Beauty and the Best

Dan Gurney's Eagle-Weslake was not just the prettiest F1 car of its era, had it not been for the Lotus 49, it would have been the quickest too. Andrew Frankel and Matthew Franey drive two of the greats

1967 Belgian GP, Dan Gurney

Dan Gurney in the Eagle-Weslake at the 1967 Belgian GP

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

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It’s called an Eagle-Weslake T1G, completed just one full season of competition and is perhaps the most beautiful Grand Prix car ever built. From the curl of its exhausts to the aquiline jut of its nose, this car is as close to perfect in proportion and line as I have known a Formula One car to be. And when its 3-litre, quad-cam, 48-valve motor fires up, you discover it sounds even better than it looks. Built by Dan Gurney’s Anglo-American Racers, the V12 Eagle completed just one full year yet proved instantly competitive, qualifying on average in third place on the grid and, on one wonderful weekend, winning the most difficult race of all, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Now imagine a brand new F1 team doing as much today.

Just four Eagles were built, three powered by Harry Weslake’s unique engine. This is chassis number AAR103, not the car which won at Spa, but that which took Gurney to third place at Mosport Park, earning AAR the final podium and points of its too-short foray into F1.

Its nemesis is parked opposite and is called the Lotus 49. Shorter, lower and wider than the Eagle, its appearance is at once more squat and purposeful. It does not deceive. With its brand new Ford Cosworth DFV mounted rigidly behind the driver it appeared at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix, pipped the Eagle to pole position and never looked back. “It is,” remarked a rueful Gurney at the time, “every bit as quick as we feared it would be.”

We brought them together because we could; no other excuse was needed. The only Eagle currently in use and perhaps the most famous 49 of all, that which took Graham Hill to victory in Monte Carlo in 1968 and ’69, back on the race track to celebrate the summit of 1960s F1 machinery: the most beautiful racing car of its era against, indisputably, the best.

The Eagle-Weslake

It is astonishing even that the Eagles were built, let alone proved competitive. An example of just how little money was available is that, in the seasons from 1966-’68 that the Eagles raced, Weslake received just £74,000 from Gurney. That’s £74,000 to design, build, patent, test, race and rebuild the engines for a two car F1 team. Then there was Goodyear, major backers of Gurney’s stateside activities, but not then interested in spending vast amounts in F1.

The car was done by Len Terry adapting the Indycar chassis and reskinning the body in thinner aluminium. The engine originated from a design by Aubrey Woods and Harry Weslake, that was rejected by BRM for the new 3-litre formula of 1966. It was highly thought of at Weslake’s however, and in its narrow angle cylinder head was genuinely ground-breaking. So a two cylinder version was produced and tested to such effect that Gurney needed little persuading to ask Weslake to build the proper thing for the Eagle. Yet despite its promise, this was an old school engine, each a bespoke unit with hardly any common parts. And while an engineering masterpiece, it was never going achieve the machining consistency and, ultimately, the reliability of the Cosworth DFV, an engine paid for with Ford dollars and one designed, above all, for series production.

The V12 didn’t even run until August 18, 1966, requiring Gurney to compete through the bulk of a season with a 4-cylinder Climax motor. Yet from the outset, the V12 delivered. Out of the box it developed 364bhp and, by the time Gurney romped away at Spa the following year, it was with 413bhp at his shoulder, more even than Ford would claim for B4 a DFV. Gurney noted with approval that he was able to out-accelerate even Honda’s RA300, thought by some to be the most powerful engine on the grid. Even Keith Duckworth admitted the Eagle’s V12 was the most likely to threaten his DFV.

The Eagle was also the most comfortable car in the paddock. Designed for the 6ft 1 in Gurney, you can slide down into the car and, so long as your hips find their way past the waistline narrowing of the tub, there is nothing between you and comfort. Ahead lie all the usual instruments and a rev-counter which used to register 10,500rpm before each gearchange. Bearing in mind, however, that only seven of these engines were built, that few of its components will fit any of the others and that those inside this car are almost as old as me, I’ll be keeping to four figures. Every square inch that matters of this car is original; break something and, as you do, so you destroy history.

Ben Liebert, the car’s owner, has warmed it up for me and now it takes just an external starter to be plugged in and a stab of the throttle to bring the V12 to life. The sound is as rich and melodic as that of the DFV is hollow and brutish. Only Matra and Ferrari have produced better sounding V12s. Blip the throttle and the revs race around the clock with even greater freedom than its Cosworth rival yet, when I pull away, I’m advised to do so in second gear. This sounds ridiculous yet you need not even slip the clutch; the Weslake engine just dips below 2000rpm and pulls back up again as if that’s what it was born to do.

1967 Belgian GP, Dan Gurney

Gurney in the pits sat in the Eagle-Weslake

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Out on the track you notice first how well the Eagle rides compared to Grand Prix machinery of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s soft and tolerant of the many bumps on the straight of Lotus’ recently revised and brilliant Hethel circuit. The gears come and go swiftly though lacking the precision of the best Hewland ‘boxes. You need to aim the lever across the gate, particularly when coming down and a quick kick of the throttle between ratios helps enormously.

Soon, however, you can go to work. And when you do you will discover that rarest of things: a F1 car that is not only easy to drive slowly, but one which reassures and indulges right up to the limit. Believe me when I tell you the Eagle has not one bad bone in its beautiful body. The engine, for instance, is viceless, pulling cleaning from revs at which a DFV simply will not work. There’s no bang in the back at 7000rpm, just an ever-intensifying crescendo of noise, music and acceleration from 4000rpm onwards. Mathematics will tell you no mad car ever built will keep up with the Eagle but so easy and undramatic is your progress that the power is easily containable. There is only the scream of the Weslake and the bizarre speed with which the rev-counter will show 9000rpm in top gear to remind you this is a 3-litre Formula One car, and the most powerful of its era.

Brake and you don’t need to feel the nose dip — you can watch it. It’s a struggle to inject heat into the Dunlops but these are at least soft new tyres, not the concrete old Goodyears on which it was meant to run and it slows reasonably swiftly and reliably. Aim into a corner and while the nose reacts at once, it’s tricky on this cold day to prevent it peeling wide of the apex. No matter, simply ask the Weslake for a hand and it responds, sliding into neutrality and, if you like, the powerslides that await beyond. It’s tolerance extends as far as its steering lock. That any racing car should so respond is cause to be thankful and for celebration, that one should prove so reassuring that such progress becomes second nature after just a few laps of a near freezing and unfamiliar track almost beggars belief. I’ll say it again, this is a Formula One car. Andrew Frankel

 

Lotus 49

Firstly, the good news. For the past year I have been wedging my six foot fiame into cars built for five foot nothing midgets. I’m not complaining, but if ever you want to worry less about comfort and more about driving, it is when belted into an unfamiliar Grand Prix car. Today, miracle of miracles, I fit. Not perfectly. My head still pokes a couple of inches above the roll hoop, and my feet are cantered back at an angle that would make 80 laps of Monaco a little wearing, but the tub is positively gaping compared to other GP cars. God bless Graham Hill and all tall F1 drivers.

Now the less good news. It’s cold, threatening to rain and it’s November. This should not matter terribly, but I’ve had a look around the track and it’s the damp patches that have got me thinking. And the lake-sized puddle at the top end of the circuit. The end where the chaps from Classic Team Lotus have asked me to watch out as they don’t want their car inadvertently leaving for Norwich.

l am about to take to the circuit in, and I’m sorry to use this word here but it fits, a legend. This is CTL’s Lotus 49B, not just a double winner of Monaco Grands Prix but one also driven by Jochen Rindt, John Miles, Alex Soler-Roig and Fl rookie, Emerson Fittipaldi. A car that, and I’m sorry here too, but it’s true, changed the face of Formula One.

The Lotus 49 won its first race at Zandvoort in 1967 and would take 12 championship Grands Prix, a driver’s title for Hill and the constructor’s to boot. It was light, novel in structure and aerodynamics the Cosworth engine, a stressed member bolted to the monocoque, was used to mount the rear suspension and even forged into the brave new world of commercialism, running its brash Gold Leaf livery when other cars were just shades of green, red or blue.

It was also the last works 49 to race in the championship, a stop gap measure while the recalcitrant Lotus 72 was being developed. It’s more precious than I need reminding of and the track is still damp.

It’s so cold and windy at Hethel it takes the DFV five minutes to generate any heat whatsoever, the engine crackling fiercely behind my head as I watch the temperature gauges. There’s time to study the cockpit, to realise the steering wheel is off-centre, set to the left to give your right hand room to reach the gearshift. No more than a small knob protruding to the side of your leg, it functions with a dog-leg first, its linkage attached to a five-speed Hewland transmission. Above the steering wheel, a double-skinned translucent yellow aeroscreen hints at the need to prevent buffeting at high speeds, to the sides tiny mirrors vibrate wildly as the engine ticks over, offering no practical view of what’s behind.

Time to go. Snag first with help of a rolling start from the crew and, trying to avoid slipping the clutch, ease away. At low revs, the DFV is sluggish a highly tuned motor unhappy outside its powerband. Apply more power and the world begins to change before your eyes. At about 5000rpm the Lotus begins to lunge forward you can feel the acceleration in your neck muscles. At 7000rpm things become slightly surreal. The chicane at the end of the straight arrives almost in stages, your eyes unable to move between horizon and rev counter quickly enough. Above 9000rpm vision almost ceases to matter, your ears serve as an audible rev limiter as you approach the 10,600 red-line; your foot moves for the brake pedal almost before your eyes can tell the brain that the braking area has arrived.

With laps you can adjust to the acceleration, gain confidence under braking. What you can’t get around however is understeer on this cold day. Turn in to any corner and the Dunlop tyres simply push wide as you wait for the power to return. It’s not too frustrating, however, for the low temperatures also allow lurid oversteer as, with the lock still wound on, the power comes in with a bang and the rear end snaps out of line. Here the 49 is at its best, the steering fast and true, enabling you to hold the moment fix posterity.

For a brief second I feel as WI have tamed the car, come to terms with a machine that possesses almost 1000bhp per ton. Anxieties go out the window as I head out for a second session behind the wheel. This is a serious race car with serious history but I just can’t wipe the smile of my face and, ultimately, I guess that’s what it’s all about. Matthew Franey

Conclusions

It is hard to swallow the fact that these two cars are contemporaries and perhaps that’s close to what the entire Grand Prix paddock must have felt when first introduced to the Lotus 49. Even taking into account the car used for this feature is in later 49B specification, it remains a credit to those who shared grid space with it in 1967 that they were able to keep up at all.

And perhaps the greatest plaudits of all should go to Gurney’s Anglo-American Racers and this Eagle. Think about the competition: Gurney not only took on Lotus, he also fought Brabham, BRM, Honda and Ferrari. And on one occasion, with a shoe-string operation, he beat them all.

Even today, you can tell exactly why the Lotus was so fast over thirty years ago. The Eagle may have been able to trade horsepower figures with the 49 but when you throw the weight and structural rigidity of the Lotus into the equation it’s easy to see why, despite all efforts, the bigger, heavier Eagle was never going to match the agility of the Lotus.

Today this hardly matters for both cars are simple, and unending joys; the Lotus remains considerably faster and yet more responsive, the Eagle more indulging of its driver and, in the end, perhaps just as rewarding. History and the score-sheets will rightly recall the 49 as the better car but then again, so it should be. By the time the Eagle scored its one and only world championship win, Lotus already had 25 under its belt, plus two drivers and constructors championships; and they came to the party with one of the largest car companies in the world on its arm. Gurney, by comparison had a backer with no interest in F1, an engine rejected by BRM, a converted Indycar for a chassis and next to no money.

What he did have however, was the talent of Harry Weslake, Aubrey Woods and Len Terry upon whom to rest his faith plus of course, a talent of his own that scared even Jim Clark. You don’t deliver maiden Grand Prix wins to three different manufacturers just by being lucky. At the time, I guess the fact that they had also created, to these eyes at least, the most beautiful car of its era was neither here or there.

On balance, given the respective resources, Gurney’s Eagle is surely as great an accomplishment as the 49. It is sad that money constraints never allowed the car to be further developed or Eagle to turn into anon-going manufacturer of F1 cars but, to me, this is not the way to look at it The light of the Eagle may only have gleamed for an instant but, in that flash, it not only enriched the world into which it was born but continues to do so to this day.

Our sincere thanks to Ben Liebert, Clive Chapman, Paul Vincent, MacDonald Race Engineering and the staff of Classic Team Lotus and Group Lotus who, together, made this feature possible.