From Le Mans to wild hillclimbs in Barbados, Gordon Spice spent 25 years racing for the love of it. But he also had an uncanny knack of combining fun with victories. By Tim Scott
British motorsport has rarely seen domination like it. Through the late 1970s and into the dawn of the ’80s the flaming red Capri, being hustled with armfuls of lock, was a fixture at the front of the British Saloon Car Championship field. In a three-year period between 1978-80, Gordon Spice scored no less than 20 overall victories from 30 races — and that’s up against team-mates such as Chris Craft and Andy Rouse.
Then, after 15 years as one of the best professional tin-top racers around, the gregarious — some publicans might even say raucous — ‘Gordy’ concentrated on satisfying his other passion in motorsport, endurance racing. After two podium finishes at Le Mans, he succeeded in setting up one of the most prolific sports-prototype manufacturers of the Group C era — and secured four consecutive driver world titles in the secondary C2 class.
What stands out today is that Spice was one of a breed of drivers that no longer exists in motor racing. His sporting activities always played a secondary role to his expansive business interests. It was essentially a hobby, a weekend pastime to help shrug off the rigours of a week’s work. And fun was as much an integral part of the experience as success.
“I never really regarded myself as a professional because I never took it that seriously,” explains Spice in his clipped, mahogany voice. “But, on principle, I wouldn’t pay for drives. I had a contract with Ford for 10 years, and I got paid all through that. Not a king’s ransom, but paid nonetheless.
“But I wasn’t professional by today’s standards — I’ve always smoked and drunk too much, but that’s the way I am. I certainly wouldn’t give them up for racing. In fact, the worst thing about Le Mans was going 24 hours without a drink!”
He may be flippant now at 63, but as a young man in the late 1960s he quickly emerged as a fine natural driving talent with a will to win. But there were other qualities that were to prove equally crucial to the success throughout his career — primarily his powers of persuasion and shrewd business sense. They played their part from the start.
After a failed attempt at club racing, a new job soon got him on his way. “I started flogging encyclopedia sets,” he explains. “I was the best out there, and in just three months I made £5000 on commission! I spent £2000 on a Morgan, and the other £3000 I put into a shop for car accessories.”
A liaison with the Morgan engine specialists Lawrence Tune brought Spice into contact with Downton Engineering. It offered him a job as sales manager of its BMC dealership — and the deal included the loan of a Downton-prepared engine, as used by the factory Mini team, for the 1966 season. From the start of his new saloon career, the young privateer was impressive, and the following year a drive with Equipe Arden reaped the 1000cc class title and a works contract with the Cooper Car Co for ’68.
The vagaries of the class points system that determined the overall saloon champion meant that Spice, despite his eight class titles — including six consecutively in race-winning Capris — never lifted the outright British crown. Not that this mattered too much to him.
“I was earning good money from Coopers — in 1968, I got £10,000. I ploughed this back into the car and motorsport accessories shops; within two years I had opened 10 stores. Soon I went wholesale — then in ’70 I came up with the idea of running it as a cash and carry. It went through the roof, and by the ’80s we had a turnover in excess of £20m.”
Despite a booming new business, for Spice this was still a good time for adventures. A favourite in the early 1970s was getting the racing ball rolling in the Caribbean: “The trips to the West Indies were particularly good. We’d get some saloons together and all troop out for the winter, island-hopping and partying in the week. The race organisers would parade the cars through the street, shouting ‘Come and watch Gordon Spice, the world champion!”
Spice was by now showing his versatility behind the wheel. Spanish aristocrat José Juncadella offered him a drive in his Ford GT40 for the 1969 Brands Hatch Six Hours.
“It was my first outing in a big sportscar,” explains Spice. “There I was with 400bhp plus, and I could not believe how easy it was — it just seemed to come naturally. It was far less hard work than driving a Mini.”
He raced on into 1970 with Juncadella , who had acquired a Ferrari 512S: “There was no contract, but the guy was a multi-millionaire; he’d just thrust me whatever stack of cash he had in his pocket.”
At the same time Spice made his first foray into single-seaters, racing the unique Kitchiner and then a McLaren M10B in the European Formula 5000 series. Success was limited against superior machinery, but in 1975 he returned in a Chevrolet-powered Lola T332 to score a victory at Oulton Park which he rates as one of the pinnacles of his career. It hinged on having the right tyres, wets, when most others were on slicks on a snow-beaten track covered in salt — “It was pretty fortuitous really,” but it was sweet all the same. He only had a few moments to celebrate, however, before — like a racer from the true old school — he had to jump into his wailing Capri for the saloon race, in which he won his class.
Tin-tops would soon return to the foreground when, later in 1975, a leg-breaking accident in the Mallory Park F5000 race put paid to Gordon’s single-seater career. From now on, all his efforts would go into the Capris but, with the RAC making the 3-litre class the top one in the UK series, Spice felt he needed to step up a gear.
“I had been driving for Wisharts Garage since 1972, but they didn’t really have the resources. So I decided to go for it on my own.”
At this juncture one of Spice’s great skills emerged: the ability to pick the right people for the job. By his own admission he is no engineer, but he saw real talent in the two mechanics, Dave Cook and Pete Clark, who had prepared his Wisharts car; he helped them set up their own business. So C&C began preparing Capris for Gordon Spice Racing, and many others. Completing the package with Neil Brown engines and the brilliant Keith Greene as team manager, Spice formed the combo that would dominate British and European Group 1 saloons for the next five years.
Even though the Spice cars were no doubt the best on the grid, the success Gordon enjoyed in them was impressive, especially when his opposition is considered: Vince Woodman, Gerry Marshall and Stuart Graham were among his scalps.
“I’d have to say that Gordon was probably the best of all from that lot,” says Greene. “On a wet or dry track, he was quick, always smooth. Even up against Andy Rouse in equal equipment, I’d say Gordon was a gnat’s chuff quicker. He was a talented chap. But the great secret was that he loved doing it — he knew he was good, and just thought it was a great laugh.”
Jeff Allam, a former rival, remembers Spice as a formidable competitor: “You knew that if he was around you’d have a really hard race. He was very fair, but for a small man he had a big old heart. And it was always great fun — especially when we all went off to Spa.”
Spice’s love of endurance racing made the Spa 24 Hours one of his pet projects, and it became the scene of arguably his greatest success. After three years of fruitless trying, he turned up at the 1978 event with a huge five-car team, having talked both the Belga and Gitanes cigarette brands into backing his cars. He and co-driver Teddy Pilette overcame a series of mishaps, and Gordon made a huge charge in the last hour to close down the lead factory BMW’s 3min lead for a famous victory. “To win Spa was very special,” he smiles.
The team went on to complete a hat-trick of wins with the Belga-backed Martin brothers Jean-Michel and Philippe. “Despite the success, it remained a very family-orientated team,” says Greene. “Gordon’s wife, Mandy, used to do all the catering for the boys, and we had lots of fun.”
These Spa successes led to the Martins and Belga wanting a crack at Le Mans in 1980. The Ford connection made the Cosworth-powered Rondeau team the obvious choice, and it offered an M379B for Spice and his Belgian friends to drive, with Greene overseeing operations.
“We were very much the rental car; and you know how condescending the French can be,” grins Spice. “So I was determined to prove a point. It rained in practice, so I said, ‘KG, set it up for the wet; more wing, soft springs, the whole bit’ I went out and did a really ballsy lap, and was faster than all the works cars. The French were absolutely livid — they couldn’t believe it. I just said, `No, we didn’t do anything special to the car; what’s the matter with you lot?’
“In the race we finished third, and that was exceptionally satisfying because the Martins had never raced a sportscar in their lives.”
Spice’s showing prompted an invitation to return as part of the works Rondeau team for the next two years, finishing third again in 1981 and retiring from the lead just after midnight in ’82. Even so, nothing persuaded him to take it too seriously.
“Jean Rondeau came to me late in the evening one year at Le Mans and said: ‘Gordon, voulez-vous faire une double?‘ I replied, ‘No thanks, Jean. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually hit the rum during races.’ Mandy had to poke me and hiss that he was asking if I wanted to do a double stint!”
But things did get serious, all of sudden, at the end of 1982, resulting in a major change to Spice’s career. Gordon had heavyweight connections at Ford Europe, and he suggested to them that his team start a fresh Group C programme to supercede Zakspeed’s stuttering C100 project. The green light was given, premises and equipment were bought, Cosworth set about developing a 3.9-litre turbo and Tony Southgate designed a state-of-the-art chassis. Spice and Greene took a normally aspirated version of the car to Paul Ricard in the spring to test, and with Marc Surer at the wheel it flew.
“It was just so quick,” says Spice. “But the deal caused a political riot within Ford. I went on holiday, during which time the whole project was canned. Ford paid us off, but refused to let the car run. So I ended up with no cars, expensive premises and all the gear to go sportscar racing.”
It was too late to do anything else in 1983 but, towards the end of the season, Aussie Neil Crang approached Gordon to use his facilities to run a Chevrolet-engined Tiga prototype. Spice Engineering was born.
“That car was on a hiding to nothing against the Porsches in C1, so we adapted it for C2, put a Cosworth DFV in and ran it with Ray Bellm,” explains Spice. He and Bellm won the C2 title in both 1984 and ’85. But Spice’s natural entrepreneurial urge was pushing to capitalise on their position. He sought out a manufacturer which would pay Spice to build a car on its behalf; and in John Callies from Pontiac, he found his man.
Spice again negotiated a clever deal: he would construct and run an IMSA Camel Lights chassis with GM’s Fiero engine for Pontiac in 1986 at a knockdown price in return for Spice being able to run — and sell — the same chassis, fitted with other engines, in the C2 arena. Again Spice picked good people: Briton Julian Randles ran the very successful Spice USA operation, while ex-Williams man Jeff Hazel oversaw the UK team. And in designer Graham Humphrys, they hit on a winner.
“Graham did a brilliant job,” says Spice. “His car so nice to drive; so user-friendly that it was easy to sell.”
That original monocoque would serve as the basis to all the C2 cars through to 1988, and also the C1 and IMSA GTP cars through to the early 1990s. From ’87, Spice was selling up to 14 chassis a year (second only to Porsche in the volume stakes), while Spice himself won two more C2 titles.
But by 1989 things had begun to derail. Spice’s own business was under pressure after external investors got involved, while the sportscar team graduated to C1 on the promise of a major Mexican sponsor which never materialised. For Gordon himself, there was only time to do Le Mans.
“I’d always said to myself that if anyone went appreciably faster than me in the same car, I’d quit,” he says. “And that year at Le Mans, Tim Harvey was consistently a second quicker. So that was it, I retired. I was 49, and I’d had a pretty good innings.”
Spice and Bellm had wound up the race team by mid-1990, although it continued a stop-start existence under alternative ownership for a couple more years. But Spice himself was out of racing, and cars, for good.
“As soon as I stopped being involved, I paid no attention,” he says. “And I’ve never been even tempted to come back. I did it, and it was fun — but I’m not sure motor racing’s like that anymore.”
He’s right, it isn’t.