Chris Alford’s TVR 1600 and Rod Gretton’s 3000M exemplify the colour of Production Sports Car Racing.
Some of the most colourful grids of varied machinery to be seen on British circuits this season have been courtesy of the BRSCC’s Production Sports Car Championship. Lotus, TVR, Morgan, Triumph, MGBs and Midgets and Ginetta in assorted hues, changed from showroom appearance merely by decals, headlamp tape, numbers and roll-over bars, have given spectators a welcome flashback to sports car racing of the ’50s, before pure racing sports cars captured the scene. The 1975 Championship was won in convincing fashion by the Morgan 4/4 of Chris Alford, who kindly allowed me to test his Morgan and the frightening Plus 8 of his employer John Britten at the end of last season (Motor Sport, January 1976). This season Alford has changed his allegiance to TVR, with a 1600 version of which he stood a good chance of repeating his Championship win at the time of writing. Recently he let me loose in the Ford 1600GT-engined car on the Silverstone Club Circuit and for good measure and comparison arranged for me to drive the Ford 3-litre V6-engined TVR 3000M with which Rod Gretton is contesting the most expensive class of this price-classified championship.
This season’s Prodsports regulations are much the same as last year’s: blue-printed engines are allowed, bodywork and transmission must be standard, adjustable shock-absorbers are legal and tyres must be on the RAC’s list of approved road tyres. It’s a two-seater parallel to the Group 1 Production Saloon Championship and within the restrictive parameters it’s quite amazing how quickly some of the cars can be made to lap.
Like last year, the quickest car of all is Chris Meek’s Lotus Europa. Amongst all the traditional front-engined, rear wheel-drive sports cars it is something of an anachronism, as are its lap times around the twistier circuits—more akin to those of its mid-engined sports racing brethren than to Prodsports cars. Where sheer power is the criterion the Plus 8s and 3000Ms can harry Meek, but come the corners and the Lotus is in a different world. That, then is the picture in the overall and upper price class (£3,000-£4,500). Alford’s 1600 TVR can more than cope with the middle class, from £2,000 to £3,000, with 17 wins out of 18 starts to its credit. The one omission? A brave and cheeky on-the-grass overtaking manoeuvre by the MGB of the experienced Doc Griffiths in a wet Mallory Park race. Most of the pressure on Alford more usually comes from the Morgan 4/4s of Chris Hampshire (whose car Alford prepared and sold to him) and Tony Brewer, who built his car mostly on the basis of my January Motor Sport article, so Alford assures me. But a dark horse is novice David Beams, whose again non-traditional and very smartly turned out Ginetta G15 is getting quicker and quicker as its driver gains experience. Beams has the Brands Hatch lap record to his credit. In the up to £2,000 class the battle is on between Meek’s attractive blonde female protege Valli and Dave Karaskas, last year’s class winner Terry Grimwood having moved on to 750 racing.
There are in fact three Prodsports Championships this season: the Direct Tapes Northern Championship; the Euro-Burgess Southern Championship; and the BRSCC Championship for overall honours. Valli currently leads the former, Meek the second and overall honours should be a close call between Meek and Alford when points from the individuals’ best so — many races are totted up at the end of the season.
TVR’s Managing Director Martin Lilley is giving enthusiastic support to Prodsports racing this season with the result that there are four highly-competitive Blackpool cars on the grids, turned out in a fashion which is a credit to their individual sponsors and the glass-fibre cars’ makers. Spearheading the overall attack are the bright red 3000M twins of Colin Blower and Rod Gretton, sponsored by the Burgess silencer firm and complete with majestic pantechnicon transport. Alongside them in the class is the 3000M entered by the TVR factory and driven by employee Stuart Halstead, a bit of a sore point with me because TVR had invited me to drive this car for the season, but somewhere along the line communications were fouled up. . .
Ironically, the Chris Alford car is sponsored by Burgess’s replacement silencer rivals Quinton Hazel’, the Coventry firm which manufactures many other replacement car parts too. Naturally, as Sales Manager for TVR and Morgan dealers John Britten Garages at Arkley, Alford is a member of the John Britten All-British Racing Team, of whose activities the lucid Mr. Britten keeps we Motor Sport readers informed in his monthly “column”.
At the beginning of the season Alford’s intention was to run last year’s Morgan 4/4 again and indeed the car was re-race-prepared and ready to go when it was decided to run a TVR instead. By this time there were only a couple of weeks to go to the first Championship round—and no TVR to drive! TVR built a brand-new car on the normal production line in a record one week and the poor Morgan was robbed of its rebuilt David Minister engine to save time. The new car won first time out, with the paint hardly dry, to receive the first of a galaxy of Shell Gold Star class awards which now adorns its metallic blue body. Since then this TVR has notched up no less than six lap records, most of them wrested from last season’s Morgan, at Rufforth, Croft, Cadwell, Castle Combe, Oulton Park and the full Mallory Circuit. But at Silverstone, where power counts for more, the record remains with Gerald Vaughan’s TR6, which set it last season.
Hinckley “knicker manufacturer” (his own accurate description) Rod Gretton cannot claim Alford’s success this season, for not only has he Meek to contend with, but also slightly quicker Burgess team-mate Colin Blower. Gretton’s past experience is more limited than Alford’s eleven years’ of racing; a couple of season’s with a Prodsports V12 E-type and a Europa have been his lot. Both red 3000Ms are prepared by Colin Blower at his Hinckley garage and distinguished by a black vinyl roof in Gretton’s case, white for Blower.
Not only do the 1600 and 3000M TVRs look alike, they really are almost identical apart from engines and transmissions. The bodies,, tubular chassis and basic all-round doublewishbone suspension are the same. In the case of these “racers”, the 1600 is fitted with coil springs from the Triumph 2.5-engined 2500 M, the 3-litre has standard springs and all eight corners wear Spax adjustable shock absorbers. Even the 6 in. wide, 14 in. diameter alloy wheels are shared, along with TR6-type Girling disc/drum brakes, lined in both cases with DS11 pads and identical standard rear linings. Understandably, therefore, the 16 cwt 1600 stops better than the 18 cwt 3000M. The 1600 has a Spitfire differential with 4.1:1 final drive, the 3000M a TR6 differential with 3.45:1 final drive; neither has a limited slip differential, banned unless standard, which is applicable only to the Morgan Plus 8. A standard 3-litre Capri gearbox is housed in the 3000M, the standard small Ford gearbox, which Alford believes to be of Escort Sport type as distinct from the Mexico unit attached to the Minister engine in the Morgan, in the little car. Power is certainly not the answer to the 1600’s success: 102 bhp at 6,000 rpm tit the flywheel is reduced to a mere 78 bhp at the wheels, less than that of Valli’s 1500 Midget,
Alford claims. Careful blueprinting and the right choice of standard camshaft is the limit of the work carried out on the 1600GT engine by Dartford-based David Minister. The result is impeccable reliability: only a minor “going-over” was required after last season’s Morgan Championship win and no maintenance is required between races. It was also a cheap engine to prepare initially: just £120-worth of work on top of the brand-new engine delivered originally with the Morgan. The end-of-season rebuild cost £100. Both prices included dynamometer testing.
It’s the engine that puts Rod Gretton’s TVR in a totally different ball game to Alford’s.Preparation of the 3-litre V6 to the same specification as a Group 1 3-litre Capri engine cost the thick end of £1,000 at Racing Services, the company described in last month’s Motor Sport. The result is a good 200 bhp—and it feels like it. Yet ironically the little 1600 can just about hold its own with the 3-litres round the tight and undulating Cadwell Park. In fact the quickest in a straight line of the four TVRs is Stuart Halstead’s factory car (Blower’s car from last year), again with a Racing Services engine. Unfortunately the Gretton car has been pestered by overheating problems, which have required the bores to be honed a couple of times and further rebuilding expense. The cause of the problem has yet to be totally eradicated, but the rising temperature gauge has been ternporarily halted by leaving loose the header tank pressure cap.
As with most formulae restricting tyre types, Prodsports has something of a tyre war on its hands, again paralleled exactly in Group 1. The bone of contention this season has been the Kleber RS, a soft compound, low-profile, road-treaded tyre which was thrown out of production car racing a couple of years ago on a technicality relating to numbers available. At the beginning of July this season Kleber managed to have the RS re-approved by the RAC and suddenly it was the tyre to have, worth as much as 2 or 3 seconds per lap on most cars, including the TVRs. But its relative wear rates are ludicrous: on the 1600 they last only five or six races compared to “for ever” longevity of the “standard” Kleber V10 alternative, so Afford saves the RSs just for the more important southern rounds; the 3-litre can eat up the RSs in as little as one race. As I write th is, the word is out that the RS may be removed yet again from the RAC list on September 15th.
On the TVRs the RSs present a groundclearance problem: with them fitted the cars will only just clear the 4 in. block required by the regulations. When the normal V lOs are fined the suspension is lowered by 1/2 in., and the block still cleared. For my test the 3000M wore RSs, the 1600 V10s.
Given more than one car to track test on the same occasion. I usually “chicken” for the least powerful first. So it was that Alford strapped me into the 1600 while J.W., who’d accompanied me to gilverstone on this sunny, though slightly blustery day, found himself launched into the violence of the 3000M, only to have the throttle linkage fall apart on his second lap. Within, the 1600 is practically standard TVR, apart from a John Aley half-roll cage, a Corbeau seat positioned so close to the floor I could see even less than normal over the TVR’s high scuttle, and, hidden away, a four-gallon safety fuel tank.
In spite of the absence of a silencer (notwithstanding the Quinton Hazell connection), there sounded little of the raucous racer about the 1600 as I pottered it along the pits road. A light clutch with normal Ford bite, a lack of “camminess” from the engine, steering without the low-speed harshness of racing tyres, offered no sensation of this being a Championship-contending racing car. Acceleration out of the pits exit towards Maggotts hardly felt as though it would set the world alight either as I cursed that TVR drawback of a gearlever mounted high on the huge transmission tunnel.
After a lap or two to warm up the engine and learn to contend with hordes of screaming Formula 3 cars, closing in the mirror at frightening relative speeds, I began to realise just why this car is practically invincible. Here was a lightweight car with a chassis performance way beyond the limits of its engine, impressive not so much for straight-line performance, which was modest, but for magnificent cornering capabilities and, most of all, superb braking from those 3-litre-size Girlings. Copse was a third gear corner with the rev, counter indicating 6,500 rpm on the exit. Slight vagueness from the light Triumph rack and pinion steering, coupled with a poor sight-line because of the high scuttle, made me a touch inaccurate (erring on the safe side) on the apex. Maggotts left-hander was absolutely “flat” and braking and quick change to third for Becketts hairpin was a real last second affair, the big brakes slowing the 16cwt so smoothly and undramatically.
It was an understeerer round the hairpin, going wide towards the rough on the outside of the circuit if! kept my foot buried in the floor; lifting off momentarily, contradictorily often a way of putting a low-powered car round a corner more quickly, brought better balance and a smoother exit with 4,500 rpm indicated in third or 6,500 rpm if second was chosen. There was none of that inner-wheel-spinning oversteer exhibited by last season’s Morgan 4/4.
Then came the long wind-up down Club Straight and a wish for twice the power. The Formula 3s hurtled past like bullets as the TVR’s working speedometer needle forged its ways steadily upwards to just over 100 mph at about 5,500 rpm; but this catne up more easily than in the Morgan, for the TVR scores considerably in aerodynamics.
Braking for Woodeote could be left incredibly late, until I could see the whites of Silverstone Sid’s eyes in his supervisory vantage point on the outside of the corner. This day his mind was probably on setting up a new lap record with the XJ12 fire-tender over the coming Bank Holiday weekend. Late braking or not, I found myself on most laps slowing to less than the car’s cornering potential, but on good laps powering over the apex kerb, exiting with about 6,000 rpm on in third, which meant a change to top well before the motor bridge. Just as it did in last year’s Morgan, this Minister engine felt sweet and unburstable, though this time I judged gearchange points by the TVR’s reasonably accurate tachometer rather than by waiting for the power to drop off, as I was told to do in the Morgan. The engine’s efficiency reflected in immaculate preparation of the whole car, a credit to the Britten emporium. Credit too to the unassuming Alford, who drives so consistently. His abilities with a relatively low-powered car on road tyres showed me up somewhat; I was a good 11/4 see. down on his normal lap times, which is a reminder that there’s more to getting the best out of a production racer than out of a properly set up racing car on the right tyres.
Thanks to Rod Gretton’s mechanic Peter, connection between the 3000M’s throttle pedal and down.draught Weber was renewed. But no thanks to Australian F3 driver Bernsconi and crew, owners of the only welding kit in the paddock, whose command of Outback AngloSaxon proved more than competent when turning down Rod’s request for a couple of spots of weld on the broken throttle cable support bracket. Fortunately, such attitudes are uncommon in British club racing. With co-operation the repair would have taken minutes. Instead, as Sid’s tea-time approached, my lappery had to be curtailed, And then with a non-progressive throttle which made heeling and toeing impossible.
The remains of fire-extinguished powder from a minor cockpit fire made this TVR seem much more well-worn. A slightly higher seat gave a better view out, but the front part of the full roll cage came too close to my right leg. Opened up, the powerful Racing Services V6 made all the right bellowing noises and ticked over with a lumpy burble. Little power at the bottom end of the scale changed to fearsome acceleration when I floored the long-travel throttle and pointed the 3000M towards Maggons, shifting the quick Ford gearbox through as the tachometer needle hit the recommended 6,000 rpm mark. This was a totally different animal to the 1600, a big engine in a light car, with no room for liberties. Where Maggotts had seemed just a slight curve taken flat out in the 1600, the 3000M made it a real bend on part throttle, feeling right on tip-toe. Given more experience with the car I might just have braved it on full throttle, but Rod, J.W. and I chose discretion. The temporary lack of throttle progression Made it much harder to drive; I had to brake earlier to avoid locking wheels on the change down to third without heeling and toeing and then feel for opening of the all-or-nothing throttle. It was a car which needed settling into the right line and then with respect. Copse was a full width of the road plus outer kerb corner, with the tail flicking a couple of times after the apex. Becketts, approached under brakes applied after the suspension had settled from Madgwick, was tackled in the opposite way to the 1600, squirting on the power to bring the rear wheels out to counter severe understeer. The F3 cars had less on this one down the Club Straight, with 135 mph registered on one dial and 6,500 rpm on the other, which meant a much earlier braking point for Woodcote. Higher speeds and more weight from that heavy engine meant far less confident braking than that of the 1600.
A handful or not, that feeling of something solid over the front wheels and a surfeit of power under foot made this 3000M feel a “proper” motor car against the “toy” 1600. I loved it and soon got down to respectable times in spite of the throttle problem. I’ve a feeling there might be a bit more development in the chassis which, like the 1600, has fullyadjustable suspension as standard, a great advantage for a road car turned racer.
With competitive cars like these TVRs around, Prod-sports is turning into a colourful and quite exciting formula. Who said sports cars were dead? C.R.
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