In part two of our series, Robert Edwards looks at the man who walked out on BRM and yet brought Britain its first F1 World Title.
It was Tony Vandervell’s impatience as much as anything else which created the machine which won the inaugural Formula One Constructors’ Championship in 1958. He had, like other notables in British engineering, been on the advisory board of the British Motor Racing Research Trust, established after the war to guide Britain to laurels in the new racing world. He had, though, weighed the venture in the balance and found it wanting. The product of this vast committee was to be the BRM; its assumed success would pivot upon a host of little synergies which the companies involved would theoretically generate with each other – parts at cost, research facilities, and, of course, (for this was to be a racing car) testing, testing and more testing. With time and patience, the chimera would surely emerge.
But Guy Anthony Vandervell was not a patient man. As the inheritor of both a large sum of money and a place at the top table of the British Motor Industry, he had well-developed views about how projects should be taken forward, and his opinion of the BRM approach was that it was both disorganised and ill-directed. He took the view that a proper business plan with proper funding was the key requirement, if a proper car was to be the result. Famously, he was to be proved right, but to hammer home his point he abandoned any executive role in the BRM project at the end of 1949.
This was not merely petulance. Tony Vandervell had built up a vast business based upon his manufacturing licence of the American thin-walled ‘Clevite’ plain bearing. The war, with its insatiable appetite for all such material, had made him a wealthy man, and, more significantly, one who was used to taking fast decisions. It was not, therefore mere dilettante pique which made him walk out on the BRM, for he had already invested in it more heavily than many, but rather a genuine knowledge, hard-earned, that projects need leaders more than managers.
So rather than start with the pre-war Mercedes-Benz, as the BMRRT had, Vandervell targeted the Ferrari Grand Prix car. It was to prove an expensive indulgence. To pay lip service to what was superficially a development tool for the bearings business, these cars (there were to be four) became known as Thin Wall Specials.
But when, having purchased a supercharged 1 1/2-litre Ferrari Grand Prix car, his engineers took it apart, Vandervell found the Ferrari product surprisingly primitive; not only was it all engine and no handling, but the engine itself seemed rather thrown together. The unsolicited report which he sent to Ferrari bordered on the nit-picking, but it was characteristic of Vandervell to be somewhat hypercritical, not only of himself, but others.
Artlessly, Ferrari mentioned in his closely-worded reply that they had high expectations of their new two-stage, four cam supercharged engine and Vandervell fell for it; a new car was ordered, with a longer, less twitchy chassis and arrived in time for the BRDC International Trophy meeting in August 1950. Amusingly, the cam boxes were inscribed ‘Thinwell Special’ but spelling mistakes aside, the car did not prosper, despite having Alberto Ascari at the wheel.
Another post-mortem revealed that this second little Ferrari engine was, ahem, rather skimpily put together; when the discovery was made that the crank was not nitrided at all, relations between the two men hit a new low. But not for long. Ferrari undertook to rebuild the chassis with a de Dion rear end and a new engine. Aurelio Lampredi had already developed the single-plug 4 1/2-litre unit with which Ascari had scored points and was well on the way to perfecting it with twin-plug heads, but, naturally, Vandervell received a prototype single-plug engine, possibly even a ‘pre-owned’ one. The rebuilt car survived long enough to provide the equipe with its first win, though, in Reg Pamell’s hands at Silverstone on May 5, 1951 and again at Goodwood nine days later. All in all, 1951 was to be a valuable learning experience for Vandervell’s team. The expression “bloody red cars” was still a thing of the future.
In contrast, BRM were having a miserable time; Reg Parnell, whose occasional drives for Vandervell had to be threaded around his commitments there, was well able to pass on the depressing catalogue of disappointments which were plaguing the venture. Not that Vandervell was at all ignorant of these, far from it, but the doubts he had expressed about the methodology behind the BRM effort were well proven by its results, or lack of them.
Vandervell, who had been a director of Norton since 1946, had long cherished the idea of a four-cylinder racing engine based on motorcycle practice. The holy grail of 100 bhp per litre had been available in fearsome speedway engines for some time, and while he knew that merely scaling up was not the answer, he still found the idea compelling. Initial conversations with Leo Kuzmicki, the Norton development engineer, were not at all encouraging, but Vandervell’s view was not that four works Norton engines should merely be strapped together, but that the top end power of the Norton should be harnessed to a rigid bottom end. The objective was a four-cylinder 2-litre Formula Two engine, expandable to 2 1/2-litres.
But the new engine, pleasing though it was, took 18 months to prepare and was too late to compete in Formula Two. Philosophically, the work had already begun to expand it. The chassis for this new car was made by Cooper, along the lines of their Cooper-Bristol but modified to accept the assorted Ferrari-derived steering and running gear which had been set aside for the new car. Also, as it was the intention to develop the engine out to 2 1/2-litres for full 300-mile Grands Prix, the structure had to be robust Owen Maddock was given the task.
The new car, the Vanwall Special, made its debut driven by Alan Brown at Silverstone on May 15, 1954; the inexperienced driver managed fifth fastest in practice and sixth in the first heat, but retired in the final with a broken oil pipe. The next stage was to increase the capacity of the new engine to an interim 2.3-litres. The car appeared next in July at the British GP with Peter Collins at the wheel. Eleventh on the grid was promising, but a gasket blew on lap 16. Another outing at the Italian GP, the last at this capacity, produced an excellent seventh for Collins; better still, he beat the entire Maserati 250F field home.
As a shake-down, 1954 had been instructive. Clearly, there were teething troubles with many of the 2 1/2-litre machines, even the Mercedes at times, but the car had, by and large, become reasonably competitive (at least with the non-Mercedes cars) and so Vandervell decided that 1955 would be the year when he went motor racing properly. The car was no longer a slightly apologetic Vanwall Special, but simply a Vanwall.
The surreptitious introduction of the marque paid dividends in PR terms; there were no massive public expectations of this merely promising car, as Vandervell had avoided the trap which Raymond Mays had devised for himself and BRM, so development could go ahead logically and at its own pace. Despite the attempts of the fourth estate to conjure up a huge rivalry between BRM’s Alfred Owen and Vandervell, the truth was rather different. Owen was as unlike Vandervell as a man could be; he was patient to the point of saintliness, modest in his private life, and tolerant of others. He was neither profane nor vulgar and there was not an ounce of side in his personality. He respected Vandervell’s flair at risk-taking and, reciprocally, Vandervell thought well of him. As John Cooper put it: “At one end of the paddock would be old Vandervell dispensing caviar and champagne to all his friends from his vast caravan, with the Thin Wall Special looking proud and defiant, and at the other end of the paddock would be Alfred Owen with his BRMs and a packet of sandwiches.”
So, 1955 would be the start of a serious and (crucially) public effort; no longer was there room to be casually disingenuous for whatever reason. As a driver commits to a difficult corner so Vandervell was now committing to Formula One. Every gruff utterance, every dismissive shrug, every bitten-back profanity at embarrassing failure would henceforth be public property and therefore subject to endless speculation and dissection by both the informed and uninformed alike. It would be hard work and on many levels…
Vandervell was 56 now; he had not yet reached that age, whenever it is, after which a man starts to look into his past rather than his future and, perhaps bolstered by the experience of Enzo Ferrari, for whom he had a profound respect, even though it was roughened by acquaintance, he buckled to.
One of the most troubled years in the history of any sport was to be another shakedown period for the Vanwall team; for in 1955 there was no serious hope of anyone actually beating the awesome Mercedes factory effort. One man who might come close was Mike Hawthorn, who, amid much media attention, was signed in January. To support him, Vandervell hired Ken Wharton, who had struggled manfully with the V16 BRM.
The season did not start well. May’s International Trophy at Silventone saw Hawthorn retire on lap 15 and Wharton crash on lap 23; the car caught fire and Wharton’s burns put him out of racing for two months. At Monaco, Hawthorn, the sole entry, retired with a broken throttle linkage. At Spa in June, Hawthorn retired again, but Vandervell, exercising his customary droit de seigneur, had already wrecked the clutch when driving the car to the circuit which had impressed Hawthorn not at all, and while drowning his sorrows after the race he rather impulsively quit the team. He was back on Ferrari’s F1 books within the week.
He was replaced by Harry Schell who, while not a driver of the calibre of Hawthorn, threw himself into the task with typical enthusiasm. Schell was to win four races that year, sadly none of them a championship event.
The issue of how the Vanwall would further evolve was guided by a simple co-incidence. At the suggestion of Derek Wootton, the team’s transporter driver and general Vanwall factotum, Frank Costin, whose seminal moonlighting design of small Lotus sportscars had not escaped attention, was invited to inspect an evolutionary car which was being built at the Vanwall works. His opinion, typically trenchant, was that he thought the engine was fine but that the rest was “a load of rubbish”. He particularly disliked the unstressed and flexible chassis; he knew perfectly well that Colin Chapman could design a structure which would be both lighter and more rigid, around which a low-drag body could be wrapped. Colin, upon consultation (he needed the money, too) agreed to attempt the task.
Chapman commenced work on the redesign of the chassis at the end of 1955. He was able to offer a set of drawings to Costin by Christmas. Frank studied them and came up with what was, at first sight, rather like a de Havilland fuselage; smooth, tapering and tear-drop in plan. The new car was ready in time for the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone. Vandervell had hired Stirling Moss to debut the new car and Stirling, who had signed for Maserati for 1956, won with it, also setting a new lap record at 102.3 mph.
This was more like it; unfortunately, that was the car’s only victory in the 1956 season. Worse than that, Vanwall were to complete only two more events, the Belgian Grand Prix in June, where Harry Schell managed fourth, and the French GP a month later, where he managed a lowly tenth. However, mere statistics did not convey the clear potential which the new car had displayed, so the work which now proceeded over the winter of 1956-7 was not really radical in any way.
For 1957 Moss was paired with Tony Brooks and, after the Monaco Grand Prix, Stuart Lewis-Evans. The Vanwall team finally had a competitive car with British drivers but were up against the very competent Lancia-Ferraris and an experienced team of drivers; Hawthorn, Collins, Musso and several skilled makeweights. Further, they faced Fangio, Behra and old friend Harry Schell in the Maserati team. It was, though, a three-cornered contest for 1957 and the outcome reflected that; Fangio first, Moss second and Musso third in the championship. Vanwall did win the British GP, but the triumph was Monza; Moss won from Fangio by 42 seconds and Tony Brooks made fastest lap. Added to the Pescara win the previous month, it was clear to the Italians that the eerily-quiet green cars were to be taken very seriously indeed.
For 1958 the driver line-up was the same, and although Vanwall did not enter the Argentine GP due to delays in modifying the fuel injection system, the impact of the cars was extraordinary. Looking back through the records, one sees that out of nine races entered, a Vanwall was on pole five times, won six, came second once, third twice and ran three fastest race laps. Shades of Mercedes-Benz.
The new constructors’ championship, as well as the driver’s crown, famously came clown to the wire at Casablanca. 1958 had already been a dreadful season in terms of loss of life and poor Stuart Lewis-Evans was the final casualty in a year which had already seen three rated drivers lose their lives. For Tony Vandervell the loss of a driver was not something to which he had ever given much thought. Casablanca changed all that.
Vandervell decided to retire from racing; there is no thought that he felt that the cars were going to be uncompetitive, although he would not have been wrong had he done so, but his distress at Lewis-Evans’ death was profound. He did not show it overmuch, except in private and in fact, contrary to this writer’s belief, may well not have even have visited Lewis-Evans in hospital at East Grinstead, where he lingered for a week before dying.
Tony Vandervell died in March 1967 at a relatively early age. The late Frank Costin, clearly not wanting to be misinterpreted, said of him later: “He never got the recognition or public congratulations for his efforts to get the world championship which was the first one Britain had… When he died they more or less implied that he died of drink but he hadn’t. He died of a bloody great heart attack because he worked so bloody hard, he played so damned hard, he did everything to the limit. I liked him, he was a good man.”
The impact which Vandervell had on the sport, arriving and departing with the championship in the time it took BRM to become even competitive, was huge, but not often remembered. He left behind him a legacy of single-mindedness, a degree of ruthlessness, a total inability to suffer fools, and a much lighter chequebook. He had proved that a total-quality approach worked, but the price which he paid was not one which many could afford. That his model was Enzo Ferrari is, I think, self-evident. That he was able to beat him, and beat him fair and square, in such a short space of time is, coupled with Costin’s remarks, obituary enough.