Tony Vandervell

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‘The Guv’nor’ had a bee in his bonnet — and British teams have been buzzing ever since

For six days, so the story goes, he plonked himself on the sofa in the reception area at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Company, Cleveland, Ohio. Guy Anthony Vandervell was a determined man. Eldest son of the founder of the vast CAV electrical empire, his early years bore the tell-tale marks of a wealthy, overactive underachiever: good at games, at Harrow; a speed freak on bikes and in cars, racing both; seemingly disinclined to follow his father’s footsteps.

He did steady down, but it was bhp, not amps and ohms, that interested him, and his imaginative approach to technical problems allowed him to steer the O & S Oilless Bearing Co, a small subcontractor of CAV, through the Depression.

At that time big-end and main bearings were heavy, expensive, difficult to fit and quick to wear. Which is why, when GAV got word from America of a new bearing system that would revolutionise this aspect of engine design and build, he high-tailed it across the Atlantic in 1931. He desperately wanted the European licence for this product — hence the aforementioned sit-in.

This stubborn streak, intuitive grasp of the technical and eye for the future ensured that Vandervell Products expanded rapidly on the back of the success of the Thinwall bearing. And after the cessation of WWII, the self-same characteristics were manifest in GAV’s racing team.

He was one of the keenest supporters of the BRM project. But he was a doer, a seer-through and, as such, he soon became one of the most vociferous critics of this tortuous programme. Adamant he could better, his Ferrari-based Thinwall Specials spent four seasons going head-to-head with the V16 in minor British events. But he had bigger fish to fry: he wanted to create an all-British outfit that was capable of beating the Continental teams in their own backyard. To this end the first Vanwall Special appeared in 1954. But there was still a lot to learn and a long way to go, and it wasn’t until ’57, at Pescara and Monza, that this ambition was achieved.

The following year his team rubbed it in by scoring six victories to Ferrari’s two to win the first constructors’ world championship. By which time GAV was done-in. He had put his heart and soul into the project, to the detriment of his health. Driver Tony Brooks can remember only one meeting during his 1957-58 stint with the team that GAV did not attend, practice and race. And he was no dilettante permanently ensconced in the VIP tent — he was in the pits, he was warmingup his cars, he was resting his belly over his beloved engines, he was in the thick of it. His gruff manner caused people to tread warily around him, but his all-or-nothing approach instilled immense respect within his workforce, whom he showed a fatherly affection.

“We were treated well,” says mechanic Derek Wootton. “We were put up in good hotels. Money was no problem — especially where the cars were concerned. He would fly things out to races at short notice if necessary. I remember riding along on the back of a Lambretta, carrying a jig that was needed to strengthen the de Dion tubes, looking for a small workshop in Monza.

“I also remember him telling me, straight after a Monaco Grand Prix, to go to Modena to buy one of Maserati’s five-speed ‘boxes. I said, They’ve only got three.’ He said, ‘See what you can do.’

“I drove down there, still in my overalls, saw Orsi [Maserati’s owner] and told him what GAV wanted. Orsi said, ‘How will you pay?’ At that point GAV phoned; he had a knack of ringing at crucial times — and you had to have your answers ready. When I told him that Orsi was querying payment, he let fly. I was holding the phone at arm’s length.”

GAV got his gearbox and had Wootton plonk the oily, just-removed-from-a-Maser item on the carpet of his posh hotel room. “He looked over it — one of his ‘engineering studies’. But I don’t think he copied anything from it!”

Racing had become an obsession; key team members were often phoned by GAV deep into the night and subjected to an interrogation on a matter that simply could not wait. But they let it ride because they could see that he was working as hard, if not harder, than they were.

“He was an autocrat like Enzo Ferrari,” says Brooks. “But he was nothing like him in his manner. What he said, went — but that was good because BRM had proved that you can’t create a successful team by committee. If we, or he, made a mistake, he ensured that every step was then taken to put it right. We had a consistent strategy and we all knew where we stood; everyone knew what their job was and we all understood the structure of the team.

“Sometimes GAV meddled a bit, but he was a fantastic motivating presence. He was great for a driver because he put a lot of faith in you — and looked after you. Which is why he was so badly affected by the death of Stuart Lewis-Evans [in the 1958 Moroccan GP]. He returned to racing after that, but I don’t think he ever recovered. Even though he retained me in 1960, he kept introducing me to a Harley Street dentist friend of his [Brooks had trained as a dentist], and I think this was his way of convincing me to stop racing.”

After 1958 Vandervell was under doctor’s order to throttle back. He maintained a skeleton presence on the scene over the next three years — his cars contesting just four races in that time — before the doors were finally closed for good.

Six years later, aged 68, GAV was gone, too. British motor-racing had lost its Winston Churchill. But more than 30 years on the British grand prix ‘many’ still have much to thank GAV’s `few’ for. His Vanwalls were, indeed, the end of the beginning.