It was not an obvious choice, but the big 3500 put Rover on the tin-top map. British Leyland’s then motorsport boss, John Davenport, retraces its steps
To its designers, David Bache and Spen King, it was known as Specialist Division Number One: SD1 for short. It was known to the journalists who voted it Car of the Year in 1976 as the Rover 3500. Comedians called it the ‘Bionic Dog’. But at the end of the 1970s, it was the best thing BL Motorsport had with which to go racing. Seven seasons later, after two moral championship victories, a near miss and a pile of good results, the case was proved — but it wasn’t easy to get going.
The situation within British Leyland was dire towards the end of 1979. Michael Edwardes had started reorganising the company and, as part of that, the BL Motorsport operation, based on the MG site at Abingdon, was assigned to the Austin-Morris Division.
This was strange, for at the time all bar one of our programmes were with Rover Triumph models and engines. The Unipart Formula Three programme took the biggest chunk of the budget, but it was Richard Longman’s 1275 Mini that brought home the bacon in 1979, winning the British saloon car title for the second year in a row. However, its prospects of a hat-trick were not bright. Rule changes would adversely affect the Mini’s competitiveness, and meanwhile Dolomite Sprint production had ceased.
We needed something new — and there was not a lot of choice. The Rover 3500 seemed the best option in light of its close relationship to the rally-proven TR7 V8: same engine, gearbox and axle. But the upper limit for the British Saloon Car Championship had been set at three litres in 1975, when the RAC took over from the BRSCC. This had the express purpose of keeping out American cars. The championship, though, had evolved into four ‘one-make’ classes, with the top one comprising wall-to-wall Ford Capris. At a meeting of the manufacturers and the RAC in ’79, I was able to persuade them to up it to 3.5 litres. We were in. Just.
The Rover’s actual capacity was 3542cc, so it became necessary to homologate the car at 3495cc using the permitted manufacturers’ tolerance in an unexpected way.
With the TR7 V8 rally programme ongoing for 1980, we needed someone to build and race the Rover. Our F3 team was run by Bracey-Price (John Bracey and David Price), and it was my job to tell them that this had been shelved, and to ask if they might like to develop a saloon car. I’m not sure that they did want to, but the deal was done halfway through ’79 and work on a prototype began at their Twickenham base. ‘Project Lassie’ was born.
At this stage, there was no identified programme or money. As late as August 1979, the ’80 budget still only had the Rover racing programme as a possibility. I began to sound like Gordon Brown on the Euro: the car had to be competitive, the rules had to be in our favour, and the car had to be homologated.
We needed drivers, too. Triplex and Esso had been sponsoring Dolomite Sprints driven by Gerry Marshall and Rex Greenslade, and Triplex had just done a major deal to provide windscreens for the Rover 3500 production line. Greenslade, sports editor of The Motor, suggested that the Triplex/Esso/Motor package might sit quite nicely on the new Rover programme. He was right. They jumped at the chance. So the question of money was partly solved. As to drivers, we got Rex as part of the deal and I spoke with a 25-year-old Capri driver who was rapidly making his name in Group 1 racing: Jeff Allam.
I met Jeff in the Thruxton paddock in September. He was having a torrid time — blown engine in practice followed by an awful start thanks to an inoperative clutch. But he put it all right with a great drive through to second behind Gordon Spice. Thankfully, we had agreed terms before the race.
The testing, much of it done by talented Kiwi Brett Riley, built up and inevitably the story leaked that Rover was going racing. If only my bosses had felt the same way. A modest £100k budget had been identified, and Edwardes had won the support of 75 per cent of the workforce for the BL Recovery Plan. The dismissal of Derek Robinson (Red Robbo) in November and the subsequent furore in 1980 was the backdrop against which we strove to go racing.
It was only to be expected that management would be apprehensive about a new motorsport programme. So it was not until the first week of March 1980 that the world was told officially that David Price Racing would be running two works Rover 3500s in the British Saloon Car Championship for Jeff and Rex. Showing how late this was, the previous week it had been announced that a privateer would also be running two Rovers, for Brian Muir and Andy Rouse.
The debut was to be at Mallory Park; Muir and Rouse turned up in Capris. It was cold and damp but there was a record crowd thanks to the presence of Stirling Moss at the wheel of an Audi 80 GLE. We qualified modestly, but our real problem was a major tyre shortage. Dunlop had arrived with seven slicks — for two cars! You didn’t need to be Einstein… Highly irresponsible people in fast cars were sent to scour Fort Dunlop for at least one more. As it was, Jeff blew up leaving the line, and Rex survived chunking tyres and dodgy carburation.
The engine was a problem. Its twin SUs were not ideal, being very susceptible to float level variations. It was not until a rule change later in the year that we could drop on a four-barrel Carter and get good performance every time. Don Moore, in collaboration with our workshop, started doing the engines, but it wasn’t long before Swindon Race Engines got involved. It was a problematic job: a V8 is not known to self-destruct in a minor way.
There was a change afoot in our tyre supplier as well. Dave Price persuaded us to try some Goodyear Formula One fronts on the car. It worked, and we used them from mid-season. Results were coming gradually: Rex took a second at Silverstone in April, and Jeff provided the first win in the British GP support race at Brands Hatch.
It was drizzling at the start, and Goodyear had no wets. But we had Michelin intermediates from the TR7 rally programme and fitted them to both cars. Sure enough, it rained even harder and Jeff led from Druids on the first lap to the flag. Winning the most prestigious race in the calendar was just what we needed. We were not so successful in the other races, although top-five finishes were a regular occurrence. Rex and Jeff finished fourth and fifth overall in class at the end of the season.
But that was not quite the end of the story. Before he had secured the F1 world championship, I had persuaded Alan Jones to drive a Rover at the SMMT Trophy Race at Donington in October. It turned out to be a rerun of Brands Hatch. The rain was not so heavy but it did bring out the Michelin inters. The Rovers burst from the second and third rows to lead through Redgate. Alan and Jeff were never headed.
We all knew that we had to get more out of the chassis for the following season, and it was Dave Price who got Tom Walkinshaw involved. Before you could say knife, Tom was not just driving the car and making some alterations, he was also actively seeking to run the cars. It would be nice to say that we had plenty of money in the budget. But we had just closed Special Tuning, devised cuts of 40 percent and made 17 people redundant. Our programme looked as if it would be cut to one car, and we could save more by getting TWR to do both the engines and the chassis.
The whole thing was further complicated by the tyre situation. With our two big victories in ’80 having been scored on Michelin, the French firm was keen to support us for the whole season. Tom, however, had just set up DART to handle the Dunlop racing tyre franchise. He was keen to run a second car — on Dunlops — and was prepared to provide the funds to do it. It was the first time that I had found a ‘buy one, get one free’ deal being offered in motorsport. It was irresistible.
Triplex was now gone and both cars fronted up with Daily Express and Esso. Peter Lovett, who had distinguished himself by finishing second in class at the last three races of 1980 with a TWR Mazda, was drafted in to drive the Dunlop-shod car. By mid-season, Peter was winning and, not long after we moved Jeff onto Dunlops, he started winning too. The final race of the season saw them finish 1-2, which is how they finished in the championship, Peter ahead of Jeff. Sadly, the points system that had given Longman past victories in the Mini denied them the overall title, but at least they had trounced the Capris.
The tyre question raised its head again in 1982. Our success brought a bid from Avon. Looking back, we should not have been tempted, but it was prepared to help us close the financial gap left after the costs of a single-car programme had been weighed against the funds from Sanyo and Esso. In the event, TWR came with its two for the price of one offer again, but this time with a paying driver, Frank Sytner.
Everything went well from the start. Jeff won the opening round at Silverstone with Avon slicks on a drying track and, to everyone’s surprise, the second round at Mallory, too. Then things started to go backwards. As the weather improved, we could not get the Avon crossplies to perform.
And Frank was not happy. His experience with single-seaters had not prepared him for the less-than-delicate feel of a 1200kg saloon car. By the fourth race at Thruxton, Tom took the car out in practice himself to show that it could do the times, but in the race Frank withdrew before the end saying that it was undriveable. Lovett came back for the rest of the season and Dunlops went under both cars. Both drivers found their winning streak and Jeff finished the year with four poles, four outright wins and fourth overall in the points, winning his class ahead of all the Capris.
For 1983, the regulations would change completely and Group A would take over. Already in ’82 TWR was developing the Rover Vitesse to replace the 3500 for the new category, but sadly some seeds sown then would sour its future success. Still, in those three seasons the 3500, however unlikely it looked at the start, had laid the foundations for another five years of Rover tin-top success.