At first glance it might look like period geometric simplicity, but look again. See that driveshaft? Almost half a century ago, the distinctive 4WD Hepworth FF was a huge success on the UK hills
The names seem fresh from the pages of period motoring journals: David Hepworth, Sir Nicholas Williamson, Roy Lane, Michael MacDowel, Tony Griffiths… The British Hillclimb Championship has ever been a ferociously competitive beast and that was the backdrop to the Hepworth FF’s genesis. Seventh in the final standings in 1968, Yorkshireman David Hepworth turned to Ferguson Research to help him create a four-wheel-drive special bearing his own name. It made its debut at Oliver’s Mount, Scarborough, late in 1968 and for the next four seasons became a front-running staple on the hills, Hepworth taking 18 British championship victories, securing the title in 1969 and 1971, losing out by two points to Williamson in 1970 and being classified third in 1972, despite missing a few rounds because by then he was also competing in Interserie sports car races, at the wheel of an ex-Pedro Rodríguez BRM P154.
As Motor Sport reported in September 1971, “At the end of last season nearly all the top drivers changed their mounts with one notable exception, David Hepworth, whose loyalty to last year’s car has paid off with a very commanding lead in the championship. He is still using the Hepworth Special that brought him the title in 1969 and uses a one-off Ferguson 4WD system, designated P159. The championship-winning Oldsmobile engine was discarded at the beginning of last season in favour of a more powerful 5-litre Chevrolet that, with its Weber carburettors, produces 400bhp. Having come a narrow second to Sir Nicholas Williamson last year, Hepworth is making no mistakes this time, with record-breaking wins at Shelsley Walsh, Bouley Bay and Barbon, the latter achieved with his engine held in place with the use of three Jubilee clips after an engine mounting had been damaged during the class runs. The Shelsley record was particularly notable, for 10 years after Tony Marsh had become the first man to get below 35 seconds on this historic hill, Hepworth, on the last run of the day, broke the half-minute barrier – the first driver ever to do so.”
Today the car remains in the family’s custody and is maintained by Hepworth International, the Brighouse-based restoration business run by David’s sons Stephen and Andrew. “When Dad built the FF,” Stephen says, “it was thought that four-wheel drive might be the way to go – before it was proved that aerodynamics and tyre technology could beat what 4WD had to offer. His original intention had obviously been to build a hillclimb car, but the car’s launch just happened to coincide with F5000’s introduction in the UK and the car complied, so he entered it for two events in 1969, the inaugural season.”
It didn’t fare quite so well on the circuits, Bev Bond driving it in the opening race at Oulton Park but retiring early with a blown head gasket. Tony Lanfranchi managed slightly better in round three at Brands Hatch – he finished sixth, albeit eight laps behind Peter Gethin’s winning McLaren. As subsequent events proved, hills would be the FF’s natural domain.
Increasing business commitments – and dabbling with Interserie – obliged Hepworth to scale back his hillclimb commitments during 1973 and the FF sat around largely unused, prior to being taken to Gurston Down in 1976 for one final hurrah that was marred by clutch failure. Subsequently, the car was dismantled and placed in storage.
At the dawn of the 1990s it was decided that the time had come for restoration and the car was sent away to a suitable specialist, but in May 1992 Hepworth died aged just 52 and never got to see its completion. Neither, almost, did his sons.
“Some time after Dad’s passing, probably the following year, we received a phone call out of the blue,” Stephen says. “It was the restorer, telling us that they were about to go under and that we’d have to collect the car by the following Monday if we wanted to get it back before everything was placed under lock and key. We dashed down to find there wasn’t a single shim or washer that was attached to anything else – it was nothing but bits, so we took it all away without drawings or instructions of any kind to tell us how to put the thing back together.
“At that time we hadn’t started the restoration business we run now, so it was all done quite literally in-house – as in we worked on it at home. Once we’d finally got around to starting on the project, it took about four years to rebuild but there was a lot of checking and rechecking. I think we assembled, dismantled and reassembled the gearbox about nine times before we were satisfied that we’d included all the correct bits in the right places.”
The Hepworths were invited to demonstrate the FF during Shelsley Walsh’s centenary celebration event in 2005, the first time it had run since its abbreviated farewell at Gurston. Andrew drove the car and there are two points to note: one, it was still on the same set of Goodyears with which David had won the 1971 championship title; two, their father’s ashes went up the hill with him in a casket. “It was only when Andrew was going up the hill for the first time that he discovered the gear selector had been mounted back to front,” Stephen says, “so first was where second should have been, ditto with third and fourth…”
Since then the car has been used only occasionally, at Harewood and Cholmondeley in 2012, then Cholmondeley and Shelsley Walsh (the 110th anniversary event) in 2015 – always still running on its 1971 rubber, which Andrew reckoned to be about 90 per cent worn by the time that Shelsley weekend was finished. Their growing restoration business precluded more frequent use, but it was then rebuilt again in time for this year’s Festival of Speed.
“It wasn’t so much that it required taking apart,” Stephen says, “but we needed to interrogate the transmission for information. A customer had come to us with Peter Westbury’s Felday 5 Group 7 sports car, which ran originally with Ferguson four-wheel drive but had been converted at some point in the 1970s from Ford V8 power to Chevrolet and rear-drive only. We had to strip the Hepworth down for the sake of reverse engineering, so that we could use its transmission as a design template to help us restore the Felday…”
In addition to working on a range of customer cars, the Hepworths also retain many their father originally acquired, including a Cooper T43/51 (another hillclimb car that came back to life in 2012, complete with period dents, after 45 years of inactivity), the aforementioned P154, two BRM P167 Can-Am cars (one acquired in unfinished form, so completed in Brighouse rather than Bourne), the BRM P154/167 Can-Am hybrid (“That was a bit of a mish-mash and after the 1971 Interserie race at Zolder I believe Pedro Rodríguez declared it the worst thing he’d ever driven. He didn’t want to use it again and preferred to wait until the full P167 was ready – I think that’s what led him to negotiate a Ferrari drive for the Norisring…”), a late 1980s Harrier GpC car that Andrew raced in period and, perhaps most intriguingly, a car that had two wholly separate identities but never raced as either of them. The P230 was the last Formula 1 car produced by BRM, but completed only a few shakedown laps in Aurora F1 racer Neil Bettridge’s hands on Donington Park’s Melbourne loop. Thereafter Hepworth Sr acquired the project and converted the tub into the Hepworth GB1, a Can-Am car built up by Bob Sparshott Automotive for Danny Sullivan to run under the Garvin Brown Racing banner in the final two events of 1980 at Laguna Seca and Riverside.
“The car tested a few times,” Stephen says, “but then we received a message that they’d decided not to run it without any explanation being given. Dad later discovered that Danny had actually put it into the wall while testing in the States and it was still bent when we went to bring it home in the late 1980s. It was then left in the workshop as a crumpled mess until a couple of years ago, when we were invited to take it to the 2016 Festival of Speed. We finished the rebuild in the paddock and the response it got was absolutely extraordinary, particularly for such a big, ugly lump that had never so much as raced. We could take it somewhere and run it now – it’s ready to go, but there aren’t really too many suitable series for it.
“We’re fortunate to have these cars – it’s just a pity we don’t have the time and resources to use all of them often. If you don’t have enough work you can’t afford to do many of the things you’d like to do; and when you’re busy you simply don’t have the time!”
But back to the FF and its recent FoS class success. “When I left Sussex on Sunday evening I thought we’d finished second,” Stephen says. “There were only two of us in the class and Paul Dallenbach’s PVA Special Pikes Peak car absolutely trounced us, but I later learned that he’d had been moved into a different section. I know it meant winning a class of one, but I was completely unaware that anything had changed until I was back in Yorkshire – it was just a bit gutting to miss the prize-giving.
“We would like to run the FF more frequently, but silencing regulations mean we’d have to make a few modifications to do anything more than demonstration runs. At Shelsley in 2005 I think the decibel limit was 108 and a scrutineer clocked us at 115… from about 80 metres away, so I’ve no idea what the real figure might have been. The FF is a proper animal of a racing car – you have to force it all the time while it’s trying to do the same thing to you, so a keen sense of anticipation is essential. The front end can be a bit vague, but it tracks straight under power.”
Stephen and son Ryan took turns to tackle the hill at Goodwood – and Ryan’s five-year-old daughter Olivia steered the car through the paddock while perched on her father’s lap, so technically four generations of Hepworth have taken a stint at the wheel.
There is another charming link to the past, too. Hepworth Sr was sponsored in period by industrial cleaning specialist Guyson International, whose boss Jim Thompson was also a keen competitor on the hills. Guyson is today run by Thompson’s son, former hillclimber and racer James, and he provided the Hepworths with a little bit of sponsorship prior to Goodwood.
“The upshot,” says Stephen, “is that we’ve been able to put the car on its first fresh set of tyres for 46 years…”