The story begins with a racing transporter half full of beer crates. "Everyone involved in building the car placed a bet on how heavy the monocoque would be," winces Bill Harris. His face reveals a mixture of pride and mischievousness, and his red beard ruffles with a grin. "The one who was furthest from the mark was required to make up the difference in beer. Neumann took a punt on 76 kilograms. We ended up with half a truck load of beer," at the expense of bet loser Michael R. Neumann, a body builder from the Jülich area, who built kits for Honda production cars and also produced the body for the Gebhardt JC483 with his company Polyform. "We were really proud back then."
Because the passenger compartment, which now glitters in the light of the neon tubes in a Berwangen warehouse, weighs just 44 kilograms. Despite the fact that a vast aluminium roll cage spans the seat and floor assembly made up of multiple tightly-spaced rivets. "We had to rivet each one by hand," recalls Fritz Gebhardt. "When you were finished with that task, you had a forearm like so"; his gesture suggests the diameter of a chimney pipe.
The UFO-like structure formed the backbone of that Group C2 sports car that won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1986. Back then, the C2 was something like the LMP2 in the endurance category today – a kind of small car class that was reserved for private teams in a second league. But: whereas a maximum of four manufacturers are allowed to sell their cars to the racing teams in LMP2 today, back then each team could build its own car. This resulted in brand diversity, which made the C2 entrants secret crowd favourites in the World Sportscar Championship. Because the individual models differed in terms of shape and sound, sometimes dramatically. Back then, says Gebhardt with a twinkle in his eye, every racing car still had its unmistakable soul; that was the great appeal of the late eighties and early nineties, in particular in Group C.
That is why the Kraichgau region is now reviving this era. On the second weekend in May 2021, there will be an open invitation race for historic Group C racing cars at the Hockenheim Ring, as a new highlight of the Jim Clark Memorial at the Baden Formula 1 circuit.
Gebhardt and Harris still have much to do before then. Because it is not only the (currently bare) Le Mans winner of 1986 that is to be restored, but also its two successors. And a faithful replica must also be made of the immediate predecessor: Gebhardt Motorsport's first car. The negative moulds with which the body parts are ready and waiting in the large industrial hall in Berwangen.
The first offspring is something very special. "The UFO", as Fritz Gebhardt affectionately calls it. Like all early designs drafted by his brother Günter and the English engineer Harris, the UFO features particularly long body overhangs and large bodywork surfaces. Furthermore, the wheels of the first C2 sports car are fully covered. "But that,” murmurs an immersed Harris, "was rather impractical for the mechanics." Because they were also required to change the wheels during the six-hour World Championship races – and therefore had to laboriously nibble the covers under the mudguards off and back on every time.
A Gebhardt C2 is like the first lion you encounter on safari in the wild: anyone who has seen one of the Baden models live on the racetrack at a World Championship race or at the German Supercup races will never forget the unrefined long bodies. Their styling is reminiscent of a dachshund: long, flat – and huddling low over the asphalt. Because Harris wants to get the best out of the new Group C efficiency formula: low aerodynamic drag means low fuel consumption, so the car has to lie low and extend out to the rear like a ship; the Englishman intends to gain the downforce elsewhere – via the underbody. A "Venturi tunnel," he smiles – and points under the long blue example that already stands assembled next to the bare passenger cell.
The car in the colours of a Canadian beer brand was on the starting grid at Le Mans in 1985. It is a sister car to the ADA “Naked Ice” – and a direct descendant of the UFO. Frank Jelinski has left his mark on the history of this model – and on much of the history of the former cult team that is currently being re-formed. "He is still refusing to drive our cars again today," Gebhardt smiles, "but I'll get there." After all, the boss not only promoted Jelinski back then, but also managed him. So successfully, in fact, that he fell out with his brother Günter Gebhardt over it.
The team was actually established for Günter as a keen racing driver. With the nonchalance that has been an inherent characteristic of the family for generations. Grandfather has a farm in Berwangen, situated on the A6 just a few kilometres inland from Hoffenheim's Bundesliga stadium. Father is not happy with the idea of constantly heaving straw up to the barn by hand. So he invents a conveyor belt. And because this goes down well with other farmers too, father produces a series of these conveyor belts and is soon selling them in huge quantities. And this is enough to finance a career for son Günter all the way to Formula 2.
The company is still in existence, thriving like never before thanks to the boom of online retailers with their vast warehouses and delivery centres. However, it now also develops its own transport lines and takes care of so-called "intralogistics". Just such a system winds its way through the darkness of the hall behind the two C2 racing cars, because the site of the original farm is now not only the team headquarters – but also the secret development centre of the intralogistics specialists. New transport routes are built and tested here. That is why the old racing cars are surrounded by constant flashing lights.
Fritz Gebhardt continued to expand the company, and also established a wheel rim and car parts company along the way. This explains the boxes of fancy sports wheels stacked next to the test conveyor belt. Son Marco is just following in Fritz Gebhardt's footsteps, meaning that he can now devote himself to Group C once more.
The comeback is making international waves. For example, with Chris Parsons – a former associate at Barry Blant's law firm. He used to organise the Macau Formula 3 Grand Prix every year – and was in charge of the C2 technical department in England for Gebhardt. Because Blant, an insurance agent to trade, was married to a woman from Speyer.
And during the Group C era, Parsons represented the interests of the racing teams in relation to the motorsport's global governing body, as a member of the team association OSCAR. Gebhardt was assigned within OSCAR to take care of the concerns of the C2 teams. "I can remember him very well," reports Parsons from England. "He was always highly supportive of OSCAR – and has always been a great guy. I would love to hear from him again."
Do all the acquaintances and ties sound too confusing?
Because this unique interweaving was present not only throughout the C2 era in the eighties and nineties – but is also inherent to today's restoration projects in an almost incredible way.
It starts with the UFO, which is waiting for its new build. That is what Gebhardt – with the help of Blant – secured from Ron Dennis. Back then he was not yet the McLaren boss, but was working as Jim Clark's ex-mechanic with his own team, Project Four. He had a test vehicle from March Engineering – the company founded by future FIA boss Max Mosley. With a prototype engine from Toyota – from the TTE (Toyota Team Europe) of Ove Andersson, which has since become the works team for the World Sportscar Championship in Cologne-Marsdorf.
Bill Harris was also working at March Engineering at the time, when he finished his apprenticeship in Coventry in 1966 after completing a dual course of studies to become an automotive technology engineer. His customer service work at March Engineering also brought Harris together with Jörg Obermoser, a son of engine factory owner and inventor Albert Obermoser from Bruchsal. Obermoser Junior was not interested in continuing his father's work, and instead preferred to race. To do so, he founded TOJ – Team Obermoser-Jörg. March-Mobile deployed the team in Formula 2, complete with a young Keke Rosberg, and also commissioned its own sports car for the regulations that preceded Group C. Harris took charge here in 1976 on behalf of March Engineering at TOJ. "My first racing car," he recalls, "was a sports car driven by Helmut Kelleners". The father of the later Toyota and Porsche works driver Ralf Kelleners – and his son Ralf, in turn, is now a fixed face on the grid in the Historic Group C, which will be held in Hockenheim in May.
Meanwhile, Günter Gebhardt was successfully making his way up to Formula 2. In the brothers' own racing stable. Because the DIY experts from the Kraichgau region were simply compelled to use their own cars for genetic reasons. "Before Bertram Schäfer's team," Fritz Gebhardt reflects, "we were the official VW works team in 1980. We prepared the cars in the old barn next to our parents' house."
Skip forward to 2020 and the barn has become a warehouse and a Group C stable, and the former parental home now houses the Gebhardt Motorsport office.
As a stand-out talent in Formula 2, Günter Gebhardt received an offer from a brewery sponsor to test an Arrows Formula 1. But he rejected it: Arrows was not good enough for him; Lotus was the only option in his eyes – or nothing at all. Today, an Arrows Megatron by Eddie Cheever stands next to the C88 in Berwangen. The car belongs to Interrace, the team of Wolfgang Huter – the organiser of the Hockenheim race where the Group C Super Cup will be contested. Gebhardt takes care of the beige Arrows for Huter.
After Günter Gebhardt rejected the opportunity to test the Arrows in 1981, he suddenly found himself on the last rung of the formula sports ladder. And so the brothers made new arrangements: Group C was just taking shape, with innovative cars and all the possibilities that a whole new playing field always offers shrewd entrepreneurs with the courage to brave the gap. The Gebhardts hired Bill Harris - and he built the J843, in other words the UFO.
More specifically: He put together the puzzle pieces. "The rear axle and the rear end come from a March 822 from Formula 2, as driven by my brother," reveals Fritz Gebhardt, "the front axle and the pedals from the TOJ-Obermoser sports car from the old Group 6." A BMW engine, tuned by Erich Baier, was at work in the Formula 2. "Russian-Erich" was their name for the man from Bad Aibling back then, because in addition to Formula 2 engines, Baier also prepared ice speedway single cylinders for Soviet spike riders like Yuri and Sergei Ivanov or Alexander Balashov. He was one of the world’s best winter sports engine tuners for decades.
A three-litre Ford Cosworth was installed in the long back end of the UFO. It is a former Formula 1 engine that was used by Mario Andretti at Brabham. Harris had to visit the storage shed of Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone in London with bundles of cash to procure the engine. The small-scale used car dealer only opened the gate once he had recounted the money – and a huge stockpile of engines was revealed. The UFO was given unit number 110.
Michael R. Neumann contributed the smooth and expansive polyform body. “The car was designed for low fuel consumption," Harris enthuses. "It was highly streamlined. We had a cW value of 0.28." Mainly because interfering wings were kept as flat and narrow as possible. "I discussed aerodynamics and the effect of Venturi tunnels under the car with numerous Formula 1 engineers, including Gustav Brunner. He taught me: The more successful the Venturi effect, the more it shifts the weight distribution forward. Meaning you no longer need a front spoiler."
The Gebhardt C2, which is very smooth at the front and extremely long at the rear, reached speeds of 353 km/h on the Mulsanne Straight in Le Mans.
The UFO did not survive for long. Frank Jelinski had a major accident at Snetterton. This meant that the first model in the C2 series from Sinsheim had to be rebuilt from scratch using moulds.
The ADA car had just returned from England. However, it was in pieces after intermediate stops at the Bianchi Rosso Museum and with the Damax team, which had used it in the Historic Group C. It now had to be reassembled. "I even found wishbones in the boxes when I was unpacking," grins Harris, "which I soldered myself in 1983."
The US export still had a few races to go in IMSA, including one with regular Gebhardt driver Stanley Dickens at the wheel. And with Jan Thoelke – son of the entertainer Wim Thoelke, known for the show "Wumm and Wendelin" on ZDF. Thoelke Junior even competed in the Supercup in Diepholz in a Gebhardt. Afterwards, it ended up in the hands of lawyer Arthur Porter in Denver, who only considered it a collector's item. "We got it back from the US in 40 containers," Gebhardt said. "When we opened all the boxes it felt like Christmas." Rows of spare parts, many of them marked by the ravages of time, are still piled up in the warehouse next to the main hall in Berwangen. A spare monocoque still rests neatly shrink-wrapped and nestled in polystyrene in a huge cardboard box, with a wrapped front bonnet waiting to be unpacked.
Gebhardt scans the warehouse with an amused yet disparaging gaze: "This place could do with a clear up too."
However, they are in the process of doing so right now: the blue JC853 has been almost completely restored, and a replacement monocoque tub has already been installed in front of the ADA car, made of aluminium and riveted to the centimetre like the original.
Only the UFO is still waiting. But an organ donor has already been found for it: a March BMW from Formula 2. "When the JC853 went to America, one of the things I traded in for it was a Formula 2,” says Gebhardt. "I then sold it to Udo Wagenhäuser" – the later team boss of the MM team, which raced in the dark green of a beer company with two M3 Group A cars in the original DTM. "That was when we said: we're rebuilding the UFO, so we need a Formula 2 rear axle and the 16-inch tyres."
Gebhardt located a Formula 2 at collector Ralf Walter's in Augsburg. He paid the purchase price in two instalments – which promptly earned him a visit from the police. "Over 80 years old, and he's never heard of the money laundering law," Gebhardt shakes his head. "Once our payment landed in his account, he wanted to take the whole amount out in cash."
No sooner were the officials out of the house after their inevitable questions about "that racing car" than Gebhardt experienced the next surprise: the chassis number revealed that he had acquired exactly the same car that he traded in back in 1987. "I only looked at the type plate by chance."
The March Formula 2 now stood next to the third restoration object: the C88 Audi, Gebhardt's last C2. Brother Günter had already developed it without assistance from Fritz. Because the two fell out when Fritz dragged Frank Jelinski, who he managed, to Joest-Porsche in the C1 class. The Hanoverian therefore completed the next stage of his career as a teammate of Bremen's Louis Krages, who raced under the pseudonym "John Winter". Günter Gebhardt felt as though his brother was stealing the best horse from his own racing stable. And even more so when, in 1988, after Reinhold Joest had suffered a heart attack, Fritz also joined the Odenwald team as team manager on a temporary basis.
Harris remained true to Günter and designed the C88, a model that has the appearance of a shrunken C1. First of all, the Luxembourg tuner Hans Lehmann developed what Harris calls a "super four-cylinder with 18.8 litres and 600 hp" based on the engine from the VW Caddy. "Every now and then its crankshaft was left lying on the road, and in the first race we must have sprinkled around 50 litres of Shell oil all over Monza."
With racing driver Helmut Mundas serving as intermediary, Gebhardt procured the Audi five-cylinder with which the Ingolstadt works team raced in the North American TransAm series. The power unit, with its unmistakably cheerful chirping thanks to its large supercharger, was still based on the Group B rally engine of the original Quattro. Even in the refurbished C88, the chirping unit was still in the rear. "But that is the last block available," Harris warns. "Lehmann is trying to cast new blocks right now – but we don't have any of them just yet."
The regulations required that the small C2 be 200 kilograms lighter than the C1 from Porsche, Jaguar and Co. It weighed just 750 kilograms. That is why he was able to make the tyres work better than the big ones on some tracks. While Porsche was forced to tear up the camber and caster to get any temperature at all into the tyres, the C88 was able to drive with an optimum set-up. Gianpiero Moretti, who was now on board with Gebhardt as driver and financier, therefore called the C88 a "cannonball". The bright red racing car took 11th place in an IMSA race in Miami in 1990 with Moretti, Almo Copelli and the Greek greengrocer Costas Los, in the middle of the clunky GTP field – the US equivalent of the C1.
Gebhardt then went on to build a C1. Harris referred to it as "the plastic pig", because it consisted of a carbon fibre body as was common in the last Group C generation. However, the chassis was manufactured by WRT in Mühlbach near Ippingen. Back in 1987, it was the first single-piece carbon-fibre chassis in sports car endurance racing – a technical achievement that Audi would years later erroneously claim for themselves with their Le Mans Bolides.
The "plastic pig", steeped in history, has already been fully restored. It is parked in England with Gebhardt driver Michael Lyons – and will be on the grid in Hockenheim in May, just like the C2 Armada.
Reconstruction is in full swing here. "Almost all the parts can be procured in England," explains Gebhardt, "and we still know most of the people in today's Historic Group C scene from the past."
A Cosworth engine is already waiting in another transport crate, which – as in the past – is to be installed in the rear of the long one. Historic racing driver and tuner Paul Knapton has restored it. Such an overhaul costs GPB 35,000, or a good EUR 38,500. Gebhardt could demand at least EUR 200,000 for a fully restored C2, and that is still a highly conservative estimate given the prices currently being obtained for Group C used cars on the market. After all, the long variants are truly unique.
But Gebhardt has no desire to sell his cars anyway. They are scheduled to race at the Super Cup in Hockenheim during the first weekend in May. With Lyons, Michael Herich – and Stanley Dickens, the charismatic Swede who even won Le Mans as Gebhardt's protégé.
Until then, Bill Harris still has some work to do. But the Englishman literally blossoms when he walks back and forth between the three C2 construction sites with steps that have become slow and jerky with age. "I learned my German in the neighbouring village and have long since felt at home here," he muses. "But the idea of dealing with my babies from the past again – I would not have expected that until recently."
At this point his voice becomes gentle and his countenance softens, and it appears that he perhaps blinks moisture from his eyes. "Group C," says Gebhardt, "still touches people today. Not only the spectators, but in particular all those who were involved at the time. We experience that time and again – and we want to bring this unique feeling across in Hockenheim in May."
The team, which won the C2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Gebhardt chassis in 1986, was founded on the basis of a company for motorsport spare parts, gearbox reconditioning and tracking alignment tools. Londoners Ian Harrower and Chris Crawford – who would go on to be technical directors at Konrad Motorsport for decades – took over ADA from its founders Leon Smith, Gerard Sauer and Woody Harris in 1977. They in turn gave their name to the company: “Anglo-Dutch-American", to reflect the nationalities of its founders.
Harrower and Crawford converted a Lola from the collection of Anglo-French gentleman driver Alain de Cadenet for the first Group C season in 1982, to satisfy the new sports car regulations. The first car was rebuilt with a low downforce body for the 1983 season, before a Gebhardt JC483-Cosworth arrived in 1984. This was the car in which Harrower/Evan Clements won the C2 at Le Mans in 1986 and finished third in the final WRC standings.
Crawford and Brazilian engineer Ricardo Divila, who passed away in April 2020 aged 74, built two ADA in-house designs based on the JC483, the ADA/02 and /03 models. These were driven by Tiff Needell among others.
7th, 8th and 9th May 2021
One 45-minute race on each day, with pit stops for two drivers per car directly after the lunch break.
Class 1a = Group C1 and IMSA-GTP (Year of construction 1987 to 1990)
Class 1b = Group C1 and IMSA-GTP (Year of construction 1982 to 1986)
Class 2a = Group C2, Junior, IMSA (Year of construction 1986 to 1990)
Class 2b = Group C2, Junior, IMSA Light (Year of construction 1982 to 1985)
Class 3a = Group C, IMSA, Japanese Group C (Year of construction 1991 to 1993)
Class 3b = Special invitation from the organiser