J.W. tries Britain’s most popular saloon car racing series for himself, equipped with a twin carburettor Vauxhall Nova Sport.
Hurricane Charlie devastated more than Birmingham’s first edition of street racing in mainland Britain. On that August Bank Holiday evening, I aquaplaned along the M25, streaming away from an equally sodden Brands Hatch. Behind, a curtailed Ford Fiesta race that left me swearing that that would be the last time I raced.
Such resolve lasted three days; then came a phone call…
“Hullo, that J.W.? Ivan here. Ivan Dutton out at Greenford. Listen Jeremy, I’ve got a small problem I think you could help us with…” Worried silence from the editorial end of the line… “You still there? Good.
“Thing is, I’ve won my class in the Uniroyal series with that Vauxhall Nova Sport. Yes, even with Tony Lanfranchi and the rest of them out to beat us. We’ve won eight rounds and done enough to make sure nobody can get by my points total.
“No, I cannot win the Championship outright, it’s been too close for that. But you can go along to the final round at Brands Hatch and see whether Blower (Colin, Mitsubishi Starion driver) or Taylor (Ian, Mercedes 2.3,1 6) gets the title. While you’re there you can do us that favour: drive the Nova for us!
“Why? Well, I want to go to the Beaulieu Autojumble. I can’t miss that, can I?” Peals of laughter as dedicated deflator of racing reputations and Vintage/classic car/Morgan specialist I. Dutton awaits a reply.
I am terribly noncommital: “I’d love to Ivan, when can I drive the car?”
Thus I appear at Brands Hatch the Thursday before this final round. My morning Brands practice session in midweek cost £25, slightly over a pound per lap, for we only needed 17 tours to see that this Vauxhall Nova Sport would be exceptionally competitive, lapping in 60.8s (70.3 mph), within a second of the class record. Sunday’s race has to be over ten laps of the magnificent 2.61 mile Grand Prix circuit, whilst the public practice session was around the “Indy” (née Club) layout, so there was no point in extra mileage.
Preparing the car at Dutton’s six-man premises within Unit 12, Derby Road. Greenford. Middlesex, was not complicated. Because the engines are already modified in respect of new induction, and a rally-inspired four branch exhaust manifold, much of the work goes into making the best of the suspension.
At the rear deliberately shortened Spax adjustable shock absorbers are used to lift the inside rear wheel off the ground in hard cornering, cutting down the understeer in dry circuit use. For the wet the standard dampers are fitted, along with full tread depth Uniroyals. “At the front we put some 3-litre Capri inserts into the MacPherson struts because I knew most about modifying the bump and rebound characteristics on this type of insert. We did have to sort out an initial problem with the car bottoming out. When that was solved, a couple of races into the 14-round series, the car started to win immediately.” commented our mentor.
To obtain the slightly lower ride height specified in the RACSMA-verified form that accompanies every production saloon car in UK races, the coil springs were heated and allowed to let the car droop down on its standard ride height. This blacksmith’s method is legally necessary because you cannot replace the springs, only the dampers.
Normally cars in this category will have blueprinted engines that dimensionally conform to the best tolerances the manufacturer can homologate for sporting purposes. Yet the provision of that twin carburettor kit and ancillaries seems to have satisfied some competitors that no further work is required, whilst some have rebuilt units.
Dutton’s staff, including David Ansell, the gentleman who looked after me on race day with calm efficiency, despite changeable weather, did remove the cylinder head. “But all we did was grind-in the valves,” remembered Ivan Dutton adding, “we did more work externally.”
“There was a racing exhaust system to add to that special cast iron competition manifold. We also re-jetted the carburettors and found there was 69 bhp at the wheels on a rolling road.” That equates to more than 85 flywheel horsepower from the four choke 1.3 litre, a worthwhile improvement over the similar capacity Nova SR’s 70 bhp at 5600 rpm.
Total preparation costs quoted are iust £1,656 and include running repairs such as replacement synchromesh for fourth gear (“too many slammed changes from third,” confessed Ivan), one set of replacement plugs and two oil changes. However, labour was not accounted for, in the usual motor trade racing tradition.
Ivan commented casually, “Just rev it to what it will reach, you’ll never break it. The needle will disappear beyond 7000, but you’ll only need fourth on the longest straights…” Famous last words?
Study the lap times, particularly in the wet and you find the little Vauxhall is actually as quick around the tracks as some of the 2-litre front driven hatchbacks. In fact, the damp Sunday morning official session around the glories of the full 2.6 miles at Brands Hatch saw our modest machine top the class (by just three hundredths of a second) eleventh fastest overall.
That means the 7500 rpm Nova was less than three seconds away from the pole position time of Sean Brown’s 16valve, 1.6 litre, Toyota Corolla! In view of the adequate length of start and finish straight, besides the swoop along to Hawthorn, this was something of a surprise, which I put down to the inspired track layout, one rarely used by British clubmen owing to its marshalling and extra safety needs.
It was a motorised thrill to speed even this small capacity tin-top over blind brows, through left, as well as the inevitable right-hand corners and tackle corners that challenge the driver to negotiate them flat in top. The Nova’s cornering capabilities were underlined as the Vauxhall scuttled to an average 75.06 mph versus the Toyota’s 76.85 mph.
Although the wettish session provided an easier drive than either the dry short circuit acclimatisation, or the subsequent dry race, the principles of Nova progress became obvious. In 1.3 litres high revs and minimal braking become priorities, but there comes a point (particularly over dry tarmac) where you wonder how the car can possibly stay upright because the Nova, equipped with shorter rear dampers, has a cornering stance very much like the old Golf GTI, cocking a rear wheel in the air with disconcerting readiness well before a bend’s apex.
To the driver it feels as though the Pinball machine he is travelling within has suddenly ordered “Tilt”. The horizon begins to stream diagonally across the screen as the engine smoothly attains improbable rpm. The sad wailing of the tyres acts as a backdrop to sailing dinghy angles of attack, initially disconcerting the newcomer.
Look straight ahead and the supply of vacant tarmac seems to be swallowed whilst the steering relays positive messages that any more understeer lock at this stage may well result in inversion.
A few laps of this is sufficient to establish that the Nova’s stiffer damping and twin carburettor engine are actually uncannily matched by the brakes. Thus, the complete car has a balance that becomes obvious in lap times that are incredible for a very mild modified 1.3 litres. Just under a second slower than James Kaye’s big brother GTE Astra, our Ivan Dutton Nova led three more Sport Novas on the same second bracket. They were driven by veteran Tony Lanfranchi in a professionally prepared machine from Monorep, privateer John Hammersley (we raced Capris against each other earlier in the season), and official GM Dealer Sport backing going to Andrew Jeffrey in a Nova that was fourth fastest.
Altogether 20 cars practised for our Uniroyal race whilst a further 20-plus contested a separate race for bigger capacity saloons. Add two separate races for the Girollex Porsches and many (totalling 15) other events over the two day meeting, and you can see there is nothing wrong with the support given to British motor racing at grass roots levels. However, getting a decent crowd in to watch is definitely not as easy in 1986 as it was when I raced regularly in the early seventies. Too much racing and too many other diversions?
For my 5 o’clock race Mr Ansell and I agreed on a reversion to the dry tyres and back dampers, all completed with such efficiency that the pre-race wait, including an inordinately long spell in grid formation, dragged unmercifully. Visions of the hard racing in this category and the scars on Ivan ‘s Nova, along with tales of how they were earned, played on a restless imagination.
My start was a disaster. It was the only aspect I had not discussed with Ivan Dutton, or practised for myself. The tardy getaway cost us most of that hard earned practice labour, the Novas of Lanfranchi and Hammersley disappearing into the melée at Paddock ahead.
Once I had calmed the enraged Nova’s spinning front wheels sufficiently to make forward progress in the self-created haze, things seemed to get worse.
Up into Druids hairpin I ran out wide and was now locked behind a 2-litre Fiat Abarth Strada that I had been warned about repeatedly as an obstacle to Nova lap times. Along Cooper Straight (South Bank to my generation) former Fraser works Imp driver Ray Calcutt took his Toyota past as well.
Now I faced the prospect of at least two bigger capacity cars blocking my line of attack to my classmates, plus further assaults from behind as John Kittleson’s Golf GTI threatened to burst by, along with the Jeffries Nova. Unusually by racing saloon standards, everyone lined up tidily on the right, ready for the left-hand, third gear, climb up onto the GP circuit at Surtees. I stayed belligerently left, approaching at some 80 mph on the inside line, braking only when I saw that the file of jostling saloons to my right were slowing in a wheel-locking queue.
As a tactic it was extremely crude, but it worked perfectly. The Nova described a tighter entry into the corner and in the inevitable run wide from same I was delighted to see my classmates within unobstructed striking distance ahead and the queue now behind. Majestically, the Calcutt Toyota breezed by toward Hawthorn, whilst the Nova struggled to reach over 100 mph. Yet a judicious turn-in from an inside line on the now adjacent Abarth-Fiat allowed the chance of an unblocked swoop at this top gear right.
The Nova’s speed through the curves of Hawthorn. and Westfield, was enough to shake off those larger capacity cars. Westfield was taken in third, exiting for an 85 mph plunge and subsequent fourth gear crest after Dingle Dell. Stirling’s required hard braking before its third gear left at 55 to 60 mph.
The commitment required at Clearways was considerable, and I managed to get through for eight of the ten laps with top gear still engaged and the Nova wheel-lifting its way apparently into the outside Grandstands. I knew any faltering would leave the poor little 1.3 gasping for useable torque under 4500 rpm.
It took a couple of laps before Hammersley’s brown Nova filled the screen in front my now soggily-braked machine, but a side-by-side run into Hawthorn straight eventually saw our striped machine ahead.
By then there was no sign of Lanfranchi. Since Tony Lanfranchi went on to set a new record of 1m 58.23s (83.21 mph), little slower than many of the 1.6 to 2.0 litre protagonists battling for the outright lead, I think I can fairly say that he just drove away into the distance.
I finished just under 20 seconds behind Mr Lanfranchi, second in the class, approximately 40 seconds behind the outright winner, Alan Minshaw’s Golf GTI. As to the Uniroyal championship title, that went to Colin Blower and his Mitsubishi Starion Turbo, Taylor’s Mercedes leaking fuel and failing to finish.
Unfortunately the same could not be said of the Novas behind my mount. Andrew Jeffrey and John Hammersley collided heavily and neither finished the race, whilst that big brother GTE referred to in practice (that of James Kaye, he of hilI-climbing stock) also ended up in the hard stuff, just short of the start and finish line.
Overall, I had thoroughly enjoyed a return to production racing, but only because Mr Dutton provided me with a car that could win, and probably would have done in his capable hands. Now for a peaceful winter hibernation. — J W