Straightening the Connaught Record
The article in your November issue “Looking Back with Mike Oliver” made nostalgic reading. May I enlarge on sonic of the matters with which it dealt? If I never get around to it myself, someone else may write a book about it all sometime, and it would be nice to keep the record straight. . . .
The L3 Connaughts, which were the ones Kenneth McAlpine, myself and Mike raced, and which should not be confused with the later batch production of IFS L3/SR cars, were built by my firm Continental Cars Ltd., of which Mike was a director, before Connaught Engineering started. Modifications to the sports Lea Francis engine were to the design of ANL MacLachlan Monaco Engineering at Watford, and he and Mike carried out original test/tuning on Monaco’s dynamometer. We were lucky in that the chassis needed only minor modifications, the only fault being excessive weight. It was exceptional at cornering, and perhaps due to the body shape was surprisingly fast: I had no difficulty in outpacing Veritas and Ferrari on the long straight at Chirnay.
It was not Kenneth’s idea to build racing cars, but to put his growing racing activities on a commercial footing: by 1949 we were managing for him no fewer than three 2.9 Maseratis (ex Straight, Villapaderno, and Howe) as well as the Connaught, and the operation was getting expensive. He suggested I should be in charge of a firm organised to run this operation commercially, but I was not attracted by the idea. I had however always wanted to build a car (any car…) and finally put the proposition to him that if he would finance building a racing car. I would see he got some racing. Our notion was to build racing cars of the second rank for sale to private owners: which
meant that at that time for Formula Two. It is with mixed feelings that I recall our budgeted expenditure for the first year of operation— £14,000. I can’t remember whether we exceeded it or not, but I expect so: certainly in subsequent years I never succeeded in keeping expenditure down to budgets, and if this was in part due to Kenneth’s enthusiasm to enter more races than seemed prudent, not to mention a special Le Mans car one year, it says a lot for his stout-hearted patience that he went along with such a financially hopeless project for as long as he did. Had either of us realised what was to be the true coat of what we were setting about, I believe it would never have got off the ground.
To put matters in proper context, ,t should be realised that our budgets were estimated to be one tenth to one twelfth of those of BRM or Van-wall; but that on the other hand we were financed from Kenneth’s private resources, as opposed to having indusa trial sponsors.
Of the 10 (not 9) A and AL series cars made by Connaught Engineering, 4 were sold to private individuals, namely Downing, Claes, Walker (for Roll) and Marr; the remainder were works run. It will be seen that we were not even very successful in achieving our first object: in spite Of a selling price of only £1,750. (No really, I think it was cheap, even then!).
The disappearance without warning of Formula Two presented us with a dilemma : we were not geared financially or in engineering workshop capacity for the “big-time”, nor indeed for sports cars or 500 c.c., of which in any case there were already many successful makes. It was Formula One or bust . . . or both, I suppose you could say. For a whole year, in which we ought to have been working on the Fl prototype, I could (understandably) get no lead from Kenneth, and the following year I swallowed hard and initiated work on six prototypes at once—the only way to catch up. This was unfair to Kenneth, putting him in the position of having to say “Stop” when I told him a short time after we had started. In retrospect I’m not sure I approve of the tactic, but it is surprising how genuine enthusiasm can cause a conscience to square itself.
The B series was not designed specially for the Godiva V8: it was designed, on a far simpler basis than the A -series, to take any engine which might come along, always realising that probably, the only thing available would be the Alta, as turned out to be the case. It was the J series rear engine car designed in 1954 which assumed the arrival of the V8 Alta or Climax.
Either Mike’s memory is worse than I’d supposed, or—more likely if I may say so— your contributor transposed his comments on the Alta engine’s output. When we took it over from Geoffrey Taylor, the best output did not exceed 180 (not 250) and the rev limit was 6,500 (not 7,000). The bracketed figures are the average, not the hest, which the engine produced after we developed it to a point where few original Alta parts survived. In justice to Kenneth it was not his waning interest which was respotisble for us packing up in 1957. The initiative was mine, and arose from the fact, growing steadily more obvious over the period following our success at Syracuse in 1955, that we were nor going
to find a commercial backer, that we were still running a car virtually the same as at Syracuse in 1955, and that funds were simply not available in the quantity required to develop, let alone race, the two prototypes (including the rear-engined D series) which we had on the stocks. When we beat the BRM and Vanwall in a short race at that spring meeting at Goodwood, it seemed a good time to bow out.
It just about broke my heart. I have no reason to suppose that Kenneth would not have soldiered on, but there seemed no point in continuing with an increasingly outclassed product. It may not be generally known that we had in fact decided during 1955 to shut down, and were only encouraged to continue by the success at Syracuse at the end of that year; which we believed might encourage the financial backing which the project so badly needed. Guildford, Surrey R. E. CLARKE