This world champion endurance racer is the little Rover that could
This Austin Rover-powered racing car is the Pluckiest world champion you've never heard of
When you think of the Group C endurance racing era, the Porsche 962C, Jaguar XJR-6 and Sauber C8 probably spring to mind - an eclectic mix of turbocharging, natural aspiration and a variety of engine layouts.
Think back to the '50s and '60s however and the endurance racing scene was a whole different ball game. The team that succeeded in those post-war decades came from Scotland - a team based in Edinburgh called Ecurie Ecosse. Using Jaguar XK120s, C-Types and most notably D-Types, the Scots amassed two Le Mans 24 Hour wins in 1956 and 1957 along with many other notable high-placed finishes.
The team shut up shop in 1971 but the flame was reignited in the '80s, astonishingly with an Austin Rover sticker merged into the livery. Competing in the Group C2 category (a series that cut team costs by limiting fuel consumption for privateers and small manufacturers), Ecurie Ecosse was back on the scene with its Ecosse C2 racecar - one of a family of three prototypes.
Now, the one that interests me most (considering my obsession with British classics) is the 1986 car named 'Reggie', which was powered by the Rover V64V engine. The true name of the car is the Ecosse Rover C286, with 'Reggie' coming from the nickname for the team manager's own Rover road car, in case you were wondering.
The V64V engine code stood for a V6 layout with four valves per cylinder - the exact engine that had already been shoehorned into the MG Metro 6R4. With the capability to be tuned up to 410bhp, this V6 also used a 90-degree angle between cylinder banks to lower the centre of gravity of both the engine and the car powered by it.
The team's main aim was to win in its class at Le Mans, where in 1984 a DFL Cosworth-engined Ecosse car (C284) suffered from low fuel pressure. Then in 1985, a heavily revised car (C285) with a tiny frontal area, a flat bottom, strong aerodynamic efficiency and low fuel consumption also fell short of finishing the race, suffering from DFV engine vibrations.
For 1986 then, Ecurie Ecosse went for a powertrain that had proven itself on the rally stages of Britain and continental Europe, with reliability being the priority.
Sadly, despite the trusty V6 engine being used at 3/4 throttle the entire race, C286 led for much of the 24 hours before blowing a rear tyre at 6am that tore through a nearby connecting rod. Despite managing to get the car back to the pits, the driver accidentally refilled the car's radiator with bottled water, disqualifying the car due to strict fluid rules.
So despite three fantastic attempts, Ecurie Ecosse couldn't rekindle its success of the Jaguar era.
There was a rather tasty silver lining to offset the loss at Le Mans however - C286 had won multiple races throughout the 1986 World Sportscar Championship season.
Taking race wins at Brands Hatch, the Nürburgring, Spa (seen in the footage below) and Fuji, the little Austin Rover driven by Ray Mallock, Marc Duez and David Leslie (a legendary Scottish touring car driver) managed to overhaul the Le Mans result to take the C2 World Championship by a squeaky two points. This also happened to be the year that Derek Bell famously took the full Group C title for Rothmans Porsche.
The Ecosse Rover showed that Le Mans is certainly not all about outright horsepower and that downsizing from the 3.3-litre Cosworth unit to the 3.0-litre Metro V6 was an educated choice to ensure the powertrain's reliability.
So a win at Le Mans in the 1980s was obviously not to be for Ecurie Ecosse, but hopefully you will now see the often-ridiculed marque of Rover in a different light. It had some serious motorsport knowhow back in the day and the strength of the engineering behind its cars shows even to this day as C286 still races successfully at sprint and classic endurance events.
Ecurie Ecosse themselves still race in the LMP3 category and - through the research I've had to undergo to write this piece - they've swiftly become one of my favourite racing teams.
Did you know about this Austin Rover Le Mans racer? Are there any other obscure motorsport heroes that need highlighting? Comment below with your suggestions!