Tony Vandervell’s dream of an all-British grand prix car meant finding home-grown chassis talent. Despite their different backgrounds GAV and Charlie Cooper got on well, and Charlie suggested the Cooper-Bristol as a starting point. Vandervell, ever practical, briefed Owen Maddock to work round the Ferrari suspension, steering and transmission which his team knew well.
Late in 1953 Maddock’s chassis arrived, a conventional ladder-frame with wishbone front and de Dion rear, using transverse leaf springs, with the disc brakes developed on the Thinwall.
This Vanwall Special promised much but was never quite there through 1954; partly it was engine teething problems, but the team knew its chassis wasn’t the best. Vandervell even bought a Maserati 250F for inspiration. For ’55 four new chassis had coil springs up front and inboard discs at the rear, but the results still didn’t come.
It was Derek Wootton who saw the answer. “I knew Colin Chapman and Frank Costin from 750MC days,” he recalls. “I said to Frank, ‘We need you, and Colin too’. But I was only a mechanic so I got [team manager] David Yorke to ring Costin. Frank was not impressed by the chasis and he suggested that Tony call Colin.”
Soon the Lotus designer was scrutinising the Vanwall chassis. GAV asked him to retain the suspension, but gave him a clean slate otherwise. Chapman, a proponent of soft springing on a stiff chassis, came up with a much more rigid spaceframe, located the de Dion tube with a Watts linkage and added an anti-roll bar at the front, to promote understeer and make the car more predictable.
This new package was lighter, but hardly svelte. Keeping the high seat position (the gearbox was under the driver’s bottom) and moving some fuel from the tail to saddle tanks made the 1956 Vanwall tall and fat. Clearly air drag would be significant; but Frank Costin now came to Vanwall’s aid
His aircraft background showed in the final form. It made no attempt at slimness, using a chubby but smooth teardrop shape to keep the airflow attached to the body, with a wraparound screen shrouding the driver. And it was streamlined underneath, too, from its tiny nostril to its tapering tail. A NACA duct fed the air intakes, and the 4-1 exhaust was recessed. Radiator air escaped under the engine, while cold air for the inboard rear discs was sucked from the flanks and dumped into the cockpit – hence the asbestos-grimed faces of Vanwall drivers.
Costin worked purely from theory, with full-size drawings on his floor at home. But he got it right: at the fast circuits the fat green car had a clear speed advantage, reaching 165mph with little lift. Barring some cockpit cooling vents, the design would barely alter.
For 1957 Chapman improved high-speed handling with coil springs and negative camber aft, and new dampers, finally making the Vanwall a serious rival to Italy’s best. And for that title-winning year, ’58, the car saw few changes: a smaller tail tank (races were shorter and Avgas gives better mpg), lighter ‘wobbly web’ wheels, softer rollbar, and Dunlop’s R3 instead of Pirelli’s Stelvio. Mere fine-tuning to a design which began right and just got better.
Four Nortons and a Rolls-Royce: unlikely ingredients which gave a small team, driven by a big man, nine grand prix victories.
While Tony Vandervell was modifying Ferraris into Thinwall Specials, it became clear that improvements in engine breathing were negating the advantages of supercharging. Frustrated by the BRM’s mare’s nest, he foresaw that a simple, unsupercharged four could offer torque and reliability to wrong-foot the complex, peaky unblown V12 Ferrari. As Norton was part of Vandervell Products, he also knew that Joe Craig, Norton’s engine wizard, was getting 50bhp from a 500cc single, and saw that four of these would make a strong engine for the forthcoming 1952 2-litre F2 formula.
Vandervell had all the resources in house and soon assembled his ingredients for the V254 engine, ordering many through Norton for secrecy. The tough, deep crankcase came from the Rolls-Royce B40 military engine, though cast in alloy. Ten long tie-rods clamped iron barrels between head and crankcase, the outer casing serving mostly to keep the water. This rigid structure was to help deal with the vibration inevitable with a flat-plane crank. Instead of the ‘bike’s bevel-drive, a train of gears spun the camshafts, and Norton’s roller crank bearings were replaced with shell bearings, but the deep-breathing combustion chambers and exposed hairpin-spring valve gear were pure Norton. Water cooling released more power than the ‘bike version, but temperatures in the thin-walled head were critical, so GAV insisted initially on a large temperature gauge for careless drivers.
GAV, who loved engines, had a particular belief in fuel injection and investigated low-pressure American systems before asking Bosch to make their first four-cylinder system. He also approved of the slide throttles in Amal carbs, as they left a completely clear throat, and retained this mechanism for his race engine. Drive for the injection pump and Bosch magneto came from the cam gear train up front, with indirect injection into the intake tracts.
During 1953 Vandervell sold Norton, but Leo Kuzmicki, Craig’s aide, moved to Vanwall and late in ’53 the chunky four spluttered into life for the first time. Vandervell claimed 235bhp for the 2-litre, but it ewas already redundant under the new rules and a 2.5-litre version soon appeared, sporting five bearings over the original four. Though the big unit was powerful from the start, the team struggled to defeat recurrent problems throughout ’54 and ’55. Injection pipe breakages caused by the harsh vibration stopped when flexible pipes were used, but the fragile valve springs broke frequently when larger, heavier sodium-cooled valves arrived.
In the end Vandervell’s extremely high-quality engineering (like BRM, only everyone was pulling the same way) and obsessive 15-hour ‘running in’ of every spring brought the reliability. Helped by tuning guru Harry Weslake, output by ’57 reached 285bhp on methanol, or 295 on nitromethane. But when pump fuel (in the form of Avgas) became compulsory for ’58 this fell to 265, and the engine struggled to match the more modern Ferrari V6. Luckily, three years’ honing – and two brilliant drivers – told in the end.