Were they really built?

Looking at the photograph of the Bimotore Alfa Romeo that we published in the December issue of Motor Sport, I could not help wondering if it really happened. The idea of building a car with a straight-8 engine in front of the driver and another behind, both driving to the rear wheels, seems almost too bizarre to be true. I can vouch for the fact that it did happen, as can many other people, for on my first visit to Brooklands in 1937 I saw George Harvey-Noble testing the car on the Outer Circuit. It was a very large and impressive piece of machinery.

Thinking on the reaction “did it really exist” I wondered what someone is going to say 40 years hence when they see a photograph of the six-wheeled Tyrrell P34. I feel sure they will say “did they really build that?” You and I know they certainly did, for we have seen the six-wheelers racing at a lot of circuits, but even after a mere two years I find myself looking at a picture of the Tyrrell and wondering if it really did happen.

Almost everything has been tried in Grand Prix racing at some time or another, but over the years there have been some “off-beat” landmarks that make you wonder if they were real. One of the reasons that caused the Bimotore to be built, was the supremacy of German racing cars over the Italians, and it was the Auto Union that was dominating in 1935/36. To look at a 1936 Auto Union today is to wonder if it was real. The driver sat well forward with a large single fuel tank behind him (dare we say, like a Lotus 79) and behind that was a 6.1-litre V16 supercharged engine, with a gearbox sticking out the back. All the wheels were independently sprung and it looked a pretty fearsome beast, and by all accounts was a bit of a pig to drive.

When Grand Prix racing really got into its stride in 1954, the previous years having been an aftermath of pre-war racing, Daimler-Benz came out with their W196 Mercedes-Benz “streamliner” which to present-day eyes looks a bit unreal. Underneath the fully-enveloping bodywork were all manner of technical innovations that really worked. The straight-8 engine was lying almost on its side, it had direct fuel-injection, desmodromic valve gear and the power take-off from the centre of the crankshaft. The gearbox was an all-synchromesh 5-speed in unit with the rear axle, all wheels were independently sprung, all the brakes were mounted “inboard”, there was ride-control operated from the cockpit and the engine emitted a noise peculiar to itself, that has never been reproduced. At the same time a small firm in England, named Connaught, produced an equally fully-streamlined car whose shape was even better than the Mercedes-Benz and delved into the realms of useful aerodynamics as an aid to road holding, whereas the German car was only aimed at slipperiness and speed. The Mercedes-Benz and the Connaught all-enveloping cars were good, but with reservations, and were abandoned for different reasons. The view forwards in the Mercedes-Benz was restricted and the drivers could not judge where the front corners were, while being unable to see the front wheels they found difficulty in positioning the car accurately. An open-wheeled version of the W196 was soon built, while the streamliner was kept for tracks like Avus and Monza. The Connaught problem was different. It was one of practicability; visibility was satisfactory, but problems arose when the car was in the pits. The top half of the body, including the large tail fin, lifted off in one piece, easily removed by two mechanics. If it was stood up against the pit counter a gust of wind could blow it over. If it was placed on the ground someone could fall over it or, worse still, drive over it. It was very vulnerable and caused the mechanics headaches when loading it into the transporter and so on. Not having the finance or facilities to start again with a sectional body, Connaught cut their losses and abandoned the idea on the B-type. Eventually the FIA panicked and outlawed all-enveloping bodywork in Formula One, fearful of people making unstable cars.

Another new car that appeared for the 2½-litre Formula was the D50 Lancia, and when you look at one now, as you can do in the Turin Museum, you can look at it in wonderment. All the fuel was carried in side-pods outrigged from the main part of the car, the V8 engine was a structural part of the car, there being no chassis members between the front suspension structure and the bulkhead behind the engine (the engine was at the front). The size of the bolts and screws holding everything together was minimal and would have made Colin Chapman proud to have been associated with it. The whole design concept was a serious probe into very low polar-moments of inertia and it took the drivers a long time to get used to its handling, after driving cars with weight distribution like a dumb-bell.

A complete step sideways, literally, was the abortive Bugatti 251, which can now be seen in the Schlumpf Museum. You look at it and shake your head, thinking, “that really didn’t happen”. This was a short stumpy car with its straight-8 engine mounted behind the driver, but not in the orthodox fore and aft position, but transversely almost between the rear wheels. There was no problem with traction, but there were a lot of other problems. When Honda came into Grand Prix racing in 1964 their 1½-litre V12 had the same layout, and they made it work reasonably well. That little Honda also brought a new aspect with it, which was r.p.m. Until this appeared we all thought 9,000 r.p.m. was going some, and there was loose talk of 10,000 r.p.m. and over, but the Japanese appeared with this jewel of a 12-cylinder that revved to over 12,000 r.p.m., and that was nearly 15 years ago. The last attempt at GP racing that Honda made was with another unbelievable car, this being the 3-litre V8 which was air-cooled. In addition it broke all sorts of new ground in its construction, the chassis forming a back-bone behind the driver from which the V8 engine was hung. It really was a remarkable machine and it was a great pity that the firm’s politics put a stop to the whole protect.

In 1971 I stood in the pits at Brands Hatch and said to Colin Chapman, “Unbelievable; you’ve done it again”. We had just watched the Lotus Turbine-powered Grand Prix car take off. The whole Lotus Turbine project stemmed from an Indianapolis effort, and after that had been outlawed by the American rule-makers, Chapman built a Grand Prix version. It can be seen in the Donington Park Racing Museum and it makes you think “did it really happen?” The Pratt & Whitney gas-turbine engine sat behind the driver and drove all four wheels and made the most fascinating noise, while to watch the dials in the cockpit as the driver set off was to see a whole new world. Its development and progress was held back by two major factors, fuel consumption and engine development. It had to carry 62 gallons of fuel, against the 38 of a Cosworth-powered car, and the United Aircraft Corporation of Canada, who were building and supplying the Pratt & Whitney engines, were not very interested in European Formula One. Their interest lay in USAC racing, and Indianapolis in particular, so when they were outlawed by the opposition they lost interest in the idea. Without a turbine specialist firm working on the engine development side of things there was little point in Lotus progressing with the chassis.

The six-wheeled Tyrrell project suffered in a similar manner, for designer Derek Gardner was reliant on Goodyear developing and supplying the tiny 10-in, front tyres, which they did to start with, as they then had surplus development capacity to tackle the subject. As opposition from Michelin appeared on the horizon this development surplus faded and the 10-in. tyre development lagged, which slowed and stultified Gardner’s programme.

There are people who keep saying that Grand Prix racing, or Formula One, is boring or unimaginative. I don’t see that myself, perhaps because I stand up close to it and look at it all in wonderment, instead of viewing it from afar with an affected attitude of boredom, so that while I’m going through the motions of being bored I miss all the interesting things. – D. S. J.