Near myth

Silverstone in July. Marquees, flags, historic cars and transporters everywhere. But this isn’t the Coys meeting; that’s still two days away. This is members-only, for the 96 Club, and the selection of road and race machinery is vast. Yet even above the blare of Le Mans Porsches and supercharged Alfas, another rising sound has the watchers standing up on the pit wall. Fluorescent orange noseband, a flash of steel-grey paint, and the diminishing bray of 16 cylinders announce the passage of a nearmyth in British motor-racing history — the only running H16 BRM.

It’s only once been seen in action since it retired from racing 26 years ago. In June of this year, it made its dramatic public reappearance at the Goodwood hillclimb; but despite the huge spread of historic events, there are no races for these complex late Sixties GP cars. Owner Peter Hannen has brought it to Silverstone exclusively for MOTOR SPORT, and it won’t appear again this year.

After four years of success in the 1 1/2-litre Grand Prix formula. BRM’s chief engineer Tony Rudd favoured two routes to handle the change to three litres for 1966. Bigger bores were out; it had to be more cylinders. The conventional option, a V12, would have been longer, with a high centre of gravity. Instead, by flattening two V8s and stacking one on the other, with cranks geared together. Rudd kept his new engine as short as the old one. Complex, certainly, and a failure in the end; yet it promised immense power, and the press releases claimed the 16-cylinder unit had a lower CG than the V8, as well as being no longer or higher, and only 2in wider. It was stressed to withstand 600hp and 13 500rpm. The theory was to capitalise on BRM’s extensive combustion chamber research and spread it over a variety of engines from fours upwards, using standardised parts. From the V8 came pistons, liners, valves, springs and cam drive — not that this necessarily simplified things: for example, there are no fewer than six oil scavenge pumps.

At first it ran effectively as two separate boxer eights firing 900 apart, but after vibration problems, the cranks were redesigned with a pin per cylinder. These two-pin cranks made the engine run smoothly as pure 16 cylinder, but, being longer, meant angling the half-shafts forward slightly to retain the wheelbase.

Twin Lucas injection units fuelled the beast, mounted low out in the airstream just where flying stones could get to the drive belts. A cross-shaft with skew gear drove two distributors, but for once BRP, went the simple route on plugs — one per pot. Separate water systems serve each side and flow through four pipes in the monocoque, joining at the thick, squat front radiator which incorporates the oil cooler.

As on the later V8s, the intake tracts were between the cams, which allowed the two flat-8s to snuggle close together, making a hefty fully-stressed block. But the lower crank, from where the drive is taken, was so close to the road that the clutch had to be placed on the end of the six-speed Alec Stokes-designed ‘box. This reduced the wheelbase, but as a result the shafts were too short and stiff to absorb much shock, and at the Nürburgring crownwheels broke regularly on landing after the jumps. And, says Rudd today, “the thing was so diabolically heavy that unlike most racing cars it never spun its wheels to protect the transmission!”

Like all BRMs the car had a left-hand shift: Stokes recalls that there was to be a righthand lever for reverse, but they settled for a wire with a lavatory-pull attached. “Well, if you had to go for it, you were in the sh’t already!”. he says.

With twice the power the H16 needed almost twice the fuel, which broadened the monocoque over the V8. A selection of mounting bosses gave the option of fitting the block to different chassis, while the original P83 had twin radius arms to the monocoque and reversed wishbones. Later these were dropped in favour of articulated N-links as on Hannen’s lightweight P1 15; thus it was the first race engine to carry all the rear suspension loads. Up front it rides on rocker-arms. In addition, a passage through each side of the block allowed for a drive-shaft and the possibility of 4WD. Tony Rudd again: “We started drawing the engine in 1964, and Graham Hill was still very keen on the idea of 4WD. The holes just stayed there when everyone lost interest.”

From the start, BRM was renowned for its high, even excessive quality of engineering. Peter Harmer: “As far as I’ve experienced it, it’s just like driving a Rolls-Royce. I think all BRMs are, because they’re so over-built. The quality of the gearbox, the quality of the steering wheel, that huge brass radiator up front: everything was perfectly made for the car.

Perhaps a couple of extracts from a 1966-paper by Rudd and Peter Spear. Rubery Owen’s director of research, encapsulate the team’s philosophy:

– on car life: “a total life of 10,000 miles is adequate”
– on race engine rebuilds: “1000 mile intervals are preferable”
– on cost: “not of prime importance and always subservient to performance, though the overall budget may at times force a compromise” Imagine telling all that to Colin Chapman.

As we watch Rick Hall and Rob Fowler, whose company prepares it, checking over the low, fat machine after its stint on the circuit, Peter Hannen sounds pleased.

“Goodwood was the very first time I had driven it, yet it made fourth fastest time, which I think displays the quality of the car. It’s the most stunning sound — I felt exactly as I did when the film Grand Prix came out and I sat in the cinema being deafened by all those exhaust pipes. It’s so evocative — it’s not a bark not a howl, not a scream: you can’t mistake it for anything else.

And the handling?

“It feels entirely neutral; all the transitions are smooth; the rear steps out when you want it to but it’s so smooth that through the fast corners at Goodwood I hardly lifted off. Of course it’s ideal for a hillclimb because of its rear weight bias. It was a wonderfully satisfying feeling powering through the finish. I felt like James Garner; it just needed an Eagle to come alongside and I’d have been away.”

“Of course it’s running on modern tyres now, which must be stickier; they should make it feel heavy to steer, but I can’t say I’ve felt that. Seems quite OK to me, smooth; of course I’m used to older, cruder machinery — this is almost modern! To me it turns in well, but then I haven’t driven its equivalents of the time. Mike Spence isn’t with us now; he could put it in context. I expect in a dogfight with a Repco it would feel a bit ponderous. It’s not chuckable — but then you know it won’t chuck itself anywhere.”

Jackie Stewart was not complimentary about it, though.

“Stewart says in his book it was a nice car to drive, but everybody gets it to the same level and it won’t go any faster. And there’s a big difference between driving a car even at nine-and-a-half tenths and driving it at ten-tenths. I would never contradict the real experts, the people who raced these cars. It’s probably a very hard car to drive really quickly. It was timed at Rheims at 187mph; I haven’t seen that yet.”

It was reputed to have a very narrow power band, wasn’t it?

“Well, the fact it has the six-speed ‘box probably indicates that, but it’s got lots of power and doesn’t seem too peaky to me, so far anyway. And I’ve been brave — I’ve taken it to 10,200rpm.”

What about behind the wheel?

“It’s actually comfortable. The cockpit’s roomy, and everything is beautifully weighted; the shift is very good. The brakes are very long-travel and unfeeling, rather spongy, but they stop the car. It’s very unusual to step out of a racing car after the first drive and say ‘it was great, it didn’t shake or rattle’. Most GP cars are brutal in their responses, but I see no problems in doing 200 miles — if only the engine would last!”

But while impressed with the quality of the machine, he is not blind to its faults: “It’s mesmerisingly over-designed. Put it side-by-side with, say, a Repco, and the V8 lump looks so crude it’s laughable. I guess that’s why it won the races. Still, the H16 was the first 3-litre Grand Prix engine to have 400bhp. But only in a Lotus chassis was it able to win a GP. The car’s finest hour was second place with Jackie Stewart at Spa. By the end they had the H16 running reliably, but by then everyone had overtaken it in other ways technically.”

“This car is the P1 15 lightweight, the only one built — but how they could call this a lightweight is hard to see.” He turns to Rob Fowler, himself an ex-BRM engineer: “Why is this a lightweight, Rob?”

“It weighed a pound less.”

Fowler is nearly right; despite a magnesium-alloy monocoque, the P1 15 only pared 120Ibs off the overweight P83.

Stewart’s Spa race showed that the team eventually forced some reliability into the engine, but Fowler amplifies the drawbacks of its weight and complexity. “It took two men three weeks to rebuild it, it was such a massive job, and I guess they just never got enough engines built.” The run came to just six 2-valvers, two 4-valve mag-and-titanium lightweights, and a couple of 4.2-litre Indianapolis specials which Colin Chapman wanted, but which were never used.

Asked why he’s putting time and effort into a car he can’t at the moment race, Hannen considers.

“It’s very evocative of that era with the Eagles and the Hondas and the Cooper-Maseratis, when all the designers were going different routes. It was the return to power. I don’t think there was ever such variety again, because by 1969 everyone had a Ford V8. I thought Goodwood was the right place to bring it out, because there’s nothing for it apart from demonstrations. But it wouldn’t be possible without firms like Hall & Fowler in Bourne — Rick and Rob worked at BRM, and if they get stuck for an answer, they can often go to the chap who made the part originally. There aren’t many people who could say ‘drag the old H16 out, I think we’ll have a run round’: And indeed BRM designer Alec Stokes can still be found at H&F three days a week.

Is a 3-litre race series practicable?

“If it were in my power I’d have a 1959-68 Grand Prix car race at Silverstone next year. We might get five or six new cars — I can think of a couple of Repcos, a couple of BRMs, and it’ might encourage a Cooper-Maserati and the big Hondas. I’d be there with this thing.” That, however, would mean much work up at Bourne. The car was sold straight from the factory and has been unused since, resting for a while in the Totnes Motor Museum. It has not been disturbed mechanically, and has needed little work to make it run. Rick Hall: “We just had the sump off and had a look up there, cleaned the Castrol R out, freed the throttle slides and one thing and another. It feels quite tight and torquey, and it’s pulling well; you can drop down to 51/2-6 and it pulls cleanly, but there’s a lot of mechanical noise from the drive gears. It likes to be revved above 7000, then it feels great. Remarkable, considering how little’s been done.”

It is only recently that suitable tyres have been available again, one of the reasons the car has lain idle. But racing it would be a different story. Fowler again: “We only prepared it for Goodwood and today; you wouldn’t race it in anger without pulling it apart. All the wishbones are getting very tender; we were lucky to find a brand-new one up at the Wheatcroft collection. We wouldn’t present it like this out of choice, we’d do it more like the V8 over there.” He indicates the gleaming BRM P261 of Thomas Bscher sitting nearby, another H&F project. “The H16’s just ex-factory. You’ve got to draw a line.”

It may be a while before that line is crossed, because as we stand round the car water is dripping onto the Silverstone concrete. Fowler is frustrated: “That’s a 10-minute job, but you can’t get at it. It’s right in the monocoque, and it can’t be extracted from the end.” Needless to say, the leak is in one of the integral lower water pipes, not the exposed upper one added for the 1968 South African GP; stopping it may mean dismantling the monocoque. Still, the car is able to top itself up in other ways: according to Rob the lower intakes, only inches from the track, regularly sucked water into the cylinders. Fowler himself was an apprentice when the V12 was getting under way, but remembers the H16’s birthpangs. “It was horrendous. The first one wouldn’t run above 6000, it was so far out of balance. There were big counterweights all over the crank. The 2-valve gave about 380bhp. Shell research reckoned there was 550 in there, but the torsional stresses in the back gears were dropping it down. The centre gear is really getting a hammering. But we’re still getting some through!”

It was not a popular project, and few at BRM had the faith Rudd had. So why did he push for it? “Some say he’d had a failure with an H16 at Rolls-Royce. We were told that though the concensus was to go to a bigger V8 because the 1 1/2-litre was so successful, Rudd said that wasn’t engine development, and they must move on to something different. Shame, really, because it obviously cost them a massive amount of money. Just too many parts, too much of a lump. They built a 4-valve version which never got into a car, and it was all magnesium. Imagine the cost of that! It was a nicer engine, actually, much more compact. It’s still on a stand in the Donington museum.” Not a highlight of the record books, them but perhaps Goodwood saw Rudd vindicated to some extent: the H16 was quicker than all the DR/-engined cars. G C

Thanks to:
Rob Fowler, Rick Hall, Peter Hannen, Tony Rudd, Roger Duffield-Harding, Alec Stokes.