Foxy little number Vixen GT. Remarkable one-off 1960s race car returns. Rumour has it that this one-off helped inspire the Ford GT40… Octane tests the unique Vixen GT, found as a total wreck and restored with the help of its original builder. Words Diederik Plug. Photography Maurice Volmeyer.
Last March this olive green sports car was presented to the public at the Antwerp Classic Salon, after a fouryear restoration project.
Pundits searched their archives in vain for information on the small, mid-engined coupé. Just like the general public, they couldn’t work out what car this was, let alone where it came from, nor – and certainly no less important – what it might have led to. Didier van der Linden has the answers: this is a Vixen GT, built in the early 1960s, in Britain. And yes, it could well have a place in history more significant than its simple uniqueness.
Van der Linden not only restored this car into much more than its former glory, he also unravelled its fascinating history. That history begins with Ian Stronach, a former racing driver and certified petrolhead from Manchester, England. Stronach was a well-known name in the British club-racing world during the 1960s and 1970s, but elsewhere just one of many unsung heroes who spent their entire careers racing without ever reaching the pinnacle.
Stronach drove in Formula 2, Formula 4, Formula Libre and Formula 5000, popular classes in the overcrowded British racing world of those decades, in which many much more famous racing drivers also took part. He drove in single-seaters made by Eagle and Kincraft – and built his own cars as well. He won a race or two but he was better known for being a gifted engineer.
Sometime in the early 1960s Stronach decided to build his own car. He wanted it to be light, fast and mid-engined. And he wanted to build a coupé – which was quite unusual at a time when most racing cars of such a configuration were barchettas. Stronach started his project around 1962 by building a steel tubular chassis and adding a modified nose section from a Cooper-Jaguar MkII, sourced directly from John Cooper. It took him two years to finish the project.
And no wonder it took him so long. Stronach had a racing career to pursue. Moreover, his car was completely handbuilt. He designed and welded the spaceframe himself, and also created the bodywork from scratch. ‘He even designed the car with an integrated rear spoiler – the first time any car had such a feature,’ Didier claims. Stronach did use some existing parts, at least: the suspension came from Triumph and, to power his creation, he had his sights set on a 3.5-litre V8 from GM. He couldn’t find a suitable example, though, and had to settle for one of his racing engines – a 1.6-litre Ford Kent four-cylinder with supercharger, good for 160bhp. Christened the Vixen GT, and finished in a bright red racing colour, the car (chassis number V1/X1) was finally finished in 1964. Tests at Oulton Park proved it could easily get to a top speed of around 120mph.
IT WAS SOME 48 years later that Didier van der Linden found the car stored in a farmyard in Strasbourg. ‘I was looking for a restoration project. I wanted to buy an aluminium car, because I had already restored a few cars, but I had never worked with aluminium before. I found this car on the internet. The caption read only “Prototype, 1964” but nothing was mentioned about its history or even its name. When I saw it, I could not figure out what it was and the owner didn’t know either.’
The car was in a pitiful state, Didier remembers. ‘The bodywork was complete, but the aluminium was badly damaged and corroded in many places. The paint had completely disappeared, it had the wrong wheels, no engine and the interior was full of sand. The only original items still attached to the car were the braking system, suspension, steering wheel and seats. The other parts came in a big bag.’ Still, Didier decided to buy it. ‘I didn’t know what it was, but I could see it was a sports car with racing-inspired suspension. I was intrigued.’
It took Didier a year to retrace its history. He discovered that Ian Stronach had parted with his creation after only a short time. After that the Vixen was owned – and raced – by a succession of drivers. Didier found Vixen owners whose names will sound familiar to British members of the club racing community, even if they didn’t ring any bells with him: Bob Baxters, Roger Cole, Roy Hill.
‘Hill took the car to Europe,’ Didier explains, pointing at a sticker on the windscreen. ‘This is a paddock sticker from Zandvoort, sometime in the 1970s.’ After Hill, American photographer Wayne Philips took possession of the Vixen. He then sold it to British racing car manufacturer CTG in Dorset, which subsequently sold it to British driver Graham Capel. The last name in the long list of Vixen owners Didier could find was that of French racing driver Lionel Aglave, who took the car with him to France in 1980. Further to all of that, according to Didier, his car has a further unique claim to fame. And it’s a significant one. ‘Ian Stronach told me that one day he went for a drink at a friend’s house. That friend was a technician at Lola racing cars.
While he was there, Lola boss Eric Broadley came by to visit. He saw the Vixen standing in the driveway and asked Ian if he could take a closer look at it. According to Ian, he spent more than an hour scrutinising the Vixen in detail. Soon after that, Lola presented the MkVI. That car looked suspiciously similar to the Vixen. And, as we all know, that car was used as the basis for Ford’s famous GT40 project. Ian and I are very sure that Broadley took more than a little inspiration from the Vixen for his Lola MkVI.’
The effort Didier put into finding out about the car’s history is one thing; restoring it was quite another. ‘I had to start from scratch,’ he says. Luckily, he could call upon the man who had built the Vixen all those years ago. ‘Ian Stronach is 81 now, but he’s still a petrolhead and he’s mentally as sharp as a 20-year-old’, says Didier. ‘He helped me a lot; he made a number of new technical drawings for me, to show me how he’d intended the car to be constructed.
He gave me invaluable information about the parts he used and the way in which he used them.’ Still, restoring the bodywork was a daunting task. ‘It was like a giant jigsaw puzzle; I had to find out how everything fits together and missing parts I had to make myself.’
Only the roof and the nose are still those from the original car – the rest of the bodywork Didier made himself, using Stronach’s advice, old photographs and some technical drawings. In the process, he taught himself to work with aluminium, using homemade wooden models for shaping the metal (of which dozens litter his workshop), much patience – and YouTube. ‘I must have watched thousands of instructional YouTube videos in which people explain how to work aluminium. I bought an English wheel and taught myself how to use it. It’s a matter of trial and error – and perseverance.’
It’s the result that counts and Didier has done an outstanding job. Compare the 2016 Vixen with pictures of the original car and you’ll find that almost every detail is right – and if they aren’t, there’s a good reason for it. All glazing, except the windscreen (on which the Zandvoort sticker is protected by a special coating), is of Plexiglas. The roof panel is removable, as is the louvred tail panel, which is flanked by two massive exhausts. The rear lights are from a Ford Cortina Mk1. Only the body colour isn’t anywhere near original.
‘It’s Oliva Verde, a colour used by Alfa Romeo in the 1950s,’ Didier explains. ‘I love Alfa Romeos almost as much as I do British cars, so I definitely wanted that colour for my Vixen. But the striping is inspired by the colour scheme used by Roy Hill.’ The nose is graced by a colourful, meticulously recreated Vixen logo, with its stylised fox’s head.
Thanks to many, many hours spent painstakingly recreating this unique piece of history, Didier has built the sports car that Ian Stronach wasn’t able to build. It is visually identical to the original, but technologically it’s much better, safer and faster than it ever was – especially as it is propelled by the engine it should have had all along: a V8. This one is a bored-out Rover version of the 1960s Buick original; weighing only 144kg, it’s significantly lighter than the cast-iron Ford engine that Stronach was obliged to fit.
The suspension has been reinforced and upgraded, with Bilstein dampers specially handbuilt for this car. Austin-Healey disc brakes are now fitted all-round, in place of the original inboard drums, and the original’s Volkswagen gearbox has been replaced with a much stronger five-speed unit from a Renault 21 Turbo. Meanwhile, in the cabin the potentially knee-crushing crossmember under the dashboard has been replaced with a safer, higher-mounted reinforcement.
Climbing aboard is quite a challenge, thanks to big, wide sills, both doubling as fuel tanks. Once your ensconced in the tight seats with their racing harnesses, the cabin feels remarkably spacious – occupants of 6ft or less can easily fit inside the Vixen with headroom to spare. It feels like a cosy office. The pedals are adjustable and the perfectly positioned gearlever is logically placed for your left hand.
That V8, lurking only a few centimetres behind your shoulder, runs at around 1200rpm at idle, sounding just as it should, burbling away ominously until a push on the throttle results in a sharp whine. The acceleration is spectacular. Thanks to its low weight (a mere 880kg) and its 280bhp V8, the Vixen sprints away like a greyhound. The low driving position and overwhelming noise of the engine make the sensation of speed phenomenal.
Steering is razor-sharp, the car feeling kartlike. With its near-perfect weight distribution (48:52 front:rear), stiff suspension, solid stance and wide tyres, the Vixen is unfazed by any corner even at high speeds; oversteer isn’t present until you really, consciously push the car beyond its limit. The Vixen GT feels more like a Lotus Elise gone feral than a 1960s trackday special – the main difference being that, thanks to that smooth V8, you can also cruise at leisurely pace in fifth gear. Even then, flooring the throttle will kick the Vixen into a frenzy of deafening acceleration until you fear the revcounter needle will break off.
‘I have driven it on the track at Mettet, in Belgium,’ says Didier. ‘It’s very stable and mind-blowingly quick. The only problem I had was with the cooling of the front brakes. I’m busy devising a way to improve that for track use. But otherwise this car really is as good as Ian Stronach intended it to be.’
Didier van der Linden’s Vixen GT is the only example in the world. But not for long. Ian Stronach originally planned a production run of three cars. He even built the tubular chassis for the other two cars, but never got around to actually building them. The original frames are now owned by Didier, who plans to build both. And what better way to celebrate the re-emergence of a once-forgotten yet historically important car?
TECHNICAL DATA 1964 Vixen GT
Engine 4.0-litre Rover V8, Viper 224 camshaft, four Weber 45 DCOE carburettors on crossflow inlet manifold
Power 280bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 284lb ft @ 3800rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, Bilstein telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Performance Top speed 188mph
‘We’re sure that Eric Broadley took more than a little inspiration from the Vixen for his Lola MkVI – the basis for Ford’s famous GT40’
Clockwise from below. Period Zandvoort sticker on the windscreen has been preserved; the V8 that was always intended, this one a 4.0-litre Rover evolution of the 1960s Buick design; hand-fabricated pedal assembly contrasts with simple switchgear; curvaceous flanks admit air to mid-mounted engine; owner and restorer Didier van der Linden in the Vixen GT.
Clockwise from left. British racing driver Ian Stronach, pictured in the 1960s; under development – the unique Vixen GT that Stronach built; as it is today, restored and better than new.