Heavy metal thunder

Historic motor sport might be ripe with replicas and recreations, but the Bryant family's Chevrolet Camaro is infused with the spirit of its inspiration

For someone who’d never intended to run a racing team, Rob Potter fared reasonably well. The Englishman used to wheel and deal in American cars, some of which were adapted for track use, and one such was the AJ Rivers Simoniz Camaro campaigned successfully by Richard Lloyd. “AJ was a big property developer,” Potter says, “but when the bottom fell out of the market he found he was no longer able to afford to go racing. He owed me quite a bit at the time and offered me the team by way of settlement. I figured it would be the only way to get my money back, so I agreed. I received two Camaro Z28s, a trailer, a tow car and a mechanic. I contacted Mike Brown, a good pal who ran a rally business in Hayes, and he agreed to run it – so off we went racing…”

This was 1974, a time when the British Saloon Car Championship ran to a loosely scripted version of the Group 1 regulations that had been drafted for standard production cars. For two seasons Camaros would dominate the BSCC, Lloyd and closest rival Stuart Graham sharing 22 of a possible 28 victories (with Graham’s Brut 33 car winning that battle 14-8). As they kept taking points off each other, however, the overall title went to more dominant drivers in the smaller classes. At the end of 1975, the rules were changed to limit the fastest cars to a maximum capacity of 3.0 litres and American muscle was rendered obsolete. Potter sold two Camaros to the Benelux region, but retained a supply of engines and other spare parts. These were placed in a large shed, where they would remain until…

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Goodwood, March 2014. For the first time in the modern era, the Sussex circuit hosted a Members’ Meeting and its centrepiece would be the Gerry Marshall Trophy for Gp1 racers of yore. There would be no 3-litre limit: Camaros would be as welcome as Ford Capris, Triumph Dolomite Sprints or Mini 1275 GTs. Looking on, respected historic racer Grahame Bryant was absorbed. “These things fire people up,” he says. “I saw Stuart Graham driving Nigel Garrett’s Brut Camaro, thought ‘I remember that’ and started to do a bit of research to see if I could find Richard Lloyd’s car. I discovered that about three-quarters of it had been sold to some Belgians, who crashed it. The car was wrecked and subsequently crushed, so we contacted Rob Potter. I used to get parts for my racing Morgan from Rob’s Think Automotive business, which used to run Richard. Rob lives only 10 minutes from me and that’s how the whole thing started. It turned out that he still had lots of period Camaro bits, including a front sub-frame from the screen forward, engines, suspension, uprights, rear axle… lots and lots of stuff, so we bought it all from him. We then sourced a non-rusty shell from a road car in the States and added the parts from Rob.”

The project was handed to preparation specialist Phil Perryman in Sawbridgeworth, Herts – his team had the job of cleaning the resurrected mechanical components. The build process started at the end of January 2016 and continued more or less until the car raced at Goodwood eight weeks later.

“We’d first run the car about 10 days beforehand,” says Oliver Bryant, a regular front-runner who shared the car with his father. “It was OK, but we had a few problems with the brakes and then the power steering – we didn’t realise they’d run a cooler on the steering pump in period, so after about five laps the fluid boiled. We subsequently fitted a cooler, went off to Goodwood and qualified on pole.”

Grahame was third in the first race, but dropped to fifth after collecting a 10sec penalty for clipping the chicane. He then spun on oil early in race two, setting the stage for Olly to claw back a 20sec deficit, take the lead with two laps to go and secure aggregate victory.

The Bryants had led races at Goodwood before, without ever actually winning. The car that gave them their breakthrough success was the one that was least expected so to do, simply because it had come together relatively late. Or, as Olly puts it, “I went there hoping we’d be able to do more than five laps.”

Technically, Olly first drove at Goodwood in 1998 – “I was 13,” he says, “and reversed my dad’s Cobra in the paddock” – and this maiden family win meant a lot. “We’ve been going since Olly was still at school,” Grahame says, “and have had so many problems there, despite running at the front. In the past he’d qualified on pole, led and set fastest lap only to have something break in the closing stages – we’ve had lots of that.”

Perryman says, “A lot of man hours went into the Camaro, although I didn’t count how many. We had three people working on it all the time and I brought in one or two others – sometimes as many as nine at a time. We did quite a few all-nighters and worked through several weekends. We were talking about doing the car from the previous September and I kept asking Grahame where it was.”

Bryant Sr adds, “It was touch and go. Some bits we kept, some we didn’t – the dash was in a terrible state, but you can get the bits quite easily in the States. Just as well, really…”

Nor was the car quite finished at Goodwood.

“It had the original side windows,” Perryman says, “but they were so scratched you couldn’t see through them. We ran one new one for that meeting and fitted the other afterwards.”

The plan henceforth is to continue racing the car at Goodwood, the Silverstone Classic and any other events for which it is eligible.

“It’s a lovely thing to drive,” Olly says. “It has power steering, which is nice, and handles better than you might imagine. The Dunlops provide quite a lot of grip, too.”

Grahame: “Phil has set it up to corner very flat and it feels nicely controllable. We run an earlier Camaro in the States and they are similar, but this one rolls around a lot less. In the dry it is really forgiving.”

And how’s the braking, given the Camaro’s heft? “The calipers are standard,” Olly says, “but it stops surprisingly well… though only for one run.” Perryman points out that the discs are cracked at the end of every meeting.

“You can buy them over the counter and there isn’t anything better,” Grahame adds, “but you use them for about 30 minutes and then throw them away.”

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Potter wasn’t at Goodwood to watch the reborn car race but says, “I felt quite tearful when I saw the photographs. It took me back to when I went from being a bloke who wasn’t involved in racing to somebody who enjoyed two wonderful seasons that didn’t cost too much. Simoniz paid us £500 per meeting...

“Richard’s main priority was to get in and drive, while Simoniz didn’t seem terribly bothered with generating publicity – its people were mostly interested in having a nice time at racing circuits. Because of my US connections, I was supplying parts to most teams and knew what almost everybody was running. Some teams were well funded, but others – privateers such as Bob Ridgard, for instance – didn’t have a penny and used to pick up our cast-off bits. It was all huge fun and I feel very, very lucky to have been involved. I had taken part in some events when I was younger – mostly sprints – but had otherwise very little involvement in racing before I was handed a team.”

Lloyd finished as class runner-up to Graham in each of those two years, taking eighth and fourth overall in the final BSCC standings. Back then, both were also in the running for the Tarmac Championship (a £2000 cash prize) that was open to all UK and Commonwealth drivers. Points were awarded for success in almost any international event, from Formula 1 Grands Prix to European F3 via the BSCC. That did once cause complications.

“At Brands Hatch in October 1975,” Potter says, “some dirt got into the system and sheared the oil pump drive. We had about four hours to fix it before the race. Somebody charged up to London to find the parts – I was keen not to lose the money Simoniz paid me for putting the car on the grid – and Richard was hopping about, worried that he might lose Tarmac points. We managed to get everything together at the last minute, then couldn’t find Richard. It transpired that he’d been so keen to make sure he raced that he’d agreed to take over the Camaro of Brian Pepper, who was feeling unwell. When I told him his own car was ready he wouldn’t budge. Barrie Williams was standing there in his overalls, so I asked him to drive our car. He started at the back and clawed his way through the field to finish fourth – two places behind Richard. We were then summoned to see the clerk of the course, who read the riot act because Barrie hadn’t practised in our car and we’d broken pretty much every rule in the book, but I got my £500 – which was the main thing. 

“As I once said to Stuart Graham, ‘People don’t go racing to watch everyday cars, they want to see something special.’ And to see a pack of Camaros thundering through the old Woodcote at Silverstone, with some top-line drivers, was very special. They were bloody good times.”

Power and glory

A successful motorcycle racer who followed in the wheeltracks of his father, Stuart Graham began dabbling with saloon cars in the early 1970s. Here he recalls his Camaro rivalry with the late Richard Lloyd

“I was running a Camaro Z28 on the road, but began racing a Ford Capri in the early days of production saloons. I recall watching one race at Oulton, seeing a Camaro being beaten by all these Capris and thinking ‘That doesn’t seem right.’ Then at Silverstone my brother Chris and I bumped into Les Leston, who was struggling to get his Camaro running properly, so we gave him a hand, sorted it out and suddenly he was competitive. After that he asked us to take it to our little garage in Cheshire and prepare it for him.

“Then one day I received a phone call from Les, who was stuck in Hong Kong and asked if I could race the Camaro for him at Oulton. It was the start of a steep learning curve, but I won and suddenly everyone was asking about this ‘unknown little guy in the yellow Camaro’. I drove the car again at Silverstone, and led, after which we decided it was probably time to buy our own Camaro.

“They were interesting times and I thoroughly enjoyed it – if memory serves I drove to the circuit by road for the first few events, because I couldn’t afford a trailer. Chris and I were doing it all ourselves, but we both had engineering backgrounds – we’d done apprenticeships at Rolls-Royce – and he did build very good engines. Camaros were great to drive but didn’t have the greatest reputation for reliability, though thanks to Chris we were OK on that score. 

“Richard and I spent most of our time trying our hardest to beat each other, but we had a good relationship – and because I’d done so little car racing I was having to learn as I went along. I recall one particular meeting at Brands Hatch – it might have been the Grand Prix support in 1974 – when Richard beat me away at the start and put his car in exactly the right places to stop me getting past, though we were swapping paint on pretty much every lap. Eventually I decided that I was going to have a go down the inside at Paddock – and I think the fact I had two wheels on the grass made him realise I was serious. I managed to make it stick, though.

“Richard and Rob Potter stole a bit of a march by upgrading from the small block (5.7 litres) to the homologated 7.5 unit for 1975, though I’m not sure it was a massive advantage. Chris did me an engine, but although it was a little bit quicker down the straights the car didn’t handle as well as the 5.7 – and to be honest we had enough trouble putting the power down in that on the UK’s tight, twisty circuits. 

“The brakes were often a problem, so you had to find a different way to treat them. Because most of my experience was in bike racing, I was used to being gentle on the brakes and carrying lots of corner entry speed so my natural style suited the Camaro – others always seemed to fry their brakes before I did.

“I think my 1975 Silverstone TT win was probably the most satisfying of the Camaro era, because nobody thought such a big car would last in a race that ran for more than three hours.

“Despite everything, Richard and I always got along well and became good pals. We often used to meet up years later – and we’d always end up talking about the Camaro days. I think we were both disappointed when the 3.0-litre limit was imposed after the 1975 season, but I suppose it was inevitable. I don’t think the European manufacturers were keen to carry on having their cars beaten by this American obscurity.”