It’s difficult to know what to mention first here, the car or the driver. The former is one of the most extreme competition saloons of the ’70s, and likely the most famous Vauxhall racer ever. The latter is one of the most charismatic drivers of the period, a giant bear of a man whose pint-and-a-ciggy laid-back attitude off track was only matched by his fierce competitive instinct and insane number of victories on track. He was the king of sideways, which is no surprise given he was often driving a car like this.
Say hello to Baby Bertha, a 500hp, V8-powered, fire-breathing monster.
This, my friends, is a proper racing car. Her presence at the recent Classic Motor Show pretty much made my day.
Watching video of it on track is a terrifying thing to behold – press play above you can see for yourself. The tail is constantly threatening to break loose, the bellowing V8 is shouting away as Gerry Marshall plays with the throttle, dancing the car through corners before unleashing all its horses down straights. Cars are blurs as Baby Bertha claims another victim; though just imagine the pack of Super Saloon Escorts, Skodas and more biting at her heels….
Vauxhall tuning magician Bill Blydenstein oversaw the design and build of the latest in Dealer Team Vauxhall’s (successful) efforts to dominate the 1970s British saloon car scene. The iconic silver, green and red liveries were instantly recognisable – as was the brutal sound of this car.
Under the hood originally lurked a hulking 5-litre, Repco-tuned, GM-Holden V8 sourced from Australia. Although the original engine is long gone, a GM V8 still sits down low and far back under the hood – which is why there’s the space for the gaping, bird-like intakes on the nose.
The one-off is – very loosely – based on a Firenza droopsnoot coupé, though barely any of the donor shell remained by the time this silhouette was built up in 1974 using some of the remains of its crashed big sister, the Ventora V8 based Big Bertha. A rigid-backbone spaceframe chassis was mated to Big Bertha’s De Dion rear suspension, with innovative inboard front suspension designed by Frank Costin, the chassis specialist behind Marcos. This was radical for the time, but went with the overall concept: the car’s shape is defined by extreme concepts.
On the outside, her super-straight lines squaring the car off at the shoulders, making for an uncompromising shape. The body produced oodles of downforce – much as the V8 fought it all the way.
Vented disks did what they could to deal with the skateboard-size deep-dish split-rims – 15×12-inch at the front and 15×15-inch at the rear – with inboard units from an XJ6 at the back.
Her DTV predecessor, another Firenza-based racer nicknamed Old Nail, won 62 races in four years, so Baby Bertha had a lot to live up to. Three lap records on her first weekend showed that wouldn’t be a problem; eventually she won 40 out of 43 races entered. Of those other three, there was a second place and just two DNFs; Marshall and Big Bertha took the ’75 and ’76 Super Saloon Championships and would have won in ’77 too had they completed the season.
I love how basic these Super Saloons look, both inside and out. Baby Bertha is just so raw and uncompromising. This is a man’s car, with no concerns over comfort, over just how hardcore the steering was, how delicate the throttle or difficulty of maintaining traction. It took cojones to drive it. Lucky they had Gerry Marshall.
As for the man himself, he won 600 races over four decades and deserves his own feature. Racing drivers just don’t come more enigmatic.
As ever, we can be thankful to a passionate collector who brought Baby Bertha back into action for us to enjoy now. The car is a regular star at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed, and can even now be seen out on European tracks it never visited in period. It would be worth going to the Spa 6 Hours just to see…
Like Baby Bertha? You’d like the concept of her young sister too, Mega Bertha. But that’s another story…