Tony Dron reports:
WORSHIPPED with almost religious fervour by "Z" fanatics, Big Sam is one of those legendary cars of British club racing. With little money, a small independent team of enthusiasts built Big Sam for the 1974 BARC Modified Sportscar Championship and, with a then unknown driver who actually paid them £50 a race to drive it, they went out and won the three-litre class, beating Porsches and TVRs on the way.
Looking back, it was a significant moment. Now Big Sam has been restored with great care and skill to its former glory thanks to owner Nick Howell and the expertise of Tim Riley Engineering.
The Japanese Nissan corporation was building 700,000 cars a year by the end of the Sixties and the companyís range of Datsun-badged cars included an interesting sports coupe, the 240Z. Nobody on this side of the world realised at the time that the Datsun 240Z would go on to become the best-selling sports car of all time worldwide: over one million were made.
One of the key men behind Big Sam was Bob Gathercole, known today as the organiser of such events as the Classic Cars at the Earlís Court Motorfair but then the owner of a small garage. In partnership with former Broadspeed cylinder head ace, Spike Anderson, Bob went motor racing: Spikeís Samuri Motor Company was already in business marketing performance conversions for the new sporting Datsun models and he had begun to enter one of his Super Samuris in hillclimbs for Hugo Tippett to drive. Bob was one of Spikeís early customers. In due course Spike sold no fewer than 74 of these tweaked 240Zs but at the end of 1973 with the oil crisis and looming economic hardship, things looked pretty bleak. Spike was looking to step up to circuit racing and he knew the specification he wanted: Bob provided enough finance to get the project rolling.
"The company couldnít be called Samurai," recalls Bob, "because that name was registered to an electronics company." Spike had therefore settled for Samuri. The name Big Sam came about because Spike's hillclimb car was known around his premises as Sam: when the racer was built, with its wider wheelarches, it naturally became known as Big Sam.
Prior to 1974, Modsports races had not attracted much attention but when Big Sam came out and started mixing it with Nick Faure's impressive Porsche, the motoring press started to take note. It was exciting stuff but few had expected a Datsun to win races and who was this new chap Win Percy anyway?
Plenty has been written about early 240Z competition cars over the years but not all of it is accurate by any means and anyone trying to trace the history of each chassis would need a detective kit and the proverbial pinch of salt. Still, Big Sam's early history seems clear enough and I would put my faith in an impressively researched article by James Morris which was published in Sporting Cars Magazine, in January, 1984:
Datsun's works team had set about rallying the then new 240Z straight away, building a batch of five works cars and entering the 1970 RAC rally. The new cars were quick in talented hands but reliability problems, particularly final drive failures, let them down. Even so, Rauno Aaltonen and Paul Easter managed to pull back up the field to finish seventh. They had also suffered a drive-shaft failure but were able to use one from the team's Austin 1800 service barge as it was the same! It seems Nissanís close links with Austin (see Classic Cars, July 1991, "1953 Nissan Austin") lasted a very long time.
Back to Big Sam: one of this batch of early works cars, that driven by Edgar Jlerrmann on the 1970 RAC, was subsequently sold to Rob Grant who converted it for International sports car racing, mainly in Europe, but I am reliably informed it was later written-off in a testing accident in Angola, not at Kyalami as has been reported elsewhere. This high-speed crash was caused by incorrect brake assembly and Rob Grant was lucky to survive it. To replace the wreck he bought the ex-Aaltonen RAC car from the works, later selling it on to Spike Anderson and Bob Gathercole who converted it for British Modsports racing. This car, chassis number H530-00025, was therefore the original Big Sam.
At the time, Win Percy was a customer of the Samuri company but unknown as a race driver. Using his own modified "Super Samuri" roadgoing 240Z he competed against the Samuri companyís similar car, driven by Hugo Tippett, in a meeting at Gurston Down hillclimb. Spike was impressed: "Win looked like anaccident about to happen, but it never did and he was !"quick!" The memory had been logged and negotiations the following year led to Win being appointed as the Samuri team driver in Big Sam; a big programme of events was planned with the main objective being results in the Modsports championship.
That 1974 season started with all sorts of engine troubles: Win actually did the first race in Spike's faithful old roadgoing Super Samuri after Big Sam blew a gasket in practice. The promise was there but the car needed development; at the beginning of the season, it was neither reliable nor fast enough against the Porsches which appeared when the serious championship season got under way. Even so, Win managed to stay in contention as the points table grew meeting by meeting and by mid-season they were scoring some outright wins. Then disaster struck in early August; during practice for a Brands Hatch round Win went off on a giant oil slick, bending Big Samís chassis beyond repair against the bank at Bottom Bend.
With little money to spend and just two weeks before the next race, the Samuri team had to think and act fast: Datsun Team Manager Mike Greasley helped them out and next morning Spike was down at the Worthing HQ collecting a damaged and generally beaten up works 240Z bodyshell: a 1972 shell, it had done the Scottish Rally and the Safari with Shekhar Mehta but it had also had a fairly mighty accident, straddling some solid object. The question of money arose: Spike remembers Greasley saying: "Well, send us 25 quid," but no-one seemed to remember to send an invoice.
Work began immediately to recreate Big Sam, with everybody pitching in and giving a hand in the project; the car was fairly well bent but it was far better than the smashed original. At this point Tivvy Shenton of SpecFnh in Pershore, another ex-Broadspeed man (they were the best!) stepped in; in six days he straightened the shell welded it together properly, fitted the rollcage, converted it to right hand drive and swapped over the major parts.
After a further five days working round the clock, somehow the team managed to turn it out, with a quick blow over in grey primer, for the ne race where Win finished third in class and fourth overall after a thrilling race-long battle with Nick Faure at Castle Combe. After the race Big Sam went to Bob Smith's RS Panels where it was properly painted to its accustomed immaculate finish. Though the verdict went to the Porsche driver on that occasion, Win and Big Sam went on to win the three Litre class in the championship by one point at the end of the season at Thruxton.
The last race was a tense affair: The Samuri team Transit van was long since time expired and it broke down on the way to the race, leaving the race car stranded miles away in Tuthill's Banbury workshop, u where the jigging and major repairs were carried out prior to final painting and baking. Oxfordshire. One of the leading Porsche drivers lent his Range Rover and rig so that the Samuri team could go and recover Big Sam. Win just had time to start from the back of the grid and come through the field far enough to gain a few precious points.
"We were total amateurs," Bob says today, "and even raced the entire season on the hard, long distance slicks that came with the original car from Rob Grant. It was only later that we learned that Big Sam would have been considerably faster on new, softe rubber."
This ingenuous remark belies the talent that was behind the team. They were undoubtedly short of money, but Spike Anderson was already a brilliant cylinder head man, engine builder and machine shop specialist. Barry Hudson (also ex-Broadspeed; what else?) was also a genius in his craft, while chassis/suspension specialist Tivvy Shenton had the knack of sorting cars quickly and effectively without throwing a team's money at endless trial and error tests. The team was also able to call on the talents of ace mechanic Arthur Carlisle.
The following year the team wanted to move up into International racing with Win Percy and Big Sam but neither Bob nor Spike could find the backing. Eventually they approached Toyota and took Win very successfully into British touring car racing, but that's another story.
Big Sam's early racing career was over but new owner John Bradhurn did a spot of hillclimbing in 1976 before selling it on some years later. David Sutherland: he got John Rich Fourways Engineering to do some work on the car, including Rose-jointing the rear suspension. Then it was sold back to Spike Anderson who rebuilt it with hand controls for disabled driver Martin Sharpe to race, he finished second in the 1981 BRSCC sports car Championship- a remarkable achievement.
That marks the end of the documented history of the car as far as I know: Spike wanted to find a sponsor to restore Big Sam but there was no luck in that department and in 1984 the car was sold to Shropshire dealer, William Galliers, who kept it safe and put it on display from time to time. Big Sam's place in history was beginning to be recognised.
In 1989 well-known Historic rally enthusiast Mike Harrison bought the car and considered the serious question: what next for Big Sam? Should it be restored as a works rally car or as Big Sam, the Modsports racer? British Z enthusiasts apparently were dismayed at the thought of Big Samís identity being traced back so far: reportedly Mike Harrison respected this and held fire before eventually selling the car to Nick Howell, who was looking for a 240Z to restore in 1989; Nick had already saved, restored and eventually sold the famous ex-works Big Healey, 67 ARX, and the idea of bringing Big Sam back to life filled him with enthusiasm.
The man who put Nick in touch with Big Sam, however, was Tim Riley whose restoration and competition preparation business is near Silverstone. Timís father, by the way, is Peter Riley, the famous former international rally driver.
As nobody had used Big Sam in anger for some years the car was, inevitably, far from fit for serious use. The bodyshell had been covered in redundant drillings for this and that over the ages, new wiring was needed and Big Sam just looked a bit sorry for himself under the skin. To cap it all, a cat had got in through the hole in the driverís window, making a nice home for her kittens! The good news was that there was almost no rust but there was only one thing for it: a full rebuild.
After stripping the shell down, it was clear that the car was basically sound but seriously fatigued in places: some of that unrusted metal was nothing more than work-hardened scrap. The next thing was to put it on a jig, which revealed that the nearside front was v4in back and in from its proper place; a big crease on the front left inner wing indicated an accident in this area in the past. Spike recalls that this was the result of a testing accident at Copse Corner, Silverstone, with a guest driver in early 1981.
The battered transmission tunnel and passenger footwell had to be replaced despite the complete lack of corrosion there but the driverís side floor pan was sound, if dented. "We wanted to leave as much as possible of the original car," says Tim, "retaining its patina, so 85% of the shell is still original. The old rallying sump guard brackets were still on it, as were the intercom points and passenger harness rings: we decided to leave them there. We were able to keep the original glassfibre wings, doors and tailgate, though some pretty serious repairs were necessary, but the bonnet was missing and a new one had to be made. Unfortunately the passenger side window had to be replaced: the other windows, apart from the screen of course, are all the original Perspex, complete with the small Nissan symbol in each one."
All these repairs were carried out and the unnecessary holes made good. At the end of it the shell was structurally as good as new, nice and square on the jig. The original works-prepared basic shell, by the way, was standard apart from reinforcement of the underfloor chassis rails and variable adjustment holes for the suspension strut top mounts. In deciding the final specification for restoration, Tim tried to keep as closely as possible to that in which the car finished the 1974 season but he has retained the rear suspension Rosejointing which makes the car ineligible for many forms of Historic racing.
The engine, which produces 245bhp at the flywheel, has a special steel crank, special pistons and rods, a racing cam, a works competition head which is a non-standard casting, three twin Dellorto 48 carbs, a smaller and lighter flywheel, a works high pressure oil pump and enlarged oil drillings in the block. The works five-speed close-ratio gearbox is direct in 5th, unlike the standard 240Z which is direct in 4th with 5th as an overdrive.
Big Sam has a better, safer fuel tank now, which is definitely a good idea, and the differential cooler is in slightly better place for improved air flow. Diff failures were always a weak point in the early competition Z cars and thereís no point in setting it up for that to happen all over again. It now has an oil temperature gauge and soon there will a diff oil temperature gauge; the current tachometer is mechanically driven rather than electronic but all these gauges are right for the period: sit in this car and it is easy to imagine that itís still 1974!
Finally the car was painted in its original colours and the signwriting was done by Barry Jones: he did the same job on Big Sam back in 1974! The wording is a little different now though!
Spike is delighted that Big Sam has been saved: "Tim has done a fantastic job," he says, "but my prediction would be that as time goes by they will get he car back closer to Group 4 as it was in 1974 as that seems to be the way ahead for Historic racing in the near future." It wouldnít be difficult, nor would make an enormous difference to Big Sam's lap times.
What a pleasure it is to drive a car that really handles well: it's easy to see that Win Percy must have enjoyed notching up his string of wins, mixing it with Porsches and other powerful opponents in Modified Sportscar races. Big Sam is an absolute delight to drive on the track: the 2.4-litre straight-six engine revs freely, feels unbreakable and it is safe to at least 9,000rpm, I am told, though it is quicker to change up at 7,600rpm. On the straights, one just seems to keep changing up through the easy five-speed gearbox as the engine howls along.
Under braking, the word ëanchorí comes to mind: the special Can-Am ëventilated discs just pull the car up air and square and you feel as if you could outbrake anything else on the rack. Whatís more, you can brake incredibly late and still turn into corners without sacrificing exit speed this car turns in smartly; a works quick rack and shortened steering arms help here and the driver has a really satisfying feeling of accuracy. With all four wheels sliding, you just now to the inch where the car is going; power can be applied early, giving a great feeling of rocketing away on a perfect line.
The handling is superbly balanced and, even though the car can hop a little in the slower corners in the dry it still clings on tenaciously and that feeling of precision control is always here. It is not at all what I expected, but then many cars are different from their legendary images when it actually comes to driving them: far from being heavy to drive, and something of a thrilling monster rather in the Big Healey mould, Big Sam can be driven like a perfectly sorted Escort. Surprisingly, the overall dimensions of the 240Z are similar to those of an Escort, hard to believe, but true. It is light and very easy to control and the quick response of the steering, brakes and throttle make it feel like a little giant-killer.
I drove it twice: first at Goodwood in a very damp sprint meeting when to my dismay there were no proper wet weather tyres, just some rather treadless-looking intermediates. In the early runs it was quite lethal on the many puddles, frequently going light at the controls and then snatching unpredictably. But later the puddles drained away and on a still very wet rack I was astounded to find that the car won its class and set the second fastest time overall, beaten only by a well-driven but mighty Marshplant Aston Martin V8. Unfortunately our very last run of the day was interrupted when a lack of fuel caused the engine to cut but I donít think in my wildest dreams that we could have beaten that Aston, or could we? No, don't be silly!
My next outing in it was at Silverstone, the Bentley Drivers Club meeting held in fair weather in August. Owner Nick Howell drove it first in an Ailcomers Handicap race; they gave him a devastating handicap (to teach him a lesson for bringing a Japanese car to the Bentley Driversí big day at Silverstone, someone mischievously suggested). Anyway, it made sure that he finished a lowly 22nd. Nick thought this a bit unfair until somebody pointed out to him that he was lucky to have got Big Sam through the gate for such a meeting!
BIG SAM'S SPECIFICATIONS:
Capacity: 2,423cc Head comp head casting, big valves, fully ported Block: std L28 block, deflashed, bored out oilways Con-rods: Cosworth steel Pistons Cosworth DFV Crank: Nissan comp all-steel short-stroke Power: 245bhp at 7,200 rpm Lubrication: Works high pressure pump, wet sump with trapdoor and windage tray.
Induction: Three Dellorto 48 twin-choke carbs
Flywheel/clutch: 9in flywheel, twin-plate AP clutch
Gearbox: Works close-ratio 5-speed
Propshaft: Shortened 2.5in.
Rear axle: Works R200 comp with lsd
SHspension: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bars and uprated Bilsteins all round; fully adjustable
Brakes: Twin system, bias pedal box, Can-Am vented discs with 4-pot mag calipers all round
Steering: Works quick rack and shortened arms all components mounted on solid bushes
Bodywork: Glassfibre bonnet, front wings, doors and tailgate; steel bodyshell with works reinforcement; Perspex side and rear windows
Wheels: Minilites: 16x10 front, 16x12 rear 15x10 all round in wet (1974: 15x9F, l5xlOR)
The Datsun ended practice for the Allcomers Scratch Race third quickest, sharing the front of the grid with a very powerful Morgan and an AC Cobra, and ahead of many others with far more than its relatively modest 245bhp. The only problem I had found with Big Sam was severe fuel surge causing the engine to cut for a long time in the one left-hand bend on the circuit: it was fine on all the righthanders. Tim has still not been able to cure this, despite applying all well-known remedies. Spike told me later that it always did that!
A standing start in a strange car always calls for a hit of luck but the gods were with me for a few yards at least as we got off the line really well. After that the engine went off a bit for half a lap; showing unmistakeable signs of fuel vaporisation, it fluffed along so that instead of dropping to about sixth off the line, as I had expected, Big Sam fell back to 11th.
The fuel cooler, I learned later, only works when the car is in motion, but half way down the back straight it began to work again and the straight-six went hack onto full song. The rest of the race was just pure fun, picking off cars one by one in or near the corners. Sometimes it would take two or three laps to get ahead as the more powerful cars would blast back in front if they were near enough on the straights, but I was surprised at the remarkable advantage Big Sam held under braking and in sheer grip.
The easy handling made this race a pure pleasure, and we finished fourth overall in the end, not that that mattered. It was just great to get behind the wheel of such a delightful and beautifully restored old car. It's amazing to think that Big Sam's racing career began after the first issue of Classic Cars had been published back in October, 1973.
Now there are many people who would like to see Win Percy hack in Big Sam for the odd race in 1992. When I met Win in 1991 on one of his brief visits from his new home in Australia, he recalled Big Sam with great affection. They probably won't ask him to pay £50 a go this time!
THOROUGHBRED & CLASSIC CARS JANUARY, 1992