Team Adventure: Chevette HS at 40
Danny Hopkins celebrates 40 years of the Chevette HS with a blast from Millbrook to Shepreth via Vauxhall HQ
Danny Hopkins takes the mighty Chevette on a blast to Shepreth.
Loved by drivers, feared by rivals and undervalued by the classic market, the Vauxhall Chevette HS is 40 years old this year. To celebrate we are going to visit the three sites most closely associated with the 135bhp ‘Silver Roller Skate’ by driving from the Millbrook Proving Ground where it was tested, to the Luton Factory where the Chevette was first built and where Vauxhall is still based, to the former Station Works at Shepreth, where Blydenstein Racing – otherwise known as Dealer Team Vauxhall – had its engineering base.
Launched in January 1978 with Vauxhall’s Magnum-spec 16-valve, 2279cc slant-four engine, five-speed gearbox, uprated brakes and suspension and a full front air dam, the HS looked like it meant business. It did – it won a lot – and could give any Escort a run for its money. Today as I pick up Vauxhall Heritage’s very own HS (yes, still owned by the company) you immediately feel it is a car that exists to do a job. As soon as you turn the key the feeling is confirmed.
Yet despite rallying success, (winning the British Open Rally Championship driver’s title in 1979 and manufacturer’s title in 1981) the HS is a bit of a Cinderella. I head north to the Chiltern Ridge, to Millbrook proving ground. As I learn to speak HS, I become confused… this car should be a legend. It’s a firecracker that enjoys corners as much as any Golf GTI or Escort RS. It has plaudits and race pedigree. I can’t help thinking that if it had a blue oval on the nose instead of a Griffin you would have to add a nought to the asking price.
Millbrook is achieved and I’m met by Martin Newbery, Track Controller (world’s best job title). He eyes the car and grins. ‘There are still guys here who remember this being tested originally,’ he tells me. Opened in 1970 and modelled on General Motors’ Milford Proving in Michigan, today Millbrook is in private hands. It’s busy, and extremely secretive. We are given a minder, have our smartphone camera lenses covered and have paperwork to sign. It is like getting into a military base, which is ironic because this morning Millbrook is in the middle of breaking down a huge arms fair.
As we head deep into the facility, past the killing machines, we pause on the Alpine section before being allowed on to the High Speed Circuit. For a Seventies Luton boy like me it’s like being given access to Narnia, the nostalgia is palpable, and
it’s about to get frantic. The High Speed Circuit is a circular concrete bowl with five banked lanes of ‘neutral steer’ – ie: the banking is calibrated to keep the car in-lane at constant speeds without the need to put any input into the steering. This is where the HS first stretched its legs as it was developed from humble shopping trolley into a 120mph+ silver roller skate. Further development was also conducted at MIRA, but Millbrook is where the DNA was set and I am about to go for a spin, for old time’s sake.
Straight line speed wasn’t the be all and end all for the HS – it’s agility was the key to rally success – however, taking it up to lane five on the bowl, engine howling, nosing over the ton, the HS feels everything but slow. I remove my hands from the wheel to sample neutral steer. Physics takes over as the HS snorts around the banking with zero driver input other than pressure on the loud pedal. I put my hands behind my head and wave at some of the Millbrook staff who have popped out to witness history being recreated.
We only have half an hour to get the shots we need and then the bowl will be given over to testing of autonomous vehicles. It’s the future, but I am happy to have given Millbrook a blast from the past. I think the bowl enjoyed it too.
Back in the mid-seventies the preparation plaudits belonged to Dealer Team Vauxhall under Bill Blydenstein and Gerry Johnstone. So the DTV HQ at Shepreth is where the HS and I are heading. But first it’s back to Luton, to see what remains of the once vast Vauxhall plant where the early Chevettes were built, where Wayne Cherry styled the nose and where the company HQ is still based.
The original idea for the HS belonged to Vauxhall chairman Bob Price, who decided to increase the firm’s profile with an Escort-eating rally car. Blydenstein, having built fast Vauxhalls for over ten years, and with a back catalogue that included Big Bertha, Baby Bertha and ‘Old Nail’ immediately set to work creating a very fast rally car with superb handling… it won straight from the box. According to Roy Cooke, who was directly responsible for the original specification and build program at Vauxhall as project manager, a number of road cars were built in 1976, but the race success meant a proper homologation run was required. So, from January 1978, 400 cars were released to the public to qualify the HS for Group 4 racing. Today, the HS has a committed following in the shape of the Droop Snoot Group, a small club that punches way above its weight. Blasting the HS around the roundabout at the heart of the Luton factory in Skimpot Lane I can understand that commitment. I’ve rarely stuck a car through a roundabout with greater ease. Short wheelbase, light weight, rear axle from the Kadett C GT/E and that Getrag fivespeed box (you can swap 2nd for 3rd straight across the gate) conspire to make you braver than you should be. The sports steering wheel and Chevrolet Vega alloy wheels place
‘It was developed from a shopping trolley to 120mph+ silver roller-skate’
the car with accuracy… it all comes together to create a road mate that feels like its decided what needs to be done before you make the move. It’s tactile, visceral and instinctively works with the driver. Clever chap, that Blydenstein.
It’s no surprise really that after the cylinderhead used on the early rallying Chevettes (from the racing Firenza) caused them to be banned, the new car, which was homologated by the road HS, was rallying only a month later. Bill and his team at Shepreth very much liked a challenge. Incedentally the 16 valve heads used on these cars were from a batch made for the Jensenhealey before Jensen went bust.
I ponder this as pass Royston on the A505, heading for Shepreth, to Station Works. As an engineering outfit, able to turn their hand to just about anything at short notice, Team Blydenstein were in esteemed company. In the late Seventies Broadspeed, Hart Engineering, Tom Walkinshaw and others were in their pomp. The very last of the ‘can do’ engineers. Skill, instinct, experience, sweat and a touch of genius made their cars: they were old school professionals, with pens in their top pockets.
Back to ‘The Works’
The car park at Shepreth hasn’t changed. Take the moderns away and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference, particularly with two members of Blydenstein’s team waiting outside the old machine shop – the Goods Shed. Former comps manager Gerry Johnstone, Bill Blydenstein’s right hand man through the Seventies, is there along with Roger King, who spent three years at Shepreth, building engines. They haven’t seen each other since 1981 when Gerry left Blydenstein to go and set up Safety Devices in Newmarket. ‘Roger reckons I gave him his job interview, but I can’t remember it,’ says Gerry as we start to look around the works buildings. ‘There again it was a long time ago. I still remember this though.’ We stop on the walkway outside Gerry’s old office. ‘Bill and I had an understanding. He had his office and I had mine. He used to walk through ‘My’ workshop to get to ‘His’ office. I dealt with the dirty stuff with Bill taking a more
outward facing role, dealing with Vauxhall and other partners. It worked well. He was a decent man, not a tyrant.’ I ask where they met. ‘I went for a camshaft from him in the mid-sixties. I was working at Vauxhall when Bill interviewed me, by this time he was based at Bassingbourn. That was in August 1968. By Christmas Eve that year I was in the workshop. I can still remember fitting Tecalemit fuel injection to a Viva GT so it could race on Boxing Day.’
Gerry was soon established as Bill’s right-hand man. ‘I became racing manager, then competitions manager when we went into rallying. So my duties were ‘everything’ apart from worrying about finances and dealing with the press.’
At the far end of the main building was the engine shop, where Roger King worked as an engine builder. It is now the home of classic specialist S&J Body repairs. Proprietor John welcomes us in with a conspiratorial grin. We soon find out why. ‘We use the old extractor fan from Bill’s dyno for our spray booth and…’ In a small brick outhouse next to the workshop is the former Works compressor, still at work for S&J, while above it on the wall, a fading sign, the last relics of Bill’s empire. This is when the anecdotes start flowing. ‘I remember the day that Fran, our dyno guy, blew the workshop up,’ laugh’s Roger. ‘We were doing a contract job for Ford, trying to get some more power out of the CVH engine and Fran left the rig on when he went to the loo. Without the standard engine relays the K-jetronic injection kept pumping. Fran came back, realized it had flooded, removed the plugs and cranked out the fuel. Then, boom! He walked out of the dyno looking like Stan Laurel. Yes, when I was made redundant in 1983 I was sad but I never held it against Bill. He was a good guy – an engineer at heart.’
Many happy returns
Back at the old admin block, Gerry surveys the view: ‘All the works boys would play cricket on the green and beyond that was Shepreth Animal Park… we found a goat in the workshop once.’ I ask him about working on the HS. ‘I remember the moments that changed the course of things. Like the time the world expert on Webers came to try to set the carbs up. He was here for a week, couldn’t get it to run right and in the end was so frustrated that he took me aside and quietly told me to use Dell’ortos. That’s how the slant-four became a Dell’orto motor.’
And the racing success? ‘So many good times and so many milestones but it was daunting. We had to find out for ourselves and learn on the job, so when
‘Motorsport in the Seventies: good times. We won’t see them again’
it worked it was great because and you and the team made it happen. No computers, just educated problem solving… feedback from drivers like Gerry Marshall giving you a feel for what to do. And like many drivers of the time, Gerry was his own man. He only talked oversteer or understeer, everything else was superfluous, but he could win a race with a wheelbarrow… unless he had to push it that is.’
As the laughter subsides we walk back to the Chevette and take one last look at the old works. ‘They we good times,’ says Gerry. ‘We won’t see them again. The Chevette was a good car, the HSR with its five-link rear suspension even better… with a bit more development on the engine, it would have been great.’ Gerry shares a few more Gerry Marshall tales, which might see print one day… and then we head to Castle Combe for the Rally Weekend where the Droop Snoot Group are celebrating the 40th anniversary. Kudos to the club, to the car and to the spirit of DTV that, despite appalling weather, the stand is full all weekend.
An iconic car and an iconic British motoring landmark: what a day!
Back to the plant where early Chevettes were built and the HQ still is.
James says ‘As quick, just as enigmatic and more exclusive than the contemporary Escorts of the day. My advice is to grab one for yourself now before the secret gets out.’
ABOVEThe impressive HS posse takes to the track at Castle Combe.
Roger and Gerry chat to Danny outside the old engine shop and dyno facility. Today it is a restoration business. ABOVE RIGHT
BELOW Road-spec, 2.3-litre, DOHC ‘slant-four’ engine with twin Strombergs.
Gerry Johnstone, the car he helped create and the old Goods Shed machine shop he used to run.
BELOWDTV Station Works compressor, still at work today.
BELOWGerry Marshall, Gerry Johnstone and Bill Blydenstein in period.