That sinking feline

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Fifteen minutes of fame
Puma Mk1: Crystal Palace F3 — June 18, 1971

Designed for one formula but run in another, this is a story of how a fast cat almost killed an F1 wannabe because he was curious to see how it would go. By Paul Fearnley

Formula Three underwent a sea change in 1971: out went the 1-litre ‘screamers’, in came the wheezy 1600s. The doom-and-gloom merchants were predicting that the formula would be choked to death by its new air restrictor, and it’s true that the cars now sounded tame. By the season’s end, however, it was in rude health: 97 entries were received for the final race of the season.

Aussie Dave Walker dominated the year in his semi-works Lotus, but he was pushed hard by a phalanx of Marches. And by Brabham, Ensign, Chevron, Alexis, Palliser, GRD, Royale, Merlyn, Alpine — and Puma.

The Puma was the fruit of Alan McKechnie’s ambitious Newent-based team and, unlike some, it was in right from the start of the new formula — well, its build had begun two years earlier. Designed by Tony Hilder — son of renowned landscape artist Rowland Hilder — the car had been intended for the 1-litre scene, but the sizeable diversion that was F5000 (McKechnie ran Alan Rollinson and Mike Walker in that) meant the Puma was put on hold — holed up in a Peckham lock-up. But when impecunious FFord racer Bob Evans saw it, he knew it represented his best chance of moving to F3…

Hilder, who had a first-class degree in art and design, got his mechanical bent from building Austin 7 Specials. This led him to freelance for Cooper, Brabham and McLaren — and he also penned the stunning Piper GT road car. “I was mainly involved with bodywork and structural stuff,” he says. “But I took an interest in the overall design. I’d often think, ‘That looks a bit ropey…” He was itching to have a go, and a chance meeting with McKechnie gave him the design freedom he desired. “Alan wanted to build his own car; I said I’d like to build one. It just sort of happened.”

What “just sort of happened” was perhaps the lightest, stiffest, most advanced F3 of its time. Hilder plumped for a very narrow bathtub monocoque that stretched right to the tail of the car, and built it from Mallite, an aluminium-balsawood sandwich prevalent in the aerospace industry. “The monocoque only weighed about 10lbs,” he enthuses.

The ambition didn’t stop there: the car was suspended on rising-rate torsion bars (ground-down Morris Minor jobs) front and back, and Hilder proudly possesses a photograph of Colin Chapman taking a long, hard look at the car.

Evans: “It was a lovely little thing: well-balanced and brilliant on the brakes. If only it had had a decent engine…” Whereas most F3s that year ran the twin-cam Ford tweaked by Novamotor, Holbay or Vegantune, Puma’s was fettled by BRM. “It wasn’t good,” continues Evans. “The mechanics used to say it had ‘more pipes than the house at Beaulieu’.”

Very few cars turned up for the first big race of the season at Brands Hatch and half of these were being built in the paddock when practice began. Evans made the most of the opportunity — and the rain — to qualify fourth. He wasn’t happy with the engine, however, and altered its cam timing overnight in a bid to widen its powerband. He made a slow start and pulled in at the end of the first lap!

By June, the BRM motor had bigger valves and a new camshaft. It was an improvement, but Evans still needed rain to be competitive. He got plenty of it at Crystal Palace. This non-championship meet was a ground-breaking Friday-evening bash that was supported by a pop concert, a fashion show and a fair — a bid by the BARC to inject new life into the under-threat venue. Sadly, its innovation was washed away by the weather.

The racing went ahead, though, and James Hunt’s March sat on pole position for the shortened F3 race. Alongside him was the sister car of rookie sensation Roger Williamson. And next to the pair of them, having matched Williamson’s time, was Evans. His team was hopeful of a win if only their man could make a clean getaway. “He started in second gear!” remembers Hilder. Hunt jumped ahead and led to the end, while Evans harried Williamson throughout, but to no avail. Even so, third was surely a sign of better things to come…

With a Vegantune now amidships, and its handling sharper than ever thanks to a shimmed suspension, Evans and the Puma were under the Castle Combe record in testing in late July. It was coming together. And then Bob crashed — breaking his neck against a cam cover. The season was over for driver and car.

“Alan was there and I wanted to show him what a good job we were doing, how good a driver I was,” says Evans. “It had started to rain. Tony waved me in, but I decided to stay on it for one more lap… The irony is that Alan had been called away.”

Hilder’s enthusiasm for the sport had been waning even before the crash. Although he designed Puma Mk2 — an overly complex car which, after lots of chops and changes, would eventually carry Nigel Mansell in a 1977 British F3 race — he’d soon swap the draughtsman’s board for the artist’s easel.

“The initial design was what excited me, not the development of it. Plus, if you designed anything innovative, it was either banned or copied. Nor did we have the resources to compete in terms of customer cars…” This Puma had bitten off more than it could chew.