An adventure Down Under sparked BTCC greatness
The seeds of Vauxhall Motorsport were sown by a nascent club racing championship and a trip to Australia.
Bill Cleland, John’s father, went Down Under in 1984 and witnessed first-hand the Group C-specification Australian Touring Car Championship big-bangers that were set to be outlawed at the end of the year in favour of Group A machinery. Like a true car dealer, Cleland senior did a deal.
“He went to Bathurst and bought one of the Peter Brock Holden Commodores,” says John. “We ran it in Thundersaloons through the GM Dealersport name as we’d rebranded it to a Vauxhall Senator for 1986.”
When it came to the next step, John says the BTCC was the obvious choice: “My father, together with Steve Thompson and John Nixey pounded the hell out of Vauxhall to get them to agree to the programme. The Astra GTE was a good little car in rallying, with an Xtrac gearbox, and we thought it would be a good race car.”
But at this point, the motorsport activity was all driven by Cleland senior, more than by Vauxhall itself, but although John Cleland would become inextricably linked to the brand, he never expected the relationship to last as long as it did.
“In ’89, I signed with Vauxhall for the Astra and got a bit of a salary,” adds John. “Then, two months later, I terminated my arrangement with them as a dealer and thought ‘Hmmm, the phone will ring any moment.’ It didn’t and the relationship was a very strong one.”