CDT – Chevrolet South Africa – With a little help from our friends.
This one happened differently again but best to say that it was serendipitous….two needs coming together fortuitously in early 1972 and just for a snapshot in time showing the first class capability again of the GM engineering team and what could be done in motorsport with the equally brilliant product…. and the help of our friends.
I mentioned the fact that CEO’s in the GM world operating on stints outside of the USA, did not exactly have a reputation for taking on the real local issues and preferred, in my opinion, to do what was necessary to get through the time before heading back to the USA…..or the next posting in the GMOO* world. Very few were real troubleshooters….except for the finest CEO to grace our shores, Bob Price. Bob arrived in SA in 1971 and immediately stopped the rot. GM had lost massive chunks of market share and he was sent in to get things back on track. There were mountains of issues to be dealt with but let’s contain this to brand image and street-cred. Brand image was good but old fashioned and appealed to the traditional market…. the market had changed…..GMSA had not. As far as street-cred was concerned in the go-faster business GMSA were just beginning to register on the wheelspin scale….but only because we sold performance cars….Viva GT, Holden Monaro, Chev SS (badge engineered Monaro) and the Ranger SS (badge engineered Opel Rekord). The real problem was that the culture was mismatched…..There were not many enthusiasts in key positions at the General, certainly nothing approaching a critical mass of any sort….
*General Motors Overseas Operations
Bob realised he needed to modernise proceedings and he too was being pushed by the Dealer council to get involved in motor sport.
Fast forward to March 1972 and a phone call from Basil van Rooyen to Bob Price in which the idea of a V8 Firenza race car and dealer Team were discussed. Basil, a professional in the field of racing (everything from saloons to F1)….a race engineer, driver and businessman who was at that time running a V8 Capri Perana in national saloon car racing. With Ford wanting to reduce involvement, he was looking for an alternative. This was the sort of person carrying the credentials to do the job properly and very quickly the project was put together. Two plans…Firstly the build of a V8 Firenza to test proof of concept and if that turned out OK, the development of a production then race car and, Secondly, starting a dealer team activity to cover the programme.
The concept Firenza V8 built by Basil and his team arrived at GM engineering in April of 1972. To cut a long story short, that 307 truck engined Firenza was built beautifully and did the Job of convincing the Engineers that the project could go ahead. Bob did not delay proceedings and the project started immediately.
I will cover the development of the production Can Am and Race/Rally cars in a separate piece but suffice to say that two things then happened:
- Jonny Pittaway, a wiry in-house test engineer was appointed project manager for the design, build and test of the road car, with Basil as the advising race engineer and:
- Geoff Mortimer, an external appointment and very experienced race/rally car engineer with successful a Renault and Toyota affiliation appointed as Dealer Team manager to set up the operation..
In retrospect this was a perfect start and from a technical perspective proved to be absolutely on the money……but …..hidden in the woodwork was an aspect to the Chev Dealer Team that got up my nose from the beginning….a PR activity….we’ll get back to that.
To summarise from there, the Dealer team blossomed immediately and Geoff pulled the disorganised rally programme together (this had been cobbled up before his time and run very disjointedly by GM engineering). In a surprisingly short period he garnered excellent results from a disparate group of people. By September of 1972 the Can Am road car development had reached a point where the first production trial car was shipped to the Dealer Team to be built into the first race car by Geoff and his team. It took just six weeks to build a first-off racer that went straight into the ’72 springbok endurance racing series in November…and did extremely well…..underlining the brilliant engineering both in the production car and racing programmes. This machine went from concept, through to production and successful race car…missing out on the sensible choice of first doing some sprint racing….. and straight into a four race endurance racing series, in just seven months…..spectacular.