The Early Years

On 23rd October 1955, Tony Brooks won the Syracuse GP in a Type B Connaught. It was Britain’s first GP victory for over thirty years and it’s impossible to convey to those who did not live through that time what it meant to British motor racing and the ordinary enthusiast. A green car had won at last. It had beaten the aces of a crack Continental team. It was not impossible after all. You began to glimpse what the Israelites must have felt at the outcome of the David/Goliath contest.

True, it was neither a World Championship event and nor did it attract a full GP field, but it was over 240 miles and Maserati sent cars for Musso, Schell and Villoresi.

Brooks single-seater experience was limited, confined to a couple of Short races in John Risely-Pritchard’s F2 Type A Connaught. To preserve his car, he turned in only 15 practice laps and largely learned the circuit on a hired scooter. Still, his best time was good enough for third place on the grid which, in itself, caused a sensation. Though Connaught had been racing single-seaters for five years, they were not at all well-known in Europe.

In the race Brooks first battled with Musso then stroked away to win by over 50 seconds, setting fastest lap in the process. Since all the works Maseratis ran trouble-free, the victory was no fluke.

When the team finally returned to base, a party was thrown to celebrate. On the workshop walls were telegrams and cards from all over, including large firms wishing to be associated with the win. Rodney Clarke, Connaught’s founder, looked around at the walls and said words to the effect that it was marvellous how the congratulations came pouring in when they were successful but not one of the well-wishers was prepared to offer practical help.

A little over eighteen months later, those same workshops were the scene of a sad auction as the effects of Connaught Engineering were sold off. Clarke and his associates had finally decided to call it a day. By a bitter irony, the first successful post-War British F1 team folded, two months before Moss and Brooks took their Vanwall to victory in the Grand Prix d’Europe at Aintree, the win which heralded Britain’s domination of F1.

The writing had been on the wall for a long time, indeed, in December 1953 John Bolster had written in Autosport  that the firm’s future seemed doubtful and what a tragedy it would be if the company was allowed to fold. It was, he wrote, a potential research and development facility which could be of benefit to the whole British motor industry. The industry, possibly soured by its experience with BRM, didn’t want to know though Clarke tried hard to interest it.

At a time when most British racing car constructors were special builders working from rough sketches, Connaught maintained a full drawing office which employed up to eight people. There are current F1 teams with a smaller design staff.

At a time of make and mend, Connaught did things properly, engineering cars to the highest standards, which is why those in Historic racing are still running on their original magnesium wheels while Cooper-Bristols tend to run on Minilites.

The team had its own engine development shop complete with dynamometers. It experimented with its own wind tunnel long before most constructors even considered using one. Clarke’s level of thinking was extraordinary, way ahead of his time.

Connaught chassis design set new standards of roadholding but the cars were always let down in two areas, lack of money and lack of an engine to match the excellence of the chassis.

Connaught F2 cars used developed Lea-Francis engines while the F1 cars had modified Alta units. The firm investigated other power sources and at one time did some development work on a single cylinder unit intended to explore the feasibility of a rotary valve, air-cooled, V8 designed by Laurie Bond. Stuart Tresilian offered Connaught the design of a four cylinder dohc F2 engine but the money was not there to build it and later a modified version of Tresilian’s design appeared in the BRM P25. The Coventry Climax ‘Godiva’ engine appeared for a while to be a possibility but it was never released to customers and so the advanced Type J, which would have been a rear-engined monococque F1 car (in 1953!), was still-born.

Rodney Clarke was born in 1916 and, leaving school aged 16, enrolled on a three-year Automobile Engineering course at the Chelsea College of Automobile and Aircraft Engineering where John Heath, later of HWM, was a contemporary. When he completed his training he was unable to find a iob in the motor industry and had to settle for becoming a trainee with a firm making radios. This didn’t last and in 1935 he ioined the RAF as a pilot on a short service commission. When war broke out he was a Flying Officer on bombers but severe sinus trouble saw him invalided out in 1940.

He then ran in turn a hotel in Cornwall, a cinema in Exeter and a pub in Hampshire before being able to return for a while to flying, as a ferry pilot. In 1943 he set up Continental Cars Ltd with Leonard Potter. The two directors were joined by Robert Cowell and Pat Whittet in 1945 but they left within months and set up a rival business near Bagshot.

Continental Cars Ltd. bought, sold, and prepared cars, particularly Bugattis and hoped to be appointed an agent for Bugatti when production resumed post-War.  Clarke himself competed in club events with a Bugatti T 59 which was converted to road trim with additional styling by Denis Jenkinson. Towards the end of 1946, the business transfered to premises on the Portsmouth Road at Send, near Guildford.

Among Clarke customers was Mike Oliver, another ex-RAF flier with a love of fast cars. Mike has continued that love affair, currently with a Porsche 911 Turbo but just after the war it was a Bugatti T 356, bought from Clarke, with which he competed in the few events there were. Mike was at something of a loose end when Clarke suggested that he joined him in Continental Cars. He joined as Service Manager but soon became a major force in the company while Leonard Potter faded into the background.

Although he has no formal training, Oliver is a natural engineer with a particular sympathy for engines. He was eventually to oversee Connaught’s engine development shop but in the early days worked with Clarke on customers’ cars.

One such customer was Kenneth McAlpine who entrusted the preparation of his ex-Whitney Straight Maserati 8CM to Continental Cars. While much which passed for ‘preparation’ at the time was little more than routine service work, Clarke and Oliver developed the Maserati. While Oliver concentrated on the engine, Clarke experimented with damper settings, steering geometry and weight distribution and as he honed the car he learned the basics of what makes one really perform.

The hoped-for Bugatti agency did not materialise since the company never resumed full production. New cars of any description were scarce and most were ear-marked for export, but it was possible to obtain certain types of complete chassis, so Clarke decided to go into the car construction business.

The car was to be a sports model based on the short 14 hp Lea-Francis chassis with a body of aluminium panels on a tubular steel frame built by Leacroft of Egham. The entire body was detachable in less than fifteen minutes while the front section was made in one piece and hinged. The style itself was determined by necessity. Clarke wanted an all-enveloping body but one with compound curves would have been too expensive to make so he came up with a line which used only single curvature panels.

The result was the Connaught L series. “Connaught” derives from CONtinental AUTomobile and the ‘L’ was for Lea-Francis. It is possible that the idea of building such a car was inspired by a Lea-Francis-based sports car produced, and offered for sale, by Robert Cowell and Gordon Watson in 1947. It was based on a LeaF 14 hp chassis, shortened and lightened, and had a body designed by Denis Jenkinson. Cowell and Watson had ambitious plans, which included a I-1/2-litre GP car, but these came to nothing and only the one sports model was made.

The chassis of the Connaught L series was near-standard Lea-Francis, with just minor adjustments to the damping and steering. It was in the engine department that the big changes were made. Taking the long stroke, four cylinder, 1767cc LeaF unit and working in conjunction with Peter Monkhouse and A. N L. Mclachlan of Monaco Engineering, Mike Oliver produced new high-lift camshafts, substituted four Amal 10TTs for the original twin SU H4 carburettors, and converted the engine to dry sump lubrication. There was a four-branch exhaust manifold and optional hc pistons which everyone seems to have specified.

Two models, the L1 and L2, were listed but no L1 was ever built. Described as a “Sportsman’s Roadster”, it would have been externally identical to the other cars but would have retained SU carburettors and wet sump lubrication in an engine which gave 98 bhp to the 102 bhp of the L2’s “Competition” specification.

Notional L1s would have used standard LeaF gearbox ratios and not had the front brake cooling scoops and competition Ferodo linings of the L2. Since the only other difference between the L1 and L2 amounted to trim and all the other options, like high compression pistons, alternative final drive ratios and magneto in lieu of coil ignition were available on both models and they were expensive to start with, it’s hardly surprising that customers ordered the L2.

With a dry weight of 2130 lbs, the L2 would do a genuine 104 mph and accelerate 0-60 mph in 11.9 seconds. In March 1951, Motor Sport  tested Mike Oliver’s personal car (MPH 995) which was then running with twin SUs and softer valve springs but was still giving 107 bhp (122 bhp was eventually seen by some engines running on petrol). In his report, Bill Boddy was lost for superlatives when it came to performance, road holding and the stopping power from the Girling hydro-mechanical brakes, though he did concede that the body flapped and rattled and the doors didn’t like staying shut. He concluded with, “the Connaught is one of the nicest, fastest, safest, point-to-point cars I have driven.”

On its introduction the L2 cost £1275 including tax, but within eighteen months, partly due to Lea-Francis price increases, that had risen to £1,610. To put it into perspective, that was the cost of two Jowett Javelin saloons. The cars were too expensive to attract many customers.

The first L2 (MPH 329) was registered in October 1948 by Connaught’s first customer, Kenneth McAlpine, and made its competition debut the following June at Prescott where it won the 1,501-3,000 unsupercharged sports car class. The following Saturday at the BOC Silverstone meeting McAlpine took fourth in a ten lapper for “Miscellaneous Cars”. A fortnight later he finished a creditable second at Silverstone in a five lap scratch race and two months later, at Goodwood, Clarke (in MPH 996) won a five lap handicap from McAlpine who also finished second in another handicap. Then at Blandford in late August, McAlpine led home Clarke to score a Connaught 1-2 in the Two Litre sports car race. It was a promising beginning.

By April 1950, six L2s had been completed though the sixth, for Ken Downing (OPC 3) had a stroked 1,480cc (114 bhp) engine. Downing also took advantage of the easily-removed body to have an alternative shell for racing, a cycle-winged affair along the lines of a Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replica.

During 1950 Lea-Francis changed to wishbone and torsion bar independent front suspension and Connaught had to do the same — under protest. Clarke was unhappy with a marked deterioration in his cars’ handling and he tried to persuade Lea-Francis to continue supplying beam-acted chassis. Since Connaught had built only six L2s, after eighteen months of production, Clarke was not in the strongest position to make demands.

Any car built on the ifs chassis was designated ‘L3’, but they were few — and undistinguished in competition. The L2s had a mixed 1950 season, enjoying some success at club level but finding more serious competition a little stiff .

McAlpine, Clarke and Oliver disposed of their cars during the following year and responsibility for the marques reputation fell to customers. Ken Downing won 15 races and sprints in OPC 3 during 1951. Other owners achieved virtually nothing in the way of results.

Downing’s car seems to have been the inspiration for the L3/SR (sports racing) which had an aluminium and ash body built by Abbotts of Farnham. Despite favourable publicity only eight Connaughts had been built by early 1951 and the L3/SR was intended to offer a sportier line, better value and, being 225 lbs lighter, better performance.

Interest from America suggested that an initial batch of 12 cars might be sold there. The first L3/SR was completed in July 1951 and shipped out for Harry Gray to drive in the Watkins Glen Grand Prix. Though it won its class, it did not impress the Americans with either its finish or price and no orders came. Total production of the L3/SR was three cars, the last one being completed in October 1953. None had a rernarkable competition career.

Duncan Rebagliati, the current owner of MPH 996, has established that 14 Connaught L series cars were made. There were six L2s, two Leacroft-bodied L3s, the three L3/SRs and three other chassis.

A firm in Stoke-on-trent produced one body which, though beautifully made, was to the wrong dimensions which resulted in a bloated look. It was exported to Kenya, had a chequered career, was discarded on a farm without instruments or engine but has now been brought back to the UK.

The reason for finding another coachbuilder was that Clarke had been disgusted by Leacroft whose works were untidy and who stored the body frames outside with the result that they were supplied already rusty.

With their aviation backgrounds, Clarke and Oliver insisted on the highest standards. Connaught’s workshops may have been modest, a far cry from today’s purpose-built factory units, but they were spotlessly clean. Connaught’s mechanics, too, had to be well turned out and the company even employed a professional car cleaner to keep every item spotless.

When L series production formally ended in 1954, there were two spare chassis. They were sold to Leonard Potter who passed them on. One (TPB 915) was finished with a tank-like body by the firm in Stoke while the other was sold un-bodied and remains so to this day though along the way the original chassis has been replaced with a tubular frame.

Of the 14 L-series cars, only one, an L2 (MPH 998) is not accounted for. By the early Sixties it had been brought up to scratch and sold in California but there the trail goes cold.

Even before the first L2 was finished, McAlpine had begun to develop a close interest in the project and in the potential of the talent at Send. Like Clarke and Oliver, McAlpine was an ex-flier. Impressed by their results and feeling a need to put his motor racing on a more professional level, McAlpine formed Connaught Engineering on 1st January, 1949; the company was effectively Kenneth McAlpine trading under that name to create a Formula Two car for his own use and for sale to like-minded customers. Gradually Connaught Engineering took over the facilities of Continental Cars Ltd until, by mid-1951 Continental Cars had ceased to exist except as the freeholder of the premises occupied by Connaught Engineering.

A draughtsman, Gordon Rymer, was engaged and in May 1949, C. E. ‘Johnny’ Johnson was appointed his assistant. Rymer left shortly afterwards and Johnson became chief draughtsman.

Clarke was a great ideas man but could not draw while Johnson was a quick and accurate draughtsman who admits to having had little idea about actual design. “All I knew when I joined the firm straight from my training course was that when you drew a pencil across a sheet of paper, it left a black line.” Johnson therefore became a son of engineering amanuensis to Clarke and learned his craft rapidly.

Johnson stayed with Connaught for just over six years and has written a fascinating manuscript about his years at Send. From it we can take two examples from 1950 of the sort of ideas Clarke was generating.

The first was a four wheel drive sprint car for McAlpine using the straight eight supercharged 2.9-litre engine from his Maserati. The engine was to be centrally mounted on one side of the driver and there was to be a free wheel between the two differentials. Lay-out drawings were made but the size of the engine meant that the car would have been too wide and long to be effective.

Then there was an idea for a mid-engined coupé, with the engine mounted transversely, intended for the American market. Had it been built it would have been years ahead of its time but when possible engine suppliers were approached, none could come up with the right unit at the right price so the idea was quietly dropped.

Mike Oliver is of the opinion that neither were serious projects, both being beyond the company’s resources. He says, “Rodney had many very avant garde ideas, and I am afraid I sometimes became rather impatient with him because I was probably too conservative. In practice I think it was probably quite a healthy combination.”

When Johnson joined Connaught in May, 1949, the first two Type A F2 chassis had already been laid down. Then came a decision to lengthen the wheelbase by an inch so the frame of A2 was redundent but A1 was built up as the prototype test machine.

The chassis appeared fairly conventional, a simple ladder frame with two large (3-3/4 in) diameter tubes, but it was extremely light and carefully detailed. As an example, the front cross-member doubled as a 3-1/2 gallon oil tank. Where it differed from contemporary ladder chassis built along similar lines was in the scrupulous attention given to optimum weight distribution, all those experiments with McAlpine’s Maserati being applied.

Fuel was stored in two tanks along the sides of the car so its balance remained constant as the fuel load lightened. Clarke’s aim was to build a single seater complying with F2 regulations for the capable amateur driver to race in British club and National events. Since these were generally short affairs, initially only 19 gallons of fuel was catered for. Given the type of driver he had in mind, Clarke aimed to produce a neutrally handling car though when later some more able drivers got hold of Connaughts they complained of excessive understeer which had then to be dialled out. As fitted to A1, the engine retained the LeaF internal dimensions (75mm x 100mm, 1,767cc) and it gave 130 bhp at 6,000 rpm running on alcohol. This was nearly double the output of the standard LeaF engine but still a long way short of what Ferrari or Maserati had.

If finance and expediency gave Connaught a handicap in terms of power, the company went some way to redeeming the disadvantage in its chassis. There was no better handling car of the time and it was the one area where Clarke always led his contemporaries. Front suspension on all cars was by double wishbones and torsion bars but A1 alone had independent rear suspension, again by double wishbones and torsion bars.

The specified gearbox was a four speed preselector unit designed by the Self Changing Gear Company to Wilson patents. Common lore had it that such a unit absorbed too much power but working on the basis that energy is indestructable and that if power was being wasted, it would convert into heat, Oliver was not convinced for there was no evidence of excessive heat. Typically, he tested both types of gearbox on a dynamometer which demonstrated that there was virtually no difference between a preselector ‘box and a conventional one. The preselector had the advantage, though, of near ideal gear ratios and quicker change.

Specialised metals such as nickel and nickel steels were the subject of severe government restrictions, being reserved for the aircraft industry, but Connaught’s works foreman, Fred Bowes, was a gentleman of great resource and many contacts…

There was no separate frame to hold car’s alloy body which was supported by its own strength and it was typicial of Clarke that he went to enormous lengths to find a paint which could be applied to the bare panels without primer (to save weight) and which would not streak or stain if the alcohol-mix fuel was splashed on it.

Lea-Francis had been exploring the idea of selling 1.5 litre engines to the American midget car racing fraternity and had made an engine based on the 1.7-litre unit but with the block cast in aluminium and the chain valve drive replaced by gears. The American scheme petered out but the company made the engine available to Connaught. As supplied, the block was a flimsy shell and though the LeaF valve gear arrangement of short pushrods mounted high in the block was retained, the final engine owed more to Connaught than its originator.

Oliver specified a new crankshaft and new valves, valve springs, camshafts, pistons and rocker covers. The few LeaF components were machined by Connaught Engineering, the units converted to dry sump lubrication, and the compression ratio raised to 10:1 since they were to be run on an alcohol based fuel.

To judge by the fact that an entry was filed for a race at Goodwood in May but later scratched, work on the prototype proceeded more slowly than expected but on August 7th, 1950, A1 was loaded onto the team’s painfully slow Austin coach and taken up to Silverstone.

Testing started the next day with Clarke at the wheel. Mike Oliver recalls Clarke as a very good driver but one who frequently preferred to leave the driving to others. His driving on that first day was anyway limited for the car achieved only a single lap. The rev counter drive broke, the rear suspension was found to be too hard and the seat, sagging under the driver’s weight, rubbed onto the prop shaft and melted.

The next day problems set in with the Wipac magneto and even a trip to the factory during which magnetos were carefully assembled and tested failed to remedy matters. They simply failed after a couple of laps.

Then Clarke recalled that the Wipac unit was a direct copy of a Scintilla Vertex and managed to track one down on a laid-up Riley. The ignition problems were solved.

On August 11th everything was going well when McAlpine turned up to watch progress. The circuit was about to close for lunch but the man in charge allowed him out for a single lap with a warning to beware of hay wagons at Stowe. McAlpine did one quick lap but enthusiasm got the better of him and he set off for a second. At Stowe he found the track blocked by a hay wagon and he left the circuit.

To his credit he refused to allow the dented bodywork and ripped seat to be repaired and so it remained, a reminder to take heed of sensible warnings.

The rest of the damage was repaired and in October McAlpine debuted the car at Castle Combe, finishing second to Stirling Moss’ HWM.

Writing in 1958, Clarke said he had conceived the car to have alternative rear suspension set-ups, the idea being to have the choice of the original irs or a de Dion axle depending on the circuit. During the winter of 1950/51 it was soon discovered that the de Dion arrangement, which he felt to be theoretically superior, was difficult to fit. Finally the tube was located in a near-vertical position but it took some time before the suspension was properly sorted. When it was, the results were such that the original irs system was shelved.

1951 was a learning year and the car raced on just nine occasions, a lot them in short British races. Brian Shawe-Taylor brought it home second in a five lap handicap at Goodwood on Easter Monday and McAlpine took fourth in a scratch race on the same day. He also took second places at two Boreham meetings and a first and a second at lbsley in August and Oliver drove it once at Gamston. From its nine starts it retired only twice, both times with a broken throttle linkage for the four springs needed to operate the Amals put some strain on the system.

All in all it performed well enough to make an impression and several orders were placed for cars to race in 1952. Connaught was on its way. — M.L. (To be continued)