Few sports cars that emerged from the 1950s specials boom have had the lasting appeal of the achingly pretty road-legal racer from Essex
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Howard Simmons
What it lacked in accuracy it more than made up for in repeat usage: “All roads lead to Witham,” declared Ginetta’s promotional spiel for year after year. Not unless you pluralise the B1389, they don’t. This small Essex enclave – the factory behind the old filling station – was once the centre of the universe to a small adoring retinue, whose torch-carrying was largely down to a very special model – the giant-slaying G4. Without this achingly pretty little sports car, it’s doubtful that Ginetta would have seen out the 1960s.
Famously run by the four (of five) Walklett brothers for much of its 49 years, the marque came into being off the back of the 1950s specials boom. The youngest sibling, Ivor, constructed a one-off sports car around the remains of a pre-war Wolseley Hornet; said to have resembled a Maserati 4CLT (no photos exist), it met with a sticky end after he got a bit carried away haring up the family driveway and connected with a tree stump. Retrospectively known as the Ginetta G1, it was beyond repair so Ivor and his brothers Bob, Trevers and Douglas instead pushed ahead with the G2, an altogether more conventional device in the traditional Clubmans idiom. Offered for public consumption as a sideline to their Suffolk-based structural engineering business, this Ford E93A-based machine proved a modest hit from 1958 and was superseded two years later by the G3. An unadventurous glassfibre-bodied kit car (also offered as a bare shell under the Fairlite name), it too proved briefly popular. Then came the G4.
Introduced in late 1960 and officially launched at the following January’s Racing Car Show, this was an infinitely more ambitious project. Beneath the curvaceous silhouette lay a round-tube spaceframe with the central body section bonded on, complete with floor, footwells and bulkheads, the one-piece nose flipping forward for access to the 1-litre Ford pre-crossflow ‘four’. Front suspension was by double wishbones and coils, the Ford Anglia rear axle located by trailing arms and an A-frame with coils.
Ivor Walklett originally pictured an aluminium monocoque of sorts for his road-going racer – barrel-sided with tubes bent around a former – with a simple drop-down door, but opted for the glassfibre body/steel chassis arrangement on the grounds of cost and practicality. The Ford engine was chosen after the previously envisaged 750cc Coventry Climax unit failed to make it into production.
Initial reaction to the G4 was overwhelmingly positive and, buoyed by good press, the brothers dropped their engineering interests to concentrate solely on building cars. From new premises in Witham, developments came thick and fast: first a new hardtop, then the Lotus Eleven-like rear end was dropped in late ’62 in favour of a more rounded style that was eight inches longer, creating more boot space. Referred to as the Series 2 – although most S1s were subsequently retro-fitted with the new tail just to add to confusion – this was an even prettier style and would remain the classic G4 look.
With a 1340cc Cosworth-tuned Ford 109E engine already on the options list, that same year also saw the arrival of the 1.5-litre Cortina GT-powered G5. Outwardly identical to the G4, its designation proved baffling to potential customers and the Walkletts alike, so was swiftly dropped in favour of G4 1500. Further revisions in time included the adoption of an Austin A40 rear axle in place of a Ford item because it was lighter and came with a larger number of final-drive ratios.
And the wins flooded in, at least at national level, with works driver Chris Meek requesting that the Walkletts develop an independent rear end to help him get the power down against the fleet Divas and Elans. Ivor devised a new arrangement that did away with the A40’s failure-prone half-shafts but retained its diff with twin tubular wishbones, plus coil springs and telescopic dampers either side. It was a practical and instantly successful development, the Lotus twin-cam-engined factory G4R (R for Racing) taking eight wins and six second places during the ’64 season.
Manufacture was laborious and costly, however: each chassis comprised more than 300 pieces, each individually cut and welded. From late ’65, Ginetta changed to easier-to-fabricate square tubing (apart from almost all R editions, again just to add to confusion…) but still with the centre section bonded to the chassis. The internal exposed tubes were ditched, a stressed transmission tunnel now affording the additional strength.
By this time, the Walklett brothers had embarked on a major expansion, Ginetta now being involved in everything from Formula 3 single-seaters (the daring G8) to luxury GTs (the tragically short-lived Ford V8-powered G10), with the G12 sports-racer proving hugely successful in the hands of Meek, Willie Green and John Burton among others. The Walkletts’ focus naturally shifted away from the G4. Sales gradually started to ebb, their eventual response being the surprisingly unattractive G4 S3 that arrived in late ’66 – this being a marque famed for producing pretty cars. The new strain, with Ford ‘Kent’ power, did away with the existing front end largely due to Construction & Use regulations: the height of the headlights was at best borderline legal. A new arrangement with exposed pop-ups in the style of the Lamborghini Miura did nothing for its looks. In 1969 the model was dropped, by which time about 700 G4s of all kinds had been made, according to the factory. Most Ginetta chassis number-crunchers refute this, claiming that the actual figure is likely to be half that.
Whatever the truth, there aren’t enough to go around, according to Ginetta authority and racer Spadge Hopkins: “Demand is high relative to supply, with restoration cases selling for £5000-£12,000 depending upon specification and history. Round-tube cars command a premium because they are homologated for FIA racing in 1000cc form and they are probably lighter than the later square-tube cars. A front-running HSCC car is worth £25,000-plus, as is my own G4R, which would be more if it had a twin-cam in it. The appeal is that they are tremendous fun to drive, handle beautifully and are very forgiving and flattering on a circuit. Also, they are technically relatively simple, light and fantastic to look at.”
He’s not wrong, especially the last bit. More commonly seen with a curved screen and a bubble-like hardtop, it’s rare to see a lid-less G4 such as this ’64 example. Rarer still to find one that still has its original chassis and centre section and is a pure road car as opposed to a racer with a registration number. And it is very, very pretty. Hopkins points out original flaws such as the wonky moulding on the rear end: in period, it wasn’t symmetrical (but then so few specialist sports cars of the period were). But here the flaws only reinforce the positives: it’s still the prettiest Ginetta from a back catalogue which comprises very few ugly creations.
With the hardtop in place, the G4 isn’t the easiest of cars to get into; here it’s less of a problem, being so low that there isn’t much point in even opening the doors. Inside, it’s stark, all exposed chassis rails, glassfibre matting and Land Rover ‘pudding spoon’ door handles. Instrumentation is sparse, classic white-on-black Smiths gauges clearly laid out and legible, although the close proximity of the steering wheel and transmission tunnel, to say nothing of the close-coupled pedals, could prove a problem for taller drivers. Like Colin Chapman, Ivor Walklett tended to design cars around his own physique, and he’s not a tall chap. It’s not uncomfortable, but you get the sense that you’re not so much driving a G4 as wearing it.
But is it fun! With a great many other low-volume cars of this period you have to make so many allowances, gloss over myriad shortcomings, that you end up sounding like an apologist. Not so the G4, because the Walkletts – principally Ivor and technical boffin Trevers – had such an understanding of geometry and loadings: no ‘‘chalk marks on the floor and away we go’’engineering here.
Running a mildly warmed-up 1498cc Ford pre-crossflow with a downdraught Weber carb, tubular manifold and GT cam, there are none of the expected peaks and troughs in the torque curve. It’s perfectly tractable, docile even, but noisy as hell, the tinnitus-inducing cacophony emanating from the side-mounted exhaust being deliciously rude as long as you’re not doing panning shots in a sleepy country village (which is suddenly very awake and very angry). The gearchange – a 2000E ’box – is notch-free and easy to guide between planes while the steering, incorporating a left-hand drive Mini rack mounted upside down, is remarkably direct: no bumpsteer either, only a little vibration.
On challenging B-roads the G4 is super-nimble. You can carry an incredible amount of speed into corners without it ever threatening to do anything silly. On the flipside, it’s perilously low and the seats are mounted on the floor so you’re intimate with every surface imperfection. And your left leg is all too aware of heat from the transmission tunnel. A small price to pay for a car that is this entertaining.
The G4 is so much more than the sum of its proprietary parts. So much so that the Walkletts – or at least Ivor and the late Trevers – made it twice; since the mid-90s under the DARE banner. Anyone who’s been to a race meeting in the UK in the last 40 years will have seen a Ginetta or DARE G4 taking home the silverware, whether in contemporary GTs, ModSports or historics: they’ve never been away. One even completed the ’83 Himalayan Rally! The G4 has pedigree.
Its fame may be of the vague recognition kind to the wider world, but it corkscrews its way into your affections in a manner unlike many better-known sports cars. It’s just a pity that so few people will ever get to find out.
Thanks to Ginetta owner John Gafford and Spadge Hopkins (www.cottageclassics.co.uk)