Bolton performance

Chevron -- the 'Lotus of the North' -- is 40 this year. Paul Fearnley and Damien Smith sample four of its most important cars and tell the story of Derek Bennett, the genius behind them, photography by James Mann

Haslam's Mill, Chorley Old Road, Bolton. As addresses go, it's hardly racy. Which suited Derek Bennett down to the ground. When a Lotus won, Colin Chapman would leap into the middle of the track and hurl his black corduroy cap into the air: very photogenic. When a Chevron won, Bennett might shyly emerge from behind the oil drums at the back of his pit garage — if he was at the race at all. Chances are he'd be back at base, welding torch lit, brain engaged, new car on the way.

There was an inferiority complex at Chevron — and it stemmed directly from its leader. Bennett's formal education didn't amount to much. His electrical apprenticeship at a motorcycle depot in Old Trafford didn't exactly stack up against, say, Robin Herd's Oxbridge double first in aerodynamics. You can imagine how the 1970 arrival of brash, flash March — "And straight in at Formula One is..." —was greeted by Bolton's grafters. But though Bennett might be in awe face to face, a situation he was generally keen to avoid, he'd be fired up to beat his 'peers' on the racetrack and quietly chuffed when he did. And given his brilliant, intuitive grasp of engineering—his cars tended to be built and then drawn — and the determined, them-and-us inspired expertise of his ultra-loyal workforce, it's little wonder that this happened, a lot. Like most northern outposts, Haslam's Mill was underestimated at your own peril.

There was no fanfare arrival onto the motor racing scene for Bennett. His formative years read: Model Y Ford stocker fitted with a V8 lump, Belle Vue cinder racer called PRM (Pendleton Racing Motors), Austin 7 fitted with an 1172, Ecurie Rochdale Caravan Services, Elva, eponymous Junior sketched on the back of a roll of wallpaper. By mid-1964 he was at the wheel of an F3 Brabham BT9 in the final of the Monza Lottery race. He was a quick driver — but he was already 30. His career was about to take a new direction: a couple of steps back for several paces forward.

B2 (1966) Damien Smith writes...

The new Clubmans formula of 1965 offered Bennett precisely what he needed: a level playing field and value for money for the 'specials' builder. This would lead directly to the formation of Chevron. Bennett planned to build two chassis retrospectively called B1s late in 1968, one for himself, the other for the first Chevron customer, local accountancy clerk Brian Classic, who had been impressed by Bennett when he sought his help with Daimler SP250 and Lotus Elite racers.

The brief Bennett set himself was to create a Lotus 7-beater: a car with an independent rear end that would make it competitive in sportscar and Formula Libre events. Chassis strength (safety was paramount for Bennett), weight distribution and aerodynamics were given equal priority. The build was to be fastidious. The high standards that would forever be associated with Chevron were set from the start.

Bennett set to work with hacksaw and welder in his Salford workshop -- he was still based at 31 Church Street (tel: BLAckfriars 9060) where he and friend David Willars sat on the floor and drew around each other with a piece of chalk: more Chevron folklore.

Bennett's neat, low, sleek B1 would break cover in a trio of Irish races in the summer of 1965 -- but not without drama. As the deadline approached, Bennett, feeling the pressure, pulled one of his famous disappearing acts. Turn around and he'd gone. Against the odds, however, the still-unfinished car made the ferry.

That trip proved a springboard. At Kirkistown, Bennett won and set a new lap record on the car's debut. Then his Brabham entrant and go-ahead mixer-and-fixer Robert Ashcroft drove it at Dunboyne and Phoenix Park, beating John Watson to win at the former.

Upon his return to the mainland, Bennett scored a string of victories. BLAckfriars 9060 began to ring. Often. Space was needed. Bolton beckoned.

Four more Clubmans cars were built. One of these went to 23-year-old Howard Heerey, who'd win 21 races and the BRSCC National Clubmans title in 1967 after a series of battles with a Mallock U2 driven by one Max Mosley, soon to be of brash, flash March.

The racer I find myself wedged in while trying to work out where to put my right elbow was originally owned by Parade Motors but is now in the care of a certain Mr Classic. It sat for years In his loft before being rebuilt in 2004 by Vin Malkie at Chevron.

The bulk of the car's competitive mileage was clocked by Andrew Smith during 1967-70 and it was he who replaced its original BMC A-Series with Ford power. And it's that same 1500 Holbay downdraught four-pot buzzing away beside my legs, its carbs jutting into my eye-line just left of centre. This is closer in spirit to a single-seater than a Lotus 7 or Mallock, even with the four-speed 'box to my left and the close-fit cycle wings covering the front wheels.

OuIton Park's undulations and sweeps are perfect to assess this little bomb's pinpoint handling characteristics. Its direct rack-and-pinion steering allows an accurate turn-in at the faster corners and is ideal for a tight hug of the kerb at the Island Circuit's hairpin. And if a car can be made to work around here, as Bennett would regularly prove, it will work just about anywhere.

The out-front engine is balanced by the (in this case not inconsiderable!) weight of the driver, and with each passing corner the confidence of even the most average is boosted. Chevron was clearly destined for greater things -- DS

Upon Derek Bennett's desk sat a model of his proposed GT racer — a mid-engined machine possessed of a stunning beauty. When Alan Minshaw, then the local agent for Fram Filters, saw it he immediately put a deposit down. Chevron's next chapter was under way.

Two GTs were built up for 1966: one fitted with a 2-litre slant-four BMW for Bennett, the other with a 1600 Lotus 'Twink' for 23-yearold Digby Martland, who had taken over Minshaw's deal when the price rose by £300 to £2000.

Marcos 'screen, Triumph Herald front uprights... the GT was a sensation thanks to a spaceframe stiffened by spot-welded duraluminium sheet, its excellent balance — and outrageous speed. In national GT terms, the Lotus Elan was history. But Chevron wanted more — not so much Bennett himself, more his friends and colleagues, who could see the wider potential of his talent. Ashcroft sent a car over to the 1967 Daytona 24 Hours for Roy Pike, Peter Gethin and Fred Opert. It lasted 106 laps before it crashed — in which time Chevron had proved its international credentials, tapped into a new market and uncovered an important ally: New Jersey-based Opert would become its US agent.

For 1968 it was decided to go into production. Homologation in Group 4 required 50 cars be built. If it jumped through several loopholes, massaged all the figures and made some airy promises, Chevron was just about ready to move into the big time — with a staff of 10!

B8 (1968) Damien Smith continues...

Chevron might have been short on manpower but it packed a punch. The determined Paul Owens, who had known Bennett since his Belle Vue days, was becoming increasingly influential as his necessarily forthright aide d'equipe. It was he who rocked up unannounced at BMW's competition department in Munich to enquire about engine supply for a new production GT. His pitch must have been persuasive: a deal for BMW's potent 2-litre was soon in the bag.

The B8 was homologated on May 1, 1968. It had been a huge undertaking. And Bennett had led from the front, In his own way. Nobody worked harder. He never asked anyone to do something he couldn't or wouldn't do. And because of this his staff were totally supportive. He inspired, they responded. Put simply, all who knew him, believed in him. For example, customer David Bridges, who was buying his brother's Chester garage business, also made a substantial investment to maintain Chevron's momentum.

Between 1968 and '70, (ahem) 44 B8s were built, the majority powered by BMW's 'four' fitted with Chevron's own dry sump. And I'm sitting in one of the last three to emerge from the mill. It's led an unusual existence.

It was delivered to Huber et Fils in Switzerland in July 1969 and was converted into a spyder by car modifier and former Scuderia Filipinetti chief engineer Franco Sbarro. It was sold in '74 to Jean-Pierre Pochon, who used it for racing and hillclimbing. Kent Abrahamsson acquired it in '88 as a rolling chassis, but it wasn't until Andrew Schryver purchased it in '97 that it was restored to its original glory by Simon Hadfield. Since then Andrew and his son James have chalked up close to 70 races -- the most active phase of the car's life.

As customer racers, Bennett ensured his cars were usable by drivers of every level. And so it proves: this B8 is a joy. There are no nasty surprises: the punchy Beemer delivers smoothly, the familiar Hewland five-speed 'box clunks easily between ratios and the handling is benign. I'm sat low in the snug cockpit and yet visibility isn't an issue: those curvy front wings fall away out of sight and even the rear-view mirror offers a clear picture of what's looming via a Perspex 'letter box' over my left shoulder. And that's very useful given the locals in Formula Fords constantly buzzing around me. I try to block them out. This is too good to be spoilt by anyone I might happen to be sharing the track with. A pristine B8 on Oulton's parkland swoops is motor racing nirvana. --DS

But nothing lasts forever, and after three years of developing his first GT offering, and with the European Sportscar Championship for 2-litres all set for 1970, Bennett was aware that a new car was required. The result rivals Ford's F3L as the most beautiful sports-racer ever built...

Those looks and Brian Redman's skill masked a serious problem, however: the early B16s were plain spooky. Tim Schenken thought so, as did Motoring News GT champion John Lepp, hardly a pair of duffers.

B16 (1969) Paul Fearnley writes...

Longer, wider and lower (at just 3ft) than B8, the new car featured a multi-tubular centre section braced by ally sheet, with bolt-on subframes front and rear. Like the B8, it had a forward-facing radius arm with locating link and a lower wishbone at the front, and an upper link, lower wishbone and radius rods at its (Brabham-inspired) rear. Simple, understood, prime for development: typical Chevron.

Bennett, though, trod new ground in giving NZ stylist Jim Clark of Specialised Mouldings a free hand with the GRP bodyshape. Sharper and smaller than Lola's T70 (also a Clark product), it looked sensational. But it was flawed.

From the off drivers complained that the B16 understeered and tabs were soon being tacked onto that shapely nose to try to pin it down. But the real problem lay at the rear: that flowing tail generated very little downforce -- and the car was now even more unbalanced. But Redman drove around the problem to score a fantastic debut victory in September 1969: not at an Oulton Park clubbie, but over 22 laps of the Nordschleife. Chevron's phone was now as hot as Bennett's welder. With 'orange box' spoilers moulded into its tail section B16 found that vital aero balance, without ruining its visual impact. Chevron approached 1970 with a quiet confidence.

Its new Italian agent Eris Tondelli took delivery of chassis 15 and tackled selected encounters of the European series before selling it to Frank Aston, who contested sprints, hilIclimbs and races. Today it's the property of John Minshaw -- his dad obviously had a word to the wise! and is resplendent, albeit non-original, in Gulf livery.

Even with seat removed, my crash helmet clonks against the pull-down door, the 'bubble' in the Perspex side window not quite lining up with my bonce. So with neck cricked over and near-horizontal gear lever jutting into my right thigh. I ease out onto the track, remembering to flick off the high-pressure electric fuel pump.

What strikes me immediately is how tight this car feels. There's not a single rattle or a shake. The next thing that crosses my tiny mind is that I really should have gone out in it before the slick-shod single-seater and not after. A slight increase in ride height is all that's required to run this car on slicks, but today it's sat on period-section Dunlops that feel dead when cold and increasingly squirmy as they heat up.

At least the gear lever's odd position is soon forgotten as once again I fall in love with Hewland's FT200 five-speeder. But I am having a little trouble with a surprisingly long throttle travel. It's been adapted to suit Mr Minshaw's prosthetic limb, while a button on the steering provides a heel-and-toe blip. I'm pondering whether to use it, when...

Oops, a tweaked-up Formula Ford.

Should have adjusted the mirrors more carefully. Time to speed up. The Geoff Richardson-prepped 1830cc 250bhp Cosworth FVC is revved to 9000rpm in the heat of the battle: I stick to 8k, which is just when it's starting to prick up its ears, cam chain and Lucas mechanical injection thrashing away in harmonic resonance.

Suddenly balanced, taut and eager, this is a beautiful car to drive. It's only when negotiating the uphill exits from the hairpin and Knickerbrook chicane that it feels, well, ever so slightly heavy. This was something that would come home to roost.

At the start of 1970 Redman gave memorable chase to Jo Siffert's 917 at Thruxton and then won the opening Euro round at Ricard but not before he'd been given a fright by Jo Bonnier's 70kg-lighter open-topped Lola T210. Redman promptly asked Bennett to build a spyder. And such was the pressing need, he told him to copy the shape of Porsche's Manx-tailed 908/3.

With square rather than the coupé's round sills, and an aluminium body by Agnew & Clark, who had worked on the B1, the Spyder arrived just in time for Redman to secure the European Championship title after a last-race, last-lap, last-corner frantic scramble with JoBo at Spa. He followed this up with five straight wins in South Africa's Springbok series, his final fling before retiring to that country.

Thankfully, this was a decision he would soon renege on.-- PF

The B16-Spyder would be productionised as the B19 for 1971, which was in turn reworked as the B21 for '72 and the B23 for '73. It wasn't until the monocoque B26, with integral rear wing, that Bennett again turned his attention to a market that was, in truth, shrinking. And that was before the oil crisis of 1975 hit long-distance racing hard. At the same time the increasing financial grip of F1 was taking hold and the number of GP wannabes spiralled: junior single-seater formulae was the place to be.

Bennett's first single-seater effort was the F3 B7 of 1967, constructed at Bloor's request. The follow-up B9 took Schenken to the Lombard title of '68. The B15 of works driver Reine Wisell scored six wins in '69 and had some thrilling battles with the Tecno of Swedish compatriot Ronnie Peterson, soon to be of brash, flash March. By '71 Chevron had scored its first Formula Two win, courtesy of the pug-nosed B18 and 'Seppi' Siffert at a Bogota Temporada race. F5000 — and the philanthropic Belgian Count Rudi van der Straten — kicked in during '72, with Gethin's B24 winning on its debut at Oulton Park. Where else?

It was the pretty F3 B34 of 1976-77, however, that put Chevron back on a secure footing; 55 cars made it the biggest seller since the B19. Its B35 F2 cousin wasn't as successful, but that didn't stop 40 hopefuls putting a deposit on its successor...

B40 (1977) Paul Fearnley continues...

Just two new chassis were ready in time for Silverstone's European F2 opener in March: Ray Mallock impressed in Ardmore's car by finishing second behind René Arnoux's Martini from the second row; sat much further down the grid was Californian journeyman Wink Bancroft, who retired the first of the three B40s destined for Opert's team with a broken exhaust. Money had clearly talked, for potential pace-setters Riccardo Patrese and Keke Rosberg made do with B35s.

Bancroft contested most of that year's F2 races, plus selected rounds of the Shellsport Group 8 series, but gradually became a regular DNQ-er as the grids filled out and the pace hotted up.

Opert whipped out the car's Hart 420R at the end of the season and sold the chassis to an Austrian, who transplanted a Swindon BDX to contest his national championship, a mix of races and hillclimbs. Recently rebuilt by Vin Malkie, chassis 5 is still making speedy ascents in the hands of regular 1960s racer Michael Sidgwick whose first career was put on hold for almost 20 years by a big shunt at Snetterton in an Alfa Romeo TZ and a burgeoning legal career.

The car's current role sees it in usual spec: its Hewland FGA holds just four cogs and its BDX breathes through two Weber 48DCOE. Sidgwick plans to fit an extra ratio and an injected Hart.

Continuing a well-worn theme, it's a delight to drive. Soft Avons are well-matched to a chilly day and a pretend racing driver, and that full-width nose just goes where you point it.

That wasn't always so. Early B40s were understeerers, a problem alleviated by a narrower rear track adapted from the F3 B38. With his Opert car now better suited to his leaden-footed sideways antics, Rosberg opened the model's account with an aggregate win at Enna in July. The key to this was a Second Heat charge from 13th, the Finn coping with tyres torn by a badly broken track surface. The B40 works the inside shoulders harder than the outsides. Stretch that worn patch right across the footprint, and you're pressing on. Extrapolating this theory, for a very brief moment, and in my own mind only, I'm just three inches -- in all respects -- shy of balls-out Keke.

Two weeks after Enna, Lamberto Leoni scored a surprise win at Misano in his Ferrari V 6-engined car. That's right. Maranello had come to Bolton. And the joint project would have been better off had Chevron's suggestions been acted upon earlier!

A profitable season was wrapped up by Patrese's non-championship wins at Suzuka and the Formula Atlantic Macau GP (in the new B42), and Derek Daly's successful BP British F3 title bid in Derek McMahon's B38. -- PF

There were 10 B42s on the F2 grid at Thruxton in March 1977. But something was missing. The guiding light of Chevron was dead, his flickering vital signs finally extinguished by an ever-deepening coma 11 days after a hang-gliding accident on the Pennine moors.

The team bravely hung in there, scoring three F2 victories that year — two for Daly, one for Rosberg — and winning the Monaco F3 race thanks to Elio de Angelis' B38. Tony Southgate was drafted in as consultant designer. Differences were aired, plans put in place. Derek's sisters were adamant that Chevron should survive and prosper. Good people with good intentions.

But without Derek, well, it just couldn't last, could it? The whisper became a rumour became a hot topic. It was unstoppable. Even the black cat that was a regular visitor to the factory stopped coming. Three days later, on January 30, 1980, the bank foreclosed on its loan.

A darkened mill.

A grim day up North.

***

Fact File -- Chevron's vital statistics

Major wins (1967-79):

Formula One (1973) -- 1

Formula Two (1971-78) -- 9

Formula Three (1968-78) -- 51

Formula 5000 (1972-76) -- 26

Formula Atlantic (1971-79) -- 68

GT and sportscars (1967-79) -- 63

TOTAL: 218

Major titles (1967-79): 30

Cars built (1965-80): 418