Brock’s at Spa ’77
Brock’s best overseas performance is well known to many long-time racing enthusiasts in the Old Dart, but largely unknown in his homeland.
Brock’s best overseas performance is well known to many long-time racing enthusiasts in the Old Dart, but largely unknown in his homeland. It’s the story of the dashing Aussie race driver who partnered a prickly, overweight Pommie.
Peter Brock’s greatest performance on the international stage wasn’t at Le Mans in 1984 in the much-hyped Bob Jane T-Marts-backed Porsche 956 assault. Nor did it come during the equally high-profile V8 Commodore attack on the 1986 European Touring Car Championship with his own Holden Dealer Team.
Instead, his best result from his many, if sporadic, sorties overseas was a giant-killing performance a decade earlier – for a very different dealer team.
Brock and Brit Gerry Marshall’s second place in the 1977 Spa 24 Hour touring car classic long ago fell off the bottom of Brock’s racing resume and into obscurity. This was largely because there was little reportage of the feat back home in Australia. And disinterest from those ignorant Holden enthusiasts who struggled to grasp that GM-H was but one of General Motors’ marques.
Yet the achievement meant a lot to Brock himself. Shortly before his death in 2006, when plans were being hatched to reunite him with the offbeat class car which Marshall and he drove
the wheels off in mid ‘77, he said:
“Winning the class at Spa was an achievement in my career that is not up in lights with the Bathurst wins, but it is one of the most satisfying results. We won the Index of Performance and I had a great deal of fun driving that car with Gerry.”
Flavouring this story are the contrasts between easygoing heart-throb Brock, every bit the dashing racing driver from central casting, and the prickly, 18-stone and improbably quick Marshall.
‘Big Gerry’ was a giant of British motor racing in more ways than one, defying the laws of physics to propel cars to a succession of unlikely victories that earned him cult-hero status.
Motorsport magazine’s Mark Hughes wrote the following about the larger-than-life figure after his passing in 2005, 17 months before Brock’s.
“He was always happy to chat, especially about himself. He’d chat about other drivers too – but only about how they weren’t really that good. In one of his loos there was a picture of himself on a podium. Some were turned off by that sort of thing,
but if you just saw the humour in it, reckoned that his remarkable exploits had allowed him some indulgence, then you got to see there wasn’t any malice in it. In fact he was a big old emotional softie underneath it all, and sometimes generous to a fault.”
The odd couple came together when Brock’s GM connections introduced him to the Vauxhall equivalent. The Victorian was in between stints with the Holden Dealer Team and in Europe looking for opportunities after his 1976 Le Mans attempt in a BMW CSL fell short of expectations.
DTV was owned by Dutch-born former aeronautical engineer Bill Blydenstein who approached Vauxhall in the late 1960s for some clandestine factory support when running Vivas in saloon car events. Marshall was his ace steerer and their success went to a new level when, for 1971, Blydenstein’s racing program – established in the unlikely setting of a disused English railway station – was re-constituted under the banner of ‘Dealer Team Vauxhall’. A consortium of Vauxhall dealers banded together to forestall any opposition from either Vauxhall or GM.
Their relationship spawned a series of famously successful cars in the early 1970s with nicknames like the ‘Old Nail’ (a Firenza), the Ventora-based, Repco V8-engined ‘Big Bertha’ and the Firenza-based ‘Baby Bertha’ (pictured). But it’s a car without a nickname – and mild in comparison to the Berthas – that’s central to a little known chapter of Peter Brock’s racing career and our focus here.
24 hours in Spa
24 Heures de Francorchamps of 1977 was the 30th running of Belgium’s endurance classic, which began in 1924, a year after the most famous twice-round-the-clock marathon, Le Mans. That July 23-24 affair was the second-last held on the original 14.12km layout, with the famed track truncated to 7km for 1979.
The Spa 24 Hours was held intermittently for its first four decades but continuously since 1964. This was the same year its focus switched from sportscars to saloons. It switched back in 2001 and for the last six years it’s been contested by the booming FIA GT3 class.
“The Royal Automobile Club of Belgium have a unique race with the Spa 24 Hours around the picturesque and ultra-quick circuit at Francorchamps,” wrote Bob Constanduros in his 1977 race report in UK’s Autosport. “The problem in the last few years has been to decide for which cars it should be run.”
For ’77 the RACB opted for the FIA’s Group 1 touring car regs after running the more modified Group 2 cars with mixed success in previous years.
“Now G1 is an anomaly-ridden class,” Constanduros’ report continued, “the French, English and Belgian championships, the principal ones, are run from that basis, with variations.”
Those variables pertained to front suspension modifications, diff coolers, rear spoilers and the removal of trim and seats.
If that sounds like an eligibility nightmare waiting the happen, the laidback Belgians must have pulled the right strings as they were rewarded with a bumper 80-car entry for the 60 grids slots available. These were split into three classes: up to 1600cc, 1601-2500cc and over 2500cc.
The top class consisted of nine BMW 530is, five of the older BMW CSis, two Chevrolet Camaros, one Mercedes, eight Ford Capris and five Opel Commodores. Naturally, the winner was expected to come from one of these 30 cars and with BMW and Ford having dominated the race through the 1970s, no one was expecting another marque to spring a surprise. Much less an upset win or even a outright podium for an under 2500cc class contender.
A fleet of Alfa Romeos, including a quartet of works-supported Autodelta entries, dominated that middle class, with four 2.3-litre Vauxhall Magnums expected to provide the stiffest opposition. In addition to the Dealer Team Vauxhall entry of Marshall and Brock, there were two Belgian-built cars and Brit Jeff Allam’s car.
Meantime, an eclectic bunch of under 1600cc tiddlers included VW Golfs and Sciroccos, Audis, various Toyotas and the Gitanes-backed Simca Avengers.
Squads organised themselves into teams in order to contest the event’s famous King’s Cup, which had been won the past six years by Alfa Romeo.
The DTV elected to build up a brand new Magnum for the event, “to make use of the knowledge that we gained by competing in the 600km [race] at Spa on May 8th this year,” team manager Gerry Johnstone explained. “We decided to detune the engine by lowering the compression Above: Pre-race festivities in the town that gave its name to every spa bath in the world. Better to share a Stella Artois with Marshall at the Hotel du Portugal than a hot spring bath, we reckon. ratio and reverting to a middle camshaft profile and to baffle the oil sump. For the 600km race we had fitted a front spoiler and as a result the car had a tendency to understeer. When assembling the new car we decided to build it with softer front suspension settings in an attempt to reduce the understeer.”
The near standard DTV Magnum was built in a matter of days, just in time for the team to catch a Wednesday ferry and hit the track for Thursday practice.
“Winning the class at Spa was an achievement in my career that is not up in lights with the Bathurst wins, but it is one of the most satisfying results. We won the Index of Performance and I had a great deal of fun driving that car with Gerry.” – Peter Brock
“We all felt confident although we seemed a little slow having qualified 28th overall,” Gerry Johnstone continues. “Most of the fastest 20 consisted of three-litre BMWs, Capris and Opel Commodores; we were second in class to a works Dolomite.”
Marshall’s best time of four minutes 42.4 seconds was no less than 17.2 seconds slower than the Chev Camaro of the Vermeulen brothers, Loek and Huub, a pair of Dutch filmmakers!
Losing 15-plus seconds per lap didn’t auger well for an outright result, but the attrition in the first few laps after the 3pm Saturday start pointed to what lay ahead.
The spectacle of 60 cars charging down into Eau Rouge was ‘enhanced’ by a clash that sent the small cars pinballing into each other and the armco, although all were able to continue.
Marshall made a spectacular start and managed to pass as many as 10 cars on the opening lap, showing his intent to push hard.
At the end of the first hour the #56 Magnum was leading its class and running a fine 13th overall, as the gun BMWs squabbled for the lead.
“However, in the [third] hour, things were to change for Gerry,” reported Constanduros. “He pitted with the Magnum and it wouldn’t restart. They changed the starter and checked the solenoid wiring but lost 15 minutes before the car went out again.”
This dropped the Vauxhall to 25th overall and seventh in class, motivating Marshall to charge before Brock began a three-hour stint.
“At 6.12pm Marshall handed over to Brock, the car running perfectly,” team manager Johnstone’s report detailed. “At 7pm Brock had pulled back to 21st overall, 6th in class. By 8pm, 19th overall, 5th in class and at 9pm, 17th overall and 4th in class. At 9.14pm Brock handed back to Marshall.”
Constanduro’s report described the scene as darkness descended upon the Ardennes:
“The evening was surprisingly warm as the race drew into the night. The excellent crowd was attracted to the steady thump of the discotheques, but there were many watching the race, as there would be throughout the night.
“The rain would come and go during the early night hours, but it didn’t deter the spectators. Even though the rain would sometimes die, it would suddenly come pelting down again so that the track stayed wet.”
The leading BMWs – from British (Tom Walkinshaw Racing), French (Team Benoit) and Italian (Luigi Racing) squads – were all afflicted by minor issues that allowed the leading Capri of Gordon Spice to challenge. At midnight a trio of Beamers and the Ford were the only cars on the lead lap. The DTV Magnum was many laps down but threatening the top 10 overall.
It cracked the 10 around the halfway mark, 3am, when the Spice Capri led what was a topsyturvy, dramatic and highly entertaining affair. The rain and the potential perils of standing water put paid to the efforts of the fastest Alfa.
“An over-enthusiastic marshal jumped out onto the track to warn Carlo Facetti of the puddle at the bottom of Eau Rouge and put him off line. He hit the barrier on the inside, and then the outside, shortening the Alfetta and the team by one.”
This was the period when the outright race winner was effectively decided, with no one able to match the pace of French rally ace, Jean-Claude Andruet, winner of the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally. Andruet’s speed in the BMW 530i he shared with Belgian Eddy Joosen was so far superior that it established a lead it was not to lose over the final 11 hours.
As an aside, his Wikipaedia entry includes the following: “Andruet’s son Gilles was a chess player and was murdered in 1995 in murky circumstances.”
By 8am the gap to second was four laps and the #10 BMW only needed to keep circulating to claim the win.
Marshall/Brock had risen as high as seventh, but were losing ground, as the DTV’s Johnstone explains.
“We were on Dunlops, it was wet and Gerry and Brocky complained they had no grip. We were losing ground, so I went and bought a set of Michelins. Dunlop sort of turned a blind eye – after all, their stickers were on the car.
“As soon as Michelins were fitted our drivers again turned out to be 10 seconds per lap faster than the Gulf Magnums (instead of being five seconds slower when on Dunlops).”
The15-second per lap turnaround in lap time sent the Vauxhall surging forward again, but not before Brock had knocked off the back bumper in a spin, as he told Racing Car News:
“The track was drying quickly. As we stopped for some petrol, we decided to change two tyres in the time it took to fill it up with fuel. I put a pair of slicks on the back and went out and hoed into it. However, round the back of the circuit, howling through this bend, all of a sudden I came upon a cloudburst – the track was totally awash – and I was doing about 130mph. Well, I’ve never gone so far sideways for so long – I had full opposite lock on and all I could do was just sit there and hang on. It didn’t spin, and it didn’t straighten up. It just went sideways up the road for about a kilometre. Finally, when it was down to 15 or 20mph I gave it a lurch, it wobbled round and corrected itself on the grass verge, just glancing the past the Armco on the grass. I hastily headed for the pits for some intermediates, and out we went again.”
At 12.44pm Brock handed over to Marshall for the run to the flag. With just over two hours remaining, car #56 was fourth overall and second in class, with two carrots dangling ahead of the Englishman. Within reach, if he was prepared to risk pushing on, were a Capri and the under 2500cc division leading Alfetta.
“The gap between Marshall and the Alfetta was about three and a half minutes at one o’clock and down to three minutes four laps later,” Constanduros’ report details. “Gerry’s driving was getting the crowd worked up. The PA commentator pointed him out and all in the grandstand were on their feet watching him through Eau Rouge. Quickly Gerry overhauled the Alfetta, and set off after Vince Woodman.
“Gerry was piling it on in his own spectacular way, but Vince was responding. Gerry was chopping away at the gap at about three seconds per lap. Into that final hour, Gerry looked to have the race for second place. Then it was down to a second a lap, eight seconds between them, 40 minutes to go. That over 10 laps. The next lap though, it was down to five seconds; then, when they came around the next time, Gerry’s arm was raised out the window, he was second.” Team manager Johnstone was ecstatic. “At the end of 24 Hours, Gerry brought the Magnum home second overall, first in class... 14 laps behind the winning BMW. All in all a fantastic result. Far left: This is the winning BMW. Left: This image was taken moment’s after this feature’s opener, when the tiddlers collided through Eau Rouge. Main: Thanks to Bonhams Auctions for the current day shots, including of new owner James.
“The team, consisting of the two Gulf Magnums and our own, won the much coveted King’s Cup. General Motors Belgium were very pleased to win this as it had been won by Alfa for the last six consecutive years. This was awarded to the team of three cars finishing with the least amount of distance between the first and third car. General Motors also won the Manufacturers Award.
“Thanks and congratulations to all team drivers, particularly Peter and Gerry who drove so well for so long.”
The Magnum had covered 3885km (2414 miles), averaging over 100mph despite spending over an hour in pitlane.
Constanduros: “Spa had everything. It provided a fascinating finish, a fine entry, a fine victory and battles when you least expected them.”
Spa was not to be the last time Brock and Marshall teamed up. As part of the reciprocate deal, Brock hosted Marshall at Bathurst two months later as part of the ambitious threecar Bill Patterson Racing attack on the 1977 Hardie-Ferodo 1000. Brock was partnered with his brother Phil in an A9X hatch, while the Englishman was paired with South African Basil Van Rooyen in an A9X sedan, as were veterans Tony Roberts and Doug Chivas. While the two all-Australian crews came home inside the top
10, the Marshall/van Rooyen machine was a lap 107 DNF after an engine failure.
If Marshall’s visit had served as a brief reminder to some of the stellar Spa result – in truth, few local fans were aware of their feat – then claiming the Belgian chocolates was soon completely forgotten as Brock went from local gun to the Bathurst 1000’s most prolific winner.
In contrast, the DTV’s Spa 1977 feat entered British motorsport folklore as part of cult hero Marshall’s legacy. So the car’s resurfacing at a racing car auction in 2005 after some 25 years out of the limelight was met with excitement.
It had been sold by DTV at the end of 1977 to a privateer operation. In 1978 it was raced by Alan Foster and Win Percy in the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone and then at Spa. It passed through several hands and was rolled at Silverstone’s Abbey Curve. When its racing career ended, the much-used car was squirreled away in a stone barn and the Pommie equivalents of Aaron Noonan lost track of it.
It was never converted to a road car and thus was spared the ravages of UK winters. The Magnum only required some fresh steel in the roof and repairs to the rear end, which had been damaged in another racing incident. Even so, restoring the body-shell consumed some 363 man-hours during what would turn out to be a 55week rebuild.
The body was taken back to bare metal. Removal of the roundel and original stickers revealed the original DTV livery beneath. Gerry Marshall was consulted and confirmed that this was indeed the production car prepared to Group 1 specification and driven by him and Peter Brock at Spa. The restorers sought original builder Gerry Johnstone’s advice with regard to authenticity. Johnstone identified key features such as the holes for roundel lights in the doors, only fitted for endurance racing, and surmised that the car had subsequently been used for rallying. He also identified the various damaged areas, as did Marshall.
Gerry Johnstone duly completed the car in every detail he could remember, including rebuilding the engine, rewiring the electrics and plumbing in the exhaust system. On twin Weber DCOE 48 carburettors and a relatively mild camshaft, the latter fitted for endurance racing, the 2.3-litre engine produces 172bhp at the rear wheels (204bhp at the flywheel).
In the hands of the winning 2005 auction bidder Adrian Goding, the Magnum was returned to the track in 2006. Sadly, Gerry Marshall had passed away the previous year and was not there to witness his old car’s return, though he had helped with its restoration, supplying period photographs of the DTV livery.
After Marshall died, Goding got in touch with Brock to invite him to drive the car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Brock was typically enthusiastic, highlighting the fun he had driving the car at Spa in commenting, “It would be great to drive that car once more.”
Sadly, that wasn’t to be for the June 2006 FoS, or any subsequent years, with Brock losing his life in September that year, a week after attending the venue’s sister event, the Goodwood Revival.
Golding put the car up for auction through Bonhams earlier this year with a selection of period race memorabilia and keepsakes. This included race programmes, a framed ‘WE WON THE CUP’ poster, the DTV race suit cloth badge worn at Spa by Gerry Marshall, along with his Spa drivers paddock pass, together with the menu from the prize giving dinner in Brussels and a display board commemorating Gerry Marshall’s illustrious racing career.
The car was purchased by Tom and Louise Alexander for their 14-year-old son James.
“It was a spur of the moment purchase,” said Tom, who raced against Gerry Marshall. “We saw the car yesterday for the first time. I looked at the phenomenal history file and thought it might be a good car to buy. £82,000 (AUD$163,000) is a bargain. It is remarkably cheap for a car with enough history to get into Goodwood when Capris and suchlike sell for over £100,000.
“I know it’s a few years away, but I would like to get James into historic saloon racing. I am hoping he will drive it in the Gerry Marshall Trophy race [at Goodwood’s Members Meeting] in the future.”
When he does, it will be a fitting reminder of the weekend when two stars of their own domestic scene joined forces to show-up crews in much faster cars.
Main: Where’s Gerry? The Marshall/Brock silver Magnum can be spotted, partially obscured, above this caption. The leading cars are already out of frame. n io ct le ol C ss ro C l au P ns tio uc A s m ha on B
ia ed M 1 N A
The odd couple soldiered on to anchor Vauxhall’s win in the Coupe du Roi, aka The King’s Cup. Brock repeated the feat, for Holden, nine years later. The rear bumper is still intact here.