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Ahh 1976 , what are your memories from 40 years ago ? Southampton`s surprise FA Cup Final win perhaps , the Montreal Olympics and of course there was the long hot summer drought.
On the racetracks 1976 marked the high point of the UK Super Saloon era and Silverstone was at the centre of this with 3 of the first 4 rounds there. Three cars in particular enjoyed a short-lived rivalry to be top dog and each was to win a race here apiece. Qualifying for the season opener on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit ( May 9th ) highlighted this upper echelon of supersaloon. Quentin Spurring wrote for Autosport magazine `we had a front row which reflected just what Supersaloon racing is all about . A trio of purpose-built racing cars with saloon shells , providing all the variety one could wish for and each one a credit to the men who prepared it`.
The Champion : Gerry Marshall - Vauxhall Firenza `Baby Bertha`. The benchmark driver/car combination in Supersaloons. The reigning champion was giving the car its first race of the year after an engine rebuild by John Nicholson giving the 5-litre Repco V8 around 480 horses. Qualifying at 1minute 33.78 this was over a second quicker than his best lap whilst winning the corresponding race the season before. Beautifully prepared as always by DTV.
The Challenger : Colin Hawker - VW Fastback-3.0 DFV `the DFVW`. The Toleman entered car was an early Gordon Murray designed chassis having raced as the open `Duckhams special` sports prototype at LeMans. With a F1 Cosworth DFV engine giving around 460 bhp bought from Ken Tyrrell this car was described by Autosport as both `twitchy `and `superbly spectacular`! Hawker had easily won a BRDC race here the month before. Overheating problems in qualifying caused new air vents to be added just above those enormous rear wheels.
The Dark-Horse : Jonathan Buncombe - Hillman Super Imp-2.0 FVD` the Chimp`. This was so called as it was a Chevron B19 sports car with an Imp body attached. Chassis 71-09 having been raced by John Lepp in the 1971 European Sports cars and then by John Gray and Ian Harrower in some 10 world sportscar rounds amongst others. The rare FVD engine gave 270 horses enough to place this lightweight racer to 4/100th of a second behind Marshall in qualifying. Beautiful prepared by new owner Tony Wadsworth this was the cars second race as a Saloon , having already shown its potential against Marshall at Thruxton the previous October.
Round 1 ( May 9th ) : 3500 fans were entertained by supersaloon racing at its best as Buncombe and Marshall put on a fabulous `David v Goliath`show for 10 laps of the Grand Prix circuit. Marshall`s huge Firenza blasting ahead down the straights only for Buncombe to close up with nimble and calculated driving under braking. Not often was Baby Bertha pushed to its very limits but when it slid wide at Club on the last lap , Buncombe nipped past to take the win. Marshall sportingly came onto the winners rostrum to shake the winner`s hand. Tony Strawson ( Capri ) was the best of the rest 40 seconds further back , Hawker having retired with its overheating issue.
Round 3 ( June 6th ) : After the Thruxton round these 3 were all back for the next round on Silverstone`s club circuit. Hawker this time set pole only for Marshall to blast off into a lead that he never lost. The Chimp initially held off Hawker until gearbox problems dropped Buncombe to an eventual 4th. Hawker pushed Marshall for all 15 laps , both drivers breaking the lap record with 56.6 seconds. Losing 2nd gear and an engine flat spot meant it was Hawker who settled for second place , Marshall restoring the usual order with another masterly display. Strawson again was 3rd and Mick Hill`s new Beetle-Chevy 6th amongst the others.
Trouble was brewing however as the Chimp had been racing under appeal having failed scrutineering at the Thruxton round. Two issues had sparked controversy and a reminder that even in the liberal world of supersaloons there were still some rules to adhere to.The rear spoiler was one issue but the other one was more fundamental. The Imp body had been crafted to fit the wheelbase of the Chevron chassis and had pushed the rules about `the wheelbase being perscribed by the manufacturer`to it`s breaking point.
Rightly or wrongly the Chimp was excluded and in time would return back to racing elsewhere as a full Chevron again. Enthusiasts still debate the Chimp 40 years on , a tribute to a ground breaking car that only raced 3 times. Jonathan Buncombe commented recently...
`The rules stated when we built the car that the silhouette had to remain the same above the centre line of the wheels. Mid season after beating Baby Bertha on the Gp circuit at Silverstone ,Vauxhall and the rule makers changed the rules to state the wheels came into the silhouette. So we were out. Such a shame as we built the car with very little money after building ( with Dave Brodie ) the Brodie Buncombe Capri, which was a disaster. We took an out of date Chevron that nobody wanted and turned it into a saloon car which was much easier and more cost effective than trying to turn a saloon car into a racing car!!`
Round 4 ( July 4th ) : The Supersaloon boys were back 4 weeks later again on the club circuit , minus the Chimp pending its tribunal hearing. This time the day belonged to the DFVW `Hawker was in devastating form and completely overshadowed the rest , winning as he pleased , also lopping a further 0.4s off the lap record he shared with Marshall`. Winning by a huge 34 seconds and setting a new lap record of 56.2 seconds ( 103 mph ) after Gerry Marshall had a rare engine blow up in a cloud of smoke. 2nd and 3rd on the day were both the ex-Mick Hill Capris , Martin Birrane`s Frox Jeans car just pipping Tony Strawson in the older car by 2/10th.
After that Marshall won the rounds at Combe and Mallory to retain the championship from nearest challenger Nick Whiting , whose Escort was more suited to the twistier tracks. These cars and drivers remain legends in supersaloons from this era and are discussed today by enthusiasts. On the controversial Chimp car Autosport`s writer Marcus Pye summed up with `
Not particularly 'Impudent,' but effective in Jonathan Buncombe's skilled hands. The imagination which went into the Chimp inspired many others to seek solutions with more realistic wheelbases to suit the regulations. Skoda's S110R cope fitted the bill perfectly.`