Thunder Saloons occupy an odd place in the history of British motorsport, lying as they do between traditional, ‘belt and braces’ club level motorsport and fully paid up, Works run competition cars. A direct descendant of the Super Saloons and Modsports series of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Thunder Saloons were big, brash, often stunningly engineered by small, family run teams, and were without fail, biblically powerful.
The series spanned a mere decade running from 1985 to 1995, and the cars involved steadily evolved thanks to the steady trickle-down of technology, most obviously turbocharging. What began as a home for ‘big banger’ V8s would culminate as the preserve of spaceframed, turbocharged monsters.
The sheer variety of cars and engines undoubtedly played a part in the spectacular success of Thunder Saloon racing in the UK, and these are some of our favourites.
Vauxhall Carlton TS6000
The Vauxhall Carlton TS6000 is the best known Thunder Saloon of the lot, probably thanks to it being as close to a ‘Works’ run effort as it got. Vauxhall had actually campaigned a Senator in the series in 1985, with Vince Woodman and a fresh faced John Cleland signed up to drive. The car was actually just a re-badged Holden Commodore from ‘down under,’ and while a winner in their hands it soon became clear that something rather more specialised was required if Luton supremacy was to be maintained.
Cue the design and development of the TS6000, the most expensive Thunder Saloon of the lot. Bankrolled by Vauxhall and fitted with a GM sourced Chevy 6.0 V8, the TS6000 broke cover at the beginning of the 1988 and was a competitive prospect from the off, its near 600bhp of brute shove allowing it to overwhelm most of the established opposition. Only patchy reliability at the beginning of the year prevented the pair from taking a maiden title, pipped to the post by Pete Stevens in the pair’s old Senator!
The mighty Carlton couldn’t and wouldn’t be denied though, and the Woodman and Cleland scooped back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, after which Vauxhall pulled out of the series to focus on the BTCC instead. The Carlton was sold to Pete Stevens who still owns and races it to this day.
Proably the most outlandish Thunder Saloon of the lot and certainly the most ‘out there,’ Derek Tyndall’s Cosworth debuted at the start of the 1993 season and caused a furore in an instant. Tyndall had come to feel that his old car, a Metro 6R4, was no longer powerful enough to compete and opted to do something about it while striving to put his hard-won BL V6 knowledge to good use.
The result was the ‘EsCat,’ a Cosworth bodyshell (with plenty of Kevlar for good measure) with a Jaguar turbo V6 bolted within it, complete with some of the wildest aero appendages ever seen on a UK race track. While it’s often assumed that the car ran with ‘just’ an XJ220 engine in it, the truth was actually rather more impressive, with Tyndall managing to secure and fit the turbocharged V6 from a full fat Group C XJ-R!
The ‘EsCat’ was invariably quick and always spectacular (700bhp tends to guarantee that) but it also proved maddeningly unreliable, so much so that it’s best finish was actually a 4th. The good news that the car survives and is nearing the end of an extensive, ground up restoration, albeit one based around a 650bhp YB as opposed to a Jag lump.
The need to make big power reliably saw many Thunder Saloon builders looking across the pond for propulsion, and Ron Cumming’s Honda Legend was a case in point. The bulky Japanese saloon was relieved of its factory fitted ‘six’ and instead treated to a 6.0 Chevy V8, the same as in the all-conquering Carlton. It was never an especially successful machine but my god, what a great looking bit of kit it was, especially in faux JPS black and gold.
Showing a canny awareness of badge engineering and also its ability to think big in order to win, Vauxhall looked to Australia for its first Thunder Saloon race, specifically the VL generation Holden Commodore used by the late, great Peter Brock to win at Bathurst. The car was merely crated and shipped to blighty, whereupon it was treated to some GM Dealer Sport stickers and Senator badging, then sent out to earn its keep.
The ‘Senator’ proved just as capable hammering around British circuits as Aussie ones and the 1985 title duly went to Vauxhall. It effectively paved the way fort the Carlton which followed.
Mitsubishi Starion & Honda Prelude Cosworth
The rise of Thunder Saloons in the early ‘90s coincided with a relative abundancy and affordability of Cosworth YBs, and plenty found their way into the noses of cars of all kinds. Few of these creations were as popular or as competitive as Rod Birley’s, with his RS500-powered Japanese monsters proving to be among the fastest on the grid as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s.
The Starion was a potent bit of kit, make no mistake, but its achievements were well and truly overshadowed by its identically powered successor (though there was a brief dalliance with a 2.3 VTEC turbo), the Prelude. This became the car to beat in the wake of the Carlton’s departure from the top flight, and the impeccably engineered Japanese-Essex hybrid won back-to-back titles in 1993 and 1994.
Austin Metro BDG
The number of exotic engines sluing into space-framed bodyshells of all kinds gives a good idea how competitive Thunder Saloons was as a series, and there are few better examples than the Mole Motorsport Metro. Well, Metro might be stretching things somewhat, what with this being little more than a plastic shell paying the most slight of homages to the real deal, but in this it was hardly alone!
What really set the Metro apart was its engine, a Cosworth BDG. The bigger brother of the all-conquering BDA was (and is) a potent proposition and allowed the comically proportioned Metro to be competitive within Class C.
Peugeot 309 Cosworth
Another Cosworth powered Thunder Saloon and also another survivor – this car can still be seen competing today, and still with its original owners and indeed builders, Danny and Ricky Morris. The 309 was born from another of the brothers’ Pug-projects, namely a 205 powered by a turbocharged Manta 400 engine but the setup proved to be uncompetitive as the pace of competition increased.
The brothers next turned their attention further up the Peugeot range to the 309, initially powered by an uprated version of the venerable CIH turbo but, from 1993 onwards, a high spec YB. Danny’s position as editor of Fast Car magazine ensured a flurry of media interest in the build, while a willingness to use parts from an older Tiga C2 sports car racer ensured that it was, by the standards of the day, a thoroughly advanced bit of kit.
The various alloy components from the Tiga, not to mention the YB’s mooted near 500bhp power output, meant that the 309 was always fast, though suspect reliability and a number of large crashes rather blunted its impact. It has proved far more competitive since restored and campaigned, its debut season being 2013.
‘Stars ‘n’ Stripes’ Manta
The ‘Stars & Stripes’ Manta was another well-known Thunder Saloon and another to have survived the collapse of the series and the ensuing ‘wilderness years’ of the late ‘90s. Part of the reason for this longevity might be down to the investment made in it in the late ‘80s, with a mooted £60,000 spent on the creation of the car at the time.
Whatever the truth of the matter a genuine Manta 400 shell was used for the build, albeit one highly modified and strengthened in order to accommodate a 7.1l Pontiac V8, good for approximately 650bhp. That power was routed through an Xtrac gearbox and a Jaguar rear end, plus a trick suspension setup with plenty of adjustability built in from the off.
The distinctively liveried car was driven in period by Nick Oatway and Les Blackburn, the duo using it to clock up an impressive 19 race wins. It has since been restored and can once again be seen sparring with some of its period rivals, most notably the Carlton of Pete Stevens.
Further proof of just how seriously the building and racing of Thunder Saloons was taken can be found in the Sierra-Porsche, a joint project by Rod Birley and Terry Nicholls. Probably one of the most outlandish race cars of the time, the Sierra which debuted in 1989 was notable for having the engine from a Porsche 962 Group C racer in its nose. The 3.2L air-cooled monster made an easy 700bhp and propelled the Sierra at well over 180mph.
That was the upside. The downsides, however, were myriad: reliability was always a tricky thing, as was providing adequate cooling for the re-located flat-six, but by far the strangest (and doubtless most alarming) of the Stuttgart Sierra’s traits was the nose’s propensity to ‘lift’ at high speed, a result of the Porsche cooling fan!
While not technically a Thunder Saloon (it debuted after the series had ceased to exist), Ric Wood’s monstrous Calibra was both potent and competitive. It took the Formula Saloons championship (effectively Thunder Saloons’ replacement) in 1998 and in dominant fashion, no doubt helped by being powered by one of its owner’s eponymous engine builds, in this case a 646bhp Chevy V8.