In July 1963, a story appeared in a national newspaper about a 28 year old motor racing Curate the Reverend Rupert Jones of Rochdale, who said that he would have to give up his sporting activities because he just couldn't afford it.
Through a mutual friend, Vitafoam (as the company was then known) stepped in with a sponsorship offer to the Reverend, who had previously raced an 850cc Mini in club events as well as Rallying Mini's, 1100's and big Healey's for the works BMC team. Subsequently he was presented with a brand spanking new 1071cc Mini Cooper S painted in the Vitafoam light & dark blue to add to his 850 racer which would be campaigned as a second car by Geoffrey Dyson. A third member joined the team in 1964 - Harry Ratcliffe, who together with his co-director Jeff Goodliff ran the BRT tuning concern in Littleborough. Harry had previously raced a Morris Minor 1000 to great effect using the Alexander 7 port head with quad Amal carbs - the same set up he had developed for Doc. Shepard's Austin A40. Harry's Minor - (a car not noted for its racing success) was often seen at the head of the field dicing with Anglias etc, but Harry was soon to turn his tuning expertise to Mini Coopers, which he then raced right up to his retirement (at 32) in 1969.
The engineering aspect was always his first love, despite being offered a Works drive. "I remember at the end of the 1968 season, which was a great one for us, at Brands hatch", says Harry, "I'll never forget - as we came in at the end of the race I was in the pits as Ginger Devlin, who was running the Cooper team at the time, offered me a works drive, which I actually turned down as I had already decided to retire". In any case I couldn't really have driven for the Works team as I already had one of my own. Really I was more interested in the engineering the racing was just a way to prove that the engineering was working".
Back in 1964 team manager Brian Gillibrand had planned several European events which didn't go quite according to plan. The first being the Targa Florio in Sicily where Rupert & Harry shared the driving in a 1275 Cooper S. The car ran well, causing much interest among the more glamorous Ferraris, Maseratis & Cobras, until shedding a wheel and damaging the suspension, forcing a retirement. Things didn't improve at Spa in Belgium for the 24 hour race where the engine blew up after only 7 laps. Better luck though was in store for the rest of the season's racing with a 1-2-3 victory at Mallory Park and Harry winning the Daily Mirror Trophy at Rufforth.
In 1965 continental activities were curbed with just two events and more racing in England. This seemed to pay off with a second in class on the Targa Florio, with Peter Harper & Rupert sharing the driving in a Sunbeam Tiger and a second overall on the notorious 3,080 mile Danube Rally with Rupert Jones I a 1275 Cooper S.
At home in 1965 Harry broke umpteen circuit records including the FIRST 100mph lap of Silverstone in a Mini, and notched up 13 wins on the trot. Meanwhile Jeff Goodliff had kept himself busy building the MiniBuick - yes a Mini with a 3.5 litre V8 Buick engine bolted firmly in the rear of the bodyshell, the drive being transmitted through 13 inch front wheels. To actually drive it was like throwing a hammer shaft first as Harry remembers; "It was the best and worst thing that ever did. The best thing being all the publicity it brought us, especially when we took it to Oulton Park with Stuart Hall. It was lethal to drive. It was very nicely built, road registered, & used an E type differential upside down on the front end and an E type gearbox on the back. It was front wheel drive, which is why it oversteered so nicely because all the weight was in the back. In a race you had a good chance of being well up the field because nobody could get past, due to the car skating about all over the place!"
By the end of 1965 Mike Sutcliffe had piloted the Vita Cooper S rally car on the RAC, the same car was then entered by Rupert Jones & john Clegg on the Danube finishing second behind a Works BMW and in front of the Porsche; and on the racing front Brian Redman had entered the fray making his debut at Snetterton. Meanwhile Harry finished a creditable third at the British Grand Prix meeting with a virtually standard group 2 Cooper S against formidable opposition.
For the 1966 season, two cars were to be prepared for the British Saloon Car Championship - a 999cc & a 1275cc Cooper S and two Cooper S cars for club racing. John Rhodes, who was later to win the British Saloon Car Championship for the second year running for Cooper, drove for Vita at Silverstone and then Croft, winning both races in front of Harry Ratcliffe. This was to be the first of several encounters for Rhodes with British Vita, which were later to include rallying in a Landcrab 1800 and the Vita Rallycross Mini; Rhodes was much admired by other mini racers reckons Harry: 'He used to have the technique of driving with one hand, and didn't bother with the other one. I remember at the old Goodwood circuit at an international race, the first lap I was in the lead - there'd been a bit of a fracas, I got through it and took the lead. On one of the fastest corners I got what I thought was a good line and old Rhodesy passed me, he was right along side looking at me, steering with one hand and waving with the other and then he was gone. When the works team was fully prepared we'd usually finish second or third, we got nearer as time went on but in the internationals we'd only win the odd one. We did a three hour race at Turama and finished second to Rhodes, but it didn't seem to matter which car he drove, he always had the ability to get passed, he also used to have a habit of getting everyone else drunk! A great character.
"One thing he used to ask for if he was driving one of our cars was that it had to have violent oversteer. We'd use the strongest bumpstops on the back so that as soon as you'd turned into a corner it sat straight on the bumpstops which would put you straight into oversteer which he loved. We used to run 1% negative camber all round and whatever you did made sure if anything you had a bit more toe in at the back and certainly never got them level because you couldn't break hard and the car would be absolutely uncontrollable."
To improve handling and more importantly save weight, Harry later developed the lightweight beam axle to great effect on his club car, a development which was to revolutionise Mini racing.
The only European trip of 1966 was at the invitation of Stuart Turner to represent BMC at the Belgrade Grand Prix in Yugoslavia "We had no idea where we were going," explains Harry, "we just went over and fortunately got involved with a relation of Tito, young chap who enjoyed a certain amount of freedom and a few connections, which was a welcome surprise because he knew where we could get reasonable octane fuel. BMC had decided to come this particular year because there was a big motor show on the same week. It was a street circuit around a big cobbled square and they used to cement in the tram tracks before the race and dig it all up afterwards. In the event it was a good race but against very standard motor cars. So in no time we were laps ahead and ended up stopping the race when the organisers asked us if we'd had enough!"
Other works drivers to race for Vita in 1966 were Tony Fall who entered the Danube Rally with Rupert Jones as co-driver and Paddy Hopkirk who drove to fourth place at Brands Hatch. Tony Fall was also to drive as several races throughout 1967 and Harry concentrated on the British Saloon Car Championship in his 925cc turbocharged 140 bhp Cooper S. A car in which he once took a certain John Cooper for a spin. "We took the little thousand with us to Silverstone and took John Cooper out for a run in the thing ands he was actually that frightened he slid off his seat under the dash, and when we got back he said 'thank Christ you're giving it up!' 1300s wouldn't have a chance against it, it was just too quick, it could be quite embarrassing if not driven correctly."
Paddy Hopkirk returned to drive for Vita at Lydden Hill in September 1967. Televised by ITV's World of Sport, and came second to a works Imp. It was at this event that their latest secret weapon provided its worth - this being a five gallon can of water in the boot, the contents of which were pumped at high pressure onto the windscreen to blast off the blinding mud thrown up by other competitors. It was also at Lydden that Vita pioneered the use of 12 inch Minilites on John Rhodes car, which won outright. They were used on the front initially and later to be utilised by the competition.
Plans were now afoot for British Vita's most successful year , 1968, with an invitation by BMC to represent the company in the European Touring Car Championship. But what was the relationship like with Abingdon? "Well they used to supply us with special bits, engines etc. When BMC provided us with a works engine we used to take them apart, alter a few things, valves, camshafts and such because they were built to a standard spec with the 8-port cast iron head and Lucas fuel injection for the 970 S cars which we used in Europe."
John Handley and Alec Poole both drove the 1000cc screamers KDK 319F and KDK 320FJ with the occasional appearance from both Harry Radcliffe and Barry "Whizzo" Williams. After extensive testing (the 970 breaking the lap record at Croft), the team set off on 17th March 1968 to race in Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany and Switerland. The first race was at Monza with the chief rivals being the works Fiat Abarths which as Harry explains were tough opposition. "We couldn't beat the Fiats when they were going because they had about the same power but were lighter. The thing was that the Italian drivers used to get so worked up racing against each other that they would forget to concentrate on beating us and with their brittle engines they would blow themselves up. When they blew up it was quite spectacular 'cos virtually all the revolving parts would fall out! If they had taken it easy we would have had a real problem!"
Due to the intense competition it was decided to concentrate most of our efforts with John Handley. After being soundly beaten on the first five events, Handley was only narrowly beaten by the Fiats at the Nurburgring six hour race and then won at Brno in Czechoslovakia, (the term lest only just before the Russian troops arrived), and then at Zandfoort in Holland. The team managed by Brian Gillibrand together with mechanics Nobby Clarke, Alan Clegg and Norman Grimshaw worked overtime to keep the cars going. In the end though they managed to pull it off, John Handley not only winning the division one category but overall victory in the European Touring Car Championship. To top it all Harry won the Northern Saloon Car Championship and Jeff won the BARC Hillclimb championship.
British Vita's plans for 1969 were somewhat curtailed with the withdrawal of sponsorship by BMC to outside teams with John Handley's move to a BLMC works drive, it was left to Harry & Jeff to fly the flag for British Vita Racing. This they did in style with Harry retaining the Northern Saloon Car Championship in his lightweight 1293 lightweight machine and Jeff retaining his title with an 8 port headed, Fuel injected, Supercharged 180bhp, Minisprint. A car that had been modified to the GT category from he had used the previous year.
Meanwhile Vita were venturing into Ford powered machinery, supplying a Ford Zodiac to Roger Clark in which he won the three Cities Rally, as well as developing a 1600 Twin Cam Escort for Hannu Mikkola. One of the reasons that Harry decided to retire at the end of the 1969 season was that "To win would have involved a move to a BDA Escort, which I didn't fancy at all at the time, with my driving style with Minis I thought 200bhp at the rear wheels instead of the front meant I might have had some serious accidents, which I had never done in the Mini Coopers; in fact I don't think I ever seriously bent a Mini".
Unlike many tuning firms of the time, Harry was quite reluctant to market engine conversions, "Well we sold some, but we weren't in it for the marketing or the money, we weren't business men, we were enthusiasts, only really interested in racing. The whole point in life as I see it is to do what you want to do, providing you can scratch enough brass together just to survive, the most important thing is to be interested. I've been lucky throughout my life, I've enjoyed it, I've been here and there and everywhere, I've had a ball!"
Harry retired from his partnership with Jeff Goodliff in 1985, but was a regular "Potterer" down at GRV's workshops up until the time the premises closed in 2001. I have been lucky enough to meet Harry on a few occasions I am glad to say that he is genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever met. He still has a passing interest in cars.
But there are more important things in life, you know!