Where the grassroots are greener

The 750 Motor Club, founded by our own Bill Boddy, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It continues to thrive thanks to low-cost rules, diversity and – as we found out – good, clean fun
Writer Ed Foster, photographer Mitch Pashavair

Variety is, according to the dictionary, “the quality or state of being different or diverse; the absence of uniformity or monotony”. There should really be a note under that, which would read, “see the 750 Motor Club”, the much-loved grass-roots organisation that celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

It would be easier to list cars that can’t compete under the multi-coloured 750 umbrella, such is the diversity of classes. Mazda MX-5s, Toyota MR2s, Honda Civics, sports specials, BMW Compacts, road sports, stock hatches… the list seems endless.

So how do you sample a range of 750MC cars? Unless you had time to organise a 20-car test then the best way to go about it is to get a flavour. Enter an Austin 7 Special, a 750 Formula Centaur and a Spire GT3 – two of which you might struggle to picture, were it not for the images surrounding these words. But that’s one of the attractions of the 750 Motor Club – no two cars are the same and many of them might be wholly unfamiliar.

We do recognise the first one we set eyes on as we enter the Mallory Park paddock – it’s an Austin 7 Special, a car which formed the basis of the 750 Motor Club when it was founded by our late former editor Bill Boddy (see p104). It seems an appropriate place to start, given that it is by far the earliest car of the three here today.

Austin 7 Special
Series 750MC 750 Trophy
Engine 747cc four-cylinder Austin 7, 1.5in carburettor
Details Morris Minor hydraulic drum brakes, independent front suspension, twin transverse leaf springs, regulation Austin 7 back axle with quarter elliptic springs. Friction dampers all round

From a distance, one of the only things that give away its 1932 Austin 7 running gear is the standard 7 radiator grille. It looks even more abrupt than it did on the road car, thanks to the Special’s low-profile body. Like all 7 Specials its history is unique – it was built by renowned 750 Motor Club supporter and racer Bill Cowley for his son Nigel, as an off-road car to get his 14-year-old head around the art of driving. Nigel went on to race other Cowley Specials in the 750MC, but not this one. His own son Bill Jr now races competitively with the Club in the 750 Formula class. The car he drives, a Cowley MkIV, has been passed down from father to son to grandson.

The Austin 7 was sold by the Cowleys and converted into a racer, eventually finding its way to the current owner (he prefers to call himself “custodian”) Charlie Plain-Jones. “It actually belongs to my wife,” he says.

“I now race it with her permission. Very carefully…”

Plain-Jones is an ex-hillcimber and sprinter and only arrived at the 750MC’s door a year ago. “I tried racing a pretty standard Austin 7 and, quite frankly, it was a bit lonely at the back. This car came up for sale and we thought ‘that will be a bit more competitive’, so we got it without even knowing its history.”

The 1960s body is as simple as the rest of the car and, once I’ve managed to cram my 6ft 7in frame into the seat, my first thought is about vulnerability. Not only do your elbows stick well out of the side, but there really is very little in front of you. Fittingly for such a car, the controls are minimal – a comparatively large steering wheel, a gearstick for the four-speed ’box, three pedals and, well, that’s it. There’s a cut-off switch, a starter button and a switch for the fan, but these are no use once you’re on track.

“The oil is drip-fed,” warns Plain-Jones, “so the pressure never gets above 12lb. It might get up to 15lb when you’re flat out down the straight, though… When it’s ticking over you’ll be lucky to see 3lb – it looks perilously low, but entirely normal.

“The work on the car has been ongoing – 1932 metallurgy has its limits. I must admit that Austin 7s are no longer the cheapest racers when you compare them to some hot hatches, but for us it’s the historical aspect. The formula suits us because you don’t have to be too precise – they are specials, they were built as specials and they’re a part of motor sport history. There are cheaper cars and there are faster cars, but 7s are what make it for me.”

With all this in mind I tread gingerly out on track. The 7 is on surprisingly hard road tyres but, as Plain-Jones says, “You can have too much grip on a 7 because the suspension was designed in the 1920s. If you have too much you can tear the suspension apart…”

As I come out of Gerards, checking the rear-view mirror with caution (this is an open track day, after all), I squeeze the throttle and go for fourth. The acceleration is progressive rather than powerful and when I gently put the brakes on for the Lake Esses it desperately wants to veer right into the lake. No matter – the problem has cleared in a few corners.

As Plain-Jones says, it’s not the fastest car out there, but the freedom you feel at the helm – partly down to how vulnerable you are – could be matched only by a motorbike. It’s old, but full of character.

Centaur Mk20
Series Premier Choice Group 750 Formula
Engine 1108cc four-cylinder Fiat from a Panda
Details AP front brakes, Willwood on the rear. AVO coil-over shocks all round

Once I’ve parked the 7 up and Plain-Jones has headed out for “a bit of a run”, I make my way over to Roger Rowe’s 850cc Centaur. This races in the Premier Choice Group 750 Formula for sports-prototype racers with an offset driver position. There’s a minimum weight of 375kg and a controlled 100bhp four-cylinder Fiat engine.

Rowe and I are of similar height (“I used to race karts – I was a perfect shape”) and amazingly I fit into the Centaur without any problems at all. “I’ve rebuilt it totally,” he says, “altering the chassis in places to get me in. I also had to accommodate the Fiat engine, which is very different from the old Reliant unit.” This particular car was built in 1981 for the 750 Formula regulations, but “it never did very well at the time”. Rowe bought the car in 2000, got it running well and then won the championship in 2010.

For Rowe, one of the draws of the 750 Formula class is that he can work on the car – he used to be a carpet manufacturer and farmer (“the car’s a bit agricultural, so there’s a bit of crossover there…”) – and built the karts he raced up until 1981.

“The great thing about this class,” he says, “is that you can build your own cars and race them. Every one is different and yet you get the top eight within a quarter of a second. It’s unbelievable.

“Is there a risk of someone coming in with a massive budget and beating everyone? I guess there is, but what can they do? The engine is controlled and, while you can add all sorts of aerodynamics, you’ve only got 100bhp. If you add too much downforce there will be too much drag. It’s all about getting the thing to handle well while being as slippery as possible. Anybody can do that and that’s why they’re so close.”

Engines are usually the most expensive part of an open set of regulations; in the Reliant days mods were unlimited. “You could do anything to them,” Rowe says as he straps the bonnet back on before I head out onto the circuit, “but that, of course, made them fragile. We now have these Fiat units, and you might as well buy one from a scrapyard because you’ve got to skim the head and block. Then you bore it oversize – and that’s all you can do.”

The 100bhp of the Fiat engine might not sound much, but provides quite a punch with the car weighing less than half a tonne. It also inspires confidence in an amateur, even if it has seemingly endless grip. Despite the old Reliant ’box being “too weak for the current engine”, it’s smooth and easy to use. After a few laps I think I even get some heat in the tyres… Compared to the little Austin Special it’s in another world. With the car being made as “slippery as possible”, you can feel the aero take effect, and the brakes are wonderful.

Spire GT3
Series Disklok RGB Championship
Engine 1000cc Honda Fireblade CBR1000
Details Willwood brakes, Protech Shocks

While the Centaur and Austin are very much home-built, the Spire GT3 is a little different. Made by Spire Sports Cars of Derbyshire, the GT3 is only three years old and was built specifically for the Disklok RGB Championship for road-going, bike-engined cars. That requires a two-seat format and must be right-hand drive. There’s a minimum ride height, a minimum weight of 560kg with the driver and a standard engine.

What you can play with, apart from chassis and aerodynamics, is the air intake system and the exhaust.

This particular 1000cc Honda Fireblade model is owned by last year’s champion Matt Higginson. There’s a newer version on the market, but Higginson at the time of writing had already won five of the first eight rounds in 2014. His main rivals have all been behind the wheel of similar Spire GT3s.

Where the Centaur and Austin were all about constant modification, the Spire is race-ready and about as quick as you can make it to the current regulations. “Once you’ve bought the car there’s really not much maintenance,” says Higginson, who’s clearly finding my size quite amusing as I try to get into his car. “You can probably get away with two sets of brake pads and routine oil changes for a season’s racing. Also, as long as you start with a low-mileage engine you’ll get a couple of seasons out of it.”

The engines are quite stressed, however, so Spire advises changing them every 40 hours (not such a worrying number when it’s up to £3000 for a new engine). What is worrying is what would happen to your ears if you raced this for a season or two without protection. As I head out onto the Stebbe Straight I put my foot down for the first time. What happens next I’ve never experienced before, despite having driven a bunch of Radicals – the air intake, which is right next to your left ear, does its level best to test your drums to bursting point. Such is the onslaught of noise you have no idea what gear you’re in because the ’bike engine makes every gear sound the same. It’s brilliant. And intoxicating.

The car’s on the same sticky, road-going Yokohamas that I run on my MGB at Knockhill (they’re sticklers for period correctness up there!), but you can immediately tell that the Spire has been designed in a wind tunnel such is the grip you get from them in anything faster than a hairpin. It’s totally different from the previous two cars and, having not even scratched the surface, I return to the pits grinning from ear to ear.

The 750 Motor Club not only provides some fantastic racing, but is also a beacon of variety in an otherwise predominantly spec-racing world. One of its great calling cards is that it hosts various championships that are for engineers as well as racers. It’s no surprise that the likes of Colin Chapman cut their teeth with the club. As a mark of things to come, Chapman wiped the board in his Austin 7 after splitting its inlet ports…

“The camaraderie is fantastic,” Plain-Jones says. “Whether it’s someone who’s been racing for years or someone like myself, people always help. We just want to get more people involved.”

Higginson adds: “It’s the same in our championship. All the guys are really friendly and it’s just a social occasion. It’s great, cheap motor sport.” It’s good to see that the 750 Motor Club is still thriving on the same values that made it such a success all those years ago.

Our part in the club’s creation
Without Motor Sport eminence Bill Boddy, the 750MC might not have existed

There’s nowhere more appropriate to celebrate 75 years of the 750 Motor Club than this magazine. It was within these pages that editor Bill Boddy kindled the spark that led to the thriving and enterprising organisation of today.

Always fond of low-powered automobiles, WB and his motoring mates found their Austin 7s disadvantaged in trials and tests by class divisions starting at 1100cc. “The obvious cure,” said WB in Club News, February 1939, “seems to be to found the Seven-Fifty Club.” And thanks to a hearty response, that is what happened. Within days the new club’s first rally took place, followed by treasure hunts, road runs and trials; at last the less wealthy enthusiast had his own smaller playing field. Though WB had the baby Austin in mind, the club from the beginning allowed in other 8hp makes, and the tenets of good value and ingenuity remain central.

First, though, there was Hitler. Call-ups and shortage of petrol throttled back the club’s progress, but a hard-core of enthusiasts, linked through Motor Sport, ran talks, gatherings, trials and even an unlawful sprint disguised as a picnic. Names attending include significant motoring figures: Holland Birkett, Sam Clutton, John Bolster, Lawrence Pomeroy, Forrest Lycett and John Wyer, a pattern to be repeated through the ’50s and ’60s when so many great names started their careers here.

Thanks broadly to WB, the club was geared for action when peace broke out, with an informal speed demonstration at Cockfosters in July 1945, then a sprint at which Colin Chapman drove his first A7 Special. As racing spluttered back into life in austerity Britain, there was no cheaper way into racing than the baby Austin, particularly as chairman Holly Birkett was passionate about disseminating his technical knowledge. It was Birkett who by 1949 had framed the 750 Formula that would spark a new generation of innovative builders, names like Arthur Mallock, Chapman and Alec Issigonis.

After a successful first season of 750 racing in 1950, the Six-Hour Relay became an annual staple, the Ford-based 1172 Formula opened up component sources and the range of Club events swelled.

While the Club’s roots were in the south of England thanks to WB’s ‘gang’ – Birkett, Tom Lush of Allard, Denis Jenkinson et al – the Club’s Bulletin (plus Motor Sport) was a vital connection as membership grew to 800.

Monthly meetings at the Red Cow in Hammersmith had to move to larger premises, and thanks to suspension expert Leslie Ballamy regional centres were set up, too. In 1954 it became a limited company and took on paid staff, and a golden era began. In a time of national optimism and technological progress, the Club and the special-building principle fitted perfectly.

In the Fifties the specials developed further from their roots: by ’52 Chapman’s MkVI dominated the 1172 grid, though after taking the ’53 title his ‘clean sheet’ spaceframe 9 and 11 were ruled out on cost grounds. Derek Buckler and Frank Nichols with his Elvas developed cars in Club events and into the 1960s more and more 750MC ‘graduates’ shaped mainstream racing, among them Frank and Mike Costin, Derek Bennett, Eric Broadley, Len Terry and Mike Pilbeam.

As membership passed 3000 and the racing expanded to include more engines and formulae, it was not merely competition: the London Special Builders Group let creative members mingle with current F1 drivers and designers. The likes of Cooper, McLaren, Herd, Southgate and Reynard fed their experience back into the Club.

In 1990 WB became president of a thriving concern that now offered multiple racing classes, retaining the concept of a ‘development formula’ that rewards ingenuity, but with the venerable A7 always in mind thanks to the Register and annual rally. And that remains true. Kit cars, hot hatches and bike engines now figure, while the A7 is enshrined as a historic vehicle. Club activities are legion, the Centres thrive under the Donington HQ and racing breeds new ideas. But even if the next generation of F1 designers comes via university courses, there’s a lot of weight in the 750MC’s claim to be the most influential motor club ever. Gordon Cruickshank