The worst car I ever drove - Jack of no trades

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Untried, untested and unloved, Datsun’s entry for the 1973 Tour of Britain was Tony Fall’s nemesis. John Davenport remembers why

With the Tour of Britain, shortly to be revived for classic and historic cars, it is perhaps timely to think back to the days when this event was in its short heyday. The year is 1973 and the Avon Motor Tour of Britain organised by the BRSCC is go. Half rally and half race, it had assembled an entry of some one hundred Group One cars driven by the widest assortment of drivers that have ever tackled an event in the British Isles. There was Roger Clark, Gordon Spice and Dave Matthews in Capris up against Tony Lanfranchi and Roger Bell in BMWs and James Hunt in a Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Colin Malkin and Bernard Unett in Hillman Hunters, Rosemary Smith in a Capri, Vern Schuppan in a Ford Consul, Howden Ganley in a Citroen SM and Prince Michael of Kent in a Escort Mexico added to the miscellany.

To complete the picture, Jenny Birrell, Gillian Fortescue-Thomas, Vic Preston Jnr, Barrie Williams, Tony Dron, Peter Harper, Adrian Boyd and Andy Dawson were there. In short, anyone who was anyone in the racing and rally world of 1970s Britain. And finally, as they say, there was Team Datsun Baker Street. Here you had a unique combination of talents. The lead driver was Graham Hill whose CV stated that he “had done a bit of saloon car racing”. Then there was Frank Gardner who had literally driven everything from saloons to sportscars and single-seaters. I was partnering him for this event and was relieved to discover that he had even had dirt road experience on the old Ampol Round Australia Trials. Completing the threesome was Tony Fall, at that time the wunderkind of British rally drivers, equally at home on a Monte Carlo, a Safari or winning rallies in the Andes.

At that time, Tony was driving for Datsun whose representative-on-earth in Britain was Mike Greasley. Tony recalls “Mike got my name down early to do the Tour of Britain. It was quite important since one of their biggest UK dealers,,Datsun Baker Street, were supporting the team. There was an awfully nice bloke called David Jolliffe from Baker Street involved and, at that time, I had nothing else on for the first week of July so I said ‘yes’. What I didn’t know was that Wakabayashi [the Datsun rally manager from Japan] would come with a last minute offer to go to New Zealand which I would have preferred to do. But I was stuck with the Tour of Britain.”

Datsun sent over three brand new 180B SSS that were the smart, curvy, two-door inheritors of the old slab-sided 1600 SSS with which Edgar Hemnann had won the Safari in 1970. “The idea was that Frank would sort out the cars and prepare them at his base up near Snetterton. The problem was two-fold: there wasn’t much time and no one knew much about the engines. David Wood whose business was up near Frank did some initial work on the blueprinting and then Janspeed had a crack at them.”

The problem was that the main opposition was coming from cars like the Hillman, the Vauxhall Firenza and the Escort Mexico that had all benefitted from extensive sorting by the factories here in England during a couple of seasons of racing and rallying. Not only were ‘look alike Group One’ parts not available for this new Datsun, but there was no time to stiffen suspension joints or select competition dampers that would do their job properly.

Tony remembers that there was a fair bit of testing, but it did not always go smoothly. “On one occasion, we were due to test the new Kleber tyres and we all turned up only to discover that Kleber had thought that Frank’s boys were bringing the tyres and vice versa. And because these cars were not proper homologation specials in the way that most of the British cars were, every time we made even a radical change to something, it didn’t seem to have any effect out there on the track. They always felt just as bad all the time. Even if you put the tyre pressures up to 4 bar, it would still understeer. During the event, I remember the race on the Club circuit at Silverstone. Woodcote was a pretty acute bend and the Datsun just wouldn’t look at it. You would be going round there understeering on full lock with clouds of tyre smoke coming over the bonnet You could come into that comer slow or fast, on the right or the left and it would still do the same thing.”

During the testing, Frank’s mechanics would make adjustments, but they were more suited to an already sorted racing car rather than a Group One saloon. “Their idea was to put an extra washer in to pack something out. My idea of an adjustment would have been to cut the sub-flame in half and move both ends out a foot to give us a bit of negative camber!”

On gravel the Datsun was not too bad but on tarmac it had learnt only one trick and that was massive understeer. Despite the dire handling of the cars and, in the case of Frank’s, a flat spot in the power curve that could have concealed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the event had its moments for Tony. The race at Llandow was blessed with rain for the cars in the 1,050 to 1,500 class – that is pounds sterling not cubic centimetres, by the way. Well, the racing drivers got to the first corner first.

“But then they expected to hold the racing line and for everyone to follow them through. They had not experienced rally drivers before. We went round on the outside, well off the line. I pulled out to overtake Graham and Russell Brookes came outside me and there was some other bugger outside him! Afterwards, Graham was a bit miffed about it, but I noticed him doing the same to a couple of Firenzas at Brands Hatch so he must have thought something of the technique.”

A slightly lower point during the rally, but no fault of the car’s, was when Mike Wood was done for speeding coming away from Knebworth House. He got stopped at the bottom of the entry ramp to the Al by a police car. “The allegation was that Mike, who had just started driving, was exceeding 100 mph before he joined the main road. Despite all pleas to the contrary, including an offer to the police driver to “see if he could get this effing thing to do 100mph”, Mike was done, which was most unfair.

“They may not have been fast, but those Datsun were very reliable and eventually we all finished, albeit with Graham Hill 21st, Tony Fall 25th – just one place behind rival Roger Clark – and Frank Gardner 27th.” The overall winner was James Flunt in that Camaro, a drive of dash and skill that left the racing and rallying world rather open mouthed.