The Connaught Story
It is ironic that the Connaught Type B was the company’s most successful car, for it was conceived as a stop-gap, against the time when a suitable engine would allow an advanced, rear-engined, monocoque design to be completed. It is ironic, too, that the team’s most stirring performances should have come in the final twelve months or so of its existence when its financial situation was at its most precarious, and that Connaught Engineering was wound up just weeks before Britain came of age in motor racing.
Rodney Clarke and Kenneth McAlpine announced that the team was to finish on May 31, 1957. Within a few weeks Aston Martin took the first of its three successive wins in the Nurburgring 1000kms; Jaguar won its fifth Le Mans and the five D-Types entered finished 1-2-3-4-6; Lotus took two class wins and the Index of Performance at Le Mans. Cooper dominated the new Formula Two and, between July and September, Vanwall won three Grands Prix.
Connaught Engineering had nearly folded at the end of 1955, but Tony Brooks’ win at Syracuse had led to a possible life-line. Race organisers became prepared to offer Connaught serious starting money. Further, the win had fired the imagination of racing enthusiasts in Britain, and many joined the Connaught Grand Prix Car Club, started by John Webb, one of whose aims was to raise money to help the team. The club published a professionally-produced magazine and in the final issue which came out just after the decision to close the team, Rodney Clarke laid out the financial facts of life: “Every winter since Connaught Engineering started in 1949, the question of whether we should continue for another year has been debated. We had finally decided to close in the autumn of 1955, when we unexpectedly found ourselves the winners of the Syracuse Grand Prix against the full Maserati works team; and this gave us sufficient reason to hope that trade backing might be forthcoming.
“For 1956 we had budgeted to halve the loss sustained in 1955; we decided that we must budget for half the loss again in 1957 and that with the indications of trends available to us at that time, we might if were lucky, be able to achieve this goal.”
It was a desperate calculation. Connaught’s drawing office had cut back in 1955 and Connaught had no resources to prepay for the future. Had not the team folded in 1957, it would quickly have become uncompetitive.
Connaught Engineering had been subsidised by Kenneth McAlpine who had put in £43,000 of his own money in 1955. But McAlpine had retired from racing, and since the company existed to enable him to race and sell a few cars to like-minded amateur drivers, there was no longer any impetus for him to continue. Connaught’s main hope would have been support from the government or the motor industry, but neither were forthcoming.
Although Connaught’s long-term development plans were undernourished, an enormous amount of development work was done on the Type Bs right up to the end. Mike Oliver, assisted by Bill Warham, had the task of turning Geoffrey Taylor’s Alta engine, essentially a pre-war design, into a competitive proposition. He faced many problems, not least being that two supposedly identical engines would have entirely different power characteristics.
As with the old Lea-Francis unit, Connaught’s Alta engines eventually owed more to Oliver and his team than the original designer, and he was eventually able to coax 288bhp from one engine running on a dynamometer on alcohol-based fuel. This output was better than anything seen by Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, BRM or Maserati during the 2 1/2 litre F1 era. Unfortunately, the Alta’s valve gear was a limiting factor, and Connaught ended up with huge (2 1/8in diameter) valves needing 450lb springs. The expertise was available for investigating alternatives, but the money was not.
Another weakness was that Connaught could not afford to hire star drivers or guarantee them a full season. The company tried to sign Tony Brooks for 1956 (he had yet to make his World Championship debut) but an offer from BRM looked his better long-term prospect. The one really quick driver available was Archie Scott-Brown, who’s physical disabilities constantly led to continental organisers refusing his entry. Archie was to lead the team at home, backed by drivers generally not of the first rank.
The first race of 1956 was the 32-lap Richmond Trophy at Goodwood, where Archie qualified second to Moss’ works Maserati and ahead of Hawthorn’s BRM. Scott-Brown took the Connaught into the lead on the second lap and lead Moss for the next fifteen, until his brakes started to fade, followed by oil loss and piston failure. The BRMs both retired and Moss stroked home ahead of Roy Salvadori’s private Maserati, but Connaughts filled the next three places, driven by Les Leston, Bob Gerard, and Reg Parnell. It was a promising performance and the racing press raved about Archie’s drive.
For the Syracuse Grand Prix the works entered cars for Desmond Titterington and Piero Scotti, an Italian soft drinks manufacturer who was buying his car by instalments. Despite a significant increase in engine power, neither could lap as Brooks had done six months earlier. Titterington retired with timing problems when lying fourth behind the works Lancia Ferrari. Scotti, who was anyway out of his depth, had a halfshaft go.
Syracuse was followed by the Aintree 200, which was billed as an ‘International’ though the only overseas driver was Louis Rosier (Maserati). Scott-Brown again led the Connaught effort backed up by Titterington who, unusually, was at the wheel of a ‘streamliner’. Connaught staff were worried about piston failure and Archie was set a rev limit of 6,500 prm for the first half of the race. In fact he use a lot fewer revs, yet still had a piston go. Starting from pole, he led works BRMs twice before retiring on lap 13. Titterington lay third before a misfire set in, and later he crashed.
At the Silverstone International Daily Express Trophy, Connaught could be properly measured against the best opposition for the first time in 1956. Ferrari sent two of its Lancia-based cars for Fangio and Collins; the new Vanwalls made their debut, driven by Moss and Schell; there was a BRM for Hawthorn, the works Gordinis and Salvadori’s Gilbey Engineering 250F. No fewer than nine Connaughts were entered, including Type Bs for Scotti and Mike Oliver. Scott-Brown was again the quickest but even he could manage only seventh on the grid.
The early pace set by Hawthorn and Fangio told on the field and there were numerous retirements. One was Mike Oliver, who had a huge end-over-end shunt at Woodcote, from which he was lucky to escape with concussion and bruising. Moss won from Scott-Brown, and Titterington. British cars first, second and third, with a new lap record shared by Moss and Hawthorn in different types of British car; it was like having all your birthdays at once!
Scotti finished seventh, decided he was never going to be a Grand Prix driver, and terminated his deal with the works. His B6 was not sold at the auction, but now resides in the Science Museum in South Kensington.
In June, Scott-Brown led the Aintree 100, but oil from the engine breathers got everywhere. Thinking the car was about to burst into flames, Archie abandoned it.
The British Grand Prix saw one of the works cars fitted with Girling brakes, the team not being happy with Dunlop discs. Scott-Brown, starting his only World Championship race, was easily the quickest of the three Connaughts, he and Titterington outqualifying Behra’s Maserati, Trintignant’s Vanwall and de Portago’s Lancia-Ferrari. Archie ran strongly in the early stages until a halfshaft went and he lost a wheel. Titterington went out with piston failure, but Jack Fairman brought the other car home fourth.
The team’s only other major race that year was the Italian Grand Prix. There was no question of the organisers allowing Scott-Brown to start, but cars were entered for Ron Flockhart, Les Leston and Jack Fairman. The team dehberately restricted lap times, aiming to finish a race of attrition, and Flockhart came home third with Fairman fifth. Some have argued that Flockhart’s performance was the highlight of Connaught’s racing history, for it was a sound tactical drive against top competition.
In October Scott-Brown won a fifteen-lap “Formula One” race at Brands Hatch from a new team mate, Stuart Lewis-Evans, having his first drive in an F1 car. Although it was little more than a club race, the performance of Lewis-Evans, graduating from F3, made a favourable impression.
During the winter of 1956-7, Rodney Clarke continued to try to interest the British motor industry in the team, without success, while the Connaught Grand Prix Car Club set itself the task of raising £10,000 (the cost of two Type Bs).
More than anything else, the Alta engine was the problem. In 1956 the team had to choose between running with a 7,000 rpm limit but not finishing, or running with higher gears to limit the engine to about 6,750 rpm. During the winter Mike Oliver and Bill Warham came up with numerous modifications. There were even experiments to see whether the weight advantage of using petrol would offset the power advantage of alcohol-based fuel. Every possible lesson which could have been learned during 1956 was explored. The future may have been uncertain, but while there was still a future, work went on.
But the Type B remained a car which had been designed quickly as a stop-gap in 1953. Its Alta-engined successor, the space-frame Type C, was put on ice, though it was under construction. Clarke continued his close co-operation with Coventry-Climax over the projected Godiva 2.5 litre V8 engine (for which he had the rear-engined monocoque Type J already designed and partially constructed) and investigated the possible use of the “Speed” V8 (Brooke-Weston) engine.
Syracuse opened the 1957 season for Connaught. Four cars were entered, but only one finished — Ivor Bueb coming home fifth in his first F1 race. In practice Les Leston had a narrow escape when the half shaft broke and ruptured the fuel tank. Leston managed to throw himself clear of the inferno, sustaining cuts and slight burns, but the car was destroyed. Sadly it was B1, the car with which Brooks had won at Syracuse.
Leslie Marr, who owned B3 (a streamliner), had fitted it with a Jaguar engine and raced it in New Zealand in early 1956, before selling it back to the works. At Goodwood on Easter Monday, it appeared with a new dart-shaped body, still unpainted, which was immediately dubbed “the toothpaste tube”. Behind the wheel was Stuart Lewis-Evans, the latest in what seemed an endless line of British driving talent. Lewis-Evans drove sensibly and won, after the retirements of the Moss and Brooks Vanwalls, Salvadori’s BRM and Scott-Brown, with Jack Fairman second in Rob Walker’s Connaught. But Connaught’s last victory was not a substantial one.
At the time, World Championship Grand Prix organisers ran a “tariff” system to allocate starting money, and Connaught found it could not cover its costs on the money which the organisers decreed it should receive. On the other hand, organisers of the many non-championship Grands Prix were prepared to haggle, so Connaught was able to negotiate sensible money and began chasing around Europe with Oliver as team manager.
While Lewis-Evans was winning at Goodwood, Bueb and Leston were taking third and fifth places at Pau. From Pau, one of the cars was taken to Naples, where Lewis-Evans was running second between the Lancia-Ferraris of Collins and Hawthorn when a front hub fractured due to a faulty casting. Then it was down to Monaco for the Grand Prix. Rodney Clarke had doubts about running there because of the tariff rate, but the Connaught Grand Prix Car Club came up with £500 towards the cost so cars were entered for Lewis-Evans and Bueb.
Both managed to qualify, though way off the pace. Bueb retired, with a split fuel tank, but Lewis-Evans brought the “toothpaste tube” home fourth, three laps behind Fangio’s winning Maserati. The results looked promising for British racing, for Brooks brought his Vanwall home second and in sixth, pushing his car across the line, was Brabham’s Cooper.
But a fortnight later, Clarke and McAlpine decided to close the Connaught operation. There wasn’t the cash to plan a long-term future, and they could see no point in chasing around Europe for starting money in minor events. Seven weeks later, Moss and Brooks shared the Vanwall which won the British Grand Prix, a win which heralded a new era of British domination in F1.
Later that year the auction was held at Send at which all the team’s assets were disposed. One of the bidders was Bernie Ecclestone, who bought B3 and B7 and entered them in the following winter’s Tasman series for Lewis-Evans and Salvadori. Ecclestone himself was one of the drivers who tried to qualify a Connaught the following year at Monaco. On the whole, though, the Type Bs were relegated to Formula Libre club races.
The sole Type C spaceframe car was still incomplete at the time of the sale, but was later sold to Paul Emery and appeared in the 1959 American Grand Prix at Sebring in the hands of Bob Said. Later it was bought by some members of the 750 MC, who supercharged it and tried to qualify for the 1962 Indianapolis 500. It is still to be seen in Historic racing as, indeed, are most Connaught single-seaters.
Rodney Clarke went back to running a motor business dealing in exotic cars. Mike Oliver returned to flying and, among other things, was the test pilot who chiefly developed the Folland Gnat fighter. Clarke and Oliver remained close friends right up to Rodney’s death in May, 1979.
It had been a brave try. That it didn’t quite come off was not because of lack of expertise, as Connaught was way ahead of any British or Italian F1 team of the fifties, but because there was insufficient money – and Clarke and Oliver were not the sort of men to cut corners. The tragedy is that when the team folded, all that expertise dissipated and Clarke, a designer of genius (not a word we use lightly) was lost to the British car and motor racing industries. ML