JOHN ALEY

A Lifetime in Motorsport

 

 

CHAPTERS


Introduction

My Way

Abarth

Infrastructure

The French

Nurburgring

Racing Small Saloons

Re-start

The Serious Side

The Changing Years

The Chimp

Makes You Think

Memories That Stick

Rollover Bars

Mini Racing

 

Gallery

 

Updates

Downloads

Contact


RACING SMALL SALOONS

The fifties and sixties were wonderful for the development of small saloons. The diversity of design was a great fascination to me while the chance they gave me to compete at international level on all the great European circuits was a dream come true. 

After the immediate post war design famine factories all over Europe were looking at the small saloon market and there were as many different approaches as there were manufacturers.  Some, especially in England, were simply producing scaled down large cars like the Morris Minor, Standard 10 and my favourite, the A35.  Many of these were most worthy cars but over heavy and wasteful on space having to accommodate a propshaft to connect the front engine with the solid rear axle.  Although they had IFS unlike their pre-war relations most designers seemed to run out of ideas by the time they reached the back and settled for a heavy axle hung on leaf springs. 

At the other end of the scale were the bubble cars which had succeeded scooters as factories all over Europe recovered from wartime devastation and which in many cases had been developed into compact small cars. 

Although the present management at BMW probably would not like to admit it their resurgence came with the little 700cc coupe which was a direct descendent of the Isetta 3 wheeled bubble.   With a rear mounted motorcycle derived boxer twin, swing axle IRS and light weight this was every young German boy racer`s mount in 1960s just as the Mini was in England. 

Not far away in another part of southern Germany at Ingoldstadt the reformed DKW/Auto Union concern was taking a totally different approach with a front mounted three cylinder water cooled engine driving the front wheels; a development of their pre war cars. Naturally being a DKW the little engine was an efficient two stroke and although not noted for reliability in racing form they made an impressive noise and in their day were near unbeatable. By a tortuous route these often derided little cars spawned today’s Audi even though their affluent owners might not like being reminded of their cars` humble origins. 

In France too they could not make up their minds whether to drive at the front or back.  On the one hand there was that little jewel of the Renault 750 with its lightweight rear mounted 4 cylinder engine, all round independent suspension, a remarkably roomy interior for so small a car and four doors to make entry easy. The great French tuners produced  “go faster” versions and the factory had the foresight to homologate all sorts of useful goodies to ensure they, and their successor, the Dauphine, were race winners. 

Down the road the old established, but somewhat rocky financially, firm of Panhard produced another remarkably roomy and very aerodynamic saloon with a simple aircooled flat twin driving the front wheels.  Not the most “chuckable” of small cars but one in which the speed just kept winding up as long as the straight continued; no wonder their derivatives did well at Le Mans. 

Italy of course had Fiat.  Pre war the little Topolino had set new standards in small saloon design despite a conventional front engine/RWD layout but in the fifties they reappeared with the rear engined 600 adopting a different approach and setting a fashion for years to come.   I was fortunate for within a short while of its introduction I was lent one by a Swiss student in Cambridge, to keep it out of sight of his college, and this period coincided with the Suez fiasco when we suffered a bout of petrol rationing.   As I drew coupons for a 2 litre Light 15 Citroen which I was running at the time, the little Fiat was a  godsend being able to cruise reliably all day long at 50 mph carrying four people in reasonable comfort and return 50 mpg at the same time.  That may not sound remarkable today but in 1956 it was no mean achievement. 

A year later Fiat produced the even smaller and more endearing, 500, still with a rear mounted engine but this time an aircooled vertical twin.  Although every Italian speed shop, including of course Abarth, produced tuning kits none succeeded to the same extent as Steyr, the Austrian importer of Fiat.  They  replaced the somewhat fragile Fiat motor with a robust flat twin from the Puch motorcycle, added powerful alloy brakes and fitted some realistic close ratio gears in the box.  The resulting Steyr Puch as it was known was probably one of the most enjoyable really small cars of all time.  Apart from regular class wins in races and hill climbs it won the European Rally Championship and even though the rules were in its favour that year  it was no mean achievement for a sub-one litre baby. 

One summer I had the use of one belonging to a Dutch friend and had arranged an important business meeting over lunch at a local hotel where my arrival in the Puch always caused interest so not to be outdone he came along in his Facel Vega.  While the crowd in the car park were admiring the large and small of continental motoring my wife completely upstaged us both by arriving for the meeting on her horse which she hitched to the FV`s front bumper and demanded a large G and T – game, set and match to the lady. 

There were many more; Saabs with fwd and 3 cylinder two strokes which were enormously strong and always in the hands of “press on” Scandinavians, rear engined NSUs some with 2 and some with 4 cylinders, and the curiously named Goggomobile from Germany which later became the Glas and had to be bought by BMW as it was indecently quick on the faster circuits and proving too much opposition for the 700s. 

Then in 1959 BMC spoilt it all by introducing the Issigonis designed Mini. Within a few years all the variety had disappeared with every manufacturer producing square boxes with FWD and 4 cylinder water cooled engines. 

But I should not complain for I was one of that band of drivers who helped bring about the revolution. Indeed I still have a cup in my office for winning at the Coupes de Paris which was probably the first outright win in an international race for this likeable small car.