Full-frontal assault

Lancia-Ferrari D50 and Vanwall VW7: two icons from the end of F1's front-engined era. Simon Taylor gets a thrill and charts their history

Side by side in the pitlane at Donington Park these virtual contemporaries look so different. One is tall, flowing, almost bloated. And proudly green. The other is low, tight, delicate. And unashamedly red.

Shorn of their sponsors' shrieking schemes, every current Formula One car would look more or less the same. In contrast the 1950s basked in a cornucopia of technical variety. Having begun with a mix of supercharged straight-eights and V16s against normally-aspirated sixes and V12s, Formula 1 moved into the new 2.5-litre formula with fours, sixes, straight-eights and V8s, and a variety of inventive chassis, transmission, steering and braking solutions.

The Italians dominated grand prix racing after WWII: Maserati, Alfa Romeo, then Ferrari reigned supreme. But gruff, tough British industrialist Tony Vandervell, having walked out of the muddled BRM consortium in disgust and fielded his own green-painted 4.5-litre Ferraris in British Formule Libre, was determined to beat "those bloody red cars". He commissioned Cooper to build a conventional F2 chassis around Ferrari suspension, and made a four-cylinder which took as its starting point the 500cc Norton racing motorcycle single, multiplied by four and adapted to water cooling.

The first Vanwall Special never ran as an F2 car — by the time it was ready the new F1 was under way. During 1954 its 2-litre engine was gradually increased to 2.5. But, while there was some success in minor British races for Harry Schell, its GP results did not slake Vandervell's thirst for glory. Mike Hawthorn left the team after three retirements in three races, fed up with the unreliability, and clearly the chassis was heavy and dated.

A meeting between Vandervell and Colin Chapman changed all that. The young Lotus chief had yet to build his first single-seater, but his understanding of how to get maximum speed from minimum weight had made his small sportsracers unbeatable. He agreed to design a new chassis for the Vanwall, and suggested Lotus aerodynamicist Frank Costin should shape its body.

The result was a completely fresh-looking F1 car which made its debut at the 1956 Silverstone International Trophy. The works Maseratis didn't enter, so Stirling Moss was free to drive one of the new green cars. He put it on pole, ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio and Peter Collins in the Ferraris, and outran them all to score a great victory. In that year's GPs there were exciting moments when Schell got up with the leaders at Reims and Monza, but poor reliability meant his lapped fourth at Spa was the only Vanwall result of note.

Nevertheless the cars continued to be developed and refined, and the powerful pairing of Moss and Tony Brooks was signed for 1957, joined mid-season by the promising Stuart Lewis-Evans. At Aintree came that historic first GP win with Moss and Brooks, but even more impressive was Stirling's astonishing victory on the gruelling Pescara road circuit, beating World Champion Fangio by more than three minutes. He won again at Monza three weeks later to clinch second in the championship.

For Vanwall's annus mirabilis — 1958, the first year of the constructors' championship — there were two significant rule changes: maximum race distance came down from 312 miles to 200; and alcohol fuel was banned in favour of 130-octane Avgas. The Vanwalls contested nine championship rounds and won six: three for Moss (Holland, Portugal and Morocco) and three for Brooks (Belgium, Germany and Italy). Moss missed the drivers' crown by one point. But the constructors' title was clearly Vanwall's, eight points clear of Ferrari. The Vanwall had unarguably proved itself to be Britain's first truly successful F1 car.

But there was little joy as the victorious team returned from the final round in Morocco. Lewis-Evans was dreadfully burned when his engine seized at high speed and spun him off the Ain-Diab track. He died a few days later. The tragedy cut deep into Vandervell's soul, and his own health had suffered from the pressures of running the team as well as his businesses. It was the end of Vanwall as a major force, and a few months later Vandervell announced he would no longer contest the championship.

Brooks made a single appearance at Aintree in 1959 in an updated car, and also drove a radically lower, lighter version at Reims in '60, but by then the rear-engined revolution had rendered it obsolete. A rear-engined Vanwall ran in the '61 International Trophy with John Surtees, but never reappeared. Tony Vandervell died in 1967, and his business empire was sold to GKN.

Frank Costin's elegant shape for the Vanwall, unlike most of its contemporaries, needed very little modification over three hard seasons. However, when the cars first went to Monaco in 1956, their long noses were easily damaged around the tight street circuit, and Maurice Trintignant complained of poor sideways visibility. So for later Monaco races the nose was drastically shortened, revealing the big radiator, and the wrap-around aeroscreen was cut down. In his mindblowing Donington Collection Tom Wheatcroft has almost every variant of Thinwall Special and Vanwall, including the unraced streamliner. The car that Hall & Hall wheeled out for me to try was VW7, now in Monte Carlo form and gleaming from a fresh rebuild.

Close examination reveals its toolmaker's build quality. Chapman's multi-tube spaceframe carries coil and wishbone front suspension, with a de Dion tube at the back: originally rear springing was by a transverse leaf, but for 1957 this was replaced by coil-damper units. Beneath beautiful engine-turned cam covers, the husky (and tall) four-cylinder engine betrays its origins with exposed hairpin valve springs — so there is always plenty of oil around — and Amal carburettor bodies, although these merely feed air to the Bosch fuel injection. The five-speed gearbox sits underneath the driver and immediately ahead of the differential, and there are three big fuel tanks, one in the tail and one on each side of the driver's legs. Brakes are Girling ventilated discs, inboard at the rear. In period, 17-inch wheels were sometimes used on high-speed circuits, but WV7 wears the usual 16s with 5.50 front and 6.50 rear Dunlops.

Costin's aerodynamic thinking is everywhere, even though WV7 now lacks that dramatic long nose. The fuel injection is fed by a flush bonnet duct, the front of the mirror housings double as cockpit ventilation scoops, and more flush ducts ahead of the rear wheels feed air to the inboard brakes. The four-into-one exhaust system is sunk neatly into the left body side. And, despite the car's bulky appearance, it was 100lb lighter than the Lancia-Ferraris it raced against in 1956.

Best way aboard over the high cockpit sides is to stand on the rear wheel: that's what Moss and Brooks used to do. The bucket seat is bolted to the chassis tubes and there is no floor as such, only a panel under the pedals, so the diff and rear brakes are in full view behind the seat. The chassis frame is much narrower than the bodywork, the side tanks and Costin's aerodynamics flaring out the flanks, with the rear suspension locating arms each side of the seat.

Once aboard there is plenty of room, with clutch and footrest over to the left of the bell-housing, brake and throttle over to the right. The left-hand gear-lever has a curiously shaped flat knob and a manual lockout for bottom gear, which is only used for racing starts — once in second the lock pops back to prevent a hurried change down from fourth finding first. In the crackle-black dash behind the big three-spoke wood-rimmed wheel are a rev-counter on the left, a very large water temperature gauge on the right, and conventional gauges for oil pressure and temperature.

Pit-lane push start in second gear, stop, select bottom and motor onto the circuit. I'm perched high and upright on top of that gearbox/diff unit, with lots of elbow room. Into second, out of Redgate, up into third and build the revs down the hill through Holly Wood and the Craner Curves. Overriding everything is the stridently loud, earthy bark of the big four, because the exhaust pipe ends a few inches from my left ear.

There is lots of grunt too: on alcohol the Vanwalls had nearly 300bhp, and up to 280 on Avgas. This feels like a he-man's car: the steering needs hefty inputs and, at my speeds, understeers strongly. It's telling me it demands precision and a degree of respect, and I remember Stirling saying that Vanwalls only handled right if you kept to very precise limits: they would not leave you any margin for error, as a 250F Maserati would. The gear-change, of which Moss was always so critical, is occasionally baulky, but that doesn't worry me as much as the fact that, on this justrebuilt, still-unsorted car, the rev-counter is misreading, making it hard to build a pattern of gear-change points around the circuit.

Gradually I build up speed and start to enjoy the car's strong, torquey power and its superb brakes. Up into Coppice, barking along Starkey's into fourth and fifth, then braking hard and down the box for the Esses, I relax a little and the Vanwall starts to live. But through the fast downhill sweeps of Craner Curves and up through the lefthander towards McLean's, I'm miles away from finding its potential. This is not an easy car, and it's hard work. I try to imagine Moss averaging 95mph for three hours around the mountainous 16-mile Pescara circuit in the heat of an Italian summer. But I can't.

In 1956, when the Costin-bodied, Chapman-chassised Vanwall was taking its first steps in GP racing, the car to beat was the Lancia-Ferrari. In the hands of Fangio, Collins and Luigi Musso it won every championship round except two, and gave Fangio his fourth world tide. This car was effectively the two-year-old D50 that Enzo Ferrari had taken over lock, stock and barrel from the collapsed Lancia firm.

The D50 is one of the most fascinating F1 cars of its era and also one of the great post-war motor racing might-have-beens. If only the car had been developed on schedule, if only Lancia's money hadn't run out, if only Alberto Ascari had not met his death in a pointless test in May 1955... then the Mercedes W196s could have had some real opposition.

Lancia had a glittering motorsports heritage. Vincenzo Lancia was a great Edwardian racer for FIAT, and his own cars enjoyed race and rally success in private hands during the 1920s and '30s. His son Gianni set his heart on an ambitious competition programme, first with Aurelia GTs and then in 1953 with a series of V6 sports-racers. As chief designer he had the great Vittorio Jano, father of the wondrous Alfa Romeos of the '20s and '30s. In the summer of '53 Gianni set Jano to build a modern GP car. To show he meant business, he persuaded reigning World Champion Ascari to leave Ferrari, and bring Luigi Villoresi with him.

But the programme ran late. In early testing, so the rumours said, the new car was slow and handled badly. The 1954 season was wasted, the Italian Grand Prix came and went, and it wasn't until the final round, the Spanish GP, that the huge Lancia transporter rolled into the Pedralbes paddock and disgorged three compact, low cars with V8 engines and strange side-tank pontoons between the wheels. Since Reims the Mercedes steamroller had been unstoppable, with Fangio winning every race apart from one hiccup at Silverstone. But the speed of the Lancias caused a sensation. Ascari beat Fangio to pole, and in the race he drew away from the pursuit at a constant 2sec per lap until a clutch problem halted his progress. Villoresi had already retired, so Lancia came away from the D50's debut with nothing, except the knowledge that it had made its mark as the team most likely to take the fight to Mercedes.

At the first 1955 round, in Buenos Aires, the Lancias were plagued with handling problems: their short wheelbase, with all the weight within it, was earning them a reputation for impressive levels of grip but very sudden breakaway when the limit was reached. Back in Europe they took in three non-championship GPs, winning in Turin and Naples, before taking four cars to Monaco. There Ascari outqualified all but Fangio, and chased Fangio and Moss until both Mercedes hit trouble and he inherited the lead. On the very same lap the Lancia got away from him on oil dropped at the Chicane. The D50 charged through the low barrier along the sea wall and plunged into the water, disappearing from view in a cloud of steam and sinking to the bottom of the harbour. Then Ascari's blue crash helmet bobbed to the surface and he struck out strongly for dry land, having suffered only a broken nose and bruising. Eugenio Castellotti's D50, after a stop to change a kerbed wheel, finished second, with team-mates Villoresi and Louis Chiron fifth and sixth.

The following Thursday Ascari dropped in at Monza to find his friend Castellotti trying out a new Ferrari 750 sportscar. Offered a run, Alberto donned a borrowed helmet — and inexplicably went off the road at Vialone and was killed.

Ascari's death dealt a mortal blow to the Lancia team, which he had led with such authority and distinction. Only now did it emerge that Lancia was in a state of financial collapse, for Gianni's ambition had more or less bankrupted the firm, and pressure was mounting both from creditors and unions.

Castellotti was allowed a singleton entry at Spa. He continued the D50's impressive form by taking pole ahead of Fangio and Moss, and chased them hard until his gearbox failed. But now it was announced that all Lancia's racing activities would cease, and the entire firm would be sold to Italian cement tycoon Carlo Pesenti. It looked as though the D50 programme would be allowed to die, but then — for the glory of Italy — the Agnelli family came up with some backing to allow the whole operation to be taken over by Ferrari.

So far in the 2.5-litre formula, Ferrari had only fielded bigger-engined versions of his outdated F2 car, and the ill-handling side-tank Supersqualos, Tipos 553 and 555. This was an extraordinary deal for him, for he got the D50s, the spares, the plans and the tools — and he got Jano. Now wearing Ferrari badges, the D50s practised but did not race at the Italian GP, but a pair were sent to Oulton Park for the Gold Cup in September: Hawthorn started from pole and finished second to Moss's works Maserati.

In 1956 the Lancia-Ferraris dominated GP racing, and only Moss and the 250F Maserati prevented them from winning every championship round. Suspension modifications made the cars more predictable, and the side tanks were merged into the bodywork, with the bulk of the fuel now in the tail. While this distribution gave the cars a lower limit of adhesion, the limit arrived with more warning and consequently the cars were easier to drive. For '57 the cars had become Ferrari 801s and the side tanks had disappeared, though many Lancia features still remained: but all the championship rounds were won by Fangio's 250F or the Vanwalls. By '58 Jano's little F2 V6 engine had been enlarged to 2.5 litres, and the new 246 consigned the Lancia-Ferrari to the history books.

Most of the D50s were broken up, leaving only two non-running cars belonging to the factory in Italy, and those of us who never saw them race were resigned to being unable to experience the sight and sound of this charismatic car. But we reckoned without the spirit of passionate Lancia enthusiast Anthony MacLean, who assembled enough original engines, transaxles and other parts to commission a batch of faithful recreations in a 10-year labour of love. The cars were built up by Guido Rosani in Italy and Jim Stokes in England, using drawings and information from the Fiat/Lancia museum which allowed Rosani to dismantle one of the survivors to extract precise measurements and data. One is the car seen at Goodwood and elsewhere in the hands of Jochen Mass, and another was earmarked for the Donington Collection. It was this car that, thanks to Tom Wheatcroft's generosity, I was lucky enough to drive.

Beside the Vanwall, the Lancia seems to belong to a later generation, its compact build resulting from its ingenious layout. The neatly packaged 90-degree four-cam V8, breathing through four Solex twinchoke carburettors, is angled in the car so the propshaft can pass beside the driver, giving a very low seating position. The engine is partially used as a structural member — saving chassis weight — and clutch, transverse gearbox and final drive are in one unit behind the driver. Suspension is by transverse leaf, with wishbones at the front, de Dion tube at the rear. The transmission layout dictates outboard brakes, and these are wide, heavily finned drums inside 16-inch Borranis with 5.50 front and 6.50 rear Engleberts. There is an oil tank in the tail, but the distinctive outrigger tanks carry the fuel to minimise the effect of handling changes between full and empty tanks, and clean up air turbulence. Thus both wheelbase and overall length are kept to a minimum, with the majority of the weight within the wheelbase.

The car's workmanship is simply enthralling, with every tube, bracket and rivet perfectly finished. There is no separate dashboard: the high cockpit sides turn over and, behind the big wooden-rim wheel, carry three original dials: 10,000rpm revcounter, oil pressure gauge and a charming combined oil and water temperature gauge, with two needles: a red one marked for O Olio and white one marked A for Acqua. The switch for the twin magnetos is on the left, the gear lever on the right, with no gate and a simple lockout lever to guard reverse and first. The upright bucket seat is roomy and comfortable, with the usual widely spaced clutch on the left and brake and throttle on the right.

Once more onto the circuit, and this car feels magical. The twin straight exhaust pipes back to the tail emit a glorious growl and the gearbox is perfect: provided the revs are right, I can't move my hand fast enough. The brakes feel strong and progressive and the steering, perhaps slightly lower geared than the Vanwall, is light and precise.

Whereas the Vanwall was quite physical, the Lancia is ethereal: I want to stay in it all day. Before long I feel a satisfying F1ow start to come through the back section of the circuit. From full bore in fifth along Starkey's Straight, down the box under hard braking for the Esses and back up through the gearbox past the pits, with that wonderful engine note rising and falling with each rapid gearchange, the D50 is pure joy.

Perhaps this is deceptive. At my speeds the car's characteristic seems neutral, tending towards understeer, but I've heard all about its supposedly sudden limit and I'm not keen to find it. Even Ascari spun a D50 at Buenos Aires...

Back in the pits, with Vanwall and Lancia sitting side by side once more, their differences seem more stark than ever. Half a century ago they were united by a common goal: to win GPs. Both succeeded, but ironically both brought their original creators sadness. Gianni Lancia, having lost his business, had to watch the car Jano had designed for him winning races wearing a Ferrari badge. And for Tony Vandervell, the longed-for joy of winning races and a championship was tempered by the bitter taste of the loss of one of his loved drivers and the breakdown of his own health. Motor racing has always been a cruel sport.