A sad story

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Early in the life of the 1000cc Formula Two, the British Motor Corporation decided to produce an eligible engine to extend its successful Formula Junior cooperation with Cooper. A budget (reputedly £100,000) was allocated and work began. Grand Prix drivers participated in Formula Two in those days (and in anything else they were offered), and John Surtees was signed up to drive.

A certain degree of secrecy shrouded the whole project, so few people were surprised that the engines never appeared: by the time the money was spent, power output was still uncompetitive with the BRM and the Cosworth SCA, and reliability remained poor. Most unusually for BMC, it declined to throw good money after bad, and the project died. The phantom engines were soon forgotten and, to universal relief, the formula changed to 1600cc.

Some years later, in 1969, Barrie Carter was on the look out for a cheap hill-climb car. He heard that Dr Ehrlich had a front-engined Elva-DKW Formula Junior and, since this was just the sort of machine which perversely appealed to him, we went to have a look.

Ehrlich turned out also to have two of the elusive BMC engines, thought to be the only ones ever to leave the factory. One was fitted in a Cooper T75, the other came as a box of parts. Lurking in a corner was a prototype Austin A20 or A25, like a stumpy A30 which looked as if it would trip over its incredibly narrow tyres at the first corner. Eventually we did a deal for £1200 which included £40 for the Elva! At least I had the wit not to bid for the Austin.

The engine was a pukka racing design, the very light cast-iron block being a one-off owing nothing to the A-series. Its alloy cylinder-head had four valves per cylinder fed by Lucas high-pressure injection with slide throttles; the “bomb” fuel-pump sat out in the airstream beside the transmission.

These early pumps were very prone to overheating and, as on Formula One cars, mounted in a generous heat sink outside the body. The alloy housing on the Cooper, which could be seen on the left of the cockpit, had Dzus fasteners for fast changing of this troublesome component.

Magnets on the flywheel triggered the ignition pick-up on the engine backplate, and the distributor drove directly from the back of one of the camshafts. The beautiful H-section connecting rods were machined from solid, and the various sets of pistons included some in magnesium alloy. Lubrication was by dry sump, and everything was made to a very high standard.

In action the engine was very intractable, having a usable range between only 8000 rpm and 9500 rpm. It had been designed to run to over 10,000 rpm but, as the good doctor said, “Over 9500 it gets a bit tinkly”. So tinkly, apparently, that the second engine had Perspex windows in the crankcase, timing-chain housing and cam cover, so the engineers could see what was going wrong! The regularity with which it blew head-gaskets and ran bearings suggested that lack of block stiffness was at least part of the problem. Ehrlich quoted the maximum power as 118 bhp at 10,000 rpm.

Ehrlich was fond of weird exhaust systems (which was presumably why he had the two-stroke Elva-DKW), and one which came with the car consisted of four separate pipes each with a reverse cone at the end. This produced an incredible noise, and provided even less flexibility than the normal one.

The Cooper T75 was the Formula Two counterpart of the T76, and was externally distinguishable only by the bracing struts from the front upper rocking arms to the chassis. A six-speed Hewland Mk IV gearbox transmitted the power.

The car was beautifully constructed, through the steel-sheeted semi-spaceframe was neither as light nor as stiff as its competitors. It can have had little, if any, testing, but was immaculate throughout.

I had a few nervous laps in the T75 at Goodwood. There were unprotected aluminium fuel-tanks on either side of one’s legs, a scuttle tank on top, another beside the driver on the left, and a final one behind the seat. Roll-over protection was effectively non-existent (there was no safety harness anyway), and the chassis tubes carried boiling oil and water to the front-mounted radiator. Apart from worrying about safety (and my investment), I can remember little – except the constant gear changing needed to keep the engine on the boil.

Personal enthusiasm must have overruled commercial sense when I made this purchase. Certainly the ensemble was still in the showroom several months later. At one stage I offered the whole lot to Tom Wheatcroft, but he was interested only in Formula One cars.

The SCCA Formula C, which provided a market for many old Formula Two cars, seemed equally uninterested, so the only answer was to split up the collection. I forget who bought the engines, or what he hoped to do with them, but the chassis and box were bought by a monoposto racer who ran it first with the XSP engine from his old T56, and later with a downdraught Lucas F3 engine from my Brabham BT21B (thereby hangs a tale for chassis-number historians. A previous owner had removed the identification plate from the Brabham as a souvenir, and when the car was sold to a Japanese client, customs formalities required a chassis number. We established that twenty-three BT21Bs had been built, and stamped No 24 with the appropriate prefix on one of the square transverse chassis tubes).

A story about an unsuccessful engine, in an unloved formula, is inevitably a sad one. Maybe this account will fill a gap or two in the history books. JL