South African motorsport enthusiasts often disagree about the adrenaline game’s “good old days” and just when they occurred. Whatever their views, one partnership is always included when people get misty-eyed about local circuit racing’s best-ever spectacle: Michael Briggs and the Opel Kadett Superboss.
Say “Superboss” and people respond with “Michael Briggs”, and the other way around. Somehow, the memory of Briggs in that yellow Opel Kadett 200 GSi 16V with red headlamps encapsulates the feel-good factor of local saloon car racing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Starting in 1985, Stannic Group N was the name of the game, with local drivers, car manufacturers and spectators embracing the concept of standard road car racing. The rules were simple and few, basically stating that “unless specifically allowed, all modifications are disallowed”. Cars ran on over the counter, locally manufactured tyres, normal pump petrol and with the fixture of roll cages “recommended”. It was affordable and accessible, causing an influx of drivers from various other motorsport disciplines.
It also attracted a wave of youngsters, who previously could not afford to go long circuit racing. Among them was the 18-year old Briggs from Port Elizabeth, a graduate from the schools of motocross and karting. He drove a Volkswagen CitiGolf in the 1985 Castrol Six-Hour Group N race at Killarney in the Western Cape.
The Stannic Group N category was massively popular, mainly because spectators could identify with the race cars, and attended in their droves.
The youngster’s pace impressed and Briggs was chosen as a member of the Volkswagen Junior Team the next year, driving the first Golf GTi. He moved to Opel in 1987, behind the wheel of a works eight-valve Kadett GSi “Baby Boss”. Briggs stayed with Opel the next three years, winning the Class B title twice.
In 1990 Opel decided to launch a 16-valve two-litre version of the Kadett, with a limited slip differential, beefed-up suspension and lightweight bodywork. Their aim was to tackle BMW’s homologation special 2.7-litre 325i Shadowline in the top class.
“I was very much involved with the Superboss’ development and testing, and when we launched the race car, it was immediately hugely competitive,” Briggs recalls. He soon found himself fighting for Group N’s overall supremacy with Tony Viana, who led the works Winfield BMW team.
“We would fight for pole position on a Friday, plus the overall victories in both of the Saturday’s races. It was good stuff, and behind us there were another 55 or more entries, spread over five classes, engaging in full scale car wars. Spectators could identify with the competing cars and they arrived in their droves, which was good for motorsport, car sales and sponsors.
Michael Briggs and the Opel Kadett Superboss, in the heyday of South African tin-top racing.
”On various occasions, there were so many entries that organisers had to split the field to accommodate everybody. That is probably not a problem race organisers will ever face in our country again,” Briggs says.
In 1991, he secured sponsorship from DOTZ Wheels, bought a Formula GTI and took that year’s premier South African single-seater title, alongside the Group N Class A victory. In 1993 South Africa adopted the same Super Touring regulations as those of British Touring Cars for our premier tin-top formula. Local manufacturers latched on to the idea, with Opel in the forefront, led by Briggs.
“Those were heady days, and there were a number of fully professional race car drivers here. We were good, too – some British championship drivers came here at the end of 1994 and we were right in the ballpark,” Briggs recalls.
He won the overall championship in 1993 and 1995, also tackling the last eight rounds of that year’s British Touring Car title chase, and finishing in the top five places every time with a Vauxhall Vectra. Opel withdrew from local motorsport at the end of 1996 and Briggs went to BMW, but he realised the time of professional drivers here was over.
Briggs won the 1995 Touring Car title overall with the works Opel Vectra. Here driving the following year in Touring Car Internationals with the then new Vectra. Picture: Tony Alves.
“Touring Cars became too expensive, the grids diminished and the public started to lose interest. Meanwhile Group N racing drifted far away from the original concept, the cars grew expensive, the grids shrank – it seems like a recurring theme in motorsport,” he adds. Having seen the writing on the wall, Briggs went racing in Asia and Malaysia between 1989 and 1995.
“I mostly drove BMWs and Protons, made some money and had some fun, but it had to end at some point. In 1995 I bought a fuel station and started working hard to make it a success. Having been paid to race most of my life, I would find it hard to spend lots of my own money just to carry on,” he says.
Briggs, now 53, still takes on the odd fun event. Most of the time he wins, especially when the vehicles are front-wheel driven. “Back then, before the advent of electronic driver aids, smoothness was all in a front-wheel drive car – it still is, and I still utilise it to go really quickly,” he says. He is confident that local motorsport will survive the current Covid-19 crisis.
“Through the years, motorsport has suffered a number of crisis, but the sheer love that privateers have for the adrenaline game will eventually see us emerge from this, too. Motorsport lovers simply do not know any better – thank heavens they do not,” he concludes.
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