Richard Owen Design & Engineering
It is common to talk of the courage, determination and competitiveness of racing drivers but rather hear constructors described in the same terms, yet they are essential qualities of any racing car constructor along with business acumen, design talent, the ability to work impossible hours and the ability to keep one’s head when the world seems set to crumble about it. When looking at the recent success of McLaren International, it’s too easy to forget the days when Ron Dennis struggled with the Rondel F2 team or that, not so long ago, he mortgaged his house so that he could back his judgement in John Barnard’s design talent and his own confidence that he could himself run an F1 team successfully.
There was the time when Frank Williams had to sell his much-prized Porsche to keep his F1 team going and many other constructors could tell similar tales. The rewards of ultimate success can be great but they are rarely won easily. The difficulty of the task is easy to assess, take a pen and pad and jot down a list of racing car constructors who have come and gone. It is easy to reach three figures before having to scratch your head.
The constructor in the business of selling production racing cars is, of course, in the position of being as good as his last design. Most constructors wish the problem was as simple as that. Motor racing success depends on more than excellence and good management, there are also the elements of magic and mystery. Take, for example, the Lola T644 FF1600 car. Lola had enjoyed an extremely successful 1983 season with the T642 and the T644 was an acknowledged improvement and on the pace for 1984. Possibly because the looks of the car were not as startling as its Reynard and Van Diemen competitors, which had side-mounted radiators, opinion soon had it that the car was outdated. As that opinion gradually hardened into accepted fact, drivers began to find faults with it which they’d not previously noticed and some switched to other makes. Everyone positively knew that the Lola was as dead as a dodo.
It was odd, then, that a Lola won the 1984 Formula Ford Festival and set a new lap record. A possible explanation is that the driver was foreign and may not have known how slow his car was supposed to be!
Once a new constructor has built his prototype, his next problem is to persuade a decent driver to race it. Generally this involves the constructor in offering a very cheap or even free drive for a season, for drivers who are hoping to work their way up through racing are naturally conservative in their choice of cars, few can afford to make a mistake financially or to gamble on wasting a whole season. For the constructor, the problem is this: he wishes to make a, living selling racing cars. In order to attract orders, his cars must race successfully. To race successfully he must spare no expense yet he is deriving no income from selling cars, for customers will only come after he has, proven his product.
If he then receives orders, he must then make fine judgements about putting the cars into production. How many employees does he take on? How much work does he sub-contract to other firms? What pricing policy does he adopt? How much workshop space does he lease? Does he continue to build one model or will the success of his first car perhaps attract for a car in a different formula?
These are fundamental commercial problems faced by the new manufacturer of any product but the manufacturer of, say, a washing machine does not face the same problems as a racing car manufacturer. Racing cars are expensive items and the difference between building ten cars in a season and building 12 is a significant one. The building season is very short since buyers tend to place their orders as late as they can, but require delivery by the end of February so they can start testing for the new season. Once the season starts, the performance of the product is under scrutiny every weekend and_ the difference between a car doing all the winning and a car which comes second while it is considerably smaller than the difference between the very best washing machine on the market and its closest rival, is vast in terms of customer perception. While you or I would probably be quite happy with a washing machine somewhat less than ultimate (otherwise there would be far fewer makers of washing machines) drivers must have what they believe to be the best car. This is understandable since the cost of a season is frequently many times the initial outlay on the machine.
It should come as no surprise to learn, given the above, that racing car constructors (and engine builders) tend to have a very well developed sense of humour. They need it.
The choice of Richard Owen Design & Engineering as the constructor to begin this new series was made because the company is a recently-formed one and is still going through some of the processes already described. Unless the difficulties faced by all constructors are understood, their achievements are diminished.
Richard Owen himself is 32 years old and has been in business on his own account since 1980, beginning with subcontract design and fabrication work and producing his first car, the Sports 2000 Aquila R082S, two years later. In the hands of Mike O’Brien, the car won the British S2000 Championship in 1983 and a similarly styled, but actually completely different replacement, the Shrike P15 appeared in the autumn of 1984. Twelve Shrikes will be ready for the start of this year’s season and the reason for the change of name will become clear later.
Richard was just 12 when he began work on his first competition car. He had a stripped down Austin 7 which he’d bought from his savings and which he used to drive on private land. His father, Charles, had encountered some members of the 750 MC and the pair of them decided to convert the A7 into a racing special. Charles would make his debut as a driver at the age of 49 while Richard, who assisted in the design and building of the car, would be chief mechanic
Arcos 1 (Arcos = A Richard & Charles Owen Special) arrived at Silverstone for a meeting and immediately they drew up in the paddock, father and son knew they had done it all wrong. The car was basically a road-going special and it towered over the miniature sports/racing cars built by the serious competitors. Still, they had a few races with it and work began almost immediately on a successor.
Not every team, even in club racing, has a 12-year-old chief mechanic but it was not just a silly title. Charles recalls how once at Silverstone Richard was surrounded by a group of drivers who hung onto his every word while he expounded his theories on carburation. Arcos 2, in which Richard had a large hand in designing was an advance but still not quite competitive and Richard was all of 15 when he began to design Arcos 3, a mid-engined special with its Reliant engine converted to sohc.
Although he could have pursued the conventional course and gone on to university, Richard knew that all he wanted to do was to design racing cars and so, aged 16, in 1968 he applied for, and won, one of the two apprenticeships which BRM used to offer annually. At Bourne he received a thorough grounding in all aspects of racing car construction and, meanwhile, completed Arcos 3 in a lock up garage.
As soon as the car was completed, it was banned. Reliant was working on its own ohc engine and did not want to be upstaged by a teenager. Ironically, one of the first jobs Owen had to do on finishing his apprenticeship was to test a batch of Reliant ohc engines which the company had passed on to BRM for sorting.
During 1973/5 Richard won ten races with Arcos 6, the first F750 monocoque car. This had the engine alongside the driver with the mandatory passenger space in front of the engine. Arcos 4, incidentally, was a radio controlled model power boat with which younger brother, Robert, now a designer with Porsche, represented Britain in International championships and Arcos 5 a more conventional F750 car.
In 1974 Richard became number two, of two, designers at Williams and like everyone who worked for Frank in the lean years has his fund of stories which tend to involve bailiffs and large men with broken noses repossessing the team transporter. While in retrospect the experience seems amusing, Richard had just married and needed some security so left motor racing to spend two years designing aids for limbless children.
The lure of the sport however was too strong and after two years he was back as a designer for Shadow in 1978, just after the palace revolution in which most of the team’s key personnel went off to start Arrows. His first job was to design the Shadow DN 10 Can-Am car around the DN8 F1 monocoque and the heavy and unreliable Dodge engines which Don Nicholls had acquired – it was not a success. From mid-season Owen found himself anyway more and more concerned with the F1 team.
1979 saw him engineering the DN9B F1 cars, largely trying to get de Angelis and Lammers onto the grid. It was clear that the team had little future and so, at the beginning of 1980, Richard left to design a new S2000 car for Van Diemen. Two months into the new design, Ralph Firman, Van Diemen’s boss, cancelled the project for commercial reasons. Van Diemen work by subcontracting 70% of components and since the company regularly builds over 100 cars a year, it can demand, and get, keen quotes for the order it places. A new S2000 car, with a limited market, had realistically to be constructed largely in-house so there was a clear conflict of policy.
Taking his drawings with him, Richard then set up business on his own account on the Silverstone Motor Racing Industrial Estate. The chance to put his ideas into metal came for Richard when an American club racer, Bert Biles, approached Alan Cornack of Royale with the proposition that he should commission a new S2000 car.
Cornack was unable to help and passed Biles on to Owen. The Aquila was born. Biles fronted with cash and the little company (Richard himself and two employees) began work on the car. Because it was a prototype, everything had to be made in-house and Richard soon learned how expensive one-off components can be.
Charles Owen, by now retired, spent nearly 1,000 man-hours on constructing the moulds for the fibreglass body which Richard had designed in a wind tunnel. When possible, both the families of Richard and his wife Dorothy helped out with cash but, always, with moral support. The big opportunity had arrived, the completed car would be sold at the agreed commissioning fee for a loss, but that really did not matter. There followed months of gruelling work during which time Owen saw little of his family.
When completed, Richard shook down the car at Silverstone, returning a time just 0.6 sec outside the S2000 lap record. Bearing in mind Richard’s status as a driver and the length of time he’d been away from the cockpit the new car was very promising.
Like most good racing car designs, the Aquila was deceptively simple, a short monocoque with a rear subframe and suspension all round by coil springs and wishbones. The most startling feature was its shape, evolved in a wind tunnel, for it was clear that in a closely regulated formula aerodynamics were the area in which most speed would be found.
Like most, but not all, good racing cars the secret of its speed lay in the total package and not in any one area. Unless you come up with a radical breakthrough, like ground effect, the trick is to carefully design each component so that it not only individually works well but works in harmony with the whole.
While the Aquila undoubtedly did this, the prototype shipped out to Bert Biles did not set the tracks alight. The reason was that Biles was not a natural winner and was never able to demonstrate the car’s potential. All the hard work, the 16 hour days, seven days a week, seemed to be’ in: jeopardy except that, by prior arrangement, the car was re-imported to Britain at the end of 1982.
Run from the works, the chosen driver was Mike O’Brien. The choice was shrewd, O’Brien had been in F3 and, though quick never looked like winning. Owen felt that he could win in S2000 and, if he did, his previous reputation would not draw attention away from the car.
A fifth at Brands Hatch, followed by a second place in the last race of the year at Thruxton convinced the little team that it had a potential winner on its hands. The prototype went back to the States and Richard and his family took a very big step – his house was mortgaged so that a works car could be run in 1983.
Two cars were laid down, one for O’Brien and the other as a works assisted pay drive hire car. The first races of 1983 were disappointing, the car was quick, it could lead races, but silly little faults robbed it of victory, a stuck throttle, a stripped wheel nut, a driver error. Fifth time out, however, it won – and then was disqualified. The car had been fitted with Koni aluminium alloy dampers, which Richard had been able to buy secondhand for money was tight, but the rules stated that no alloy dampers were permitted. It was a mistake possibly bred from financial necessity and the fact that all the other cars had steel dampers, and steel is an alloy, and the fact that the RAC admitted to an error in drawing up the regulations which were later changed to light alloy, a clearly defined term, did not retrieve the win.
Most spectators are pleased when an outsider goes quickly but, understandably, established constructors are not. Each is after his share of a limited market and a bright newcomer upsets the status quo. Before long the rumours began: “Of course the Aquila is quick, because it’s illegal.” Then someone began to put around the word that Dunlop, makers of the S2000 control tyre, was providing the team with special (ie. illegal) tyres – a ridiculous notion: Why should a firm like Dunlop ruin its reputation by helping a new shoestring outfit, run on a third of the budget which some competitors used, by cheating? Besides, the Aquila was actually running on second-hand tyres! Then the buzz went around that the car was too complicated for privateers, it had to be run by the works. Not only was the Aquila a very simple design but most of the front runners in the formula had works assistance.
The car started to win races and then continued to win them, O’Brien winning the Championship in 1983, but the company was not exactly deluged with orders. The rumourmongers had done their work too well and potential customers were heard to trot out, “I’ve thought of buying an Aquila but I’ve heard it on good authority that…”
From July 1983 onwards O’Brien won every round on the British S2000 series but Britain, as a market, is third behind the USA and the rest of Europe. The car was showing well in the wrong place. Biles who had been appointed the USA distributor was selling nothing. The theory that once you begin to win races, the telephone would not stop ringing was disproved. Gone was Richard’s normal cheery disposition, the man aged before your eyes. By the end of 1984 only three Aquilas had been built. For a while it looked as though the gamble of mortgaging his family’s future, might fail.
An American, Jon Peterson, came up with ambitious plans to import 12 Aquilas in 1984 and there was talk, too, of other plans involving the company, an Indycar, perhaps, or an IMSA car. These were dashed when Peterson hit financial problems. Meanwhile Bert Biles was not too pleased at the thought of a rival taking over a design he had commissioned but offered to sell the full rights back to Richard for a modest quarter of a million pounds.
A new car had to be built, having gone through the Shadow v Arrows conflict, Owen was only too well aware of the possible repercussions and so the Shrike P15 was evolved (the P, for Project, being a trace from Owen’s BRM days). During 1984
O’Brien continued to race Aquila 02, picking up wins and places and finishing third in the British Championship but not repeating his dominance of the previous season, partly because other cars had come along and partly because Owen’s attention was on his new car. When it appeared, it was easy to dismiss the Shrike as badge engineering, an old car under a different name.
The Shrike does, in fact, follow the principles of the Aquila but, as Richard says, “The more I pondered the same questions, the more the same answers presented themselves. The tub, though, is lighter, shorter and 12% stiffer. The front suspension is on the same lines as the Aquila but has different geometry and stiffer uprights. We went back to the wind tunnel with the body and though the one on the Shrike looks like that of the Aquila, it’s much lighter, it has a different style of construction, there are changes to the radiator ducting and different fences to the rear spoiler. It’s so different, in fact, that we’ve had to build an entirely new buck.”
Further, the car was changed subtly from being a prototype to a production racer. Whereas the prototype was built in-house entirely, the new cars are 70% subcontracted.
The Shrike made its debut at the Brands Hatch F2 meeting late in the year and O’Brien took pole position and led the race until gearbox problems slowed him. However, he took pole and the chequered flag in the last two races of the season.
Meanwhile Englishman Simon Kirkby had become a front runner in the American Pro-series. The net result is that 12 cars are currently being prepared for the coming season. Five are going to the States, two to Sweden, two are earmarked for Gil Baird’s Tech-Speed team managed by Marvin Humphries, an ex-Shadow mechanic, and the remaining three to other buyers in Britain one of whom will race his car in the B class of the Thundersports series. A kit is also to be marketed at £6,900 (a normal complete car less engine costs £11,500) for Richard reasons that many experienced people in racing have lying around their workshops a number of common components, instruments and the like which could be utilised in building a car.
Numbers are important to a manufacturer, not only because each car represents a sale. The more Shrikes there are on a grid, then the greater is the chance that one will win and wins should translate into more sales and hence even greater representation which, in turn… That’s how it should be and, if it does go like that, then Richard expects to build perhaps more than 20 new cars for the 1986 season. Of course, it’s never as simple as that. A maker cannot control the talent of the drivers who buy his cars and all the other makers of S2000 cars are determined to ensure that the buyers will be’ beating paths to their, doors.
For the moment, however, Richard Owen Design and Engineering Seems set on the right path and the family home is no longer threatened. The future of the firm, though, can by no means be said to be assured but then no racing car manufacturer is ever secure. A road car maker can sell its products on past reputation and ride out difficulties presented by an inadequate model but the effect on a racing car manufacturer of a single poor design are swift and often terminal.
Still, Owen has a lot of respect in the industry. He’s had at least one offer to design a new F1 car from someone who is trying to stitch together a new team – the overture was politely declined. At the time of my visit to the workshop I saw the EMKA-Aston Martin Group C car which Owen is re-engineering for its owner. Jobs like this are essential to a new constructor – it’s surprising what cars you see in various workshops around the country.
1985 looks brighter for the company than the recent past. Owen has learned some rules of the game the hard way and is now determined to by-pass agents and deal directly with customers; which naturally involves him in a lot of travel, particularly to the USA. As he says, “We’ve got to get an advantage in every department; speed, of course, but also spares, cost, technical development and back-up.”
It’s impossible to ‘say what the future will bring to Shrike. Perhaps, though I personally doubt it, Owen has only one good-design in him – you occasionally come across designers like that. Possibly some of the team’s rivals will make a large advance in 1985 and the car which showed well at the end of last season may be outclassed and incapable of sufficient development to stay in the game. Possibly we are witnessing the, birth of an important new manufacturer, another Lola or March, one which will expand into the higher formulae. The imponderables are all part of the continuing fascination of the sport at any level.
We read so much about the hard times which drivers of talent sometime endure during their careers, the sponsorship problems, the duff cars and so on, that we rarely give a thought to the equally tough struggles which many constructors have to undergo to produce the cars in the first place. Almost all constructors have gone through bleaker periods than almost any driver, the difference is they often do not get the champagne, the lap of honour and, the general recognition for what they’ve been through. ,M.L.