WIND OF CHANGE TONY DRON’S FORD ZEPHYR
Our columnist reunited with his old race car. Tony Dron is reunited with his old Zephyr, a veteran of 40 years of racing and rallying. Photography Matthew Howell.
Lame the romans - they made Essex the centre of their imperial adventures in Britain. Though powerful, technically advanced and supremely competent, the Roman Empire was also distinctly flash and vulgar. Which, possibly, explains Essex today - and what's wrong there? With apologies to the celebrated lexicographer, when a man is tired of ogling shiny white shoes with five-inch heels, he is tired of life.
Henry Ford chose Dagenham, Essex, as the base for the British arm of his empire in the 1930s. The deep-water port was important but, culturally, Essex was perfect, allowing Ford of Britain to build a centre of excellence beside the stuffy old British capital. Call Essex vulgar if you like but its confident, go-ahead attitude attracted large numbers of the brightest designers, engineers, planners and marketing experts to Ford of Britain. For decades, they turned out a string of keenly priced, stylish motor cars that came to dominate the British market.
A decade before the all-conquering Cortinas, Escorts and Capris arrived, models such as this #Ford-Zephyr-MkII
Lowline showed the way. Zodiacs, Zephyrs and Consuls attracted professionals as buyers in such ever-increasing numbers that Ford of Britain's snobbish enemies coined the phrase 'Dagenham dustbins'. The cars were too good to be put down like that. Ford of Britain continued on its successful way, regardless of those who thought owning a Ford was somewhat infra dig.
Some of that nonsense persists today, even though the more globalised Ford Motor Company is very different, with Dagenham no longer the vibrant place it was in the past. If this Zephyr bore a prancing horse badge, its extraordinary 40 years of active competition history would make it worth millions. It is certainly worth a substantial sum today but I wouldn't guess how much. All I know is that it bears a different F-word in its badge, four letters instead of seven, and its value won't be anywhere near seven figures.
Whatever it might (or should) be worth, this venerable 1959 Zephyr has a history that others might die for. For the first 15 years of its existence, it was an ordinary road car. The man who changed its destiny for all time was Bill Wykeham. He and his friend Bruce Stapleton bought it in Portsmouth for £80 and rapidly got it ready for the new craze in 1975, Classic Saloon Car Racing. Some enthusiasts were rather rude about the idea of racing old saloon cars, but it got off to a great start with the first event at Silverstone, on 22 March 1975, and Bill was there with his Zephyr. For both car and driver, it was their first race.
For those who need reminding, the Zephyr MkII was successful in motor sport as a works entry in international events such as the RAC, the East African Safari and the Monte Carlo Rally. In motor racing, Jeff Uren won the 1959 British Saloon Car Championship with his Zephyr Mkll. The competition pedigree was sound and, 15 years on, Bill had chosen the right car for the job. This actual car has remained in historic competition ever since.
The chance to try it myself at Bruntingthorpe test track was not to be missed. It was a powerfully nostalgic personal experience, too, as I bought 639 HYM myself in 1987 and completed 19 major events in it over ten years. When I got the invitation to Bruntingthorpe, my first move was to ring my old friend Bill and get him on board for another turn at the wheel. After a few laps, Bill Wykeham stepped out with a big grin on his face. 'Climbing back into the cockpit of 639 HYM after 40 years,' he said, 'I looked down at the pedals, expecting to see the toes of my cowboy boots protruding from long-forgotten bell-bottom jeans. Studying the dash once more, with its classic old speedo, I searched for the pack of Bensons, which, along with my Porsche sunglasses, were never far away.'
Bill, Bruce and their Zephyr showed immediate potential, with Bill finishing third in class in that inaugural Classic Saloon Car race. They then set about preparing it more seriously, mainly by removing the massive bumpers and getting a two-tone blue 'go-faster' paint job. That season, they were soon near the front and sometimes winning - especially at Brands Hatch, where Bruce enjoyed a runaway outright victory in heavy rain in September.
Bill recalled: 'On one occasion, when leading at Snetterton, it threw a rod as I crossed the line with only one lap to go. My father, who rarely spectated, witnessed my disappointment that time - and he thrust a folded cheque in my hand. Later I saw it was for £250, and thought, wow, we'll have enough for a new gearbox too! Happy days - and I haven't missed a race season since!'
The Zephyr was then sold, through Gerry Marshall's company, to David Dees and subsequently to Chuck Nicholson (Tom Walkinshaw's backer and partner). It continued its winning ways until, around 1982, it was bought by a motorcycle racer in Bromsgrove. He had dabbled with the idea of switching to four-wheeled racing but, after several attempts, he found that leaning out on the corners was unnerving him. He advertised it for sale.
I rang him, jumped in my car, and went straight to his house. We agreed the deal at £1250 and a few days later I got a lift to Bromsgrove and, memorably, drove the Zephyr home. It was road-legal but it did feel strange, mixing with the traffic in a big saloon car that was totally stripped out inside, with just one racing seat and a rollcage, not to mention a rather noisy exhaust.
My plan was to convert it for historic rallies, then a growing branch of the sport and attractive to me as something new and exciting. Another good reason for choosing a Zephyr was that all the other worthwhile historic rally cars seemed to cost much more money.
Helped by old friends from Ford's Competitions Department, I researched the precise specification of the works Zephyrs in the 1960 Monte Carlo rally and had the car rebuilt as an exact copy. Two comfortable Corbeau GT8 Highback competition seats were bought and fitted. The adjustable lever-arm rear dampers took some finding and cost a few hundred but I had to have them. They are still on the car.
It already had the front disc brakes that were a Ford option in 1959 and they proved perfectly adequate with competition pads. The mildly tweaked engine, with a special camshaft, a suitably modified cylinder head and a Servais exhaust manifold, met the desired works 1960 rally specification. Mike the Pipe built a one-off mild steel exhaust system for me and, amazingly, it did not rot and was still in perfect working condition ten years later.
I acquired several period carburation set-ups and had them restored so that they were always available, complete with original inlet manifolds from the late 1950s. Up in the mountains, with reduced atmospheric pressure, the smaller twin SUs gave the best performance and I used them most of the time. In this form, the engine produced around 130bhp (circa 40bhp more than standard) and the torque at low rpm was terrific. We took care to set up the throttle mechanism to open smoothly, a vital point at the limit on snow-covered mountain roads.
A tougher job was converting it back from a four-speed, floor-change gearbox to an original column-change three-speed mated to a special Laycock overdrive unit that had been unique to the original works cars. Making that transmission reliable involved tears and much expense but it was achieved. Other tricky items to sort out were the Halda Twinmaster, Halda Speedpilot and the correct Lucas roof-mounted spotlight, but all were found and fitted. That roof-light was acquired merely to look the part but it proved useful at night on rallies when it could be pointed in the right direction on the move, accurately, by me or my navigator. The car was superbly painted in the correct Ermine White.
West London rally specialist, Mike Brown, did most of the work and over ten years I entered 19 major events, winning the class in several but, most importantly, finishing them all. It went to Monte Carlo three times, did the Coppa delle Alpi winter rallies and International Historic RAC rallies - and we went on the first Land's End John O'Groats (Lejog), an old-style rally of the tests that seemed to go on forever.
Brilliantly devised and planned by John Brown, Lejog was an extraordinary way to see the remotest parts of the British Isles. The skills of former professional navigator, Colin Francis, were essential on the more complex rallies like that - afterwards I described Lejog as 'a sublime fix for event junkies'.
That Zephyr was always great to drive. It was quick, with a top speed of 101mph. The performance was identical to that of a standard Escort Mexico and I kept more than 30 wheels, shod with tyres for all occasions. On dry tarmac it understeered mildly but in snow it turned in relatively sharply and the handling was utterly neutral, with controllable oversteer if required. It was surprisingly effective.
After ten years, during which a very reasonable £45,000 was spent on preparing and maintaining it, I put the Zephyr into an H&H auction. To my great surprise and delight, it was bought by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason. The bidding stopped at £5000 as I recall and Nick joked that, of all the cars he had ever owned, the Zephyr had the biggest file by far. He bought it for the Goodwood Revival saloon car race, for which it was ideal once he had had it converted back to a racing specification.
The rather special history of this particular Zephyr was enhanced even more in 1999 by its next owner, none other than Jeff Uren, winner of the British Saloon Car Championship back in 1959 with a Zephyr MkII. Forty years on, the then-73-year-old Jeff was enjoying his personal magical step back in time with 639 HYM, especially at Goodwood. Three years later, in 2002, Jeff sold it to John Atkins, who was kind enough to invite me to share the driving with him at the Revival, which I really enjoyed.
Current owner, Yorkshire-based surveyor Alistair Dyson, bought it in 2005 and has kept it in Goodwood racing specification. Working with Jaguar race-preparation specialist David Bye of West Riding Independent Ltd, he has steadily developed it in line with the Goodwood/HRDC pre-1960 Touring Greats regulations, which allow certain non-original modifications. The big thing here is that some major parts made up to 1966 by the same manufacturer can be fitted, so the Zephyr now has a much stronger #Ford
'Rocket' four-speed gearbox and a beefier final drive. This transmission is reliable with the highly developed 2553cc straight-six engine, which is now claimed to produce more than 200bhp.
It certainly feels at least that powerful - by any standard, this is a seriously quick, high-performance machine. As the Zephyr cannot weigh much more than 1000kg, the acceleration is mightily impressive - and it keeps on going down Bruntingthorpe's long straight.
The suspension has been uprated very well to suit the extra power and the slightly wider-than-standard wheels. It's firm and roll-free across the front axle, while the back axle is better located now, and relatively softly sprung for optimum traction. The steering is light, with good feel, the car being eager to flick into comers and adopt a usefully neutral attitude. It is one of the quicker cars in the HRDC Touring Greats series and Alistair, who also races a Jaguar E-type and a Lotus Cortina, has been a consistent front-runner with his fabulous Zephyr, which is now entering its 41st season in competition.
What a history. Respect this Ford.
THANKS TO owner Alistair Dyson and Bill Wykeham.
'This is a seriously quick machine. It keeps on accelerating down Bruntingthorpe’s long straight’
Above and below. With three twin-choke Webers helping to produce over 200bhp, the #Ford-Zephyr
is now a seriously quick historic racer Tony Dron competing in the 1990 Monte Carlo Challenge - the car is a veteran of 19 major events in his hands.
The #1959 #Ford-Zephyr-MkII-Lowline-Historic-Racing-Saloon
ENGINE 2553cc straight-six, OHV, modified for racing
POWER 200bhp + @ 6500rpm
TORQUE Not known
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Ford steering box
Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle with extra location, leaf springs, adjustable lever-arm dampers.
BRAKES Discs front, drums rear.
WEIGHT 1000kg-plus (est)
PERFORMANCE Not measured
Clockwise from facing page Tony Dron behind the wheel of his old Ford Zephyr, now back in race tune for Goodwood and the HRDC pre-1960 Touring Greats series; the ’50s Ford dream, alive chez Dron in the 1990s; whitewall BFGoodrich Silvertown crossplies were ideal for road use; Bill Wykeham tackles Druids Bend at Brands in 1975.
'I researched the precise specification of the works Zephyrs in the 1960 Monte Carlo rally and had the car rebuilt as an exact copy’