Rover, Rover, We Call A Pair Of 1980s SD1 Vitesse Touring Cars Over
Photography by Will Broadhead
You’re at Silverstone in 1986. The legendarily quick Kiwi and 1967’s Formula 1 World Champ Denny Hulme is preparing to drive alongside Jeff Allam in the ‘86 Istel RAC Tourist Trophy. The now fifty-year-old New Zealander is driving for Tom Walkinshaw in the TWR Rover SD1 Vitesse, marking his return to European circuits after some time away racing Holdens and BMWs south of the equator. He’s seeking his fourth victory in an event that he had last won 18 years ago.
After a race ruled by attrition, “the Bear,” as Hulme was affectionately known, brought the big Rover home in first place, and while Hulme and Allam took the accolades in the spotlight on the top podium step, chassis TWR/014 added another victory to the case of silverware earned in its lifetime, both at the cutting edge in period and in historic racing circles today.
These days the Group A machine resides in Warwickshire, wearing the Istel colours of that famous victory at Silverstone, and is looked after by the experienced team at AWS. Across the car’s lifetime, it has been driven by luminaries such as Hulme, Allam, Brancatelli, and Jean-Louis Schlesser, as well as picking up trophies across Europe under the TWR banner before being run by privateers later in its life.
It’s the kind of varied existence—told in various liveries—that one might expect of a racing car of that era, especially one that survived the argy-bargy that was a hallmark of the touring car championships; door-banging racing at its finest.
One car that didn’t survive the cut and thrust of its racing career was TWR/010, the 1984 Rover Vitesse falling victim to the expensive car park that was created at Woodcote corner during the ’84 Tourist Trophy when the 010 car was involved in a multi-participant pileup that took place after the heavens had opened and flooded the circuit.
The car was subsequently destroyed, but sitting proudly alongside the bright white chassis 014 Vitesse at AWS is a recreation that is as close to the real thing as you’re likely to find anywhere. Built from a bare shell and constructed from the ground up with genuine TWR components, the original road going car is resplendent in its period color scheme, wearing the blue and green British Leyland colors that adorned chassis 010 before its demise.
Both cars look fabulous in their Group A homologation spec, sitting squarely and purposefully on their center-locking wheels, the Ronal Racing slick shod multi-piece wheels on 010 a staple of the early DTM and ‘80s touring car days especially. Behind them are the AP Racing brakes and Bilstein dampers that were allowed under the Group A rules, and of course the snarling Rover V8 is in fine working order.
Whereas the Istel car is laden with history and though it’s been freshened up it still sports the patina of a racing life well lived, the more recently built blue and green machine is totally crisp and near-spotless. Regardless of rock chip count, both are crying out to be raced, and it feels somewhat of a cheat to be photographing them in the static surroundings of the AWS workshop.
Under their bonnets, both house original TWR-prepared engines, the power plant in the 010 replica freshly rebuilt and sealed to current FIA historic series specs. Back in the day the motors in these things were one of the chief causes of controversy for the now-legendary TWR tweaks, including the use of Volvo rockers on the 3.5L V8s, and the engine in 014 is apparently running a developed—but never raced in period—1987-spec that reportedly unleashes nearly 400 horses. Up a sizable amount from the 335bhp that the conventional Group A engine “made do” with.
Of course, you could burn the midnight oil talking specs, tweaks and historical bending of the rules long into the night, and it’s always fascinating listening to the stories told by those much more in the know than me. Given the long and arduous competitive lives led by cars like 014, it’s degree of accuracy depends on which year or season or weekend you choose for your barometer.
You wouldn’t refer to this pair as being pretty by any typical definition, but they are brutish and powerful and have no pretense about their purpose. I’ve witnessed the might and bark of the carb-fed Group 2-spec SD1’s, but as of yet haven’t had the privilege of seeing a Group A version of the machine on track, but perhaps with one of these cars already sold and the other on the market, I may just be lucky enough to see these two used on track in anger side by side in the years to come, tossing their ungainly shapes with ballerina talent and linebacker muscle.