Popularity is not the only byword of the British Touring Car Championship. The series can be rightly proud of its heritage that dates back to 1957/58.
The man credited with the idea for a national championship for saloon cars is Ken Gregory, who was also well known in motor racing circles as the manager of Stirling Moss. In the early to mid Fifties, saloon car racing achieved high levels of popularity among the public and competitors alike, but no organised series or championship existed in which the leading manufacturers, then recovering from the post-War years, could display the prowess of their new ranges of passenger cars.
Gregory convinced the British Racing & Sports Car Club, of which he was secretary, that it should fill this void and increase the profile of saloon car racing by running a championship alongside the club’s popular 500cc Formula 3 and sports car classes of the day.
The BRSCC adopted its rules and, to suit the manufacturers’ product ranges, four individual classes were structured for cars with engine capacities of up to 1200cc, 1201-1600cc, 1601-2700cc and 2701cc and above.
The rationale of the touring car championship has always been to provide a competition arena for current production cars. Ever since the championship was first established, therefore, the rules have been constantly reviewed and changed when needed to follow production trends.
It’s true that the first British Saloon Car Championship was run in 1958. However, the very first race counting towards that year’s points table was actually staged at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day 1957. It was won by Tommy Sopwith driving an Equipe Endeavour 3.4-litre Jaguar.
That inaugural season of ’58 ended in dramatic fashion – Sopwith had won his class but so too had Jack Sears (Austin A105 Westminster) and they had tied on points. This was resolved by Marcus Chambers, then competitions manager of BMC (British Motors Corporation), who offered two identical 1.5-litre Rileys for a pair of five-lap races with the drivers taking turns in each car. A matter of 1.6 seconds is all that separated the two of them in the end after their race times had been added together. Sopwith won the first race by 2.2 seconds, but Sears won the second by 3.8 seconds, so it was he who was crowned the first Champion.
Sopwith could feel aggrieved at being classified as the runner-up. He had not just won his class (the most senior of the four) but also taken victory in eight of the season’s ten rounds and set eight fastest race laps. He would not be the last front-running driver to miss out on the overall title to the winner of one of the smaller classes. Indeed, identical points were awarded to each class winner and, ultimately, this would come to favour those drivers contesting classes for smaller-engined cars. In fact, in the 32 years that the BTCC ran to a class system, only five drivers competing in the largest – and often the most competitive – engine division would win the outright title. Not until 1991 would the BTCC switch to a single, (two-litre) engine formula…
Back in 1958, virtually any ‘performance saloon’ came under consideration for Britain’s only series. Naturally, certain models found favour with competitors for ease of tuning, handling and reliability. In the early days, tuning was a little basic and meant, in most cases, raising the compression ratio by shaving the cylinder head. Many of these ‘normal racing saloons’ were in every day use. Among the favoured performers were the Austin A35 and Ford Prefect in the smallest capacity field, heading the likes of the 1.5 Riley, Borgward Isabella, Volvo Amazon and MG Magnette and, in the larger capacity classes, the 3.4 Jaguar and Ford Zephyr. It was in a Zephyr in 1959 that Jeff Uren would win the title.
In 1960, the club introduced the concept of ‘silhouette’ special saloon cars, and the championship ran to new rules allowing for 1000cc free formula models. The season, held under the banner of ‘Supa Tura Trophy’, was dominated by Doc Shepherd’s very fast, Don Moore-prepared Austin A40.
Subsequent national championships, however, would stay loyal to the concept of production cars, although the ruling body did permit greater technical development, following the Group 2 regulations used in the FIA European Touring Car races. This significantly increased the support from manufacturers. Hence, proof of a minimum number of units produced was necessary in order for a car to be entered. In addition, any engine or body modifications had to be available for retail sale.
As the Jaguars faded, one of the first cars to popularise the British championship was the Mini. This advanced little car produced many crowd-pleasing, giant-killing acts against bigger-engined models and the 1961 and ’62 titles were landed by Mini drivers John Whitmore and John Love. In later seasons, John Rhodes would become one of the stars with a series of factory team Minis, winning four class titles.
With regard to overall race wins, however, a new era had begun: the era of the American ‘muscle cars’ and the British-built Ford Cortina.
It had been heralded as early as 1961 when US star Dan Gurney raced a V8 Chevrolet Impala at Silverstone. By 1963, several Ford Galaxies were in use in the UK championship and, ultimately, Gurney’s lead would be followed by teams campaigning Ford Mustang, Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Camaro models.
In 1963, Jack Sears was champion again, this time at the wheel of John Willment’s Ford and Lotus Cortinas and also one of the mighty Galaxies. The combination of great driving skill and biddable power, demonstrated by Jim Clark in a works Lotus Cortina, secured outright championship honours in 1964, before Roy Pierpoint claimed the title the following year in his new Mustang.
New Group 5 regulations were drawn up for 1966, stricter than the Gp2 rules they superseded in terms of cars’ exterior appearance, but less stringent as to engine modifications. The Gp5 cars had to retain their original silhouette and be immediately identifiable, but there was now greater scope for engine tuning and suspension tweaks to make the most of the recently-introduced ‘slick’ racing tyre. All this was to the benefit of spectators: the Championship, spectacular as always, now became both faster and noisier.
The first Gp5 title was won by John Fitzpatrick in one of Ralph Broad’s Ford Anglias, the second in 1967 by Australian Frank Gardner in Alan Mann Racing’s Ford Falcon. By 1968, the RACMSA, the governing body of British motor sport which had taken over the administration of the burgeoning touring car championship from its originators, was able to ensure that races appeared at all major events on the calendar. Gardner’s second title in 1968 in Alan Mann’s Ford Escort, and Alec Poole’s in 1969, in an Equipe Arden Mini, were won in front of ever-bigger crowds.
Revised Gp2 rules were adopted for the 1970 season, as the FIA updated the groupings and homologation requirements for production cars. There was now a clear distinction between Gp1 (which permitted only limited modification) and Gp2. The classifications also took into account the size and number of useable seats and, effectively, banished the increasingly competitive Porsche 911 from touring car races.
As the bigger-engine classes became numerically stronger, with the Escorts challenging the Falcons and Camaros for supremacy, it suited the purposes of Bill McGovern who won three titles in a row (1970, ’71 and ’72) with George Bevan’s 1-litre Imps. The 1973 crown, though, went for the third time to Gardner, this time with a 7-litre Camaro.
By 1974, with costs of competing having become prohibitive, the RACMSA switched to Gp1 regulations. The new class divisions –up to 1600cc, 1601-2500cc, 2501-4000cc and over 4000cc – were abandoned two years later and the big American V8 cars, which had dominated the top class, were no longer eligible. The Camaro’s swansong came with a string of victories for Stuart Graham and Richard Lloyd in 1974 and ’75.
Bernard Unett won the first of his three titles in 1974 with his works Hillman Avenger, and Andy Rouse the first of his four championships in 1975 with a Broadspeed Triumph Dolomite Sprint.
With the demise of the big V8s, the Ford Capri emerged as the front-running model. Gordon Spice won the 3000cc class titles in five successive seasons, from 1976 to 1980. But the overall champion for the first four of those years hailed from the newly-introduced 1300cc class; Unett in a works Avenger GT was invincible for two years until usurped by Richard Longman, who also received factory support in Patrick Motorsport’s Mini 1275GT.
By 1980, there was an increasing challenge from Japanese manufacturers. Tom Walkinshaw introduced the raucous, rotary-engined Mazda RX7 and duly won his class in 1979, while Win Percy collected two of his three titles in a TWR Mazda in 1980 and ’81. Armed with a Hughes of Beaconsfield Toyota Corolla, Percy completed the set in 1982.
The upper capacity limit had been raised to 3500cc in 1980 and now the Rover Vitesse became a regular race winner, displacing the Capris in the hands of such drivers as Peter Lovett and Jeff Allam.
In 1983, Rouse resumed his winning ways at the wheel of an Alfa Romeo GTV6. He took the 2.5 class and was later declared the outright champion, but only after some end-of-season controversy. That campaign was run to the FIA’s revised GpA saloon car classification and the top three drivers – all in 3.5 Rover V8s – were excluded from the final championship positions due to technical infringements. Thus, Tony Lanfranchi took the 3.5 class honours in his Opel Monza.
Rouse, though, established a reputation for first-class race car preparation as well as emphasising his talent as a driver over the next two years, winning the title outright in cars built and run by his own specialist company.
After speeding to glory in a 3.5 Rover Vitesse in 1984, the hat-trick was achieved in ’85 in a 2.3 Ford Sierra Turbo, with wins in nine out of 11 races. This heralded the beginning of a new engine era for Britain’s premier saloon car championship and, although there were turbocharged cars from Colt, MG and Nissan, it was Ford that blazed the development trail.
As competition hotted-up in the battle for outright race victories and the pool of potential winners expanded from race to race, so this favoured a determined and consistent challenge from one of the smaller capacity classes.
Chris Hodgetts, driving a works-assisted Toyota Corolla GT, suffered only one class defeat in 1986 (beaten by Mikael Sundstrom in a Peugeot 205GTi) and duly clinched the overall title. Rouse (Ford Sierra XR4i Turbo) and Richard Longman (Ford Escort RS Turbo) were respective Class A and B winners while the 1300cc class was dropped due to a lack of support.
Renamed the British Touring Car Championship and with revised class structures, the 1987 campaign was the swansong for the popular Rover Vitesse. A spectacular season provided eight different winners from 12 rounds. Rouse suffered teething problems with the 550bhp Ford Sierra RS500 Turbo and, ultimately, the Rovers of Tim Harvey and Dennis Leech fought dramatically to the final round. Although Harvey took the class, Hodgetts’ winning sequence in the Corolla secured him a second successive overall title.
The Ford RS500 Turbo was the car of the 1988 season. Having overcome the issues encountered the previous year, Rouse showed the Blue Oval behemoth was in a league of its own with nine wins en route to the class A title (over 3000cc). But again it was not enough to secure outright honours, these falling to Frank Sytner and the Prodrive BMW M3 – a potent new combination that dominated the 2000-3000cc division with 11 class victories. This would set the scene for the future.
The Sierra and BMW M3 – two of the BTCC’s most iconic cars – were again rulers of their respective classes in 1989. The Trakstar RS500 of Robb Gravett emerged as a lively new contender for outright race wins and the lead battles between him and Rouse lit up numerous spectacular events. Ultimately, Rouse, with his six triumphs, retained the class title, but just as exciting was the duel between Prodrive BMW team-mates Sytner and James Weaver, in which the latter provailed. However, the overall champion was John Cleland who romped to an impressive 11 class wins in the works Vauxhall Astra GTE 16V. This marked the start of what would later become a quite exceptional run of success for Vauxhall… Meanwhile, in the last year of Class D (up to 1600cc), Phil Dowsett scored his second – and Toyota’s fourth – consecutive victory.
Before the transition to its sole 2-litre format, the BTCC underwent a revised structure for the 1990 season and catered for GpA-specification cars in two classes – up to 2000cc and over 2000cc. At the head of the field, Gravett exacted revenge on his main rival of the previous year (Rouse) and won nine times to give the RS500 its third consecutive class and one and only outright championship title.
In the up to 2000cc category, Vauxhall launched its Cavalier model and Cleland was quickly on the pace of the established front-running BMW M3s. The Scot’s Thruxton victory ended a 27 race/class-winning sequence by the M3, but Sytner took the class honours, with five triumphs in the division in total. Cleland’s arrival, though, was to set a scene of intrigue for the coming years as the BTCC moved into yet another new era of technical regulations but one which, at last, would give the championship the long-term stability it had been seeking…