The rear-engined revolution: horses pushing the cart
Part 2: Leading towards the post-war revolution
- Mattijs Diepraam
- August 7, 2005
- A history of early post-war German F2, F Libre and sports cars - a stunning series of articles on the constructors that helped rebuild Germany's motorsport industry after World War II, by 'Uechtel'
- Sokol 650 - Post-war Auto Union in disguise or a socialist F2 effort? Secrets of Tom Wheatcroft's "Type E" unveiled, by Jeroen Bruintjes/Holger Merten
- Bugatti T251 - Colombo's flawed brilliance, by Mattijs Diepraam/Eugene Zhmarin
- Connaught - Complex mind, complex output, by Felix Muelas/Mattijs Diepraam
- Cooper - Rear-ending in and out of Grand Prix racing, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
- CTA-Arsenal - French pride rebuffed again!, by Mattijs Diepraam
- Early post-war German F2 cars - The BMW-derived specials that appeared in war-struck Germany, by Mattijs Diepraam
- 1947 Italian Championship - The race when Nuvolari waved the steering wheel at the crowd and a forgotten Championship, by Alessandro Silva
- 1955 British GP - Brabham's Cooper debuting among the all-conquering Mercs, by Felix Muelas/Gerald Swan
- 1958 Argentinian GP - The first GP win by a rear-engined car, by Mattijs Diepraam/Felix Muelas
Click here to go back to part 1
As we left the bustling Indy scene war had broken out in Europe, halting car design (amongst many other things) until well into the forties. Although the Auto Unions had been at the pinnacle of motor racing for over five years, the rear-mounted engine was still very much an off-beat idea conceived by a handful of lateral-thinking minds. It would be well after the war before the rear-engined revolution truly set in. But ahead of that breakthrough was more experiment - and failure.
Tucker Torpedo Special/Trainor Auto Parts Special
Even though Harry Miller died in 1943 his legacy was in the midst of the action as soon as normal service resumed in the second half of the forties. The Miller name was no longer carried but another name tightly linked to Miller did resurface with regards to one of the ex-Miller cars that were entered in the 1946 Indy 500 – that of Preston Thomas Tucker. In 1935 the ill-fated association between Tucker and Miller had resulted in Ford keeping its single-seater nose clean for some three decades to come, as the Ford-powered and endorsed Miller FWDs fell out of the race one-by-one. Some ten years later, Tucker, suffering from another manic stroke of megalomania, managed to tempt the class of American engineers and financial backers alike to help him pursue his dream for the post-war era – the Tucker Torpedo, a revolutionary road car powered by a leviathan rear-mounted 9,75-litre flat-six engine and littered with many other innovative features. Still being a promoter at heart rather than a car manufacturer Tucker wanted a marketing vehicle to promote his dream, and found one – on four wheels.
The occasion would be the first post-war Indy race, the vehicle was the equally rear-engined Gulf-Miller that had suffered so much bad luck before the war. Tucker renamed it the Tucker Torpedo Special and got veteran George Barringer to try and qualify it for the race. Barringer delivered, but his race appearance lasted but five laps longer than Al Miller’s in 1941. The latter would give it another try the following year but had to retire after 33 laps. The car’s 1948 qualifying attempt came to a spectacular premature halt when a con-rod snapped and fragmented the engine.
The Tucker Torpedo Special’s racing career was as shortlived and unsuccessful as the sales figures of the road car it was supposed to promote. In 1949 the Tucker factory was closed down on suspicions of fraud, and while it took Tucker some four years to clear himself from charges, his road-car empire went under in the meantime. It was the stuff of movies, and indeed Preston Tucker’s life – quickly forgotten at the time – was briefly thrust back into the limelight when a Hollywood biopic directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Jeff Bridges was devoted to it in 1988. We are still awaiting the cinematographic version of the Harry Miller story, however.
Preston Tucker’s downfall didn’t spell the end for the now ancient Gulf-Miller, as there was a coda still to follow. Dubbed the Trainor Auto Parts Special it made two more appearances in 1950 and 1951, the first year with good old Al Miller driving (see left), the swansong year with Danny Kladis at the wheel. On both occasions it ended in a DNQ.
One man can be held largely responsible for the pre-war success of the rear-engined racing car, and after the war it was Porsche’s company yet again that came up with a rear-engined car design. It wasn’t Porsche himself that kicked it off, though, as the old man along with son Ferry and son-in-law Dr. Anton Piëch were soon deported to France, initially having been held captive by the Americans on their arrival on Germanic soil, and unsurprisingly so given Porsche’s design involvement in the German war machine. Before the Germans ordered the Stuttgart office’s transfer to the safer Austrian location of Gmünd it had produced such feats as the gruesome Tiger tank and the Ferdinand machine gun.
With the family trio forced into cooperating with the development of a French version of Porsche’s highly successful people’s car, back in Gmünd chief engineer Dr. Karl Rabe and Porsche’s daughter Louise were trying to keep the office in business. That is probably why Piero Dusio’s investment was heartily welcomed when the Italian first approached Rabe in 1946. Dusio had been the immediate post-war founder of Cisitalia, a fast-growing producer of nimble Fiat-powered racing machines, of which a ‘circus tour’ was now being staged all across Europe and even into Egypt (see Alessandro Silva’s account of the 1947 Italian Championship). Dusio had been an avid amateur racer himself and used his ties to engage Piero Taruffi to hone the Dante Giacosa-penned design. Indeed, Dusio himself was among the early race winners, in the Parco Valentino race that famously saw Tazio Nuvolari wave his steering wheel at the crowd in a ‘Look mum, no hands!’ spectacle that hasn’t seen its equal in motor racing.
Soon, D46s were sold left, right and centre (although the projected run of 500 cars proved to be hugely optimistic) and this led to Dusio overplaying his hand – he now wanted a Grand Prix car as well. As was later proven many times by mass customer chassis producers taking on a Grand Prix programme, this was a recipe for disaster. And it wasn’t just the GP car. In fact, Dusio placed an order with Porsche for four designs, including a sportscar and, in two freak instances of diversification, a tractor and a water turbine… Dusio paid a huge sum in advance, and understandably this was used to free Dr. Porsche, who had been the only one remaining in France after an action led by Raymond Sommer and Charles Faroux had already caused the two younger family members to be released.
Type 360 was to be the GP car, which had to be finished first, as Dusio demanded that a prototype would be ready by the end of 1947. At this time he had already embarked on yet another project – the Cisitalia road car, a two-seater sports model based on the D46. Again this would be a very effective car, also designed by Giacosa, and in the hands of Nuvolari it nearly won the 1947 Mille Miglia. Meanwhile, six 360s would have to be running for the 1948 Grand Prix season. But with mere months between the order and Dusio’s deadline the Porsche office was always going to fail meeting it. In the end the prototype neared completion in November 1948, which was still a remarkable feat, but too late for Dusio, who by that time had got in too deep and was desperately short for cash.
The 16-month order-to-prototype period is even more astonishing given the fact that the 360 was overloaded with novelties. In the list of innovations the rear-engined aspect is a mere sidenote to the space-frame chassis, the over-square engine (which Colombo simultaneously pioneered for Ferrari, although the Gulf-Miller had been ahead of both), the four-wheel drive system, the all-round independent suspension and the 5-speed gearbox with its Leopold Schmid-designed ring-type syncromeshes that were later licensed to car manufacturers the world over. The double-overhead camshaft, Hirth-cranked flat-12 was initially designed to be paired to three Roots superchargers but these were later replaced by two parallel Centric compressors. The projected output was 300hp at 8500rpm, with the engine designed to exceed the 10,000rpm limit. The four-wheel drive caused the gearbox to be placed between the engine and the rear final drive. Step-down gears powered the gearbox, which in turn propelled the forward shaft driving the front wheels. A limited-slip differential was used at the back.
All through 1948 the design work was finalized, even with Porsche’s successor at Auto Union, Dr. Eberan von Eberhorst, called in as a consultant, while Cisitalia’s Turin factory produced the first parts. With money going down the drain fast and no serious cashflow to replace it, Dusio had to use all of his people skills to advert or, in the worst case, delay his downfall. Late 1948 he seemed to have pulled it off, announcing a deal with Argentina’s charismatic dictator Juan Perón. This involved the founding of a company for the development of Argentinian performance cars, which in fact would be based on the Porsche designs. However, it soon became clear that Auto Motores Argentinos, Autoar in short, was an ordinary ploy by Dusio to get rid of his Italian creditors. In the winter months Dusio managed to stall the process by showing pictures of Nuvolari in an apparently finished car but by then his creditors had obtained an injunction on the payment of Cisitalia’s debts while the employees were fighting their boss for unpaid wages. He was let off the hook in the summer of 1949 when Perón offered to pay all of his debts. In return, Dusio would have to close down his Italian operations and move everything down South. He probably did so happily.
The Grand Prix car and its spare parts were then shipped to Buenos Aires sometime in 1950, by which time the first F1 World Championship was underway. Had preparations carried on unabated during 1950 the car might have been seen in competition during 1951, the final year of the World Championship run to the first F1 regulations. As it was, nothing was done the year round and time simply ran out on the most advanced Grand Prix car of the immediate post-war era as for 1952-’53 its eligibility was to be restricted to Libre events where it would have competed against the equally obsolete BRM Type 15. Dusio did try to move Porsche into drawing a 2-litre or 2.5-litre (for the 1954 F1 rules) engine for the car but the Germans and Austrians over at the Büro thought the better of it.
While Dusio returned to Italy to revive a debt-free Cisitalia, found time to enter his home GP in one of his ancient D46s, and went back to his roots of building uncomplicated motor cars, the Autoar company had one last go at the car that had been standing in the back of their works for over three years. With the Argentinian Temporada regulations going free-for-all Autoar resprayed the car in national colours and entered it for the Buenos Aires Grand Prix of January 1954. Pipe-smoking Italian Felice Bonetto was invited to race it but the car ran into trouble after a single lap in practice. Local hero Clemar Bucci took over but he too had to fight to keep the car on the track as the gearbox kept selecting neutral. As with the ‘Sokol’ 650 (see below) that also eventually ran in a totally different country, revived by engineers who had had nothing to do with its development, the physical and mental distance between Austria in 1947 and Argentina in 1954 was simply too much.
Awtowelo 650 ‘Sokol’
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it an Auto Union Type-E? The car that was found in East-Germany in the seventies was deemed to be the latter for over two decades until it was finally established that it was in fact neither of the above. Being nicknamed ‘Sokol’ (Russian for ‘falcon’) by its owners it could be argued that it was closer to a bird than to an Auto Union. But wasn’t it devised by the former Auto Union racing department? Along known Auto Union Type-D lines? Yes, it was, and that’s why the mix-up with the enigmatic Type-E is wholly understandable. But the Type-E never raced, it never even existed as a fully operational racing car. The ‘Sokol’ did. Or ‘Sokols’, because two were eventually built and raced.
The birth of the ‘Sokol’ came in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The Americans had advanced all the way into Eastern Germany. By the time of Germany’s surrender they ended up just outside Chemnitz, where the Auto Union headquarters were located. The Russians had got there first. The cars themselves were hidden dozens of miles to the West, however, in a Zwickau mine, right there for the Americans’ taking. The opportunity was lost when the allied nations agreed to retreat behind the boundaries that were to create the Iron Curtain a decade later.
The Russians weren’t quite so sloppy. Led by Stalin’s race-addicted son Vassiliy the remaining Auto Unions were famously shipped back to Moscow to be dismantled for better understanding. It was never the intention to race the pre-war Auto Unions, however. It would be a disgrace to communism if Russian racers would be victorious using Nazi technology. Therefore it was very convenient that the Auto Union works and its design office were placed under Russian command and renamed Awtowelo. They would be able to create the machine that would show the inherent superiority of Russian socialism to the world.
Baptised project 650 it would be a car designed to the new 2-litre F2 rules. The Chemnitz R&D department was now led by V.G. Myshkin, a Russian, but the team was still all-German – and all ex-Auto Union. Thus it is no surprise that the car they laid out was very much a development of late pre-war Auto Union practice. Chief designer was Otto Seidan, engine man Walter Träger (who co-designed the D-Type engine of 1938) was responsible for the 2-litre V12. Remarkably the V12’s design was originally for superchargers but this was changed to Solex carburettors when the new F1 and F2 regulations started to filter through in October 1947. This is enough of a hint to suspect that the car was originally designed for the 1941 Grand Prix regulations, and indeed it was the Russians’ first intention to revive the Type-E project. However, it is peculiar that the 1.5-litre s/c formula would remain the basis for the new Formula 1 as well while at the same time it was decided to turn project 650 into a 2-litre n/a Formula 2 car. Furthermore, the 65-degree V12 that was a result of this change of direction can’t be seen as a direct evolution of the D-Type or E-Type engines, which were both 60-degree and were different in other significant aspects too, such as the bore and stroke and the number of overhead camshafts.
Perhaps the reason was that it took until 1949 before a first design study was finished, and until 1951 before the car was first run in anger. By then it was clear that Alfa Romeo was in a Formula 1 class of its own while perhaps it made more sense to try and create an F2 challenger. This was vindicated when F1 was ditched as the World Championship category but Awtowelo never cashed in on this. The new World Championship running to F2 regs was about to go underway when, in April 1952, two cars were shipped to Russia where a local team of mechanics took charge. That turned out to be a crucial mistake. The Russians couldn’t get to grips with the Solex carbs, a problem probably exacerbated by putting in the wrong fuel mixture. They tried a quick fix using Opel carbs but to no avail – the only race in which the cars, by then nicknamed ‘Sokol’, were entered ended in retirement, carburation problems the cause for both. Disappointed, Stalin Jr sent the cars back to the GDR where they ended up in the EMW Rennkollektiv’s garages.
They never got a second chance. It was all change for the Soviet Union in April 1953 when Stalin died and his son was arrested. With Vassiliy's capture the USSR's motorsport ambitions disappeared as well.
But why did the project run so late? Was it a lack of money? Did the Auto Union people purposely sabotage the effort? In fact it was neither. Vassiliy Stalin threw all the money he had at it, and gave the Chemnitz all kinds of privileges. Personal accounts of some of the mechanics involved confirm that they tried their hardest. So perhaps it was simply a case of too much ambition in too lean of times. Project 650 wouldn’t be alone suffering that fate. With the terrible shortage of materials at the time it would take until the early fifties before new designs could be developed up to a level where they would beat proven pre-war voiturettes or cheapskate post-war efforts.
Kurtis-Offenhauser 'Rounds Rocket Special'
Apart from the Gulf-Miller a rather more handsome looking rear-engined car tried to qualify for the Indy 500 in the late forties - the Rounds Rocket Special driven by Bill Taylor, who did his rookie test in the radical car and was to become a Mobil racing director and NASCAR chief steward in later life. Despite its stunning looks it didn't make the race.
Two strange and wonderous rear-engined interludes in the pre-World Championship era of F1 and F2 are formed by the Czech Mono JK and the West-German Monopol. The Mono JK was a pukka F1 car built to the F1-née-voiturette 1.5-litre s/c rules. Entered for the 1949 Czechoslovakian GP at Brno it did not make the race due to a practice accident - it was ruled out of the race after colliding with a truck!
The car was constructed by Brno resident Julius Kubinsky, with Karel Vlasin the driver at the local Masaryk track. Beaten by the Cisitalia-Porsche 360 to the title of world's first rear-engined F1 car, the JK monoposto was powered by a Roots-supercharged 1.5-litre Lancia Aprilia engine, making it a very rare and typical Italo-Czech 'Eigenbau'. The car was a non-starter at its only GP entry, its cooling system damaged terminally by the accident. However, the car did race in some minor national hillclimbs and Libre races during the early fifties.
Helmut Polensky, the 1939 German 2-litre sportscar champion, was responsible for creating Germany’s first F2 car, right along with the HH48 of Hermann Holbein. Polensky had been a mainstay of the immediate post-war German racing scene, both as a successful BMW engine tuner and the constructor of the hybrid ‘Kurpfalz’ before he started work on a new car for the new-for-1948 F2 regulations. He named it the Monopol, which eventually ran with both all-enveloping bodywork for fast tracks such as Hockenheim, and a regular monoposto shape. Its unique feature was the rear-mounted engine – a BMW 2-litre of course – which probably wasn’t just a case of pre-war Auto Union inspiration but of cleverness as well. The smart looking car profited from a low center of gravity which made it very nimble through turns – a line of thought that would become a single-seater fact of life over a decade later but was simultaneously discovered and practised in Britain by Charles and John Cooper in their lightweight 500cc cars.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Monopol faired well on its debut at Karlsruhe in 1948, Polensky leading the race before his engine let go right at the end. He made up for it at Aachen, winning dominantly, and added runner-up places at the Eggberg hillclimb and the superfast Grenzlandring.
The streamlined bodywork was first seen at Hockenheim in 1949 but the car was a retirement. His greatest victory came at the Schottenring, and he followed it up with a fourth in Nuremburg and a second place in Cologne. By 1950 the Veritas and AFM F2 cars were outpacing the under-budgeted Polensky and Holbein and he consequently sold the Monopol to Richard Küchen Jr, whose father’s V8 engines (later ending up in Hans Stuck’s AFM) were set to be installed in it.
Meanwhile Polensky first built a 750cc sportscar called the Fidelitas, again choosing a proper name for his car instead of bland type numbers or abbreviations, before creating a Cooper-style rear-engined F3 car, aptly named the Monopoletta. It was powered by a 500cc BMW motorcycle engine that directly powered the rear axle, and weighed only 265kgs. Its biggest triumph was a win at the Schauinsland hillclimb before a British invasion of Coopers and other Cooperesque F3 machinery rendered it uncompetitive.
Not essentially a car designed to Grand Prix regulations – or any internationally recognized rule book, for that matter – the Tatra T607 nevertheless deserves being noted amongst the cars mentioned here. Along with the other cars in the interlude between the mainstream successes of Auto Union and Cooper, the T607 was an off-beat design that soon ended up in the obscure corners of motor racing history. The car was based on production parts from the T603 saloon car, and took its engine too, albeit in reduced 2.5-litre capacity. Among its advanced engineering features were a triangulated space frame and synchromeshed gears.
With reports on the car only surfacing in the late fifties it was quickly concluded that it must have been a failed effort towards a 2.5-litre F1 car. That idea must be debunked on two counts, the first being that the capacity was actually slightly over 2.5 litres, and the second that its design, development and production all took place in 1950-’51 when the 2.5-litre formula for 1954 and beyond was still very much a thing of the future.
As a Formula Libre car it did race, however, Bruno Sojka taking it to second place in the 1950 Brno GP. A few years later it reappeared as a speed-record beater, bearing a cockpit canopy to give it a coupé shape. Designated T607-2 it took a national speed record of 129.98mph in 1953, further upping that to 134.37mph in 1955.
Late 1950 the Germanies saw another rear-engined BMW special. Similarly laid out to the Monopol, the East-German Heck-BMW (‘Heck’ simply meaning rear in German) was a simple design that wasn’t as naturally effective as its Western counterpart but it did make it to the finish very often, probably thanks to its owner’s reliable engineering. Ernst Klodwig had done the trick once before, having earlier created a rear-engined racing car powered by a twin-cylinder 750cc motorcycle engine.
With his Heck-BMW Klodwig was to become a key figure of German F2 in the early fifties. In both 1951 and 1952 he took second places in the championship, having racked up fine strings of podium finishes.
But undoubtedly the highlight of his career was a 12th place. This came at the 1952 German GP for which it is said he drove his Heck-BMW all the way to the Nürburgring… The effort was rewarded with a firm place in history, both for his make and as a Grand Prix driver. He did it again in 1953, the second year of F2 being the World Championship category, finishing 17th. And he wasn’t the last one home this time.
His Nürburgring outings weren’t the only ones in the West, however. With the Iron Curtain still not in place he took time out to enter as many races as possible, whether it be in the East or the West. His first Avus GP appearance gained him a very respectable 7th, which was the second best placing for an East German driver. He repeated the performance in 1953.
His local performances were dropping off, however, two fifths at Halle-Saale and the Sachsenring being the only results to show for. The car didn’t return to action in 1954.
Little is known of this F2 car created by pre-war special builder Enrico Nardi, the man who helped Enzo Ferrari shape his first post-Alfa creation, the Auto Avio 815. He would later become famous as a supplier of tuning accessories and, especially, steering wheels, with the occasional Fiat-based sportscar in between.
Another in-between job seems to have been the Lancia-engined F2 car that he showed in 1952. Like the Mono JK, with which it had nothing else in common, it was powered by a rear-mounted Lancia Aurelia 2-litre engine. There was more Aurelia on the car: the gearbox and final drive unit were taken straight from the Lancia, and the front and rear suspension were the Aurelia’s too. A distinctive feature were the outboard disc brakes at the front, which in this case needs to read as on the outside of the wheels!
A prototype was completed, as the photographs witness, but the project was cancelled after a September test showed the Lancia V6's lack of grunt. Or was it that it gasped at carrying over a hundred pounds of tubular space-frame?
Anyone thinking that the Cisitalia-Porsche had seen enough embarrassment through its years of non-competition, think again. There is even more non-competition connected to it that meets the eye. And as the man responsible for one of the biggest what-might-have-beens in the history of motorsport was a respected French film producer, the project can only have been bigger than life. Indeed, Sacha Gordine’s racing ambitions involved no less than five engine variations for three prestigious racing categories: F1, F2 and sportscars, i.e. Le Mans.
This was at a time when the old Talbots were finally retired and the little Gordinis were left as the only French representatives in the World Championships. Perhaps Monsieur Gordine, a keen amateur rally driver, could have put his wealth to better use by simply pouring funds into the ever cash-strapped stable of his almost-namesake. One can only imagine what Amedée Gordini could have achieved if he hadn’t been forced to survive one financial crisis after another. Instead, the maecenic ambitions of Sacha Gordine went much further than that – the result of his work would be as much France’s pride as that of his own.
And so, in 1952, Gordine established his own racing stable, based in Levallois-Perret. The name he chose was Sacha-Gordine, hyphenating his first name and surname to avoid confusion with Gordini’s valiant efforts. Above all, he wanted his racing cars to be modern, bold and progressive, and by supporting the ideas of an ex-Porsche understudy by the name of Vigna he got what he wanted.
Looking at the design characteristics of the Sacha-Gordine Grand Prix car Vigna got his inspiration from the ill-fated Cisitalia 360. It was rear-engined, used similar front suspension, and carried a motorcycle-style sequential gearbox, just like the 360. On the other hand, it was much lighter through the use of expensive magnesium, proving Gordine’s money-no-object approach, but most of all – as it was the eye-catching part – it was substantially smaller and extremely low-slung, the car’s huge nostril intakes making it even more futuristic. Indeed, the look would not be seen again until the ‘sharknose’ Ferrari of 1961. It caused the January 1953 presentation of the completed F2 car to be buzzing with excitement.
With 1.5-litre, 2-litre, 2.5-litre, 3-litre sportscar and 4.5-litre versions of the Sacha-Gordine 90-degree V8 engine planned it was only logical that the first finished product would be a Formula 2 car – it had become the World Championship category the year before and would remain so until superseeded by the 2.5-litre formula. Still, Vigna and French-Siamese development engineer Perkins had been busy working on the obsolete 1.5-litre s/c variation which, given the fact that the original F1 was now an insignificant formula and would be a definitive thing of the past in 1954, seems to have been an utter waste of time and effort. The 2-litre engine was a fully completed job, though. It was a magnesium alloy-cast block using dry sump lubrication and four double-choke carburettors. Power was claimed to be 191hp at 8000rpm. This would have meant that it was easily the fastest F2 car around.
Two cars were built up and tested once at Montlhéry by Jean Behra and possibly André Simon as well, either late 1952 or early 1953, before an entry was made for the 1953 Pau GP, held over Easter weekend. Then, suddenly, a full stop – an anticlimactic end unworthy of a man in the business of selling celluloid dreams. But there it was all the same. Before a car bearing the name of Sacha-Gordine could ever show its mettle the project was completely shut down and written off as a tax loss. Probably the bean counters working behind the scenes made him realise that he couldn’t go on much longer throwing money away by the shovel load, and so Gordine simply pulled the plug. The harsh real world had caught up with the movie prince.
This meant that the sequel to the Cisitalia-Porsche adventure was concluded even before the full Autoar drama down in Argentina had a chance to fully pan out…
Connaught-Climax Godiva ‘J5’/Connaught-Alta D-Type
Two drawing-table cars deserve a brief separate mention here, Rodney Clarke’s 1953 Connaught ‘J5’ and the more traditional D-Type of 1957. The first one would have been the most advanced 2.5-litre car by far when the World Championship returned to F1 in 1954, the second one was too late to save Connaught from going under after Ken McAlpine decided to withdraw his support.
A master of meticulous engineering, Clarke was often late to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed, while his 2.5-litre B-series was intended only as a stop-gap before the Godiva-engined ‘J5’ would make its appearance, it took until 1955 before the first cars were seen on track. On the plus side, the beautifully crafted cars proved to be both sensible and reliable as stop-gap solutions can be. With the original car, however, Clarke wasn’t only on time, he was also very much ahead of it. This time the delay had an outside cause, for the car was designed around the FPE ‘Godiva’ engine that Coventry Climax had devised for the 2.5-litre formula. When the Midlands company decided against proceeding with it, that wiped out several British projects at the same time as Cooper, Kieft and HWM had also been banking on the Godiva.
The Connaught was its biggest casualty. The ‘J5’ (or ‘J3’ in some sources) would have been the sensation of the Grand Prix paddock. Not only did it feature a rear-engined lay-out, its planned monocoque-like tub preceded the Lotus 25 by a decade. Four years later, the company already on the brink of closure, its uncompleted C-Type turned out to have a rear-engined sister design named the D-Type. This space-frame chassis was to have carried Connaught’s adaptation of the Alta 4-cylinder engine. The engine would have driven a five-speed transaxle that was already finished and had been tested with encouraging results. Similar to Porsche’s first rear-engined designs the gearbox would have been placed outboard behind the rear axle, but the project came to an abrupt halt after the 1957 Monaco GP where Stuart Lewis-Evans took the ‘toothpaste tube’ B-type to fourth place. One week later Clarke and McAlpine announced Connaught’s withdrawal from Grand Prix racing.
Through the vision of ex-Alfa designer Wilfredo Ricart, truck manufacturer Pegaso made a genuine entry for the 1954 Spanish GP, being assigned starting number 32, but the car did not appear. In reality, the Z-105 did not go beyond the blueprint stage, as it failed to attract the support of Spanish industry.
The concept of the car was based on Ricart's stillborn Alfa 512, which meant a mid-engined car, this time designed for the new 2.5-litre formula. The DOHC, 95x88mm, 4-cylinder engine featured hemispherical combustion chambers and mixed water/air cooling. The intended suspension system was all-independent, while the chassis was multitubular. Sadly, not much else is known about this peculiar coda to Ricart’s ill-fated 512 project.
Ricart being among the major reasons for Ferrari’s split with Alfa Romeo, one could say that the Commendatore was at least right on that count...
The collection of cars under review here wouldn’t be complete without a French national failure. And in fact we have two. Sacha Gordine’s abruptly cut-off project (see above) was regarded to be pour la France, and the post-Ettore Grand Prix effort by Bugatti can be seen in similar light. The difference is that there was private money involved on both occasions. That isn’t to say that the government refused to try. In 1952 the national-racing-car virus had struck again. In the wake of the SEFAC and CTA-Arsenal debacles the government representatives were a touch more circumspect with their nationalistic jingo, however, and in the end the ‘reward’ wasn’t needed. Private enterprise was already taking care of it – in Sacha Gordine’s case it was cinema money, in Bugatti’s case it was cigarette paper cash.
After his marriage to the second Mrs Bugatti, Monsieur Bolloré of Brittany's OCB cigarette paper company had effectively taken over the Molsheim company, and he was the one to initiate the new Grand Prix project. On paper there was much more promise than the miserable T73C single-seater that was created under the guidance of Ettore’s son Roland in 1947 – not least because ex-Alfa, Ferrari and Maserati designer Gioacchino Colombo was engaged to deliver the goods and came up with a very advanced design. Moreover, the company’s wealth was blooming thanks to numerous government orders for armoured vehicles to fight the war in Indo-China. It was the bread and butter with which Bolloré wanted to feed a new exclusive road-car programme. Although the factory hadn’t been involved in serious motorsport competition for ages, a Grand Prix project was still seen as the best marketing tool for car sales.
Dien Bien Phu almost changed things – and perhaps, looking back on the eventual results, that would have been for the better. The Bugatti T251 might then have been a tantalizing what-might-have-been in the Sacha-Gordine mould. As it was, the project was merely slowed down by France quickly scaling down its war expenditure in the wake of Vietnam being split into separate parts. Despite Bugatti being hit disproportionally hard by this the Grand Prix car lived on. It simply appeared two years late.
What the press saw at the official presentation at Entzheim aerodrome in November 1955 was radical indeed. Colombo had devised a rear-engined racing car powered by a straight-eight engine which in fact were two inline-fours with separate crankshafts and camshafts. Moreover, the cranks could be set to different torque requirements to allow for adaptation to circuit characteristics. It breathed through a scoop in front of the windscreen from which air was fed through two cockpit-side pipes to a collector box beneath the head faring and into four Weber carbs. The all-synchromesh gearbox (of Porsche descendance, naturally) was closely mated to the engine which, on the successful implementation of a 9:1 compression ratio, would be pumping out a competitive 275hp. To add to the effect the engine was mounted transversely, some eight years before Honda would do the same with their 1.5-litre V12.
It may have been revolutionary, but the transverse engine position, along with the broad pannier tanks occupying sidepods avant la lettre, gave the overweight car a bulky, cumbersome outward appearance. In other words, it didn’t look quick. And it wasn’t quick either. Colombo’s planned figures were optimistic and the prototype shown at Entzheim had been the finished project only by a long stretch of the imagination. Its bulky look told everything about it being overweight, too. The team worked well into 1956 completing and testing the car, and to top that, they were working to a deadline. The T251 being a publicity machine as much as a Grand Prix machine Bugatti had made an entry for the ACF Grand Prix at Reims, where they simply had to appear in order not to have the prospective French customer lose faith.
Maurice Trintignant, the contracted works driver, and Colombo might have predicted the outcome when a final test at Reims a week before the GP showed that the car still wasn’t up to speed and handled vaguely. Although the weight of the engine gave excellent traction out of corners it also caused the front end to swerve under power and under braking. A second, longer-wheelbase car didn’t solve the problems.
The cars' qualifying performance on GP weekend proper confirmed its poor shape compared to its rivals as its best time was a staggering 18 seconds off the pace set by Fangio. Trintignant didn’t fare any better in the race as he brought up the rear before his throttle stuck open, caused by dirt getting into the air collector box. Back in the factory there was hardly time for recovery as the company’s dwindling resources forced the management to scrap the programme.
It wasn't to stop the Bolloré family of industralists, however. Led by their energeting company-raiding heir Vincent, Groupe Bolloré would grow into Africa's largest tobacco company while diversifying into transport, paper, energy and recently even media, having now sold all of its tobacco roots to Imperial Tobacco, another company very familiar with motor racing…
Meanwhile in Italy, a project technically similar to that of Bugatti took shape, as it had a transversely mounted engine behind the driver in common with Colombo’s design. It was developed at the same slow speed as well. First started in 1952, the second coming of the Scuderia Milano’s chassis aspirations only gathered speed in 1955, the Ruggeri brothers’ outfit being hampered by lack of funds. Having teamed up with local powerboat engineer Mario Speluzzi in 1949 for their first ‘design of their own’ – which were in fact Maserati 4CLT/48 chassis and engines heavily revised by Speluzzi, later followed up by new chassis with adapted suspension layouts – they now found another local engine designer in the person of Enrico Franchini.
Franchini’s eight-cylinder engine for the 2.5-litre formula would be air-cooled, and placed on its side, with its head pointing towards the driver’s back! The engine’s remarkable dimensions were under-square at 72x76.5mm but still the unit was projected to produce over 300hp at 9000rpm. The canted engine mounting caused the eight Dell’Orto motorcycle carburettors to be working from the top of the engine while the exhausts dramatically swooped towards the rear. The gearbox and final drive were combined in a single device, in similar vein to the Bugatti’s, and connected directly to the engine’s cranks. This allowed for a compact chassis design, that was never completed before the Ruggeris had to call off their number ‘2’ late 1955.
Cooper T40, T43 & T45
If you managed to get to this point and still have faith in the rear-engined layout, Enzo Ferrari would have laughed you in the face. Such was the disappointment usually connected to cars carrying the engine behind the driver, that you would be silly to bet against the Old Man’s famous words that a horse should be pulling a cart instead of pushing it. But what he didn’t recognize was the fact that the rear-engined concept was never the true reason of failure. Most of all the above stories have other things in common: it was usually a case of too much ambition or too little money, in many cases a matter of too much ambition and too little money.
But while all this experimenting and failure was going on in the late forties and early fifties dozens of little rear-engined racing cars had been winning races by the dozen, first in Britain soon followed by numerous 500cc and F3 wins across the continent. This was a silent revolution that had been going on for nearly a decade, and most were taking it for granted. Surely F3 was F3 – how could it be compared to Grand Prix racing? After all, Harry Schell’s GP appearance on board a Cooper T12, using an 1.1-litre JAP engine, hardly set the world alight, did it? That was discounting the technical savvy of Jack Brabham.
John Cooper’s rear-engined 500cc machine had been all about practicality in a very confined space – it simply made sense to put the engine in the back in order to get rid of the excess plumbing and iron works. F3 was a simple category, and this was a simple, straightforward solution. The low centre of gravity and the advantageous weight distribution just came natural. The fact that the Cooper 500cc became the ubiquitous F3 machine was hardly due to its rear-engined lay-out but to the Coopers’ clever decision to build it in numbers. The resourceful father-and-son team were always quick on their feet, adapting to whatever was needed to create a neat, well-priced and above all effective finished product, which even included scavenging scrapyards for parts and raw materials. By 1951 they had built a production empire that rolled out a new 500cc car every week.
The F2 Cooper with either Bristol or Alta power that was created when the World Championship changed to F2 was front-engined, and so was the planned Cooper-Godiva that would have brought Cooper into F1 in 1954. So the rear-engined lay-out was by no means a company philosophy. That changed when the Climax FWA engine sparked a new 1100cc sportscar class. As Cooper had already created a couple of streamlined 500cc cars for record attempts, it was thought that a fully enclosed center-seat 500cc chassis powered by the FWA would do the job. It did – the T39 ‘Bobtail’ had an edge over what Lotus had on offer for the burgeoning new category in 1955.
At this point a young Australian by the name of Jack Brabham became a man about the house in Surbiton, eventually growing out to become driver-cum-designer at Cooper. With the Bobtail doing so well and being center-seated, Brabham thought of basing a Formula 1 special on it, powered by a 2.2-litre Bristol engine. In the end the enlarged Bristol never materialized but Brabham’s adaptation was still admitted into the 1955 British GP carrying a regular 2-litre Bristol. Starting at the back, Brabham was handicapped by a broken clutch before having to retire. The experience didn’t thwart the youngster’s enthusiasm, though, as he set about perfecting the T40. The promise – its lack of power offset by less weight and better balance – started to come through when Brabham fought Moss’s Maserati for third in the RedEx Trophy at Snetterton before he took the car to Australia to win his home GP. Convinced of his talent as a racer and that the rear-engined lightweight chassis had a future in motor racing he sold the car and returned to Europe.
That particular future came sooner than expected, as the new 1.5-litre Formula 2 looked like an interesting new source of income for Cooper, especially with Coventry Climax working on their FPF engine for the category. Again Cooper was out first with a new car, and a trend was starting to become visible – the T43 was nothing but an open-wheeled, FPF-engined version of the T39 and, as a proof that it could handle bigger engines, Brabham’s T40. Taking the T39 as a base model over their previous front-engined F2 design was the logical thing to do for designer Owen Maddock.
T43s were regularly seen in F1 races during the course of 1957, and already during the early-season non-championship events it became clear that these nifty F2 machines could keep up with the big front-engined beasts on twisty tracks. Combining with private entrant Rob Walker, Cooper had sourced a 1.9-litre FPF engine from Coventry Climax, mated it to a T43 and entered it for Jack Brabham to drive in Monaco. Amazingly, he was in third place five laps from the end when a fuel pump mounting broke. Pushing the car across the line he still finished sixth – not enough for a World Championship point at the time but still a monumental result. Brabham wouldn’t be the one to score the first points for Cooper, Climax and a rear-engined car, though. That would be Roy Salvadori’s responsibility, by taking fifth in the 1957 British GP – also after pushing his car across the line, incidentally. Cooper would close the season with some encouraging results in minor races, which were important mainly because of the cars that were beaten in the process.
1958 would become the breakthrough year for the rear-engined lightweight car. If Moss’s win in Argentina in the old T43 could still have been put down to the change to AvGas fuel, the absence of Vanwall and BRM, the Walker team’s cunning and the sheer brilliance of the driver, there was even more discomfort when Maurice Trintignant scored a sensational victory at the next World Championship event at Monaco, racing Walker’s new 2-litre T45 produced by Alf Francis.
The T45 was created as a product interchangeable between F1 and F2, and carried a top-wishbone rear-suspension modification that Brabham had pioneered on the T40. The works cars later got specially developed 2.2-litre FPFs rated at 194hp and saw Roy Salvadori made most use of them, with second in the German GP (with Trintignant following him home), third in the British GP and fourths in Holland and Italy. This took him to fourth in the drivers’ championship while Cooper finished third in the inaugural constructors’ championship. That was without making full use of the permitted 2.5-litre capacity!
The rear-engined experiment had seized to be an experiment. The revolution had started. Unflattering comments about horses and carts were still to follow, as was the introduction of several front-engined cars in the aftermath of Black Jack taking his first World Championship. At Indianapolis take-up was even slower as the Americans held on to their beloved roadsters. There, the first seeds of revolution were also sown by Brabham, starting off in 1960 when he took a T53 to Indy to comfortably lap times that would have put him 8th on the grid. In 1961 he went again, this time going for a result while doing a double act with the clashing Monaco GP. His Cooper losing a litre and a half on the Offy roadsters Jack still managed to finish ninth, giving Colin Chapman a clue of what was possible.
Which was quite a lot, actually.
Part 3: One engine is not enough