After Ranger Part One…..fast forward to 1972 and my training period coming to an end in the GMSA Service operation. Qualifying from the division could be a bit tricky, we could find ourselves being allocated to anything from Warranty admin to Parts Department or the absolute pits, Dealer Merchandising. No….I had not joined the company for anything other than being involved in vehicles and I had to make an effort for that to happen one way or another. I resolved to take the situation head-on and being a committed product guy I put pen to paper and wrote a five page tech comment on our product compared to competitors….. a no-holds-barred view of how I saw shortcomings and what needed to be done to get things back on track.…a very passionate, though in hindsight, somewhat naïve and simplistic view. The memo was passed to the G Manager of the service division, Gordon Wesson. There was that pregnant pause of about a week…..people did not do this stuff in those days and worse, a youngster calling a spade a shovel could result in things getting nasty quite quickly. To say I was fearless is wrong…..it was more like an unshakeable and very basic view that if something is not right…fix it.
The fact that my scribblings could be read as a full-on swipe at Engineering??…well it wasn’t of course, I had absolutely no political ambition… but as it turned out, that was the way folk would see it.
The inevitable call came the following week. Walking into Wesson’s office, being met with “Clark…. what are we going to do with you?” and hearing what had happened since the report, made me appreciate that wonderful Afrikaans expression “nou speel jy met die leeu se bal”* I nearly did empty my bowels on the spot. The memo had found its way to the American MD, Bob Price and from there, on to Embree Kennedy the Chief engineer and from there to his heads of engineering department. The question asked by Price was simple “is what is written here, on the money or not? …..I guess, despite my rather simplistic memo, the answer to that was somewhat rhetorical because I was offered a job in Engineering as experimental engineer mechanical. All Gordon said was “well done….. but of course you know you are going to be as popular as a pork chop in a S……..” . Given that I had inadvertently upset engineering two years before I realised it would initially be a rough ride.
* “Now you are playing with the Lion’s nuts”… somehow does not carry the same meaning.
I was lucky because the men I then reported to in Engineering were proper engineers.….I was advised to get a project under my belt ASAP in order to put “my money where my mouth was”…that way I could generate the acknowledgement necessary amongst my peers to survive. I did just that…the 3800 GT project covered in previous posts was a self-starter project that made it onto the product plan within nine months of starting in engineering. That got some attention and the recognition necessary ….well at least from those of my peers that were of normal disposition. I am eternally grateful to Gary Windram and Peter Villet for having the patience to deal with one very single minded and very difficult employee.
Why am I telling you this? ..well because hidden in the whole picture was the elephant in the room… there was still that group of people who had taken the Ranger from us a few years before and I was savvy enough to know that the hatchet had not yet been buried, I was clearly still public enemy no 1. On arriving in Engineering I had established that the group in question considered themselves to be the hot-shots in a rather minimalist quick-car activity there was in the division. The story could be made very complex but to keep it simple, the GManager of Test and Experimental, shall we call him ‘Jo’, and the prime instigator in the removal of the Ranger (he had waited for Jim Ewen to leave for the ‘States to make his move) was the leader of this clan. He was a powerful figure and a key man in the newly established motor sport activity with the Dealer Team…you know, the type you have to be ‘on sides’ with to register on his radar….rightly or wrongly, I was just too stubborn to do that. I had never sacrificed my view on things ‘to be part of the gang’ as it were, so I was prepared to take the consequences.
We lived through the tumultuous years of 1972/’73 and the Chev Dealer Team with the Can Am race cars, GMSA engineering being a support structure to the activity….all of us contributed in one way or another…I had spent three months seconded to the team to assist in prep for the race cars. When the whole CDT thing closed down in early 1974 and during the aftermath of the Fuel crisis, GMSA through ‘Jo’ provided support through engineering to many privateer racers still running GM products. One of these was Bob Thomas running a 2.5 Firenza in the Transvaal and who had surprisingly won that championship the previous year at the heyday of the Can Am racers.
Significant though, is that I had run my Opel for long enough and had proved my capability well enough to offer my services to run a regional Firenza race car in the East Cape. I wrote specifically to ’Jo’ requesting that I be given the chance. The request fell on deaf ears and the available hardware channelled to the local dealer instead….surprise, surprise.
Then that knock on my flat door at 2am in October of 1974…It was Ashley, now the owner of the Ranger in his private capacity and working for Lionel Rowe at Rowes Service Station… he was seriously bent out of shape and in need of a cup of coffee. “Paul we are in shit…I have challenged Bob Thomas and his Firenza to a showdown at the opening of the new track”…OK that sounded good…. but we had to get that coffee and find out what had really happened. The ‘we’ he referred to was the ‘royal we’ because with GMSA not being interested in my services on the race car front, I had done the next best thing and aligned myself with Lionel Rowe as one part of a three man independent race car team. We had three cars: Lionel the Broadspeed Anglia (111), Ashley the Ranger (112), and my Opel Kadett (113).
I knew that there had been a gathering of the racers from the North and dinner with Hunts the dealer and the Engineering group that evening. Surprisingly Ashley had been invited to the shindig based on his previous contact with Hunts. From what I could gather it was a pleasant enough affair with the objective to finalise some plans amongst the racers and to get the Championship winning Thomas Firenza to PE for the opening of the new Aldo Scribante racetrack in November. It is not known as to exactly how the challenge was initiated but the story goes that someone in the Thomas camp made a comment to the effect that there was a need to get the fastest 2.5 Chevy in the country to PE. Ashley is, believe me, a very laid-back gent but he took umbrage to the comment and simply told them that bringing the car was OK but that the fastest and most powerful 2.5 Chevy was already in PE. That set the cat amongst the Pigeons and the challenge laid down by the Thomas team…..to which Ashley responded….. positively.