Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

| 31 May 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

He won by crashing.

Chris Sclater is all smiles as he recalls an event that should have ended his motorsport career early; instead, it was amplified.

“It was on the 1969 Scottish International Rally,” he remembers.

“I was in my Lotus Cortina Mk1, which was a relatively old car, with Peter Valentine as co-driver.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Chris Sclater with his ex-Hannu Mikkola Ford Escort Twin Cam at the Circuit of Ireland rally in 1970

“I was pretty inexperienced, but going well,” he continues. “We were on the second stage of day two at the top end of Loch Long.

“I don’t think I was trying too hard, but there was a long, fast left-right kink and we didn’t make the right part.

“The car understeered and off we went down a 60ft drop. The car landed on its roof, but we were okay.

“Then a few days later I had the phone call that changed my life. Bill Barnett, the Ford Competition Department rally manager, asked if I would meet him for a chat.”

What Chris neglects to mention is that he had been leading the event at the time, with works Saab man Simo Lampinen his nearest challenger prior to the off and the field comprising Roger Clark, Brian Culcheth and Tony Fall.

This relative unknown had shone in a car that shouldn’t have been in the hunt, and the right people had noticed.

It marked the jumping-off point for a decade that would result in the accumulation of more than a little silverware.

Success was earned the hard way, though.

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Impressive performances in Peter McDowell’s Lotus Cortina put Chris Sclater on Ford Competition Department’s radar

“I grew up in East Sussex,” continues Chris. “When I was 11 we moved to a small farm, which hadn’t been lived in for about 30 years.

“I enjoyed taking things apart and learning how they worked.

“I drove the family tractor as much as possible and did some ploughing on the farm next door.

“Word that I loved driving reached someone in the village, and they gave me a 1932 Austin Seven.

“I was only 12, but I removed the body, lowered the steering column and took off the silencer, then tore around a circuit Dad laid out in a six-acre field.”

The decision to take up rallying occurred more by chance than planning.

“In 1966, I started a mechanical engineering course at the College of Technology in Brighton,” says Chris. “I hadn’t been there long when I noticed a battered Ford Anglia in the car park.

“It turned out it was owned by Peter McDowell, Sydney Allard’s nephew. He used it for road rallies and I took an interest. He suggested that I get involved, do some marshalling.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

After rallying, Chris ran cars for Chrysler and eventually worked in farming

“I was hooked straight away and bought Peter’s car after he upgraded to a hotter Anglia with a 1.5-litre engine,” remembers Chris.

“My first rally as a competitor was the Olympic that same year, but I don’t remember much about it other than that I finished 24th.”

He continues: “I was on Alan Allard’s service crew for that year’s RAC Rally, when he was competing in a Lotus Cortina, and after college I worked at the Allard Performance Centre in Putney selling go-faster parts: lowering kits, springs, superchargers and so on.

“It also meant that I got to meet a lot of new people, many of whom were involved in rallying.

“I carried on competing in the Anglia before graduating to Peter’s bigger-engined car, then he lent me his Lotus Cortina for the 1968 Gulf International Rally.

“I had done maybe a dozen rallies at that point, and this one was a big deal. There were 79 special stages across five days. I finished ninth with Martin Holmes as my co-driver.”

Chris was in fifth on that year’s RAC Rally before retiring, having acquired the car along the way. He was second on the Welsh Rally in 1969, but the Cortina was demolished north of the border next time out.

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Chris Sclater took the Datsun Violet to sixth place in the 1975 Scottish Rally

The upshot of him visiting Barnett shortly thereafter was unexpected: apparently he was too polite to be a rally driver.

Even so, team principal Stuart Turner promised some support.

Before long, Chris was offered an ex-Hannu Mikkola Escort Twin Cam at what you might euphemistically call a ‘favourable rate’. That and an allowance for spares from the works stores.

He tackled his first overseas event, the Coupe des Alpes, barely a month later. In 1970, Chris placed second on the Circuit of Ireland behind Clark and won the Manx Trophy Rally.

Works gigs had him chauffeuring Turner in the Alps to check cars through service points, performing recces ahead of the World Cup Rally, and testing at Bagshot alongside Clark.

“It was during one of my visits to Boreham that I met Cal Withers,” Chris recalls. “He had a car-breaking business, Withers of Winsford, and sponsored Roy Fidler.

“At that time, Cal had diversified into selling Ford Competition parts.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

The 1969 Coupe des Alpes was Chris Sclater’s first overseas event; he still has the blue rally plate

“From that first meeting he supported me for three years,” says Chris. “He would cover my entry fees, fuel costs, travelling expenses and so on, and I would have his business name on my cars.

“In October of that year I was offered another works Escort – XOO 354F – which had only competed once. Mikkola had driven it on the 1969 Alpine Rally, before which it had been used a development vehicle.

“It was a very reasonable price, and I got good money for my old car, which helped. Ford then lent me a BDA engine as part of its development programme, so my Escort Twin Cam became an RS 1600.

“I retired from the first event, the Tour of Dean, with axle failure, which I half-expected. Then it started to go well; 1971 was a special year.

“I came second again on the Circuit of Ireland, won the International Scottish Rally, was second to Clark on the Texaco Rally and so on.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Chris Sclater slides his Ford Escort RS 1800 to fifth place overall at the 1976 Mintex Rally

Chris went on to bag victories on the Burmah Rally and the 1971 Lindisfarne Rally before wrapping up the Uniroyal British Rally Championship title on The Dukeries.

He did so less than a week after returning from an excursion to Portugal, where a bid for glory on the TAP Rally ended with the chassis rails kinked and windscreen pillars bent: cue the mother of all rushed rebuilds.

It wasn’t all rallying Ford Escorts, either; Chris also dabbled in rallycross – successfully so – in addition to circuit racing in the Mexico Challenge.

On top of all that, he competed on quarter-mile ovals in Stadium Racing, the short-lived rival to the Hot Rod category.

A year later Chris turned professional, running his Escort out of the David Wood Engineering workshop in Queen’s Gate Place Mews, in London’s South Kensington, while also tutoring at race circuits for Ford’s mobile Rally Schools.

“The real breakthrough for me was landing my first proper paid drive on the RAC Rally in 1973, when I drove one of the three works Datsun 240Zs,” he remembers.

Unfortunately, this outing ended in retirement, while the Fuel Crisis prompted several British rallies to be cancelled at the start of 1974.

However, Chris was a fully fledged Datsun UK-backed driver once rallying resumed.

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

On the 1976 Donegal International Rally: “Those Avengers were immaculate, but the BRM engine was very peaky. It was no match for a BDA-powered Escort”

The drive with Datsun lasted two years (the second season without direct funding from the UK importer). He was initially armed with an ex-Harry Källström 260Z before a Group 2 Datsun Violet arrived from Japan.

Chris was nothing if not promiscuous, though, and signed on with the works Toyota squad for the 1975 RAC Rally.

“I had a Corolla Levin with the 16-valve 1600 engine,” he says. “It was a superb car, one of the best I ever drove, but that event was the biggest disappointment of my career.

“On day three I was fighting over third place with Tony Pond, who was in an Opel Kadett. I put two wheels on the dirt on a fast right-hander in Kielder Forest and that was all it took. We went down a bank.”

More than half an hour was lost extricating the stricken car. “Martin Holmes and I finished 23rd and still won our class, but that was no consolation,” he continues.

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Chris Sclater reflects on his rally career, from which he has fond memories and more than a little silverware

A year later it was back to running his own Escort in the British Rally Championship, this time an ex-Clark RS 1800, before the works Chrysler squad made an unexpected approach: might he be interested in replacing his friend Colin Malkin in a Group 4 Avenger BRM?

“It was a great little team, run by Des O’Dell with Wynne Mitchell as his second in command,” says Chris.

“Those Avengers were immaculately turned out, the problem being that the 16-valve BRM engine was very peaky. As such, the Avenger was no match for a BDA-powered Escort.”

It was no great surprise, therefore, that an announcement was made on the eve of the RAC Rally that Chris was to drive for Dealer Team Vauxhall in 1977.

He would join Pentti Airikkala for a tilt at the RAC British Rally Championship aboard the rapid new Chevette HS 2300.

His relationship with the Shepreth outfit wasn’t always harmonious, mind.

“I was happy at DTV, for the most part,” he says. “Bill Blydenstein ran a good team and was a proper gentleman, but being teammate to Airikkala wasn’t easy.

“I accepted my position as a number two, but learned that it didn’t sit too well if I got close to his times or was sometimes faster.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

The Chris Sclater Automotive-prepped Peugeot Talbot Italia Talbot Sunbeam Lotus won the Italian Group 2 championship title in 1981

An international programme beckoned for the following season: “In the end, Jimmy McRae partnered Airikkala for 1978 while I moved to the all-new DTV Castrol Europe programme, which operated out of Antwerp.

“I was happy to make the move. I had two full-works-spec Chevettes, a recce car and two British mechanics.”

Chris and teammate Martin Holmes won the 12 Heures de l’Est and led the 1000 Pistes on day one, only for a problem with the front dampers to lose them time. They finished an embattled third.

Chris considers his third-place finish on that year’s Tour de France Automobile as being among his most satisfying results.

“On the last day there were 16 stages,” he recalls. “Martin Holmes and I were fastest on 11.

“I think we could have finished second, had we not had a problem with a split oil cooler early on, but there was no catching Michèle Mouton [who won in a Fiat-Abarth 131 Rally]. I am proud of how we went on the Tour.”

Classic & Sports Car – Chris Sclater: meet rallying’s unsung hero

Retired rally ace Chris Sclater reminisces on what he rightly believes to be a golden era of rallying

“I did the San Remo Italy and the RAC Rally after that, but retired from both. All three DTV Chevettes died on the RAC.

“I decided while I was sitting in the car waiting for help that I had driven my last rally.”

But he had not retired from rallying. Instead, he regrouped and formed Chris Sclater Automotive to field cars for Chrysler Ireland.

He subsequently prepared the Sunbeam Lotus for the Italian concessionaire’s team, winning the national Group 2 title along the way in 1981, before switching his allegiance to Citroën.

He ran a variety of Visas in the British Open Rally Championship for the UK importer, only for a family crisis to abruptly call time on his motorsport in 1984.

Chris later moved into general engineering before making a return to farming. Rallying no longer holds an interest.

“I suppose every generation looks back and reckons they competed in a golden era,” he muses. “I think I probably did. Modern rallies, at least in the World Rally Championship, are essentially a series of sprints.

“It used to be that actually finishing was vital; you had to keep the car alive for five days and nights. If you crashed out, you were done. Now you can have your car rebuilt and rejoin the next day.

“I follow motorsport, but my main interest these days is NASCAR. I am a huge fan and have become an avid viewer. I never miss a race.”

Images: John Bradshaw/Sclater Archive

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