Mk1 takes to the stages

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

For­get the no­tion that MX-5S aren’t roughty-toughty enough for ral­ly­ing, be­cause this mk1 is a mo­tor­sport star

It’s per­haps not the first car you’d think of to go ral­ly­ing in, but as Lee Cham­pion (far left) and Lee Clay­don have dis­cov­ered, the al­legedly frag­ile mk1 MX-5 is re­mark­ably ro­bust and joy­ously en­ter­tain­ing on the spe­cial stages Words: Brett Fraser, Pho­to­graphs Antony Fraser

Mk1 MX-5S: they’re frail lit­tle things. Best suited to gen­tle cruis­ing on a warm sum­mer’s day. Only, that’s not ac­tu­ally true. Not even slightly. At least, not in the case of the pretty much stan­dard mk1 owned by Lee Cham­pion and shared with his mate Lee Clay­don: this is the car that they use to go ral­ly­ing.

In fact, this is the car that they use for all sorts of mo­tor­sport for which stan­dard cars are el­i­gi­ble. Sprints, hill­climbs, au­toso­los and also track­days. Not to men­tion Euro­pean tours to lo­ca­tions where the roads are ver­tig­i­nous and snaking. H442 BGF isn’t abused – well, some­times it is – but it cer­tainly is used, hard and long and hap­pily. And at the same time, it’s well loved and main­tained.

Says owner Lee Cham­pion:‘not so long ago this car did 150 laps of Brands Hatch on a track­day, which is roughly seven times a race dis­tance. And in the cou­ple of years that I’ve owned it, it has also done hill­climbs, sprints, au­toso­los and a cou­ple of Targa Ral­lies, and I haven’t even changed the brake pads.

‘There have been a few prob­lems: a fan belt snapped, one of the coolant hoses had a tiny leak be­cause the rub­ber was so old it had per­ished, and the al­ter­na­tor has been re­placed twice be­cause con­sis­tent high speeds cause it to over­heat. Oth­er­wise, though, the MX-5 has been amaz­ing and shrugged off its high-speed ad­ven­tures through the forests and on the gravel stages. If it has a hand­i­cap, it’s the crew!’

The story of H442 BGF is all the more re­mark­able be­cause, as Cham­pion de­scribes, the car should have been sent

off to the breaker’s yard back in 2007.‘It was a Cat D write-off after a rear-end shunt ren­dered it be­yond eco­nomic re­pair. Its sav­ing grace was a nearcon­cours paint job in a unique metal­lic bur­gundy: it was like glass when pol­ished.’

In around 2010 the mk1 was bought by Stephen Thomp­son, a mem­ber of the Sevenoaks & District Mo­tor Club, and used for club-level au­totest and au­tosolo com­pe­ti­tions. It was then sold to other club mem­bers Matt and Sue En­dean, who cam­paigned it in var­i­ous road ral­lies. A third club mem­ber, Andy El­comb – a Brands Hatch rally in­struc­tor, suc­cess­ful driver/nav­i­ga­tor on his­toric road ral­lies and se­rial MX-5 owner – then took it on be­fore sell­ing it to yet an­other club mem­ber, Paul Sales.

An old school friend of Cham­pion, Sales en­tered the road­ster in the 1600cc pro­duc­tion class for sprint­ing and hill­climb­ing and achieved many over­all and class wins against on-pa­per su­pe­rior front-wheel drive ri­vals. He also loaned the car to Cham­pion and

Clay­don to ‘dou­ble-drive’ on such events. when Sales moved up to the pro­duc­tion 2.0-litre class, Clay­don – who al­ready owned a Eunos VR Lim­ited, and still does – bought the mk1 from him to use for au­tosolo, au­totests, sprints, hill­climbs and track­days.

A pe­riod of in­ac­tiv­ity over the win­ter prompted Clay­don to sell it to his pal Cham­pion, on the un­der­stand­ing he’d pre­pare the car for class A1 1600cc pro­duc­tion sprint­ing, so they could jointly have a crack at the cham­pi­onship. In went a TR Lane rear cage, Sa­belt four­point har­nesses, bet­ter seats (from an el­derly Mazda RX-7 and bought for £100 off ebay), fire ex­tin­guisher sys­tem, and up­rated pads and tyres. H442 BGF also re­ceived a (re­mark­ably good) home spray-job in BMC Al­mond Green, the colour it is to­day.

Per­sonal cir­cum­stances meant that Clay­don then had to step back from the ac­tion for sev­eral months, so Cham­pion tack­led the sea­son alone. But de­spite stiff op­po­si­tion, he won the A1 class and tied for first place points in the over­all Sevenoaks Speed League


The fol­low­ing sea­son was a quiet one, at the end of which the two Lees de­cided to try their hand at a rel­a­tively new sport, Targa Ral­ly­ing. Although you can com­pete in a to­tally stan­dard road car – and look­ing at pic­tures from some of the events, it ap­pears that many com­peti­tors do – it seemed sen­si­ble to carry out some of the few mod­i­fi­ca­tions per­mit­ted within the reg­u­la­tions, namely beef­ing up the sus­pen­sion, fit­ting aux­il­iary light­ing, a sump guard, rally trip me­ter and Msa-le­gal ral­ly­ing kit. But the engine, gear­box and brakes are stan­dard items, and the regs in­sist that the in­te­rior re­mains so, too, bar safety equip­ment.

As Clay­don re­marks:‘this is en­trylevel fun. Just two nor­mal guys who want to en­joy them­selves on a rally. And it’s so cheap – I think that the chunky tyres that are on the car cost us £25 a cor­ner, while en­try to a Targa Rally starts from 40 quid. So much mo­tor­sport these days re­quires big spend­ing to be in with a chance of any sort of sil­ver­ware, but this is gen­uinely af­ford­able, es­pe­cially in the

MX-5 which just doesn’t seem to go wrong in any ma­jor way.’

Cham­pion has pre­vi­ously tried stage ral­ly­ing – hav­ing started rac­ing aged 15 while still at school, pro­gress­ing through hot rods, kart­ing, sprints, hill­climbs, au­totests, au­toso­los and 12-car ral­lies – in a Peu­geot 106 rally car, but found it an ex­pen­sive sport.‘targa Ral­ly­ing is a com­par­a­tively new sport and a nice sort of half­way house to­wards stage ral­ly­ing,’ ex­plains Cham­pion,‘and is a hel­luva lot of fun for not much money.

‘You do first have to be­long to a mo­tor club – Lee and I are mem­bers of the Sevenoaks and District Mo­tor Club – but the mem­ber­ship fees are pal­try. The Targa events are all about av­er­age speed and not nec­es­sar­ily set­ting the fastest time through a stage. And the events are var­ied – our first event was the Fes­ti­val Targa Rally which took place on the Lon­gleat Sa­fari Park es­tate, through the woods at night. Our sec­ond was the Bus­tard Targa Rally, a mul­ti­v­enue event where the tests and stages were held on gravel and con­crete sur­faces, in­clud­ing Glas­ton­bury!

‘It has been a steep learn­ing curve for us both, par­tic­u­larly hav­ing to get to grips with read­ing and un­der­stand­ing the Tulip nav­i­ga­tional direc­tions: as Lee points out, it would help if we learnt to slow down a lit­tle bit! And it’s easy to get dis­heart­ened – our sec­ond run out didn’t go nearly so well as our first. But other teams have as­sured us that it can take a cou­ple of years or more to be­come re­ally com­pet­i­tive, so now we can’t wait to crack on with the other two Targa events we’ve signed up for be­fore the end of the year.’

And what of the MX-5, how’s that cop­ing? ‘The front-wheel drive cars are faster but not as much fun,’ replies Cham­pion.‘the MX-5 is a lot like the mk2 Ford Es­cort to drive, and even Es­cort own­ers say that. In terms of prepa­ra­tion, I’d say the car is 80% there, but one thing we def­i­nitely need to do is raise the sus­pen­sion. In third gear at 60mph we were get­ting air­borne through the woods – the bounc­ing was so bad that if we hadn’t been so tightly har­nessed in place then we’d have bust out through the hard­top.

‘To date this lit­tle car has won ev­ery dis­ci­pline that its var­i­ous own­ers have sub­jected it to, but Targa Ral­lies may be its un­do­ing! But I think we’ll get it – and us – to the point where it is at least com­pet­i­tive. And con­sid­er­ing what Lee and I have put it through in re­cent times, it’s not re­ally dam­aged, it just has a few dents un­der­neath.

‘Given that this car should have ‘died’ 11 years ago, it’s nice that it’s hav­ing such a good sec­ond life, such a great his­tory, in sev­eral peo­ple’s hands.

‘Lee and I still use the car for many dif­fer­ent kind of events, in­clud­ing track­days, and it keeps go­ing strong. We’ve even used it for a prize in a char­ity auc­tion at our lo­cal pub – a day out in the MX-5 at a track­day with me act­ing as an in­struc­tor. we’re not pre­cious about the car, we’ll let any­one drive it if they treat it with re­spect: it’s there to be en­joyed.

‘Some peo­ple say to us, “well, what if I blow it up?” Lee and I just laugh and tell them that be­tween us we’ve been try­ing to break it for the last six years and haven’t man­aged it yet!’

Far right: with the ex­cep­tion of safety kit (and those seats) the cabin has to be kept stan­dard.

Left: ral­ly­ing regs in­sist the engine re­mains stan­dard, even if the ad­justable strut brace isn’t.

Be­low: hard­top has to be body coloured, say Targa Rally regs.

Right: plush sports seats are from an old RX-7 and were a £100 ebay find.

Clock­wise from be­lowleft: aux­il­iary lights es­sen­tial given how weedy a mk1’s head­lights are; guid­ance for mar­shals in case of a crash; aids to rally tim­ing and nav­i­ga­tion; boot packed with rally es­sen­tials; our in­trepid crew get namechecked; flex­i­ble torch for night ral­lies.

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