Sweet but unsung sixteen

A last gasp for Britain’s premier engine maker – and it went almost unheard

The late, great Frank Gardner famously likened turbocharged racing engines to sounding “like ducks farting through long grass”. We have two ducks who regularly colonise our pond, but while I have never detected the auditory effect Frank cited it’s plain what he meant, and it is a concern in F1 that this year’s GP2 cars with their free-revving, four-litre V8s will actually sound more exciting than the turbocharger-muffled V6s of the premier class above.

Any year in which F1 technical regs produce entirely new-category engines is special, and 2014 is hopefully right up there with the best. The new 2½-litre unsupercharged Formula 1 launched 60 years ago in 1954 spawned the all-new straight-eight, desmodromic-valved Mercedes-Benz W196 and the Lancia D50 V8. The replacement and much-derided 1½-litre F1 of 1961 would be dominated by a new crop of British V8 engines from Coventry Climax and BRM after Ferrari cashed in with its early 120-degree V6, followed by 90-degree V8 and 180-degree flat-12. Then came 1966, promoted at the time as ‘The Return of Power’ (with full 3-litre engines). It produced the Ferrari 312 V12 followed by a second-generation flat-12, BRM’s H16 and V12s, further V12s from Maserati, Gurney-Weslake and Honda… and to trump them all the Cosworth-Ford V8 family.

But an engine that really intrigued me was Coventry Climax’s 1½-litre Type FWMW flat-16, stillborn in 1964-65 and never deployed in anger. Walter Hassan and Peter Windsor-Smith of Coventry Climax surveyed the potential remaining to their Type FWMV V8 engine after its World Championship-winning success in Jim Clark’s Lotuses through 1963. Anticipating a growing threat from BRM, Ferrari and Honda for 1964-65, Wally decided to enlarge his V8’s bore and shorten its stroke to raise rotational speed and provide space for four valves per cylinder. This was to be supported by a second design project of something completely new.

He sought even higher rotational speed, greater piston area and good breathing to produce substantially greater power than the V8 could offer. Minimum power target was 220bhp, and the former Bentley employee fancied a broad-arrow 12, with three banks of four cylinders à la Napier Lion aero engine so successful in the Napier-Railton, Golden Arrow and Blue Bird record cars pre-war. Its packaging was attractive, but Wally feared big-end and crankshaft problems. So he opted for 16 cylinders, shied away from BRM’s later coupled-crankshaft horizontal ‘H’ layout, and chose not a vee, nor ‘a droop’ (an inverted vee) but a simple flat-16. If the V8 output could be matched by the flat-16, its 200bhp at 10,000rpm ought to improve to 230/240 at 12,000rpm.

Four-valve heads were meant to feature on the flat-16, but the system remained unproven on the V8 in time to build for the 1965 season, so Hassan fell back on a two-valve design. His prototype FWMW flat-16 was not finished until late in 1964 and it became plain it had to work straight away or be shelved. The new engine was shown to the press in February 1965 and only four were laid down – one each for Lotus, Brabham and Cooper and one for development.

But during its very first run the prototype sheared its final-drive take-off quill shaft. Low-speed torsional vibration caused the failure. Making a stronger quill-shaft took time, while dyno running below 5000rpm was banned. Once freed to rev properly, power output disappointed, due to oil-drainage, pumping and windage power-loss. Meanwhile Jimmy Clark’s four-valve V8 still won the World Championship comfortably, producing about 209bhp – and that was as much as the flat-16 showed on the test-bed. And by mid-summer 1965, knowing that Coventry Climax would withdraw from F1 engine supply that December, the majestic little ‘Swiss watch’ flat-16 was abandoned, unused.

Walter Hassan was approached about the possibility of supercharging the 1500cc flat-16 unit for the new three-litre unsupercharged/1500cc supercharged formula, but advised against it. A turbocharger was considered, but no small turbos were available at the time. Climax built two 2-litre FWMV V8 engines to help Clark and Lotus into 1966 – combining the big 1965 bore with the longest available 1961 stroke – but then bowed out of racing, not even developing these units once built. One powered Jimmy to the 1967 Tasman Championship title in Lotus 33 ‘R14’.

Soon after, HRH Prince Philip made a royal visit to Coventry Climax and company head Leonard Lee decided to run the flat-16 for him. Prince Philip saw it screaming away happily on the dyno, but so lustily that conversation was impossible. Mr Lee indicated it should be eased back, but revs fell below the critical 5000 and a conclusive clatter promptly ended the demonstration as another quill shaft sheared. The notoriously outspoken consort to our Queen was quite a fan in those days, and I’m told he was suitably – and uncharacteristically – sympathetic.