More Details More Details

Alan Mann Racing and John Whitmore’s victory in the 1965 European Touring Car Championship was the Lotus Cortina’s finest hour. Here’s why. 

lotus cortina

If ever there was a man for whom the word ‘cavalier’ might have been invented, it was Sir John Whitmore. Whitmore was successful in almost every racing car he drove, but it was his astonishing performance in  1965, in Alan Mann Racing’s famous Lotus Cortina KPU 392C for which he may be best remembered.

Most racing drivers I have profiled never analysed their skills, and don’t seem to know why they are so quick. Although Whitmore became a great human analyst in later life, he seemed to be a purely instinctive driver. The ‘Bearded Baronet’ was a naturally flamboyant driver, but to see him pedalling a Lotus Cortina was astonishing.

lotus cortina

Approaching the corners, he would seem to leave his braking impossibly late, twirl the wheel, get the race car so sideways that it would roll enough to cock the inside front wheel in the air (but only on Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus cars), then power it across the apex. Getting the wheel up meant, he once told me, that he could cut the corner quite a bit.

But there was more. If he had to pass a back-marker on the way in, through, or out of a corner, he seemed to be able to alter his line at will — and there still seemed to be time for him to give the V-sign to any photographer he spotted while this was going on, the whole time having a big grin on his face.  For John, racing was fun, and had to be enjoyed to the full.

In all his years in the limelight, it was the Whitmore/Lotus Cortina/Alan Mann Racing connection which made so many headlines in three years. For John there were five wins in his first year with the team (1964) including races at Zolder, Brands Hatch, Karlskoga, plus two hillclimb victories, and two second places at the Nurburgring and in Budapest. In a high-profile team line-up, which included stars such as Peter Procter and Henry Taylor, John was not only the fastest and most flamboyant of them all, but he always made it look so easy.

Spring into action

More competitive than ever, by mid-1965 Sir John  was using a new leaf-spring car (KPU 392C), which totally dominated the European series. Even after all this time, Alan Mann remembers that second Lotus Cortina season with great affection. 

It was even more outstandingly successful than in 1964 — in fact John’s campaign was as near to a walkover as motor racing had seen for years — and one must never forget that there was also a second AMR ‘back-up’ car in the races (often driven by Peter Procter), which was just as fast, and only marginally less successful.

In a nine-event European Touring Car Championship season, with eight races and hillclimbs concentrated into a three-month period, the Lotus Cortina was always the class of the field. John started all nine events, had to retire only once, and was never headed in his capacity class — while many times he was fastest overall.

As Autosport’s Patrick McNally wrote: ‘Sir John Whitmore was outstandingly successful, his Alan Mann Lotus Ford Cortina proving to be both fast and reliable. The popular racing Baronet often won his races outright as well as the class, and shattered course and circuit records everywhere he went’.

Whitmore simply loved the way the Lotus-Cortina handled :

‘We built in a little bit of rear-end steer to make it controllable, but in spite of its strange antics you could change line accurately; in a race you could dodge around in a corner quite well to get past some unexpected incident without losing too much speed.’

The ultra-close set of gear ratios meant that the eight-valve twin-cam engine was best kept singing between 5000 and 7800 rpm. Bored out to 1594cc, and with pieces both from Cosworth and BRM, it produced 150 bhp at 7800rpm, and it was reliable for six-hour races.

In recent years Alan Mann confirmed that he built all-new race cars for the 1965 season. For all its racing activities, Ford secured a big new batch of consecutive numbers — KPU 380C to KPU 398C, I recall), reserving many of them for Boreham’s use on rally cars, but allocating a handful to Alan Mann Racing, and to Team Lotus. In 1965, AMR used KPU 392C for the car which would become legendary, KPU 398C was on the second-string car, and other ‘KPUs ….’ were retained for spare cars which were never used during the year.

Testing, testing

Well before the season’s racing began, Alan Mann was convinced that the leaf-spring rear suspension would make a big difference to the cars’ reliability on longer races. His team (and Vic Elford from Boreham) both tested new cars against old cars, back-to-back, on race circuits, and were soon sure that they had made the right decision. 

Certainly he settled on a leaf-spring rear suspension as soon as he could get approval for it, and could keep the scrutineers happy. It is still not clear that the cars which travelled to Monza in March had leaf springs, but for the rest of the season they most certainly had. 

The first outing at Monza in March, when the cars carried the familiar white-with-green striping livery, was disappointing, for although both cars led the formidable works Alfa Romeos, both of them retired with blown engines, but this became the only retirement which Sir John’s car suffered all year.

The rush to dominate then set in. John competed in the Monte Ventoux hillclimb in France. Taking just 12 minutes, 24.6 seconds, he carved a massive 44 seconds off the existing saloon car record.

Just a week later, the two AMR cars (still painted white/green) started the Nürburgring  6 Hours, where KPU was leading by such a margin at the end that Alan Mann staged a dead-heat finish, with the Pierpoint/Neerpasch AMR Mustang. Only two weeks later, the two cars then walked away with their category at the Zolder (Belgium) one-hour race.

A five-week gap followed, during which Alan Mann decided to have his cars decked out in that wonderful red/gold colour scheme. Then, no fewer than five events took place in August, all of them contested by KPU 392C. 

First of all was a very short hillclimb test in Austria, one week later a 65-mile circuit race at Karlskoga in Sweden where John finished second overall to Bo Ljungfeldt’s AMR Mustang. Seven days after that was the much more demanding 500 km event at the old Snetterton circuit, which still had its long straight in those days, and it was here that the Lotus Cortina had to fight the newly-homologated Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA for the first time. No matter, for John and KPU 392C still won.

By now it was almost game over for the Championship, but only a week after Snetterton the Lotus Cortina travelled to the St Ursanne Les Rangiers Hillclimb in Switzerland, where the car won its capacity class, and only a week after that it ended its season at the Zandvoort circuit, where a one hour race ended with Lungfeldt’s AMR Mustang finishing a (staged) car’s length ahead of the positively relaxed John.

Even so, fame at this level is always brief. After its intense nine-event campaign, KPU 392C was taken back to England, given a cosmetic make-over by Ford, and used in a dealership and motorshow promotional tour. By 1966 it was beginning to look neglected, had lost much of its special equipment, and went into storage. Eventually, in the 1990s, it was sold off, to a North American collector, where it has been restored to its once immaculate condition. 

That Championship winning car never raced again, and neither was the Lotus Cortina ever as successful on the track. But what a season!

Words Graham Robson

This feature first appeared in the Summer 2012 issue

Click here for more Classic Ford features