How many cars will fit on an aeroplane?

At this time of year not only are the Formula 1 teams testing as intensively as they can before the seasonal bar is lowered upon them, but the airfreight arrangements are in place and aircraft and aircrew on standby for the initial ‘fly-away races’. Bahrain, Australia, Malaysia and China beckon before the first ‘drive-away’ Grand Prix takes place on the Catalunya circuit outside Barcelona. Then the air-freighters resume their carbon cruising habits inter-continentally – Canada, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Aberdovey… You know it makes sense.

But heavy-lift airfreight is nothing new. The F1 circus has been flying its cars around the world for decades now. Indeed, as soon after the war as 1947-48 elderly Grand Prix cars in private owners’ hands were already being airlifted when distances and sea-freight schedules conspired to make the cost acceptable.

Back in the early 1960s, the late Andrew Ferguson began organising cost-sharing charter-freight flights for the infant Formula 1 Constructors’ Association of which he was secretary. They flew to such remote but emergent Grand Prix races as the transatlantic pair at Watkins Glen, USA, and in Mexico City, plus the long aerial hike down to East London, South Africa.

There was a limit upon how many of even the small, compact and ultra-lightweight F1 cars of the 1½-litre formula could be accommodated on most aircraft of the period. The champion civilian heavy-lift airframe of the era was the Canadair CL-44 – with its unlikely-looking swing-tail loading facility. Its design was derived from the Bristol Britannia ‘whistling giant’ turboprop airliner via the Canadair Argus maritime reconnaissance redesign. In 1963, Seaboard World Airlines concluded a leasing agreement with BOAC under which the British airline liveried at least a couple of CL-44s which would be operated by 10 of its aircrews, re-trained by Seaboard. I believe BOAC had wanted to buy convertible – passenger one week/freight the next – Boeing 707s from the US manufacturer, but HM Government would not authorise the purchase. The politicians wanted the State-owned flag carrier to buy convertible Vickers Super VC10s instead, but in the end the CL-44s were leased, based at Manchester and Prestwick.

So how many GP cars could they pack on a CL-44? Double-banked, one above the other, the answer – Rolls-Royce style – was ‘sufficient’. And the system worked pretty well. Unlike my modern airfreight experience which involved flying the Jack Brabham 1955 Australian GP-winning Cooper-Bristol from the UK to Australia. Unannounced the flight involved a trans-shipment from one freighter to another, I believe at Singapore. This was achieved by a forklift truck operator inserting his forks in between the car’s undertray and the pallet to which it was tied down… Hence, when it was lifted, the entire weight of the pallet was suspended from the tie-down straps over the car’s tyres while the forklift tines buried themselves into the Cooper’s belly. What was finally delivered Down Under was unraceworthy. It would have been a catastrophe if BOAC’s F1 handlers had been as careless back in CL-44 days, indeed, as it would be with Bernie’s boys today. But of course in these litigious times would anybody dare?