John Cleland


My father was an RAC scrutineer and I was dragged along as a very young child to events that he used to scrutineer, whether it was the Scottish International Rally, racing at Ingliston, or an autocross meeting. He was the chief scrutineer for Scotland and he would scrutineer the cars and the event. If it was a Rally he would travel around all the various halts and as a scrutineer he would have a look if there had been an accident and see if the car was good enough to carry on for the rest of the event.

So I went along too; at the age I was I didn’t have an option! I remember going to the Rest and be thankful with him. I would have been about ten and we were hurtling along in an ex-works Triumph 2000 along the side of Loch Lomond to scrutineer the event. Then, around the corner comes a chap on the wrong side of the road and we ‘can-opened’ the side of his transit van for him. That was one of my earliest memories of going motorsporting. When we did get there it was in the days when people were there to have real fun because it was a sport for weekends that got you of the garden; it wasn’t about the professional side of motorsport that it subsequently became. That’s why I became involved in motorsport because I was there from a very early age. I then progressed into autocrossing, night-time rallies, hill-climb sprints and it was many, many years later before I even became involved in circuit racing.

It was the smell and sound of motorsport (that really got me into motorsport); they were the key things that got everyone involved. I think that’s probably why, to some extent, historic racing and rallying has become such a huge success in recent years; the cars of yester-year just smell and sound so much better than the diesels or alternatively fuelled vehicles we seem to be trying to race these days. I think that’s why I got involved, it was the sheer sound and brute force of it.

The driver for me who became my hero when I was young and who has always been my hero was Jim Clark. I went to Charterhall with my father, who was again scrutineering, to see Jim Clark. I think Jackie Stewart was there too and I have pictures I took on my wee Box Brownie of the Ecurie Ecosse transporter and the cars that Jim Clark was involved with. He was ‘The’ hero, he was Scottish and he was the man who was winning everything at the time and, as it transpired, Jim, myself and Gordon Shedden are the only three Scottish drivers to ever win the British Touring Car Championship. Jim won it in the sixties, I won it in the eighties and nineties, and Gordon has just won it in 2012. Jim Clark really inspired me; his calm demeanour, just everything about him.

I remember in 1967 I saw him at Zandvoort when I would have been a fifteen year old kid. It was the very first time that the Cosworth DFV ran in the back of the Lotus and the first race it ever competed in. I have a picture of Jimmy in the car. I was standing virtually on the nose-cone, in the paddock just before it was about to go out to qualify for the very first time with that engine before its first ever run in a formula one Car in a Grand Prix. That’s one of my memories and it’s a very proud picture I’ve got that shows I was there that historic day and of course Jim went on to win many, many things in that Lotus and with that engine.

I started playing around in cars when I was about 18, in autocross. I didn’t start in karting. I started in more trivial things as my Father had a deal. He would buy the car, I would find the money to run it and I would return him his investment at the end of that year which I always thought was a bloody hard way of doing it. At the time I thought he was a hard old b*****d but on reflection, looking back on it now, it was a very good message and a very good discipline; it wasn’t a ‘gimmie’, ‘you’re going to have to work for it.

We started off with Minis but then moved to hill-climbing. My first Chevron was a B8, then the next year we bought a B23 which I hillclimbed for 1 year and again sold on, only to discover that all these years later its worth a fortune! My Father bought the Chevron B23 for £1,400. I sold it after a year and got two grand back for it and I thought I was really clever. Today that car is worth £300,000. Not so smart! It did even go into the hands of Stirling Moss at one point as opposed to any one of Stirling Moss’s cars ever being owned by me!

For me it was a fun thing, I wanted to compete whether it was night-time rallies or autocross, sprints or hill-climbs. We would raise the car up one week to do autocross and then put down the suspension to do a hill-climb the following weekend and we’d tow it behind an old Austin A60 which was my rally car at the time. It took many, many years to get to touring cars. I began to do production racing and then naturally you want to compete and do better, and you want to race every weekend, but never did I think I would be in a position to be paid to drive cars and do what I would have essentially done for free.

It got to the mid-eighties and I had been driving production cars and I had done a little bit of stand in for an Opel works driver at the time and it was just a little bit at a time, and then with a little bit more support. Then it was ‘would you like to drive this factory car’ one weekend because Tony Lanfranchi can’t make it. I obviously did a good enough job and stayed on but it took until 1989 before I was paid properly to drive race cars. I then spent twelve years of my life being paid to do something that I would have done for free.

My highlights? One was certainly twice winning the Touring Car Championship and twice having my name on the trophy with Jim Clarks name on there once. That for me was a huge thing; to win that championship. It was at the time in the eighties and nineties when it was the one of the only championships in the World, outside Formula One, where people really wanted to be involved and really wanted to compete in. It was an International formula; it had drivers from every walk of life, and every category; ex-Formula One drivers, ex-sports cars driver, ex-touring car drivers from other parts of the World and it had a World-wide audience with massive spectator and (television) viewing figures. We didn’t realise how big it was until it wasn’t there any longer. We were being paid to have fun; it wasn’t quite the serious, long-face carry-on you get now a days. I always reckon that if you see someone on the podium getting presented and they’ve got a long face and they don’t look happy then they really ought not to be there and they should go back to cutting the grass at the weekend.! It was a privilege to do what I did and to be paid for what I did; so I was lucky, very lucky.

The other highlight was taking part in, what is said, was the best touring car race ever. It was the race at Donington in 1998 which Mansell drove in. I won that race on that day and I think it was the best race I’d ever been in, in touring cars. Everyone was in the lead at some point; there were so many incidents going on. It was the end of the day; it was wet; it was horrible; it was a race of attrition and I won it. It was at the last chicane, Mansell was in the lead at the time and I nailed him. I knew I was going to have him one way or another, whether he was Formula One champion or Indy Car champion I was having him that day no matter what happened. There were some really serious players there that day. You had Alain Menu, Rikard Rydell, Yvan Muller, James Thompson; real proper pilots and of course Mansell was there too. He was paid by the organisers to be there to get a crowd of people coming to see touring cars. He was a big draw but I don’t think there was a single touring car driver there who wanted to see him win it. It would have taken the shine off being a touring car driver if a single-seat driver came along and just beat everybody immediately. There was no way that was going to happen. I think I had more support that day for beating Nigel than any other time in my life.

There have been many other highlights; the World Cup events we had at Donington, Paul Ricard and Monza; to come second at the Bathurst 1000 down In Australia. There have been some major highlights in my career and many, many great memories but my real driving force was a guy called Jim Clark.

John Cleland

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