Silverstone, Northants. It’s late July and the second biggest crowd of the UK season has come to bask in the nostalgia of the third Christie’s International Historic Festival. On raceday, the jams stretch back to Towcester. Old, familiar faces are almost as numerous as the hundreds of Ferraris assembled in and around the central paddock.
Some stray far from the purist crowd. They have come to witness the FIA European Challenge for Historical Touring Cars, a one-hour recreation of the pre-1966 contests waged between Alfa Romeo, BMW, Lancia, Austin-Morris and Ford. They are not fooled by the Opel Olympia Rekord with the cuddly toy in the side window. Some serious racing with factory money is still to be found in a series all too frequently marred by eligibility disputes and post-race disqualifications.
Pacesetter is Scuderia Bavaria, with a trio of 192 bhp 1800 T1 saloons. Backed by BMW, with a budget reportedly running beyond two million Deutschmarks per annum (over £700,000), the team deploys wickedly effective preparation. Although these four-doors are much better presented than their road-registered cousins that you will find in marque history books, their multiple sidedraught carburated power units are matched by driver talent. The line-up included former world champion Denny Hulme (who sadly died recently — see elsewhere), Monte Carlo Rally winner Rauno Aaltonen and multiple European Touring Car champion (for BMW) Dieter Quester, an Austrian who must have enjoyed the longest, and most loyal, factory driving contract in motor sport history. He started with BMW in 1966!
Similar financial support comes from Alfa Romeo for Italian and German teams (the bitterest of rivals) running beautiful GTA coupes, whilst Ford is numerically strong because the ’60s marked the international homologation of the American Mustang and Falcon an example of which we were to share as well as the Lotus Cortina, winner of the 1965 ETCC in Sir John Whitmore’s hands. Ford offers no support to its teams (a case of “History is Bunk?”), but there were a dozen assorted Mustangs and Falcons plus nine twin-cam Cortinas, the fastest of which (for Simon Hadfield/Michael Schryver) was recently offered for sale at £28,000. A total of 44 cars practised and my initial priority was simply to be amongst those to get a race. Simple enough in a V8 at this circuit, surely? Not when history is being rewritten around you…
At Silverstone, admirers of the Detroit school of iron V8 charm ran their palms slowly over my borrowed mount. Its extensive steel and glassfibre body panels in white and blue brought onlookers into our garage as if a missing link in Ferrari history had materialised. They gazed at the Sports Car Club of America sticker on the back panel and puzzled over the number plate ‘Balena’. The latter means ‘white whale’ in Italian, a strictly European view of what was regarded as a compact car back home in the ’60s. Some even whispered reverentially about of the car’s “wonderful patina of constant use.” A few spotted the alloy fabrication of the oil catch tank by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, which sent them muttering off to look at other apparently similar Fords, which actually had little in common with our car save the theoretical specification.
At that worshipping point it was time to remind ourselves that what we had here was a rebodied 1963 (load bearing body) and 1964 (homologated outer panels) Ford, albeit one that has competed for most of its life with regional success in California. That this charismatic Ford, with its unique wheel arches, was present in England was due to the generosity of owner Mark L Dees, a Californian Allard fanatic, Bonneville salt flats regular and attorney at law. That I was to co-drive was due to the loyal lobbying of number one driver Bob Sherring, former Speedwell employee in the Graham Hill era and now known for his expertise in guiding giant Ford Galaxies to front running performances at historic events. A chance meeting the week before the race attracted some petrol and tyre money from the UK arm of the Australian vintage and veteran oil specialist Penrite, courtesy of well known TR4 driver Evan Mackenzie.
Dees had come over with the 4.7-litre Ford to co-drive it in the Mitsubishi Marathon. He retained his enthusiasm, despite a rocky ride into a Belgian marriage garden and an engine expiry that terminated the Falcon’s participation in Czechoslovakia. The Falcon, formally titled Ford Falcon Futura Sprint V8, was returned to Britain and to the overall care of fellow historic Ford racer Nicky Torregiani at Classic Affaire in Dorset. We shared Silverstone garage space with the Torregiani equipe, who ran a Mustang for Nicky and Rod Birley, plus a Lotus Cortina for Amanda Torregiani/Stephen Damant. We would not have got past scrutineering had it not been for the efforts of Classic Affaire’s Doug Forbes and my lead driver’s mechanic, Dave Huffer.
By the Silverstone weekend I had grown accustomed to its LHD girth. Besides, Motor Sport is not unfamiliar with the Falcon. In March 1964 the late Michael Twice assessed a factory rallying example, one of 14 Falcons used by Ford for its 1964 Monte Carlo Rally assault. That practice car of 28 years ago had its 4727 cc uprated by Carroll Shelby to give 285 bhp at 6000 rpm, a capacity we shared, though our version of the iron eight was assembled by ex-All American Racers employee Larry Ofria at Valley Head Services, San Fernando Valley. It yielded an estimated 325 bhp with a safe limit of 7000 rpm (we actually used 6200-6500 most regularly).
included The Dees Falcon weighed about the same 2800 lb as the factory Ford of 1964, and we initially used a 4:1 final drive from the Marathon specification, not dissimilar to the 4.5:1 of the factory rally car. The latter, tested in ’64 with a then-new fifth wheel speedometer and stopwatch, returned 0-60 mph in 6.9s, 0-100 mph in 16.9 and a standing start quarter mile in 14.8. Comments from the Motor Sport test : “Figures such as 11s from 0-80 mph are as good as one can expect from the most accelerative of European sports cars.” Obviously we had lost nothing with the advent of another 40 bhp, but back in 1964 Shelby was able to provide 350 racing bhp at 7200 rpm from this unit.
Following a fraught practice session, spent with the engine hammering away at maximum rpm for much of the 3.19-mile Historic GP lap (as for current cars, but quicker, as it omits the Vale complex between Stowe and Club), we opted for a 3.7:1 final drive in the (very) live axle. This naturally meant we gave away a lot on acceleration, compared to that rally car of the ’60s, but gave the engine an easier time for a one-hour race and improved consistent lap times.
At first sight of the Falcon, at a midweek practice session on Bruntingthorpe airfield, I had grave misgivings of whether we would qualify. Nicky Torregiani had brought along the Mustang in which he had set the 1991 record for historics in FIA European trim at 2m 21.9s (81.08 mph), the same black V8 as he would share with Rod Birley in 1992.
Driving said Mustang alongside the Falcon, I saw little comparison. They may both have been based on the same floorpan and shared the common starting point of pushrod eight, four-speed Borg Warner with Hurst quick shifter, double wishbone front suspension, multiple leaf and Panhard Rod linked live axle, yet one was a soft tourer, rich in history and period furniture, whilst the other Ford was a ferociously quick device that turned into every corner very rapidly, showed a clean pair of heels to a Sierra Cosworth beyond 137 mph and braked with equal efficiency.
Sherring and I sat down with pen and pad to list what needed altering, just to get a run that weekend (about 10 items, including removal of a pair of nail scissors and the radio!). Then we thought about lap speed and asked for a foot brace, plus the same Corbeau seat and modern harness. I felt like a vandal modifying such a genuine car, but Classic Affaire not only carried out that list but made sure that — in every instance — it could be returned to original specification, including blanking off that protruding fuel filler with its emotive chain link cap retention. There had been no time to work on the handling and this immediately proved to be our biggest Silverstone handicap. That we qualified 28th of 44 cars, with a lap of 2m 24.52s (79.61 mph) and within 0.47s of the Torregiani Mustang, was the most satisfying personal lap I have completed.
However, both drivers knew that such a sideways performance and continuous use of 6700 rpm in top were unlikely to bring a racing result. An overnight change of differential – we finally had four to choose from — and a last-minute tyre swap saw Bob Sherring lined up for the 1pm Sunday start. We were way behind the trio of factory-backed BMWs that dominated practice in 1-2-3 formation, but even the fastest Falcons had been almost four seconds adrift of the four-cylinder BMWs’ pace. I don’t remember race results like that when I was a Motoring News saloon car reporter in the late car ’60s; then, V8 power reigned supreme.
Still, I was happy just to be taking part. The meeting had the most relaxed air of affluence and pleasure, something that used to be a feature of Silverstone Grands Prix in its ‘garden party’ era. Where else would you find Derek Bell’s ambitious young son Justin hiking a lift over the bridge after racing a friend’s Alfa, just for fun?
The opening laps saw the lead BMW of Quester/Aaltonen stamp away from its team-mates and the Alfas. Best Brits were Hadfield and Schryver in the A-bracket Cortina, but even that flying machine lapped more than two seconds slower than the factory BMW’s amazing record lap of 2m 13.86s (85.95 mph), which was fractions faster than Quester had managed in practice.
Again, history was being rewritten, for BMW legend Alex von Falkenhausen originally picked the 1.8-litre capacity for the four-door saloon to avoid direct confrontations with the 1.6-litre Alan Mann Cortinas, knowing them to be faster.
Our race progressed as quietly as it can in a 4.7-litre V8, which had a penchant for imitating a forest rallying Escort driven by a deranged Finn with an alcohol abuse problem. In fact a very sensible Finn, Aaltonen, climbed out of the winning BMW at the finish and smiled. “That slides a lot, even for a Ford. I don’t think it should be that bad. How does it feel?” I replied, ungraciously, of my faithful race companion, that it was “a very big taxi cab.”
I had spent much of my closing stint looking for the chequered flag, startled to discover that the 13 laps I covered felt more like 133. In the large and airy cabin, I cursed that we had not put a piece of masking tape on the straight ahead steering position. In the slow infield sections (Priory, Brooklands and Luffield), neither both Bob nor I could keep tabs on how many turns of opposite lock had been applied. It was desperately embarrassing if you came into that complex with any rival, especially one that stopped and handled, for the braking took an agonising age. Then you would put on an act like a performing seal, trying to balance 25 cwt, 325 bhp and tiny contact patches, while the occupant of the following Mini or Lotus Cortina could be seen grumbling and wondering which way this lunatic was finally going to spin in the tortured haze of Dunlop smoke.
To be fair to the Falcon, it never did spin. To be fair to Dunlop, there was still work left in those abused covers, despite their obvious (and mandatory) undersize dimensions on such a heavy car. It may help to understand the relative lap speeds when I tell you that the Scuderia Bavaria BMWs used a broader section tyre for a car that must weigh 800 lb less . . .
Much of my race was spent in solitary confinement scanning the SW gauges. I had the moral lift of passing another Falcon, that had qualified at the back of the grid, at regular intervals, and also had time to feel sorry for Torregiani as he surveyed our progress from the banking, the Mustang’s motor having expired in his stint. Although we had lots of minor motor troubles in pre-event running (the rockers clouting the ornate aluminium covers), the high compression V8 ran perfectly at the easier 6500 rpm of the taller differential (circa 120 mph in a straight line). It completed 25 laps at a 77.32 mph average, a race speed that covered the slickest of pit stops and driver changes, an art which we had not previously practised at all. We simply talked through a good exchange, which worked better than we had a right to expect. We had rumbled our way to 17th overall of 31 finishers, but that was before the apparently inevitable disqualifications. BMW lost its third-placed 1800 T1 (Hulme and Prince Leopold von Bayern). In the end, five cars were excluded, most of them Minis.
Finally, long after our celebratory glass of champagne became a memory, new results were issued to classify us 14th, fourth amongst the V8s. Our best lap was in the closing stages of the race, a tenth slower than I managed in practice. A more important factor had been that, with the taller diff ratio, the Falcon stayed in the same second bracket for both drivers, most of the time.
Dees and his beautiful plum red Allard have now returned to the USA, whilst the Falcon is sharing garage space with big brother, Sherring’s seven-litre Galaxie. There is talk that we may be allowed to sort the handling out and run it again in FIA European trim, but this may well prove too much of an imposition on an American private owner’s generosity.
It’s pleasing to note that Bill Sollis and Duncan Heard took revenge for their Silverstone disqualification by taking their Cooper S to a mighty victory at the subsequent Nurburgring round of the series. Our congratulations to them. I hope that some common sense prevails on vehicle preparation for this increasingly popular category, before its enormous crowd appeal is soured by background wrangling, even if such argument is a more authentic recreation of period factory fighting than the present performance of the V8 cars against the four-cylinder brigade.