Group A touring cars are enjoying arguably their greatest spell of popularity since they ran in period, with historic events drawing ever-larger audiences as contemporary alternatives become increasingly staid. But with strict rules required for FIA approval, it's not just anyone who can keep the veteran machines running for the rest of us to enjoy. PH ventured out to meet one such man, and find out exactly what it takes to stop the sun setting on one of motorsport's greatest eras.
"They're built the same way as they would have been twenty-odd years ago. There's always places where you could have made improvements and things could have been changed slightly, but that's what the regulations stipulate. If you want to get a car papered it's got to be period correct. And certainly if you've got a genuine car and you're rebuilding it you'd want to make sure you put all the correct period components on it. Because all you're ever doing otherwise is detracting from what the car is, and what that means in reality is that you're spending your money several times over.
"You see it lots of times, people get period cars and they start putting modern bits on them, sometimes because other bits aren't available but also because there can be an improvement. But for every pound you spend changing something to what it shouldn't be, whether it's better or not, you've detracted from the value of the car by a pound, and you're going to have to go and spend that pound again on something that's original."
That sums up the approach Alan Strachan takes to most of his work. Following a career spent in the pits of various touring car teams - including Trident, Peugeot, Prodrive, and two spells at Rouse - his ethos centres around a knowledge of and appreciation for period correctness. Having founded AWS Engineering in 1996 Alan, along with his son Andrew, now helps clients build, maintain and run their own historic racing machines; all the while using his insider knowledge to gain a competitive edge without sacrificing that all important originality. After all, he says: "Why would you want to paint over the Mona Lisa and turn it into something else?"
Situated on an unassuming industrial estate in Shipston near Banbury, a passer-by could easily go unaware of the tin top treasure trove just metres from the road. But get a little closer and the clues are all there; containers full of metal swarf, the crumpled clamshell of a D-Type replica and a large silver race trailer, all signs of your increasing proximity to something out of the ordinary. To step inside is to be greeted by a slice through motorsport history; a 1936 Amilcar, Watkins Glen-winning Jaguar D-Type, 1981 Fittipaldi F1 single-seater and a swathe of Group A touring legends all sitting side by side.
But these cars aren't merely stored or displayed here, they're put right, prepared and perfected. Standing next to a recently finished RS500, constructed using an original 909 motorsport shell and parts fabricated by AWS to original spec, Alan explains: "We manufacture everything, the only things we haven't made on the car are the bodyshell, rear diff. Everything else is manufactured in house. Having worked on them in period, there are things that we do to certain components that people may go, 'oh yeah, well I make those bits too', but they're not to that spec. They're 'Group A' spec, they're homologated, they look like homologated parts, but they don't work the same way.
"They weren't involved in the cars in period so they don't know all of the things that went on in the background that superficially looking at something you don't know about. It's only when you've been involved in it that you do, and I was lucky enough to be involved in the cars of that era. Like anything else, you can go and find things out and learn things, but there are always the times when you think 'well that's what it looks like, that's what it must be' but it's not un
Alan's wealth of knowledge, hard won over many years of building, maintaining and running the cars in period, is an asset he returns to time and again - but it was a long road to the top. "I did my training as an everyday mechanic," he recalls, "and even back then got fed up taking bits off cars and putting new bits on and not fixing them anymore. So I went to work for a Ferrari specialist where you got to build and repair and restore cars. They were involved in motorsport and we used to go racing with customers in things like the Maranello series and I decided that was something I wanted to do. Back then it was a great industry to get into, it was a difficult industry to get into if you hadn't got experience, but once you got your foot in the door it was relatively easy to move around between teams.
"The attraction of working in touring cars was that it was an ongoing process. You could see the evolution through the cars, consecutive years of building Cosworths or Rovers or BMWs, you knew the progression that went through it all. Originally touring car was very much a cottage industry, before in the later years it go so much professional. Teams would have two guys that worked full time all year long on a car, it was their responsibility and probably the only thing they didn't get involved with was the engine - most teams would have their own engine shop. But the rest of the car was your baby to look after, every other component in the car was looked after by those two guys, so when it went wrong it was down to you two."
It's that forensic knowledge of the cars he worked on that gives the services AWS provides such credibility. Turning his attention back to the RS500 - which recently led both its races at Spa Classic before retiring - he says: "It's as close as you can get to being a Rouse spec car, and the others that we're building will be in Egenberger spec - slightly different suspension, basically, but other than that essentially the same beast. It's built to Group A standard, so very lively and probably still slightly temperamental, as they were in the day, but the engine is more reliable even though it's giving more performance. It's probably one of the biggest leaps forward in the car, really, the reliability of the engine."
That reliability is important for gentleman racers and seasoned professionals alike. With many of the components required to keep the cars racing no longer readily available, it falls to AWS to fabricate replacements should anything go awry. Luckily, Alan is committed to ensuring that an infrastructure exists to support the cars going forward, using modern techniques including 3-D printing, CAD and CAM to produce historically accurate parts. "We want to have the components available if anyone ever needs them," he says.
"There'll be some times you go to somebody for material and they haven't got stock of it, or you want a rush batch of anodising doing and they're really flat out with all of their other customers so you just can't get stuff turned around as quickly as you'd want to do. So one of the reasons that we try to do as much as possible in house is that we can try to minimise as much of that as possible. We can't always supply things at the drop of a hat but we're trying to keep up with demand and keep components on the shelf."
The main issue facing AWS isn't supply of parts, though, but supply of labour. The company enjoys plenty of demand for its specialist services but, in the face of a shortage of fabricators and mechanics, it struggles to find people with either the knowledge to jump right in or the motivation to learn the ropes. "It'd be nice to pass the information on to people that have a true passion for it, because otherwise it's like lots of the industries that we've seen come and go over the last 50 years ago, we start to lose all of those skills and that information.
"Lots of it's not written down, it's only known by people who were involved, guys with cutting discs and welders, creating sparks and dust. The technology's not that much of a difficult thing, because sometimes it's fairly crude, but it's a shame to think that in 20 year's time, when people might still be interested in these cars, that the information that forms the makeup of them could be gone."
We've discussed touring cars a lot, but the workshop is packed with an eclectic mix of machines, a smorgasbord that extends far beyond the BTCC. So how do Alan's expertise translate across such a broad range of racers? "Well if you look closely," he smiles "they've all got a wheel at each corner. So fundamentally they're all the same. There are varying differences between them but fundamentally they're a car. Some have got the engine in the front, some have got the engine in the back and each car has its own characteristics, it's quirks.
"But the fundamentals of a car haven't really changed that much since its conception. You look at a 1936 Amilcar, a Jaguar D-Type and an RS500, there is a heritage running through them. And especially when they're competition based, you can see the reason why they were built the way they were. The only thing that really changes through the ages is the way they got them to do what they did; a 1936 car's dampers are blocks of wood that rub together, you get to the D-Type and somebody had invented valving and put oil inside a canister, then somebody added gas for the later cars. So the fundamentals are the same the whole way through, it's just that the technology changes a little bit."
With the company's business split not just between road and track restoration, but also across the fabrication of parts, there's not a lot that AWS can't help with. But it's clear that touring cars are where Alan's heart lies, so why does he think the historic machines have enjoyed such a renaissance in recent years? "The beauty of touring cars is that it's class structured, it doesn't matter if you're in a VW Golf or an RS500, you've still got just as much chance of winning. If your ego's not too big and you don't mind not winning outright - if you want to win outright you've got to have the latest car that was allowed to run and the most power and spend the most money on it I guess. But if you want to have good racing there are a wealth of cars and there were so many manufacturers involved that the world's your oyster."
Such diversity undoubtedly opens the genre up to a wider array of owners and drivers, a fact that doesn't look set to change any time soon. But it could be a gap in the supply of passionate, willing custodians that scuppers things before a lack of interest in the cars themselves. If you think you might fit the bill, then, you know who to call.