One thing to remember in the early to mid '60s when competing against either Eric 'Puddles' Adler or his partner John Conchie at Ecurie Aquila and then Alconi Developments, was how fast they could get a basic everyday cars to go.
Whatever they put their hands onto, it proved quick, very quick - Renaults, Fiats, Simcas or even a lazy Ford Taunus. However Alconi Developments' Renault affair is what really elevated that tuning company to its prestigious profile in the auto racing and tuning world. In 1966 its red Alconi R8 garnered the Onyx Group 2 title.
Alconi's collaboration with Renault South Africa was a rewarding affair that led to an individual model on its range known as the Renault R8 Alconi - a car built for true enthusiasts and backed by Renault itself. But it's what the men from Alconi achieved in the late '60s Class Y saloon racing that deserves mention - it's the stuff legends are made of - and it was a project that helped none other than ex-F1 Champion Jody Scheckter on to his meteoric career...
It all started in 1968 when the Group 5 saloon car series' Class Y for 2-litre cars was revised to allow supercharged and turbocharged engines in. A factor of 1.4 was calculated by the powers that be and deemed sufficient to equalize matters - in other words, a if you were to run a supercharged engine against a normally aspirated 2-litre, the blown engine would have to be of 1.42-litres to qualify.
Turbocharging was still in its infancy in '68 - the exhaust-turbine driven compressor was becoming popular as an alternative to the power sapping supercharger in constant and relatively low-rev aero and truck engines at that early stage. Turbos were not yet fully adapted to the constantly changing demands of broad car rev bands...
But there were exceptions - one in particular being the Volvo truck turbo used in Peter Gough's Willie Meissner prepared Ford Escort - but that's another legendary racecar story all on its own. Before that, however, Gough was running 1800cc Ford Cosworth FVA twin-cam mill
Supercharging, which although it had been a far more common motoring application over the years, was also considered somewhat of a black art in local saloon racing circles, but Puddles Adler considered it an ideal solution to his Class Y power needs and he set about preparing the supercharged Alconi Renault R8.
Puddles teamed up with John Conchie and Scamp Porter on the supercharger project and their initial scheme hinged around a 1 296cc mill - mainly because a 1428cc engine was not suitable as it bumped the car up a class. And faced with the added challenge of not having sufficient funds to acquire a blower designed for the job, Adler did the next best thing: The team scrounged a Rootes-type Marshall Nordic cabin pressure blower from a Viscount aircraft.
Puddles and his crew cobbled the blower - driven by a toothed belt running at 50% of the engine's speed and sucking through a single 45 DCOE Weber Carb with chokes bored out to an enormous 42mm diameter - into the R8's engine bay. An initial development challenge the team faced was to ensure the blower operated correctly and achieved the highest possible boost pressures - all theoretical in those early phases, of course.
To that end, the Ecurie Aquila boys purchased Union Spirits from a renowned petrol station garage at the end of Jules Street in Jeppe that had serviced the high-octane needs of hordes of hot cars and their drivers since the early '50s. Union Spirits was in most cases mixed with Satmar - an early derivative of petrol from coal fuels today known as Sasol - the Sprits offered a richer mix at high revs than petrol and helped sealing the rotors against the supercharger housing thereby achieving higher boost, while the Satmar upped that all-important octane in the days of stock 89...
Beyond its tiny powerhouse, the R8's the diff was locked - the spider gears jammed on Scamp's suggestion to take proper care of its more extreme outputs and prevent wheel spin especially out of corners. Renault 14 disc brakes were considered to be suitable - hopefully. The rev counter showed an incredibly high 8 000rpm half way down Kyalami's wonderfully long main-straight, so it was de-calibrated so it was possible to read the engine's full band - there were no counters beyond 8 000rpm then and the team still speculates as to exactly how high it actually revved!
On top of it all the R8 was restricted to standard tyre widths wheel spats were not allowed - Gough's Escort instead was homologated with wide rubber and spats. During its first race at Kyalami in August '68 the R8 proved spectacular with Puddles pedalling it to a shock second on the grid at 1m 39.7 - just 0.4 seconds off Gough's Escort and 0.7 ahead of Basil van Rooyen's Alfa GTA.
What was even more spectacular was the fact the R8 was timed at 228km/h at the end the main straight, although its debut unfortunately lasted only two laps. The R8 however soon had the opposition reeling when Puddles overtook Arnold Chatz's Alfa GTA and led for a few laps during the March '69 SA Grand Prix curtain raiser, although he retired with overheating problems compounded by the diff oil's vaporisation thanks to excessive power output and revs!
To illustrate just how quick Alconi's supercharged R8 really was, consider that Ernie Pieterse's 1961 F1 lap record in his Heron Alfa stood at 1m.43.5sec, while Jim Clark broke it in 1963 with a time of 1m 35.3sec - although the circuit was widened by that stage. An interesting aside was that F1 driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise was so impressed with the R8's performance that he came across to the Alconi pit and excitedly offered to buy the car there and then.
"How much do you want for zis car?" But as Puddles put it, "It's simply not for sale." Due to business commitments Puddles couldn't enter all the national events, but an arrangement was reached that saw Jody Scheckter take the engine over and race every round. So by mid 1970, the engine was rebuilt, bored out to 1400cc at last and fitted to Jody's famous wide track white R8 that he had previously raced in Class X with a 1296cc Gordini mill.
Jody immediately broke the Class Y lap record with a time of 1m 38.7sec and managed third overall at Kyalami against the likes of Bob Olthoff's 5-litre V8 Ford Capri Perana and Gough's Escort. Scheckter's first win was at Bulawayo's Khumalo Circuit, while he finished second in Natal Winter Trophy behind the monster 5-litre Capri.
Then came the False Bay 100 in August where Jody came up against another incredible South African car for the first time - Willie Meissner's 1424cc turbocharged Escort brainchild pedalled by Peter Gough. For reasons unknown, Scheckter drove his 1300cc Gordini instead. The R8's last race was the Rand Spring Trophy in October 1970 when Jody qualified 4th but did not race, with Gough setting a new lap record of 1m 37.7sec in the Escort.
Puddles, who today resides in Canada, and Ecurie Acquila stalwart Martin Pomeroy gave us a great insight into the R8 project during his recent visit to South Africa Puddles reckons, "Alconi was thinking ahead of its time and ahead of itself." The main problem facing the team was that neither intercooling nor water-injection were considered or invented in 1968.
One of the mysteries the team contended with was that every time they dyno-tested the motor, during the initial stages of a test run the test equipment would indicate new significant gains in power which, "would have given a reliable 200-plus bhp. But on the track, we could never figure out why the power slowly disappeared when everything got so hot!" Puddles reflected.
Adler went on to remind us that the R8 Gordini engine was incredibly reliable with all that power. "But problems with clutches disintegrating, pushrods bending, and the power developed way beyond the 8 000-rpm limit and where valve springs were temperamental, detracted from the project's potential success.
"Renault's gearbox and diff parts were not available for serious racing, so the small tyres and wheels just made too many revs."
Another interesting fact was that Jody recently indicated his intention of attempting to track down his supercharged R8, which was in many ways was the car that saw him being roped with the nickname, 'Sideways Scheckter'.
Puddles is quick to point out that he was perhaps a little too 'bang-bang' when he developed his race engines, while cohorts John Conchie and Scamp Porter would slow things down, "Especially when I got lost." He went on to say, "Remember that the name Alconi was made up of a combination of Adler and Conchie..."