Tuning topics: latest from Special Tuning

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Currently some of the busiest premises in the go-faster business belong to Britain’s largest car manufacturer, British Leyland. I went down to visit their Special Tuning Department, based on the MG Abingdon factory in Berkshire, last month and found Special Tuning’s 35 employees hard at work maintaining the pace on a range of equipment to match BL’s proliferation of models.

At first one could be forgiven for thinking that Special Tuning would resemble what W.B. would call “a soup kitchen”, perhaps on a giant scale appropriate to that of a large manufacturer. However, this division does a lot more than just brew up bolt-on goodies. It takes on responsibilities that lead to some very interesting development cars, and still managing to fit in a fair share of competition preparation and service support, so that they do manage to keep in touch with the needs of those campaigning BL machinery in rallying, rallycross (which seems to have found a television weak spot in Lord Stokes’ heart) and circuit racing. Support for the latter tarmac sport is limited to the factory, and not field, level but at both of the other sports one is likely to find the BL coach dominating a corner of the paddock.

Special Tuning was formed from the nucleus of the old Service Department and first came under the management of Glyn Evans in October, 1964. He left to return to his family business in Wales and the present manager of the department’s fortune, Basil Wales, took over in April, 1965. Following the lead of their boss, Special Tuning staff are extremely loyal to their company, even if they may be baffled by a certain reluctance on the mammoth’s behalf to try development of some of the more recent engines to emerge into the limelight. For example, one doesn’t find a Stag V8 engine resting within a Triumph 2.5 P. I, even though the resultant hybrid could make quite a potent rallycar in Group 6 guise: work was carried out on the Rover 3500 by the old competition’s department, but the lightweight V8 isn’t yet among the comprehensive catalogues which Special Tuning issue covering all the popular Austin-Morris products, MGs and—to a lesser extent—Triumphs.

The primary aim of our visit was to see how this specialist division is getting to grips with BL’s latest product, the Marina. Normally the demonstrator fleet holds four converted Marinas on the stocks: a very hot tuned 1800 and 1300, plus milder versions of both these capacities. We have now tried all four, currently using the version we thought represented the best value of all—the milder 1800 saloon.

Before grappling with the Marinas, we were able to cast our eyes around the workshops, Wales pointing out that the enormous parts store (in fact it occupies the hangar that amounted to Special Tuning’s sole premises before “Comps” closure), run by Michael Cox and George Hubbard, is really the heart of the department: no parts, no customers! Supervision of technical advice and literature is by Ron Elkins, whilst the workshops are under the care of Bill Burrows.

Residing in the workshops, apart from the Marinas we were to try, we found a Stage 1 1750 Maxi, a customer’s MG-C and Maxi, the four-wheel-drive Mini-Cooper S, driven so successfully on its one and only outing last year by Brian Chatfield, a Marina lying on its side and receiving the benefit of a welding torch for suspension development over the rough, a Stage 1 Spitfire, and what looked like a completely standard Cooper S. Lifting the bonnet on the latter vehicle revealed one of the most powerful Mini engines ever to take to the road, the 1,293-c,c. engine being inspired to greater things by an alloy 8-port, crossflow, cylinder head with 12-to-1 compression ratio and four very neatly arranged Amal carburetters in the “oneoff” 33-mm. choke size which is not the same as sold over the counter of the nearest friendly motorcycle dealer.

Before a change of camshaft, that Mini engine was giving 124 b.h.p. on the engineering test bed. It is obvious from the short test run which we enjoyed that this Amal aspiration and alloy head has enormous potential for both road and track use. With a 4.2-to-1 final drive installed we found that 8,000 r.p.m. in the fourth of the all-straight-cut gears flicked the speedometer needle round to showing 105 m.p.h. Naturally the racket from the fan and straight-cut gear teeth is considerable, but as a cobweb remover and Q-car extraordinary that Mini was well ahead of anything I have ever tried before. It’s probable that a similar engine will find its way into a Midget or Marina before long, and equally probable that it will confound fuel-injection addicts by proving to be extrraordinarily tractable in what amounts to full-race form. The excellent flexibility is mainly due to the excellent airflow characteristics of the quadruple Amals, which should cost £60 or so complete with manifolding and linkage, whilst the head will cost in the region of £230.

The modified Marinas we began with were at opposite ends of the performance line, a blue 1800 TC coupé with a 1.9-litre race specification power unit quoted at 140 b.h.p was fully assessed in company with a very mildly-tuned twin-carburetter 1.3 coupé. Both these cars were slightly disappointing, though the 1.3 conversion has shown itself to be good value for money, and could possibly be marketed without affecting the maker’s guarantee. The respectable performance figures we obtained for the 1.9 included a top speed fractionally over 110 m.p.h., 0-60 m.p.h. in just under 10 sec., and 0-90 m.p.h. in 28 sec. The engine work on that car (which is not illustrated) amounted to approximately £460, whereas the white and blue 1.8 saloon was a lot more tractable and only cost £100 for engine-modifications which covered a 10.4:1 compression ratio cylinder head with new valves, a pair of SU carburetters and fresh inlet manifolding and linkages to suit the larger bore SUs. The saloon started life as an ordinary single-carburetter 1.8, but Wales pointed out that the only difference between the TC and ordinary engines is in the carburation, so on a value-for-money basis it’s probably best to start off with the ordinary 1800 as the conversion process includes twin carburetters anyway. In performance the saloon managed an encouraging series of runs from rest to 60 m.p.h. in 11 sec., or less, coupled to a top speed of close to 105 m.p.h., though fuel consumption was little better than the really hot car at 25.6 m.p.g. overall.

For an afternoon spent on the long-suffering lanes of Berkshire we swopped between the 1800 saloon and the orange 1.3 coupé. The latter car has been lavishly attended to with a big-valve cylinder head (£75), C-AEG 567 camshaft (£13), twin 1 1/2-in. SU carburetters and appropriate manifolding mated up to a four-branch tubular steel exhaust (£8.50 and £18 respectively), plus an oil cooler kit that will retail for over £20 because the “throwaway” oil filter needs special connections. As with all the other Marinas, save the mild 1.3, we found that a four-leaf spring had been fitted to the live rear axle and the front suspension adjusted to also lower the ride height by approximately 2 in. and incorporate some negative camber. An exclusive feature of this car were some experimental wide steel wheels offering 5-in. rim width. Inside we found a 14-in. diameter steering wheel, bucket seat with cloth insert section, reclining passengers’ perch and the three-dial instrument pack that normally comes with the 1800 TC models.

With preconceived ideas about the 1800’s handling I had assumed that the 1.3 would be considerably quicker along the lanes than the following white saloon, but that was far from the case for the 1800’s extra power and tail-happy handling was more than enough to put the saloon ahead of its smaller coupé brother. The fact that this Marina could be made to powerslide at all was a bit of a surprise, but that was nothing to the jolt we received when we realised that driving this Marina saloon was actually fun! The steering was given a more sporting and approachable feeling by the substitution of a tiny 13-in. diameter Moto-Lita steering wheel, only a small change to be sure, though when combined with the revised suspension it’s enough to transform a Marina’s handling.

In conclusion we felt that the 1800 saloon at £989, plus £116 for the mechanical bits fitted by Special Tuning, represented by far the best in “Marining”, but take note of that smaller steering wheel at roughly £10 or so, for it really is a worthwhile addition. Now I’ll just sit back and wait for the first rorty XJV12, Stag V8 and Range Rovers to come along… happy dreams!—J. W.