What’s better than a silhouette racer powered by a bellowing V8 engine? The answer, of course, is a series of silhouette racers powered by bellowing V8s, and driven by one of the most charismatic racers of all time, the one and only Gerry Marshall. This week we’ve a triple whammy of Retropower heroes, DTV’s trio of mid ’70s ‘Bertha’ race cars.
The relationship between DTV and Marshall was cemented with ‘Old Nail,’ a HB Vauxhall Viva powered by a succession of ‘slant four’ engines making up to 200bhp. It was good enough to snag Marshall and DTV an assortment of national victories and provided the watching public with some truly stunning drives, including this awe inspiring run to 2nd at Crystal Palace. You can watch said race here.
It was clear that something with rather more firepower would be required if DTV was to be able to face off against the influx of American refugees, including the burly Camaro of Frank Gardner. The solution was to be found in the then current Ventora, or at least its basic outline…and even that would be pushing it somewhat.
The car that emerged from a frenzied development drive was based upon the Ventora yet was powered by a Reynolds V8. Vauxhall planned to market a road variant of the Ventora powered by just such an engine configuration, and while the fuel crisis of 1973 ultimately put paid to such lofty ambitions, the race variant was given the go ahead nevertheless.
It didn’t take long for the car to be nicknamed ‘Big Bertha’ by its star driver, the aforementioned Gerry Marshall. A larger than life character in every sense of the term, Marshall’s somewhat pudgy appearance belied an unholy driving talent, with many feeling that, had he been given the opportunity (and frame), he could’ve cracked F1.
As it was the pint-supping Marshall took to manhandling ‘Bertha’ in the Super Saloons Championship like a duck to water, netting a trio of victories in the Repco-Holden powered car before disaster struck, midway down Silverstone’s hanger straight in 1974. A dramatic brake failure at one of the fastest strips of tarmac in the UK ended with predictable results, namely a severely shaken Marshall and a written off Ventora.
DTV went back to the drawing board for 1975, keen to come up with a worthy successor to Big Bertha while making use of some of its best aspects. The Ventora had always been something of a ‘halfway house’ of a car, so the opportunity to make its successor a more complete racing car was not to be missed.
As to what the new racer should be loosely based upon, well, the decision was pretty much made for DTV – the Firenza, though only the very essence of its central chassis was carried over from road to race car. The angular fibreglass body (one with only the most passing of resemblances to the regular, road bound Firenza) would eventually house its predecessor’s De Dion rear suspension and, amongst other things, its 5.0 Repco V8, good for an easy 500bhp.
Soon christened ‘Baby Bertha’ by both the press and its driver, the new Firenza based racer made its competition debut at the beginning of the 1975 Super Saloon Championship. The pairing were on the pace from the very beginning, with Marshall eventually overwhelming the Super Saloon opposition to take the title, with another added to his tally the very next year.
It was a crushing display of force carried out against a capable grid of opposition, and, thanks to the inclusion of Super Saloons on Grandstand’s Saturday afternoon schedule, one witnessed by hundreds of thousands of sofa-bound fans. It was a marketing masterstroke, and one DTV (and by extension, Vauxhall) profited from in a big way.
Baby Bertha was mighty, make no mistake, but it was nothing compared to what we could’ve seen had not DTV opted to ditch Super Saloons for the Chevette HS rally programme in the late 1970s. The Firenza’s successor was very much in the works, in mid development in fact, the appropriately titled Mega Bertha.
Mega Bertha was killed off before it got a chance to turn a wheel in anger, but the very fact that it got close says a great deal about how accomplished a force DTV had become in British motorsport by this point. Nominally based upon a Mk1 Cavalier, albeit one with comically widened proportions, massive arches and an imposing air damn. Power was supposedly going to come from either a another V8, this time a monster 8.0 Reynolds unit, or a turbocharged version of the Opel CIH.
Whatever the truth, the Mega Bertha prototype spent the 1980s gathering dust in various Vauxhall workshops. There’s little less coveted in motorsport than yesterday’s race car, and there’s every chance that it could’ve been crushed or simply cannibalised for parts had it not received renewed interest a few decades ago.
The good news is that this story has a happy ending, with Mega Bertha now owned by Rick Wood and having been restored to running order in the last few months – to was one of the star attractions at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year. Gerry would doubtless have approved.