Connaught

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Moving Up A Gear

We left the story of Connaught Engineering at the end of the 1951 season. The first Type A F2 car (A1) had performed creditably in the type of race for which it had primarily been designed: sprint events in Britain, mainly contested by gentleman amateurs with the odd pro or semi-pro entry adding a bit of spice.

Development ot the car had taken much longer than expected, though, largely due to Rodney Clarke’s insistence on perfection. Everything had to be properly drawn and detailed, short cuts were frowned on. Mike Oliver, Clarke’s right hand man, in charge of engine development, remembers his friend as an enigmatic man. “Rodney was very clever, with plenty of common sense, but he could also be extremely obstinate. He knew a lot, but once he’d got an idea in his head, he had to pursue it to the end, to find out if he was right or wrong. This obstinacy cost him in all sorts of ways.

“He was extremely thorough and painstaking but he could be, by turns, utterly charming or bloody infuriating. He could be very avant garde in his thinking, while I was more conservative, which gave us a balance.”

‘Johnny’ Johnson, the head of Connaught’s Drawing Office, recalls that by the end of 1951 the team had made only a single racing car (A1) and the 2-litre version of the engine still had not been completed, yet everyone in the firm was working every available minute. After one worker opened his pay packet and discovered he’d put in a 96 hour week. Kenneth McAlpine stipulated that nobody was to work more than 50 hours’ overtime a month for he felt that his men were being over-stretched.

In a memoir of his days at Connaught, Johnson writes: “R.E.C. circulated a note (at the end of 1951) to the effect that while Maserati proposed to incorporate 50 modifications to their cars during the winter, we had not produced even one car in a year.”

At Clarke’s request, Johnson investigated the reasons (which were apparent to him) and wrote a report. The gist of it was that Clarke should stop his striving for perfection for long enough for cars to be built then, once they were realised in metal, they could be modified and developed.

Clarke was big enough a man to take the report and act on it, and further chassis were laid down. A1 was the prototype car, A2, a frame built to the same specification and not used, A3-A8 had an inch added to the original seven foot wheelbase and the castor angle was altered from 2-1/2° to 5°.

While Connaught got on with the job of building cars for the customers who had shown interest in the project, there occurred in 1952, a radical change in the racing scene. Alfa Romeo had withdrawn from F1,  Farina and Fangio having won the first two World Drivers’ Championships in their 1.5 litre supercharged Tipo 159 Alfettas. The company had nothing more to prove, and besides, the 4.5 litre unblown Ferraris had proven to be too much of a threat for comfort, with the promise of more development to come. The only other potential winner, the V16 BRM had not been reliable and since the team could not be relied on to appear at the races it entered, F1 would have consisted of Ferrari, a few make-weights and haphazard appearances by BRM.

The decision was made, late in 1951, to run the World Championship for 2-litre F2 cars for 1952 and ’53, with a new Formula One coming into force in 1954. At a stroke, the Connaught was a Grand Prix car.

Mike Oliver had performed near-miracles in doubling the output from the 1,767cc aluminium-block Lea-Francis engine and it was typical of Connaught that he was set up with an engine test shop equipped with facilities for measuring just about every engine parameter.

“When I tested the engines, I refused to wear ear protection, which was a bit silly really because it did affect the range of my hearing, but I wanted the awareness which comes when you can hear absolutely everything.

“Breaking con rods was the favourite thing in those days and we were determined not to join in.  We machined our own rods from hand forgings, made to our specification, and we never did have one break.

“The Lea-Francis aluminium block which used wet liners, was quite adequate for the purpose for which it was designed, but there just wasn’t any spare meat available for us to beef it up to cope with the increased bore size and power we were getting in 2-litre form.

“The main problem we had, though, was the cylinder head joint. When we opened the bore to 79mm for the two litre version of the engine, we had a small bridge between the two pairs of cylinders, for the studding was not sufficient to hold the head down. The result was that under extreme pressure (we ran very high compression ratios) the gases would blow out into the water passages. This in turn would force the water out of the cooling system and we’d end up with a cooked engine.

“We tried various possible solutions, such as Wills’ rings and shaped copper shims, but the seal always remained the Achilles heel of the engine and all we could finally do was to diminish it by very careful assembly.

“Careful experimentation showed that fitting the 4 Amal carburettors on 10in ram pipes gave the best results, Webers were tried but showed a tendency to flood. With the Amals proud in the air stream, Oliver constructed a plenum chamber around them. This was always known in the team as the “MacGuffin” 

“We had the car at a race meeting and were busy at work when this chap came up and pointed to the chamber and said, ‘What’s that?’ One does try to be helpful in such situations but we were up to our eyes in it and I hadn’t time to chat so I said. ‘Oh that? That’s a MacGuffin’. It seemed to satisfy him because he thanked me and went on his way, but the name stuck.”

In fact, Connaught was a team full of private jokes and odd names for things. Though everything was done to standards of professionalism at least as high as anything in European racing at the time, and everyone worked impossible hours, it was a happy, humorous, place to work.

The first customer for the Type A was Ken Downing, a quiet, modest, man from the Midlands who had enjoyed a remarkably successful 1951 season (15 wins) at the wheel of his Connaught 12 sports car. Downing took delivery of A3 and the first 2-litre engine to be released. Another gentleman-amateur, Peter Fotheringham-Parker, took delivery of A4.

McAlpine and Downing took their cars to Goodwood to test in 1952, prior to the Easter Monday Goodwood Meeting. Both suffered complete loss of oil pressure and, consequently, seized engines. They missed the meeting while the works tried to sort out the problem.

Various solutions were tried and discarded and then an oil pump to original specification was fitted and everything worked perfectly.  It appeared that a mechanic, who had recently left the team, had assembled the original pumps and left a lot of clearance in the belief that’s how it had been done at Brooklands. The belief cost Connaught two engines and a fortnight of very hard work.

The first time that more than one Type A appeared in a race was the 1952 International Trophy at Silverstone when the opposition included the HWM team, Behra’s Gordini, Hawthorn’s Cooper-Bristol and various private Maseratis and Ferraris. The three cars did not cover themselves with glory, though Downing managed fifth in Heat One.

A fortnight later, also at Silverstone, Downing managed a couple of wins but the opposition was too thin to draw any conclusions from them.  It was a different matter on June 1st in the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay in Belgium. The field was hardly top class, since it was the day of the Monaco GP, but it did include the likes of Paul Frère and Olivier Gendebien. Downing’s Connaught dominated the race and even after he slowed to conserve his engine, he had 14 seconds over Frère’s HWM with two laps to go. It seems that Mrs Downing was operating the pit signals and she was lacking somewhat in experience of the job. Downing slowed too much and Frère passed him 50 yards from the line.

Connaught’s Grand Prix debut came at Silverstone on July 19th. Four cars were entered for McAlpine, Downing, Dennis Poore, who had acquired A4 from Fotheringham-Parker, and Eric Thompson who was debuting A5. The four branch exhaust system had given way to one which ended in a single pipe and the compression ratio of the engine was increased to 12:1. Together with Oliver’s continuing painstaking work, these modifications caused DSJ to comment: “The new-found speed of the compact Formula II Connaught was the talk of Silverstone.”

In terms of power, Connaught was behind the foreign works cars but nobody made better handling machines. After the first couple of laps, Poore held third and Downing fourth, behind the works Ferraris of Ascari and Farina. Farina retired and both Taruffi and Hawthorn moved up the field after slow starts, but four Connaughts started and four finished, with Poore fourth, after a splendid drive, Thompson fifth, Downing ninth and McAlpine 16th.

For most of the season, Connaughts ran mainly in British events. They frequently featured in the results and wins came at Snetterton (McAlpine), Turnberry (Hawthorn), Prescott F2 class (Downing), Goodwood (Downing) and Charterhall (Poore).

Downing took his car to the Dutch GP (retired) but three cars went to Monza for Connaught’s first serious Continental raid. There was no works team in the sense of a separate operation but practically the whole workforce went to Italy to help out.  Stirling Moss was entered in one car and he not only qualified well up but held seventh until encountering valve gear problems. McAlpine retired with rear suspension trouble and Poore finished 12th.

By the end of the season, six cars had been built and the firm’s reputation had grown correspondingly. The tally for 1952 read: six firsts, five seconds, three thirds, four fourths, six fifths and two sixth places. Apart from the drivers already mentioned, Leslie Marr bought A5 and, as well as doing a lot of test driving, Mike Oliver also raced on occasion.

Mike Oliver is a charming, modest man, and by all accounts he was a fair driver as well, though he is diffident on the subject. He was certainly an outstanding pilot and during his entire Connaught period remained a flying member of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. When Connaught folded, he eventually became chief test pilot at Folland and so was heavily involved in the development of the Gnat fighter.

His recollections of Connaught’s customers tend to be warm ones, particularly when he talks of Downing and Poore. It seems Connaught attracted pleasant people or, perhaps, the unpleasant ones were not given very much encouragement.

Towards the end of 1952 Downing decided to sell up and emigrate to South Africa. It was typical of him that, though he was a paying customer and therefore some would say he owed Connaught nothing, he took Oliver and Clarke to lunch at the Savoy to break the news.

Some of the ideas which came sparking from Clarke’s fertile mind were mentioned in the first part of this story. During 1952, with the Type A running happily, he came up with another: a very light space-frame F2 car using two 998cc V-twin JAP engines. In other words, a cross between a glorified kart (some years before the first karts appeared in the States) and a Shelsey special.

At first glance it was a hare-brained scheme but remember how, in the Sixties, Tico Martini won hill climbs outright with what was essentially a 650cc kart?  In tandem, the JAP engines would have delivered 180 bhp and 180 lb-ft torque, which were highly respectable figures at the time. Allied to a lightweight frame and given Clarke’s expertise in chassis and suspension and the result might just have worked.

Clarke went so far as to construct a quarter scale model in balsa wood and drawings were made from the model. His aim was to build a perfect spaceframe without a single redundant tube. He worked away, cutting out spars from his model, to see if the whole distorted when they were removed, and gluing in others.

There would have been an engine on each side, just behind the driver, and these would drive through a common cross-shaft incorporating a flexible coupling and sprocket. From the sprocket a single chain would take the power to a Burman gearbox, as used on Norton racing ‘bikes.

From the gearbox, a triple chain would take the power to a duralurmin sprocket on one side of a ZF differential (there was to be a 9in drum brake on the other side) and from the diff  long, universally jointed, halfshafts would take the power to the wheels. Rear suspension would have been a de Dion lay-out located by parallel radius rods and a Panhard rod.

A beam axle, located by radius rods and a Panhard rod, suspended on coil springs, would be used at the front. It was estimated that the car, ready to race and with a driver on board would weigh about 980 lbs. This would have given the car alone a power/weight ratio of something over 500 bhp/ton!

A mock-up chassis made from 3/8in steel tubing was tack-welded together to prove the correctness of the triangulation. Since Rodney is no longer with us (he died in 1979) it’s impossible to know how serious a project it was. He himself said that it might not last long in a race but, while it did, it would scare the opposition.

Eventually pressure of work, and lack of money, killed the project. To have worked properly (and Clarke wouldn’t make compromises) there would have to have been some redesigning of the engines for few drivers would have liked an Amal carburettor in one lung and an exhaust pipe in the other, ‘Johnny’ Johnson, who worked with Clarke on the preliminary design, has sketched the broad lay-out of the car.

Since Connaught Engineering was Kenneth McAlpine pursuing his hobby from his private income, money was always tight. Cars bought by customers were a bonus, adding to the coffers and frequently enhancing the team’s reputation, but the base line was that Connaught existed because McAlpine wanted to go racing with his own car. The Connaught Engineering was never registered as a company but was Ken McAlpine trading under that name. One can only be grateful that he chose to spend his money in that way, for his hobby gave Britain a professional team at a time when we were still smarting from the failure of BRM.

It would have been possible to build a dohc version of the Lea-Francis engine and Albert Ludgate, Lea-Francis’ chief draughtsman, designed such a head. Apparently, a set of prints of the drawings were appropriated by one of Ludgate’s staff and sold to an ‘interested party’. Clarke was furious and refused to accept the originals and so soldiered on with the inferior breathing of the high camshaft, push-rod-operated cast iron head.  

Stuart Tresilian, had become friendly with Connaught and undertook some engineering consultation work for the company. On spec he designed a sturdy, 2-litre, over-square dohc engine which he offered to Clarke. Unfortunately the resources did not exist to produce it though the drawings remained at Send.

One day, while at the works, BRM phoned to ask him for some help with the V16 engine. He went to Bourne, cured the problem, stayed on and later designed the sturdy 2.5 litre, over-square, dohc engine which powered the P25. In essence, it was the same engine that he had offered Connaught.

McAlpine bought a JBS-Norton 500cc car in 1951, but since all the serious runners used similar Norton engines, he decided to look for a power advantage. Clarke had a theory that if you put a lot of the little diesel model engines on a common crankshaft, you might get 75 bhp, around 50, more than a Norton and he certainly sketched out a 500cc X-32.

Finally he decided on a dohc V-12 and Electron Developments of Richmond, which made model engines, was approached and asked to make a 38cc version of the Norton double-knocker engine. The idea was to test the theory and then, if it worked, to arrange 12 such engines on a common crankshaft.

It took a long time to complete and by the time it was delivered interest had been lost in the scheme, though the little engine did run.

Since 1953 was to be the last year of 2-litre Grand Prix cars, there was little point in doing more than take the development of the Type A as far as possible while, in the meantime, planning for the 2-1/2 litre formula. Connaught had two tricks for the season: nitro-methane and fuel injection.

While the use of special fuel mixes, usually alcohol-based, was commonplace (it was not until 1958 that a form of petrol was mandatory in F1, and then it was high-octane ‘Av-gas’) little was known on this side of the Big Pond about nitro. Oliver set to work to convert his engines to run on it.  His engine shop became known as the “Chemical Warfare Section” and the team maintained tight security.

Mike Oliver: “Nitro was similar to turbocharging in that you could get a lot more power but fuel consumption was appalling and reliability suffered. We also bought Hilborn-Travers fuel injection systems (which were fitted to A8 and A10).” Fuel injection was virtually unknown on the European motor racing scene at the time, though was widely used in the aircraft industry and in the States.

From Connaught’s point of view, it had the great advantage of simplifying the fuel system for, though the four Amal carburettors which were usually fitted gave as much power, their plumbing was intricate for space had to be found for four float chambers.

Because of the fuel consumption when using nitro, Connaught came up with two fuel mixes: CRF 30, for sprint races, and CRF 15 for longer events. CRF stood for ‘Connaught Racing Fuel’ and the number is the percentage of nitro in the mix.

Mike Oliver: “We may have been the first to use nitro-methane, though we strongly suspected that Leslie Hawthorn had used it in Mike’s Cooper-Bristol. If anyone else had latched on to it, they were being as cagey as we were.  We never referred to it by name, merely as an ‘aniline compound’. We painted over the name on the drums it came in and even tried to disguise its smell. I’d read about putting finely-ground bone meal in it and I can tell you that produced a truly foul stench.

The sudden appearance of a fuel injection system on A8 acted as a decoy when it appeared at Goodwood to start the 1953 season. Seven Type A’s appeared, the drivers being Kenneth McAlpine (A1), Tony Rolt (A3, which Rob Walker had bought from Ken Downing), Johnny Claes (A4, bought from Peter Fotheringham-Parker), Leslie Marr (A5), Peter Scott-Douglas (A6), John Coombs (A7) and Roy Salvadori (A8).

In the seven lap Levant Cup (F2) race, Salvadori set pole ahead of de Graffenried’s Maserati and stroked away into the lead. Salvadori had the race in the bag but, approaching the chicane on the last lap, a connecting rod to the accelerator broke and though he had enough steam to still have won, he was baulked by Paul Emery’s Cooper-Alfa Romeo, lost momentum, and de Graffenreid snatched victory. With Rolt third and McAlpine fourth, it was a good result and of course most put the Connaught’s speed down to fuel injection.

A detailed break-down of the season is more appropriate to a book than an article.  As before, most appearances were in British national events, though Claes entered a number of the lesser Grands Prix on the Continent. AL9, which had a 7’6″ wheelbase appeared in May, the property of John Lyons. AL10, another long wheelbase car appeared in August and this was fitted with a rear roll bar adjustable from the cockpit. It may have been the first time such a device was fitted to a racing car.

Counting only races, heats as well as finals, the score for the season was 21 wins, 12 seconds, 10 thirds, 3 fourths, 6 fifths and 2 sixth places. The winning drivers were Rolt (10), Marr (3), Salvadori (2), Ian Stewart (2), Eric Thompson (2), McAlpine (1) and Peter Walker (1).

André Pilette finished eleventh in the Belgian GP (A4), Moss came ninth in the Dutch GP (A8), Claes 12th in the French (A4), Bira seventh in the British (A8), MacAlpine 13th in the German (A1), while the patron and Jack Fairman were still running, but unclassified, in the Italian Grand Prix. Up to four cars appeared in World Championship events and there would be an occasional entry in lesser European races.

In recognition of Connaught’s achievements, the SMMT invited the team to exhibit a car at the Earls Court Motor Show. AL10 duly appeared and such was its basic standard of preparation that it required only a polish and a rag dipped in red paint put down the exhaust pipe to be presentable. By the end of 1953, Connaught’s attention was focused on the new Formula but the A-series cars continued to appear in British events over the next few years, picking up places and the odd Formula Libre win.

Work had been well in hand for the new formula, both in the matter of engines and a radical new,car. A sports-racer based on the A-series was also to appear. Though there was no lack of ideas, and Connaught has never received its due credit as a team of innovators on a par with Lotus but preceeding it, there was still uncertainty over its future.

Writing about a visit to Send in Autosport  December 1953, John Bolster had to sadly record that unless there was more money forthcoming, the whole works would close and the team disperse. Connaught’s expertise should, he wrote, be used by the British motor industry at large. Unfortunately, there was nobody in the motor industry with the wit to listen. —  ML