Thrilling showroom stock Group N grabs the limelight

With Group 1 racing becoming an ever more modified formula, Group N was introduced as a showroom-stock alternative. Run to a hybrid set of local rules based loosely on fresh international standard production regulations, it debuted as a one-off endurance race and very soon established itself as a full race series that went on to prove unique and hugely popular with racers and fans alike. 

Stannic. Group N remained popular from the mid-80s right through to the early 2000s, when it morphed into Production Cars and eventually fizzled out after race controllers freed up the rules 30 years later in 2014. 

On the face of it, Group N was all about racing cars straight off the showroom floor – cars anyone could easily identify as what they drove every day, but these racing machines rather engaged in racetrack wars every fourth Saturday, or so.

There was however far more to Group N than just taking a car and speeding around the racetrack. The cars were indeed stone stock standard, if like the technical team and scruitineers did after every race, you stripped the engine and measured it up. But it was how the car was put together that found a quarter more power than its identical sibling standing on the showroom floor. 

Never mind that the Group N car was probably ten seconds a lap faster around Kyalami than its road sibling, so there was no doubt a certain black art to race preparing a ‘standard production’ car…

We were fully immersed in Group N racing throughout the decade and a half it was sponsored by Stannic and beyond, and while our 1986 Championship winning Class D Ford Escort XR3 only managed a lap time of 2m 03sec in its first race at Kyalami, but by the time we had taken the class championship two years anon, the XR3 held the class lap record at 1m 52.3 sec when the great old circuit was ripped up. That’s eleven seconds a lap from when the car was first ‘race prepred’!

As ever, a series that was dreamed up to keep costs down for the privateer, once again achieved the opposite as works team flocked to the racing formula that dished up the most exciting racing South Africa had ever seen. But its tight and well applied regulations also ensured that even a privateer with a reasonable budget could win. And that is what made Stannic Group N racing so different and so attractive too.

Group N regulations excluded any conventional form of modification to the cars – there were no hot camshafts, no gas-flowed cylinder heads or banana branch exhausts allowed, unless the standard car was sold as such in numbers of 500 or more units. But a well-versed Group N tuner could squeeze as much power as an aftermarket shop would via cams, heads and exhausts by building a perfectly balanced and blueprinted race engine.

It would work something like this: first the engine was stripped down, minutely examined, measured and each and every individual component weighed and compared to the standard specification as laid out for it in that model variant’s MSA Homologation Form. From there, the rotating parts were sent off to be dynamically and statically balanced, all volumes precisely equalised across all cylinders and all tolerances honed to an ideal measurement.
Back on the workbench it was all measured and checked one more time, before the lot was meticulously assembled to the optimal specification as laid out in that schedule, to achieve a pretty well perfectly balanced, harmonised and maximised ‘standard’ engine. With that in place, only then did the real work begin. For best results, the engine was tuned through a series of tiny incremental adjustments and tests, with each gain noted and the negatives discarded. 

To achieve that, hours and hours of engine or wheel dynamometer testing were the secrets to success, before the testing continued against a stopwatch on a specific stretch of road between two set points.

That process was never-ending – you tinkered with this, fiddled with that, scratched here, adjusted there and tried that; testing each aspect on the dyno, on the test strip and of course on track, as you honed your Group N racer onto the pace through an exhaustive development program. And then you moved up a class or to a newer car and it all started all over again!

But there was far more to it than that. The XR3 had been around for some years so by the time we started racing it, so there was already a huge selection of different factory and aftermarket or pirate replacement parts available. And I’m not talking about modified components here, but standard parts that had changed even marginally in spec over time or by supplier, through the car’s production lifecycle.

In other words, as production progressed, some components changed, others evolved, or different suppliers were used, and we soon figured that there were certain sets of components that worked far better together than others. 

We discovered for instance that Ford had reduced the internal diameter of the exhaust downpipe flange from by almost 1.5mm to strangle exhaust flow versus the earliest cars. Never mind that we knew of five different, standard XR3 camshafts and that only those that came out of the very first batch of imported engines with a little ID dimple on the shaft, were the ones to use. Perhaps fortuitously, the original mill in our very early car was one of those imports and they were dynamite compared to later, locally manufactured camshafts.

Later, scrounging pirate parts bins, we discovered that a particular set of aftermarket standard inlet valves for our championship challenging Midas Opel Kadett 1300 Cub had beautifully flared ‘mushrooms’ versus the rest. And when it came to stock camshaft variances, guess what? Those Opel shafts also differed through the years of production and later cams were nowhere near as effective as the earlier shafts that somehow had slightly more lift and duration, never mind a far better overlap split between the exhaust and inlet lobes too… 

Sifting through friendly scrapyards, dealer and Midas parts bins, borrowing bits, measuring and even testing and assessing them was all part of a never-ending secret ritual that often resulted in stunning results on both the dynamometer and against the stopwatch. Of course the factory teams had all that info right a their disposal, so it was far simpler for the works to build whole Group N cars to the blueprint from scratch, but our and certain of our friendly rivals’ clandestine techniques proved just as effective. And often successful too…

Then there were the inevitable loopholes in the rules and regulations and how those could be interpreted too. Part of the exhaust regulations stated that the tailpipe should be ‘as standard’. Examining the exhaust blueprints in both Opel’s original blueprint drawings and in the homologation schedule, revealed a perfectly round tubular pipe end-to-end. 

Yet we knew that standard exhausts were pinched by the bending machines, which reduced the internal pipe diameter through the bends and seeing that the rule said ‘as standard’ and that all the drawings failed to show the bending pinch, we built a form-bent pipe with an even inside diameter from front to back. That precocious extra exhaust gas flow redeemed a fair bit of power on the dyno and a tenth or two against the stopwatch and contributed towards our race-winning performance too, so we were confident that what we did, was totally legit.

So, when Group N’s beady-eyed Inspector Clouseau Maurice Rosenberg quite literally peered up at our special pipe through his oversized magnifying glass from deep in a Welkom workshop examination pit late one chilly post-race evening, his heart basically stopped when he saw our perfect pipe. The man in cycling shorts excluded our race winning car on the spot in the cruscendo of a four-season crusade to finally fault one of our cars! 

We appealed and the court duly concurred that we were indeed correct in our interpretation of that rule, the panel absolved us of any misdemeanour and the word ‘as’ was deleted and only the definition ‘standard’ remained in the rule describing the exhaust. So, we had to fit a press-bent pipe from there on in!

Sleight of hand and cunning little tricks and stunts were also common aspects of Group N preparation in search of that tiniest of edges. Like alternator belts that failed to remain on their pulleys for further than a few hundred meters out of the pits, leaving the battery to fire the car to the finish without the alternator unnecessarily stealing those crucial few kilowatts through the race. Or hidden switches, dry ice that mysteriously spewed onto the track on the warm-up lap, ‘accident damaged’ valances behind the bumpers to magically reduce drag and so much more…

Those are just a few little myths and legends around the black art that Group N racing really was. Stannic Group N was a series that tested the abilities of SA’s best racing tuners to the limit, all of whom used those techniques of gradually working through literally hundreds of tiny tweaks as we pushed the rulebook to the very limit in our endeavours to eke out a championship winning standard production race car advantage…

On the track, Stannic Group N racing kicked off with the exploratory Castrol Challenge 6-hour endurance race run to all-new standard production car regulations at Killarney in November 1984. The race attracted entries from the cream of the South African racing crop, with much of the machinery hastily sourced from some most intriguing sources as teams rushed to prepare for the race.

It is said that certain mom’s taxis mysteriously disappeared along with race driver dads over that weekend, while a few reps are known to have sneaked the company hack onto the grid and there are legendary tales about what a few hapless hire cars got up to that weekend. A diverse entry list included BMW 528is, a Ford Sierra XR6 or two and Nissan Skyline GTXs, among which were the pre-race  favourites, while a host of VW Golfs, Ford Escorts, Alfas and the rest made up the field. 

That race happened to perfectly dovetail with the launch of Volkswagen’s all new Golf 2 GTi , a coincidence VW Motorsport used to great effect to shock the bookies as Sarel van der Merwe and F1 and Le Mans star Jochen Mass led Geoff Mortimer and Ian Scheckter in a giant-killing act to come home first and second overall in a ‘Jumbo Golf’ GTi launch tour de force.

The 6 Hour proved an unqualified success and the all new Group N championship was very soon confirmed in a three-tier Transvaal, Western and Eastern Cape series running in regional meetings from April 1985 and car finance house Stannic as title sponsor. Killarney attracted an impressive field of left-over Castrol Challenge endurance race cars and a good few newcomers to the opening Coastal round, a week before the first Inland race saw 18 cars line up on the Kyalami grid for the first of a series of one-hour races.

The dice up front was between Tony Viana’s mighty Winfield BMW 528i and a swarm of Mitsubishi Tredia Turbos headed by old man Colin Burford’s works machine and backed up by Willie Hepburn, brothers Paddy and Mike O’Sullivan and Danny Moyle among others. 

Class B was an Alfa GTV6 versus BMW 323i spat featuring George Fouche and Geoff Goddard, while Class C saw Peter Lanz, Henry van Vledder and Clive Wesson’s Volkswagen Golf GTis and Keith Burford’s Opel Kadett GSi 1.8 fighting for wins before Mike White’s dynamic new works front-wheel drive Toyota Corolla 16 valve rewrote the record book when it arrived mid-season.

Class D appeared to be advantage Alfa Romeo, with a gang of Exports, Suds, Veloces and 33s driven by the likes of Dawie Theron, Anvar Hafejee, Mike Barbaglia, Louis Parsons, Arthur Fouche and Vincent Bolus among them, but Phil Webb and Michele Lupini’s Ford Escort XR3s had other ideas. 

Much of the field had fled the doomed Group 1 series and set their cars back to ‘standard’, while several new entries arrived too. Class E was split between the two camps in an interesting affair between Colin Hastie’s Datsun Pulsar, Colin Hough and Hein Laurentz’ Opel Kadetts, Jack Clinton’s Mazda 323, the Renault 5s of Any Terlouw and Rico Lupini involved in a yearlong battle.

Viana overcame the Tredias to take the Transvaal overall and Class A titles, while George Fouche won Class B, Clive Wesson took Class C, Dawie Theron Class D and Colin Hough Class E. In the Cape, Nigel Goodliffe’s little Daihatsu Charade Turbo beat Roddy Turner’s Class A Tredia Turbo and Hannes Oosthuizen’s Class C GTi overall honours, while a local teenager by the name of Michael Briggs took the Eastern Cape title in his dad’s Golf GTi.

The season ended with the second annual Killarney Castrol Challenge 6-hour race, won by Robbie Smith and Geoff Goddard’s BMW 323i from Inus Heunis and Dennis Joubert’s similar machine.

It was all change for Stannic Group N in 1986 with a sensational new race format of two separate six-round sprint race Inland and Coastal Championships before a for the whole lot come together for a wild 4-round winner-takes all National championship around the country and then the Castrol Challenge Six hour in November.

It was war from the outset in the Inland leg, as Paddy O’Sullivan’s Tredia Turbo went on beat Viana’s 528i to the Class A title, Geoff Goddard took Class B in his BMW 323i, Mike White’s Corolla won Class C, Michele Lupini’s five-year-old privateer Ford Escort XR3 beat off Willie Hepburn’s works Mazda 323Egi for Class D and Colin Hastie took Class E in a factory Toyota Conquest aa Hastie and Goddard went unbeaten to share the overall Inland title.

Des Alley’s Tredia Turbo made it a double as he took the Coastal Class A title, Geoff Moller’s BMW323 took Class B and overall champion Hannes Oosthuizen took Class C in his Golf GTi, Ishmail Noorshib won Class D in his VW CitiGolf and James Andrews won Class E in a Toyota Conquest.

The National Championship proved an absolute humdinger. BMW’s 325i Shadowline controversially arrived in Class B alongside Volkswagen’s all new Golf GTi 16-valve, but there was extra drama when the BMW, which had proven blindly quick and embarrassed the Class A Tredias, was thrown out for failing to meet homologation requirements.

That left Willie Hepburn to take the overall ‘86 Group N Championship in his Class D Mazda EGi, while Paddy O’Sullivan went on to add the national Class A title to his Tredia Turbo’s tally, Terry Moss’ Golf 16V took Class B after the BMW fiasco, while George Fouche took Class C in the factory Opel Kadett GSi and Steve Wyndham’s private Opel Kadett came out of a close and controversial battle with Hastie’s works Toyota Conquest to take the Class E title.

Toyota’s Class C Corolla Conquest RSis struck back from their National defeat as Mike White and Serge Damseaux scored a crushing and giant-killing overall win in the annual Cape Castrol Challenge 6-Hour.

By the beginning of 1987, the BMW 325i Shadowline was fully homologated, albeit up a class to A, with seven of them racing in the inland Series alone. Still, nobody could stop Tony Viana from taking the class title, while VW Junior Team driver Chris Aberdein’s Golf GTi 16V  took Class B. Mike White’s Conquest RSi came out on top of the Toyota-VW-Opel Class C dogfight, Ben Morgenrood’s Mazda 323 EGi put one over Willie Hepburn’s Ford Laser TX3 in Class D and Leon Mare’s Conquest took Class E for Toyota.

In the Cape meanwhile, Roddy Turner overcame a season-long war with his Class B rivals to take the Class A title in his BMW 325i Shadowline, while Terry Moss came out on top of the Class B wrought in his VW Golf  GTi 16V, Serge Damseaux’s Toyota Conquest RSi took Class C, overall champion Cecil Stockwell’s VW CitiGolf owned Class D and Steve Windham’s Toyota Conquest took Class E on a tiebreak.

Group N was meanwhile proving the breeding ground of a new breed of future South African racing stars as young guns fearlessly mixed it with the established old school legends.  Mike Briggs, Deon Joubert, Chris Aberdein, Hytlon Cowie and Steve Wyndham, among others served notice of future things to come.

Group N stepped up another gear for the ‘87 nationals, when the new Delta Motor Corporation formed out of the fleeing General Motors turned to the showroom stock class to show off its Opel brand as a gang of shiny new yellow factory Kadett GSi 2-litre Bosses, 1.8 GSis and 1300 Cubs arrived headed by Volkswagen refugee Mike Briggs to challenge to VW 16 valve GTis.

Briggs’ Kadett GSi went on to take the class by the mere point from former teammate Terry Moss’s Golf GTi 16V, while Tony Viana remained unbeatable among a horde of BMW 325i Shadowlines in Class A up front. Mike White’s added yet another Class C title to his growing list in the Toyota Conquest RSi, Ben Morgenrood’s Mazda 323 EGi also added the National to his Inland Class title and overall champion Basil Mann took Class E in his factory Toyota Conquest. 

At the end of the season as usual, BMW 325i Shadowline privateers Roddy Turner and Bernard Tilanus hung in to take a surprise victory in that regular and quite special November Killarney Castrol Challenge 6-hour.

In 1988, Tony Viana continued on his winning ways, taking the Inland and National overall and Class A titles in his Winfield Shadowline. Mike Briggs took the National Class B title for Opel, while VW men Chris Aberdein and John Round and won that class in the Inland and Coastal championships respectively and Toyota duo Serge Damseaux took the National and Coastal and Mike White the Inland Class C titles.

In Class D, Mazda 323 EGi trio Neil Brink won the Inland, Brain Mitchell the Coastal and Ben Morgenrood the National titles, while a super competitive and star-studded Brat Pack saw Keith Burford garner the Inland title in his Toyota Conquest, Roddy Turner the Coastal championship in an Opel Kadett Cub and Neil Stephen the rough-tough National Class E title in another Cub.

Stannic Group N had grown to its halcyon best by 1988 – the racing had always been close and thrilling as fields grew to beyond 75 cars on the grid. But group N’s simple capacity-based class structure favoured certain cars – some models and variants were born with a more inherent sporting pedigree than others, or even developed and built with and manufactured motorsport in mind. 

But Group N was set to follow a splendid South African motorsport tradition one last time as homologation specials were once again appearing on the horizon and the landscape was set for another dramatic shift. 

Come back for the next episode that covers the second half of the Group N saga, commencing from 1989 with Opel’s brilliant Kadett GSi 16V waiting in the wings…


Issued on behalf of SA Saloon Racing History

What:The History of South African Saloon Car Racing Part 10
Where:South Africa
Community:South Africa National

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