John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

| 16 Dec 2021
Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

Around 25 years ago Britain’s premier race series was going global via highlights reels that majored on loaded dices and quick quips.

The perfect showcase for a Jock the Lad – okay, so he was in his 40s – who was always on it and often off-message.

He featured in the clash that put the British Touring Car Championship on the front pages in 1992, and six years later beat a Formula One World Champion to win arguably its best race.

The latter victory was John Cleland’s 17th and the last for ‘The Chicken’– his nickname for Vauxhall’s flag-waving griffin – in an association that stretched back to the end of the ’70s.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

Despite offers from rivals, Cleland was a Vauxhall driver for the majority of his career

Though offered drives by most of the manufacturers that flocked to the 2-litre Super Touring category, the Scot remained a loyal Luton lieutenant.

“Vauxhall was very good to me,” he says. “They paid good money and by and large gave me a car capable of winning.

“I dealt directly with the top brass and before ’95 had managed finally to persuade them to give me a two-year contract. I had a wife and four kids and wanted security.

“Of course, I won the championship that year and the phone was ringing off the hook all winter. Audi wanted me to drive its quattro alongside Frank Biela.

“That would have been fabulous, and I’m sure lawyers could have got me out of my contract, but I’d shaken hands so didn’t pursue it.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

Cleland’s ’95 BTCC title led to an influx of approaches from other teams

“Back in 1992, Vic Lee offered me the drive that went to [eventual champion] Tim Harvey. I’d known Vic for a long time and we were mates, but I decided against it.

“Had he said that it was BMW Munich who had told him to sign me I probably would have jumped ship. But I only found that out 20 years later.

“Both might have led to other things – Frank won Le Mans five times with Audi – and that’s my only regret. I went to Le Mans with some mates to spectate in the mid-’70s and had a ball. But never did I consider racing there.”

That’s a bit of a theme: neither did he consider racing a single-seater – despite a jockey’s frame – nor for a long time professionally.

Though inculcated from a tender age by his car dealer/chief scrutineer dad Bill, a friend of Jim Clark’s, motorsport (in whatever he could afford) was just a bit of fun that involved (increasingly) long trips in (eventually) a converted triple-axle Glasgow school bus – six berths, a workshop and a pee funnel!

He was joined by those selfsame mates: from autotesting a “road-smoker” Herald during his Triumph apprenticeship to rallying a Colt, via hillclimbing in Chevrons.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

Cleland’s father was wary of the risks of motorsport – here his son rolls his Ford during the 2004 Bathurst 1000

Racing, in fact, was problematic. Clark’s death in ’68 had made a father wary of his son’s circuit pretensions: outings at Ingliston became a rarity.

“I didn’t do karting,” says Cleland. “I had one but could never get the bloody thing to go. I hassled Dad until he bought me a Mini, a proper 998. We’d lower it for sprints and hillclimbs by cutting its suspension cones, then fit new ones, plus a sump guard, for autocross or rallycross.

“I had to find the cash to run it and give Dad his money back at the end of the year. Only then would we look at the next thing.

“I thought, ‘You hard old bastard!’ But he was right. It made me look seriously at how we funded it.

“He could see that I could pedal and for 1973 bought a Chevron B8 from Tony Charnell, a local racer, for £1400 (including trailer). I got two grand for it and thought I’d been clever. It’s since been through Stirling Moss’ hands and sold recently for £285,000. Not so clever now.”

The ex-Red Rose Racing Chevron B23 that followed was bought in true car-dealer fashion, too: a bag of cash plus a Scimitar GTE. Oh, and that bus had been swapped for a Lotus Cortina: “Another economic error.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

By the turn of the 1980s, Cleland had transitioned from rallying to saloon car racing, which would bring him his greatest triumphs

Commercial considerations were at the root of a foray into the forests in ’76: “We had become Colt dealers, and I rallied one to shout about it.

“My co-driver, John Fife, worked for White Horse whisky and would fill the glovebox with miniatures.

“Whenever we fell off the road and these lunatics would come hurtling from the trees to lift us back on, he’d throw out a load of bottles. We soon had quite a following.

“My skills on the loose were less than perfect, but on Tarmac we gave everybody hassle.

“I had a laugh, met nice people and won a few things – but I was going to kill myself if I didn’t pack it in.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

A pensive John Cleland

“We became Opel dealers next and I returned to the hills with a Kadett GTE and won the 1978 Scottish Championship.

“We did the odd race, too: Ingliston, to help Graham Birrell win his championship. Saloon car racing was what was stirring me up now: 30 guys on the grid kicking the living out of each other.

“We got an Ascona i2000 for 1980: a two-door, twin-Weber 2-litre with limited-slip diff and a proper gearbox; Opel had promised to homologate it for the Production Saloon Car Championship.

“I won outright at Mallory Park against the 3-litres and probably shouldn’t have. Gerry Marshall, the king of Touring Cars, got a squad together, complained, and our car was thrown out. Opel hadn’t homologated it.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

A dominant debut in the British Touring Car Championship, claiming 11 of 13 for the class title

“We wanted to stay in the GM family so I went to Ireland and gave Frank O’Rourke – I’d helped him win his title, too – a bag of notes for an Opel Commodore, drove it to the ferry and home.

“At Thruxton, Gerry Marshall asked, ‘Been here before, son?’ I hadn’t. ‘Then you’ll not be in the top 12 on the grid.’ I stuck it on pole.”

Six seasons spent rubbing doorhandles – even when teammates – with seasoned pros such as Marshall, Tony Lanfranchi and Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams stood Cleland in good stead, as did his subsequent sharing of Thunder saloons with veteran Vince Woodman.

The latter cars provided a major step up in performance and helped tighten the GM knot.

“That started in 1986 after my father had gone to Australia on ‘holiday’, met Peter Brock and bought one of his ‘05’ Commodores,” says Cleland. “It looked like an Opel Senator but was badged as a Holden. We won the championship.

“Then we switched to the Carlton: a plastic-bodied 6-litre 700bhp V8 monster. We had a few problems with it and were beaten to the 1987 title but got it right the following year and won every race bar one: a puncture at Brands Hatch.”

The BTCC Vauxhall Astra GTE of 1989 – the year in which Cleland became a Volvo dealer! – was tame in comparison but provided the foundation of national racing’s most memorable combination of the 1990s.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

The 1989 championship went down to the final race – Cleland clinched it after carving through the field

“I had at that stage no idea how big the BTCC was going to become,” he says. “Alan Gow, then in the background working for Andy Rouse, probably saw a really good marketing angle: we need the winner of the races to be the champion.

“Although I won the title in 1989 I felt as if I’d cheated because I’d only had to battle with Golfs in my class. “In some cases there weren’t enough and we had to prop it up with another Astra.

“It went down to the final race and I had been told by a BMW driver – who happened to be Scottish – that the word in the paddock was that somebody was going to take me off.

“I have no idea whether that was true but I decided to ‘stall’ on the grid before the warm-up lap; I made out as if I couldn’t get any gears. Only my wife knew what I was going to do.

“It had been wet in qualifying, so I was up among the faster BMWs: dangerous territory. I set off after ‘Silverstone Sid’ in his red Jaguar fire-tender, which meant I’d have to start from the back. Fine by me.

“I picked off my classmates and won the championship. But Super Touring was much more my cup of tea: winner takes all.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

Cleland (left) and Will Hoy (right) getting physical at Thruxton during the '91 British Touring Car Championship season

The capacity classes reduced to two in 1990; by ’91, every car on the grid was a 2-litre. BMWs were to the fore but Cleland and the new-shape Cavalier gave them not a minute’s peace.

“It was brave to take them on,” he says. “We led the way for the others.

“We tried a rear wheel-drive version with an M3 axle and, though it was superbly balanced, there was too much power loss through the drivetrain. It felt sluggish versus the front-wheel drive.”

Runner-up to Will Hoy in 1991, he was one of three with a shot at the title at the ’92 Silverstone finale.

His swapping paint and ‘pleasantries’ – “The man’s an animal!” – with BMW hired gun Steve Soper was frowned upon by racing’s establishment, but pounced upon by the mainstream media and the man in the street.

As an aside, the fiery Scot would have sagged like punctured bagpipes had ‘Soperman’ so much as prodded him. Those flexing pecs were in fact padding against a sternum broken in testing.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles

John Cleland (Vauxhall Cavalier) goes wheel-to-wheel with Steve Soper (BMW M3)

The stakes were increasing and the pace hotting up as Cleland slipped to fourth overall in 1993.

Friendships were counting for less as manufacturers dug more deeply and incoming teams squabbled over bigger pieces of a larger pie.

“Dave Cook had built, prepped and run my Opel Monza, the Carlton, Astra and early Cavaliers,” says Cleland. “I warned him that Ray Mallock was coming after us and that he was working with a thing called a computer; ‘Cookie’ was still a pen-and-paper man.

“Those Ecurie Ecosse Cavaliers were fragile and would break silly things that Dave would have two of, such as throttle cables, but they were quick.”

Mallock won the deal for 1994 and the garage was frosty for a time.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

Aero innovations revitalised the Cavalier in its final year

It came to a head at the FIA Touring Car World Cup at Donington Park when Mallock race-engineered Anthony Reid, then starring in the Japanese series, in a Cavalier on Michelins rather than Dunlops.

“I admired Ray as an engineer but he liked drivers who talked equations and bump-steer and this and that,” says Cleland. “I’m not paid to engineer the car as well.

“What I was, though, was consistent. I could replicate a lap time all the time in testing. If an adjustment was good or bad you could see it on the stopwatch.

“Ray couldn’t understand me. I was the joker who didn’t visit the factory every 20 minutes. I realised that his love was elsewhere and frankly I didn’t give a toss: my contract was with Vauxhall.”

Cleland out-qualified Reid and was leading when the race was red-flagged. His restart lasted less than a lap due to a wayward Gabriele Tarquini.

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

Cleland was near unbeatable around Donington Park, such as here in 1995, and it was the scene of seven of his 17 outright BTCC race victories

The Cavalier, entering its sixth and final season, was by now surrounded by newer saloons deemed more suitable to competitive adaptation.

The advent of wings and splitters, however, breathed new aero into it – and persuaded Cleland and Mallock to meet each other halfway for ’95.

“We tested wing packages at Silverstone, including the one the wind tunnel said was the best,” says Cleland. “Well, it wasn’t.

“The team was worried because whichever we chose was going to be homologated and used around the world. I just told them to look at the stopwatch.

“We went to a BTCC test at Brands Hatch and everything was fine except that no lap times were showing on my dash. My engineer said, ‘You won’t believe them.’ We were fastest.

“I told them to wash, polish, put the car in the truck and bring it to the first race.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

Cleland’s business may have suffered in ’95, but his fortunes on track did not

“I then went to Ray and told him that I would employ a manager to run my business.

“I also guaranteed him the championship – and asked for Phil Barker as my engineer; I didn’t want Ray engineering me.”

The prescient Cleland took the opening round at his beloved Donington and a sequence of four mid-season wins put him in the box seat.

“The British Grand Prix support race was key,” he says. “I had a coming-together at the first corner that took a slice out of a wheel – but the tyre held its pressure. It held it for another 10 years… and it’s still in my garage!

“When I saw what had happened I thought, ‘We can do this.’ I reckoned the car more than capable, and that all I had to be was consistent.

“My business suffered but I won the title. My relationship with Mallock, however, remained cool.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

The Vectra years were less kind to Vauxhall and Cleland, starting in 1996 and combining for just two wins in four years

Interminable difficulties with the replacement Vectra didn’t help – “Its back end wasn’t ‘connected’. A horror!” – and Cleland would not win again until 1998, by which time the Vectra had been assumed by the Triple Eight team.

His other victory at Donington that season would be achieved after a monumental struggle against Nigel Mansell’s Ford Mondeo in the wet.

Super Touring had reached its apogee. Budgets were becoming unsustainable and, with their increasingly expensive and efficient cars becoming increasingly less spectacular, manufacturers were beginning to drift away.

“There were several reasons behind my decision to ‘retire’ at the end of ’99,” says Cleland. “Triple Eight had a plan that maybe didn’t include me; I had no problem with that.

“But my father wasn’t well – he passed away in 2000 – and was no longer able to look after the business. I wanted to race GTs or something like that; competitive, but not quite at the same level.”

Classic & Sports Car – John Cleland

Down Under in Supercars at Bathurst

“I got out at the right time because the BTCC was not very healthy for the following few years.”

It had lost its talisman, too; its public face and voice: “You have no idea how often Vauxhall would call on Monday morning to tell me, ‘You’ve got to be careful what you say.’

“Despite what it might have sounded like I always thought before I opened my mouth and generally it was said for effect, often with tongue in cheek.

“Vauxhall got its money’s worth. But equally I had realised that if I did and said the right thing in and out of the car, I could extend my career longer than I’d anticipated.”

He hadn’t yet ‘retired’, of course, and in 2001 finished runner-up in Australia’s Bathurst 1000 as co-driver to Brad Jones. In a Ford. Whoa!

I am going to have to stop right there.

Images: Getty/Vauxhall/Newspress


Mazda at Le Mans: 30 years on

19 undervalued classics from the 1990s

Inside Vauxhall’s ideas factory