1925-1975:Moss drives seven significant racing motor cars

When the Brooklands Gazette was started in July 1924 Great Britain was well respected in Grand Prix racing, with the works Sunbeam team having won the French Grand Prix in 1923 and their supercharged 6-cylinder cars being very competitive in 1924. By the time that the magazine title was changed from the Brooklands Gazette to MOTOR SPORT, in August 1925, Segrave had won another Grand Prix for Sunbeam, this time in Spain on the Lasarte circuit near San Sebastian. It was not surprising, therefore, that MOTOR SPORT championed the cause of Grand Prix racing from those early days, looking upon it as the highest form of the art of driving a racing car. Equally, Grand Prix cars represented the ultimate in the design of a functional machine built for the sole purpose of going quickly and winning races.

During the nineteen-thirties this enthusiasm for Grand Prix racing and the pure-thoroughbred racing car continued in our pages and has done so ever since. It was with this in mind that we thought it might be interesting to look at a cross-section of pure racing cars from the nineteen-twenties to the present day, covering the 50 years during which MOTOR SPORT has been singing the praises of the racing car and of Grand Prix racing.

There is probably nowhere better to do this than at the Donington Park Museum of racing cars, owned by Tom Wheatcroft, (the Donington Collection of single-seaters is situated in the grounds of Donington Park, near Derby and is open to the public from 10 am to 6 pm every day of the week, including Sundays) and as the great majority of the 70 cars on display are in full working order, we aproached Mr. Wheatcroft with the idea of taking a practical look at racing cars over 50 years, rather than merely a static appraisal. Permission was readily granted and the test circuit on the old Melbourne Corner loop of the 1939 racing track was made available to us. Naturally, the Donington Collection does not contain every racing car in existence, but from its hallowed halls it was able to supply us with seven cars representing a good cross-section over the years. The next thing was, who was to drive them, and needless to say there was no shortage of offers from members of the staff, but we felt it would be more significant if a racing driver was to do the job. Our choice fell on Stirling Moss for two main reasons, the first being that he was one of the few drivers to make the transition from the front-engined “vintage-style” racing car to the rear-engined lightweight car that was to develop into the Grand Prix car of today. The second reason for asking Moss to drive the cars was that during his rise to fame during the nineteen-fifties, when he was second only to the great Fangio, our magazine was also rising, not in fame, but in circulation. As the enthusiasm for motor racing spread beyond the “right crowd and no crowding” to Mr. Everyman, so the circulation of our magazine soared and we were never quite sure whether our support and reporting of racing was causing the overall rise in interest, or whether the overall interest was causing us to enlarge. Whatever it was, MOTOR SPORT and Stirling Moss were rising to great heights at the same time, and as always we were critical of everyone in the game, praise having to be earned and Moss frequently referred to the green monthly as MOTOR SPITE, but hate and admiration ran hand-in-hand, and he was delighted to assist us in our celebration of 50 years’ activity.

We should have liked to have started our selection with a Grand Prix Sunbeam, as driven by de Hane Segrave, but even the Donington Collection has its limitations, so we started with a Type 51 Bugatti, as representing the peak of the vintage years of Grand Prix racing. This 2.3 litre supercharged straight-eight, twin ohc model was raced at Donington Park on many occasions by R.O. (Dick) Shuttleworth and today is owned by Jumbo Goddard and is kept at Donington. A change of plugs and a short push had the engine running, and once warm it started with the traditional pull-up on the starting handle. The outside gearlever operates the four-speed gearbox in which the layout is the reverse of normal, pushing forward to change up and pulling back to change down. The pedals are very close together and at first glance look to be a motley selection, with a roller accelerator pedal and clutch and brake pedals of different lengths and different shapes. After some laps of the test circuit, running both clockwise and anti-clockwise, Moss returned to our “pits” and his immediate comment was that the designer had seemingly forgotten that the driver needed to work in the cockpit. Apart from being hunched up to the big steering wheel, the cockpit afforded no lateral support on corners and on left-hand bends the cockpit side was most uncomfortable as your body was forced against it by centrifugal force. The seemingly peculiar pedal layout was actually very good indeed, the gearbox necessitating a heel-and-toe action on the accelerator and brake as you went into a corner, and the positioning of the pedals was perfect. On the question of the gearbox the less said the better in case we upset the Bugattophiles amongst our readers, but Moss did recall one downward change going in like the proverbial “knife-through-butter”, but he felt it was more by luck than judgement. He liked the feed-back through the steering of what the front wheels were doing, even though they seemed to be off the ground most of the time. He found the brakes to be better than he expected. Somehow he did not seem to view it as a Grand Prix car, and blanched visibly when we mentioned about similar Bugattis being shared by two drivers during Grand Prix races lasting 10 hours.

While discussing the Bugatti the next car had been brought along, and this was the 8CM Maserati of 1934, a pure single-seater Grand Prix car. When Stirling Moss saw it, glistening in Italian red and proudly displaying the Bologna Trident badge on the radiator cowl, we could sense a wave of sympathy coming from him as he said “That’s how a racing car should look”. This particular car, as far as we can trace, was one of the works cars driven by Tazio Nuvolari and at one period of its life was powered by a 3.7 litre 6-cylinder engine. Now it has the standard 2.9-litre supercharged straight-eight, twin ohc engine, running on a methanol mixture. The 8CM Maserati was one of the first single-seater Grand Prix cars, with central driving position, as distinct from earlier single-seaters which had the driving position offset in a two-seater width body. The 8CM was also one of the first racing cars to use hydraulic brakes. A short push and the huge exhaust pipe emitted the characteristic deep boom of the large straight-eight engine and Moss was away. Even those among us who were not born when the Maserati was being raced in Grand Prix events were forced to say that it really did look like a Grand Prix car and before he had set off we suggested to Moss that he tried to visualise driving it round Monaco, the Nurburgring, Pescara or Reims.

It was easy to see that he was enjoying the Maserati but when he returned to base his first comment was “Cor! What a man’s motor car.” He was most impressed with the power from the 2.9-litre engine, but found it a tiring car to drive and was very glad that he was not racing in those days. He really could not imagine what it would be like to drive such a car for 3 hours, round somewhere like Monaco. He felt one hour would have been more than enough. In this Maserati you sit with your feet astride the gearbox, and on the right the accelerator pedal is “inside” of the brake pedal, which Moss did not like at all. Although the cockpit seemed to be spacious there was still little sign of any serious thought being given to the driver’s needs; he thought that the designer had realized that the driver wanted to sit behind the wheel, but they had yet to realize that he wanted to use it! You were not held firmly in the seat and as you turned the wheel it was too easy to strike your hand on the scuttle.

We would have liked to have moved on from the 8CM Mascrati to one of the impressive German Grand Prix cars of the late nineteen-thirties, but miracles cannot be worked at Donington. In the collection there is the WI25 Mercedes-Benz of 1937 that belongs to Neil Corner, but it has not been used for a year or two, and the Collection has a 1939 W154/M163 two-stage supercharged 3-litre Mercedes-Benz but it is still in “as found” condition as the vast majority of visitors to the museum prefer to see it like that. Tom Wheatcroft missed an Auto Union by a hair’s breadth last year, so we looked for something else to follow the Maserati. Our choice fell on the superb little supercharged 750 cc twin-overhead camshaft Austin, one of Sir Herbert Austin’s works team, built in 1936 and developed right up to August 1939. This actual car is the one that Charlie Dodson drove in 1939 and has been completely stripped and rebuilt by the Museum workshops and is in perfect working order. As we explained to Stirling Moss, we chose this beautiful little car as it was an example of a single-seater racing car built by a big motor manufacturer regardless of cost, time and facilities. The whole thing was built in the tool-room and if only Sir Herbert had not had an obsession about the 7 h.p. Austin we felt sure that “the Austin” could have built a full-sized Grand Prix car at the time, which would have carried the British racing green proudly.

The Austin “twin-cam” is a perfectly scaled down Grand Prix car and we warned Moss not to expect too much in the way of performance from its 750 cc. On the right of the body a small flap hinges down like a door, to make it easier to get in behind the wheel, and on the left there is a bulge in the cockpit side to accommodate the driver’s hand on the gearlever. The four-speed synchromesh gearbox has the gate layout “reversed” like the Bugatti, so it was a case of pushing the lever forward into second gear for the push-start. In its heyday the little alloy twincam engine revved happily to beyond 8000 rpm, but giving respect to its age of nearly 40 years, we asked Moss to limit himself to 6000 rpm. At that speed he found a surprising amount of performance, indeed more than the brakes seemed capable of dealing with at the foot of the hill into Melbourne Corner. The drum brakes are cable operated and fully compensated and outside the cockpit, on the right, is a long handbrake lever coupled directly to the compensating cross-shaft, so Moss found himself pulling on it to assist the foot-pedal pressure at times. This he described very simply as “a fun car”, finding it beautifully controllable and capable of being thrown about with happy abandon. Obviously, he did not view it as a Grand Prix car, but thought it was “cute” and could see that a firm capable of building such a car could easily have built a full sized Grand Prix car.

As we were limiting ourselves to only seven cars to cover the 50 years of MOTOR SPORT’s existence we had to leave many delectable pre-war cars and move on to the post-war era and up to the present day, bearing in mind that we have had nearly 30 years of uninterrupted Grand Prix racing since it all restarted after the 1939-45 conflict.

While discussing this we heard the approaching rasp of what could only be a Ferrari, and Brian Davis, the chief mechanic to the Donington Collection, appeared along the service road in the ex-Peter Whitehead super-charged 1-litre V-12 Ferrari of 1951. This was the long-chassis, swing-axle car that also served as a Formula 2 car when fitted with an unsupercharged 2-litre V-12 engine. After many years in Australia it has been completely restored to original, including the British racing green paintwork that Whitehead ran. This car represented a new era of racing car, although the general design features followed closely the concepts evolved by the Germans up to 1939. At last there were signs of the designer realizing that the driver needed certain amenities in the cockpit to do his work, but Moss found the gearbox rather heavy to use in a vintage fashion, though the chassis and suspension were now beginning to work, there being visible movement of the all-round independent suspension. The swing-axle independent rear gave the feeling that all the power could now be transmitted to the road and the steering was light and positive. The 12 cylinder engine was extremely lively, responsive and very flexible and pulled right through its rev-range and while we listened to Moss circulating we pondered on the thought that the last 30 years would have been extremely dull if Enzo Ferrari had not gone into racing car production.

Up to this point all the cars had been supercharged and running on a methanol fuel mixture, but now we moved on to the 1954-60 era of unsupercharged racing and the conversion to straight petrol. This was represented by a 250 Maserati and a glow of nostalgia came over Moss as he climbed into the ex-Volonterio car, number 2515, laughing as he remembered how the Swiss amateur used to buy vast quantities of race-programmes with his name in the entry list, to take home to his various girl-friends. A look of envy came over Stirling’s face as he recalled that Volonterio “had some smashing girl friends”! This car started life as a works car in 1955 and was subsequently uprated each year, ultimately being raced in the petrol-era of 1958. As Moss looked around the cockpit, with the gearlever on the right for the 5-speed gearbox, he recalled how he sometimes used a 4-speed and sometimes a 5-speed, depending on the circuit, when he was driving for the Maserati factory.

Not only did he look at home in the 250F, but he obviously felt at home, and was soon power-sliding the car round the corners. Those at the foot of the hill, on the Melbourne Corner, said that it looked just like 1956 with Moss coming down the hill to Thillois Corner on the Reims circuit, with grass verges on each side of the road, open fields and no crash-barriers or retaining walls in sight. It was quite a time before we could get Moss out of the 250F, but when we did he was full of praise for the beautiful balance of the car, remarking on how easy it was to drive, so forgiving and well-mannered. You could tail-slide it round corners, controlling it on the throttle and the de Dion rear suspension kept the car very stable on the wide throttle openings even when it was sliding. “Fantastic” was how he described the 250F, tinged with a degree of happy memories of the first real Grand Prix car that he owned. We were now in the era of really new post-war Grand Prix cars and springs and shock-absorbers were now becoming very meaningful. The cockpit was laid out in the modern idiom of the driver sitting well back from the steering wheel and having plenty of space in which to work. Stirling recalled that when his mechanic was helping to build the chassis frame for his own car at the factory, he surreptitiously welded the hoop for the instrument panel 3″ further forward than standard, as Moss wanted all the arms-stretch room he could get. Maserati were loathe to alter their design dimensions, but when they made the bodywork to fit the chassis frame they never realised that there was more room in the cockpit than standard!

It was such a nice car to drive and so well-mannered that he could see why so many private-owners raced the 250F. The Donington Collection car had the standard arrangement of a central accelerator pedal, which worried Moss, and he remembered how the works cars he drove had to be converted to right-hand accelerator pedal. As his team-mate Jean Behra retained the normal central pedal position, it meant that Moss could not use Behra’s cars, which suited the Frenchman admirably! Though the supercharger had now been dispensed with, as had alcohol fuel, there was no shortage of power from the 2litre 6-cylinder Maserati engine, and the car was quicker about the place because the power could be used all the time, and not only when the car was pointing in a straight line. The 250F Maserati was one of the last of the “iron” front-engined racing cars, the ultimate being the Vanwall, while the P25 BRM was a close contender.

We had now reached the beginning of a new era in which a complete and lasting change overtook the Grand Prix car. This was encouraged by the shortening of race lengths and the use of straight petrol, together with the sale and supply of ready-made racing engines by CoventryClimax. Lotus and Cooper took over command of Grand Prix racing with their lightweight rear-engined cars and the 1961-65 Formula limiting engine capacity to 1½ litres set the seal of the development of the minuscule Grand Prix car. For this period in racing Tom Wheatcroft produced the Lotus 18 that Moss used to drive for Rob Walker. A monumental rebuild had put the car back into its 1961 form, with 1½-litre 4-cylinder Coventry-Climax engine, the car finished in Walker blue with its distinctive white band round the nose-cowling. It was in this form that Stirling Moss drove two of his greatest races, the 1961 Monaco GP and the German GP that same year on the Nurburgring. As Moss accelerated away in the Lotus it seemed impossible that it was 14 years since he raced the little blue car. To those who did not know the 1½-litre Formula of Grand Prix racing the car seemed like a toy and it was hard to believe that it was a first-line Grand Prix car. As Moss circulated, the car leaving the corners with the rear wheels sliding outwards in a power-on “oversteer”, Tom Wheatcroft remarked that he could never make the Lotus do that, it always seemed to understeer itself onto the grass when he drove it. When the Lotus returned to the pit we were conscious of a fundamental change in the Grand Prix scene, for in order to talk to the driver we had to kneel down beside the car, whereas previously we had stood alongside the cockpit. When we mentioned Tom Wheatcroft’s comment, Moss explained that as the Lotus was basically an understeering car you had to go into sharp corners in its natural stance, then back off the throttle until you felt the front tyres gripping, then put the power on hard to break the rear-end away and from then on you could hold it in a controlled oversteer slide round the corner, which is exactly what he had been demonstrating. He added that the car would handle better with smaller section rear-tyres and he even remembered the tyre pressures. The outstanding thing about the Lotus was its manoeuvrability and of the cars he had been driving on this day it was the first one to respond to being “set-up” by the driver. On fast bends it could be held in a stable condition of understeer and on slow ones it could be provoked into an oversteer at will. The driver was now no longer one who merely steered the car, he had to have some knowledge of the basics of car-handling in order to get the best from the car. A sensitive and knowledgeable driver could get far more from a car like the Lotus or the contemporary Cooper, than a driver who nearly raced. The fact that the engine had now gone from the front of the car to the rear had not made itself noticeable, but because of this fact what was noticeable was that you now sat well down in the car with a much greater “feel” being transmitted from the chassis and suspension. You were no longer conscious of roll on corners or a change in attitude when setting the car up into a corner. While vision was greatly enhanced by the forward driving position and falling nose cowling, you were made very aware of the low driving position as you breasted the brow of the Melbourne hill. However, once over the brow you were in far greater control than with the old-fashioned high cockpit cars. By now the disc brake was universal in Grand Prix racing, as was the use of alloy wheels and all-round independent suspension with long-travel springing and telescopic shock-absorbers.

Finally, we came to the present day with Tyrrell 006/2, the last car that Jackie Stewart raced and the one with which he won the 1973 World Championship. Stirling Moss was really looking forward to this one, for the era of the 3-litre Cosworth V8-powered, wide-tyred, fully adjustable suspension and aerodynamically assisted racing car came long after he retired from racing. This was another car in which he put in a considerable number of laps as he enjoyed this new experience and his overall comment was “Terrific”. His impressions were that you did not steer the Tyrrell round corners, you merely re-positioned it according to the road requirements. The steering ratio is very high-geared so that under normal cornering you were not conscious of turning the steering wheel and you literally “wished” it through corners. Visibility was phenomenal compared with all the other cars and though the cockpit was very small and tight-fitting it was extremely functional and no great movements were required of either hands or feet. The power from the Cosworth V8 was an eye-opener, especially when it got over 9000 rpm and you seemed to spend all your time changing gear, the surge of power after a gearchange being memorable. On the small test circuit Moss found he had his right hand on the stubby gearlever virtually all the way round, doing the steering with his left hand, for as fast as you went up through the Hewland 5-speed gearbox you had to start coming back down again. The wide Goodyear tyres could absorb all the power of the ventilated disc brakes and the stopping power was something he had never experienced before, “You no longer slow down, you just stop”. This was a car that he felt would really benefit from a driver who knew more than a little about the basics of car handling, chassis design and suspension adjustments. In other words, the modern racing driver needs to know nearly as much as the designer in order to get the best out of the car. This was the logical development of the indications that the Lotus 18 had given; the application of the science of suspension and handling that Mercedes-Benz were touching upon with their W196 Grand Prix car in 1955, and which Jack Brabham and John Cooper had been searching for, empirically, in 1959 and 1960.

Over the fifty years we had spanned we had seen advances on all fronts, notably in the regions of braking, road-holding and engine power. Suspension and tyre development had allowed the disc brake to be extended to its fullest extent, suspension geometry, springing and shock-absorbing had carried with it the necessity of the driver knowing what was happening technically and engines were developing greater power outputs without the use of superchargers and alcohol fuels. There may have been a few doldrums in racing during the 40 years we have covered, but without question Grand Prix racing has progressed technically on all fronts, and whereas some of the early cars were aesthetically pleasing mechanical objects, the modern racing car is a very functional scientific instrument whose sole object is to win races at ever-increasing record speeds. It was this “endless quest for speed” that started it all in 1895. — D.S.J./A.H.