Following on from our recent story on record-breaking MGs, we take a closer look at The Tomcat Affair – Rover’s speed-endurance run in the 220 Coupe Turbo.
John Batchelor has pulled the story together from those behind the project to give us a true insider’s view of Rover’s impressive 1992 record run. Many of those achievements still stand today…
The Tomcat Affair: The inside story
The Tomcat Affair: the original idea
The Rover 220 Coupe Turbo (below) – known as Tomcat within Rover Group – was a derivative of the successful 1990 Rover 200 (R8). The Tomcat codename was chosen Nick Fell, Project Chief Engineer, as one of the R8 derivative projects. As the project progressed toward launch a discussion started about whether there was anything that could be done to add further excitement for the Coupe launch – the result was the idea for the ‘Tomcat Affair’.
The genesis for the Tomcat Affair came from Nick after reading an article called ‘Speed Kings’ by Philip Llewellin in March 1992’s CAR magazine which marked the 25th anniversary of Donald Campbell’s death. Llewellin had toured UK speed record sites in a Lotus Carlton, noting that its top speed of 177mph comfortably beat J. G. Parry-Thomas’s 1926 British Land Speed Record of 170mph.
Back then, it had taken the purpose-built, 27-litre Liberty V12-engined ‘Babs’ to set the record at Pendine Sands in Wales, and Parry-Thomas lost his life trying to improve on it. In the same issue’s News section, CAR correctly reported there would be a 200bhp turbo version of Tomcat. Was our hottest production Tomcat a possible record breaker?
This caught our imagination and prompted us to investigate whether there were speed records which were within reach of the 150mph ‘Tomcat’ Coupe Turbo. Roy Ford (Vehicle Evaluation Test Engineer and an RAC Motorsport Scrutineer) delved into the RAC Blue Book (the RAC’s motor sport bible) to see if there were any appropriate records to attempt.
Following discussions with the RAC, we were pointed at the class records for 2.0-litre front-wheel-drive vehicles. These records related to both speed and distance records covered over a 24-hour period. The records were then held by a Vauxhall Astra GTE set at the Millbrook Proving Ground. Based on this information and further discussion with Nick, we decided to evaluate our options for an attempt on the established records – but, in reality, ‘we were going for it.’
- Steve Carter – Chief Engineer, Rover Group Vehicle Evaluation and Integration
- Nick Fell – Project Chief Engineer, Rover Group, Rover 200 Cabriolet and Coupe
- Ian Bosworth – Project Manager, Rover Group Vehicle Evaluation and Integration
The Tomcat Affair: The plan
This project held several risks for us, it could be a distraction for the relevant Engineers, a potential for disrupting ongoing programmes and draw in other resources which were related to other departments who were also fully committed to other programmes. To help with these situations the rule was set that any Tomcat Affair work was to be carried out in people’s own time unless agreed by myself or within relevant departments.
Once the decision to move forward was taken, we put a small group together who would effectively manage the project and be the focal point for resolving issues/giving direction. The group was Ian Bosworth (Vehicle Evaluation Project Manager), Nick Massey and Roy Ford (Vehicle Evaluation Project Engineers) and me.
At this point the outline plan was to build two vehicles. They would be as close to standard as possible except for safety requirements and anything specific for the event (such as extra-capacity fuel tank), then take any learning from the Tomcat Turbo race car being developed at this point. We’d use Millbrook Proving Ground as the site for the attempt and – probably most importantly – obtain sponsorship to fund the project. Part of the plan was to move the existing records sufficiently to make it difficult for them to be broken by our competitors, not necessarily an easy task.
How to devise a record-breaking plan…
The project plan followed two fundamental routes to the ultimate goal – the record attempt. The first route was the preparation and build of the vehicles, development of the powertrains and ensuring we met the necessary safety requirements.
The second was all the enabling logistics – from getting a team together, fixing the venue, sponsorship, fuel availability, catering, ensuring everyone knew what to do and when – and getting buy-in from relevant senior management.
Through the existing Coupe development team, the proposal for the attempt was circulated and to gauge interest in supporting such an attempt. As can be imagined, interest and enthusiasm were both available across the group and beyond.
Now for the management approval
Now the buy-in from Senior Management was crucial. As if by magic I was invited to a meeting with Steve Lunn (Managing Director, Small and Medium Cars) to explain about rumours he had heard! I basically answered Steve’s questions whilst asking for his support and committing to no disruption to the various main projects we were all involved in (somewhat career limiting if not achieved!).
Part of this discussion was around budget/sponsorship and our aim for the project to be cost neutral to the company by enrolling our suppliers wherever possible to give them exposure while supporting the product.
To this end, Ian Robertson (Small and Medium Cars Purchase Director) was asked by Steve to support our aims, and he assigned Dave Telling (Small Car Purchase Manager) to the project. Dave made the initial contacts with the suppliers and negotiated the finances. Roy Ford and I discussed where decals could be displayed and the support required for the vehicle builds or for the event itself.
In some cases, the decal location discussion was slightly amusing as they ranged from requesting almost total coverage of certain areas of the vehicle to wanting a specific area related to the parts they supplied.
One example was Ogihara, the manufacturer of the underfloor and boot lid. In the discussion we gave them a choice: either on the underfloor or the bootlid. After a short pause, we offered the underfloor to which we got a strange look and we clarified it as if the was an accident the decal would be seen! Not surprisingly, we agreed on the bootlid – this can be seen on the video at the start of the attempt as the vehicles pull away. Overall, we raised the necessary monies to support the event.
The Tomcat Affair: The preparations
With the necessary approvals in place, we had an initial team meeting to gauge the overall response and to relate how we would move forward and get volunteers for the various jobs we needed filling – people for building the vehicles, sorting logistics, administration, pit crew and drivers. To support the vehicle launch, the event needed to be around end of August/early September 1992 (subject to track availability), approximately four months from this kick-off meeting!
My lasting impression from this initial discussion was the determination to succeed, and the pride all were taking in their involvement. One issue was the need to publicise the vehicle with its formal title of ‘Rover 220 Coupe Turbo’ and not Tomcat (which everyone was used to using). Denis Chick explained the situation to the assembled team, which caused some disappointment, but was understood.
The many willing volunteers for their various roles the team came together quickly which allowed the project to move on. Designer Dave Woodhouse was engaged to develop the vehicle livery incorporating the various sponsors and a logo to capture the Tomcat link.
Dave and Sean Henstridge came up with the designs with a cat’s eye motif and Tomcat on the windscreen header decal, in red and yellow colours to distinguish the two cars. Between Paul Scarlett and Dave Walker (both from Vehicle Design) support was given for painting/decaling the vehicles.
Building the Tomcats at Gaydon
The vehicle builds were carried out in our workshops at Gaydon using former test vehicles which had completed their tasks. The builds were led by Ian Bosworth and Darren Hughes with various Engineers and Vehicle Technicians supporting the vehicle assembly. Engineers from the various component areas ensured we had all the correct components fitted and, with the support of a number of Build Technicians, assembly was completed.
Mention should be made of the efforts of Colin Gascoigne, a Gaydon Vehicle Technician, who seemed to spend every waking hour (other than when officially working) supporting the builds. We also took learning from the Tomcat one-make series race car which was being developed alongside our record attempt vehicles. This related to safety design and potential set up options for us.
This input came from Wynne Mitchell (RoverSport Engineering) and some parts came from RoverSport via Andy Vallis (RoverSport Manager at Unipart). As the build progressed, we were in touch with the RAC to ensure we were keeping within the necessary rules for the attempt. They also viewed the vehicle to make sure we complied with the necessary safety requirements for the attempt.
Sorting the fuelling issue
One issue to be resolved early on was the need to have long-range fuel tanks and appropriate refuelling equipment. Based on the target speeds a normal vehicle fuel tank would give us a very limited range but, more importantly, we would lose too much time refuelling. In discussion through our contacts, we hired suitable refuelling equipment from Roger Dowson Engineering and installed appropriate aluminium long-range fuel tanks.
Appropriate training for the use of the equipment was provided to our team to ensure safe and timely operation of the equipment. This resolved the range and refuelling speed issues. Texaco subsidised the fuel (our contact being Nigel Edwards, Manager at Texaco who was also a competitor in RoverSport’s 216 GTi race programme). This would be decanted from a tanker parked trackside!
In parallel, we met with Millbrook Proving Ground to establish availability and the requirements to undertake our record attempt on their high-speed bowl. Our contact was Mark Coverley (Track Manager) who was extremely helpful – even though, at the time, Millbrook Proving Ground was owned by General Motors which held the records we were aiming to break!
Details such as track access, safety requirements and how we could operate such an event ensured our list of questions was growing at this point rather than reducing. In discussion with Mark, we came up with 29 August as our event day, so it was a case of game on in terms of pressure to complete the vehicles and ensure all the other back-up requirements were met.
The date is set…
As part of the vehicle build, we discussed the specification of the engine and transmission to ensure we would have a suitable level to allow us to run at the required speeds for 24 hours as well as having minimal changes from standard. It was agreed that we would introduce changes to improve the robustness of the powertrain and help relieve some stress off the powertrain and give some improvement in fuel consumption.
In planning for the event, it was decided we would not stop the engine for the whole of the event, so once underway we would run during driver changes, pitstops and re-fuelling. To aid this a technique for dipping the oil with the engine running and topping up oil if required was devised (minimal amount were required, as oil consumption was not significant). These discussions and actions were through Sam Anker (Powertrain Engineering). Clive Bagnell (Powertrain Engineer) tuned two development engines for the vehicles. Both of these guys would later be part of the pit crew for the attempt.
The view on the transmission was that there were no concerns as we would be running well within its capabilities. The only precautionary measure was to introduce a baffle to limit the centrifugal effect of the Millbrook banking on the gearbox oil. These inputs and actions were completed by Simon Hitchin (PG1 gearbox development) who also supported the event on the day.
The main modification to the PG1 was to use the speed transducer from a PG2 gearbox which incorporated a small oil pump in place of the standard PG1 unit. This pump took oil from near the first gear pair which pooled there due the centrifugal force from the constant left turning bank and directed it at the fifth gear pair. Previous high gear, high speed long runs at Millbrook had already highlighted fifth gear failure as an issue.
To keep people aware of what was happening and informed Stephanie Elliott (Vehicle Evaluation Travel coordinator) and Carole Read (Vehicle Evaluation Admin. Assistant) got involved and supported us admirably in these tasks.
Record-breaking logistics take shape
Open issues were how to feed circa. 150 people, who would be acceptable to the RAC for timing the event (making sure there were no arguments after the event) and where to find the necessary fire crew due to support the re-fuelling of the vehicles. Catering across the 24 hours with the correct sorts of food was important and was resolved with RoverSport’s catering contractor, Kevin Broadhurst.
His company’s experience covered long-distance motorsport events, so his knowledge of what food was most appropriate (and within our budget range!) was very useful. Regarding the timing for the event, there was a need to ensure the time and speeds recorded are accurate in line with the RAC’s accuracy requirements.
MST were well known in the motorsport environment and were happy to support the event. Contact was made through Geoff Le Good (Aerodynamics Engineer) who worked with them at various events. MST would supply all necessary equipment; we would supply the necessary portacabin for them to live in for the 24 hours. MST was supported by a group of volunteer race marshals, who manned observation points around the circuit for safety/observation purposes.
Regarding the fire crew, the Longbridge plant team volunteered to support us and supply any necessary firefighting equipment to ensure the event was safe.
It was agreed that a video would be made of the event as part of the publicity for the vehicle launch. This was done by BHP, which was the company that did the TV coverage of British Touring Car Championship at the time. The idea was to show the overall story of the event through the vehicle builds and then throughout the 24 hours which would record our efforts for posterity. This was initially released as video, which you can watch above.
As the project came together, it was great to watch the enthusiasm being maintained both within the team and from people not directly involved. In terms of maintaining progress on our other projects, we kept timely progress, and this was helped by colleagues taking up the slack when required.
When the vehicles were completed, set up and declared ‘good to go’ I had the privilege of driving the first vehicle (the red decal vehicle). Driving the vehicle, under strict instructions not to damage it, gave a very satisfying feeling of all the time and effort coming together in the metal. So, the idea was to complete a few laps of the circuit at Gaydon as an initial shakedown.
After one lap, a row of faces appeared over one of the fences surrounding the circuit to both check if there were any problems and to make sure I was not thrashing the car! Exercise completed, no issues and vehicle still in one piece. This was approximately one week before the planned start of our attempt.
During the final week both vehicles completed some running-in miles and had final nut and bolt checks along with systems checks. As the vehicles were ready for loading and dispatch there was a problem found with the wheel bearings on one of the vehicles, so Alex Jefferson (Chassis Fitter) replaced the bearings and got the vehicle fixed to ensure we were fit to run when needed.
In parallel to all these actions, roles had been allocated including drivers who came from across a number of departments/various roles. A combination of either motor sport experience or high-speed test driving was taken as a consideration when agreeing who would drive. Interestingly, we only just had enough volunteers for driving when I initially thought we would be turning people away.
The only person who volunteered that said he would like some training was John Winchester (Vehicle Evaluation Test Engineer) as we were running at higher speeds than he had experienced. This was arranged with Paul Northall (Vehicle Evaluation Test Engineer and motorsport driver).
Paul and John duly went to Millbrook with a mule Turbo vehicle, started on the high-speed track, building up speed incrementally until they were lapping at approximately 125mph. This went well until John experienced a rear tyre deflating, spinning the car and travelling backwards at undiminished speed! The vehicle came to a halt, and they survived the situation okay and John wondering what he had signed up for!
The advice from the Aerodynamics Department was to run with the chin of the car as low as possible to reduce drag so a set of lowered springs were made. One of the cars was taken to Millbrook and assessed by Trevor Smith, one of the drivers for the event. He felt that the slight ‘skip’, and resulting rise in revs, were acceptable even though it did increase the angles that the driveshafts ran at.
Through this period the various teams developed their detailed plans so that, on the day, everyone would know their roles and our expectations.
The MST team (lead by John Ward) would monitor progress and advise drivers to increase/decrease their pace accordingly. Throughout the 24 hours the RAC was present to ensure the attempt was completed within the rules and to answer any questions we might have as the attempt unfolded. This was covered by Derek Ongaro and Chris Mount.
So, with final preparations complete, vehicles complete and everyone knowing what to do, event day arrived. Planning and logistics had been controlled and planned by Steve Brookes and his team (Medium Cars Change Management Team). We had a layout for the area we were allocated at the circuit, instructions for getting to, into and from Millbrook, food availability and people pushing to get on with the attempt.
So, with pit crews, refuelling teams, drivers, and support crews ready to go the only thing left to do was to break the 37 records!
The first record attempt
The day of 29 August 1992 dawned with ideal weather – sunshine and low wind speeds. At 12:00pm I had the happy task of waving the flag to start the attempt and the two vehicles set off, one vehicle going at maximum speed for the first couple of hours to set the speed records on initial distances. Then we would adjust to a steady pace to achieve the records for the various hourly targets.
The vehicles were quickly into a routine, with staggered fuel stops and driver changes making use of the fine weather. The pit crews alongside the refuelling teams slickly checked the vehicles when changing drivers and refuelling. Drivers settled into their two-hour driving stints, maintaining required speeds (most were not used to running at 150+mph for extended periods), adjusting to the driver change routines and most importantly how to recover between driving stints.
The attempt ran very well for approximately the first eight hours and then we experienced our first issue – a noise problem which was diagnosed to be a driveshaft joint. We changed the offending driveshaft and commenced running again. We reduced the lap speeds, but unfortunately the problem continued. This became a recurring problem on both vehicles.
Drivers settled into their two-hour driving stints, maintaining required speeds, adjusting to the driver change routines and most importantly how to recover between driving stints.
– John Batchelor
At around 3:00am, I found myself sitting on a plastic chair, hiding away to think the situation through to make the decision. A combination of time lost and running out of driveshaft spares meant we could not carry on and achieve our targets, and I decided to stop the attempt.
Despite the deep disappointment for all involved, we started a conversation with Mark Coverley for another date before we left Millbrook that morning. Very quickly it was established that the earliest date was four weeks away from our first effort and all we had to do was regroup, fix the driveshaft issue, prove out the fix and re-prepare the vehicles… and keep the team’s enthusiasm going! In fact, this was the easiest issue to solve, the team were pushing from the next day to ensure we could hit the next date.
Simon Hitchin took control of the driveshaft issue with GKN and very quickly established that the prolonged running at high speed at the angles on the banking had overheated and worn the joints. The fix was relatively easy, the new joints were run in and pre-conditioned on test rigs and solved the issue.
Our circumstances were far away from what any driver would experience under normal high-speed conditions, even flat out in Germany because the extreme angles are not experienced. The front ride-height was also increased a little to reduce the driveshaft angles, which resulted in a small increase in aerodynamic drag.
While the driveshaft issue was being solved the vehicles were checked over and re-prepared for our next record attempt.
The second record attempt
In no time, Attempt Two was upon us, with all team as determined as ever to manage our way through the 24 hours and succeed. But in waving away the vehicles at 12:00pm there was one major concern, the weather. Where Attempt One had sunshine, Attempt Two had overcast skies, some drizzle and a forecast of possible fog! Not what you want to hear when you are to be lapping at speeds of 150+mph.
And if we didn’t succeed this time, the autumn weather and an immovable Motor Show launch date would leave us with little chance for a third attempt. This added to the original pressures of the vehicles needing to perform and handle well and managing the pace to lap to the lap time requirements. At least, despite the increased pressures, everyone was still smiling… with their fingers crossed, I think!
As with Attempt One, the effort was split between the two vehicles, one chasing the short distance/speed records initially and then into the distance records and the second vehicle running targeting the distance records. Although we were not in F1 territory for refuelling the vehicle, we had target times for fuelling, tyre changes if required, windscreen cleaning and any vehicle checks, all based on minimising their impact on our overall targets for the 24 hours.
As with Attempt One, routine was all important for all involved to allow us to keep to the target times laid down to meet the records. From the flag drop we started breaking records for the short distances alongside hourly targets. The drivers were in radio contact with the Timekeepers so there was an understanding of their pace which could be managed if required.
One interesting aspect of the event was that, after a short while, the noise of the vehicles circulating and them regularly appearing in sight almost became background noise while people went about their supporting tasks. The weather continued to be overcast and damp but fortunately rain generally stayed away. An issue with running on a long, banked circuit is that when driving at high speeds it is easy to drift in to believing you are running on a long straight track, quite disconcerting which was another reason for the radio contact to help keep concentration.
As the attempt progressed the previously mentioned routine was working well, pit stops ran well, drivers were giving good feedback and were proactive at driver changes sharing track conditions and car information with the driver taking over while helping strap the next driver in for his stint. The timing team in conjunction with the RAC representatives kept the drivers and team up to date with progress and continued to managed lap time requirements particularly as night-time approached.
Unfortunately, with night fall, came the fog. Not just fog but patchy, swirling fog. With every lap driven the fog density and position on the track changed. I think that this time that really showed the team’s determination and, considering the driving difficulties, we lost minimum amounts on lap times. To put the conditions into perspective, from the pit stop area we could not see the top of the banking, approximately 40 metres and the vehicles continued lapping at speeds approaching 150 mph – very impressive.
With MST keeping us aware of lap times I got asked to go to the timing cabin around 2:30am as there was an issue. The driver, Brendan Kavanagh, was lapping quicker than required and although having been asked to slow down he said he was comfortable to carry on. Very commendable but unnecessary, so I was asked to tell him to slow down!
It took more of a conversation than I thought it would need but eventually he slowed down while still insisting there was not an issue. The fog swirled around all night, but the required times were maintained – a brilliant effort by all the drivers involved. Imagine lapping the circuit where on 1 lap at a certain point no fog but on the next lap you can only see 30 metres at 150mph, and every lap is different!
One other slight issue which arose during the night was at around 3:30am. Mark Coverley came to see me as he had had a complaint from a Proving Ground neighbour about the noise. The vehicles lapping made a droning background noise which was shifted around with the small breeze we had around us. In recognising the need to keep the neighbours happy where possible, we would carry on and by the time the investigation required had happened we would be long gone!
As dawn broke, we were still on course for breaking a number of records, the vehicles were running well and with only the minimal maintenance no other issues were experienced. It is amazing the effect a bacon roll first thing in the morning can have on your adrenaline and belief so, with renewed enthusiasm, we set off on the last hours of our attempt.
The team continued to carry out their prescribed tasks, the drivers kept up the required pace and the enthusiasm continued to carry us along although in a tired way. The time progressed and the team slowly started to congregate together in the pit stop area to watch the cars continue toward 12:00pm and the finish of our 24-hour adventure.
As we approached the last couple of hours and the final pit stop and driver changes, it was slowly dawning on people that the achievement was on the horizon, bringing smiles to their faces. BHP continued filming the event and carried out interviews at various times throughout the 24 hours to monitor progress and to complete the story. I have to say that the final couple of hours seemed to last forever, although I was reliably informed that there was still only 60 minutes in each hour!
As 12:00pm rolled around and the vehicles completed their final laps, the whole team got together to cheer as I dropped the chequered flag and finish our record-breaking adventure. The atmosphere was brilliant and, although everyone was tired, what had been achieved slowly dawned upon us all – 37 records and we had driven further in our 24 hours than the winning Peugeot had at Le Mans in 1992.
The second attempt had succeeded without any failures or issues. As the vehicles pulled in for the final time and everyone congratulated one another, Mark Coverley arrived to congratulate us on the achievement and present us with a bottle of champagne, even though Vauxhall, whose records we had broken, owned Millbrook. A very nice gesture… As the team assembled for a photograph there was no need to say ‘Smile’ as everyone had a tired but fixed grin!
I was there: Nick Fell
Nick Fell remembers the event with great fondness, but also with mixed emotions:
‘There was no doubting the scale of the achievement of the Tomcat Affair team in clinching 37 records on a very modest budget with remarkably standard cars. It is a testament to the skill, collaboration and astonishing commitment of everyone who contributed. Those records are also a testament to the performance and fundamental durability of the cars.
‘But, there was a significant unquantified cost to the event. The preparations for the event were running in parallel with the final iterations of the production project, with the usual pressures and problems exacerbated by launching the car onto a production line already running at full line rate. It was much more exciting working on record cars than being shouted at by Production Managers on the Longbridge night shift.
‘The Tomcat Affair was a big distraction for the team, and we should have put more attention into the dull issues like sunroof rattle, door glass setting and turbo hose blow-off. Nonetheless, the Affair would most definitely have been worth the compromises had we fully capitalised on it. The idea, the planning and the execution all came from the Engineering Team and, while we had secured the backing of the manufacturing business unit, I had failed to obtain the full support of our Marketing Team.
‘I did not appreciate that their commitment, plans and processes also required significant approvals and lead times. I also have a sneaking suspicion that they did not have the confidence to bet on our success. The upshot was that we did not publicly celebrate the remarkable success of the Tomcat Affair nearly as loudly as we should have. Some of our sponsors were also disappointed in our modesty. To my chagrin, the poster boy for the new Michelin Pilot tyre ended up being the Escort Cosworth and not the Tomcat Turbo… All that said, would I do it again? Of course I would!”
‘Reflecting on the project overall, to achieve what we did after our initial set back in Attempt One was brilliant. With a common goal, the team spirit that was felt by all involved (including those from outside the company) showed we could achieve anything. You cannot under play driving at 150mph in fog but, alongside that achievement, you cannot under play the support given from all other team members to make this happen.
‘As we packed up camp after the celebrations the team started to focus back on normal business which was starting again in about 16 hours! Me, I headed for home, over the moon with the outcome for not only the team but the project and as I relaxed and the adrenalin drifted away, I promptly went to sleep on the M1, thank heaven for the slow lane cats eyes after 29 hours without sleep!
‘The fact that the vast majority (36 of 37) Tomcat Affair records are still held today makes these achievements all the more special and satisfying.’