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Happy 60th birthday, BTCC!

As it’s the BTCC’s diamond jubilee, we head to a shed that keeps iconic tin-tops racing

  • For the last sixty years, familiar-looking family saloon cars have been taking lumps out of each other around UK circuits as part of a series that’s been through many acronyms but is currently settling for BTCC, or the British Touring Car Championship.

    It’s one of blighty’s longest-running forms of motorsport. One that resonates with the general public for many reasons. Primarily, because it has a gritty honesty to it; the racing is tight, the cars are recognisable, the drivers are fighty, and over the years there have been more than a fair share of crashes. Seriously, if you want to be sucked into the vortex of crash-bang-wallop excellence, type ‘BTCC’ and ‘crashes’ into YouTube now.

    Words: Rowan Horncastle // Photography: Mark Riccioni

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  • Got that out of your system? Good. Well, it’s the BTCC’s diamond jubilee and over the six decades a vast array of hum-drum saloon-y machinery has been stripped out and door-handled to death. Luckily, there are companies like AWS Engineering who specialise in bringing them back to life. No matter the era, chassis or how many times it may have barrel-rolled down Paddock Hill bend, they’ll take any touring car you like and get it racing again. Just look at what’s in stock currently; everything encompassing the early days, to Group A and the pinnacle of British tin-top racing, Super Touring. All pristine, proper and competitive.

  • Britain’s touring car escapades started in the early Fifties, but it was only formalised in 1958, when four classes were structured, engine capacities ranged from 1,200cc to 2,701cc and Austins and Jaguars were heroes of the day. This was BTCC Genesis.

    In the 60s Jim Clark made a Lotus-Ford Cortina dance with speed and the Americans invaded. It was also the period where the famed bank-robber-favoured Mk1 Jags swept all the silverware but were ousted by gargantuan seven-litre V8 Ford Galaxies. Intrigued by the increasingly-popular working-class race series, they sailed over from the US to shake things up. What they actually got caught up in was a four-wheeled David and Goliath battle with pesky Minis. Never has a championship been so miss-mashed with the proportions of both car and engines, but it provided for incredible entertainment. Huge, powerful and wallowy American brutes that’d wallop the Minis down the straight only to be undone by the tiddly tin-tops in the corners.

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  • The colloquially-known ‘Yank Tanks’ were outlawed by the mid-seventies making way for Capris, smaller-capacity cars like the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, the Alfa Romeo GTV and BMW M3. But there was also the incongruous but successful (and controversial) Rover SD1, a car that AWS engineering is incredibly well-versed in. Sitting fully restored on the shop floor, a Tom Walkinshaw Racing Rover slathered in Istel livery doesn’t look like a natural race car.

    But the SD1 was the dominant car of the eighties, featuring consistently on the podium and winning races in both national championships and the European Touring Car Championship. It won every round in 1983 and speed machine Steve Soper would have been BTCC king if he had not been disqualified for running adjustable rockers. See, TWS looked for every possible edge they could get over its competitors, sometimes tripping over the fine line of rule-bending and rulebreaking and ending up in the land of illegality and disqualification. The chaps tell us that dynamically the SD1 is sprinkled with voodoo, being more nimble and placeable than you’d ever expect. The hefty V8 actually straddled both the Group 1 and Group A eras, vanquishing Ford until they struck back with the might of turbocharging. And Ford didn’t just beat the opposition, it humiliated them.

  • The formidable weapon? The RS500. It’s what happens when people get love drunk on power and eighties excess. The Sierra’s standard 200bhp was boosted up and beyond the 500bhp mark in Group A trim. They’d literally race around with so much power they’d eat their own tyres off the rim. Remember, this was putting F1 levels of power into what was intended to be a road car. So, as you can imagine, with no electronic wizardry to keep them from falling off the circuit and mad amounts of power, plus the English weather to contend with, it was a recipe for spectacular viewing. The RS500 is one of the BTCC’s greatest cars, scratching up 40 race wins in its career. But with confusing classes, poor attendance and utter dominance by the RS500, things needed a shake-up. And in the early 90s, with the introduction of Super Touring, things weren’t shaken up, they were effectively put in a blender and mixed with rocket fuel.

  • Rules were changed to make things simpler for punters, and more appealing to manufacturers. A two-litre limit was imposed, ‘first past the post’ finishing added pace and eradicated complexity and tech regs that allowed manufacturers to mix and match parts from their range got many interested. It also gave differing technical solutions, with front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive; four, five and six cylinders all being present in the 90s.

  • It worked, any manufacturer that had a repmobile on its books entered. But no one could have predicted the rise of the championship and the culture stamp it’d impress on the nation. Drivers became household names, TOCA Touring car games were the millennials way to waste away the sunny summer days and by '93, Britain's ageing venues were bursting at the seams with crowds regularly at the 30,000 mark. And the budgets were outrageous, going from £200,000 all the way up to £7-8 million for the biggest teams… in a national championship… for saloons. It was never going to be sustainable long term, but short term it provided some Grade A entertainment.

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  • AWS has its own slice of Super Touring in a shape of the iconic Ford Mondeo. The rules stated that as long as the engine used the same block and head and sat in the same place, it was good. Suspension had to keep the same configuration, and limits on revs, tyre size and usage gave privateers a helping hand, but the cars were hooky as hell in order to get that competitive advantage.

  • Unlike the Mondeo your local tampon salesman would drive, for the racing Mondeo Prodrive took the V6 from the American Probe, shoved it forward and slammed it so far down between the wheels that the drive shaft runs through the vee. Huge discs were grasped by six-piston callipers, and while it had MacPherson struts, you could never buy these ones from your dealer. Or the panels that were super thin. The effort that went into the special parts and hand-built shell (1000 man-hours, apparently) is quite mad. And it was all done on the line, but after hours while no one was looking to get some – ahem – competitive advantages.

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  • AWS Engineering’s car is owned by the firm’s head honcho Alan Strachan. It’s The last of the Andy Rouse Engineering-built Mondeos – Alan’s employer back in the day. It was originally built to use a 4-cylinder engine as Rouse had long believed that the lighter and physically smaller engine offered packaging and handling advantages over the usual V6. However, when Ford decided to switch the works contract to West Surrey Racing, the idea was abandoned and the car was sold. It was converted back to 1995-spec, complete with V6 engine, and used by Josef Kopecký in the Czech Republic and FIA Central European Championships between 1996-1998 before Alan got hold of it and gave it a full restoration.

  • Super Touring was the halcyon days of the sport. When budgets went potty (Ford were rumoured to have spent £17m running a three-car team in 2000) things had to be reined in and manufacturers started to pull the plug in order to recoup costs. Eight manufacturers in 1998 were whittled to six in ’99 and three by 2000. New ‘BTC’ regulations were introduced to slash costs and iron out complexities. Vauxhall took full advantage of this by campaigning the Astra to great effectiveness with 62 victories from 96 starts.

  • From there BTCC went through another change, still not being able to reproduce the magic of the 90s but converting to new S2000 spec primarily front-wheel-drive cars and then to more recent NGTC cars.

    Even so, the magic of BTCC is still abundant with cars that look like the ones in the nation’s driveway still scrapping out and trading paint with a broad mix of manufacturers represented. But having seen out 60 years of BTCC, what will the next 60 years entail? Electrification? More budget? The return of Super Touring? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. But there will be one thing guaranteed: crashes. And we’re alright with that as people like AWS will be there to fix them and keep them going.

    Happy Birthday, BTCC. 

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