A Brief History
|I wrote this article for Autosport magazine in July 1990 as Donington Park prepared to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Chevron cars with a special race meeting.|
|The story of Chevron racing cars should have come to an abrupt end 12 years ago when their brilliant, self-taught, designer, Derek Bennett, crashed his hang glider onto a Lancashire hillside, sustaining head injuries from which he died without regaining consciousness. Yet this weekend enthusiasts from many parts of the world will gather at Donington to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Chevron in a remarkable tribute to Bennetts genius.
To many people who met him, Derek Bennett was an enigmatic, unassuming man, whose shyness could easily be mistaken for coldness. He was a man of few words but tremendous vision whose natural ability to solve problems of engineering led him to become one of Britains greatest racing car designers. Bennetts story was a remarkable one, which seemed to defy all convention. But it was this ability to triumph in the face of the odds that gave Chevrons success a fairy tale element and inspired a tremendous loyalty to Derek in everyone who worked for him or bought his racing cars.
The recent growth in the popularity of historic racing has brought a resurgance of interest in Chevrons through Derek Bennetts early sportscars, particularly the ubiquitous B8, and the B16 coupé, regarded by many as one of the most attractive sports racing cars ever built. But Bennetts designs covered virtually all categories of national and international racing during the late 60s and the 70s, and won in Formula 3, Formula Atlantic, Formula 5000 and Formula 2 as well as sportscar racing. No fewer than six future Formula 1 World Champions were among those who raced Chevrons at important stages in their careers.
At the time of Derek Bennetts death, Chevron was an established volume racing car manufacturer, competing on a level with the likes of March, Lola and Ralt throughout the world. But many of Dereks cars most memorable victories came in the earlier years as Chevrons fought against the odds, David and Goliath fashion. They tended to involve two drivers, Brian Redman and Peter Gethin, whose successes passed into Chevron legend.
The most remarkable of those Chevron successes has to be Gethin winning the Race of Champions in 1973, beating the Formula 1 cars to win in a Formula 5000 B24. Certainly he benefited from many of the fancied Formula 1 runners dropping out, but there were no other F5000 cars within a lap of Gethin when he swooped past Denny Hulmes slowing McLaren M23 to take the lead a lap from the finish.
Coming on top of Gethins win in the previous days F5000 race, the Race of Champions victory was a totally unexpected layer of icing on the cake. But for everyone who worked at Chevrons it marked the final acceptance of the cars they built in an old mill in Bolton as true world beaters.
Chevrons previous finest hour had owed nothing to good fortune, which made it an even more conclusive success. This time Brian Redman was the star as Derek Bennetts sleek new B16 sportscar was shown to the world for the first time in September 1969, not in the safe surroundings of an Oulton Park ten-lapper, but for 500 kilometres round the Nürburgring in a heatwave. Redman snatched pole position from under the nose of the works Abarths and led from start to finish.
The win gave a huge boost to Derek Bennetts cars internationally, and the B16 was a popular choice for the new European 2-litre Sports Car Series, which began in 1970. When Brian Redman brought the trophy back to Bolton at the end of that season, Chevron celebrated their greatest triumph so far.
That success had hung on another of Chevrons great races as Redman went into the final championship round at Spa with Chevron trailing Lola by three points. The B16 had taken longer to build and develop than it should have and soon after its début the rules changed to permit open sportscars. For much of the 1970 season Redman had had to fight Jo Bonniers open Lola T210 with a 70 kilogram weight disadvantage. But his pleas for Derek to give him an open Chevron finally led to the B16-Spyder, which was ready in time for that crucial confrontation at Spa.
For 35 laps of the demanding road circuit Redman and Bonnier fought for the lead as if they were on the last lap of a ten lap club race. Then, coming out of the hairpin to start the last lap, Redman missed a gear and fell back a hundred yards. After that he drove faster than he thought was possible, catching and passing Bonnier, only to be repassed on the back straight. Coming into the final hairpin the Chevron was back alongside the Lola and as Redman worried whether hed left his braking too late to get round the corner, Bonnier spun and Redman squeezed the Chevron past to win the race and the championship.
At the end of May 1972, Redman again shared the glory in another milestone win for Chevron when the B24 Formula 5000 car won first time out in the Rothmans European Formula 5000 Championship round at Oulton Park. That win came just three weeks after Peter Gethin had given Chevron their first European Formula 2 win as his B20 beat Patrick Depaillers March 722 at Pau, and it added to the growing sense of excitement that Chevrons were on an unstoppable roll.
After leaving at 15 he took up an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, but he left his job as soon as he was 21 to turn his passionate interest in building and repairing cars into a full-time occupation. Working for himself in a tiny lock-up in Salford he soon got his first taste of racing on the shale speedway track at Manchesters Belle Vue, first with a stock car, and then in an open-wheeled Midget racer the first racing car he built himself.
Over the next ten years he developed a talent for creating new cars from insurance write-offs. What little spare money he earned fed his ingenuity and allowed him to build himself cars to go circuit racing first a 750 Special that evolved into an 1172 Special, and then, in 1960, his own front-engined Formula Junior car.
His growing reputation as a driver brought him opportunities to race other peoples cars, but he continued to be frustrated by lack of money. By 1965 he had decided that the only way he could afford a fully competitive car was to build it himself. The new Clubmans Formula seemed to offer the ideal opportunity and, with Brian Classick keen to buy a second one from him, he set to work on the first Chevron.
That was the car which just made it to the boat in time to race at Kirkistown on July 3, 1965, and it started off the straight out of the box tradition when Derek drove it to victory. Its a good job that he had been talked into giving his cars a name before that race, otherwise we might have been celebrating 25 years of Bennett Specials.
The Clubmans cars started Derek off as a racing car designer and allowed him to move from his third tiny Salford workshop to Chevrons home in the mill in Bolton. But it was his first GT car a year later that really turned heads. A number of people had asked Derek about putting a roof on the Clubmans car to make it eligible for GT races, but Derek had been running ideas through his mind for a completely new, rear-engined sportscar. When Lotus Elan racer, Digby Martland, heard about Dereks plans he went to Bolton and saw the balsa wood model of the GT car which Derek had on his desk. That was enough to convince him that he wanted a real one and he put his deposit down for the first Chevron GT.
On July 23, 1966, Martlands 1600cc twin-cam engined Chevron B3 (the forerunner of the B8) appeared on the grid for the first race of the day at Oulton Park. After a cautious start, Martland came through to win, breaking the lap record of John Miles and his previously invincible Willment Elan in the process. Chevron had arrived!
The ability of so many of Derek Bennetts cars to win from new was all down to the extraordinary way in which the cars were built, and the potent combination of Dereks skills as driver and engineer. With no technical qualifications, he had no need for a drawing board. Sometimes he would commit an idea to the back of a paper serviette in a café, but generally he carried everything in his head. Left in a corner with a pile of steel tube and a welding torch he would set to work making a racing car.
Designing it and building it were one and the same process, and when the prototype was finished, Derek became the test driver, hurling the new car round Aintree, Oulton Park or Croft until he had it set up to his liking, occasionally dashing back to the factory to make a small modification, and then returning to finish the job.
The advent of monocoque construction forced Derek to alter his design methods somewhat, but he continued to build and test all his own prototypes. His success as a designer had forced him to give up his aspirations as a racing driver, but he retained his ability on the track and was as quick as all but the very best in testing, even at the wheel of a Formula 2 or F5000 car.
Derek was killed just as motor racing was about to move into the era of the wing car and the question of how he would have responded to this fundamental change in design is a tantalising one. He lamented the passing of the spaceframe, which was so well suited to his intuitive design methods, but at the same time he had a fascination with aerodynamics, kindled in his teenage years when he was a keen aeromodeller, and revived by his discovery of hang gliding. Few people who knew him well doubt that he would have responded successfully to the challenge if he had wanted to.
Over the years many drivers found their success linked to that of Chevron. Riccardo Patrese made his Formula 3 début in a B34 in 1976, winning the European and Italian Championships, before moving into Formula 2 in a Trivellato B40 in 1977. Derek Daly won the 1977 BP Formula 3 Championship in Derek McMahons B38 and went on to win two Formula 2 races the following year in the Ardmore/ICI B42. At the same time Keke Rosberg was a Formula 2 front runner for Chevron, driving for American agent Fred Opert and winning at Enna in 1977 and Donington in 1978.
Niki Lauda won his only race in a Chevron, driving a Red Rose B19 in a 2-litre Sportscar race at Salzburgring in 1971; Jody Scheckter won a round of the Springbok Series in a B19 later that year; Alan Jones made his Formula 5000 début in a Chevron B24; Tim Schenken took his first Formula 3 win and the Lombank Championship in a B9 in 1968; John Watson revived a flagging career with a sensational drive in a Formula 2 B20 at the Brands Hatch Rothmans 50,000 in 1972. The memories keep flooding by.
John Watson went on to drive Chevrons on a number of occasions and his recollection of his involvement is typical of so many who shared Derek Bennetts success: Hand on heart, I can say I enjoyed those associations, and its a particularly happy period in my motor racing, says Watson. They were cars that suited my driving style, and the harmony of the team and the people in it suited me. So its a period which Im very grateful for. But, more than that, its a period I can reflect upon and enjoy the memory.
As an impressive collection of Chevrons assemble at Donington this weekend, many people will have the chance to reflect, and to enjoy a memory that is being kept alive by the classic racing cars which Derek Bennett left behind.