Abandoned at birth and forgotten for decades, Kieft’s grand prix contender has finally hit the track. Gordon Cruikshank describes a 48 – year build-up
What has a gestation period of 50 years? Cyril Kieft’s grand prix car. Conceived in 1953, part-built in ’54, abandoned by ’55, the incomplete car was forgotten by the racing world. Until September last year, when it finally made its race debut, thanks to the dedication of one man, Bill Morris.
The stillbirth of the Kieft F1 project was a disappointment for the small firm which built it. But the legacy of this cul-de-sac was hugely significant for British motor racing. The Kieft was built around an engine which never happened — the Coventry-Climax FPE, or `Godiva’ — which could have dominated GP racing in the Fifties. Instead it was killed off — but still managed to sire a champion offspring. One bank of the V8 developed into the Climax FPF, first an F2 success and then a world championship winner for Cooper.
Cyril Kieft was one of the driving forces in the Godiva saga. After his steel business was nationalised, he turned to racing. Keen to push his small team into grands prix, he was, along with other home-market race-car builders (Connaught, Cooper and HWM), casting around for power for the 2.5-litre F1 rules due in 1954. BRM and Vanwall had no intention of sharing their new four-cylinder designs, while Alta did not have the funds for a new engine. So Kieft looked to Coventry.
The Climax crew had Castrol R in its blood: chairman and MD Leonard Lee was an enthusiast, who had hired Walter Hassan, rapid Bentley builder and designer of Jaguar’s exceptional XK engine, and Harry Mundy, ex-ERA and BRM. It seemed the perfect way to boost the firm out of the practical but unexciting world of industrial engines. Already Kieft had shown that a light four-cylinder Climax (the 1100cc FWA) could win races; a competitive 2.5-litre power plant could be a good seller, with the possibility of a milder road version to further boost profits. Late in 1952, Climax sharpened its pencils…
And in Wolverhampton Kieft began on a grand prix contender. Drawn up by Gordon Bedson, it was a sophisticated semi-space frame (i.e. not fully triangulated), with deep side elements tapering to the front to clear the wide engine. A subsidiary thin-tube structure carried the body. Though the traditional leaf-spring propped up the rear, there were unequal-length wishbones all round with front coil springs located on cast towers.
Kieft avoided the problem of making a special bell-housing by sticking to the then-common principle of a separate ‘box — in this case the ENV-Wilson pre-selector, as used by ERA — under the driver’s knees. A secondary shaft connected ‘box and final drive.
All this made for good weight distribution, until you factored in the tall fuel and oil tank hung behind the rear axle.
Kieft also took up Dunlop’s new disc brake for all four corners, plus their light-alloy wheels, and used his own design of rack-and-pinion steering. Cyril Kieft, now a hale 91, still recalls the optimistic mood: “Gordon was a fine engineer, and I gave him a free hand. We had tried the design in sports form, so we were confident about F1. Ken Wharton and Ron Flockhart used to test our cars, and they were our two intended drivers.”
Ambitious enough, but this was only one of a clutch of projects going on at the Kieft works. When WB visited in February 1954, the Wolverhampton shop was working on 500cc sportscars for Le Mans, with three different engines, two types of centre-seat sportscar (a year before Cooper’s ‘Bobtail), the conventional 500 racers, and a one-off V8 sportscar. Plus Kieft’s own design of flat-four air-cooled engine. Cyril Kieft agrees an F1 test programme would have spread the team even thinner; but at least he had the funds: “I had two other engineering businesses which were major suppliers to the car industry. Taxation was punitive then, so we weren’t too particular about recording where the profit went… That funded the team.”
There was a commercial angle, too, as Cyril relates: “I had a factory in South Wales with room to build three or four cars a week. We could have sold quite a few.”
But while Kieft seemed to be ready for the new formula, Climax were not. By the middle of 1953, the design was ready. The trade-off between length, width and power was a V8 with four gear-driven camshafts and (until the SU fuel injection was ready) four twin-choke downdraught Solex carbs. A central magneto fired one plug per pent-roof chamber, and hairpin springs (popular at the time for higher revs) closed the two valves per cylinder.
Realising that likely customers would be using proprietary transmissions not designed for racing revs, Climax built in an optional safeguard — epicyclic reduction gear between crank and clutch. This knocked about a third off the revs, easing the strain on the gears.
Tagged the FPE for Fire Pump Engine (detuned versions were actually proposed for industrial use), the unit soon became less formally named `Godiva’ after another stripped-down beauty from Coventry.
Lightweight (all-alloy) and compact (only 22.5in long), it was a clean-sheet racing unit ready to face up to the best the Italians and Germans could do. Late in 1953, the testhouse reverberated to the first runs; power, as predicted, was a generous 264bhp, with hearty torque over much of the 8500 rev curve. Kieft, Connaught and the others heard the echoes and held their breath.
And went blue in the face. Straight-up, honest-as-the-day Climax now got cold feet. They listened to what Maserati, Ferrari and Lancia were claiming, and believed what they heard. Them ‘furriners’ were 20 or 30bhp ahead; Climax would be starting the season hobbled. Chastened, they canned the project. Only later did the facts show up: Godiva out of the box would have been the strongest horse in the field. Figures of 280, 290bhp from Modena and Stuttgart would certainly become true — after a couple of seasons of development. By which time Godiva would have moved ahead just as far…
Yet there is also a hint that cash was part of the decision. Kieft’s memories seem to support this: “Climax treated me very well and I knew Hassan and Mundy to be reliable. But every month I would send Gordon Bedson over to chase them and he would come back saying, ‘I can’t see much progress and they won’t tell me anything’. So the almost complete car sat around with that dummy engine in it for months.” As the silence continued, a second chassis was converted into a sportscar, and the F1 dream faded.
It’s perhaps a stretch to imagine Kiefts defeating the establishment in grands prix, but if Godiva had gone ahead there would certainly have been a posse of privateer Brits harrying the Continentals.
Instead, the little guys were left scrabbling for Alta power. Except Kieft. When a new government de-nationalised steel again, Cyril moved back to his roots, and abandoned motor racing. It was an easy decision: “I’d already been approached to go back into steel, so Climax’s decision confirmed it. If the FPE had gone ahead I’d have been in a quandary. I think I might have stayed in racing: Don Parker was doing well in F3, and our sportscars were making a good name. But I have no regrets; I had five happy years in racing.”
He sold the team to Merrick Taylor, who passed on the engine-less F1 car to `Podge’ Dealey, a Midlands hill-climber. He planned to fit an American V8. That never happened, and he sold it to another optimist, Gordon Chapman, who had yet another unusual power choice — a Brooke-Weston. This threevalve per cylinder V8 was another stillborn aspirant for the 2.5-litre formula, but before Chapman could begin, Bill Morris passed on the whereabouts of the Godiva engines.
The Godivas had their own wandering history. Andrew Getley bought the five units in the mid-Sixties, one ending up in the back of the Shannon grand prix car, enlarged to three litres; it actually ran one lap of the 1966 British GP before bursting. Another went to saloon racer Doc Mirfield, who got Bill Lacey at Silverstone to build up a 3-litre version and drop it in a Cortina — from which a rod very soon dropped out again. When Morris told Chapman that Lacey had the Godiva remnants the two strings came together again; but Chapman died before uniting them, meaning that the car still had never had a motor in it.
So it was only when Morris bought the car and engine parts from the estate that ‘closure’ looked finally likely. Inevitably, the route was rocky: disuse is as bad as overuse to a racing car. The mag-alloy wheels and front wishbones were too aged to trust, so new ones were made up, with a half-inch width hike for the rears from their original 5in. Similarly, the rebuild tram of Greg Snape and Andy Barefield replaced deteriorating brake discs and front hubs (they proved to be Ford V8 items).
There was a degree of redesign, too. This particular V8 does not have the gear reduction system, so Morris, worried about the preselector’s internal revs, installed a similar but larger Armstrong-Siddeley unit, plus a clutch for race starts. (Pre-selectors are clutchless, and suffer when awaiting the green light.) Rear geometry, formerly all-square, now gains a shade of toe-in and negative camber, while eccentric bushes allow for some camber adjustment up front. When the best setting is found, says Morris, the adjustments will be locked off
Even the Fifties body came with the kit, still unfitted. Duncan Ricketts attached it, cutting louvres where needed and adding an airbox to push more air into the carbs.
Morris’s workshop did the engine, too, after practising on the hollow display engine which Climax sent to various shows. He now owns all the Godivas except the Shannon unit (that car is now in Belgium), and selected the best parts including later heads, which have twin plugs and coil valve springs instead of hairpins. Four Weber IDFs from Alfasud engines temporarily stand in for the missing SU injection. New timing gears were easy: they are the same as FPF units, and Crosthwaite and Gardiner sell them by the dozen. Morris feels it’s giving over 220bhp, with only one of the two plugs per cylinder connected.
Oddly, the engine wasn’t a straight drop-in to the virgin chassis: built round a wooden dummy, it took some adjusting to seat the real thing, plus a bit of tube repair where attempts had been made to insert that Yank motor. But eventually five decades of waiting ended with the gruff bellow of a racing V8’s first breath.
After several test sessions, the Kieft finally lined up for its first-ever race at the VSCC’s Hawthorn Trophy meeting at Silverstone in late 2002. Cyril Kieft was there to hear the fierce blare from its stub exhausts as Greg Snape powered it round the track. “I was very proud,” he says. “Bill’s done an excellent job.” Snape went from 21st on the grid to a decent 12th place finish — which must augur well for its next outing — and he says the car is stable, vice-free and broadly neutral. Looks as though Bedson and Climax were on the right track; it just took a third party and a second start to make this new beginning.