The 1970s were the high watermark for V8 saloon racing, certainly in Europe and definitely in the UK. The Tricentrol Super Saloon Championship was well established by the middle of the decade and had been able to draw incredibly varied grids as a result, not least the famous DTV effort spearheaded by Gerry Marshall in ‘Old Nail,’ ‘Big’ and ‘Baby Bertha.’ It was an intoxicating mix the likes of which will never be repeated, and one made all the more beguiling because it was (relatively) easy for passionate club racers and home mechanics to get involved. 

The very fact that it was possible for gifted hopefuls to have a bash at this V8 racing lark inspired some of the most interesting race cars ever to grace British asphalt, but none came close to matching this week’s Retropower Hero, the John Pope Special.

The hero of this piece, the hero in a very real sense, is one John Pope, a dairy farmer with a penchant for cars, power, and combining the two. Pope had dabbled with club level motorsport earlier in the decade with his Viva race car, and had demonstrated both pace and bravery in the process, though the demands of farming meant he was never likely to be able to climb the motorsport career ladder to the very top. 

This contemporary issue of CCC underlines just how varied the Special Saloon grid could be

Pope wasn’t merely a talented racer (something confirmed by friend and fellow RP Hero, Gerry Marshall), he was a gifted engineer and mechanic, both skills honed and perfected through the kind of day-to-day spannering that’s part and parcel of farming. Even still, those who knew Pope must have baulked when he told them he planned to build his own race car from scratch, and that he intended to use to to contest the Super Saloon Series.

Then, in 1973, Pope chanced upon the mangled, crash-damaged remains of an Aston Martin DBS V8, then one of the most powerful cars money could buy. The shell was beyond saving thanks to an impact with a tree but the engine and running gear looked to be in good order, which was enough to convince the wily farmer to take a punt.

It wasn’t long before the ex-Aston was safely tucked into Pope’s cowshed, after which the hunt for suitable bodyshell with which to pair it was commenced. His connections with Vauxhall ultimately came good, though supposedly only because Pope had taken to giving the company’s ‘top brass’ hot laps around Mallory Park in the aforementioned race Vivia. Either way a brand new, fresh-off-the-line Magnum shell was soon wending its way from Ellesmere Port to rural Herefordshire.

It takes a brave individual to cram this into the nose of a plastic Magnum, and an even braver one to bolt a pair of turbos to either side!

This was, if anything, the easy bit: Pope still had to find a means of straightening the banana-shaped Aston chassis, then working out how best to squeeze it within the confines of the diminutive Vauxhall. Fibreglass was the material of choice for this task (it was the early ’70s remember) and it would eventually form the extravagantly shaped front and rear airdamns, and most impressively of all, the arches. The latter were required to house the equally enormous wheels, a whopping 14.5 x 15in at the rear, and the only real way of transferring the Magnum’s mooted power output to the ground in an era when aerodynamic grip meant holding a chocolate bar extra tightly.

Ah yes, power – there was always destined to a lot of it, though quite how much was open to speculation for much of the car’s early development. Pope had enlisted the help of a trio of Aston Martin employees to actually get the thing sitting correctly within the Magnum, the men in question being David Morgan, Arthur Wilson and Barry Rowlege. They would go on to have a big impact on the Magnum’s eventual form and power output. 

What it lacked in finish, it more than made up for in presence

The quartet managed to crane the 5.3L NA Aston Martin V8 into position, then set about mating it to ZF 5-speed gearbox and, this being the ’70s, a Sailsbury Powerlock rear end. The engine itself actually on a steel space-framed chassis, as far back as possible and an attempt to keep much of the really heavy stuff aft of the front axle. Said space-frame was also used to anchor all suspension mountings, with the core of the front Aston Martin wishbone arrangement carried over, and for the rear, a De-Dion setup and Watts linkage.

The car was up and running (and running at well over 450bhp) by the dawn of the 1974 season, which was when Pope opted to really turn the lunacy levels up to eleven…by having the car, now christened the ‘John Pope Special,’ made road legal and MOT’d. He promptly fitted a tape deck and some belts, then hit the road. He’d proceed to drive the monstrous creation to most race meetings on most weekends, regardless of how far from his farm they happened to be.

Note the reg plate – this thing was, and remains, road legal

That debut season proved the JPS to be reliable but off the pace, and as such Pope and his trio of Aston Martin moonlighters went back to the drawing board. Their chosen route to greater performance? Forced induction, specifically a pair of mammoth AiResearch turbos with a shared waste gate, tweaked Bosch fuel injection and a lowered compression ratio (now 6.5:1) both running at between 12 and 18psi.

This after hours, ‘skunkworks’ of a project would actually go onto play a role in the similarly turbocharged Aston Martin Bulldog, so the JPS can claim to have played a small yet significant role in the continued success of one of the UK’s foremost automotive brands.

The results of all this late-night, cowshed-based boosting were nothing short of spectacular, with power jumping to between 800 and 900bhp depending on the level of boost Pope happened to be running at the time. It remained road legal of course, and an illicit late-night blast up the M1 saw the manic farmer touch a mind-melting 180mph!

John dices with one of several Skoda ‘modsport’ Skodas in period

Sadly for Pope and his trophy cabinet, the extra power didn’t translate to increased success. The car, normally pegged back to a modest 600bhp for the sake of reliability, was a regular points finisher throughout the 1975 and 1976 seasons, netting a handful of podiums and even an outright victory at Lydden Hill, but that was about it. It simply couldn’t hope to compete with the (relative) semi-Works might of DTV and Baby Bertha, and by the end of the decade the JPS had been all but retired.

Not that a relative lack of success prevents the John Pope Special from being one of the coolest race cars to ever bark into life. In fact, its relatively lowkey career perfectly chimes with its homebuilt, custom ethos, one best summed up by John himself when pressed as to how and why he built the thing in the first place:

“It hasn’t cost a lot to build, in fact we’ve done it all on a shoestring. If we want a new bit, say a rear axle or a diff,’ we got out and lock around the scrapyards to see what we can find.” 

1 comment

Leave a Reply

  • Fantastic! Those Super Saloon’s were awesome machines, spectacular looks and fire breathing engines.
    Are Retropower building a roadgoing version of one of these for any one??

%d bloggers like this: