Feel the Ford

Want to race an historic single-seater but can’t afford a Lotus 72? A Classic Formula Ford might be the answer. Paul Fearnley samples four of them

Momentum is the thing. I’m aboard a tiny single-seater that weighs little more than a Volvo’s passenger door and yet I’m clinging grimly to every last ounce of speed like the psycho-trucker in Dud. But unlike the loon in the mirror shades, I’m determined not to hold anyone up. Thankfully, it’s not too busy today at Oulton Park, but once every two laps or so a car looms and I give it room. And each time it sweeps past, no matter what it is, I naively determine to keep up in a bid to pick up some tips — and speed.

No way. They’re gone. Five mph shy out of a reprofiled Knickerbrook chicane (it’s still too tight) equals six up Clay Hill, equates to seven by the apices of Druids, etc. This bugs me to hell. Yes, I’m in somebody else’s car. Yes, I’ve only done a couple of laps in it. But in my heart I know that the difference between ‘enthusiastic’ road driving and track ‘commitment’ is being rammed home. Three or four seconds off the pace isn’t bad — it’s rubbish! Especially in Formula Ford.

This everyman form of racing is the greatest success story of the sport’s modern era: spaceframe chassis, 1600 Cortina engine, Hewland internals in unburstable four-speed VW ‘box, all on mad tyres… yours for a grand. That was the initial premise — and reality. As always in motor racing, though, nothing stays the same and a championship that began with two makes in 1967— Lotus and Russell-Alexis — was soon flooded with a welter of new constructors, and their intense rivalries ensured that the professionalism and costs spiralled at a national level.

The widespread availability of chassis, however, meant that the formula flourished at club level. This is the blue-collar end of the sport: cheap but intense, full of determined dicers who used to get their kicks (for not quite free) by going wheel-to-wheel with the latest South American whizz-kids at the famous end-of-season Brands Hatch Festival.

That changed when the figurehead series switched to more modem Zetec motivation: costs increased even more and the Festival became a shadow of its former self. But the trusty ‘Kent’ motor simply would not die, and this humble 105bhp power plant is still going strong in thousands of FF cars 36 years after Ray Allen’s Lotus 51 won that first-ever race at Brands Hatch.

Yes, you see FFord is historic — or Classic in this case. Competing in old racing cars does not have to involve a six-figure outlay: a good late-1970s Formula Ford might only set you back £3000; a professional end-of-season rebuild should be no more than £1500 (or you could do it yourself); and you might be able to eke out a season on six Avons at £60 each (two new ones down the left side) and two sets of pads at £40 each. As long as you don’t rip any corners off (reckon on £1000 each), you could probably do a 12-round series for £3-4000. And if you’re quick youll be doing times that would put you up at the sharper end of grids for ostensibly much faster historic racing cars.

Created in 1979 to cater for what were then just-out-of-date cars, the pre-74 championship was joined five years later by a series for ’74-78 FFs and, one year after that, by Formula E, which was for cars with outboard dampers — a pre-80 category, basically. All three were then amalgamated in ’94 under the Classic Formula Ford banner, a championship that today has two classes: pre-74 and pre-82.

So, what are they like?

Hawke DL19

My day kicks off with the most modern car on offer: Peter Hackett’s needle-nosed 1977/78 machine. To be honest, the first sight of it doesn’t fill me with confidence. Sorry Peter, but it looks a bit of a shed. In defence of the maniacally enthusiastic Hackett, though, he’s only just bought it — for £1500! — so it can hardly be expected to be top of the range. And when it comes down to it, I’m a bit ropey in the cockpit area, too.

The battery’s flat and a quick push sends me off on a systems check, i.e. a chunter around the paddock. The throttle sticks and the car surges forward as I brake. Hmm.

I’m swayed, however, by Hackett’s brio — “You won’t recognise it when I’ve spent £500 on it’ — and I venture out onto the track. The throttle’s still notchy (a rust patch in the middle of the cable’s length is later found), the brake pedal is not to my liking, the gearchange graunchy from third to second, the seating position far from comfortable — and it’s brilliant. It’s such a blast to be in a single-seater that all the gripes fade as you attempt to go deeper and deeper into Old Hall.

With its rocker-arm front end (worked on by a young Adrian Reynard) and more-modern pattern Avon ACB 10s (rather than the ACB 9 championship alternative, a copy of the period Dunlop), I perhaps should have driven this car last because it demands higher entry speeds than I can muster to get things warmed up, even with its rear rollbar disconnected to make it more friendly. The rear brakes do smell pretty warm, though. Er, it would appear that they have rather too much bias wound to them. Good job I didn’t push too hard…

Elden Mk10

In truth, the second car on the list had been the PRS RH01 of John Nash, but sadly the centre of its clutch pulled out early on my run and stranded me up at Island hairpin.

I had been lost in the commodious cockpit of the PRS, and so the Elden’s cramped compartment comes as a shock. Apart from that, though, Paul Walton’s 1974 car — he has owned it since ’93 — is a little jewel: taut, torquey, darty and possessed of the day’s best gearbox. It is a credit to his mechanic Robin O’Connor and no surprise that it’s regularly voted the best-prepared car in the series.

It looks slightly odd to my eye, with its swept-back front suspension, long nose and side rads (a later edition, along with its rear anti-roll bar), but there is nothing wrong with its track manners. Indeed, my only problem is that my knees are knocking against the back of the dash-hoop.

Merlyn Mk20

CLimbing aboard Paul Hubbard’s beautiful black Merlyn — it features the prettier Mk17 nose-cone — reminds me of an early Lotus single-seater, with its full-width metallic dashboard and reclined seating position. Its cockpit is not as cramped as the Elden’s, and given a bit more space in which to work, it’s in this car that I start to feel the ‘float’ Formula Ford is famed for: barrelling into a corner, balancing what little grip there is on brakes and then throttle. I am perhaps helped in this by the car’s long-ish wheelbase and Paul’s preference for a soft-ish set-up and very torquey engine: it pulls from less than 3000rpm right through to its 7000 limit. I have some personal niggles — the steering is surprisingly heavy, the brake pedal surprisingly light— but otherwise, this is a delight.

Paul has been racing in the series since 1989, although business often prevents him from doing every round. He began in a Lola T204, but its rarity and his lack of experience soon saw him swap it for the Merlyn: “The best thing about this car is that you can get all the bits from the people who built it in the first place [Colchester Racing Developments], even though they’re no longer doing complete cars.

“The racing is cheap, although you soon discover that second-hand tyres and self-built engines are probably not the way to go if you want to be anywhere other than at the back.” That said, his engine has not had a total strip-down for four seasons, and a recent strong performance at Spa means this will probably soon become five. There certainly appears to be nothing wrong with it today (touch wood). Mind you, they all still keep zapping past me…

Crossle 25F

And finally, the 1974 machine of novice champion Richard Shelton. This, though, is not his title-winner. No, this is his latest acquisition. And I mean latest: he’s just picked it up from Liverpool docks this morning. It feels remarkably sorted for all that.

The 25F, with its low engine and gearbox position, is renowned as being a fine-handling car, and it’s proving to be the best of this bunch in that respect. Despite an annoying flat spot accelerating uphill out of the hairpin, this is the car for me: I’m comfortable — seat, steering and pedals are spot-on — and the car possesses some of the Elden’s swervability and some of the Merlyn’s stability. It’s so good, in fact, that I’m catching someone. And, by jingo, I’m passing him. I suppose he’s hoping to follow me to pick some tips — and speed. No way. I’m gone. Hey, this is addictive.

If, like me, you find your endowment mortgage is not performing the way they promised, my advice to you is do not, under any circumstances, visit www.classicformulaford.com, or telephone co-ordinator Andy Hodson on 00 44 (0)1494 673921, or attend the Formula Ford Festival on October 18/19, when the BARC/BRSCC Classic FFs will be a support race to the main event. If you weaken and do any of the above, however, at least you can console yourself with the thought that this is one racing habit that is not too expensive to fuel.