Lost horizons

„You can stay in business so long as you keep on winning events that will give us worthwhile publicity. And don´t spend too much money“. That was Lord Stokes´ brief to me not long after the Leyland manager during a frustrating period of uncertainty about the future of the Competitions Department at Abingdon. Mind you, to keep on winning was a tall order with the model range available to us at that time.

In our last full season of rallying with the Mini in 1968, it had been a luckless year. Technically, the car was being stretched to the point of unreliability in an effort to keep pace with the determined European opposition. The year also saw a massive effort with the Austin 1800 team on the London to Sydney Marathon, when we scored a disappointing second overall, and there were many traditional rally critics who felt that we had spent our efforts in continuing Mini development, we could have perhaps kept up with the op position for a couple more seasons.

For 1969 economics found the Abingdon team turn their hands to racing the Minis in the British Saloon Car Championship which, despite the efforts of John Rhodes and John Handley, brought little success against the Broadspeed Escorts.

Having sacked all our famous Finnish rally stars, our Mini rallying programme was little more than a flag waving exercise for the benefit of Paddy Hopkirk, runner up on the circuit of Ireland and the Scottish Rally – the latter event bringing our only win of the year with Brian Culcheth in the 2.5 PI Triumph.

Again, all efforts in the latter part of 1969 were concentrated on the development and preparation of the Triumphs and Maxis for the London to Mexico Marathon, which produced another heartbreaking second place when the team so desperately needed victory.

When I went to Longbridge to explain yet another defeat, Lord Stokes made it very clear to me that he was not happy with our results. Instant wins and some longer term plan of attack were essential. Having claimed that I really could not do much with the present model range, I was proudly shown by George Turnbull the prototype range of Austin models – the Allegro and Marina – but I drove back to Abingdon even more depressed!

At Triumph, the ever enthusiastic Spen King showed me the new Dolomite which looked promising but the potentially sporting Sprint version was clearly a couple of years away.

At MG we were aware that Syd Enever was playing around with V8 engined MGBs but these, too, were nowhere near production.

Perhaps for no other reason than to support the old saying that „there´s no substitute for sheer horsepower“ we decided to investigate the potential of the newly announced V8 version of the Rover 2000. We knew that with Traco or Repco versions of the engine we could easily double the power output and, although the car had a Rover reputation of a bit of a „gentlemen´s carriage“, one could obviously reduce the weight enormously and hopefully improve the handling.

We decided on a four stage programme. Firstly, we wanted to try a near standard car in one of the popular televised rallycross events where we had enjoyed some success with the Minis. The idea was to instantly evaluate the car and hope that, if it gave a reasonable showing, there would be some immediate reawakering of enthusiasm at Longbridge.

Stage two was to build an out-and-out club racer so that we could evaluate the ultimate tarmac performance of the racer.

Stage three (if we were still in business) would be to use the knowledge gained from the club car to build a proper works prototype for selected racing and rally events.

The fourth, and more important, stage was then to persuade Leyland to back us by building the necessary limited production run to qualify for Group 2 homologation. Thus, in the long term, we were pinning our hopes on the V8 Rover „Special“ for survival through the 1970s.

When I cautiously went to Solihull to present our plans to the Rover Directors, it was rather like asking the Queen Mother to come and open a Punk Rock Festival! A Rover in competition would set completely the wrong image and this was one of the few models in the Leyland range that did not need sales promotion anyway. Certainly when we finally got round to the ultimate proposal to see a limited production run of special equipment V8s (which I suggested could easily be sold at a highly inflated price as exclusive executive models) I really began to wonder why I had bothered to ask them in the first place.

Anyway, I did find one ally at Rovers, Ralph Nash, their former Rally Manager who was then working on the new Range Rover. Although Ralph, too, was then totally out of touch with the sport, he was at least excited and interested that someone was going to do something with a Rover. My trip to Solihull was not entirely wasted as I came home the proud „owner“ of JXC 808D, a somewhat secondhand 2000 from the Rover press fleet.

Without doing too much to the car we whisked it off to a rallycross meeting where it was driven with great verve by Geoff Mabbs who could not resist placing a bowler hat, furled umbrella and a copy of the Financial Times on the rear parcel shelf! In virtually standard 2000 form the Rover, thank God, did not disgrace herself and one Rover Director actually phoned me on the Monday morning expressing mild pleasure! Before Mabbs could get too enthusiastic, we started on Stage 2.

Time was vitally important and we realised that trying to build JXC 808D into a club racer at Abingdon at that particular time would be fraught with problems. Rover engineers would probably have a heart attack had they seen what we were doing and, in any case, we did not exactly want the world and his wife to know about our plans.

Thus we decided to have the Stage 2 project carried out away from the works. Competitions Departments often, in fact, find this an arrangement of great convenience. If the project turns out to be a success you can claim all the glory and immediately take the operation back under your own wing. If it´s a failure you can tell the Board that, of course, it was nothing to do with you and pretend that it never happened! It is a policy that every Competitions Department has adopted to its advantage at sometime or another and, with great respect to my former and present friends at Abingdon, I am sure that Leyland themselves could never have handled the Jaguar racing project as Ralph Broad did, and today´s racing Rovers would not be winning unless they were in the hands of Dave Price Racing.

We did, therefore, hand the Rover project over to the partnership of Roy Pierpoint, former British Saloon Car Champion who had a lot of experience of running V8 engined machines, and master race car builder Bill Shaw. JXC 808D moved to Pierpoint´s garage in Walton-on-Thames where it was set upon by two ex-Alan Mann mechanics, Jim Morgan and Jim Rose.

The car was gutted and upon the standard chassis was built a new lightweight racing body with flaved wings and wheel arches. The weight was reduced to around 950 kg. Front suspension was modified with fabricated lower wishbones and PFTE bushes were used throughout. Ventilated disc brakes were fitted front and rear and 10ins Minilite rims carried Dunlop racing tyres.

For the power unit, Pierpoint obtained a 4.3 litre Traco Oldsmobile engine from John Coundley´s McLaren-Oldsmobile sports racing car. Using four Weber carburettors the power output was 360 bhp at 6.800 rpm. Initially, the standard 2000 gearbox was used (all that was available) mated to an E-type Jaguar differential. After a run of gearbox failures, however, an American Muncey gearbox was used.

The car was ready for the opening of the 1970 club racing season and was entered for the April Mallory Park Championship Meeting. Driven by Roy Pierpoint in front of a large and expectant gathering of Rover Directors, the Rover devoured its first 2000 gearbox and retired! Better fortune came in its next race at Castle Combe (with nobody there to see) when it won outright. In all, Pierpoint contested some eight races, major success being victory in the 100 Mile Saloon Car Race at Silverstone.

With growing confidence and enthusiasm we felt that it was time to move onto Stage 3. Thus JXC 808D was sold to Alec Poole (not quite in its original race specification) who raced it with some success in Irish club events.

The plan was now to build from scratch a Group 6 prototype car, initially for racing but with a view to homologation as a Group 2 rally car. Bill Shaw was again commissioned to carry out most of the technical work although Abingdon put the final touches to the body, presenting it in Leyland blue and white.

The new car was ready in time to be entered by the works for the 84 Marathon de la Route at the Nurburgring in September, the event that had taken over from the classic Spa-Sofia-Liege Rally. Abingdon had had a lot of experience in this new „race-come-rally“ having won it outright with a MGB in 1966 and been runner-up with a 1-litre Mini in the following year.

To expect a completely untested car to complete 84 hours around the „Ring“ was perhaps asking a bit much but we thought that there could not be a better event to give us a direct comparison against the then current European works team, all of whom entered.

After only a handful of testing laps at Goodwood, the team set off for Germany under the team management of Bill Price, my assistant, with Bill Shaw in attendance. The three drivers were to be Clive Baker, Roger Enever and Roy Pierpoint.

The Marathon was run over the combined north and south loops of the „Ring“ giving a lap distance of some 19 miles. Practice for the Rover team was kept to the bare minimum to preserve the car, one lap per driver. Apart from some concern with a vibrating prop shaft, everything went well and the team were in high spirits when Clive Baker took the start at 1:00am in the morning.

Those familiar with the „Ring“ will know that the 4.8 mile south loop returns to run along the back of the pits before turning away onto the 14 mile northern loop. All eyes and ears were thus anxious to see how the Rover was placed on that all important southern loop. To everyone´s amazement Baker rumbled past the pits so far in the lead that it was feared that there had been some sort of first lap incident that had slowed the rest of the field. With the Rover already burbling away onto the northern loop, the rest of the field eventually arrived with the fancied works Porsches leading the pack!

The Rover´s lead at the completion of the first lap was even larger, despite a strict rev limit of 4.500 rpm. Bill Price´s only concern was that the car was going too fast and that it would not be able to comply with the very important regulation which said that you had to set an average speed during the 84th hour the same as the first.

Still running to strict orders, the Rover ran faultlessly for 16 hours until the prop shaft vibration, which had started again, began to cause concern and got so bad that it was reluctantly decided to retire the car rather than risk further damage or an accident. At that time the Rover had an amazing three lap lead (57 miles) over the rest of the field.

The car had made a truly sensational impression at the „Ring“, it was the talking point at the circuit and, further afield, the European sporting press were full of praise for its potential.

At home, however, dark clouds had gathered over the Competitions Department at Abingdon for, on the very eve of the Marathon, the Leyland management had decreed that Competitions should be closed.

Thus the all important Stage 4 of the Racing Rover project was never even considered. Who knows what potential there could have been for the future? Valuable experience was thrown away. Some years later, when Abingdon began to rally and the race the Rover engine, work had to start all over again.

Peter Browning 

U.K. 1980