Rover Vitesse Racer Steve Soper reunited with his Touring Car. A very grand touring car. Steve Soper built his racing reputation in this Rover Vitesse Touring Car. Now Octane reunites both for some hot laps at Silverstone. Words James Page. Photography Matthew Howell.
‘IT WAS A BREATH OF FRESH AIR BECAUSE IT WAS SO EASY TO DRIVE AND IT WAS SO EASY TO WIN RACES’ Steve Soper’s Rover Vitesse
Silverstone is at its most inhospitable. It’s early May, yet rain is lashing down and people are cradling cups of coffee to keep warm. Engines are nonetheless being fired-up in the pit garages, and almost unnoticed among the activity is the reunion of Touring Car legend Steve Soper with the Rover Vitesse that, in 1983, helped propel him to stardom. As Soper gets comfortable, the car’s owner, Ken Clarke, reminds him of the controls – and nobody knows their way around it better than Clarke. Not only has he recently restored it, he built it in the first place while working for TWR. Other key members of that team are here too – including Eddie Hinkley, Tom Walkinshaw’s first employee – as well as Walkinshaw’s first wife, Elizabeth, and their son Fergus.
Soper eases the car out of the garage. A couple of minutes later and with lights ablaze, the big Rover splashes its way up the pit straight. It’s the first time in 35 years that Soper has driven it, but immediately he seems at home. After a couple more laps, he rumbles back into the pitlane, and the professional racing driver in him soon comes to the fore.
‘The tyres feel good,’ he says, ‘but it’s aquaplaning in front of the BRDC Clubhouse, which woke me up. Is it running a dry set-up?’
‘We never used to change it,’ says Clarke with a shrug, and he and Soper get to discussing the front anti-roll bar. Even after a handful of practice laps on a wet morning, they’re soon back into the old routine. His year with the Hepolite-liveried Rover was actually Soper’s second in the British Saloon Car Championship, as it was then known (it was renamed the British Touring Car Championship for 1987). In 1982, he’d finished third overall in a Class D Metro. The key to moving up to the SD1 for ’1983 was his relationship with the sponsor, which had been one of many splashed across the Austin Rover Metros. ‘They had Esso and Datapost and Hepolite,’ says Soper, ‘and I think Austin Rover thought the cars were getting a bit too much like a Christmas tree.’
Soper’s relationship with Hepolite was established via the late David Gardner, who worked for the company and whose support enabled him to join Jeff Allam and Peter Lovett in the works-backed TWR squad. ‘They prepared a third car for me. Although it was a factory car, the funding came from Hepolite and my contract was with Austin Rover – but the contract to run the cars was with Tom Walkinshaw Racing.’
That’s where he first met Clarke, who was another new recruit. Clarke had been working at a Volkswagen dealership when, during the Christmas break in 1982, he saw a job advertised with TWR.
‘I made a phonecall and Eddie Hinkley was the one I spoke to,’ he recalls. ‘I started at the end of January. On my first day I went to pick up a ’shell from Austin Rover Motorsport, then it went to Gartrac for its cage, then it was painted and came back mid-February. By mid-March, it was running.’
For 1983, the British series moved from Group 1 regulations to Group A, and Clarke says that the cars changed considerably: ‘Group 1 had allowed things like tubular exhaust manifolds, whereas Group A insisted on the originals. Group 1 insisted on original brakes, whereas Group A allowed freedom on the brakes. You were allowed different gearboxes, so we homologated it with a five-speed Getrag.’
Soper recognised that this was his opportunity to make his mark: ‘It was a little bit daunting because I’d grown up in front-wheel-drive one-make championships. I knew I’d be OK but I didn’t know what the competition was going to be like.
‘There were a lot of cynics saying “He can only drive front-wheel-drive cars.” I didn’t know until I drove it for the first time how heavy it would be and what it was going to be like, but it was a breath of fresh air because the car was so easy to drive and it was so easy to win races. It was even a shock to me – however much my confidence was there, I didn’t expect it to be that easy. We did a roll-out somewhere, but we didn’t do any serious testing. We just turned up and I won the first race.’
He went on to claim four more victories that year, including a support race for the British Grand Prix, a result that Clarke remembers particularly fondly, as well as the Tourist Trophy. ‘That stood out,’ says Soper. ‘I drove with René Metge, and as a kid I used to come and watch the TT. It was raining and we just dominated. The car was magic round here in the wet. There were a couple of pictures of me coming out of Stowe all sideways and lighting it up!
‘We also did some Continental ETCC races and that was a great education for me. This was what I’d been fighting for, dreaming of. It was where I wanted to be and it was all coming together.’
Soper, Allam and Lovett won every round of the BSCC, but there had been rumblings of discontent from their rivals that would eventually end up having serious consequences.
‘The cars were built with hydraulic tappets,’ explains Clarke of how it all came about. ‘In 1978, when Austin Rover ran the TR8 rally cars, they changed the hydraulic tappets and put adjustable rockers in there. It was technically a Volvo part – everyone says that it had “Volvo” stamped on it, though it was actually “Bahco”. They used to fit these rockers because they were Austin Rover Motorsport parts – they’d set the tappets and weld them up. Prior to doing that, the pushrods were adjustable and they shimmed the pushrods, shimmed the tappets, and it was a fiddle. So they’d put these rockers on, adjust them and TIG-weld them up, so then they were non-adjustable.
‘They got stripped for scrutineering after the first Donington meeting [in 1983]. They saw the weldedup rocker and asked “Why have you done that? You don’t need to weld them up”. So after that, we didn’t.
Next Donington meeting, they got protested again and they didn’t have welded-up rockers. They said “You can’t have adjustable rockers…”
‘So the reason it all came to a head was the inconsistency in scrutineering. There were lots of stories about wide rear ’arches, too, but the cars were homologated with the FIA and they weren’t oversized.’ The upshot was that, six months after the end of the season, all three TWR Rovers were disqualified.
Soper’s title instead passed to Andy Rouse, not that he seems to have lost any sleep over it.
‘I didn’t care,’ he states. ‘I was still racing along at a million miles per hour, living the dream. I was on to the 1984 ETCC season, which I wanted to do. When all this blew up – well, I won it. I won it on the road. ‘Tom [Walkinshaw] was very aggressive with the rulebook, and I think that people were out to prove a point. When they eventually found something, they thought “We’ve got you now.”’
Clarke also makes a point about Walkinshaw. ‘He was a hard man but he was the best guy I ever worked with. If you looked after Tom, Tom looked after you. There were times later on when we were running the Bastos Rovers, I’d be there at ten o’clock at night. He’d come in on his way back from a meeting: “You still here, laddie? Have you eaten?” He’d go down the chippy, come back with fish and chips, and he’d sit and have a couple of chips with you. Talk to competitors and they might say that he was a nightmare, but he was looking after his team and his cars.’
Despite the offer of a BMW contract at the end of ’1983, Soper stayed with Austin Rover and TWR for what turned out to be two difficult years during which his relationship with Walkinshaw went rapidly downhill. In 1986, he moved to Ford and, today, mention of his name tends first to evoke either the fearsome RS500 or one of the many BMWs that he raced after signing for the German marque in 1989.
As for his old Rover, chassis 002 was retired at the end of 1983 and kept at the back of the TWR workshop. ‘Chassis 001, which was the Marlboro Metge car, carried on through 1984 in the French championship with Jean-Louis Schlesser,’ explains Clarke, ‘but chassis 002 got parked-up and left.
‘At the end of 1984, Bastos came on board as sponsors and they wanted two show cars, so they took 001 and 002 and got them painted. I can remember putting them together. We got some standard front suspension, standard wheels, dropped the cars down to the ride height we wanted, welded the dampers up, and on the back we just put a bit of box tube welded to the chassis and welded to the axle and that was it.’
Clarke left TWR in May 1986 to set up his own business. He became well-known as an SD1 guru, which is why – years later – he heard of the ex-Soper car’s whereabouts. ‘It was in Holland,’ he explains. ‘This guy phoned me up and said “A friend of mine owns a TWR Bastos Rover.” I said “No he doesn’t, because I know where they all are.”’
Clarke then spoke to the owner directly: ‘He phones up and says “I understand you’re telling me that I haven’t got an original TWR car.” I replied: “I didn’t say that – I said that you haven’t got an original Bastos car.”’
After seeing many photographs, Clarke was pretty certain that it was actually 002 thanks to various bespoke touches: ‘I could see the [brake balance] plate on the dash, which was only on that car – I’d put it there. And the master switch – during a race, Jeff Allam had caught it with his elbow and turned it off in the middle of a corner. After that, they’d moved the switch to the back of the centre console but Steve reckoned he couldn’t reach it if it was there, so on his car I just put a shroud around it so that he couldn’t catch it with his elbow. And I could see the shroud in these pictures.’
Obviously, however, he didn’t let on: ‘I just told him that, if he wanted to sell it, I’d be interested. Over the previous years, if I’d seen any TWR parts I’d bought them because I’d always wanted to build a replica.’ Initially, the owner had no intention of selling. Clarke tried again in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Finally, in 2011, there was a breakthrough.
‘He said “Bid me a price. If I like your price, you can buy it. If I don’t like your price, I’ll never talk to you again. And justify your price.” Well, how do you put a value on something like that? It was a show car. The engine had been taken out at the end of ’1983, it had no gearbox, no brakes, it was a shell. But it was the original shell, just painted in Bastos colours.’
A deal was done. The first thing Clarke did was to have it resprayed back into Hepolite colours, but it then got put to one side until he started the rebuild of 001 at a time when he also had two other competition SD1s in his workshop – 020, the last one built, and Dennis Leach’s Demon Tweeks example. There were detail differences in the later cars, but having them there enabled Clarke to take them apart and copy the necessary bits for his own car, reverse-engineering where required and getting parts remade.
‘I kept the axle design as per 1983, but I used the later bearings, which are stronger. I kept the single-plenum engine rather than the twin-plenum one that came later, and I didn’t put the four-link axle on it – I kept the torque tube because I wanted it to be as it was.’ The rebuild took four years. Teething troubles struck at the car’s first two outings, at Brands Hatch and Snetterton in 2017, before it went the distance at Oulton Park. ‘I’d forgotten how physical Oulton is!’ remembers Clarke. ‘I ended up eight seconds a lap slower than I’d been at the start. I finished second in class but my arms were hanging off. It took me ten minutes to get out of the car. I couldn’t lift myself out.’ It was fitting that everything had come together at Oulton, though, because he’d actually driven the Rover there in 1983 – and almost come to grief in it.
‘The TWR cars had finished one-two-three. The drivers parked them on the grid and went off to the podium, so they said to us mechanics “OK – drive them round and back.” I came down through Deer Leap and I thought we’d go to the end of the pitlane and turn right, but they brought us in at the beginning of the pitlane. Somebody was stood in the circuit and suddenly we had to stop! I nearly hit the other two…’
Of that period, Soper says: ‘I was desperate to move into the big-time. Hepolite, Austin Rover, TWR and that car put me on that platform. I was very hungry in 1982 to ’1983 and all of that came together – you need the team, you need the budget… You need the car.’ And 35 years later, there is surely no better custodian of it than Clarke.
THANKS TO Silverstone Circuit and Ken Clarke, +44 (0) 7885 202808, email firstname.lastname@example.org. See this car in action with many other iconic Touring Cars at the Silverstone Classic, 20-22 July, www.silverstoneclassic.com.