Mods and rockers

The wild world of Special Saloons and Modsports went out of fashion as the traditional grass roots became swamped with one-make championships. But now they’re back in vogue – and blooming
Writer Gordon Cruickshank, photographer Howard Simmons

There I was, slicing through Silverstone’s Bridge Corner, just clipping the apex when suddenly there were four cars stationary in front of me... Which is exactly what I expected as I idled to a halt among a posse of metal on this now redundant bend. Excised by radical circuit surgery, it’s a Grand Prix appendix that we’ve been allowed to use for our shoot. It ties in nicely as the Classic Sports Car Club is testing for the weekend, and we’ve hijacked some of the entrants. Remember Special Saloons in the 1970s and ’80s? Mick Hill’s Beetle-Chevrolet (the car that hooked me on motor racing, at Ingliston), March F2 cars under Skoda skins, spaceframed Imps, Murray hitting the verbal rev-limiter on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon? It may not have been thoroughbred racing, but it was thoroughly good racing. If you miss it now, or if you missed it then, the CSCC Special Saloons and Modsports series is giving you a second chance.

Spread across this once 160mph stretch of blacktop we have four hugely different vehicles, all about to compete together under some liberal regulations that let the special builder off the reins. The club offers racing for all sorts – classics, modifieds, modern hatches, saloons and even ‘future classics’ – but an initiative of 2013 is bringing back the sort of mad silhouette racers some of us adored, and it’s also tempting back from retirement some of those outrageous period specials. Of course anything with a formula chassis suddenly became valuable and has long since turned back into a single-seater, but with Baby Bertha, Gerry Marshall’s famous Firenza, and the Mick Hill Beetle now restored, it’s exciting there’s a race grid waiting for this type of device. That’s how come I’m looking at a very modified Midget, a ladder-backboned Peugeot, an Anglia FoMoCo didn’t build and a famous Aston Martin we all remember from the Intermarque series in the 1980s and ’90s.

The words Marsh Plant on the side have a subtext – Gerry Marshall sat here…

Six classes allow these cars to race together and, despite the performance differential, it works. This year has produced some fantastic racing, and by mid-season grids were full. Rules are firm but embracing: the car has broadly to originate before 1993, the waist-up silhouette must remain and the engine must stay on the same side of the bulkhead, though you can install any engine of any size from any car.

So to the Peugeot 309, which is exactly like all the 309s you see on the road – I think I’m right in saying they all came equipped with Sierra Cosworth YB turbo fours, Group C pull-rod suspension, six-speed sequential ’box and locked spool diff. But I’m sure some knowledgeable reader will put me right if I’ve made a slip there. This one has previous Thundersaloon history: built in 1991 by its drivers, brothers Danny and Ricky Morris, and preparer Ray Addis, it started with Manta 400 power but after a crash in ’93 it was put aside.

“When this new series began,” says Ricky, who is also the series co-ordinator, “we suddenly had somewhere to race it, and in 2013 it hit the track 20 years after its last race.” The brothers are engineers with Hot Rod and Special Saloon history, and they assembled the ladder chassis everything hangs off, solidly mounted. Lifting the bonnet reveals the Morrises have reversed conventional race engineering, mounting the front suspension of a 1986 GpC Tiga to the engine so it becomes a forward-pointing stressed member. In case firing 490bhp through those fat tyres wasn’t stress enough. With fabricated inner wings, a vast intake filter and drainpipes pushing air through a huge intercooler, the engine room is crammed.

“We run in Class A,” says Ricky, “which is completely open except you can’t have paddle shifters.” Instead there’s a chunky central lever to slam through the ratios. “Of course everything is unique,” Ricky says, “so if it needs replacing we have to make it from scratch. Next time we might go for something a bit less complicated.”

Luckily for family harmony, Ricky and Danny post similar times at the wheel. “We won the last race of 2013 after a great battle with Baby Bertha, and we’ve won two this season so far.” This is where the series scores for people like me, who appreciate varied machinery – it pitches all sorts of devices together, 1000cc screamers against 6-litre monsters, and no matter who wins overall, class rivalries are fierce. It may be a fact that one-make series give a better comparison between drivers, but for some of us it’s more stimulating to wander round the paddock and see a dozen solutions to the same problem – how to go as fast as possible with whatever resources you have.

Steve Moss has the resources of his own garage business, Moss Motorsport in Norfolk, which is useful for facilities but a drawback when you really ought to be dealing with customer work or serving petrol. He and his wife also breed pointers. Nevertheless, when he read about the CSCC races he knew where his spare time was going for the next six months – into an Anglia. The daftest, fastest, greenest Anglia he could produce. And he had an ambition: “I wanted to be as famous as George Polley.” That’s George ‘The Driver’ Polley, a Hot Rod star in Anglias and Barry Lee’s frequent rival. His famous no306 Anglia was destroyed, so this is a sort of tribute.

“I remember my dad taking me to watch him,” says Steve, “so the new series was a chance to build something modern. But it had to look like an Anglia.”

That it does, until you knock on the body or look in the windows. Steve has raced and rallied these cars and has four at home, “But I didn’t want to chop one up, so I had to start from scratch. It began with a Westfield chassis, for the era, but I moved the engine back, widened it and added tubes so you’d be hard-pushed to recognise it.” Despite the badge Ford has nothing to do with the motor, the ‘red top’ Vauxhall 16-valve twin-cam that powered the Astra GTE and a lot of specialist cars too. It’s bored to 2.4 litres and attached to a six-speed Quaife sequential box, Sierra diff with Quaife internals and 9J wheels like no Anglia ever had from Dagenham. Even though he’d not worked in glassfibre before, Steve and his dad Richard moulded the body from one of his real Anglias, and the detailing is excellent –

I had to tap the rear lights to check they were merely painted. They even made the carbon-fibre splitter that scrapes the track, and the wing it’s wearing during our shoot. “I felt left out without one,” Steve smiles. “But it felt a little unsteady in long bends, so we’re trying it. It might be off by Sunday!” (It’s stayed on since.)

Weight reduction was a major target: even the wiper motor is a little unit from a headlamp wiper. The car, Steve says, scales around 780kg without driver, “and it’s starting to go really well. I’m hounding the class A boys! At Cadwell it comes into its own because it’s light. I love a car that performs on bends.” He is a big fan of the series – “I was a novice two years back but it’s become a real passion. I like the mix of cars.”

Steve’s a quiet sort of chap, so the poke-in-the-eye green isn’t what you’d expect. “I want kids to say ‘Dad, what’s that green car?’ like I would have done,“ he explains. Good news for his sponsors...

Steve’s car looks dramatic, but in a way I didn’t expect. With the body slammed to the floor, that glasshouse with its reversed rear window treatment stands out. This was a car you looked through when it was commonplace; Steve’s machine made me look afresh at what must in 1959 have been a truly radical design direction, and one of the more successful attempts to inject a little US style as a USP for the UK.

A car that made no concessions to America was the MG Midget, produced by dressing some very ordinary running gear in cute sportswear. Despite the lack of muscle, Midgets and Sprites have provided terrific racing over the years, and among their fans is Tim Cairns. He has a selection of Spridgets, but today has brought a steamroller. At least, he calls this one The Steamroller as “That’s what people called it in the 1980s; I suppose 10in tyres looked wide then.” Appropriate, though, as his profession is steam turbines.

This is another car brought back to life by the series. “I built it in 1981 to race in Modsports and MG series,” says Tim, “and then it spent 30 years rusting away. Finally I had to bin it or rebuild it... I could have saved myself a lot of effort if I’d gone for a new shell, but it wouldn’t have been the same car.” Although the four-square rollcage, screenless cabin and one-piece lift-off glassfibre nose all look highly modified, the car remains a Midget underneath. There’s still a steel chassis and an A-series block, but now it displaces 1460cc and inhales via a twin Weber to make some 150bhp. Suspension is roughly what MG provided with extra front locating links and an A-frame behind, and the wheels are recent castings to period pattern. “I run narrower tyres on the front to save a little drag,” says Tim. “I’m told it would be faster with a hardtop, but I like to see all around me.”

Tim’s garage must be octagonal, because as well as a twin-cam MGA he bought 45 years ago, it also houses a Frogeye Sprite for the CSCC Swinging Sixties rounds and a straighter Midget for the Appendix K series. He’s keen on the choices the club gives him. “I like their attitude. They’re always stressing it’s a non-contact sport, and there’s such a mix of cars – tin-tops, sports, hatches and classics. But it’s only in a wet race that my Midget comes into its own.” Like the others, he enjoys the two-race format: “Running two shorter races gives people a chance to repair breakages and still have some fun.”

Lowering over the dainty Midget, the bulging flanks of the Aston illustrate the opposite end of the class range. One of two DBS V8s modified by Geoffrey Marsh (the other was the Hyde Vale car he still has), this was campaigned in the 1990s by Gerry Marshall and subsequently by late all-rounder David Leslie. A big V8 plus Marshall was a dramatic mix, and the car carried the big man to many a win – or at least many a lurid slide as Gerry manhandled the 1.3-tonne machine the only way he knew how, tail-out and grinning.

“It was all ready to go when I bought it, as it had been racing in the Intermarque series” says David Beatty, “but I’m only racing it at one meet this season. I aim to preserve it in its current spec.” So the ZF five-speeder stays, and there’s no likelihood of a turbo topping up what it currently lays down. But it’s not as much as you’d think, says David. “It used to have a 6.1 in it but in 1993 Marsh put in a 5.3-litre that came from the Aston EMKA racing programme. It’s meant to be about 560bhp but I don’t think it’s as much as that.’

As if this monster wasn’t enough, Beatty also has the ex-Rod Birley Thundersaloon Honda Prelude, two Porsche 930 Turbos and a Climax Elite. “I tried to do three championships last year,” he says, with a smile, “but it was too much. In 2014 I’m doing two – this and the Kirkistown Ginetta G50 series.” (David is from Northern Ireland.)

In its one two-race outing this year, David had a couple of small problems. To prove how well these disparate cars mix, he says, “I had a great dice with an Anglia and a Midget. The handling seems neutral and the front seems to generate real downforce, but to be honest it’s not going to be competitive. The big cars are heading for 600bhp while this one has gone backwards, to a smaller engine than it started with!”

You might see David more often in the Prelude, then, but whichever, he enjoys the mix in Special Saloons: “There’s some very close-quarters racing and drivers come up afterwards enthusing about a good race. We’re all a bit older and wiser; we’re not trying to prove we’re Formula 1 material.”

A new series can struggle to gain headway, but co-ordinator Ricky Morris has been surprised by this year. “From 21 cars at the first race we were up to 31 and reserves at Mallory Park in July. We have 54 cars registered and more being prepared.” He cites such as wide-winged MGB V8s and Imp-based specials that have had nowhere to play recently. And more period machines are being readied, including John Pope’s Aston V8 turbo-powered Vauxhall Magnum, so Ricky reckons it’s possible the club may split the Special Saloons from the Modsports next year. “But these are complex cars, hard to maintain,” he adds, “so we’re unlikely to go to more than six or seven meetings a season.”

As I write, the drivers are still raving about their Mallory Park event, with full grids and busy spectator banks. That’s not because anyone famous was competing; it has to be thanks to the affection people have for this inventive branch of motor sport that arrived in the 1970s. And though it seemed to have been lopped off since the ’90s, it’s not only growing again but blossoming.