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Often overlooked, Ford’s motorsport support vehicles aka service barges have their own understated place in history.

These days, if you watch the action at a central service area of a World Rally, you’ll see that the area is as well equipped as most main dealerships. But it wasn’t always like that. I can remember when service was carried out at the side of the road, often in the dark, and the drop-down tailgate of an estate car was a vital place to position the spares. For many years the machines which mechanics used to follow the works cars around the routes of the world were known affectionately as barges. But, service barges? Where did that come from?

service barges

It all started with the BMC works team in the 1950s, where Marcus Chambers was team manager. Because his father had been an Admiral in the Royal Navy, it was inevitable that his service car transport was known as the Admiral’s Barge. Those were the days when mechanics made do with saloons and estate cars, loaded with spare parts, but vans did not become popular until the mid-1970s. Boreham started using Transits as service barges in the mid-’70s, upgraded them to custom-bodied Ivecos in the RS200 period, and retained vans like that until they closed down in 2003.

service barges

Piled high

In the early days, service barges would be overloaded horrendously, often with a roof rack which carried wheels, tyres and fuel cans, and always, but always, with ways of making hot drinks for the rally drivers. A Primus stove and a kettle, in other words, were as important as a tyre gauge and an oil can, and there was always a tin to carry biscuits or even meat pies. Roger Clark, they say, was fooled into snacking on dog biscuits, and pronounced them excellent… 

There was the occasional Cortina estate car at first, but these were at once too small, and really too light, even to look after Cortina GTs and Lotus Cortinas. Soon after the works team moved into Boreham, therefore, it acquired a small fleet of Corsair estates, all of them with Pre-Crossflow 1500GT engines, but these lacked torque, and as soon as possible these were replaced by 2-litre V4-engined examples, which were fitted with overdrive transmissions.

That was better, but when they were fitted with roof racks, and over-burdened with heavy spare wheels, tyres, and fuel cans, the handling could be described as interesting. Rumours of them being converted to V6 power, however, can be discounted — ace mechanic, Mick Jones recalls that Boreham only ever produced one such vehicle, and that was for road use by Leonard Crossland, who was the company’s CEO at the time.

How to do even better? There was not much choice, really, for to gain more space Boreham would either have to turn to the largest cars in the range — specifically the big estate-car versions of the V6-engined Zodiac Mk4.

By the late 1960s, however, the hard-pressed mechanics finally got their hands on a small fleet of Zodiac Estate service barges which were not only fast, but spacious, and could carry far more clobber that the Corsairs had ever done. The Zodiacs used 3-litre V6 Essex engines, which had loads of torque but were not too durable. 

Even so, we still have to remember that they were by no means fully-equipped and fully functional, merely spacious. By this time, at least, they could carry welding gear, some fire-fighting equipment, and even the sort of ‘get you out of trouble’ tools which would allow a rally car to have bent wings and other panels bodged up. 

Priority boarding  

As the Escort’s reputation became known, what it needed could often be stowed away, but there was a weight/size limit to what could be carried in numbers. Anything electrical — such as alternators, starter motors. head and driving lamps — got priority, as did radiators, oil coolers and consumables such as brake pads, wishbones, and spare bushes of all types. 

Suspension struts, dampers, steering racks and halfshafts were often carried, but there was no point in carrying kit which could not be fitted to a car in minutes rather than hours. Cylinder heads? No chance. Complete gearboxes? There was enough capacity to carry one ZF unit in every vehicle, but there was really no scope to carry rear differentials for an Atlas axle — the theory being that not enough time would ever be available to make a change.

service barges

The use of Zodiacs (and from 1972, 3-litre V6-engined Granadas in their place) made the team happier at last, and Ford made every effort to give these workhorses quite a lot of publicity. Posed shots of rally cars about to go off to an event often had a service car in the background, and there is one particularly revealing shot of a Granada estate car ready to follow Roger Clark’s Escort RS1600 on the 1974 RAC rally, which shows all the spares laid out on the ground, including what looks like enough to change almost everything in and around the suspension, and electrical equipment. By this time, too, the first rather rudimentary two-way radio kits were being used, so that the rally crews could talk to the mechanics, and vice versa.  

service barges

Organ donor

Then, in 1976, came an incident, captured on film, which helped to persuade the team that even more should be carried. On the Scottish rally, Ari Vatanen’s APG-sponsored Escort RS1800 broke its rear axle on a stage, there was no spare diff in Mick Jones’ Granada barge, and a spectator’s 3-litre Capri had to be commandeered to make a repair possible…

The solution, which had already been adopted by rivals like Fiat/Lancia, British Leyland, and GM-Europe, was to adopt, modify and equip a number of Transit vans, complete with multi-access loading doors, and with a wide Atlas axle, which carried twin rear wheels. 

service barges

This mini-fleet was brand new for the 1977 Safari rally — and if you have ever wondered why STW 131R and STW 132R (for instance) were not used on works Escorts to follow the sequence which had already been started, you should now look at Safari 1977 publicity shots for the truth…

Once powered by the mechanics’ engine of choice — a turbocharged Pinto power unit which had originally been developed at Boreham for aftermarket fitment to Cortinas — they became very popular, and it wasn’t long before every self-respecting Ford private owner seemed to follow suit.

It’s important, at this stage, to point out that there was already a big difference between a service barge, and what was officially called a management car. More familiarly known as chase cars, these were not only used by team managers and co-ordinators, but also by the most experienced mechanics, who would try to shadow their cars as often, and as closely as possible, as they could.

Fleet support

During the RS200 and Sierra RS Cosworth period at Boreham, therefore, it was usual to see the Transits being shadowed by fast and well-equipped Sierra Ghia 4×4 estates. Not only that but by this time there might also be a motor home/catering unit, and a dedicated van which would carry wheels, tyres and bulky spares (like spoilers, or major body panels), both of which moved from major point to major point. 

Although rallying continued to get more sophisticated, during the 1980s Boreham’s barges were still simply equipped Transit vans, though the latest generation of models had been purchased, these then being converted to run with 2.9-litre Cologne V6 engines. 

Even so, a comparison with the machinery and equipment developed by teams such as Audi and Lancia was not always favourable. With the Sierra Cosworth 4×4 programme coming on stream, John Taylor, who had become Boreham’s successful go-to trouble shooter at this time, was tasked with rejuvenating the service operation.

service barges

In a major coup — which cost a great deal of money but which would do the job for a decade to come — he was allowed to survey the entire range of vans. Of course, by this time Ford and Iveco-Fiat were co-operating on commercial van design and construction. 

In the end he commissioned no fewer than 10 long-wheelbase Iveco Turbo Dailies, which were initially five-tonne machines (later uprated to six tonnes) powered by Iveco 2.4-litre turbo diesel engines, which had square-styled but roomy bodies, carefully racked and stacked interiors, which carried on-board power and portable generators. If necessary, for Tarmac stages, it was even possible to power-up on-board tyre warming blankets!

This time there were no roof racks, for a 7.5-tonne Ford truck was added to the fleet to carry wheels and tyres. At last, the barges were totally fit for purpose, and those 10 vans were used throughout the 1990s until the World Rally contract went to M-Sport in Cumbria.  

Nowadays, with central service points being usual, and with service at the side of the road, or at the end of stages, quite forbidden, it isn’t as much fun. How many of those magnificent machines survive? 

Words Graham Robson

service barges

This feature on Ford’s service barges first appeared in the August 2013 issue

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