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.

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