Looking back with Mike Oliver
The exploits and achievements of Connaught Engineering in the early and mid-1950s are well chronicled and rightly so, for this ambitious privately financed effort at putting Britain on the Formula One map paved the way for others to succeed where Connaught only had partial success. Unlike BRM, support for which was canvassed from both industrial sources and public subscription during its dark days before it came under the protective wing of the Owen Organisation, Connaught Engineering stemmed directly from the desire of Kenneth McAlpine, son a the building magnate, to go motor racing. His joining with Rodney Clarke to form the Connaught organisation ended with their firm becoming a racing car constructor on a quite large scale to whom British and European privateers came for cars. One key man in the story of the marque is Mike Oliver, a former RAF officer whose enthusiasm for motor racing brought him into contact with Clarke and McAlpine, and ended with his being responsible for much of their engine development right through to the middle of 1957 when the team was finally disbanded.
Once his tenure at Connaught was over, Mike returned to the aircraft industry, graduating to the role of chief test pilot of Follands and now is responsible for customer liaison within Hawker Siddeley. But he retains his passion for cars and motoring and we recently spent a congenial evening at his home on the Surrey/Hampshire border talking with him about his days with Connaught, interlaced With some of his more amusing anecdotes concerning his flying experiences.
Shortly after the war Rodney Clarke set up a garage business on the Portsmouth Road at Send near Guildford, the speciality of which was the preparation and sale of Bugattis. Clarke himself had competed during 1947 with the ex-Brian Lewis Type 59 Bugatti, and it W5 s during this period that he struck up the acquaintance of McAlpine, who was driving a Mascrati at the time, but was anxious to expand his ;nvolvement in the sport. He approached Clarke with the idea of building a car for him. Clarke agreed, and came up with a design for a two-seater sports car using a 1,767-c.c. Lea-Francis motor which developed around 98 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. with the incorporation of special camshafts, connecting rods and a dry-sump oiling system. Some twentyfour Connaught L3s, as the model was titled, were eventually built and their modest success in national meetings against Healey, Frazer Nash and the like encouraged Clarke and McAlpine to take the next step, which was the construction of a single-seater for use in the then-current 2-litre Formula Two.
Mike Oliver had become associated with Connaught Engineering before McAlpine provided the initiative for car construction. He had been a keen post-war competitor in hillclimbs, sprints and a number of circuit events at the wheel of a Bugatti T358 which he had purchased from Rodney Clarke, but Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent recalls first meeting him at the end of the war when he was the proud owner of a Zagato Alfa Romeo 1,750 c.c., although D.S.J. declines to tell us just whose petrol coupons were used for his first “blast” up the road in the passenger seat of Oliver’s delightful possession!
The main purpose behind Connaught Engineering at this time was the commercial sale of racing cars to privateers. The firm’s first single-seater was the tubular chassis A-type Which retained the Lea-Francis motor driving through an ENV-Wilson preselector gearbox, and a total of nine such cars passed out of the Send workshops. Apart from the works car which McAlpine handled, several went out into the hands Of good-natured amateur drivers such as Dennis Poore, Ken Downing and Eric Thompson, whom Oliver recalls as “really pleasant and obliging people to work with. If they Made an error and overrevved the engine, they’d come in very apologetically and explain their mistake. It was a pleasure to work with people like this and one felt that the mechanics would repaint the car overnight had one of the drivers come into the pits and said he didn’t like the shade of green the car was painted!”
But while Mike Oliver’s responsibilities took him to most of the races, much of his time was spent in the Connaught test house, particularly when the team took the ambitious step of preparing a car to conform with the 2½-litre Formula One rules which came into being at the start of 1954. The B-series Connaught had been designed with the projected 2½-litre Coventry Climax “Godiva” V8 motor in mind; but eventually they were obliged to rely on the four-cylinder Alta unit which had been developed by Geoffrey Taylor and had origins stretching back to before the war, though it still offered up to 250 b.h.p. at a rev, limit of 7,000.
“We always tested every motor on the brake”, Oliver told us, “and one of the problems we encountered quite frequently was the quite remarkable scatter we used to get from engine to engine, the power often used to vary between say 250 and 265 b.h.p. But it was never something you could pin-point easily, inevitably proving to be a lot of small details rather than one single fundamental shortcoming. This problem sticks in my mind because I can remember Peter Berthon getting in touch with me many years later, after Connaught had finished racing, to ask my advice when they’d got a similar problem with the 2i-litre BRM. Again it was a number of small maladjustments rather than one major difficulty.” In those busy days of 1954 and 1955 the Connaught test house was constantly in use, the Froude water brake and its accompanying electric dynamometer in action at all times of the day “and sometimes well into the night, although we generally only did this if it was really urgent” as engines were checked and rebuilt during a hectic European programme. Inevitably the occasional mistake was made, such as when the soft “warming up” plugs were inadvertently left in one of the 2½-litre motors when it was run up to maximum revs, and the resultant explosion pasted bits of crankcase and connecting rods all over the inside of the test house after a piston holed “and neat methanol fuel went straight down to mingle with the hot oil in the crankcase. I just noticed that the engine was getting a little bit rough as we ran up the rev, range and had my hand on the huge STOP button, but the crankcase exploded a second before I could cut it off!” Chattering on the subject of the rev, limiters in current use on Formula One Cosworth motors, Mike Oliver remarked that he had always been a great believer in them when he worked at Connaught. In fact he devised such a system using Scintilla magnetos taken from a Coventry Climax fire pump engine “which always over-revved themselves once the flow of water had been stopped”. However, he ran into immediate resistance from drivers to this step, partly because they felt that the team should have built an engine which would with
stand being over-revved and partly because they didn’t like to feel that they were not trusted.
“But the truth of the matter is that to raise the rev, limit would have necessitated the use of ‘milder’ cams with a consequent loss of power. As the existing rev, limit already took the engine well beyond the peak of its power curve this would have been a ridiculous thing to do. In any case, one of the main reasons for fitting a rev, limiter was to safeguard our precious engines against the consequences of a missed gear-change or similar incident.”
Emphasising the crowded European racing programme, Oliver recounted how long the drag to Sicily took for that famous Syracuse Grand Prix in 1955 at which a young and unassuming dental student called Tony Brooks stole victory from the clutches of a strong Maserati contingent. It should be remembered that there were few motorways outside Germany; the Autostrada del Sole, which traverses the length of Italy, had yet to be built and there were no 85-m.p.h. racing-car transporters in those days. The Connaught cars were carried round the Continent in a trio of ex-Greenline AEC single-decker buses, “and on one occasion, in the mountains on the way down to Sicily, we were only averaging 11 m.p.h.! Nobody is disputing that the trip wasn’t worth it, even though one might have to be at Aintree the following Thursday for practising. British races were held on a Saturday in those days, so it was a question of driving right round the clock until you got to your destination”. It should be mentioned perhaps that while Mike Oliver was busy working on the Connaught project, he maintained his aviation connections by being a member of the Auxiliary Air Force “flying Meteors and the like” until it was disbanded by the Government in 1957. And it was this same year that Connaught’s withdrawal from racing was to prompt him to rejoin the flying business on a full-time basis. But Connaught’s hey-day kept him more than occupied. “It was just a little bit frustrating in some ways that it was often difficult to persuade people that the Connaught could really be competitive.”
Oliver recalls this frustration in 1956 when Stirling Moss tried a Connaught, a BRM and a Vanwall at Silverstone because he felt that Moss appreciated their dilemma. He could see the appeal and varying merits of all the cars, but although the Connaught handled impeccably—and there were many drivers around who would happily verify this fact— he didn’t feel inclined to pin his faith in the old four-cylinder Alta engine. “Things might have been different if we had managed to build a fully competitive engine”, continued Oliver, “for Stuart Tresilian had a 2½-litre unit designed which he offered to us, but we unfortunately hadn’t got the facilities at Send to build up such an engine. That was rather a shame, because Tresilian then went off to build a similar engine for BRM, using a lot of the ideas that he’d put into his first design. That turned out to be an excellent unit, but it was installed into a car which didn’t handle as well as our Connaught”. In fact Oliver well remembers talking to Roy Salvadori later at Monaco, when Salvadori was driving a BRM, and Roy made no secret of the fact that he didn’t like the chassis one little bit “but the engine just will not break, no matter how hard I drive it!”
About 40 people were employed by Connaught Engineering when it was producing and maintaining a lot of F1 and F2 cars, and the little factory was packed to capacity. “I well remember Johnny Claes’ mechanic, Lucien Bianchi Senior, father of the driver who died at Le Mans in 1969, warming up Claes’ yellow F2 Connaught in the compound outside the factory. I thought he was going to run up and down in the factory yard but to everyone’s amazement he drove straight out of the gates and disappeared up the A3 towards Cobham. We just stood and listened in amazement because the engine could be heard for miles. A short while afterwards he came back and drove into the yard. And we never heard anything about it from the police, even though it must have been the most distinctive thing on the road for miles around!”
There were other amusing episodes concerning Connaught mechanics. One such employee owned an elderly Salmson and, when he was noticed to be five or ten minutes late on his return from lunch, he explained: “I’m afraid a big end failed.” Everyone looked at him and Oliver asked “where did you leave the car?” “Oh”, said the mechanic, “it’s outside. I cut up a bit of the bonnet and made a new big-end shell out of it!” Apparently he made a habit of cutting bits of his car up to repair various other components which either wore out or fell off!
Another amusing episode came when Moss was driving for them at Dundrod and he complained that the gearbox wasn’t feeling quite right and it ought to be changed before the race. “There was plenty of time, so. the mechanics worked hard and did the job in time. But when Stirling started up the car there was this terrible noise which nobody could understand. What had happened was that the chief mechanic had told one of the lads to load the truck with ‘that gearbox in the corner% Unfortunately there was a gearbox in the other corner and the mechanic misunderstood the instruction and loaded up a box which had been blown apart at the previous meeting!”
Despite all these various pressures, Mike Oliver occasionally found time to get some racing mileage behind the wheel, and at Charterhall in 1952, W.B. reported: “Wharton led away in his Cooper-Bristol but after a lap Poore had the low, compact Connaught in first place. Wharton held on determinedly and led again on laps seven and eight, after which Poore re-passed him. Alan Brown had been running third in the Cooper-Bristol, some way behind the duellists. Alas, Wharton retired on lip 10, and Moss now came up into second place in the G-type ERA-Bristol. This held from lap 10 until McAlpine’s Connaught passed Stirling on lap 16. Mike Oliver now ran fourth with the third Connaught, so E.R.A. was the meat in the Connaught sandwich. Brown meanwhile fell back and the Cooper coasted in on lap 33 with its inside badly mixed up after the timing chains had come adrift.
“The remainder of the race was enormously ,exciting because Oliver clearly decided that a 1, 2, 3 victory for Connaught would be a Good Thing. He pressed Stirling harder and harder, sliding snakily on his corners in the effort, and after another car had made it inexpedient to go by the ERA at his first attempt, he took his chance out of Paddock Bend on the very last lap, and that I, 2, 3 finish belonged to Connaught. Fine show, Mike! Poore averaged 80.89, McAlpine 80.09 and Oliver 79.93 m.p.h., 34.6 and 6.6 sec., respectively, separating the three green cars.”
An outing in one of the Syracuse B-types at the 1956 Silverstone International Trophy meeting ended in a big accident approaching Woodcote Corner: “I was driving a car which had been crashed in its previous race at Aintree and it had been a great hurry trying to get the car ready for the Silverstone race. In all honesty I’m not totally sure whether we Should have been racing it because it had been Pit together again in a pretty hasty fashion and hadn’t been tested. I was having a lot of trouble with the brakes, because the front brakes progressiveb faded and I was eventually left with only braking on the back Wheels.
“That’s pretty dangerous; you have to be absolutely straight when you touch the pedal in these circumstances, and I’m afraid I was a little bit out of line when I hit the brakes, the back locked up and I Was out of control. First the car -spun and then it went end over end, so I count myself pretty lucky only to have been left with a broken shoulder as the car was very badly damaged.”
By the start of the 1957 season the writing waS virtually on the wall for Connaught although we were lucky enough to have a couple of very good drivers in Archie ScottBrown and Stuart Lewis-Evans at the time. But we could only use Scott-Brown in British races as Continental organisers didn’t want to know about him at the time because of his deformed arm. It was at about this time that I began to think that the prize money system in Formula One should be revised to provide for a lap leader’ system. I cart well remember one occasion when Scott-Brown swapped the lead with Moss at Goodwood just about every other lap only to blow up a couple of laps from the finish. We didn’t get a penny, but the fellow who virtually coasted round to finish second after we retired picked up a healthy sum”.
In fact Oliver recalls that one of the greatest prcblems in the final months was haying to persuade drivers to “take it easy” and not overrev the engine because “we have to race again next weekend and we’re getting a little short on power units”. Ultimately it was Kenneth McAlpine’s waning interest and the cancellation of a large number of European races in the early part of 1957 which was responsible for the withdrawal of Connaught from racing shortly after the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix.
While McAlpine and Clarke developed other business interests, Mike Oliver took a month’s holiday before being approached to deliver some Percival Provosts for the Sudanese Air Force, then very much a fledgling organisation. “I can always remember arriving at Nice with the first plane for the Sudan and its registration number, in Arabic markings of course, was quite simply ‘One’! The customs man just wouldn’t believe me that an aircraft could have as simple a number as ‘One’ and I just wish I’d been able to stay long enough to see the look on his face when two, three and four arrived!”
Oliver stayed in the Sudan for a month or so, teaching the novice pilots how to fly, returning to England shortly before there was a monumental accident to several pilots who were endeavouring, rather unsuccessfully, to fly in formation. On his return to England he got in touch with his old friend Mike Lithgoe (who was later to become chief test pilot for Vickers Supermarine and unfortunately die when the prototype BAC I-11 crashed on Salisbury Plain), who in turn put him in touch with Folland. He joined that firm in the autumn of 1957 and eventually became chief test pilot in 1964, flying particularly Gnats, on which he did much of the development test flying. “I just loved flying the Gnat fighter because it really was a Group 4 GT aeroplane. It was very small; you didn’t get into it—you put it on, and its excellent manoeuvrability combined with terrific acceleration and rate of climb made it very much a fun aeroplane. An American test pilot who flew it was asked what he thought of it: No fighter jockey should be without one’ was the reply. The Gnat trainer (as used by the Red Arrows) was good fun too but it is much more of a touring version, being larger and heavier and having a de-tuned engine for longer life.” Oliver gave up active flying in 1967 to concentrate on the customer liaison side of the business. “For example, if we sell Hunters to the Indian Air Force and they get into trouble with them, then we are the department who they contact to get their queries sorted out.”
Despite his overwhelming enthusiasm for flying, Mike Oliver retains a very astute interest in cars and motoring, having owned a series of exotic high-performance machines. In his Connaught days he graduated to a Jaguar XK140 which he describes as “a fine machine, and much better than the XK 150 I had afterwards which dumped the contents of its sump all over my feet and the carpets while I was returning from having it checked over at Coventry!” A short break with a Fiat estate car “provided by the firm” was followed by an E-type Jaguar, a 2.4-litre Porsche 911S and now, his current car, a 2.7-litre Porsche Carrera RST. “It’s the most effective and economical car from the point of view of pints per b.h.p. per hour”, he reflected. “We cruised at 130 m.p.h. last year in France and it ended up averaging 20 m.p.g. Yes, I’d like a Ferrari Daytona, but it is rather large and I would need to have my legs shortened to be comfortable on long journeys. I lost an inch off my left leg in a water-skiing accident three years ago, so if I have a few more like that there will no longer be a problem.”—A.H.