington grand prix circuit. I was coming out of the Goddard hairpin on to the pit straight like Evel Knievel.”

The one saving grace in the early months of the Cavalier’s development was its speed in practice. “We were running on Dunlops and they developed a really good qualifying tyre. With those on, it had so much grip it was just stunning. They didn’t make it much easier to drive, but it really gripped. Driving it was literally like the Wall of Death. Obviously, they wouldn’t last the race and, at first, neither would the race rubber. We were rooting our tyres at a simply incredible rate.”

Various solutions were tried, including a rearwheel drive version, using a BMW M3 rear axle. “We never raced it, largely because we lost so much power between the transverse engine at the front and the drive at the rear. It was like driving a 1000cc car, but it was much better balanced, just lovely to drive. It’s strange really, I’ve spent the past ten years making my living from racing front-wheel-drive cars but I hate them with a passion. And that one in particular. You had to be so brave with it. If the rear stepped out at all – which it did a lot – you just had to keep your right foot hard down on the floor.”

The Thruxton meeting in May was the turning point Those super-sticky Dunlops guaranteed fastest qualifying time for the class, and Cleland held off the BMW M3 challenge, led by Frank Sytner and Jeff Allam, to win the 2-litre category. “We’d made quite a few changes by then,” he said. “We lowered it a fair bit, shifted the weight distribution around, and it was improving all the time.”

A second car for the team also helped, taking some of the testing and development burden from Cleland’s shoulders. A variety of drivers tried the second car, including Chris Hodgetts and an emerging singleseat driver from Scotland called David Coulthard.

“Everyone knew he was good, a lad going in the right direction,” says Cleland. “And there was the thought that young kids are usually braver than the old ones. But he had problems with it, too. He kept throwing it into the gravel. I remember once at Brands Hatch when he collected enough of the stuff to pebble-dash his mother’s house. I think of all the people who drove it, he was the only one with the balls to say, ‘Jesus, these things are hard to drive’.”

Cleland freely admits that seeing other drivers wrestle with the Cavalier made him feel better. It hadn’t shaken his confidence in his own ability, but it put the wind up him sufficiently to question the wisdom of getting into it. Despite that it was fast becoming an increasingly competitive proposition and, as the end of the season approached, Cleland found himself with an long shot at the championship. “That all came to an end in the Birmingham race, when Frank Syther punted me in out in – how shall I put it? controversial circumstances,” he says. “I remember getting out and grabbing him by the adam’s apple.” Cleland is quick to point out that they get on well now, but the incident is a reminder of just how hot the competitive spirit burns.

“We did finally get it sorted out,” he says. “We found a way of keeping the inside wheels, especially at the rear, on to the ground, and it stopped rooting its tyres. We turned it from an evil brute into a fantastic car. But it was a real Jekyll and Hyde thing.”

By contrast, the 1997 Vectra started last season as a Mr Hyde character and finished it with the same hairy countenance. “The problem with that was purely and simply an aerodynamic one,” says Cleland.

The rules prevailing in the BTCC in the 1997 season prohibited changes to the aerodynamic package and, having got their sums wrong at the start of the year, there was no quick-fix solution.

“There are parallels with the early 1990 car even though the class has changed out of all recognition since then,” says Cleland. “The gearbox we used in ’90 could have been built by Massey Ferguson, while the one we’ve got for next season could fit in your pocket. The cars are probably generally easier to drive now, but the racing is so close and so competitive that you can’t afford the slightest mistake. If you’re not on the pace, you’re completely off it.

“But like the original Cavalier, the ’97 Vectra was not nice to drive. I had the same feeling of slamming the door behind me and knowing I wasn’t going to enjoy myself. Racing it in the wet at Thruxton was the worst. It had no downforce and was just sitting on the top of the water. I tell you, it handled like the Torrey Canyon. The big difference was this time was that whereas the Cavalier destroyed its tyres, the Vectra’s lasted for ever because you couldn’t make them work hard enough.”

Cleland goes into the 1998 season once again Vectra equipped, but this time with all the optimism that characterises a true racing driver’s approach to a new racing year. “I’ve literally just come back from a meeting with the team, and I’ve never seen a bunch of more motivated guys,” he says. “This year, we’re going to kick some ass.”