I read with amusement the editor’s comments on how the V16 BRMs lived up to their original failures at the marvellous Goodwood Revival Meeting. Much has been written about Raymond Mays’ too ambitious attempt to put Britain on the post-war GP map. Here is how it looked to one who was there at the time.
I had seen the splendid performances Raymond Mays had put up before the war in speed-trials, speed hillclimbs and on the circuits in voiturette races both here and on the continent. His ERA (English Racing Automobile) set-up at Bourne had been welcome and significant, so we looked to the BRM project to infuse again strength into the racing scene for Great Britain, this time in full scale GPs at which the E-type ERA had rather fizzled out.
The British Racing Motors’ project was announced in March 1945 and Mays set about convincing leading British companies of the need for a competitive car and committing them to finance and/or supply components. Peter Berthon and his team designed what seemed a fabulous V16 1 1/2-litre low-slung car, with cylinders of under 93cc each, and two-stage centrifugal superchargers supplied by Rolls Royce, but not to their design. Knowing that the more cylinders a given size of engine had the lighter the reciprocating parts, allowing high rotational rates for greater power, we were naturally impressed.
The first BRM was to have been racing in 1949. But MOTOR SPORT published long reports from the BRM Trust, explaining the delays confronting a project supported by 50 leading British industrialists, the first in January and another in May 1949, predicting that the BRM would race later that season. But it was December 15, 1949 before the first light-green car was unveiled before the Press, David Ctillough of the BBC, Lord Howe, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, etc. A policeman was present to restrain any outburst of enthusiasm. It was so cold that the engine of the wonder car refused to warm its oil, even when it idled at 5000rpm and was run-up to 7500rpm.
So Mays, who was suffering from flu, did only a few laps of Folkingham aerodrome. But how inspiring was the noise, one of motor racing’s most memorable, a fluctuating high-pitched scream, car-punishing in its intensity. A team of three of these exciting BRMs was promised for the 1950 GP de Europe; we were regaled with the facts: 40,000rpm blowers, over 400bhp at 12,000rpm on methanol fuel. Fleet Street was excited too; as Mays unfolded this to us his voice was temporarily drowned by the fast motorcycle rushing pictures to the papers, to the annoyance of the freezing constable outside.
A BRM Supporters Club was formed, anticipation rising, and an unfortunate person was appointed as the Trust’s PRO! At Folkingham we had been permitted to inspect the.test house where a Ford V8 engine started up the complicated 49x48mm (1488cc) racing engines. But time was running out. At the GP de Europe at Silverstone in May, watched for a time by their Majesties, Mays simply demonstrated a BRM, Dr Farina’s Alfa Romeo winning the race. Yet much money, time and effort was involved in getting a BRM that far.
In March 1950 the BBC broadcast a talk about the new 200mph British racer and MOTOR SPORT invited Mays to explain the delays; he did not reply. In September came the Daily Express BRDC Silverstone GP, but no BRM team. One entry, quite unready. Mays was told he could start if it lapped at over 80mph by 10am on the Saturday morning. A faulty engine was corrected and installed as the Bourne mechanics toiled all night; a Bristol Freighter flew the car to Bicester, from where the police escorted the BRM to the course, awaited by a worried Raymond.
At 9.20am the van arrived, hard plugs were put in the BRM, and the French GP ace Raymond Sommer did three laps, that at 81.24mph qualifying him. For his heat, Sommer climbed into the BRM, some 150,000 spectators ready to see it win. The flag fell, the wonder car uttered its inimitable war cry, he let in the clutch, ran a length or so and stopped! A drive shaft had broken.
Too soon had the BBC titled its pre-race broadcast ‘British achievement The Story of the BRM’ and The Express had been over-optimistic with its 2/6d booklet ‘Britain’s Greatest Racing Car’. As I drove home I wondered if the two chaps lingering outside the BRM tent were hoping that another five bob might rectify things, or were asking for their subscriptions back!
Hope was partially restored when on September 30 1950, Parnell won the Woodcote and Richmond races at Goodwood. The following year hard work appeared to have been rewarded, for in the British GP the BRMs of Parnell and Walker came home fifth and seventh, although five and six laps in arrears of the winning 4-litre Ferrari of Froilan Gonzalez. Then a lone BRM entry had failed to appear for the 1951 GP of Europe, at Reims, a debacle only slightly offset when the V16s scored a 1,2,3 finish in a minor Goodwood race. Though there were a few other such wins, the change to F2 rules rendered these magnificent machines redundant without ever making a mark.