Tiff Needell

BACK IN MY DAYS

Tiff Needell

BACK IN MY DAYS before television beckoned, I was a simple racing driver picking up paid drives here and there, supplementing my income by whatever means I could.

Driver coaching that keeps many of the young hopefuls afloat today wasn’t really a thing, but I was writing track tests for Autosport magazine and was one of the early ‘expert analysts’ working alongside Murray Walker for a variety of BBC Grandstand live events.

“THE QUATTRO SEALED THE FATE OF ITS OPPOSITION, STEAMROLLING THOSE THAT HAD BEEN LIGHTING UP RALLY STAGES”

Then a production company asked if I did any film driving, as they were about to make a series of promotional films for Volkswagen AG. They’d become fed up with stunt drivers, who back then had to be union members who could also fall off buildings, ride horses and offer a variety of other skills, so weren’t always the most talented of drivers and often couldn’t repeat exactly the same line for every shot.

The only way they could use a non-union driver was if the client employed them, and so I became one of the first ‘precision’ drivers used for filming - well-established now.

With precious few health and safety restrictions back then, we did pretty much whatever we wanted, waltzing Audis and Volkswagens through various scenes. Driving through a field of burning stubble - which itself isn’t even legal these days - was a bit hotter than I’d expected, and none of the cars had any safety modifications that are demanded today.

Synchronised slaloms in the Alps with the British Ski Team happened over 20 years before Jeremy Clarkson did something similar on Top Gear and claimed a ‘world first’. However, the shot I was most proud of was a 360-degree spin that ended right in front of the camera - even if it was only in the Milton Keynes Bowl. No one needs to know the finer details.

One of the most memorable days was when I was asked to drive the all-new Audi Quattro for a film based in the village of Portmeirion in North Wales, where the highlight was a trip onto the sands of the River Dwyryd that are exposed at low tide.

Now I know the Quattro is a legend that ranks alongside the Mini as a ground-breaker, yet I have to own up to not being a fan of either. I was brought up as a devotee of all things rear-wheel drive, and it was the Mini that condemned all small cars to belong to the world of understeer. Then the gruff-sounding Quattro sealed the fate of its opposition, steam rolling the Escorts, Celicas and Lancias that had been lighting up the rally stages. The rally version might have been great on gravel and sand, but the road-going machines built to homologate the model for competition were heavy beasts, and with their longitudinally mounted, five-cylinder engines sticking out the front it was like throwing a hammer into a corner. If you exceeded the grip levels there was only one way it was going and that was straight on.

Fortunately, on the beautiful open sands of the river’s estuary I could do my best Hannu Mikkola impressions without fear of being brought to a halt by a large tree. Long, wild drifts at 150km/h and not a thing to hit. Here the Quattro was in its element.

We had a helicopter to shoot the film, although I wondered how he was going to keep up with my random direction changes. The pilot simply told me not to worry, he’d be there. To this day I have vivid memories of the skid of the helicopter forever present little more than ten metres away, matching my every move.