I must declare an interest in reviewing BMC Competitions Department Secrets by Marcus Chambers, Stuart Turner and Peter Browning (Veloce Publishing £24.99). Were I a contestant on Mastermind, my Specialist subjects would include the BMC Competitions Department 1955-1980. I reported on motor sport, wrote about cars, covered rallies, I even ghost-wrote Paddy Hopkirk’s Autosport column in 1967. (He was cross when editor Gregor Grant inserted “begorrahs” to make it sound Irish.) So, this book covers an era when I knew people including the three authors, Chambers less so than the others, yet it still tells me more than I ever knew back then.
“Secrets” in the title is crucial – this is, literally a revelation.
Some secrets, like how well-funded the operation was from the beginning, were naturally well concealed. Comps’ annual budget of £100,000 (that would be £2.6million now), revealed in a memo of 1954 shows how seriously British Motor Corporation took the impending challenge from Standard-Triumph. Nuffield’s Morris, Wolseley, Riley and MG was now merged with Austin and it needed to create an identity. This was vital inside BMC as well as outside. Directors knew their steadfast Austin and Morris loyalists. It was a problem never really solved, made worse when BMC became British Leyland and Triumph engineers fell out with Rover engineers while Jaguar fretted over its identity.
Marcus Chambers set up BMC Comps department. He had managed HRGs at Le Mans and was a solid professional left over from when motor racing was gentlemanly amateur. He could see the potential in Gerald Palmer’s clever but overweight MG Magnette and lobbied for its betterment. Sadly he never carried the weight to effect much change. The heirarchy demanded success with what had become a dreary range of cars. He persevered with the Austin Westminster.
Stuart Turner’s is probably the best bit. It is certainly the best-written and recalls the wily Geoffrey Healey’s tell-tale rev counter used in works driver selection at Silverstone. When aspirants promised they hadn’t gone over 6000rpm Geoff knew which were telling the truth. Stuart was adept at reading the rule book. “Rallymanship” he called it, and applied regulations strictly yet when it came to homologating cars’ technical specifications took interpretation to the limit.
Turner’s skill, a bit like that of Colin Chapman at Lotus, was that unless rules specifically forbade something it was, by default, allowed. He details the Minis’ disqualification after winning first three places on the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally. The French were convinced the cars had somehow been changed for special tests and excluded them on a lighting technicality. Turner’s explanation: “We were perhaps better prepared than our rivals. I’m not sure other teams put out garden thermometers to check if certain sections of the route froze overnight, or were as careful in practising the stages at rally times to best know what conditions would be like in the middle of the night.”
After he took over from Turner, Peter Browning found the French had not forgotten. And maybe not forgiven. In 1968 when the Minis were once again supreme, he went to great lengths to avoid last-minute exclusion. He failed. Any sense of fairness was quickly abandoned in organisers’ determination to defeat the Minis. Scrutineers scarcely glanced at the winning Porsches. Careful, meticulous strict Browning can scarcely conceal his bitterness. Disappointingly he presided over Comps’ declining years yet scored some notable successes. In one of the first events he accomplished outright victory ofMGBs in the 1966 84-Hour Marathon on the Nürburgring. A legacy of the Marathon de la Route Spa-Sofia-Liege after it had become too dangerous to run on crowded public roads outright victory (it was almost 1-2-3) was a testament to the MGB’s utter reliability but also to Browning’s attention to detail against opposition from Porsche, Alan Mann Cortinas and Ferrari.
Not many books reach the heart of a time when our Minis, MGs and Austin-Healeys were earning Gold Medals like automotive Olympian gamesters. Poor BMC may, by hindsight, be a bad memory of interfering governments, indifferent management and arrogant engineers. But it did produce moments of glory often, notably, against the run of play. Not to mention self-serving organisers.
The more you read this book the better it gets, especially when you discover pictures of a car you road tested. EJB 806C (pictured below) was the Austin-Healey 3000 Timo Makinen and Paul Easter drove to second place in the 1965 RAC Rally (pictured above). And I drove later.