John Campion’s Lifelong Obsession With Group B Rally Has Shaped A World Class Collection
Everything about John Campion should make you want to hate him. He’s lived 10 lives, over 10 careers, swears like a sailor and tells tales as tall as can be. His collection is notorious, and for me at least hits every mark of what I would do if I were in his position. Everything about this guy should make make me seethe with jealousy, but spending an hour and change on the phone with him, listening to the sincerity and music in his voice, and the earnest tambor of his laugh, I just can’t help but fall in love with the guy.
I mean he was Michael Jackson’s World Tour electrical engineer! Come on! How could you not love that?
Ted Gushue: What was the first car you ever remember driving?
John Campion: Oh, wow. The first car I ever remember driving was probably my dad’s car, which was probably a Ford Zephyr, the European version, which was a three liter V6. Big tank of a car. That was probably the first car I ever remember driving and it was a four speed, but it was a four on the column as opposed to four on the floor.
I grew up in Ireland in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Cars were generally modes of transportation. If somebody got a new car, it was pretty much a ten year old car. There wasn’t a lot of money in the area I grew up in. There wasn’t a lot of new cars. My dad would certainly be the character who, in the oil crisis of the early ’70s, would buy a Ford Zephyr gas guzzler, you could buy them cheap. My dad would buy one cheap and maybe he’d take an engine of the other one he had and put the engine into the new one.
My father was a big fan of steam engines and old tractors, so we grew up restoring old steam engines and old tractors. As I was growing up, we’d get the English car magazines and you’d be looking at these cars and be sort of envious because not only could you not afford them, but you’d never see them in Ireland.
You just wouldn’t see them. The defining point of cars was for me in March of 1978 when we’re at this big rally in Ireland—part of the World Rally Championship at one stage and it was part of the European Rally Championship with the Circuit of Ireland Rally. We were in Killarney, Easter of 1978, and we were up watching stage at about seven o’clock in the morning.
We were up in the middle of the freaking forest, middle of March, it’s 1978 and you’re out there in your coat and your hat and waiting for cars to come by. The mist is coming up off the ground and it’s this real frigging Lord of the Rings shit, right? The sun’s breaking through the trees, mist is coming up off the ground and you’re like, “Wow, this is really pretty bizarre stuff”.
Around the corner comes the Lancia Stratos, and it was the Checkered Flag Team who was an English guy who, interesting character himself, he wrote a great book of reports called Checkered Past. It’s this guy who had an English team and he was an English Lancia dealer. His car has been driven by an Irish Rally icon by the name of Billy Coleman. Billy Coleman grew up about fifteen miles from where I grew up, and Billy was driving this 1978 Lancia Stratos coming around the corner, sideways, in the air.
I’m like, “My god…”
Look, a Stratos today, I think it’s Marcello Gandini’s iconic car. People might say it’s a Countach, people might say it’s this. I think the Stratos is just the most iconic car. I mean it’s the ultimate wedge.
TG: You have a sympathetic audience in me, for sure.
JC: The Stratos comes around the corner. It’s from Mars, it’s alien, and it’s driven by Billy Coleman. Now, who’s Billy Coleman? Billy Coleman was a farmer and a rally driver, and truth be known he preferred farming over rallying, but anyway, In 1974, himself, his brother, and a friend of theirs, prepped a Ford Escort and they put it on a single axle trailer and they pulled it with another car and it went on the ferry, the three lads and about a couple of hundred quid in their pocket went to England, rented a garage in the dodgy part of north London, and out of that place proceeded to campaign on the RFC rally championship in the UK.
Real David and Goliath shit, they won it. They won it. Absolute brute force ignorance, skill, balls, chutzpah. You could imagine three lads from Cork, three farmers from Cork, farmers’ sons, go to England to compete against Vauxhall, to compete against Ford, to compete against all the factory teams, and they win it. That’s probably one of the most iconic motor racing stories. That was who Billy Coleman was, so seeing Billy Coleman in 1978 in this car going around the corner in the air sideways, a Lancia Stratos, for me was like, “Wow, this is incredible”.
Let’s fast forward. I leave Ireland in 1984. Didn’t do particularly well in school; I was held back several times. I was held back in the equivalent of eighth grade, and then I was held back in the equivalent of eleventh grade. I was told I wouldn’t amount to much. In any event, I came to America in 1984. I was working for various rock ’n roll bands, and I was a lighting guy.
TG: You were the guy that was powering the Michael Jackson tour, correct?
JC: Yes, that was down the road. When I first got to America, I was the fifth man in a four man lighting crew. I mean, I was like twenty-one year old kid who didn’t know what was going on, but I was able to bullshit my way into a job in Los Angeles, California working for a rock ’n roll lighting company. Made a few dollars and accordingly, as I made a few dollars, the first car that I ever bought in America was proper car. I bought a used Fiat X-1/9.
TG: Of course.
JC: Underpowered, but stylish and cool. Just a cool car. I had one of those, and then next car I bought was a 1974 2.7-liter Porsche 911S. Then various other cars came and went.
TG: My daily driver is a ’76 911S. It had a 2.7, but we just swapped it out for a 3.2.
JC: I should send you pictures. I’ve got four Porsches, and they’re all in various extremes of outlaw. I have a 1959 convertible that was factory ordered with a Speedster windscreen. That’s kind of cool with a 912 motor in that. Very Emory, very low bar, very sort of racey. Then there’s a 1962 356. That’s really hot rodded to hell with a big motor, a 912 motor in it; 1996 996 brakes on it. Just a completely mental machine. Then I have a 1971 911T that we got a 3.2 motor in it. That’s an interesting car. Then the one that makes no sense whatsoever is a 1978 930 bored and stroked…with the turbos taken off. It’s a bit of a monster. I bought it that way.
Anyway, so back to the story of cars. That was my first Porsche. Then you make a few bucks. I had a Pantera. Then you make a few more bucks…
TG: What was it like to have a Pantera in Los Angeles the ’80s?
JC: I think you just said it. What was it like to have a Pantera in Los Angeles in the ’80s? You absolutely said it. That’s exactly it. You said it all. You drive the Pantera, you’re in Los Angeles, you’re in the ’80s and you’re in the rock ’n roll business, right? You figure out everything that goes along with that. It’s all true. Then I made a few more dollars. I bought and sold a few businesses, and I bought a 1972 Ferrari 365 GTC4. Classic front engine, 12 cylinder car. At the time, I had an option to buy a Daytona Competizione that, God help me for my sins, I didn’t, which I should’ve.
Then you go through various cars, and it’s like collecting anything. You love them all, but they’re sort of…what does it all mean? You end up buying cars and you end up with various Porsches, you end up with various. Then you have a couple of Mustangs and then you go through all that. Then you wake up one morning and you own really serious cars like Ferrari Lusso, a Daytona, and a Maserati Ghibli Spyder convertible, and Lamborghini 350 GT. You end up with all these just pretty cool cars.
You wake up one morning and you’re driving this Lusso and it’s a cool car, but you say to yourself, “I have this really cool car, what does it really mean to me?” Well, it doesn’t really mean a lot to me. It means I can afford it, so I bought it, and it’s kind of cool. Then I bought this Group 4 Lancia Stratos.
JC: It’s converted, it was a factory car, but a privateer. It was originally sold to a doctor in Turin who campaigned the car. It did the Monte Carlo rally in 1976. I bought that car and brought it into America, and I suddenly realized that I really liked cars. I have this 1975 Lancia Stratos and then it got really, really out of control from there, because then I began to relive my youth, and started to think a lot about cars. You know, what are cars and what do cars mean to me?
I realized that the Ferrari F40 and the Ghibli and all these really cool cars are phenomenal pieces of automotive engineering and phenomenal pieces of art, but I have about as much in common with those cars now as I do anything else, but I have an enormous amount in common with rally cars because that was the grassroots motorsport where I grew up. Every farmer had a Mk1 Ford Escort, rivet-on fiberglass flares and then turbo steel wheels around to get a bit more traction, and then would scream around the countryside.
Billy Coleman won the RAC Rally in one, and Stratos’, so rallying really is what my attraction to motor sports was. Long story short, as the market improved for exotic automobiles, all of the various exotica, the Ferraris went and the Maseratis went and the Lamborghinis went, and then I woke up one morning and I owned a Group 4 Stratos. I then have a 1969 Lancia Fulvia Fanalone Group 4 factory car. Those two are pretty cool.
TG: Uhhhh, yeah…
JC: Then I bought a Martini Lancia 037, and I bought that from Giuseppe Volta, who’s like the factory guy. He’s the guy, so I bought an 037 Martini car from him. Then I wanted a Delta Integrale so I bought a Delta Integrale. The Delta Integrale we own is probably one of the best Delta Integrales because it’s the car that won the 1988 World Championship driven by Miki Biasion.
Why that’s important is there’s probably more Group A Delta Integrales in the world than was ever actually created. It was unibody, built in Turin, and some of them went off to get turned into rally cars, and some went off to get turned into family sedans, but with the value of these cars, our friends in Italy will be knocking them off and faking them, so it’s important to have the correct provenance—and how do you find the provenance of a used rally car because it’s not exactly the easiest thing. Long story short, we track them all.
We found a Miki Biasion car from 1988 after it was finished and it won the World Championship, what was a used rally car worth? It was sold and it went to Australia, and it was then campaigned in Australia by the Australian equivalent of Billy Coleman, a fellow called Greg Karr, an Australian home-grown sort of rally icon. He went on to win everything in Australia and New Zealand in the car in the end of ’88 and the beginning of ’90 into ’91. He won rallies in New Zealand, the Tasman Series, Western Australia, Eastern Australia, he won all those rallies in the car. In the back end of 1991 it was another used race car, so what happened? It was shoved in a shed.
We pulled it out of a shed in Sydney, Australia literally covered in dust and full of the Sydney Morning Herald newspapers. Pulled it out of a shed, put it on an airplane, flew it into Los Angeles, and completely restored the car.
TG: That is incredible. Literally, I don’t believe you.
JC: [Laughs] We got that car. We got a fantastic 037 that was driven by Miki Biasion and driven in the New Zealand Rally. I’ve done the history of all these cars. How cool is that, right? I got the Fulvia, which was owned by another doctor and campaigned all over Tenerife and Spain, and then we’ve got the Lancia Stratos. That was great and then it’s like, “Okay, what are we missing here?”
Well, obviously, we’re missing the S4. If you want to bookend Group B from ’82 to ’86, you start with the 037 which is the last two wheel drive to win a World Rally Championship. You got the 037, and then at the back end of it obviously is the monster of them all, the S4. Obviously Henri Toivonen, that was the end of that when he crashed. Of the twenty-eight that were made, you want to make sure that you get one that’s a Martini car. You want to make sure that it wasn’t crashed. You’re checking all these boxes.
Long story short, we found them in Italy, chassis number 2-0-8. Chassis number 2-0-8 was an interesting car and it was a Martini car. It competed in one World Rally Championship as a Martini car, but what it was, was that every race, it was the test car in every race. Biasion would’ve driven it. Toivonen would’ve driven it. This was the test car for all the races that the Delta S4 was in on the World Rally Championship.
As a test car that’s very cool, and then when it was done it went on to become a Jolly Club car, which is sponsored by Totip, which is the Italian lottery commission, it was the sponsor. It won in Mille Miglia in ’86, and then it went on to win a whole bunch of other things and it competed in the Sardinian Rally and all that. We were lucky to find that car.
Then the Delta, it’s a classic story on the Delta. You know who Mike Sheahan is?
TG: I do.
JC: Mike’s a friend of mine, and Mike’s a bit of a character. I’m lucky, I’ve got a few dollars but I don’t have a lot of time. Mike’s certainly got time, and if you got dollars you can buy his time. Mike tracks cars, so I said, “Mike, listen. Jump on a plane, go to Italy, and just make sure this is kosher and let’s put the deal together”. This is a really sort of funny car story. We find the car, it’s in this lockup, it’s just north of Milan. The car’s absolutely perfect. Mike gets there and he proceeds to take out his camera and start writing stuff down. The owner of the cars said, “What are you doing?” Seriously, the car is up on jacks.
They wait for about ten minutes and the guy’s mechanic shows up, and they open the closet and they take out the overalls, put the overalls on, the gloves on, they check the entire car, they put the wheels on, drop it down off the jacks, put it on race truck, take it to the track, spin it around for twenty minutes. Everybody’s happy, the car looks great, bring it back, go for a three hour lunch.
Halfway through the three hour lunch, the Italian fellow who owns the car says, “We realize the car’s going to America”. The guy’s a complete shit. Completely loses it. Has a complete shit fit. “This is car is not going to America. This car is not going to some hedge fund guy, some dotcom guy that’s got the big book of ‘I’m rich I should own this, this, and this’. No way. This is heritage. Don’t you realize what this car has done? This is Group B, blah blah blah, no way, there’s no appreciation. Not going to have it.”
TG: Go on.
JC: The guys totally torqued up about it. Sheahan’s like, “Look, dude, it’s cool. It’s an Irish guy”. “What do you mean it’s an Irish guy?” “Pull your computer up. Google ‘John Campion Lancias’—there’s more crap going to come up than you can shake a stick at.”
The guy’s reading all this stuff, he’s about to watch a little movie, he’s like, “This is all good, bellissimo, bellissimo, this is good.” He’s all happy.
Then what happens, what happens then? I had just sold my Daytona we had won couple years ago in Amelia Island. The Plexinose Daytona, it was a hundred point car, perfect car. I sold the Plexinose Daytona.
I bought the Plexinose Daytona when Plexinose Daytonas were cheap. I had it, I sold it, and the delta between what I bought it for and what I sold it for was a lot of money. On the advice of my accountant I did 1031 tax trade. When you do a 1031 tax trade, the car goes to a recognized IRS-approved intermediary. The intermediary of choice is a company in Los Angeles called RPN Investments.
Fine. We agreed to buy the car for, whatever is was, 850,000€ or 750,000€. An absolutely obscene amount of money. We buy the car. We send the contract over. The Italian guy has a complete fit: “I knew you were trying to rip me off. There’s no Irish guy. Go fuck yourself, this is a joke, you’re trying to steal from me, you’re stealing our heritage, no no no no”. Sheahan was like, “Hold on a second, hold on a second. It’s tax trade. He bought a car, he sold a car, he doesn’t want to pay tax on it”. Guy goes, “I don’t care. No, no, not happening”.
Here we are. I’m now mentally vested in this car. I’ve got to have this car. Sold the Daytona, I’ve got forty-five days to do something, this thing is turning into a complete frigging nightmare. What do you do? You call the Godfather. Called up Giorgio. Giorgio is one of the most respected Ferrari guys in Italy, one of the biggest Ferrari dealers. Mike called Giorgio, he said, “Giorgio, listen, I know the guy, he’s a good guy”. Giorgio gets in the middle of the transaction.
I called Giorgio and say to Giorgio, “Listen, thank you, thank you, thank you. I really appreciate you using your goodwill to facilitate this transaction for me. Thank you very much”. He goes, “John, no problem”. I said next time we’re over there we’ll go to your wife’s vineyard, we’ll have a few glasses of wine, I’ll buy you dinner, it’s all good. “Oh, John. You think my goodwill is for free? No. Twenty thousand euro.” We paid Giorgio for his good will.
Only an Italian can ask you for the goodwill. The deal wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Giorgio. Giorgio lines it up, putting the car through his books through his race team, so we ended up with the car. Now you walk into your garage and you’ve got that Fulvia, then you got the Stratos, then you got the 037, then you got the S4, and then you got the Delta Integrale. You’re feeling like, “My God, I got them all”. I’m feeling absolutely fantastic.
Then what ends up happening is you turn into you become obsessed with all these little things. Read about of these cars, and then you suddenly wake up one morning and you go, “Holy shit, I’ve got the best S4 I can get. I’ve got the best Delta Integrale I can get. I’ve got a great 037. It’s got great provenance, its chrome looks fabulous”. Now I can’t buy a Alitalia Stratos with provenance because they just don’t exist. You can’t get them. Twelve of them are in museums. Unless you want to go to Italy and put a gun against Count Rossi’s head, or Giorgio’s head and steal one, you’re not going to get one.
A correct provenance Stratos Alitalia is just not going to happen. Trying to buy a factory Fulvia, not really going to happen. Used race cars, back in the day nobody really cared in trying to trace the provenance. I got two privateers for the cars that were really difficult, difficult to prove the provenance. I got a great Stratos Group 4, great provenance, bullet-proof. Got a great Fulvia, great provenance, bullet-proof. Got FIA papers, got everything for those cars.
Then you suddenly go, “I’m missing something.” What are you missing? You’re missing what happened between…Lancia wins ’74, ’75, ’76 with the Stratos, the World Rally Championships, ’74, ’75, ’76. Then the time they appeared, the next time they won was 1983 with the 037. What happened ’77, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82? What happened?
TG: You tell me.
JC: The last year was owned by Fiat. After the Stratos did so well, Fiat goes, “We want some of that. This rally thing is really beginning to come in favor. This Group 4 thing, people are watching it, it’s getting exciting. We need some of that. We need to race on Sunday and sell on Monday”. They looked around at what product they had, they wanted it to be in the two liter class. Which was pretty much everything in Group A. That size Group 4 was normally aspirated, so they wanted something in the two liter class.
They looked around at all their econoboxes and came up with the Fiat 131. Called it Mirafiori in Europe, they called the Fiat Brava over here. They went with a two door Fiat 131, and they gave it to people, like I don’t know, Walter Röhrl, they gave it to all these mega-guys and they won another bunch of World Championships with this car. It’s a four cylinder, two liter car and it filled the gap between the Stratos and the 037. The 037 is the same engine, it’s just detuned, destroked a little bit with a supercharger on it. The same engine is again detuned, destroked with a turbo and supercharger, and that’s the S4. The Fiat 131 engine went through to become the 037 and then after that became the S4.
Clearly, I need one of these. What are you going to do? You start you doing your research, and then you call the Italians, Guido…Guido goes, “Yeah, John, of course I can find you one. I can probably get you an Italian one. It’s going to be expensive, it’s not going to be cheap”. Whatever. Through the miracle of Google I found a factory Group 4 Alitalia 131 in Belgium. I go, “Wow. The price is cheap”.
We find it in Belgium.
Then suddenly begin to talk to the guy who’s got it, begin to find out a bit more information. The car was originally campaigned in 1979 and 1980 in Michigan. An Alitalia 131 rally car. It campaigned in Michigan. It was on the front cover of Road & Track, May issue 1980. It’s like this has got to be the car. This is the car. Got to have this car.
I think in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the most expensive car I bought. Needed the car. How do you get the car? I call my guy in Paris, and my guy in Paris is Arnold. Arnold, he’s got to be on the spectrum somewhere. The guy is a real whack job. You know what his day job is? His day job is the VIN inspector for stolen automobiles in France.
TG: That’s insane that that’s even a job.
JC: Exactly. He’s that guy. Which means he’s completely obsessed with numbers and chassis numbers and engine numbers. On a weekend, you give him 500€ and he’ll go anywhere on a Friday as long as be can be back at work on a Monday and go inspect anything in Europe. Off we sent him to Belgium.
He calls me from Belgium, does a big report, says the only problem is…the car’s there, it’s this, it’s that, it’s the other thing, it’s European restoration, which means it looks good on the outside. I said, “Did you start it?” “No, the guy won’t start the car. The guy won’t run the car. We can’t drive the car so it looks like we’re buying a blown motor”. The price was right even if it did have a blown motor. We bought the car, shipped it back to America, and sure enough we discovered it’s got a blown motor.
The car is pulled apart right now and we’ve got the engine up in Savannah Engine Works; Savannah Engine up in Savannah, Georgia. We’ve got the body in another shop. We’re putting the car back together again. We’re putting the car back together again, and that’s complete the set.
Through the miracle of Instagram, Facebook, I get contacted by a guy who says, “I’m from Michigan”. I said, “That’s nice”. He goes, “I owned the car. I drove the car, I’m going to be Jacksonville. Let me come see you”. He brings me a shitload of photographs, factory documentation, sponsorship agreements. I’ve got a bunch of stuff on the car.
Meadowbrook Concours d’Elegance then called me up and said, “John, we’re going to feature rally cars this year. It’s the hundred and tenth anniversary of Lancia. We’re going to feature rally cars, and it’s the thirtieth anniversary of the end of Group B, would you bring a car or two?” I said hold on a second. Would I bring a car or two. I said if you ask me nicely, give me a couple of hotel rooms, not because I need you to pay for the hotel rooms but just because I want hotel rooms and they’re sold out, I’ll bring a truckload of cars—we’re actually taking all seven to Meadowbrook this year. Amazing.
That’s the giant history of Lancia rally cars. Then of course there’s a bunch of Porsches and there’s still a bunch of Ferraris, and there is all sorts of other stuff, but I think what I’ve discovered through my journey of all these years and starting off with a Fiat X 1/9 in America, to end up having the privilege of owning a extraordinary collection of European rally cars and helping get people in America fired up about rally cars, it’s what they say, it’s the culmination of a life well spent.
Then another day not too long ago, four months ago, I got an email from a guy called Art McCarrick in Ireland. He says, “John, I’m following you on Facebook, following you on Instagram, give me a call”. I call the guy up, and he said, “I work for Motorsports Ireland. Motorsports Ireland is the governing body sanctioned by the FIA for all motorsports in Ireland”. I said, “Absolutely fabulous”.
He says, “We got the Billy Coleman Award”. “Yeah, the Bill Coleman Award. You give it for the best young rally driver.” He says, “That’s what we do”. I say, “Fabulous—you got the got the Sexton Trophy as well, which you give to the best four-on-the-floor guy”. He says, “Yeah, we do”.
I said, “Great, what do you need from me?” He says, “We’re setting up a thing called Team Ireland. What we’re going to do is we’re going to get behind these drivers and we’re going to pick the three best rally young fellows, and three best circuit young fellows, and we’re going to get some money behind them, and we’re going to teach them nutrition, we’re going to teach them physical fitness, we’re going to teach them psychology, and we’re going to train these guys up so they can take the next level”. I said, “Great…What can I do for you?” He says, typical Irish: “You can pay for the whole thing”.
Long story short, I am the ambassador for Motorsports Ireland and extremely proud to be waving the flag in America and educating people on Motorsports Ireland and all these wonderful young drivers we have, and trying to get these guys a little bit of a leg up so that we compete internationally. There’s my story.
TG: That’s quite the life, Mr. Campion.
JC: It doesn’t suck.
Photography: Rafael Martin