Wednesday 19 July 2023

Whatever happened to the Saga?

Some cars are easy to track down, others aren't quite so. The Saga fits in with the latter and has proved to be quite a - erm - Saga - to find. So far with no result.

The Mini based creature was built in 1964 by Brian Diss, who’d just left sports car manufacturer Elva. Diss told me back in 2009: “When I left them, I decided to build this on my own and finished it as a prototype. My job at Elva was making the moulds and that was also what I wanted to do with this car. It was meant to have a hatchback in the production version.” Diss based his Saga on a tubular steel frame chassis with a double marine ply floor. It used an 850cc engine from a written-off Mini with new subframes at both the front and the rear. He made the body from aluminum. Diss married to a French girl not long after and took the car with him to France, where he opened a garage in Avignon. "I sprayed it a dark red, an Opel Monza colour, and used it to go on a holiday to southern France. We must have done 20,000 miles in it.” Diss, his family and the Saga came back to England after two years, now setting up a company repairing accident cars for insurance companies. The prototype was sold in 1970 or 1971 and was last seen in the mid-1990s (click!). Where is it now?

These unique pictures were given to me by Brian Diss.

The Saga when it was in France, repainted Opel Monza red
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Diss thinks he drive some 20,000 miles with it while in France
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

The registration '470 LP 80' is from the departement of Somme
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

The car was re-imported to the UK later and re-registered 'GAP 65C'
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Anyone remembers it in France? And where is it now..?
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Friday 7 July 2023

What it's like to drive Le Mans Classic in a Mini Marcos

I asked Nicolas Joffre, the owner of the Mini Marcos that made it to the Le mans Classic of last weekend, what it was like to drive the car in world's most famous race. And Nicolas was kind enough to do a lovely write-up about his experiences. This is the event in his words:

"Les Hunaudières in a Mini Marcos!"

"The project to take part in the Le Mans Classic was born just over three years ago. In fact, it began with the first edition of Le Mans Classic in 2002, but the real opportunity came three years ago... the day we were offered a Mini Marcos! We quickly decided to prepare this car for Le Mans Classic, to FIA standards. It wasn't easy, because no Mini Marcos had ever obtained an FIA PTH (historic technical passport) because of its fibre chassis. The other Mini Marcoses which drove at the Le Mans Classic previously all had 'PTH passports in progress', which are just for four months but no longer."

"Thanks to the team at Matter (a French rollover bar specialist), we were able to get the first FIA rollover bar approved for a Mini Marcos also. The cage is fitted to the front and rear subframes and we were able to do a lot of work on the body to save as much weight as possible. Despite the cage and modern safety features, the car weighs just 560kg! As far as the engine was concerned, we opted for a fairly straightforward preparation, in the spirit of what had been done at the time, and a gearbox with an end drive that was as long as possible."

"And so we arrived at Le Mans with a brand new car and a freshly built and just run-in engine. The Mini Marcos are competing in grid 4, alongside the legendary Ford GT40s, AC Cobras and Jaguar E-Types. Quite a scary prospect! But from the very first laps we realized that our Marcos was setting a much faster pace than we'd expected, on a par with the Porsche 911 2-litres and the well-prepared MGBs. We were hoping to break the 200 km/h barrier and we did just that on the first lap, with a speed of over 210 km/h. We were also concerned about the stability of the Marcos at high speed... but against all expectations, it handled fantastic! The Marcos does like to slide, however, and a few passes over the red curbs were... acrobatic! The tricky part, however, was the stability under braking, where the rear end tended to want to go in front, but our lack of driving before the event meant that we weren't able to make precise adjustments, which was definitely to our disadvantage!"

"However the joy was short-lived, because on our third lap, while I was at the wheel, in fourth gear at 6,000 rpm in Les Hunaudières, a noise was heard, followed by a rather brutal lack of power! The diagnosis was quickly discovered by the L3M Racing Team. The piston on the 4th cylinder was partly broken and no longer gave much compression. We couldn't give up, even with a significant loss of power, we wanted to go all the way! And I can promise you there's nothing to regret. The Marcos held out for 2 out of 3 runs, before coming to a final halt at the Arnage bend. But what a joy, my friends!"

"We'll be going home with our heads full of memories and images that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. I remember the moment in particular when the two leading Ford GT40s came up to me on the Hunaudières straight after the second chicane. Night was falling on the Le Mans circuit, and with my eyes glued to the rear-view mirror, I saw these two machines coming down on me in a deafening but spellbinding noise. The two cars brushed against me and the Marcos swerved slightly before the duo disappeared  as quickly as they had come. For all endurance enthusiasts, and the 24-hours of Le Mans race in particular, to be in the middle of this legendary battle is just a dream, so thank you, yes, a big thank you to the Mini Marcos!" 

The team with left to right: Oleg Baccovich, Dominique Bruchet, Cyrille Lamande and Nicolas Joffre
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

Three years of preparation went into the Marcos before it was unloaded at the Le Mans track
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

Night shift. The cars don't drive 24 hours, but several 45-minute sessions throughout the day and night
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

"Our Marcos was setting a much faster pace than we'd expected"...
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

..."On a par with the Porsche 911 2-litres and the well-prepared MGBs"
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

"We were hoping to break the 200 km/h barrier and we did just that on the first lap at over 210"
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

Four drivers, all of them doing their own stint in the Le Mans Classic 2023
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

Mechanic Jean Pierre Brulé was present to serve the team, as he was back in 1966 
Picture courtesy Nicolas Joffre

Hairy moment: the Marcos is stranded, the two leading GT40s come along in their battle
Picture still from Youtube

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Original Le Mans Deep Sanderson mechanic speaks

After the historic Le Mans Mini Marcos mechanic of Monday (here), over to the next one! Billy Williams was part of the Deep Sanderson team at Le Mans in 1963 and 1964 (full stories here and here) and I got in touch with him recently. This is what he told me: 

"The people at Le Mans were Bob Michel and myself and we were at Mulsanne on the pit board and timing. Mechanics were Rod Cooper, Jim Gavin (Jim started lawn mower racing in this country and competed in I think the London to Sydney rally) and Terry Hobson (these three guys started super sports racing and later on in my career I worked for them building rally cars). There was also Nick Arousof, a Russian name but I'm not sure of the spelling, he was ex-Lola and our foreman was John Harvey."

"I do remember working late for several days getting the cars together. We had a Mk7 Jaguar with a caravan converted to a trailer and some of the boys slept in it at Le Mans. I didn’t travel down with the cars as I travelled with John Terry and Jim in Chris Lawrence’s own road car which was a Chevy Corvair he had bought from the Motor Show at Earls Court London. We had terrible trouble on the way down with a smell of automatic gearbox fluid leaking on the exhaust."

"At Le Mans Jim Donnelly did crash the car in practice. His nickname was Twin Min Jim, as he was the only guy who could link the gear changes on the deep Sanderson twin engined single seater with Mini engines. What happened was the fan belt came loose on the car and in those days you had to do 13 laps before you could do any work on the car. It did only 11 laps before it overheated so that was that end of the race."

"After Le Mans Chris and his wife and also Jim and wife went to the south of France for a holiday. A few weeks later driving back it appears that Chris fell asleep at the wheel due to fumes from the gearbox and had a huge accident. They were all in hospital for a few weeks we were back in the garage keeping it running but I think that was the start of the end of LawrenceTune. Months later I was poached to go to an F3 team, Charles Lucas Engineering, and the three boys started Supersports Engines. Cheers, Billy."

Thank you very much Billy!

A young Billy Williams behind the just finished Le Mans racer in the UK
Picture Jeroen Booij archive

Chris Lawrence with the Deep Sanderson Twini at Mallory Park. Billy behind again
Picture PA Images / Getty Images

Monday 3 July 2023

Le Mans Classic 2023 - with a Mini Marcos

With this year being the centenary of the Le Mans 24 hours race, the Le Mans Classic of last weekend was perhaps a bit more special than usual. Unfortunately I wasn't there but the good news was that a Mini Marcos did actually race during the weekend. This was a 1969 Mk3 car built up as a racer recently by a team from Perpignan. I only heard from them days before the weekend, but it seems they had a great time and the car looked good, too, although I understand it did not finish.

What's more: the team had one very special mechanic: Jean Pierre Brulé, who happens to be an original crew member of the 1966 Le Mans Mini Marcos team! I had been given a list with all the persons involved in the team by Hubert Giraud not long before he died, and Brulé certainly was on that list. There is no doubt I am eager to speak to him!

The Mini Marcos at the 2023 Le Mans Classic with Jean Pierre Brulé giving autographs
Picture Le Mans Mini Marcos Facebook page

The car next to its stablemate in the paddock: the big Marcos as driven by Chris Marsh
Picture Joost van Diën

Action! The Mini Marcos racing at Le Mans Classic 2023
Picture Le Mans Mini Marcos Facebook page

Souvenir from Le Mans: Joost van Diën had his new comic book signed by the artists
Picture Joost van Diën