A testing session with the Dealer Team Vauxhall Chevette HS2300

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A record that comprises two International rally wins well within the first year of competition is a record any manufacturer would be justly pleased with. Who the team goes under the popular “dealer team” guise, then the pride is still there, though General Motors executives cannot crow in quite the same way as their open factory opposition, for General Motors are not in competition, are they? As enthusiasts it matters little what labels these effective Vauxhalls carry in competition. However, it did seem a good opportunity especially as this is RAC Rally month, the first birthday of the Chevette’s debut to find out a little more about the people, and the cars, who have so quickly become the force to reckon with in any United Kingdom event.

Since we have already written quite a lot about Blydenstein and his modified road cars, it is as well to point out that the DTV division is housed and operates entirely separately. About a dozen people are employed full time. So far as working mechanics go, two of the available number concentrate just on racing, which means predominantly Group 1 Vauxhall Magnum 2300 coupes and always Gerry Marshall. Though it has not generally been one of their better years, for the Dolomite Sprint has prevailed this season, Marshall and DTV had every reason for pure delight at taking an overall second place in July’s Spa-Francorchamps 24-Hour race.

Managerial responsibility for DTV competitions activities is vested with another Gerry, this time a Mr. Johnstone. He is a remarkable man: a former Vauxhall technical writer and racing mechanic to Marshall for many years, he has only been involved with rallying since Blydenstein’s works took over from Coburn on January 5th, 1976. That first year was primarily concerned with fighting the good fight with the existing Magnum coupes in Group 1 and Group 2 forms: only by the slimmest margin were they beaten for the RAC Group 1 title. Ironically DTV did not renew the contract of Finn Pentti Airikkala for 1976, though he had been driving for Coburn….

The car on which the rally Chevette is based can be rather difficult to comment upon, as the HS 2300 has not actually materialised at the time of writing in road form. We are promised that 400 such cars have been made for homologation into Group 4 and we have heard that a press launch is in the offing as this is being written. Relevant to the rally car are the fitment in the roadgoing HS 2300 of a 16-valve, 140 horsepower version of the Vauxhall slant four, plus a five-speed ZF gearbox and Bilstein damping, with vertical installation of the rear dampers, the latter practically a must for a rallying saloon. The HS 2300 was passed for competition in Group 4 on November 22nd, 1976, and one car, that of Will Sparrow (driving his last event for DTV) lasted 2 1/2 stages of last year’s RAC Rally for the expected inauspicious debut. Expected because quite a lot of unsuitable parts had to be installed for the car to make the starting ramp at all. In fact the team genuinely had done well so get the car out at all; this was not to be one of those stories where the car receives a lot of pre-event publicity and then quietly fizzles out.

For this season Mr. Johnstone did manage to secure the services of Pentti Airikkala again, this time against stern opposition from other manufacturers, as the thoughtful Finn had dominated the RAC Rally after an excellent season in Escorts belonging to David Sutton Cars. Having secured an ace, Johnstone then picked a man who had been through all the ups and downs of rallying with every British manufacturer in the sport, plus a few abroad, Chris Sclater.

The results startled everyone, even the team. Sclater has something to prove, and is very much the top line competitive driver of before. Then Airikkala won the Welsh and Manx home internationals. Since one event is forest-based and the other a tarmac competition on pace-notes the Chevette and those that put it into the arena have some cause for jubilation at the car’s versatility, though none of them consider the Mass in quite the same light as the Welsh, for the stiffest opposition dropped out early. As a programme the Chevettes have concentrated on the British RAC Rally Championship, with an extra event overseas for each driver. When this was written DTV’s Finn led the RAC series by 6 points, and the DTV Magnum led Group 1 as well. Airikkala also did the 1,000 Lakes in his homeland and showed the car was just as fast there, before the propshaft sheared.

On those events the score is: Airikkala, two wins, three seconds, a third and a fourth, five retirements. Sclater has taken two seconds; one third, a fifth place and a sixth overall, plus seven retirements. In fact one of those second places for Sclater was scored in his extra, non-RAC Championship event, a visit to Galway for their tarmac rally.

Overall Johnstone says, “the car has not changed much in basic form. We homologated the Bedford CF Salisbury rear axle and subsequently put in a new rear suspension arrangement for this layout, but otherwise the car is the same formula as we set off with. You’ll notice,” a twinkle comes into his eyes, before continuing. “Yes you will definitely have noticed, that we tend to have recurring problems. These must seem damn silly to reader, looking at a professional team, but there are good reasons why we have suffered so heavily with problems like those encountered with the distributor. In this instance when we did find out what was breaking and there was a lot of damage within so it was hard to see what had failed first, never mind why – it took us a very long time to gain supply of an alternative. In fact, I have one over-riding worry it is the supply of components. The other point about the Chevette record is that the car has always been developed in public: there simply has not been time for proper private testing.”

We were speaking at a private estate in East Anglia where a few miles of rutted roads were being covered at astonishing speed by Airikkala in one of the three DTV Chevettes currently in use. He was preparing for the Lindisfarne, eleventh round of the RAC Championship, lying but a single point adrift of Russell Brookes in the factory Ford Escort. He finished fourth on that event, after a roll, while Brookes was excluded, but the margin (with two events to go) is expected to be tight right up to the end. If the Vauxhall does win the series, it will be the first time Ford have been beaten since 1970. So far ten rallying Chevette bodies have been built at the Shepreth workshops. Just three cars have been for customers, who pay between £10,000 and £15,000 latter figures reflecting the charge for a near duplicate of the factory car, which carries an engine that is worth £3,000. Of the three cars on the strength at present, Airikkala has two cars and Sclater one that alternates between Group 4 and 5. The machine I was watching in Norfolk, the lighter Group 5 model, was Airikkala’s regular LHD example. This weighs 20 cwt. 8 lb. while the original car which uses a steel bonnet and tailgate and glass, instead of the Group 5 machine’s two glassfibre panels and three pieces of Perspex substituting for glass – that original weighed 21 3/4 cwt. In all cases the car is weighed with 13 gallons of fuel, and the radio installed.

For both the same carburated engine specification is used. Johnstone says sardonically, “we’re going backwards fast with these. In 975, on the Magnum, we had 239 b.h.p. The Magnum went onto a 1976 dry-sump system which the Chevette still has not been equipped with. Today we have an average 237 b.h.p. and try to operate with an r.p.m. limiter at 8,200 r.p.rn. Of course our engine has an inherent 300 c.c. advantage over most of our rivals and we have got a better torque output (185 lb. ft.) haven’t we Pentti?”

Airikkala looks up from the back of the Victor Estate with a big grin, “yes it’s good. I can use from five and a half thousand revs. But, I always tell other drivers we have more power than they. This way they think, it’s not my fault Airikkala wins: it is not him, it is the car, I cannot beat him.” An explosion of laughter after this typical Finnish sally is a rare relief in an evening that has been devoted to mechanical niceties and a lot of hard work with the car; changing springs, trying to get the brake pedal action just there, “firm, like other car please.” There is no more demanding master than a top rallying Finn.

Safety Devices are responsible for the strength of the bodyshell. From the debut onward, this Cambridge concern have worked on the DTV three-door saloon and wrought some pretty substantial changes. In the case of a modern mass-production saloon the primary tasks are to make sure that all the body seam welding is of the highest possible standard (CO2 only is the motto at SD) and all the possible precautions of skidding protuberant parts are also taken. The three-door bodyshell should pose inherent problems, but SD have gone on record as saying that it is about 10% stronger than its conventional 2-door rivals thanks to “the amount of shape we put into the floor wells.” As a bodyshell it carries the strength of an integral roll cage and the exterior character of glass fibre wheel arch extensions and the rakish front spoiler/nose section. Looking at the car from the side one would think that the 2.3-litre engine and droop nose allowed a pronounced nose-heavy weight distribution. That is a bit of an optical illusion: the sleek nose section actually hides a nose-heavy weight spread. Airikkala says the steering response is not quite as good as an Escort, but they have improved it a lot with experience.

One handicap they suffer is that the dampers and coil springs are separate. Instead of the Ford/Chrysler/Leyland recourse to Bilsteins with simple adjustment in ride height, these Vauxhall representatives have to “guesstimate” their requirements pretty accurately. If the ride height has to be altered, it is a question of removing the springs rather than playing with the normal ride height adjustment on the rival brands mentioned earlier. GM parts for the double wishbone front suspension and the trailing arm live back axle are used extensively. These parts are strengthened considerably over their original specification: usually this takes the form of extra bracing plates welded into the main structure.

The brakes have to be very special for this kind of work. At the front large ventilated discs succour instant retardation from four-piston calipers. At the rear straightforward discs are accompanied by equally simple single-piston calipers.

My ride in the car was centred around the vexed question of the brakes. In one car Airikkala had a firm pedal with instant response, while this one was pretty lazy. I climbed in at 9 o’clock at night and settled into the big black navigator’s seat, which is set back and lowered from any potential accident as far as possible. That is not a reflection on Airikkala but on the speeds modern rally cars reach amongst the unprotected trees and sudden drops.

Behind the Corbeau seats a mass of equipment, including the fire extinguisher and a spare fan belt strapped to the integral roll cage, lurked. The full safety harness was quite a reassuring item, but the details are the impressive part. For example the engine bay has two lights so that it really is properly lit, and the gearbox tunnel features a gear lever with a proper gaiter, as well as the handbrake with a similar item. The important mechanical part is that the top of the tunnel can be entirely removed via quick-release clips.

In front of the drive there is a mechanical tachometer, water temperature and oil pressure gauges. A 130-m.p.h. speedometer sits in the middle of the fascia, an unwanted legal necessity.

As serious competitors neither Johnstone nor his driver were particularly impressed by the track on which we were to perform. The point of the matter is that there is no option: either you go to Wales and find the real thing, a somewhat protracted and expensive exercise from East Anglia, or you settle, as they had, for what you can find within a two-hour drive.

I had noticed, while Pentti was absorbed in his testing, how docile the car is in ordinary situations. The Chevette backs off the trailer and forward in 1st gear just as Pentti so aptly reports: “my mother can drive it, it’s just so easy.” If this is where the hunt for the perfect shopping car is leading us, I am all for it.

Thus we set off deceptively gently. The lights glowed in the stark fascia, the engine sounded lust like a normal saloon car with a bigger exhaust (much quieter, if anything). Pentti brooded over the sports steering wheel, the slack braking qualities, and his chances of obliterating the opposition.

We puttered around a hairpin. The Cibie-converted headlamps auxiliary spot and fog-lamps were not installed at this stage picked out an apparent small hole amidst the overhanging foliage. The pleasant man beside me apparently lost all self-control and the engine harked in surprise under the sudden command of the accelerator. We shot along the rutted tractor path like characters exaggerated in a cartoon film.

I have been as fortunate as most journalists in respect of rides over the rough with the stars, but have never sat beside such a quick man at night. I could instantly see why the navigator’s seat was so low and to far back; you simply could not concentrate with the full view revealed.

The biggest surprise came as we flew into an assortment of potholes, leading up to a deserted bridge, under which we would (hopefully) pass. I had driven my Group 1 car over this type of terrain and I knew it would have needed to fly into the parapet, bounced there by the rough terrain now under the wheels of this flying Vauxhall. In fact I hardly knew we had gone over any bumps a fact confirmed by Pentti in terse “Finnglish” afterwards: “Now we have limousine to go flying in!”

To me the car seemed very responsive when required to turn left and right in quick succession. Pentti commented that all the competitive modified saloons were good in this sort of situation. I asked where he felt the Vauxhall was better than the ubiquitous Escort? “More torque, better balance, good traction. Balance does not look right because of nose, but the car is very good in this way.

“It is always possible to improve: just one tenth of a second per stage mile, that is all I look for. If I can find this I can win in England … it really is that close now.” There have been situations this year where Airikkala and his biggest rivals have been separated by one second at the end of an event: truly that is “Forest Racing”.

As for the Chevette itself, I was tremendously impressed. Taking all the rivals (which I have ridden in) from Ford, Fiat, Leyland, Toyota, Datsun and Chrysler it seems to me to be the best, already. The other cars have strong points, but this Vauxhall combines useable power, traction, and handling to an astonishing degree for a car so young in development years. The only better cars, in any experience, have been proper GT models like the Stratos and the Porsche 911. Obviously the interpretation for the road model must be less exciting. If Vauxhall keep the attractive combination of docile power, good ride and fine handling, and then ensure the reliability of the whole plot, the Chevette HS 2300 will have proved worth waiting for.

For myself, it was a night I will not forget. The sheer speed into and over such rough going was a revelation as to the abilities of Mr. Airikkala, and a car that seems to be setting the pace in development of the modern rally machine. That phenomenal acceleration and gruff engine note mark a new era in sporting prestige for the name of Vauxhall. – J.W.