John Nicholson

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Leading Formula Atlantic driver and Grand Prix engine builder

The British Grand Prix meeting was a great day for New Zealander John Nicholson. Thousands saw him take his Pinch Plant-sponsored Lyncar to a clear win in the supporting Formula Atlantic race, a penultimate round victory which placed him in the lead of the Yellow Pages Formula Atlantic Championship. To add a little more cream to his cake Nicholson had built his own engine for the brand-new Lyncar, but to crown his day of glory, this versatile young man had built the Ford DFV engines which propelled the Yardley McLarens of Peter Revson and Denny Hulme to first and third places in the Grand Prix.

Nicholson in a way typifies the Antipodean versatility which made his late employer and fellow countryman Bruce McLaren so successful: a first class driver and a first data engineer, he runs Nicholson-McLaren Engines Ltd., Hounslow, formed last January when he decided to break away from McLaren Cars in Colnbrook. The move was a search tor independence rather than a desire to cut himself off from the McLaren organisation for whom he’d built engines for several years. Indeed, McLaren directors Teddy Mayer, Phil Kerr, Tyler Alexander all have holdings in the new company while Mrs. Patty McLaren holds about two per cent for the use of the name. For the first four months before the new factory unit at Hounslow was ready Nicholson continued to occupy the same corner of the McLaren workshops. To describe the Nicholson workshops as clinically clean hardly does justice to the hospital-like surroundings where £8,250 (inclusive of £750 VAT!) DFV Formula One engines are scattered around in quantities suggestive of their being two-a-penny. At the current rate Nicholson estimates he will complete 80 rebuilds per year of the 22 DFVs he maintains regularly. Not surprisingly 12 of the DFVs belong to McLaren, while no less than five are maintained for Graham Hill’s Embassy Shadow, surely a greater number than for any other single F1 car, three for Dave Charlton’s South African Lotus 72 and one each for the hill climb cars of Sir Nick Williamson (Marlyn) and David Good (Lyncar). The last two short distance engines are of course infrequent visitors to Hounslow and geographic difficulties mean that Charlton’s engines are rebuilt less frequently than Nicholson would like. “We normally rebuild our engines every 600 miles, which means usually practice and one race so doesn’t involve too much abuse, but Charlton is forced to do 1,200 miles or more, his mechanics have to do some work on them and to they tend to come back here in an awful state.”

Maintaining Grand Prix engines is a demanding occupation in terms of scrupulousness and exactitude with rebuilds and the necessity to meet fine schedules. Nicholson keeps a schedule which is adhered to by the car constructors for each individual DFV so that he knows exactly when each engine can be expected to appear for rebuild and the constructors, who use engines on a rota basis, know exactly when to send them to Hounslow. In case of complete calamities, like a series of blow-ups, fortunately infrequent nowadays because of the improvements included in the DFV since Jim Clark took the first one to victory in the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix, three spare engines are available to be fed into the rota. Each routine DFV overhaul takes 120 hours at a cost of £400 to strip, inspect, crack test all components, machining where required and rebuilding, but not including parts. And the cost of DFV parts is out of this world even compared with notoriously expensive F2 BDAs. A new block is £1,200, cylinder heads for the V8, £320 each, while the cost of most items used in overhauls is in proportion, although surprisingly few other than seals and gaskets have to be replaced. Piston rings and bearings are changed at every rebuild, valve springs (the parts most likely to fail if they’re left in too long) and pistons every other time. Cylinder liners are changed perhaps every fifth overhaul but blocks seem to last almost forever, fortunately. Some of McLaren’s DFV blocks started life as 9 series four years ago and are still going strong, though Nicholson is worried that the webs might pull out so hopes to renew three of them by Christmas.

Camshafts have proved no problem at all since Cosworth changed the specification from iron, which used to snap like carrots, to steel. Cosworth have changed the cylinder liner specification several times too, from iron to steel, to tuftrided steel, never successful, to iron again. but Nicholson has stuck to iron throughout. Surprisingly he refrains from fitting Cosworth pistons, relying on Mahle pistons made to his own design. Bore and piston wear has become much more of a problem on dusty tracks since air-boxes came into use and in an effort to combat it I understand McLaren have been experimenting with a Mk. 10 Jaguar air filter stuck in the air-boxes!

Of course even Nicholson can’t claim his engines to be infallible – dramas do happen occasionally like two engines blowing apart in South Africa. Jody Scheckter’s threw a rod, leaving a gaping hole in the block and it’s perhaps surprising to learn that even where F1 engines are concerned damaged parts aren’t automatically scrapped: the alloy block was welded up and the salvaged engine contrived to power Scheckter to his terrific performance in the French Grand Prix. Apparently that particular engine is a real flier which McLaren didn’t want to lose. Nicholson comments that even DFVs can be immensely variable in power and performance. The reasons are obscure even to professionals like himself, for to all intents and purposes the units are identical yet an engine like the Scheckter one still proves superior after many rebuilds.

Rebuilding the alternator and distributor is a vitally important facet of each and every overhaul. “They’re among the things most likely to fall to pieces and cost a race. Compared with the now well-developed engine the electrics seem like an afterthought,” says Nicholson. The Lucas mechanical fuel-injection system receives an automatic overhaul too.

Nicholson finds that on the whole there are few problems still inherent in this tremendously successful engine, though he and the rest of the handful of DFV engine builders are troubled currently by oil seal difficulties. The latest type of scavenge pump for the dry-sump system is so strong that it is literally sucking the crankshaft seals inside out with obvious results. Different builders are trying different cures, Nicholson’s being to fit at the clutch end of the shaft an alloy ring with a left-hand thread channel through its centre to prevent the oil churning itself out. At the other end the simple cure is to turn the standard seal round. So far the arrangement seems to be effective, although the negligible drop of oil collected in the thread runs through into the clutch housing when the engine is stopped.

Converting early series DFVs to the latest specification (Series 12 and 13) has been a fruitful service, though ultimately it must die out when they are all converted. The main alterations to be made are to the head porting and two of the five main bearing caps (2 and 4), which on early series were integral with the sump/crankcase and on later series are separate steel caps. Nicholson makes his own caps and machines out the webs from the alloy crankcase lower half. A new oil pump has to be fitted too. Labour cost again is £400, but the alternative to this service, which Cosworth don’t offer, is to spend £640 on new heads and whatever the cost of the crankcase etc. Funnily enough converted engines sometimes give more power than the pukka Series 13. So far Nicholson has converted at least six, including the Series 10 with which Hulme won the Swedish GP and the Series 9 which took him to third in the British GP, and Jody’s quick Series 11. However, McLaren always buy two new latest specification DFVs from Cosworth each year and usually sell their oldest ones: DFV 906 went to Connew and 905 and 926 went into the two aforementioned hill-climb cars, though one of those two engines, now fitted to Good’s car, was an ex-Brabham example rebuilt by Nicholson.

Most GP followers probably imagine that engine builders never interfere with Cosworth’s laid-down DFV specification, regarding the originator’s designs as ideals, not to be interfered with. Nicholson gives the lie to this, incorporating several of his own ideas in his engines and with several developments under way, the most interesting of which is a short stroke version designed to give more power in the mid range. To achieve this he machines his short-stroke crankshafts from Cosworth forgings and overbores to 87 mm. to give a capacity of about 2,997 c.c., against the normal 2,993 c.c. The porting is re-designed too.

Both DFV 060 and 099 have run in this form, but a piston availability problem has caused the project to be put temporarily on one side. Originally standard DFV piston forgings were utilised. These proved too heavy and had to be milled on their insides to lighten them, Nicholson being unhappy about this makeshift arrangement. No other suitable pistons are available, so the decision has to be made as to whether it would be worthwhile having special forgings made. Brian Redman tried an overbored DFV fitted with the makeshift pistons but with the standard stroke in practice for the Rothmans 50,000, a 3,080c.c. unit which gave no less than 476b.h.p. on the brake.

Discussing specific outputs, Nicholson recalls that early DFVs varied between 400-420b.h.p. Power has increased gradually over the years – Series II engines were supposed to give 460b.h.p., but usually gave in the low 450s, the first Series 12 Nichohon tested gave 458b.h.p., and the best late Series he has seen gave 464b.h.p. The norm is around the 450-455 mark.

Other development too in the search for more GP power is at a standstill while two new Heenan and Froude dynamometers await installation at Hounslow, a 1,000h.p. version for F1 and other high output racing engines and a 400h.p. one for Atlantics and so on. The builders have a difficult job on their hands insulating the workshops from the dyno houses, but exterior noise oughtn’t to bring many complaints from neighbours used to the deafening jet roar from the London Airport flight-path directly overhead. Setting-up the dynos is in the hands of Eric Gaynor, who worked on the F1 Repco engines in Australia and recently installed a dynomorneter for Bill Blydenstein.

In the past Nicholson has experimented with cams he has designed in conjunction with Piper and development of this aspect and the gas-flowing of cylinder heads will proceed once the dynamometers are installed. Lengthy test-bed experimentation is impracticable on Champion’s busy dynamometer where he conducts routine tests on every DFV he builds. His Formula Atlantic engines are checked out on Racing Services’ dyno.

Atlantic engine building for customers is a comparatively new venture for Nicholson, although, of course, He has built up a considerable amount of experience and reputation with his own highly-successful engines. Current customers include Robin Smythe (GRD and March) and Tony Dinsdale (Huron). He’s also venturing into the realms of rally BDAs, his first such engine, an 1800 on Webers, lying fourth for most of the New Zealand Heatway Rally, its 208b.h.p. at 8,200r.p.m, and 160lb. torque proving sufficient to blow off the 2-litre engine in Mike Marshall’s Escort on a couple of occasions. This engine was built from scratch, whereas Nicholson’s work is restricted usually to rebuilds and overhauls. Rally engine building attracts him because he believes the fact that they are not tweaked to the limits of reliability allows a better and more satisfying job to be done. Formula Two engines aren’t included on his work sheet yet, although he has quite a lot of experience with them, being called upon to help sort out the problems with 2-litre BDAs last year.

Back on the subject of horsepower claims, many builders quote up to 215b.h.p. for their Atlantic engines. Nicholson believes that they must use a different sort of b.h.p. to him: genuine figures for his own engines have never exceeded 200b.h.p. and one race-winner had only 187b.h.p., yet those alleged 215b.h.p. engines can’t catch them!

The employee head count at Nicholson-McLaren now numbers 11, out of which four followed the boss from McLaren including workshop foreman John Steenson, and one came from David Wood engineering. Six of them are employed full-time on DFV building. As for future work, there are no boundaries so far as the Nicholson capabilities with racing engines are concerned and the limitations as to what type of engines he tackles will be laid down by physical capacity. Beyond that Nicholson is considering other possibilities for utilising his soon to be fully-comprehensive facilities, including research and development of anti-pollution engines for the road.

Nicholson came into racing by accident after serving his apprenticeship with an engine reconditioning business in his native Wanganui: “I didn’t even know what motor racing was then, though my father raced hydroplanes and I took over from him when I was 17 or 18.” Before long he was promoted to foreman and as part of his job was to pick up business he joined the local car club, competing in trials and gymkhanas with an old TR – eventually rolling it! For a potential racing driver his next car, a 1934 Morris Eight was somewhat out of keeping: the TR had had to go to raise money to buy himself into the business, a fortuitous move, for after he’d moved to Wellington to open up a new shop for the firm a public company took over and Nicholson found himself with a big enough pay out to buy himself a secondhand Elan with which he won several hillclimbs.

A year later the same slick salesman who’d sold him the Elan persuaded him to buy a 1500 twin-cam engined Lotus 27. Nicholson suddenly found himself thrown from his golfing hobby into the racing game without really intending it! The result was third overall in his very first race, pitted against Graham McCrae who was also having his first single-seater race in the ex-Roy (The Weasel) James’ Brabharn. Second in his second race simply confirmed his natural ability. But the incredible point in his early career was finishing ninth in the 1968 New Zealand Grand Prix, won by fellow Kiwi Chris Amon’s Ferrari: ninth might not sound brilliant but it was only his seventh race!

A Brabham BT18 followed and Nicholson got down to racing seriously before venturing to England to look for an F3 drive. Without money (he couldn’t sell the Brabham because the NZ championship changed to Formula Ford) racing was out, so he found himself a job with McLaren to learn the business and found himself building 1969 Can-Am engines with George Bolthoff. When Bolthoff moved to Detroit to start a new engine shop for McLaren Nicholson stayed in Colnbrook to look after the sports car engines, but later joined Bolthoff in the States for nine months. Back in England McLaren must have recognised his driving ability in spite of being out of racing for so long: he was allowed to carry out testing of the 8B and 8D at Goodwood.

McLaren threw him into the deep end with the DFV when Cosworth decided to concentrate on building current series engines only. A couple of days spent with the very helpful Cosworth people and the opportunity to pull a DFV apart was the only experience he could glean before having the responsibility of McLaren’s F1 engine building thrust upon him.

At the end of 1971, with the need to go racing again still frustrating him, he involved himself in Martin Slater’s Lyncar project. With a little bit of money behind him by now he bought Slater’s first car and did a deal with Piper, with whom he’d been associating on DFV development, to provide the BDA. Racing was the only testing which the Lyncar got, but the car was good enough to clinch him third place in last year’s Formula Atlantic Championship and attract the Pinch Plant Hire sponsorship for this year. Pinch Plant have bought the car lock, stock and barrel to the relief of Nicholson’s pocket, and employed a full time mechanic to the relief of Nicholson himself, who now has time for bed.

The new Lyncar is already proving its potential and Nicholson is taking an active interest with Slater in future projects. Indeed he hopes to devote more time to this activity when he employs a manager to look after the administration side of Nicholson-McLaren. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of this bright Kiwi’s possible future when one throws together his DFV experience, his racing ability and the thought that Lyncar have already built one chassis (the hill-climb car) with a DFV in the tail …. – C. R.

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