Campion’s Champions: The Irish Racing Roots of a World-Famous Motorsports Collector

By Forest Casey
The spirit of John Campion, consummate vintage racing enthusiast, lives on in three special cars.

Last year, in October, the vintage motoring world lost an enthusiastic advocate and true friend to all who share a passion for petrol-powered cars: John Campion. Beloved by luminaries across the industry, earning moving tributes from rally driving school DirtFish and Jay Leno alike, Campion’s story is at once both larger-than-life and inspirational. At this year’s annual Amelia Island auction, RM Sotheby’s is sincerely proud to showcase three exquisite motorsport examples that Campion acquired relatively late in his life; three racing cars all representing a cause close to his heart: Ireland.

Landing in Los Angeles from his native Ireland with a scant $26 in his pocket in 1984, Campion transformed his own fortunes, translating his practical skills into a job as a roadie for some of the greatest touring rock bands in the world. As this was the 1980s, those bands were big: Mötley Crüe, and AC/DC, among many others. As Campion related to Forbes, world tours required incredible precision:

“Say you do a show in Miami on Sunday and you’re doing another stadium show in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday,” says Campion. “The rock star will walk on that stage at 8 o’clock in Rio de Janeiro. And the exact same light will hit him in the exact same place. That’s the equivalent of taking a dart and throwing it out of an airplane and hitting a dartboard somewhere below, bull’s eye. It’s that difficult. And you’re doing it with a hundred percent repeatability.”

Campion’s solution to this problem started from the ground up. Building his own custom-made, transportable generators to ensure consistent power for Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour in 1988, Campion realized that he was no longer a mere roadie, but instead a provider of modular energy solutions to remote locations around the world. For lesser men, this reframing may have stayed a dream, but Campion turned it into a billion-dollar business. This allowed Campion to pursue his true passion: Racing.

As Campion recalled on the CarsYeah! Podcast, growing up in the 1970s in Ireland, amidst the depressed economic atmosphere at the time, “We did have Thin Lizzy. We did have Rory Gallagher. And we did have Billy Coleman.” Later in life, after he left Ireland and built a business, helped found a charity, and began collecting vintage motorsport examples, this childhood memory returned to re-inspire Campion, who decided the types of cars he wanted to collect, restore, and race needed to change. As he told the Irish Times, “The idea was to change the focus of the collection. We wanted to tell the story of Irish motorsports physically, through the cars. So, we started off with the March 811.”


1981 March 811 Formula 1

Estimate: $300,000 - $400,000 USD

As Campion was fond of saying, all of his favorite cars “worked for a living.” With a competition-grade collection that, for a time, mostly focused on WRC-raced rally cars, Campion wanted this single-seat March 811 to start a new chapter in his collecting strategy. From now on, Campion would celebrate noteworthy motorsport contenders associated with his home country: Ireland. Though the founder of March, Robin Herd, was about English as possible, with an Oxford engineering and physics background, and a later stint helping to design the supersonic Concorde jet airplane, the Irish connection occurred in the driver’s seat, with Dublin-born Derek Daly at the wheel. This March 811 also wears an age-appropriate livery suitable for adults only, with Petrolicious deeming it the “Formula Vice” car.

Though Campion certainly encountered all three during his time in the rock-and-roll world, watching this March 811 stretch its legs on a closed racetrack at the hands of an up-and-coming Irish race driver named Jordan Dempsey, one realizes that this era of Formula 1 cars are no less thrilling today than in their heyday, thirty years ago. One also can witness Campion’s contagious passion and pride in sharing his collection with the next generation. Eligible for Masters Historic Racing events, and the Monaco Grand Prix Historique, this example is peak period Formula 1.


1983 March-Chevrolet 83G IMSA GTP "Spirit of Miami"

Estimate: $200,000 - $300,000 USD

A privateer team going up against the major players in endurance racing, by 1982, Robin Herd’s March team had a secret weapon: Adrien Newey. Unlike Herd, who had taken a more traditional route in terms of education, Newey was famously expelled from Repton, the prestigious public school in Derbyshire attended by Roald Dahl and Jeremy Clarkson (though not concurrently). Newey’s first job in motorsport was as an aerodynamic engineer for a family-run Brazilian racing outfit that had just moved to the U.K. to make a serious attempt at Formula 1: Fittipaldi Automotive.

Though team founders Emerson and Wilson Fittipaldi did not have much success with their venture, even after moving to the home of Formula motorsport, their paths would cross with Newey once again on arguably one of the greatest all-time privateer-built endurance racers: The March-Chevrolet 83G. An evolution of the 82G, the first race car designed by Newey from the ground up, the strong front fascia of the 83G was designed to channel air into hidden Venturi channels, giving the car plenty of downforce. Thanks to its 6.3-liter Chevrolet V-8 engine, this example represented a potent combination and notably marked a reunion between Newey and Fittipaldi at the Grand Prix of Miami on 26 February 1984, wearing this spectacular “Spirit of Miami” livery.

Returning this example, not only to its original color scheme but also to the racetrack that made it famous, is certainly one of Campion’s greatest feats as a motorsport collector and restorer. But for aficionados of endurance racing, the fact that Campion also arranged for none other than Emerson Fittipaldi to take the wheel (and finally add his signature to the livery) makes this video a must-watch. The essence of motorsport enthusiasm, expressed.


2005 Lola B05/52 A1 Grand Prix

Estimate: $150,000 - $175,000 USD. Offered Without Reserve.

One does not have to look hard to see the Irish theme in this carbon-fiber-bodied A1 Grand Prix car. The theme is more than mere happenstance, as this example is the actual car used by Team Ireland to compete against 24 other countries in what was initially advertised as the “World Cup of Motorsport.” To equalize the starting grid between teams, each outfit competed with a similar body over an advanced carbon fibre-clad aluminum honeycomb chassis constructed by legendary Huntingdon, England-based motorsport builder Lola Cars, Ltd.

Also in an attempt to level the playing field, each car was powered by a 3.4-liter, naturally aspirated engine by Litchfield, England-based Zytek Automotive. The equally potent setup made A1GP a thrilling, driver-focused competition. In this quintessentially Irish example, with Ralph Firman and Adam Carroll at the wheel, the combination proved victorious in various locations around the world, with an outright victory in Mexico City and podium finishes in Shanghai and Brands Hatch in the 2007-2008 season. Fresh from a comprehensive service courtesy of the skilled race technicians at Colani Motorsport—with its competition-spec engine and gearbox fully rebuilt by Gibson Motorsport—this example was one of the final acquisitions added to Campion’s collection. Set up for immediate enjoyment on-track, this example is a perfect ending coda to a thrilling collection. Ready to race.

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