The Connaught Story
1954 saw the introduction of a new Formula One and though it was in essence only the then Formula Two with a mere 500cc increase in permissible engine size, it generated a host of completely fresh designs. For two years the World Championship had been run to Formula Two and though competition was fierce, and there was no lack of variety, in the back of everyone’s mind was the fact that it was a temporary expediency. The new Formula One was going to be the real thing.
Connaught’s Lea Francis-based F2 engine could not be stretched to 2.5 litres and had anyway reached the limit of its development. Well before the start of the new formula, work began on preparing for it.
Connaught’s staff included Bill Warham who joined the firm with a background in the aircraft industry. He became responsible, under Mike Oliver, for exploring two possible avenues. One was a design by Laurie Bond of an air-cooled, rotary-valved, V8 which Bond confidently predicted would develop 320 bhp before development. As it happens, no engine of the 2 1/2 litre formula ever approached that figure, but extravagent power claims were so often bandied about by makers that they came to be believed so 320 bhp looked at least possible.
In 1954 it was believed that Maserati was getting 260/70 bhp, therefore Mecedes-Benz must be getting at least 300 bhp and so on. In fact, no 1954 Maserati engine gave more than 230 bhp and 220 bhp was a more typical figure, while the straight eight Mercedes-Benz engine gave a maximum of 256 bhp and then with a very narrow power band. This was not widely known until some time later.
With Bond’s drawings came a single cylinder experimental engine, based on a JAP engine. Bill Warham spent a long time trying to sort it out but unfortunately it was more prone to deliver oil smoke than power. The problem was with the oil sealing of the rotary valves and though Bill says that the concept could be made to work, the cost of doing so was beyond Connaught’s slender financial resources.
Together with Mike Oliver and Rodney Clarke, Warham laid out a design for a Connaught rotary-valve engine but this got no further than preliminary drawings.
Another Connaught engine proceeded further. This was a four cylinder dohc design with the inlet valves angled at 30degrees and the exhaust valves angled at 45degrees in order to gain maximum valve area. The idea to cast four separate cylinder liners and bolt them onto the crankcase at the bottom, the cylinder head at the top and to enclose them with a copper water jacket. This got as far as a few castings but since there had to be a considerable amount of money spent before anyone would know whether it would work, the scheme was abandoned.
Warham left Connaught in 1954 to join Armstrong Siddeley but was glad to return in 1956. Like so many others who worked for the firm, he remembers his days there as some of the happiest of his working life. “There was a great spirit of fun about the place. We were all happy to work long after official office hours without pay and then, when we packed up for the night, Rodney would have us into his office and produce a bottle of whisky. . .”
Up in Coventry there were two other engine projects under way, the Coventry Climax Godiva and the Speed (Brooke-Weston). Both were V8 designs intended to be proprietary units to serve the burgeoning British motor racing industry. These were dealt with in detail in MOTOR SPORT recently (“If . . .”. April 1986), but, briefly, Coventry Climax believed the power outputs bandied about by the foreign opposition and did not release its engine, learning too late that the Godiva not only gave more power than the best opposition in 1954/5 but did so over a broader band and with reliability. The Speed engine suffered from lack of finance, the prototype ran only once, and was anyway a huge lump with a block nearly three feet long.
In 1953, however, the Godiva looked a strong possibility. Indeed, a memo written by Rodney Clarke in April 1957, a month before Connaught folded, indicates that neither it nor the Speed engine had been entirely ruled out of his plans even at that late stage. Of the Godiva, he wrote: “We have received a mock-up of this engine, being just a complete shell. Superficially, it would appear to be well thought out and made. The date of delivery of any complete engines still seems to be quite obscure.”
To judge from his comments on the Speed engine, it appears that he had considered taking over the project. “It has been decided not to undertake development on this engine as it would appear to be too extensive for our capacity at the moment, and also because this engine is not backed up by any further engines of the same type.”
Nearly ten years before Colin Chapman re-wrote the designer’s handbook by producing the first monocoque F1 car , the Lotus 25, Clarke laid down his own plans for one, the Connaught J5, sometimes known as the Type D.
Work had started on the chassis and a five-speed preselector epicyclic gearbox/final drive unit was not only designed but was made up and parts were made for a further five. Automatic preselection of gears when changing up was employed, and down changing was to be by a dashboard-mounted lever which the driver would push as many times as the number of gears he wished to drop.
The design was the responsibility of one Robert Clerk who, in 1951 had approached Connaught with the idea of a regenerative transmission which would store energy in a large horizontal flywheel. The system was designed to provide regenerative braking through the transmission to the flywheel which would store the energy to assist acceleration when required.
The Connaught Type A could not accommodate the system but Clarke kept in touch with Clerk and, indeed, was instrumental in Clerk receiving a grant from the N.E.D.C. to develop his ideas.
As originally conceived, the J5 would have had a beam front axle, with torsion bar springing, located by radius rods and a Panhard rod and with outboard disc brakes. At the rear, would be a subframe carrying the engine, transmission and de Dion rear suspension with inboard disc brakes. This was to have been attached to the monococque using tapered bolt fittings, to enable the whole unit to be quickly detached, while all the pipes and control linkages would have had quick disconnect couplings, the pipe couplings being self-sealing.
The overall shape of the car was not unlike the 1 1/2 litre BRM which first appeared at the back end of 1961. When the Godiva engine failed to appear on schedule, Connaught switched to Alta engines and struck a deal with Geoffrey Taylor for their exclusive use. This deal meant the end of formula racing for the HWM team, which had used Alta engines in F2.
Like other outfits, Kieft and Cooper among them, HWM had hoped to be able to buy Godiva engines but now it was left with no suitable engine for F1 and so turned to Jaguar-powered sports cars.
The Alta was a tall unit and not suitable for mounting in the J5, which was put on ice until such time that the right engine came along. It was not, however, completely forgotten and its specification was updated from time to time. In early 1955, for example, Connaught began to play around with the idea of a rear-engined car using the Alta engine in what was more or less a reversed Type B chassis.
The Type B Connaught, which was to see the firm through the rest of its F1 history was, therefore, very much a stop-gap design and though it performed superbly on occasion, it was not a true indication of the level of thinking which was going on at the team’s headquarters. Robert Clerk drew, for example, both a hydraulic self-levelling suspension layout and an anti-lock braking system.
A friend of Bill Warham, an aerodynamacist named Eric Hall, provided the team with the information which would allow it to build its own wind tunnel facility, complete with rolling road, with a fan driven by a Ford V8 engine. This was certainly installed in one of the Nissen huts around the headquarters but the noise was horrendous and containing it was beyond Connaught’s financial means. It was to be many years before any other F1 team had an in-house wind tunnel.
Rodney Clarke and his chief draughtsman, “Johnny” Johnson, set about designing the car which was to become the Type B in 1953 but work was held up while Mike Oliver brought the Alta engines up to his own high standards. The existing Type A cars were seen only in Britain that year, mainly in Formula Libre events. Tony Rolt (A3), Bill Whitehouse (AL10) and Don Beauman (AL9) each took two wins in minor events and the year’s tally read six wins, 20 seconds, 16 thirds, 12 fourths, three fifths and four sixth places.
Generally, Cooper-Bristols reached a higher top speed than Type A Connaughts and Clark and Johnson came to the conclusion that their higher ground clearance gave them an aerodynamic advantage and they began to study the airflow beneath their cars and sketched out a shaped underside, a shallow inverted “V”. It was impossible to fit, basically because of the standard shape of a driver’s back side, but it’s intriguing to note that Connaught had latched onto the importance of under-car aerodynamics long before the advent of air dams and spoilers.
Kenneth McAlpine drove AL 10 to sixth place in the final of the Aintree 200 and in the British GP, though way down the field, three Connaughts were the first three F2 cars home, Don Beauman (A6) finished 11th, Leslie Mare (A5) 13th and Leslie Thorne’s Ecurie Ecosse car (A6) 14th, but even Beauman was six laps adrift of Gonzalez’s winning Ferrari.
1954 did, however, see the debut of the only purely Connaught sports car, the ALSR. As the designation implies, these were sports racing cars based on the long wheelbase Type A chassis. The idea was to make some use of surplus Type A parts, these being obsolete in single seater racing terms. The chassis was splayed out at the rear and the de Dion tube located by twin radius arms.
“Johnny” Johnson styled the body after examining photographs of contemporary machinery and there were large scallops behind the front wheels which made it resemble the Aston Martin DB3S. The Lea Francis-based engine, was reduced to 1484cc (75mm x 84mm) and it gave 115 bhp at 6,000 rpm.
Although there was intitially interest from several potential customers, the idea was to use up Type A parts rather than go into serious production. John Coombs took delivery of the first one (UPG 171) and though it was quick, Coombs could see greater potential in Colin Chapman’s new Lotus 8, the Type A chassis was in its fifth year, after all, and chassis development had progressed a lot in the interim.
By mid-season, when the second car (MCA 200) appeared, Combs had installed his Connaught engine in a Lotus 8 chassis which had modified styling with a much more restrained rear win line. The rest of Coombs’ car was sold to Peter Bell who had another Connaught engine fitted and entered it mainly for Les Leston to drive, though both Stirling Moss and Tony Marsh also raced it on occasion.
MCA 200 was rebodied for the 1955 season with a striking aerodynamic body based on that of the Type B streamliner. The season began well with Leston and McAlpine finishing 1-2 in their heat for the British Empire Trophy while, in the final, McAlpine came home second to Scott-Brown’s Lister-Bristol .
Another 1-2 was scored in the 1500cc race at the Goodwood Easter Monday Meeting while the other outstanding success came in the Goodwood Nine Hour race when Leston and Scott-Brown brought Bell’s car home sixth overall and won the 1500cc class in the process.
Bell’s car, which for some reason changed its registration number to VPF 272 in 1955, was later rebodied with a Rochdale fibreglass shell but is today seen in Historic racing with an aluminium body closely resembling the original. It is owned and raced by Gerry Walton who also owns A8.
MCA 200 was entered for Le Mans, driven by McAlpine and Eric Thompson and there it proved to be about the noisiest car entered. It backed up the sound with a fine turn of speed, however, and was timed at 125 mph along the Mulsanne Straight. To put this into perspective, the fastest 1500cc car the following year, a Porsche, achieved 136 mph while the best that the works 1500cc Lotus XI could manage was 128 mph.
After showing well in the early stages, it retired in the sixth hour with valve trouble. It’s a pity that it didn’t see more service on the continent for while it may have been overshadowed in short sprint races on airfield circuits, it appeared to have all the right qualities to perform well in European races typically held on street circuits with indifferent surfaces.
Later in 1955, during the Dundrod Tourist Trophy, it was driven by a promising youngster, Bill Smith, who lost his life in a multiple shunt which comprehensively destroyed the car.
Connaught engines found their way into some other sports cars. John Risely-Pritchard had a front-engined Cooper-Connaught in 1954, with a body copied from the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante. Brian Naylor also had a Lotus-Connaught sports car and scored 18 wins with in in 1955. There was a 2 litre Connaught-engined special, the Clairemont, which appeared a few times in the late Fifties, and the intriguingly titled “Scotch Air Connaught” which one, D.B. Houston raced in 1959, apparently in just a single event at Rufforth. A two litre engine was put into an Aston chassis in 1954 (this was one of the Cooper-based Aston-Butterworth F2 cars built for Bill Aston).
These, however, are side issues. Clarke and Johnson began designing the Type B in July 1953 and the first chassis was completed by September. When it became apparent that the engines needed much more work done on them, the pace slowed and during the winter of 1953/4 it was possible to build a streamlined body.
A simple ladder frame was chosen, with coil spring and double wishbone front suspension and a de Dion rear located by long single radius arms and a compound transverse linkage. A four speed preselector gearbox was located just in front of the final drive and there were Girling, then Dunlop, disc brakes all round. B1 was fitted with Borrani wire wheels but subsequently Dunlop alloy disc wheels were fitted.
Both fuel injection and Weber carburretors were used on diferrent engines throughout the Type B period. Mike Oliver was able to coax an initial 240bhp at 6,400 rpm from the Alta engine, an output on a par with Maserati and Ferrari outputs. The Alta was slightly over-square (93.5mm x 90mm) unit of 2,470cc. Its twin overhead camshafts were chain-driven, the block was cast with crankcase in alloy with four wet cylinder linings. The first engines had one plug per cylinder but later ones had two.
When the car was first unveiled at Goodwood in August 1954, it caused quite a stir for it featured a stunning all-enveloping aluminium body built by Wakefields of Byfleet. Mercedes-Benz had already successfully raced its W196 with an all-enveloping body but it was a case of two design teams pursuing similar ideas in isolation, rather than Connaught copying Mercedes.
Mike Oliver, who raced a streamliner on a few occasions and did a lot of test driving in them, recalls that the initial sensaion was one of an alarming amount of mechancial noise. Like all streamlined cars the cockpit forms a low pressure area which invariably results in fumes being sucked in. This initial problem was cured by lowering the windscreen height to increase the cockpit pressure. Again at first, heat was a problem but this was solved by re-routing the exhaust system.
These were the sort of teething problems which any radical new design might go through but on the whole, the body which had been drawn by Johnson on advice from Eric Hall, worked extremely well and there were never any engine cooling problems for example.
Mike Oliver says the large tail fin was intended to locate the Centre of Pressure at a point aft of the Neutral Steer Axis where the yawing movement caused by a sidewind would yaw the car into wind by an amount which would cancel the downwind drift caused by the side force. The car would then continue in a straight line in a slightly crabwise fashion, or four wheel drift if you like. “Personally I liked the handling of the streamliners.”
The whole of the top section was in one piece which meant that it took two men to remove it. Once they had done so, the problem was to find a space in a crowded pit land or paddock in which to put it down! Further, it was extremely light to liable to be damaged on a windy day.
The Type B’s debut came during the 1955 Easter Monday Goodwood meeting. Tony Rolt took B1 to fourth place in a Formula Libre race but retired with a broken throttle linkage during the F1 event. In the International Trophy, Fairman had B1, and retired again with a broken throttle linkage, while McAlpine had a fuel pipe go on B2.
Leslie Marr bought B3 and won a Formula Libra race at Davidstow, while Rob Walker bought B4 but specified a body with open wheels. In the British Grand Prix at Aintree, all four cars appeared but none finished. Fairman (B1) did not start, McAlpine (B2) retired with low oil pressure, Marr (B3) with a Ioss of brakes and Peter Walker (B4) with another broken throttle linkage. During the rest of the year, the cars made a few appearances in minor British events and did not distinguish themselves, though Leslie Mare won his class at Shelsley Walsh and Peter Walker took B4 to an F. Libre win at Snetterton. Reg Parnell came close to winning the Daily Telegraph Trophy at Aintree in the September, having led Moss’ 250F Maserati until it expired, but close to the end, B2’s engine ran a bearing and Parnell was classified sixth, a lap down.
It looked as though the end was in sight. Connaught was not getting results, the cars were hardly even entering any races. McAlpine decided to marry and retire from driving so he had not the same motivation to continue to pour his own money into the team besides during 1955 he’d only had two races with a Type B and retired on both occasions. Clarke laid off a number of men and virtually closed down the drawing office.
Among those who left was “Johnny” Johnson. Further, his six years which, typical of a Connaught man, he recalls as the happiest of his working life, had drained him. The impossible hours had taken their toll. He went to work for Vickers under the great Barnes Wallis. Though when he started at Connaught Engineering he knew nothing of design, he left with a tribute that Clarke has described him as his equal partner in the design of the Type B.
Then came an invitation from the organisers of the Syracuse Grand Prix to enter two cars. The starting money, £1,000 per car, was more than Connaught felt able to turn down. Casting around for drivers they drew several blanks but someone recalled a young dental student called Tony Brooks had had a couple of good races with John Risely-Pritchard’s F2 car (A3). Brooks accepted the invitation to drive B1, Les Leston to drive B2. Both cars were to run with conventional (open -wheeled) bodywork.
On the flight out to Italy, Brooks swotted for his dentistry finals. He qualified third on the grid and in the race, despite observing a tight rev limit to preserve his engine, thoroughly trounced a works Maserati team consisting of Musso, Schell and Villoresi. Leston encountered magneto trouble and finished eighth and last. On the flight home Brooks continued to swot for his exams.
Mike Oliver recalls that Brooks was reluctant to take any credit and kept thanking the team for providing him with such an excellent car. Back in Britain, the news of the victory caused a sensation. We’d already started to produce excellent drivers, Moss, Hawthorn and Collins among them, suddenly here was another new star and our first F1 win in Europe for over thirty years. There had been so many attempts and so many failures and so much heartbreak, but at last it had happened.
Truth to tell, it had been more by luck than judgement for who could have guessed that a shy young student, making his F1 debut, could have been that good? Connaught had cast around and unwittingly hit upon one the finest talents our sport has known.
The Ferodo Trophy for outstanding achievement went to Connaught. Suddenly the future looked different. Connaught had to continue, it was inconceivable that it would all end when it had just achieved its finest hour. A win by Archie Scott-Brown in B1 in the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting underlined the need to continue and the means to do so was apparent. If cars were entered into more races, they would attract starting money to off-set running costs. Syracuse had opened the door and in 1956 a three car team would be run. ML