The powerhouse that Jack (Brabham) built

Jack Brabham was due to retire as a driver – until his astute choice of Repco as engine builder gave him another F1 title. Paul Fearnley tells all

Jack Brabham in BT19 F1 car in 1966 International Trophy race

Victory beckons for Brabham in 1966 International Trophy

Central Press/Getty Images

Ferrari was the clear pre-season favourite. Team leader John Surtees wasn’t so sure, however: he was less than thrilled with the new 3-litre V12, hardly enamoured of team manager Eugenio Dragoni and adamant that a Formula One season only truly began for the Scuderia after Le Mans. But rival Jack Brabham was (reasonably) convinced: ‘The Return to Power’ of 1966 would surely play into the hands of Ferrari and its foundry. The ultra-competitive Australian had espied a chink of light – and was making a (12,000-mile) beeline for it – but he surmised that the door to success would be slammed in his face sooner rather than later.

Jack had been pleased by his team’s prodigious preparation effort and the performance of its new chassis/engine package in the non-championship South African GP on New Year’s Day: his BT19, the only 3-litre present at East London, led comfortably until a loose screw in the injection system halted it 11 laps from victory. But after being forced to watch – by another ‘crook’ Lucas metering unit – Surtees’s dominant victory in Syracuse, the Ferrari 312’s debut, he wasn’t confident of beating the red car at Silverstone a fortnight later. The 35-lap International Trophy, however, would allow him to refocus.

Brabham’s stock-block single-cam-per-bank V8 may only have given 278bhp (it was up to 310 by season end), but they were honest hard-working horses which, when harnessed to another do-anything-with-it spaceframe design from Ron Tauranac, proved unbeatable on May 14. Jack made a great start from pole and galloped off, leading from first to last and regularly lowering the lap record. Surtees finished 7.4sec behind, close enough to see that the green-and-gold car had been in control throughout.

There are those who consider that Surtees gifted the 1966 World Championships to Brabham – man and machine – when he marched out of Ferrari at Le Mans. Surtees doesn’t see it that way. Sure, he might have won a second title, but he knows how hard it would have been for the Ferrari to beat the light-yet-sturdy, nimble, powerful-enough Brabham over the oil slicks of Brands and Zandvoort and around the Nürburgring’s twist and turns. He never underestimated the threat posed by this unassuming team.

Surtees wasn’t alone in this view, but he was in a minority. For Brabham had marked time in F1 in 1965, conspicuously failing to build on a promising ’64. Jack and Ron, muckers since their dirt-track scratchings of the late ’40s, didn’t always see eye to eye, and this was one of those times. Testing and development had taken a back seat, and as his business pressures increased Jack was preparing to hang up his helmet: he started only six of the 10 championships rounds. But then Dan Gurney, the team’s pacesetter fro the previous three seasons, announced that he was leaving to set up Eagle. It all seemed to be unravelling

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Anyway, who the hell was Repco to think it could build an F1 engine?

In fact this Melbourne-based company was a typically astute Jack Brabham choice. Formed in the 1920s to make replacement parts for imported cars, by the ’50s it was huge, boasting manufacturing and technical agreements with leading car manufacturers in Britain, Europe and America. It wasn’t exactly Jack’s big secret – the early production racers that emerged from his New Haw premises were marketed as Repco Brabhams – but he had been carefully husbanding this relationship since 1950, his formative racing days Down Under. Repco made him special parts for his World Championship works Coopers, and in 1961 mechanic Tim Wall ran Jack’s privateer car out of Repco’s Surbiton warehouse, the first home of Motor Racing Developments (MRD), the company founded by Jack and Ron.

Racing was a small but prestigious part of Repco’s empire. Not every member of its board was convinced by motorsport, but chief engineer Frank Hallam was able to talk them round. It helped that double World Champion Jack was a regular headliner in the winter series of races in Australia and New Zealand, using Repco-prepped Coventry Climax FPF four-pots. And that’s how the new engine project was initially addressed: as a bid to maintain this market in the face of the new 2.5-litre Tasman Cup (from 1964) and dwnidling FPF spares.

Repco V8 F1 engine in Brabham car

1966 Repco V8 in BT20. It would be fully bespoke in ’67

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

In was during the 1964 Tasman series that Jack suggested a V8. Money being a definite object, a proprietary block was sought: Oldsmobile’s liner-less aluminium F85 had recently been shelved, at huge cost, by GM; Jack dusted off a trial dry-linered version, bought it (for around £11) and shipped it to Repco. It was a very useful building block – but it was only that. The base motor featured overhead valves operated by willowy pushrods actuated by a camshaft in the centre of its vee; hardly ideal for a high-revving racing engine. There was a lot of work to be done – ultimately, perhaps, more than if the engine had been completely bespoke – but Jack was persuasive, and Repco put freelancer Phil Irving on the case.

Born in Melbourne in 1904, Irving had gained global status either side of WWII as chief engineer at British ‘bike firms Vincent, HRD and Velocette. Fluent in every part of the process, from drawing board to dyno, he had been mulling over V8 designs long before he was commissioned. His first prototype, a 2.5-litre for Tasman racing, ran, on carbs, in March 1965. It was too late for that year’s Tasman Cup – a Repco V8 would score only one victory in this series, Jack’s BT23A winning the final round of 1967 at Longford – but it was in plenty of time for what Jack had always considered its primary purpise: F1.

“Phil would start mid-morning and work deep into the night, smoking non-stop”

When in 1964 Coventry Climax announced that it would pull out of GP racing at the end of ’65 rather than build a full-shot 3-litre, the rush was on to find alternative power sources – except at self-sufficient BRM and Ferrari. Jack “knew by 1964 that Repco was coming” and craftily installed Irving in a rented South London flat during the summer of ’65…

“Phil would start mid-morning and work deep into the night, smoking non-stop,” recalls Tauranac, who advised him on installation requirements. “I had no problem with him, but he had his own ideas and wouldn’t always stick to the pre-arranged plan agreed with Frank Hallam. In fact Frank came to England during the year to get the project back on track.”

The F1 engine retained Irving’s heads – mirrored to fit either bank, thus easing the spares situation – with two parallel valves per cylinder, chain-driven single overhead cams and wedge-shaped combustion chambers. It also kept Laystall’s flat-plane crank, lightened and balanced, Daimler V8 conrods (sourced by Jack £7 a throw!) and the 3/16in diaphragm that stiffened its bottom end. By reverting to the F85’s original bore (88.9 instead of 85mm) a 2994cc engine was produced giving, on Lucas injection, 285bhp at 8000rpm. Entitled 620 – the hundreds referred to the blocks, the tens to the heads – this 90-deg unit was frugal (7mpg), light (330lb) and compact (21in across the heads).

Brabham Hulme and Gurney on the front row at the 1966 British Grand Prix

Brabhams on the front row at 1966 British Grand Prix

Don Morley/Getty Images

Its narrowness was one of its fundamental parameters: Jack wanted it to fit an existing chassis. Which was a good job, because Tauranac was keen to design a new F1 car, being unhappy with the direction MRD had taken.

“At the end of our first year of F1 Jack said he would like to run his own team, the Brabham Racing Organisation,” says Tauranac. :The idea was that he would become a customer of MRD and pay £3000 per car. After three seasons of no direct involvement, no feedback and no money for development, I had lost interest. That’s why, at the end of the 1.5-litre formula, I said I didn’t wish to build any more.”

Fortunately this cleared the air; a new agreement was drawn up and Tauranac was back onside – “I played a much bigger part from 1966 on” – even though BRO had been ‘physically’ ring-fenced and moved from MRD’s overcrowded New Haw HQ to Guildford. “Jack and I had the partnership back to the way we had originally planned it.”

Jack: “I never actually fell out with Ron, but we had to make sure the F1 side was going to work. My driving had gone stale, but with Repco behind me I was fired up.”

Jack Brabham with Ron Tauranac in 1960s

Tauranac (left, with Brabham, was a key player in success

GP Library via Getty Images

The whole F1 outfit was re-energised. Which was a good job. because it was November: the South African GP was looming, and a Repco V8 of any description had yet to run in a chassis of any type.

The BT19, unusual for Brabham in having oval tubes around its cockpit area, had originally been designed for Climax’s never-to-race 1.5-litre flat-16. Now it was pressed into service for a new era. “It was probably chosen because we had one available and time was short,” admits Tauranac.

Ron would soon begin work on the BT20, based on the BT11. With an inch-longer wheelbase than the BT19 (7ft 9in), a stiffer frame and 15-inch front Goodyears instead of 13s, Denny Hulme would use it to finish third on its debut, in France. Jack, though, stuck with BT19, his ‘Old Nail’. It did him proud. Not at Monaco – its gearbox jammed after 17 laps – but at Spa, Reims, Zandvoort, Brands Hatch and the Nürburgring. Spa provided the consolidation, a circumspect fourth after a huge moment in the first-lap rain; Reims, on July 3, provided the breakthrough.

Jack Brabham with champagne after winning the 1966 French Grand Prix

Jack with champagne after winning ’66 French GP

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Lorenzo Bandini, Ferrari’s ersatz number one, made an early break, albeit with Jack clinging tenaciously to his tow. When this was eventually broken by dithering back markers, Jack, confident that the Italian would keep on pressing, decided to nurse his car and await developments. They arrived on lap 32, a broken throttle cable stranding Bandini at Thillois hairpin. He jury-rigged it using a wire from around a straw bale – but Jack was long gone, sweeping past fields of golden corn, deep in Champagne country, towards the maiden eponymous car/driver GP win.

“I’d had confidence in the project from the start,” says Jack. “But after beating Ferrari in this race my sights were definitely on the championship.” It was his first top-line victory since 1960. He’d recently turned 40. Life was beginning all over again.

“Jack and Ron were great teachers. They both knew their stuff”

“We had a few bottles of champagne to celebrate,” says Hughie Absalom, this Anzac-dominated team’s ‘Welsh Pom’ and Jack’s number two mechanic. “Everything had suddenly clicked. We had more control with Repco than with Climax. The latter used to appear at our door and we’d drop it in a car, run it and, if it broke, take it out and send it back. The Repcos arrived in packing cases as complete units, but it was us who stripped and rebuilt them. We had some problems early on, but after that it went remarkably smoothly.
“We were a very young team, but Jack and Ron were great teachers. They were very different – Ron more abrasive, Jack more open to suggestion – but they both knew their stuff. Jack understood his car in a way that today I only see from Michael Schumacher. I learned more at Brabham than I did during my subsequent spell at Lotus.

Jack wouldn’t retire again until Italy in September, oil lost through a loose inspection plug forcing him out of an early lead. As it turned out, however, he had already done enough, securing the world title while he sat on Monza’s pit counter. It was too low-key for some…

From the archive

“I flew home with Jack after the race,” says Tauranac, “and when we landed at Fairoaks airport there was a crowd of journalists there. I asked Jack what it was all about. He told me they probably wanted to interview us about winning the championship. That was the first time I was aware of it. I had been so focused on each event that I hadn’t taken in the bigger picture.”

Such focus had allowed Brabham to dominate the meat of the season, Jack wining at Brands Hatch – setting pole, leading throughout, clocking fastest lap – and securing his hat-trick win (from pole) at Zandvoort, where an inspired Jim Clark kept him very honest with a 2-litre Lotus-Climax 33. The Nürburgring had rarely been kind to Jack, but on this occasion, with extra treads cut in his Goodyears, he kept Surtees’s Firestone-shod Cooper-Maserati at bay in the rain, eventually winning by 44sec. Four in a row – and with the constructors’ title still to come! The latter was secured at Watkins Glen, even though both Brabhams retired.

Pragmatism had triumphed. But surely lightning couldn’t strike twice. Keith Duckworth was already slaving over the engine that would change F1 for what seemed like forever – but it wouldn’t be ready until June. That chink of light was still shimmering in 1967. And Repco was making a dash for it.

Its ambitious, leap-of-faith engine project had started in the Russell Manufacturing lab near Melbourne, and as it grew with the addition of new equipment, the rear wall was opened out and a shed extension jutted into the car park. OK, so it didn’t have the glamorous backing of Ford, and its end product was never going to be still winning GPs in the early 1980s, but Repco had bitten off a huge chunk and was chewing like hell.


In December ’66 it attempted to dispel the myth that its title-winning engine was an off-the-peg unit, pointing out how much was made in-house: pistons, rings, bearings, valve guides, gaskets, and fuel and

Rear view of Jack Brabham BT19 F1 car at 1966 Mexican Grand Prix

Brabham follows Ronnie Bucknum’s Honda in Mexico ’66, both titles already secured

Grand Prix Photo

oil lines. And nothing was stock on its ’67 engine. A bespoke aluminium-alloy wet-liner block – the 700 – cast by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation provided greater rigidity and a saving of 30lb. The new head – the 40 – retained parallel valves, but now they were in line with the cylinder axis, not canted at 10deg. This created more space inside the vee, allowing the inlets and exhausts to be sited within it. (The low-exit outside exhausts of the 1966 crossflow had caused rear suspension packaging problems.)

Integral to all of this work was John Judd, a 24-year old former Coventry Climax apprentice who had recently signed for BRO: “I didn’t join Jack to go to Australia. But during the Tasman series he had realised that Repco needed help in the drawing office, so I was stuck on a plane. It was a big deal in those days to be sent to Melbourne. I arrived, sat down at a drawing board and got on with it. I was inexperienced and a bit naïve; it later crossed my mind that I’d been sent over to perhaps stir things up just by being there.” Irving left a couple of months after Judd’s arrival; Norm Wilson, an in-house appointee, replaced him. “Norm was a little bit older than me,” continues Judd, “and he didn’t have any real experience of F1, but he was a straightforward bloke and we made a lot of progress.” Wilson’s 740 unit, given its GP debut by Jack in Monaco – it broke a rod on lap one! – developed 325-330bhp, a useful gain.

Brabham wasn’t standing still either. Tauranac’s new BT24, based on the F2 BT23, was 45kg lighter than the 1966 GP cars. Jack loved it and used the car to win the French and Canadian GPs – the first and third of Brabham’s 1-2s that season. He also finished second in Holland (in the ‘Old Nail’), Germany, Italy (a last-corner thriller with Surtees’s Honda) and Mexico. In total he scored 48 points (gross), three more than he had in ’66. Hulme, though, scored 51.

From the archive

Having convincingly led the Kyalami season-opener until his brake pedal went to the floor, Denny was ready to step up, confirmed by a brilliant victory in Monaco aboard a 620-engined BT20. He was fantastically consistent thereafter: third (Holland), second (France and Britain), a follow-up win (Germany), a second (Canada) and a third (America). Although now regularly outrun by the DFV-powered Lotus 49, the down-to-the-wire title fight in Mexico lay between the works Brabhams – and it was Jack on the back foot, needing to win with denny finishing lower than fourth. Neither result was achieved: Jack was second, Denny was third – and the World Champion.

Back-to-back constructors’ and drivers’ titles. A pragmatism overload, maybe?

“If we had stuck with the single cam engine for 1968 I think we could have won the championship again,” says Jack. Tauranac is not convinced of this and, given the DFV’s paradigm shift, Repco’s decision to go for broke is understandable. Judd had spent four months in Australia in 1966; it was to be six in ’67: a gear-driven, twin-cam, four-valve F1 engine is not the work of a moment. Sadly, it broke. Often.

Jack Brabham with streamliner canopy over the cockpit of his Brabham F1 car

Brabham tried aero canopy on BT24 during ’67 Italian GP practice

GP Library via Getty Images

“One of the initial difficulties was that Frank (Holland) had a bee in his bonnet about BMW’s radial-flow Apfelbeck engine,” say Judd. “We simplified this arrangement [pent-roof, not hemi], but it was still a packaging nightmare, with inlets and exhausts on both sides of the head. I was convinced of its folly. There were no faxes; you didn’t just phone England back then, so I sent clandestine notes to warn Jack. He and Ron got it stopped but we had wasted a lot of precious time.”

A short-stroke magnesium block was also considered – drawn, built and raced in Tasman form – but the eventual ’68 F1 engine, the 860, was a conventional crossflow utilising proven aluminium architecture. It was still lighter and shallower than its predecessor, despite its extra moving parts.

“It gave good power [380bhp],” says Judd, “but we had reliability problems. It’s nothing I couldn’t sort out today [Judd and Jack set up Engine Develpments in ’72], but back then I was too inexperienced to be given such a complex project.

“I will hold my hands up to the engine’s shortcomings, but there were manufacturing problems too: valve seats dropped out of the early engines. It’s not the best preparation for a GP to receive a telegram from your engine supplier warning of potential catastrophic failures. We were firefighting all the time: heating new heads in the middle of the night in the oven in Jack’s kitchen [Spa]; Jack scraping piston tops with a wood chisel on the night before a race [Zandvoort]. After problems with the gudgeon pins, I sourced some from a Petter diesel and had them adapted.”

As the team gradually persuaded the engine to run for longer, more problems were unearthed: previously reliable Alfa Romeo-sourced (rear) cam followers were destroyed by the engine’s harmonic resonance; the heads wouldn’t drain quickly enough, forcing lubricant down the valve guides and eventually draining the oil tank. With no dyno at the race shop, progress was frustratingly slow.

Jochen Rindt in wet 1968 Belgian Grand Prix

Rindt before ’68 Spa retirement

This was a great shame because Ron had penned another capable chassis, BT26 – lighter and stiffer, with its alloy-sheet stress panelling instead of tubular triangulation – and fearless, super-quick Jochen Rindt had been signed to replace McLaren-bound Hulme. Brabham, meanwhile, thanks to Jack’s air force background and Ron’s experience of MIRA’s wind tunnel, was arguably the most aerodynamically aware team in this season of sprouting wings. And so the speed was there. Over a lap. Rindt set pole at Rouen and Mont Tremblant, but managed only two GP finishes all season; Jack achieved just one. In total, the reigning World Champion constructor scored a meagre 10 points.

As a result Jack was on the phone to Cosworth before the season was out. He and Repco had agreed to pull the plug. Yet more pragmatic decisions.