For F1 stars, rally heroes and the odd DJ, the Tour of Britain was a break from the day job. Then James Hunt, in a Camaro just like this, got serious…
By Andrew Frankel
For an event that attracted so many top teams, so many first-class drivers and blended more successfully than any other the worlds of rally and racing, it is amazing to see just how far into the mists of time the original Tour of Britain has receded.
Run from 1973-76 over approximately 1000 miles of British country roads, special stages and race tracks, its list of victors – chronologically James Hunt, Roger Clark, Tony Pond and Ari Vatanen – tells you it was a premier league motor sport event. As for the entry sheets, they read like a roll-call of the great and good. From the world of racing came Denny Hulme, Graham Hill, Jody Scheckter, Vern Schuppan, Howden Ganley, Gerry Marshall, Gordon Spice and Tony Lanfranchi, while rallying provided among many others not only Vatanen and Clark, but David Richards, Tonys Pond and Fall and Russell Brookes.
But now, and despite the revival of its spirit in today’s annual (and terrific) Tour Britannia, even diehard petrolhead internet forums offer more questions than answers.
More curious still is that the memory of Tour of Britain has been preserved in the minds of those who took part almost as remarkably as it has faded from public recollection.
What better way to recall such days than from the wheel of Richard Lloyd’s old Camaro in a cross-country thrash on some of the same roads used in the Tour a generation ago? Devotees may recall that James Hunt won the first Tour in such a car. Lloyd had planned on entering himself but hurt his back in a road accident not of his creation, so he entrusted his viciously quick 5.7-litre 1970 Z28 Camaro to Hunt, a contemporary of his at Wellington College.
According to Gerald Donaldson’s superlative biography of Hunt, James was far from enamoured with the idea of spending three days and one night slogging around the country in such a big old brute. Understandably so, for this was his first season in Formula 1, and his mind was set on proving himself the most exciting and promising of the many young lions trying to establish themselves at the sport’s top level.
Hunt’s co-driver was Autosport’s Robert Fearnall, who stated: “James intended to blow up the Camaro’s engine at the special stage around Silverstone, since this was down the road from Lord Hesketh’s pile, to which we would adjourn for a bit of a party.” Perhaps no one had told Hunt that the Chevrolet small block did not become the most widely used and popular motor in racing history by going bang at the first sign of trouble: Hunt won the stage, got serious and went on to win the event outright.
It should be said that this Camaro is not that Camaro. The original was sold, went to Sweden and was written off. Instead this Camaro was created in the original’s image by Richard Lloyd when he heard the Tour of Britain was to be reborn in 2005. It’s now owned by Stuart Scott, who was an avid follower of Lloyd’s through his career and latterly raced GT3 Jaguars with Richard’s Apex Motorsports team. “Richard bought the car in America on eBay but it arrived in boxes,” says Scott. “In the end it took three different Camaros to make what you see here.”
Whatever the effort, it was worth it. The Camaro was still being finished the day before the ’05 Tour began and was so late to the start it was still being scrutineered while others were leaving. The event itself was a nightmare of unreliability, Richard’s intrepid team getting to the hotel after most people had gone to bed on both nights. Current Tour organiser and best private entrant of the 1974 event Alec Poole recalls, “Whenever anyone saw them, all pleaded with Richard to pack it in. All such pleas were rejected. Not only did they finish Tour Britannia, but Richard had a steely glint in his eye. He announced plans for a new engine with double the power for the following year as he wanted to teach this Camaro a lesson.”
Back he came, to sixth in class in 2006 and third in ’07. Then Richard was taken from us.
But his memories and cars live on. I’ve loved Camaros since I could talk, enough to buy and race one for a couple of seasons, and slipping into Richard’s seat and feeling all that space around me, seeing the Hurst shifter and hearing the thunder of the small block made me curse the lack of funds that made me sell mine.
Because it’s an eventer, the Camaro’s set-up has to split the difference between road and track, and knowing all too well what a race-spec Camaro is like to drive on the road, I delighted in its comfortable ride and the endless ocean of torque emanating from Detroit’s greatest hit. Haring round the same bumpy roads near Silverstone that Hunt would have used 37 years ago, the Camaro felt fabulously good.
The size of these cars always intimidates at first, especially on narrow lanes, as does the steering which feels only coincidentally connected to the front wheels. But soon you learn that despite the lack of feedback, the Camaro can be steered with precision and confidence. You get a feel for the road through your backside rather than the steering wheel and soon the temptation to start sliding it around becomes overwhelming. It’s not as easy as you’d think, because grip levels are surprisingly high and anything this big and weighing 1500kg needs space to round up. But once you’ve upped your commitment to the appropriate level you discover the real problem is exercising sufficient restraint not to spend your entire time travelling sideways. According to Hunt, he spun his Camaro in the ’73 Tour “to get it out of my system”. I see what he means.
Another young gun making his name in F1 and taking time out to enjoy the Tour a year later was Jody Scheckter. “It was good fun, but short-lived,” recalls the South African. “I did it with Eoin Young in a 3-litre Capri and, like all near-enough standard road cars being driven like that, it was completely horrible.”
Even so, the race driver appreciated the discipline of the special stages – “I guess it suited my driving style back then” – and was enjoying himself until the race at Oulton Park. Phlegmatic and honest as ever he recalls: “I overcooked it at the first corner, went in backwards, end of race, end of Tour.” But to him the Tour represented only light relief and time off from the day job. “Formula 1 was so tense, for me the Tour was just a release. If you did well, you did well. If you crashed, you crashed. I crashed.”
Others were more committed. Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams has the distinction of having contested all four original Tours (plus the modern one). “There were some wonderful parties in the evenings, but having gone into the Tour thinking of it as a semi-jolly, it soon became important to do well. You only had to look at who you were up against to know how serious it was.”
Barrie came second in class in the first Tour driving a Vauxhall Magnum, but, because good racing stories follow him around, he went out of the next one in unusual fashion. His car was a Mathwall-prepped Mazda RX-3, his co-driver Chris Witty. “We were doing well until a road section between stages,” he says. “Although some drivers got nicked, most of us drove pretty sensibly between stages or races. But we weren’t hanging around, not least because we were late.”
“We stumbled across an A40 Somerset being driven at a sedate pace, so I pulled out to overtake at exactly the same time he decided, without warning, to turn right. I guess I should have seen the sign to the church…” Contact was made, sending the Mazda into a ditch, the A40 continuing calmly down the road minus one of its front wings. The Mazda ended up on its side having punched a hole in a hedge through which a herd of inquisitive cattle appeared. “Then Noel Edmonds arrived,” deadpans Barrie. At the time Edmonds was a keen and accomplished racer as well as a national superstar thanks to his Radio 1 show, but soon he turned his talents to cattle-herding. “There we were, my car in the ditch, and Noel Edmonds directing the traffic and cattle.”
This was Edmonds’ first crack at the Tour and he recalls the event with incredulity. “I must have been mad. That Tour was extraordinary, quite beyond comprehension. What we got away with on the public roads in those days – well, it was insanity.” He was there because he’d proved himself in some celebrity races and because Radio 1 was a powerful broadcasting institution and he was its biggest star. Having him on the strength brought huge publicity. “So I got up, did the breakfast show and headed off for three days of madness.” His co-driver was first wife Gill, who though rendered speechless with terror after the first stage ended up being an excellent navigator. And then it all went wrong.
“We’d done quite well, weren’t far from the finish and doing a stage in Epynt Forest. Then, because I was exhausted, I lost concentration.” In short, the Edmonds somersaulted off the road and into the forest. When the car came to a rest Noel was in the back and in sufficient pain to be taken to hospital where a suspected broken back turned out to be torn muscles. Gill was unhurt but covered in fuel from a split petrol tank.
Undeterred, Edmonds returned for another Tour in 1976, this time as co-driver in a Vauxhall Magnum to Hunt, now no longer an interesting footnote in F1 but champion elect. “By then James was the megastar of the moment,” says Noel, “and brought a huge following with him. He was quite rude to begin with but we soon got on. Sadly, early in the tour we had a huge off in the forest. James was an amazing driver, but in those conditions he had all the courage but not all the finesse of the best rally drivers. We went flying off and hit a tree so accurately you’d think he’d been aiming for it.
“James wanted to quit but I thought we had an obligation to the fans to carry on, so we had an exchange of views which, by the time it reached the press, was a blazing row.” Noel’s version of events concurs with Hunt’s as told to Eoin Young in his title year autobiography Against All Odds, in which he maintains “we never had a cross word”.
After some heroics from the Vauxhall team, they continued. “It’s the most frightened I’ve ever been,” says Edmonds. He describes Hunt’s driving as “fantastic, brilliant, sensational and incredibly dangerous”. The police finally caught up with them in a remote part of Lincolnshire and Hunt was nearly arrested, but Edmonds says “it was another era, another world” and Hunt talked his way out of custody. But to no avail: after the crash the car was no longer capable of giving a reasonable account of itself and was retired.
There are so many memories from so many competitors, they’d easily fill a book. But while the Tour of Britain is long gone, its spirit lives on in Tour Britannia. This year’s event is the sixth and it is now firmly established on the annual sporting calendar. It’s already survived longer than the original Tour; long may it continue.
Tony Dron had a model co-driver – literally – for the ’75 Tour
Spare a thought for ace tin-top and historic racer Tony Dron, who found himself lining up for the 1975 Tour paired not with a professional navigator but, er, a glamour model. “I think I must have done too well the year before,” he says. Then the passenger seat of his Dolomite Sprint had been occupied by Henry Liddon, one of the best co-drivers of his or any other generation, and they’d led overall on the special stages and come home fifth behind Clark and Marshall’s works RS2000s, Lanfranchi’s BMW 3.0CSI and one other Dolomite.
This year her name was Madeleine Le Mauviel, a 6ft, 19-year-old Penthouse Pet selected for her height so as not to look ridiculous next to the unfeasibly tall Dron. They were to share a Fiat 128 Coupé (above). “Because I didn’t think she’d be too great at navigation, we had another Fiat drive in front of us for us to follow. Its driver then turned left when it should have been right, making us two minutes late into park fermé. Having led the class we had to spend the rest of the event catching up.
“We continued to follow this other Fiat but by now Madeleine was getting into it, had picked up the navigation book and was paying attention. Then we came to a junction where the Fiat in front turned left and she said quite firmly, ‘he’s made a mistake, we need to turn right’. So I went with her judgement – she was entirely correct and that was the last time I bothered to look which way the car in front was going.
“She even learned to cope with the special stages and general pace of the event. At one point early in the event she turned to me and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I’m going to be sick’, stuck her head out the window and stayed like that for a very long time. When she returned she apologised again, said her behaviour was quite inexcusable but that she’d got the hang of it now. And so she had. She turned out to be absolutely brilliant. She got married two weeks after the Tour finished and I never saw her again. I’d love to find out what happened to her.” All sightings should be reported to Motor Sport.