Few people involved in rallying in the late sixties and early seventies will not have heard of J. C. Withers (Winsford) Ltd..
John C. Withers, better known as Cal Withers, sadly passed away in 2020. He had started his involvement in rallying in 1967 with a Mini. The basis of this car was a standard Mini using the 997cc engine from a crashed Cooper that had come into his scrap yard. In those early days he also campaigned a 1500GT Cortina with a bodyshell, again sourced from his yard, which was combined with the internals of a crashed Supersport car. He used this for many events as well as taking the kids to school and long runs down to Boreham to pick up specialist Ford parts. Cal did the Manx in it but by then, despite large stickers promoting his company, the car had become a little tatty.
By 1969 the scrap yard, now typically referred to as “Withers of Winsford”, was beginning to do reasonably well and Cal noticed that the yard was getting more and more enquiries from people in the north-west of England and north Wales looking for Escort bodyshells. Typically these enquiries were from enthusiasts who had been rallying Cortinas and Anglias and now wished to join the growing number of rallyists who realised what an exceptionally good rally car the various Escort variants made. At the time the installation of a crossflow 1600 engine, a 2000E gearbox and a Cortina axle would produce an Escort that could then be used quite successfully in club rallying. However there were never enough crashed Mk 1 bodyshells around to satisfy this demand.
By now Cal was selling a lot of second-hand bits and new competition parts to bolt onto such Escorts and so decided to build his own car. This was based on a body shell prepared by Knutsford Motors, his local Ford Dealer. To this were added other bits from the yard together with new parts from Ford. The finished car used a standard rear axle with twin-cam shafts, a 2000E gearbox and a twin-cam engine. All the work was carried out at the back of Cal’s yard by staff, volunteers, friends and, in particular, Stan Booth. Once completed it was used to demonstrate that Withers of Winsford could provide everything that was necessary to build an Escort rally car. It was even painted orange to ensure that it was noticed! The first planned event for this car (LMB 712G) should have been the Hackle rally in 1969 but the car was not finished in time and so its first event was that year’s RAC rally, crewed by Stan Booth and Jim Corner. They started as car number 152 but ended up finishing around the mid-sixties.
A common theme throughout Cal’s involvement in rallying was his interest in gaining the maximum amount of publicity for his business operation. Restrictions in advertising at the time meant that it was really only the Entrant of a car that was able to attract publicity and it is a recurring theme of Cal’s rallying participation that all cars he was associated with were entered in the name of his company. This allowed him to place an advertisement on the cars themselves and ensured mention in all the printed entry lists, programs and other media reporting.
After the orange car returned from the RAC it was borrowed by Frank Pierson who then proceeded to win the Icebreaker, his first drive in an Escort. Cal followed this by entering the Targa with himself driving and John Adams navigating but unfortunately the car caught fire in the middle of the event and was written off. Comprehensive insurance, available in rallying at the time, ensured that the finance was available to build another.
With the company becoming more known, Ford was approached to see if they could be of any help. This resulted in them providing a body-shell with glass and a wiring loom which was then built up by Withers into a complete car – AVX 578G.
Cal had just been introduced to Roy Fidler at that time and he had asked the ex-works driver and former British Champion somewhat tentatively whether he would be interested in driving for him. The somewhat typical response was “if it has four wheels and a steering wheel, the answer is yes!”
The first event for the car was the Portuguese TAP rally which, with the good deals available through the organisers, made it a cheaper event to do than the RAC. The outcome was Roy Fidler and Barry Hughes finishing in tenth place overall. This might not at first sight appear that good but the Withers entry beat all the works Fords, won the Group, won the Class, and was best Ford, Private Entrant and GB entry. There was no question that this result was a major step forward in establishing the credibility of Withers of Winsford in rally circles.
The car was back in the UK in time for the RAC. Fidler not being available, Cal asked Stuart Turner if he had any suggestions. The names of Alen, Hopkirk and Makinen were all discussed at one time or another but Cal decided to go with Brian Culcheth. His fee was £50! Just before the event he visited the yard and was less than impressed to find his car tucked away at the back of Cal’s sheds. On the event the car suffered a misfire and, come Bathgate, Brian, then placed down around 35th, was all for packing it in. However upon leaving the Halt, the engine cured itself and he eventually finished 8th overall, winning the Group and the Class while again achieving best Ford, best British and top Private Entrant. It was to be Culcheth’s highest RAC finish.
For the London - Mexico Rally Cal purchased the ex-Rosemary Smith 1968 London to Sydney car (VPI 777). This was to be driven by MN stalwarts Frank Pierson, Barry Hughes and Ian Harwood and they started as car number 9. The crew were lying 14th overall when a damaged sump caused them to run out of time and into retirement.
Martin Holmes had already approached Cal suggesting that the Motoring News Championship would also be a very good vehicle for publicising his Company. Thus a highly successful partnership began. Typically, Martin would find the car and driver and then, entering it under the Withers of Winsford banner, would receive some expenses and other help from Cal. The initial agreement was to cover Russell Brookes in his Mini but this was subsequently extended to a variety of drivers including Rod Badham, Paul Faulkner, Ian Harwood, Chris Sclater amongst others. Each week Martin would write a PR release for all of the interested media and the Withers of Winsford’s name was gradually pushed into the forefront of the MN championship.
Cal also set up some simple sponsorship deals direct with the drivers themselves, the most successful of which was with George Hill after a chance meeting at the Northern Racing Car Show. Again, he always insisted on the entrant being Withers of Winsford and subsequently Team Castrol was added to this. George purchased his car (ABU 3J) through Withers from W. R. Davies but he then did all his own preparation. Later in 1972 his Mexico Challenge car carried Cal’s 2 CWT registration number which came off a crashed Mini, cost just £30!
Roger Clark was due to do six events for Cal in 1971. At a time when Ford did not wish to be seen directly getting involved in rallying, Ford prepared the car for Clark and then Withers of Winsford would collect it from Boreham before each event and pay the entry, expenses, comprehensive insurance and the like, as well as doing a direct deal with Roger. The result was a fully sorted “works” Escort (KHK 597J) built to a standard that Withers could probably not have achieved on their own and certainly could not have afforded, but one still promoting the Withers name in the very top echelons of British rallying. When it was subsequently written off, Cal claimed on the insurance and received the salvage (less engine, gearbox, seats etc.) which was then sold on to Willie Crawford of Lothian Sports cars. A further Escort (LOO 333J) was built that year by Withers, mainly for Roy Fidler’s use. Good top three results were achieved throughout the year with this car, including a 3rd on the Scottish. East African Safari winner, Robin Hillyer was another top driver to use it.
By now Chris Sclater was competing under the Withers banner with a car owned and prepared by himself, powered by a David Wood supplied engine. Following excellent results over a three year period Chris finally became the 1971 RAC Champion illustrating how Cal seemed to have a knack for picking winners. In 1972 Withers built another Escort (JCW 777) which was destined for use by Rosemary Smith. During this period Chris also did Rallycross in Holland, raced in the Mexico series and even did short circuit stadium racing, all under the banner of Withers of Winsford
At the end of that year Cal was looking for other ways to promote his business, feeling it would be difficult to emulate the success achieved in 1972. Martin Holmes tipped him off that there was an ex-works Datsun 240Z lying unused at the Datsun headquarters in Brighton. This resulted in Withers buying the car for £1200 although it had no spares, not even a spare wheel; it was also “a little tired” having been untouched since finishing the RAC.
Despite some people who felt that this was not a clever move, Cal quickly started to receive a high level of publicity with this car. The first event it was used on was the Snowman driven by Roy Fidler. The only spares available were standard spares and in the icy conditions encountered, the Datsun was not really the car to have. Whilst lying in top position after the first half, a protest saw the whole section cancelled. Autosport magazine however had a Hugh Bishop photograph of the car leaving the start ramp on the front cover of the following week’s edition achieving still more excellent publicity for Cal’s business. Next outing was the Boucles de Spa where Fidler was a very creditable 3rd overall. The Welsh followed and then, in mid-summer, the Scottish. Here the car clipped a bank and Roy and Barry Hughes had a big accident ending with it crossing a stage finish line upside down. Despite this the marshal still recorded his time! A picture taken by Barry provided yet more publicity when it appeared across the centre pages of The Scotsman with the rally report itself occupying just two column inches!! The car was later driven a couple of times in Portugal by Chris Sclater co-driven by Bob de Jong, both times sadly ending in retirement.
Cal Withers maintained a high profile with his Withers of Winsford entries in the Motoring News Championship throughout 1971 and 1972 and was a major contributor to the early successes of many drivers including Russell Brookes, Chris Sclater, George Hill, Paul Faulkner and others. On top of this there were few people in rallying who, at that time, had not visited or purchased spares through Cal’s business. On many Saturdays and Sundays a queue of people would be waiting for his yard gates to open, some having camped overnight! There is no question, Cal Withers was a very influential part of the 70s rally scene.