Mad, bad and dangerous to know

Modern Grand Prix cars are so similar that even the V12 has been consigned to history. But as Gordon Cruickshank finds out, not ever car designer has followed the norm.

Motor racing history contains far more losers than winners. Misfortune, mismanagement, mistakes and plain lack of talent have punctured many dreams. Hindsight makes wisdom easy, but there have been many schemes which simple foresight should have halted. Here we consider some of the more bizarre machinery which has approached the starting grid over the years –and even seen the odd chequered flag.

Pulling together

A simple shortcut to extra power is to install an extra engine, and many designers have taken this route when regulations allow. In 1928 Ettore Bugatti borrowed from an aero-engine scheme of two coupled straight-eights together with spur gears, driving through an otherwise conventional transmission, but this Type 45 suddenly became redundant when the French GP rules changed.

The year after, Maserati contrived a 4-litre 16-cylinder the same way; though the 300bhp machine was quick, it was unreliable, and even in later 5-litre form the Sedici Cilindri's speed never outweighed its problems. Both of these makes used common crankcase and maintained the crank's normal rotation, with a spur-gear between to connect them.

At Alfa Romeo, Vittorio Jano's version of the twin-engine scheme was more complex. For the Tipo A, Jano managed to squeeze two supercharged 6C 1750 engines side-by-side into what looked like a chubby 8C 2.3, giving 3½ litres and 220bhp. Nuvolari drove it in the 1931 Italian GP at Monza, but Jano ordered him to withdraw it after two hours due to its wayward handling. Nuvolari changed to the winning, less powerful but conventional 8C 2.3, ever after known as the Monza. Yet they did sort out the Tipo A; it later beat the Monzas in the Coppa Acerbo and made fastest lap in the Monza GP. This siamesetwin of a car had two gearboxes, each with levers linked to give a choice of left or right-hand use, two clutches, prop-shafts and final-drive bevels, with contra-rotating drive-lines. The driver sat centrally, very low between the twin prop-shafts, making this a true monoposto, and pointing the way to the single-engined Tipo B with its gearbox-mounted cliff, splayed propshafts and twin final drives.

This layout allowed Scuderia Ferrari to approach the double engine ploy from a different direction for the 1935 Bimotore, keeping both in-line by inserting a second straight-eight between the rear wheels of a stretched Tipo B chassis, driving forwards between the propshafts to the gearbox. With two supercharged 8C engines of either 2.9 or 3.2 litres, its tyre consumption outweighed its prodigious speed, but we can still hear its terrific sound thanks to Tom Wheatcroft's recreation.

Frenchman Emile Petit kept the driver of his twin-engined machine low in a different way. When his privately-built SEFAC practiced briefly for the 1935 French GP, it too proved to have two twin-cam four-cylinder units geared together, but only the left-hand crank fed the gearbox. Thus the prop-shaft ran alongside the driver to an assymetrical solid rear axle. Behind the other block lay a supercharger feeding both units. This machine wouldn't lie down and die: after two years in which the French Grand Prix was a sportscar event, it resurfaced in 1938 to do one lap in the French GP, and a whole 10 years later it was reskinned and presented, minus supercharger, as the Dommartin, but did not start any more races.

Terrible Twins

Anyone who remembers the vogue for ‘Twinis' – a Mini with a motor at each end – or the double-engined 2CV which was once France's flyweight 4x4 should warm to the way Lou Fageol tackled Indy in 1946. His 'Twin Coach Special' recycled a pair of Miller Front-drive packages to provide 4WD without propshafts, though the presumed advantage of sitting the driver low in between didn't materialise: the machine was as high-sided as a man o'war. Two supercharged short-stroke Offenhauser blocks with linked throttles kept it within the 3-litre blown limit. How the famously delicate transverse Miller gearboxes coped with linked remote shifting is a puzzle, but Paul Russo qualified second and was showing well when he spun off and destroyed the car. Somehow the team's optimism didn't extend to mating any more Millers.

Fire One

Amongst the aberrations of the Formula Libre period, Count Trossi's radial-engined torpedo must take the biscuit. Designer Augusto Monaco's theory was that the nose-mounted engine and front-wheel drive would make an efficient package, like the successful FWD JAP-engined device he had previously built, called Chichibio after his dachsund, which it resembled. But the Trossi-Monaco might have been more effective with a couple of wings added to make a neat fighter-plane. Eight blocks with twinned air-cooled pistons made this a 16-cylinder two-stroke, which drove back through a hollow mainshaft to the clutch and forward again to the 'box and differential. Two Zoller superchargers scavenged and boosted this device, but its 250bhp output was well short of its rivals, and in test outings at Monza in 1935 it overheated, even without its streamlined annular cylinder cowling. The wealthy Trossi, who was also president of Scuderia Ferrari, quickly cut his losses over the beautifully assembled spaceframe device, and turned to ordinary Maseratis and Alfas, winning two post-war Grands Prix.

US A-U

In 1938 that inventive Yank Harry Miller followed up his supercharged front-wheel-drive Indy cars with his swansong – what the British press called "an American Auto Union". In fact it was more sophisticated than that: the mid-mounted supercharged and intercooled twin-cam engine drove all four wheels, with independent suspension and disc brakes. The only starter was an aircraft-style explosive cartridge, while a row of dorsal exhaust stubs gave it a spine like a stickleback. To reduce the centre of gravity the engine lay at 45 degrees, but it didn't help much since the driver had to perch above two propshafts, one from gearbox to front axle and another back alongside the engine to the rear. Three of these Gulf-sponsored Millers entered the 1939 '500', and one qualified highly before retiring. But one of the pannier-tanked machines erupted into flames after crashing, and another did the same in 1940, killing its driver, while a third caught fire in 1941, burning down half the pits. The remaining car reappeared in modified form as the Tucker Torpedo Spl in 1946 and '47 with little result before spectacularly blowing up the year after. A dispirited Miller died of cancer in 1943.

Relegation for Arsenal

Britain's flag-waving BRM team had its gallic equivalent in the CTA-Arsenal, a quango-run project to raise French prestige on the track. Albert Lary, designer of the all-conquering straight-eight Delages of the 1920s, created a four-cam 1.5-litre V8 with two-stage supercharging like the Alfettas — not a bad lead. But the sliding-hub suspension looked odd, and in testing at Montlhéry in 1947 Raymond Sommer realised it was a long way from race-readiness. With inadequate support it was never going to make the grade, though Sommer did get as far as the start-line in the 1947 Grand Prix de PACF, where a half-shaft snapped on departure. Two cars staggered to Reims for the 1948 French GP, but the team wisely withdrew without racing. Sommer must have thought back to the CIA two years on, when the BRM broke its half-shaft on the line at Silverstone...

Don't cry for me, Cisitalia

Post-war Europe was hungry for motor racing, and Italy's little Cisitalia company smartly tapped into this desire with its simple Fiat-based racers. Inevitably for an Italian outfit, a plan to upgrade to Grands Prix soon surfaced, and in 1947 Cisitalia's Piero Dusio signed a contract with the Porsche design office for a 1500cc machine. The cash involved helped to release Dr Ferdinand Porsche from internment in Paris, where the French were using his pre-war work for the German state to force him to work on the new Renault 4CV. Like the Gulf-Millers, the mid-engined car had 4WD, but by using a rear gearbox and step-down gears for the forward shaft the whole machine was far lower, helped by the choice of a flat-12 layout. A sequential gearshift presaged today's racing norm. Twin vane-type blowers aimed to raise 300bhp, and the spaceframe chassis caned VW-style IFS and rear trailing arms within a wide but low body.

However, the huge investment put Cisitalia into critical condition financially, and Dusio's desperate relocation of the company to Argentina, underwritten by Juan Peron, in 1949 only delayed the inevitable. Development trickled on in Buenos Aires, but when the World Championship switched to Formula Two for 1952, Cisitalia, like BRM, found itself with a redundant car.

Some trivial local record-breaking completed the career of this forward-looking device which had the potential to take up the Auto-Union mantle — and would have stolen Cooper's thunder. Porsche later rescued the car for its museum, and Tom Wheatcroft bought an uncompleted second car and had it assembled for his collection.

Grooming a starlet

Cash was also the killer of a 1950s French project which was, if anything, even more promising than the earlier Cisitalia, which it somewhat resembled. Ignoring the unproven complexities of 4WD, an ex-Porsche engineer called Vigna drew up a simple and well-engineered Grand Prix car with a mid-mounted engine. He managed to find a rich patron, a French film producer called Sacha Gordine who provided both funding and name, and set to work. Early in 1953 the team unveiled two cars whose specification, apart from drum brakes, could have come from years later: mid-mounted magnesium-alloy V8, transverse gearbox, sequential shift, rack-and-pinion steering and a body which hung between the wheels like a '60s Lotus. Not only that but Vigna had Formula One, Formula Two and sportscar engines under way, several chassis built and a Le Mans car planned. It looked like the long-awaited French racing resurgence when the Sacha-Gordine was entered for the Pau GP, but one man could not support a nation's aspirations. As the scheme devoured ever more of his resources Gordine suddenly pulled the plug, leaving national prestige in the hands of the confusingly similar-sounding Gordini marque. All traces of the cars vanished. These machines were far in advance of the Ferraris and Maseratis of the time, and arguably more forward-looking than the forthcoming Mercedes W196; it didn't help.

Fire Two

Like many Italian engineers post-war, Enrico Nardi, famous for his steering wheels, tried to make the most of easily available running gear from small capacity automobiles. He built a mid-engined grand prix car in 1952 based on Lancia Aurelia mechanicals, but the 2-litre V6 was inadequate. In 1954 he entered a tiny 750cc Crosley-engined spider for Le Mans; it broke, but it led him to plan a bizarre machine for the 1955 24 Hours, aiming for minimum drag to offset its screaming 62bhp. Reasoning that the wheelarches were the highest part of a sportscar, he designed a twin-torpedo device with the driver and fuel tank in line with the right wheels and the 750cc Giannini engine in the other 'boom'. A slim aerofoil connected the two, with an aircraft-style low-drag surface radiator on its leading edge. It might have been a precursor of ground-effect; sadly its extremely light weight saw it literally blown off the track by a passing Jaguar.

Four wheels good, six wheels better

Though hillclimb cars often used twin rear wheels, the three-axle idea was limited to record cars until Indianapolis 1948 and the 'Pat Clancy Special'. An otherwise fairly conventional front-engined Indy racer, it had twin rear axles driven by its Meyer-Drake engine. Finishing 12th at Indy and posting reasonable results elsewhere was hardly dramatic, however; did the extra wheels boost a poor design, impede a good one, or make no real difference? When a Pat Clancy Special did win, in 1949, it had four wheels.

Tyrrell's six-wheeler, the 034, was a success, and thus rules itself out of this story The Williams version reverted to the traction argument with twin rears and no great technical sophistication a Clancy Special for the Eighties. Yet in its only competitive outing, at the 1995 Goodwood hilIclimb, Jonathan Palmer set FTD in it that's a 100 per cent success rate. When March decided to attract some attention in 1977, it assembled another twin rear-wheeler, mostly from parts of F2 cars. When Motor Sport’s Alan Henry suggested that March was pulling a leg or two, Max Mosley promised to run the car. And run it did: after breaking a gearbox on its first try-out because of the twin drive, it showed its paces in the rain at Goodwood, where its traction was praised. Trouble was, only one axle was powered... As a twist in the four-wheeled tail, Scalextric asked permission to model the car, and it is said the royalties made it the most profitable car March ever built.

...12 Wheels unbelievable

Sometimes a brave man throws away conventional restrictions and proposes radical answers to regular questions. Such a man is engineer David Cox, who around 1980 theorised that multiple wheels could make for a lowdrag, high-grip Grand Prix car, and drew up a 12-wheeled racer with hydrostatic propulsion to each hub. He countered criticism about lack of advertising surface by suggesting weighted wheeldiscs which would remain upright and carry a logo. With continuously variable transmission and braking by 'back-pedal' effect in the 12 hubs, control would be centralised on a push-to-brake, pull-to-accelerate column, while a handlebar operated tank-like steering by slowing one bank of 12in wheels. The driver, his feet now redundant, sat cross-legged in front of a horizontal-eight engine (think of two Arid l square-fours base to base) whose pistons drove an oscillating yolk instead of a crankshaft. There was no mechanical drive; the engine turned a hydraulic pump which ran everything else. In design terms it's efficient and logical; surely someone will build one soon...