What’s new in karting these days? The answer, as any old hand will readily testify, is not very much! We’re now into that time of year when many competitors have put away their karts and are busy visiting the various shows looking for some new discovery to give them an extra edge. They might be surprised to discover that, just like today’s music charts, all the best little numbers are revamped versions from three or four decades earlier. The constantly variable transmission revealed by George Robinson last month is obviously a very technically advanced system but the concept of an automatic gearbox for kart engines isn’t entirely new. Back in the early seventies I recall that someone converted a KTM engine to incorporate ‘variomatic’ transmission. This was based on a cone principle made popular around that time by DAF cars but which had actually been pioneered on motorcycles many decades earlier. Several years later came the 100cc Hewland Arrow motor, originally run through a reduction gearbox. It had a successful debut outing at Clay Pigeon during the 1976 British Championships when works drivers Ricky Grice and Guy Tipping both proved to be pretty rapid.
At this same meeting Ken Knox became the first British Champion in Class 100 Britain. Surprisingly, he was using a McCulloch motor when everyone expected the DAP T70s to dominate. Eight years earlier, Ken had caused something of a stir when he turned up at Flookburgh with a Komet K77 complete with centrifugal clutch and belt drive. This was expected to save vital tenths of a second through less friction loss. Fortunately for everyone else, this system never worked well in wet weather as the belt tended to slip a lot. Rather more effective was a remote mechanism favoured mainly by JLO owners allowing drivers to advance or retard the timing during a race. I was watching one event more than 40 years ago when someone took this principle a little too far and actually finished up in reverse mode. I remember James Mills caused some paddock gossip by appearing with a watercooled Ital Sistem in 1998. “We’ve been given permission to run with water-cooled barrels in 100 National as an experiment,” claimed his uncle John. “Obviously if things work out, you’ll see them in all the major classes within a couple of years.” In actual fact, the “experiment” had taken place much earlier, back in March 1968 to be precise, when Jon-Jon Ermelli appeared at Rye House with the Ken Hyder Endurol Special powered by a water-cooled 100cc Vega motor. In gearbox classes, liquid cooling had arrived half a dozen years earlier than that even, with the advent of Paul Biagi’s 1962 Special. John Dent was another early pioneer of water cooling and this certainly improved the performance of his 197cc Villiers engine.
He was also the first person to think about putting three Tillotson carburettors on one motor and achieved quite outstanding results with this particular adaptation. Less successful was the Hav-kart that actually had a Villiers motor mounted at the front. 50mm hollow axles could be seen in those days too, although the fact that they were often fashioned from steam pipe tubing may have spoiled the effect slightly. Buzz Ware’s idea of having a split rear axle incorporated into his 1967 Miura chassis really was quite revolutionary and it allowed him to toe the rear wheels in or out. Just as constructors today are constantly looking around for lightweight materials, there was a similar need for lighter karts 40 years ago. Paul Fletcher and his father started the ball rolling by constructing their Bitsatubes out of very fine gauge square box tubing. Even they didn’t go quite as far as Buster Clark from MKS however, who in 1964 came out with a chassis made half out of plywood. Trumping this achievement, Alan Burgess from Karting magazine produced an interesting design using Balsawood which he called a ‘glue-it-yourself’ kart. Bodywork on karts was actually banned in the early sixties but one or two resourceful individuals somehow managed to circumnavigate this rule. With its beautiful fibreglass moulding, the 1962 Trak-kart Starfire came very close to being a full bodied machine while Bev Bond drove a horse and cart through the rulebook twelve months later. He appeared at Oulton Park with a wrap around front panel on his Buckler kart and, when challenged by officials, claimed that it was an oversized Nassau panel. In appearance it was remarkably similar to the Kartsmart version featured in last month’s Noteworthy column. In case you think these panels are relatively new to karting, they were first developed for the 1960 World Championships held at Nassau in the Bahamas and have been named after this event ever since.
Bev Bond could always be relied upon to arrive at race meetings with some interesting innovation, whether associated with the kart or his hairstyle. Bev’s teammate in the Buckler outfit was Jack Barlow, who later left to set up his own Barlotti factory. Almost immediately, Barlow recruited another innovative thinker, Les Shepherd, as his works driver. I remember Les turning up at the 1967 British Team Selection meeting with twin Parilla GP15L engines driven through a 4-speed gearbox. It looked spectacular and caused real concern among his Bultaco powered rivals, but the stopwatch revealed that its performance didn’t quite match the impressive looks. Another Shepherd innovation was the five wheeled Barlotti which I’m reliably informed actually worked a little bit too well. After a couple of outings, Les was reputedly informed that this kart would be banned if he tried to race it at any more meetings. Jack Barlow considered himself to be essentially a Class 4 man, yet his 100cc designs were equally successful. Dave Ferris dominated Class 1 racing in 1967 with his Barlotti Imp, a chassis featuring four wheel brakes as an optional extra.
Ferris soon discarded them in favour of a more conventional set up but another Barlotti stalwart, Roy Mortara, used these brakes with great effect. 14 years later, Mike Wilson did a lot of testing with front wheel brakes on his Birel but actually won the 1981 World Championships without them. However, it looks as though this idea may be back in fashion once again. Following the impressive performances by Arnaud Kozlinski on a Sodikart recently, most manufacturers are now homologating karts with all round brakes as an option. If, as seems likely, these become popular in Formula A and ICA, then there will be a definite shift in favour of super lightweight drivers. Compulsory CIK bodywork introduced two years ago together with front wheel brakes will have added over 7 kilos without any compensating increases in minimum weight limits. Paradoxically, these brakes aren’t allowed in 100 National and heavier bodywork isn’t compulsory, yet the limit for this class has just been increased by 5kg. When the 125cc TAG motors come into play in ICA and Formula A, I hope that weight limits are increased accordingly, otherwise competitors will need to be the size of Riki Christodoulou. One development that no one ever thought about in karting’s early days is computerised timing. Alas, there’s no sign today of the wives and girlfriends who could keep a dozen stopwatches on the go all at once. As someone who views computers with great suspicion, even I was impressed by the latest offering from SuperSport Timing Systems. I’d read about this in Sidney Sprocket’s column recently and actually saw it being demonstrated during the November Meeting at P.F. It certainly provides lots of information for competitors to digest and should prove a very good investment for most clubs. Despite very wet conditions, the racing at P.F. on this occasion lived up to its usual high standards. There was one sour note, however, when Mark Litchfield and Jamie Croxford went up to collect their awards to be greeted by a cry of “cheats!” from some anonymous source. Their mentor, Paul Fletcher, gave a dignified response. “At first, we thought this had been said in jest but apparently it was seriously intended,” he declared. “I’m very disappointed because we don’t cheat, ever! Ask any of my former drivers or mechanics and they’ll all say the same thing.” Just as the 600th issue of Karting magazine comes out next year, Paul will celebrate 46 years involvement in the sport. If anything, his enthusiasm seems even stronger today than ever before. Thanks to his vision, Trent Valley KC regularly attracts entries well in excess of 200 even during winter months. However, Paul is astute enough to realise that no club can afford to sit back and rest on its laurels. When we talked together in November, he was looking at ways of arranging promotional visits to schools in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, taking the excellent karting DVD prepared by Graham Smith as an aid. Not everyone would feel comfortable standing in front of a classroom to talk about karting. However, most clubs have memberships of over 200 and it’s hard to believe that they can’t find at least one person among their ranks who would be willing to take on such a task. If clubs were prepared to encourage these individuals, perhaps with properly organised back up from the MSA or ABkC, I’m sure we’d see immediate benefits. Fletcher himself believes that’s the best way of ensuring a prosperous future for karting and there can’t be many who know more about making dough than the baker’s man from Sheffield.