A Wee Piece of History
Ian Waugh dips into his personal treasure trove of mid 90's BTCC Vauxhall memorabilia and comes up trumps.
Shortly afterwards, a large envelope arrived, containing all the paperwork for my visit, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 11th July, 1995. Success! And so it was that, at around 5.30pm that day, I guided my Vauxhall Nova SR up a 1.5 mile, single track private road at Castlethorpe near Milton Keynes, that led to what were, in effect, farm outbuildings! Yes, John Cleland's 1995 championship win was founded in farm buildings!
Over the next 3 hours or so, the lucky dozen got a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most professional, and as it was to turn out, successful teams in the BTCC. Photographs were allowed, and though it was with film cameras (Digital cameras were still in the future) I hope you find these scans interesting. I will try to fill in some background to them. Although I wasn't taking notes, (it was a fun visit, after all) we did receive written specs for the cars, which I've included lower down the page, and much of what was said has stayed fresh in my mind.
Clicking any of the thumbnails below will launch the full size images.
Here is John Cleland's car, with James' in the background. As you can see, space was not overly generous, making the teams success even more remarkable. Both cars are missing much of the decals and small items like mirrors, which were probably regular replacement items. However, what you might not have figured on being replaced every race was the front wings!
By 1995, the Cavalier was the longest serving car in the BTCC, and in fact was due to be discontinued shortly. The factory would have ceased making them about 2 weeks after our visit, and the 2 weeks holiday the workers would take at Vauxhall would see the factory retooled to make the Vectra, due for public sale in October that year. From early August until launch, the factory would be building up stock to ensure availability at launch, so, if it had never occurred to you before, the Cavalier actually won the BTCC AFTER it had ceased production! John won his title in an obsolete model.
Now, as the oldest car in the race series, it was also the narrowest. Thus RML were keen to exploit the rules regarding the car's width and track to its' full. So, the front wheels were mounted as far out from the centre of the car as possible. This meant 2 things as far as the front wings were concerned:
1/ the wings were "panel beaten" out as much as could be achieved. I don't have a photo of my own showing this, but this close up from a publicity photo reveals it clearly. If you're not sure what has changed, go and look at a Cavalier in the street!
2/ The other problem this created was that even with all the flaring, the wings sometimes came into contact with the tyres during racing, so there was a possibility of the car failing post race scrutineering, if wings were used for several races. So, after every race, 2 new wings!
Here's John Cleland's Cavalier engine bay, and for anyone familiar with the underbonnet area of the Cavalier road car, not much has been left of the original! The bodyshells were delivered to RML from Vauxhall factories as pure production shells, but much refabricating was executed on them, the inner wings, bonnet shut panel and strut bracing are all new, (Note the lack of the normal bonnet lock holes!) and the engine is mounted much lower than in the road car, to improve weight distribution in cornering. The remote reservoirs for the Dynamics front dampers are clearly visible on the sides of the inner wings/arches.
James Thomson's car gives an alternative view of the engine bay, and clearer view of the damper reservoirs. Note the size of the front discs! 14 inches! The largest wheels ever fitted to production Cavaliers was 15 inches, and with the caliper in the way, these discs would never have been possible in a road car. Of course, these are pure race spec items. Note the 3 colours of paint around the vent holes on the discs. This paint was temperature sensitive, and changes of colour gave an indication of disc temperature achieved during race conditions. This ensured the team could guarantee that they weren't using inadequate brakes!
Another view of James' car, showing that, ahead of the windscreen, pretty much the only parts that were "standard" were visible panels, like bonnet, wings and bumper, and even then, as I've stated, the wings were modified. This Cavalier was, of course, subsequently destroyed in James' accident at Knockhill later that same July.
Here are the official specifications as handed out during the visit:
VAUXHALLSPORT - Insight
To enhance your
visit today, the following notes have been
THE TEAM The
Vauxhallsport BTCC Team is based at the
RACE CARS RML
Vauxhall Cavalier 16V - Type VTC 11,
The minimum weight of a FWD is 975 kilos
- RML fabricated McPherson Struts, anti roll
Vauxhall 16V engine developed by Swindon Racing
Weber Alpha Engine Management System
Front - AP Racing calipers, carbon metallic pads
The Vauxhallsport Cavaliers use an Xtrac 6-speed
TYRES Vauxhallsport is a works Michelin BTCC team
John and James wear Sparco 3-layer nomex
ENJOY YOUR VISIT
Note the comment near the top: "Working from a 12,000 sq ft factory" which clearly this wasn't! The handout was worded to apply after the move of RML from the Castlethorpe site to the present site at Whittle Close, Wellingborough. This move took place during the August "lull" in the BTCC.
A couple of other photos from the visit:
The team transporter, you can just about make out the registration number of the lorry, it is "CAV 16 V". After the Cavalier was retired from racing, this number was offered for auction within the Vauxhall Performance Car Club. However, if you look carefully at one scene in the video "BTCC Cavaliers", the lorry they off-load the press launch Vectra Super Tourer from is this one, still carrying this plate..
Club members peruse a Cavalier exhibition car, used for static display at race meetings or other Vauxhall events. Almost certainly a retired race car or spare from a year or two earlier, it still has the GSI bodykit that was fitted to the BTCC Cavaliers in the years before 1995.
Some other info that was gleaned over the visit, but not related to the photos, included the fact that they had, early on, had problems with drive shafts breaking. The shafts had been drilled out so they were in fact tubes, not solid rods, in order to keep rotational inertia, unsprung weight and overall weight down, so it was expected that this was the reason, but, being reluctant to revert to solid shafts, they decided to investigate further. At some point during the investigation, someone decided to paint a line along the shafts. After a couple of standing starts, the line had become a spiral! The fix? Replace the shafts after each race!
Another surprising fact about the Cavaliers in 1995 was that they used the Weber Alpha engine management system that was intended for use on modified road cars. It was a kit designed to replace carburetors, and had a programmable processor that, on a rolling road or engine dynamometer, could be mapped to match the fueling and timing requirements of almost any engine. Thus, racing engines could be accommodated too, although the system was never intended for this. Remarkably, the cost of the system was only £1500 (It was intended as a mod for road cars, after all!). Compare this to the, as we were informed on the visit, Zytec system used on the Renault Laguna it was competing with, which, at a cost of around £75-80000, came to around half the total cost of the RML Cavalier!
So, a great evening, with a feeling of being truly privileged to get so close to the team, and I can honestly lay claim to having touched the steering wheel of the championship winning car!
As luck would have it, Oulton Park is my local track, and I was there the day John finally "got it all together" and took the title he so richly deserved. And it was no hollow victory! He won in the year when arguably the competition was at it's fiercest, With Rickard Rydell's Volvo and Alain Menu's Renault both so close, and many others hot on their tails too. Back then the championship was packed with great racers and characters, Will Hoy, Paul Radisich, Andy Rouse and so many others were household names in an era when touring cars were at their most prolific. As it was, John didn't win either race that day, but 2 calmly driven, safe podium finishes saw him secure the title with one meeting still to go. It started to drizzle as the second race finished, but it didn't dampen the mood of the crowd, at least 60% of whom I would guess were ecstatic at seeing "The Man" take the title at last! Only the hardest hearted Menu or Rydell fans could have grudged him that title!
However, referring back to the Ray Mallock visit: A couple of months after our visit, the club magazine revealed that it had been deemed a success by RML and the club, and so was being offered again, this time to the new premises in Wellingborough. Having been lucky enough to take part in the July visit, I was not expecting to be lucky again, but for the cost of a stamp, I figured I had nothing to lose. So off went my application. Imagine my surprise....................
It was on the
morning of Saturday, 20th January, 1996, I was to be found, once
again, at the RML premises, this time the new one. Things were
slightly different regarding the visit this time! The Vectra had
been on sale to the public since October 1995, but the Vectra Super
Touring racer had yet to turn a wheel in public, or even in front of
the press. Thus it was that the team were reluctant to allow
pictures of the cars leak out, and with good reason, for what was
about to greet us was not 2 complete racing cars, possibly slightly
disassembled, but a fleet of cars in various stages of progress. As
a result, the only photo I took that day was the exterior of the
The cars were in various states of build completion when we got there, James Thomson's car was nearly finished, but John's was still being fabricated around the engine bay. Why? I'm guessing John's was left near the end to allow any late mods to be easily included, but at any rate, the car was bare where the new metal had been added, the original metalwork of the Vectra factory built shells that were shipped to RML from the GM factory (The German one, as I seem to recall it being said that the UK factory did not build saloons, only hatchbacks. Saloons were used owing to their superior stiffness) was in primer. James' car had been sprayed in the special booth that could turn the car through 360 degrees around a longitudinal axis, so that the sprayer could reach all parts of the car easily. The cars were actually being worked on at the start of our visit. The staff were on overtime until 12 noon, and one of them was busy welding Johns car when we arrived. After noon we had the place to ourselves (apart from the guide!)
One contentious point about the Vectra SuperTourer was that it was left hand drive! 2 good reasons given: firstly, as they were building cars for several championships, they wanted all to be the same for ease of parts supply and standardisation, and secondly, the steering shaft would need to pass through the gearbox! That said, the 1998 Vectra's, built by 888, were right hand drive, so I guess they had a different engine/gearbox location!
Incidentally, I mentioned the wheelarch mods to the front wings earlier, the reason given being the Cavalier's narrow width. However, nothing was said about this with regards to the Vectra, but take a look at photo's of them, and you'll see the wheelarches were modded in just the same way! One minor area where the Onyx 1/43rd scale models of the cars are wrong, for they show standard Vectra arches.
A couple of things we didn't expect to see at the site were parked in a standing area inside the unit. One was John Cleland's 1995 Cavalier, which apparently was awaiting removal of the livery, and then to be sold for around £80000! I remember thinking: a/ How could they sell it? It should be in the Vauxhall museum, and b/ I wish I could win the lottery! It'd look good in my garage. Leave the livery on!
The other, slightly more surprising item parked there was Mike Briggs 1994 Opel Astra saloon, in silver and yellow. Looking a bit tired (it was sagging to one side) it was nevertheless an interesting item to see. It was the saloon version, by the way, not the hatch, again for it's superior stiffness.
Having hopefully entertained you thus far, let me finish with a couple of John Cleland anecdotes.
In 1992, the Vauxhall Sport International Rally, round 1 of the 1992 Mobil1/Top Gear British Rally Championship, featured a Rally show on Friday 20th March, at the Chester International Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza) in Princess street, Chester. Hosted by Chris Lord, a motoring journalist, and editor of the newly founded (and soon to be defunct) "Rally Car Magazine" The evening was to be a series of interviews with top rally drivers and drivers from the British Touring Car Championship. It came as no surprise then, that John Cleland was present. Among much that was discussed that evening, John revealed that in the 1989 championship final round, there was a "price on his head"! A member of a rival team, who had another driver with a chance of taking the title (in the old Class System era, don't forget) had been offered a 4 figure sum to take John off the track! Of course, those of you who remember the final race will know John didn't get off the start line for a few seconds due to "transmission problems". Or was he just putting himself so far behind the "assassin" that said assassin could not fall far enough back in the race to do his dirty work without arousing suspicion? John wasn't saying, I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions! Of course, we didn't know then that history was going to repeat it's intended self later that same year! Remember the 1992 final race? It's on Youtube!
Also sharing the
stage, was Dave Metcalfe, a man whose name "David" was appropriate,
as he was regularly a giant killer in Rallying, his most impressive
result being later that year,when he brought his 1600cc, normally
aspirated 2 wheel drive Nova home in 4th place on the Manx rally in
September 1992. Only 3 Subaru Legacy's with 2 litre turbocharged 4
wheel drive beat him. Born on 5th May, 1957, David was tragically
killed on 17th December, 1992, just 3 months later. He was driving a
Calibra rally car on the road, testing it apparently, when he was
involved in a head-on collision with another car. I had just come
home from a family funeral (an uncle I never really got on with)
when his death was announced on the local evening TV news. To say it
was a shock is an understatement. John and Dave were my 2 heroes at
the time. Was Dave the best rally driver the UK ever produced?
Sadly, we will never know, but my suspicions are that he was!
All text and images copyright Ian Waugh 2007. Not to be used without prior permission
Copyright : Dave Willetts 2000 - 2007