‘It was like trying to rein in a runaway horse’

A chance to test drive the Cosworth 4WD at Silverstone proved challenging – and sticks in the memory almost 40 years on
by Eoin Young

Forty years on, the memory grows no fonder. Mike Costin, now aged 80, grimaces as he remembers the Cosworth four-wheel-drive car built to capitalise on the engineering expertise of himself and Keith Duckworth, who had created the DFV, and Robin Herd, who had designed winning cars for McLaren. It seemed a combination destined to succeed. It failed. As did other four-wheel-drive cars built by Matra, McLaren and Lotus. It turned out to be complication for complication’s sake.

Costin was on holiday in New Zealand this year and we lunched at the Brewers Arms in Christchurch. The least successful Cosworth racing project was recalled, mainly because Mike and I had both driven the car, Mike during first tests and me after Tom Wheatcroft had bought the project for his museum as an instant piece of unfortunate history.

“I suppose we built the car to see the result… and the result was terrible!” The car looked terrible too, all squared tanks and sharp angles.

The Cosworth 4WD never appeared at a race. Costin remembers that they sold the unloved experiment less its engine to Wheatcroft for £4000, but he doesn’t remember that part of the sale was a second chassis minus engine and transmission which was eventually sold to Peter Briggs for his splendid museum at York in Western Australia.

That summer afternoon in 1971, Wheatcroft had brought the Cosworth to Silverstone to be tried on the Club circuit by hillclimber Roy Lane and Dick Scammell, late of Lotus. And yours truly. I’ve never figured out why I was the only motoring writer ever to drive the car.

The new Cosworth looked way-out: its Star Wars styling used parallel monocoque pontoons between the road wheels, connected through a stressed floor pan and box-like structures formed out of magnesium castings front and rear. Both of these features appeared on Herd’s March 701 design the following year, when he had aerofoil tanks out between the wheels and cast magnesium bulkheads in the normal single-seater monocoque.

The Cosworth-Ford DFV V8 engine formed the major structural component, stiffening up the rear bay of the car, and turned back to front. Drive was taken to a Duckworth-designed gearbox – a six-speed when everyone else was using five. This box was the most difficult thing to master when driving the car.

To clear the driveline the driving position was slightly offset, the front propshaft running though the right side of the cockpit in a protective tube. What struck me most when climbing in over the high pontoon tanks was the width of the cockpit – it seemed almost Can-Am sports car size!

The gearlever was on the right side of the cockpit, hanging sideways in its six-speed gate. I had to lift up a little locking device to get first gear while several puffing volunteers pushed the car until I dropped the clutch and the engine fired. The throttle pedal was incredibly stiff! Keep it under nine, Dick had counselled, but I doubted I had the strength in my ankle to prod the pedal that far. As a precaution against getting my footwork scrambled, I had left my right shoe back in the paddock, and was driving in stockinged foot.

Until the engine was running at reasonable revs the mechanical fuel pump had to be aided by an electric pump operated by a spring-loaded switch on the dash. This had been taped down to keep it on, but unbeknown to this budding GP ace (who was still marvelling at the size of those 15-inch wheels all round) the tape had come unstuck and the electric pump was off.

That’s why, about 75 yards off the end of the pit ramp as I jabbed for second gear, everything went silent and I coasted to a puzzled halt. When the mechanic arrived he asked why I hadn’t prodded the starter. I had to confess that I didn’t know it had a starter! The button was down beside my left thigh and it fired the engine into instant life as the mechanic grumbled back to the pits.

It took me six or seven laps to begin to hazard a guess at which gear I was in, or which gear I was groping for. This and the fact that the electric pump kept switching itself off when the tape unstuck, causing the engine to cut and splutter, meant I was in something of a dither in the corners. But when the engine had staggered up to 7000 on the jumpy tacho, I was ‘All Systems Go’ on the straights. Boy, did that Ford ever prod itself into life over seven grand!

When you were going so fast that the wind was gluing your helmet to the roll bar, you hazarded a change of gear, and the thing just seemed to accelerate that much harder again – unbelievable! I suppose I managed a clean run up through the gears and down again just once in 20 laps. It was like picking up four aces at poker. The chances of doing it again were remote, and the feeling of smug pride was unreal.

By that time I was starting, due to increased bravery, to hound the Cossie through the corners and began to get the message about the difficulty of driving the car. The front wheels would drag the car through and you were really hanging on. It was like trying to rein back a runaway horse and keep the cart on the road at the same time.

I figured I’d been a roaring success in the Cosworth because I’d gone fast enough to impress myself and still managed to keep it on the road. And the rev counter needle pointing to nine-nine? Well, um, I didn’t mean to run it that high – it happened when I changed up in one of my demon straight-line runs and dropped down a gear instead…

Looking back on that afternoon nearly 40 years on, I try and summon a pang of regret that the Cosworth was the only Grand Prix car I ever drove, but then I settle for the satisfaction of being the only journalist ever to drive the fascinating failure that was the chunky Cosworth racer.