Mission: Improbable

BRM meant British Racing Motors. But racing was only a part of their activities. The team was a small cog in the massive Rubery-Owen engineering group, and they went racing, according to Sir Alfred Owen, to "prove the firm's competence". Gordon Cruickshank investigates the spread of projects, from the rational to the bizarre, that tested Bourne's ingenuity

Rubery Owen, then the biggest family business in Britain, comprised some 80 companies, producing anything from bricks to aircraft systems. With sophisticated facilities available to it, this meant that BRM could tackle a wide variety of engineering projects, not always automotive, as well as undertaking some very forward-looking research. Drive-by-wire throttles, four-wheel-drive, on-board data logging and even ground effect all surfaced at Bourne in the '60s, before other teams tried them out.

But this creativity faced a raft of other commissions which filtered down the perpetually fragmented Owen Organisation and had to be fitted in with the racing projects. Tony Rudd, who joined BRM at the beginning of the V16 era and became chief engineer, had to deal with them. He has a pragmatic view: "Well, the group had to make money, and Sir Alfred was very successful at that, but I wanted to win races, and we were being pulled in too many directions."

Peter Wright, aerodynamics guru at BRM and later Lotus, concurs: "Owen tried to involve BRM in all the projects — it was a drain on the company's resources, so he used any opportunity to bring in money." Louis Stanley, latterly BRM's principal, pinpoints the difficulty: "Alfred was a brilliant businessman but not an engineer. If you are not an engineer, you will inevitably have problems. That perhaps was his biggest failing."

That and a soft heart. Says Rudd: "Sir Alfred knew what he wanted, but was too good-natured to enforce it. He always went for compromise, or set up another committee. That was his usual solution."


BRM's great era began with the 1961 shake-up which gave Rudd priority for the racing. Yet this did not strangle the extra projects. As Rudd says, "a racing machine shop works in fits and starts, so it makes sense to have other work to keep it going." Some of this was unconnected with racing: heat sealers for plastic bags, industrial burners, fuel metering units. Some involved road car tuning: hot heads for Zephyrs, an engine design for Talbot-Lago. Others were racing units — F2, F3 and F Atlantic engines, even twin-cam units for friendly rivals Lotus. And some were brave racing experiments.

Chrysler Indycar

Ford's Indianapolis link with Lotus from 1963 upstaged Chrysler, who very soon turned to the other top F1 name at that time — BRM. They wanted an Indy winner for 1964, and they had a daring scheme. This was dropped unexpectedly in Rudd's lap, and off he flew to Detroit. He found a plan to mate a transverse 4-valve V8 with 4WD; with power take-off at the end of the block, it was easy to run a driveshaft beside the driver. That was complex enough, but the really unusual extra was a fin. This was pivoted and weighted, so that centrifugal force would turn it and provide inward force.

"They'd done a lot of work with the fin already," says Rudd, who commuted to the US once a month, even during the '64 season. "But when their big rival, Ford-Lotus, failed in the 1964 Indy 500 because of tyre problems, Chrysler cancelled the project."

Rudd continued to work on a road car, "a sort of mid-engined Plymouth Barracuda", and a proposed Le Mans car with mid-mounted turbine inhaling through the spine of a backbone chassis, but those too got the chop.

1.5-litre 4WD car

Mike Pilbeam joined in 1963 as a stress engineer, but soon found himself tackling completely fresh ground — a four-wheel-drive car. "It was one of the good things about BRM, especially under Rudd — they were prepared to experiment," he says. "There was lots of research going on. We never seriously intended to race a 1.5-litre 4WD car, we were just checking the potential for the 3-litre formula. It was pretty low budget — I was told I could have any bits no-one else wanted, and one mechanic. On the other hand, Ferguson did us a proper 4WD system."

Graham Hill, who pushed for the idea after driving the Ferguson P99, tested the car but soon lost interest. "It worked pretty well," says Pilbeam, "but it threw up all the same problems everyone else had several years later — weight, power loss and handling. You couldn't drive it on the throttle, couldn't squeeze the last drop out of it"

Rudd agrees: "Mike did a very good job, and we learned a lot — principally not to bother. It only helps in the rain, and you can get the same effect with some sand ballast and a throttle stop."

The car never raced, but became a hillclimb success, winning the British championship in 1968 for Peter Westbury. This was a source of aggravation, as Westbury constantly wanted attention and Wilkie Wilkinson, then BRM's team manager, continually complied. If Rudd grumbled, Peter Spear, the Group's research director, would back Wilkie and tell Sir Alfred, who would send a stern note to Rudd. It was hardly an atmosphere to relish.

Spear landed Rudd with another problem in early 1963 — the job of building Rover's gas-turbine Le Mans car. In nine weeks.

"Spear would promise clients all sorts of things that weren't possible," says Rudd. "They thought June was the only date which mattered. They'd not heard of the March qualifying weekend. So we had 10 days to design the chassis." It was one of the team's strengths, responding to a crisis: Rudd took a P57 chassis and sliced it lengthwise to accept the turbine; the car finished the 24 hours and collected the prize for the first gas-turbine car to do so.

On-board data logging

Rubery-Owen's range of activities brought many spin-off benefits. The firm possessed a rare device called a computer, and Pilbeam used this to produce suspension set-up tables. And long before telemetry became standard, BRM was running on-board logging systems. "I think we were the first to do that," recalls Pilbeam. "In 1964, Sid Derry, who worked at the Midlands R&D facility, brought a neat little box which went on the gearbox and logged up to 18 channels of data on paper tape things like lateral g and suspension movement."

Wright recalls this system as being ahead of its time, but flawed: "It was so laborious to extract the data; no electronics to analyse it then, you used a ruler to measure the traces." However, it did point the way to a significant new area of research, by showing strong front-end lift.

Data-logging experiments ended when Pilbeam left in 1967, but by then downforce was high on the agenda, and when a young aerodynamicist called Wright joined that same year, Rudd gave him a flexible brief which would eventually revolutionise F1.

1969 wing car

The season began with high-level wings on every car and several serious accidents due to wing breakage. Clearly a ban was imminent "Tony Rudd didn't like wings and suggested that the car itself could do the same job," Wright remembers. "So I drew up some ideas. The obvious one was to make the car wing-shaped." Working with models in the Imperial College wind tunnel, Wright's early results showed astonishing new levels of downforce, especially with sideplates on the sidepods. Rudd, sensing something important, creamed off a few key individuals and set up a secret project in a separate workshop in Bourne. "There was me, Alec Osborne and a couple of boys," says Wright "But we didn't feel the cash was restricted by the standards of the time."

By cancelling one of the planned new slimline V12 chassis, Rudd liberated the resources to build a full-size car, and the clandestine team set to work to produce it for the Monza race in September. Osborne designed a monocoque with driver and engine in a slim centre section with wing-shaped sidepods rising to a high, wide tail. Moulds were under construction when sud denly the concept which might have precipitated the ground-effect revolution was stifled.

Increasing political tensions inside BRM had been undermining Rudd's efforts for some time. Close to quitting in 1968, he'd been temporarily mollified by one of Sir Alfred's famous compromises. Now Louis and Jean Stanley held a controlling influence and, according to Rudd, they were more inclined to listen to John Surtees, BRM's No1 driver, than to him. In June 1969, at Zandvoort after the race, Rudd was summoned to the Stanleys' suite and told to stop his secret project immediately.

"It was," says Wright, "one of those big BRM blow-ups that happened every few years."

Shortly afterwards, Wright left to join Specialised Mouldings, the Huntingdon composites pioneers, where he continued to work on ground effect but in reverse, designing powerboat hulls which would lift and ride on the ground-effect cushion.

From there it was a pretty short step to the revolutionary Lotus 78 and 79.

Transverse gearbox

Britain's 'Cosworth kit car' movement from 1968 on made a DFV and in-line Hewland box virtually standard for years — except at BRM, who of course built their own. Says Stanley, "We were constructors, the others were kit merchants: buy parts and slot them together — that's not constructing, that's assembling". During the Eighties, there was a wave of transverse F1 'boxes; BRM's transmissions expert Alec Stokes had investigated one in 1970, with the aim of shortening the wheelbase to compensate for the lengthy V12 engine. A drawback is that you lose the simple ratio change of the drop-gears on an in-line 'box and, in the end, BRM elected to stick with their old unit. Stokes didn't mind; he designed that one too.

Mobile Hospital

In between racing cars, Stokes also worked on the well-known mobile hospital Stanley provided for FOCA. Although Louis was campaigning for better circuit safety and medical facilities, this too was intended as a commercial project, for sale to developing countries. Stokes recalls building one for Saudi Arabia: "It had two operating tables, and one had to be higher than the other because it was for the king. And they wanted a portable mortuary too, so I went along to Peterborough Hospital to see what a mortuary looked like."

And all this on top of the race schemes. "We just had to bodge it in," says Stokes, "though there were normally only six of us in the design office and 12 in the machine shop. The labour force did a marvellous job. Worked bloody hard, often 80 hours a week. In the V8 days, our peak time, the engine builders could do 100 hours a week." Was there any reward after a victory? "Oh, there would be a barrel of beer. After work, of course."

Jumping Jeep

Sometimes a project brought concrete benefits. When the MOD asked for a lightweight V8 engine, the deal included funding a new dynamometer. This engine was for a 'jumping jeep', which drove normally until meeting a fence or a river, when the driver would engage two V8s powering ducted fans to leap 20 or 30ft in the air and clear the obstacle. And yes, it did work; but it was pricey and Mr Callaghan cancelled it — leaving BRM with the dyno.


This was an idea of Stanley, according to Pilbeam: "He thought there was a huge market for it, so he had one sent from Canada. We dismantled it, but the project soon petered out."

These are only highlights from a string of '60s and 70s projects, including a three-pot Norton 'bike engine, a proposed flat-12 F1 unit, the BRM Avenger, electronic mixture/throttle control, a 16-valve Reliant 750, an air-portable armoured personnel carrier — the range is remarkable.

In some ways it seems obstructive to load up a racing team with such a variety of extra projects; yet many of them were useful experiments for which few other teams at the time had the facilities. Stanley: "Some were very rewarding financially, and in research. We made some tremendous progress. We could take information from them for racing purposes, and we gained from it."

Perhaps only Lotus could claim a similar breadth of skills during the '60s, though it differed through being far more tightly focused on racing. BRM benefited from belonging to a major engineering group, but suffered from an inevitable conflict of interests over profits. Rubery-Owen under the Owens was certainly profitable but if, as Tony Rudd claims, Sir Alfred spent millions on BRM, it's not surprising that he tied to make sure the race team earned their keep.

Thanks to Hall & Hall for their help with this article