John Surtees talks to Tim Scott about Vanwall’s short-lived final project
In the end it came to signify nothing more than an epilogue, but the ‘Whale’ moniker that’s been stuck on Tony Vandervell’s short-lived rear-engined creation is rather unkind — and perhaps misleading. Although clearly lacking the sleekness and grace of a Lotus 21 or Cooper T53, the sole race outing of VW14, in the hands of John Surtees, was promising enough to discredit suggestions that it was heavy and cumbersome.
The creation for 1961 of the ill-starred Inter-Continental Formula for cars of up to 3 litres, an FIA-sanctioned sop to the British teams irked by the new 1.5-litre Formula One rules, offered Vanwall’s proprietor a chance he could not resist.
Surtees: “Tony rang me in 1960 and said: ‘If I built you a car, would you drive it?’ I said yes, so Tony replied, ‘Right, I’ll buy a Lotus 18, and stick my engine in’.”
Surtees and Tony Brooks both tested this hybrid during 1960, but Vandervell was unwilling to entrust his drivers’ lives to such a fragile car.
“I’d driven that Lotus a couple of times,” relates Surtees, “and then Tony said, ‘I’m not going to risk you in that, I’ll make one’.
“The design was largely taken from the Lotus — the tubes of the spaceframe chassis were all around the skeleton of the 18 — but it was substantially remodelled and strengthened, with all-independent suspension and a five-speed gearbox. The engine was enlarged to 2.86 litres, and was slightly heavier than a Climax. But it wasn’t an enormously heavy car. It was distinctive. It was a Vanwall.”
Built in February ’61 the car was to run in the four-round British Inter-Continental series. It missed Goodwood but, after a couple of tests, it was ready for May Silverstone.
“We had troubles all practice, so we only scratched in the odd lap,” remembers Surtees. All the more impressive, then, that he qualified sixth, only 1.4sec off Bruce McLaren’s pole-sitting T53, and ahead of Brooks’s BRM and Jim Clark’s Lotus 18.
Race day brought a downpour and Surtees excelled, passing Moss’s T53 for second place before a spin at Abbey on lap 13.
“That was my fault, but the power characteristics didn’t help — it just wasn’t as smooth and user-friendly a delivery as a Climax.”
After a long stop he rose to finish fifth. It proved to be the rear-engined Vanwall’s only outing, as Inter-Continental quickly died.
Surtees sums up: “We went out and tried an unproven car against machines which were perfected, and I think it was pretty impressive. It perhaps wasn’t the best car that’s ever been built, but there’s a lot of emotion tied up in it: Vandervell and I put everything into that car. And when you look at that little department at Vanwall, producing something this good, it makes you wonder…”