It’s ironic that Britain’s most successful manufacturer of hill climb cars, Pilbeam Racing Designs, is based in Lincolnshire on the edge of the Fens where the land is as flat as freshly-trowelled cement. It’s a bit like finding a shipbuilder in the middle of the Sahara. In fact the firm is based at Bourne, home of BRM for whom Mike Pilbeam worked as a designer for some years, so the arrangement is not as bizarre as it first appears. Though Pilbeam is currently best known for his hillclimb cars which won British Championships in 1981-2-3-4, these form only part of his business.
Mike Pilbeam is one of a small number of freelance designers in British motor racing. At the time of my visit, the Otford Group’s Lola T286 Thundersports car was waiting for collection, having had its front suspension re-engineered in order to prevent the excessive wearing of the front tyres. There was also a freshly delivered front headlight nacelle for the rally version of the Ford RS200, for Pilbeam is responsible for some of the body engineering on that project. This work has included a wide range of jobs, among them the correct location and stressing of items such as hinges and wind tunnel testing to control internal air flow and intercooler performance. He is currently working, too, on something for a production car maker but is understandably discreet about that.
The object of this series is not only to tell the story of individual makers but to show the workings of the British racing car industry in its many facets. Pilbeam has more than enough work to keep himself and his four employees fully occupied but it is in a way which is radically different from the large scale production makers such as, say, Reynard. Less than 30 Pilbeam cars have been constructed and the present rate is perhaps only three a year, so the supply of spares, a large consideration with most other makers, forms only a tiny part of the turnover and parts tend to be made as required and not kept in stock.
Among most established racing car producers, spares not only provide a regular source of income, typically about 30% of a company’s turnover, but the need to be in a position to replace wishbones etc enables a firrn to keep its workforce occupied once the “building season” is over. Pilbeam is, if you like, a bespoke tailor rather than an off-the-peg outfitter. While this means that the operation is cosy and personal it also means that the company does not generate enough profit to support a gamble on, for instance, a new F3000 car, though Pilbeam would certainly welcome a commission to design and build one.
In a similar way, Pilbeam has designed an hydraulic/electronic “active suspension” system which is waiting for the right partner. Unlike the sort of manufacturer who identifies a niche in the market and then builds a car to fill it, a maker who actively attempts to guide his destiny. Pilbeam’s role is passive.
Born in 1937, Mike had no particular interest in motor racing until, while at Bristol University studying mathematics, he became hooked by attending the 1958 British GP. On coming down from Bristol he spent five years in the Government Scientific Service and, in the traditional way, built an 1172 Special. “It was on the lines of the Lotus 7, but smaller and lighter, and I did all the work on it, including the engine which was not very good. It was used as both a road and race car and I picked up a few places with it until writing it off at Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch in 1960.”
In order to gain some background in engineering, Mike studied part-time for his Higher National Certificate and also built two more 1172 Specials. “Tony Gould had one, he was a much better driver than me and nearly won the 1961 1172 Championship.” Both cars are still in existence and one has just gone to France where it will be rebuilt. .”I called it the ‘Dingo’ but these days they are known as Pilbeams’.
“I was still very keen on racing but there is a limit to what you can do on your own and so I wrote to Lotus, BRM and Lola asking for a job. Tony Rudd of BRM appointed me as a stress engineer in 1963. I think he liked the fact that I’d built and raced my own cars.”
It was a good time to go to Bourne since BRM was enjoying its one brief period at the very top of the tree. It was not only enjoying success (Graham Hill had just won the World Championship) but was planning for the future. Pilbeam was put in charge of two particularly interesting R&D projects. The first was a fully instrumented car with the variables being fed into a 14-channel “black box” to be recorded on paper tape. “We learned a lot from that, particularly about understeer in corners. We discovered it was caused by the front of the car lifting at speed and changed the suspension accordingly. It crossed our minds to fit wings but weren’t sufficiently daring because we’d all been brainwashed by the idea of minimum drag.
“I think it was the first time a racing car had been so thoroughly investigated. When I told Graham Hill that he had been generating 1.25g cornering force, he said. ‘b******s?’ because he thought that 1g was the maximum possible. This discovery changed our thinking in a number of ways.”
The other main project was designing the BRM 4wd car. “We knew it wouldn’t work with the power of the 1.5-litre engine but with the 3-litre formula coming in we wanted to be ready and it seemed a reasonable avenue to explore. It was the first single-seater project which was wholly my own and we had a 2-litre engine fitted. We soon found out that the car wasn’t sufficiently responsive to the throttle on the limit when changing attitude. We eventually finished up with a 28/72 torque split and later Peter Westbury won the Hill Climb Championship with it.
“When I later joined Lotus, the team was in the middle of 4wd but I did not feel myself in a position to give my opinion to Colin Chapman. Besides, I felt sure he’d figured it all out and had discovered the way to overcome the snags. I was wrong and Lotus, and the other teams who experimented with 4wd, rediscovered exactly the same problems that we’d had several years earlier.”
Another project which Pilbeam oversaw while at BRM was sorting out the gear train breakages which beset the H-16 engine. “They were caused by tremendous torque variations caused by the firing order of the four banks of cylinders. By changing the firing order, the engine smoothed out and became more reliable.” One even stayed together long enough to allow Jim Clark to win the 1966 USA Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
At the end of 1966, Mike moved on to the advanced chassis department at Ford, “for the money” but, after two years, he longed to get back into racing and so took a job at Lotus where, with Geoff Ferris. he worked under Maurice Phillipe on the great Lotus 72.
The freelance in Pilbeam was already coming out and he undertook a number of commissions. There was Owen Greenwood’s controversial fwd Mini-engined racing “motor cycle combination”, revisions to the suspension of an Alexis FF1600 car, an F2 Alexis which was not built, and Tim Goss’ Lotus 7X, with Lotus F3 suspension front and rear, which won the Clubmans Championship.
1971 saw Pilbeam at Surtees working on F1, F2 and F5000 cars, laying down the design for the car with which Mike Hailwood won the 1972 F2 Championship before he returned to BRM to work alongside Tony Southgate. Louis Stanley had taken over and there was a different atmosphere at BRM. The team was still enjoying some success but was already feeling the pinch financially. The following year up to five cars of three different types were run in a Marlboro sponsored “International” team and then parts which most teams would have junked were repaired and components which had been rejected were retrieved out of the bin. To capitalise upon the BRM name, there was some attempt to diversify. A mid-engined Aston-Martin-BRM had been touted, with a transversely mounted 3.Iitre V12 BRM engine bur this never got beyond the stage of quarter scale drawings. A poor Can-Am car was built with a view to garnering some of the American V8 engine building business. It failed to take Can Am by the ears but with modifications, was run quite creditably in the Interserie series. with Pilbeam overseeing the effort. Two Canadian snowmobiles were bought and driven in the fields around the works. Pilbeam was asked to design a BRM snowmobile and the sketch he produced was issued in a brochure but that’s as fares it got.
Atter discussions with Niki Lauda who had emerged as the natural leader of the 1973 “International” team, Pilbeam penned the P210 but then Lauda left for Ferrari. Still, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, a driver for whom Mike has a lot of time brought the car home second on its debut in South Africa, the third round of the 1974 World Championship, and was of the opinion he could win the title with the car. It was however, to be the highlight of a dismal year as the team went downhill fast, not assisted by its unusual attempts to economise in areas in which no serious motor racing people would consider.
The writing was on the wall. there was a lot of big talk but everyone knew nothing would happen and so Pilbeam left to start his own business with a drawing board in his home. Mike had a couple of jobs in the pipeline the redesign of Alister Douglas-Osborn’s hill climbing Brabham BT38 was one, a BDA-engined Hillman Imp Special Saloon for Tony Dickinson was another, but a month into his freelance career. Pilbeam had a lucky break.
“I had a phone call from Tom Wheatcroft who apparently wanted my opinion about Formula Atlantic as a category. Then he asked if I felt a car could be built to beat those which were running. I said I thought it was possible and Tom simply said ‘Okay’.”
From this brief conversation came the Wheatcroft F Atlantic car, designed in Mike’s home and built elsewhere with which Richard Morgan was competitive in 1975. “Then Tom Wheatcroft phoned to say it would be a good idea to convert it and run in the Silverstone F2 race. There were a few problems such as the size of the fuel tank, but we rigged up pontoon tanks and Brian Henton led the race and finished third.”
The following year saw the Wheatcroft-Abarth/Holbay F2 car which Brian Henton attempted to race but which had an appalling reliability record. “I penned three F2 layouts for Hart, BMW and Abarth engines. By the time that the Abarth engine had proved to be a dead loss, Tom had become diverted. Donington was taking off and while his original intention was to take a driver right up to F1, as he’d done with Roger Williamson, his relationships with Morgan and Henton were uneven and it seems he had not found another Williamson.”
Pilbeam, meanwhile, had been approached to build an F5000 car for David Purley. When this was fairly well advanced, the decision was taken to go into F1 instead, The Lec CRP 1 was a simple thoroughly competent F1 “kit car” of the time (see “Looking Back On David Purley”. MOTOR SPORT, September 1985). When Purley had his horrendous crash at Silverstone in 1977 the heaviest impact a human being has ever survived, the strength of Mike’s design saved Purley ‘s life and his insistence that there should be a high arch over the dash panel saved the driver’s legs for there was room enough to accommodate them in the severely shortened chassis.
Other commissions came along, there was development work on the Boxer F2 car, modifications to the Hexagon Penske PC3 F1 car, the engineering of the RAM Brabhams and the F2 ICI Chevrons, modifications to cars to fit them for hill climbing, and so on. In 1979. Mike Earle who had been Purley ‘s team manager commissioned an F2 car, the MP 42, for Patrick Neve to drive. It was the year after the Lotus 79 had demonstrated the power of ground effects and all designers were trying to get to grips with the new concept — and that included Colin Chapman, as the Lotus 80 proved. The car had too long a wheelbase, the team had too little money to develop it and the effort fizzled out in mid-year. Given the volatile nature of motor sport. Pilbeam’s reputation could have been damaged save for the fact that he had drawn the car with which Martyn Griffiths won the 1979 British Hill Climb Championship. Other customers followed and James Thompson took the title in 1981.
The hill climb car part of Pilbeam Racing Designs Limited has since snowballed and Martin Bolsover won the championship for the next three years. At one Shelsley Walsh meeting last year, Pilbeam drivers took the top 12 places. Such dominance, relative to the number of cars built is rare. In 1985, though. Chris Cramer’s Gould took the crown, though Pi/beams finished in most of the other top 10 places. Mike says archly, “I have some plans for 1986 which I hope will make for an interesting year..
In 1981 Pilbeam moved into his own small workshop, appropriately enough a unit previously owned by BRM, and from it, later that year, came his FF2000 car. This was an interesting design since it had a slimness of shape which has now become standard in the category. It also had ground effects side-pods which generated up to 100lb of down-forced without loss through drag, this being at a time when so many people in FF2000 had taken a wrong route with ground effects. A dozen of these cars were built and those run by Swallow Racing in 1982 enjoyed a degree of success in this country, without winning any races. It was a points scorer which, had it been in the right hands, might have won and then gained credibility.
FF2000 in 1982, though, was the year of Ayrton Senna and Van Diemen and the only combination to challenge the Brazilian was Calvin Fish in another Van Diemen. Once a decade there comes a driver like Senna, and it’s hard luck if you try to launch your car in competition with the car which that special driver is using.
An F3 design followed but it was not properly developed and it looked pretty unstable when it did race. I never felt it looked right, it seemed far too narrow to be stable and the aerodynamics did not seem to be sufficiently elegant to present a shape which looked as though it could work. Even if looks deceive, it did not attract the right calibre of driver to prove it. Again, it needed a lot more time and money to sort it out and those two elements were lacking.
In hill climbing, though, various Pilbeam designs went from strength to strength and although few are built every year, the nature of the category means that the cars can stay competitive for some seasons and therefore the number of competitive Pilbeams has gradually increased until now they dominate the ranking even if, as Chris Cramer and his Gould has shown, they are not invincible.
“The problem with a hill climb car is that it has to be right from the start, it’s difficult to test them. You can son out a circuit car In a couple of weeks of intensive testing but if you don’t get a hill climb car just right, it can take a couple of years. The qualities of a good hill climber are the same as for a good circuit car, the chassis has to be stiff, it must turn in well and put its power down. We design the suspension to be softer because of the nature of the hills in contrast to the fairly flat circuits one normally encounters and there is a weight bias towards the rear along with huge rear wings which hang well over the back of the car. Fuel tanks are much smaller, though because cars are now often shared, and therefore double the runs they make, the water radiators are as large as those on circuit cars, but we do without oil coolers. Aerodynamics in terms of downforce have to be taken seriously and I spend a lot of time in wind tunnels with quarter-scale models.
“There are a number of advances I think would be possible, given the money. There’s four-wheel-drive with an electronically-sensed-variable torque split, for example, but the trouble is that when you try to design the ultimate car you take more and more away from the driver -the ultimate would be a pre-programmed driverless car — and so the ends of the designer can conflict with those of the driver who is out to enjoy his sport.”
When you have a constructor so completely in charge of a category, as Pilbeam has been in recent years. then you get stability. There has to be an annual advance, in order to keep customers’ interest, but that can be controlled by proceeding in increments.
To give a parallel, if you are an engine builder and you discover a way of giving an FF1600 engine an additional 10 bhp power, you do not go ahead and do it. No, you find another two bhp and then relax and let the word spread about your engines. Other builders soon latch on to your mods and catch up, at which point you release another two bhp and so on, in increments. It makes commercial sense and, besides, it you threw that 10 bhp at the opposition, someone would find, somewhere, grounds upon which to protest your engines. “Festina lente.” as they say in Hartiepool.
Now the Gould has beaten the Pilbeam designs, it is the moment for Mike to attempt to take not one, but two or three steps forward, and the opposition, having sensed victory, will try to do the same. Battle will be joined in 1986 in a way which we have not seen on the hills for some years. Pilbeam remains confident that he can meet the challenge but one wonders how far he, and his rivals, will have to shift towards the theoretical idea of car in which the driver is merely an operator of switches, and mandatory ballast.
For Pilbeam it is a dilemma. Success on the hills is important to his company yet he has a background of success in so many other spheres of motoring sport. He says. “Hill climbing has become my bread and butter and it’s important to the company but the problem is that once I was associated primarily with F1 and now I’m beginning to get a reputation as a hill climb special builder. To develop I have to come to an arrangement with a team to break into new directions, though without turning my back on hill climbs”. – M L.
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