For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Gordon Spice is laughing, again: “The only difficulty I had was getting out of the bloody thing!”
That ‘thing’ is his 1978 British Saloon Car Championship class-winning Ford Capri 3.0S, which he’s just driven for the first time in almost 40 years.
“I’ve got a dodgy knee and now they’ve got all these side bars and safety devices. We never had that in my day.”
Gregarious in period, modest today and always with a sparkle in his eye, the 79-year-old is surprised that the Capri is held in such high regard.
“I never knew it was going to become iconic,” he says. In ’78 it was simply another step in his prodigious motor-racing career, but now it’s established itself in the Touring Car elite.
This is a special reunion, to look back over a career in which the Ford played a starring, transformative role.
It was part of the model’s half-century celebration at this summer’s Silverstone Classic, where the first Capri to take the flag in the Historic Touring Car Challenge was awarded the one-off Gordon Spice Trophy.
There can be few to whom that would mean more than Mike Whitaker, well-known historic racer, self-confessed Spice fan (should that be Spice Boy?) and the car’s current custodian.
“I first saw this car at Oulton Park, when I was 16. I went with a friend in his brother’s 3-litre Capri,” enthuses Whitaker, for whom owning the Ford is a long-held ambition.
“I paid a lot of money for the car at auction because it was original and it was Gordon Spice’s – I wouldn’t have paid as much if it had just been one of those.”
It’s easy to see why this car-and-driver combination was so captivating for a young fan in the late ’70s.
The Capri had made Ford sexy and was lighting up the tracks.
Spice claimed class honours in the British Saloon Car Championship for six consecutive seasons from 1975, with 26 wins from ’75 to ’82 (although one, in this car, was later chalked off for what he calls “post-race hassles”).
“He was the James Hunt of Touring Cars, living the high life,” adds Whitaker. “They partied Saturday, won on Sunday.”
What’s more remarkable is that this was Spice’s other career, second to his car-accessory business.
“I always felt quite guilty about going racing,” he says, “because I knew I should really be in the office looking at spreadsheets. My main objective was always to run a successful business. In fact, the racing always did contribute quite a lot to our overall profitability, which I thought sort of justified my spending time away from the office. Well, that was my excuse, anyway.”
His racing got off to an inauspicious start in an MG TF: five entries in 1962 resulted in a pair of DNFs and a trio of DNSs.
The MG was replaced by a Morgan Plus 4 and pole at a BRSCC meeting at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day 1963 was a sign of things to come, although Spice wrote off the car at Goodwood the following August.
From ’65 he was racing Minis, mixing this with Formula 5000 appearances from 1970, and then he received a call that changed everything.
“I was running out of money; I never had a proper budget. I thought I was going to have to retire from racing,” Spice reveals. “Stan Robinson phoned me and said, ‘I’d like to go racing with our Wisharts of Crook Ford 3-litre Capri, would you be prepared to drive it?’ I said yes, and that’s where it all started.”
Second place in a Group 1 race at Ingliston, near Edinburgh, on 14 April 1973 was an encouraging debut. Fourth and second at Snetterton and Silverstone respectively proved he was a force to be reckoned with, and by the end of the year he had two race wins to his name.
“It was clear the Capri had potential straight away,” he remembers. And after a difficult 1974, with the failed development of the Wisharts-owned Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda and just one Capri race (fourth, at Brands Hatch), Spice fired a warning shot to the BSCC field when he claimed third overall and first in class at 1975’s season-opener at Mallory Park.
It would be his best result of the year, before an F5000 crash in August while testing, also at Mallory, terminated his single-seater career and his ’75 season.
But he’d already done enough to win the 2500-3500cc class of the BSCC. “And then they knocked out the big class, which I was delighted about,” he chuckles.
“It was the right thing to do, not because it gave us the chance to shine, but because they weren’t really cars raced in Britain – you didn’t see any Camaros or Mustangs. I found myself suddenly in the position where we could win races overall, which was very motivating.”
He won on his return, taking the chequer at the first round of the 1976 BSCC at Brands Hatch. It was the first of four victories that year, en route to his second class championship.
“What makes it good as a racing car, and a road car, is that it’s very easy to drive,” he explains.
“That means you’re confident driving it and you can actually take risks, calculated ones, and drive the balls off it knowing that you’re going to be safe. It’s predictable, it’s got good aerodynamics, it’s a pretty shape, it’s comfortable, it’s got everything going for it. Even today, I felt comfortable straight away. It was nice to drive the Capri again.”
It wasn’t all smooth going in ’76, though: “Personalities were allowed in those days – Tom [Walkinshaw] and I used to fight like Kilkenny cats; we had a long-standing enmity.”
It all came to a head at the season finale at Brands: “I had to come no worse than third to win the class, Tom had to finish first. I was on pole and Tom, on the first corner at Paddock, came inside me and pushed me off. We both scrabbled round and I got him back at Druids and pushed him off – it was like a stock-car race.
“The marshals were going mad, phoning race control saying, ‘There’s a couple of lunatics out there!’ Afterwards, we got called to race control and I said, ‘Tom, you’ve got to bullshit at your best now, we’re going to lose our licences if you don’t.’ Tom was brilliant, of course. He said, ‘Gordon wouldn’t do that to me at all, we’re friends.’ It was this big love-in, but hating each other – and we got away with a warning!”
Given the hard lives these cars led, it’s surprising that so many survive.
Spice has certainly been casting admiring glances over ‘his’ now Whitaker-run Capri: “Mike is one of the best, he knows what he wants and he’s got integrity. The standard of preparation is unbelievable; they’re looking better, actually, than they did in period – and some of them are going faster.”
Perhaps the fact that this was the car in which he enjoyed his most successful season, with seven outright wins and his fourth class title, helped preserve the Ford.
It still bears its branding from C&SC’s sister title Autocar, a shrewd move from the ever-savvy Spice: “I figured that if you’ve got a magazine, you’re going to get good coverage for the other sponsors from that magazine. That is exactly what happened.”
Today, in the Silverstone sunshine, the Capri’s pillar-box red paint and simple, familiar lines belie what has gone into its upkeep.
“I’ve had it four years,” says Whitaker. “It had been restored. Then we took it to Nigel Reuben Racing, who runs all my cars, and said, ‘OK, let’s take it apart and put it back together.’ I think you’ve always got to do that with a racing car.”
It was a restoration that returned the car to its full period spec, even if some took a little convincing: “There were a couple of things on it about which Capri experts said, ‘That’s not right, that’s not period.’ Then when Gordon saw the car he was like, ‘I had that made for that car.’
“It’s got a unique, very small centre console that looks as if somebody made it in their shed. We thought it was wrong and should be replaced, but Gordon said, ‘No, I had that made.’ So when you looked at it with Gordon, there were quite a few things on it that confirmed it absolutely was his car.”
Every owner of the car is known, and its provenance and originality are vital to Whitaker: “A guy came up to me at Goodwood and said that he had some pics of the car in period at Silverstone. He had an interior photo, an engine shot and three of it in the pits.
“The car has got an unusual dash – not the original Capri six-dial item, more like a competition dashboard – and when we got it historically papered the FIA said it had to have a Capri dash. We produced the photo and they let us keep it.”
Whitaker’s passion is infectious: “The car’s 75% original, even the seat, which has to be new. Corbeau, which Gordon used in period, built a new one, replica-covered; it looks like an old seat covering, it’s fantastic.”
So it’s a keeper? “Absolutely,” he replies without hesitation.
“That’s Gordon’s real car. It changes the way you race; I have other cars that are not period and when people are really pushing around near you, you’re a little less worried than in this.
“People say I should build a copy and race that instead, but that’s too complicated.”
Spice, meanwhile, is happier with a watching brief. “Capris were very good to me in my career,” he considers, “but I’ve no desire to go racing again.
“I must’ve had a bit of talent because I was always quick, I think it’s something you’re either born with or you’re not. I never went to a gym or anything like that. We used to get pissed out of our heads the night before a race.
“But we were young; you shake your head and get on with it. One of the reasons I retired was because they were talking about bringing breathalysers onto the grid, which would’ve worried me a lot!
“I’m just very lucky that I can look back on quite a successful time. I’m happy with that, I’ve made a lot of good friends on the way.”
Images: Jakob Ebrey Photography/Motorsport Images