On a wing and a prayer
They weren’t always popular or especially safe, but for a while high-strutted wings were all the rage
The extraordinary era of high-strutted wings on single-seat racing cars really exploded 40 years ago, back through the summer of 1968. The May cousins with their 1956 ADAC 1000Kms Porsche 550 had been prophets without honour. The Nürburgring scrutineers apparently told Michael May simply to remove the strutted wing from his car “and stop messing about”.
It was 10 years later that Jim Hall wowed the USRRC and Can-Am field with his latest ‘high Chaparral’. Bruce McLaren and Robin Herd had already been “messing about” with the inverted wing section tacked above the back of their prototype Firestone tyre-test vehicle at Zandvoort. Then the celebrated helicopter rotor blade section was tried briefly above the tail of Jimmy Clark’s Tasman Lotus 49 in New Zealand. Ferrari engineer Gianni Marelli took a good butcher’s at that, and at Spa ’68 for the Belgian GP Maranello tied with Brabham of New Haw in trying strutted wings in Formula 1. But despite having been unusually slow off the mark, it was Colin Chapman and Team Lotus who then pushed the winged frontiers furthest on their Type 49s. By the time of the British GP at Brands Hatch Lotus struts were taller and larger than anyone else’s.
This was despite the awful warning of practice for the preceding French GP at Rouen during which Jackie Oliver had lost his 49 in another car’s turbulence and – miraculously – survived an awesome impact against a trackside gate-post; which could not be said of his car. A mind picture I vividly retain is of the high-winged Lotuses hurtling along Brands Hatch’s top straight towards the crest at Paddock Hill, bellying down through the compression past the pits, then pitching violently under braking before the big commitment steeply downhill. And throughout this performance those high wings on their tall, spindly struts were quivering and waving in sympathy with flickers of wake turbulence spitting from each tip. It all seemed exceedingly exotic… if frankly silly.
It was a strange sight – in strange times – but into 1969 there came a delicious reminder of the Crocodile Dundee scene in which Mick is confronted by a mugger, armed with a knife, and he responds by drawing out a huge blade of his own, and drawls “That’s not a knife, that’s a knife”. Well, after high-strutted wings in Formula 1 had crashed into mandatory limbo thanks to the Lotus collapses at Barcelona, Jim Hall did his darndest to retrieve his team’s reputation with the biggest wing I ever saw, rigged above his Chaparral 2H ‘banana car’ at Laguna Seca. Driver John Surtees was not impressed. The race commentator remarked “If that wing was any bigger they’d have to carry a stewardess”. John simply told me, a couple of months later, “That Chaparral is without doubt the worst car I’ve ever had the displeasure of driving”. Even so, that – my friends – was a wing.
Not a road hog – just a guard pig!
My notoriously grumpy and irascible old photographer colleague Geoffrey Goddard detested Le Mans. Lord how he hated the place. For a start it was in France. And it was therefore inhabited and run by French people. And Geoff just completely redefined the term ‘Francophobia’. But he always had a deep and genuinely abiding love of animals, and he had a sometimes grudging, but always sincere, regard for like-minded eccentrics.
So when he and his Road & Track magazine writer friend Henry N Manney III visited Ferrari’s pre-race preparation in the big Renault garage downtown in 1963-’64, his eyes lit up. The garage proprietor was quite security conscious, and in previous years he’d had a variety of large dogs on leashes anchored around the place. This time, however, he’d quite surpassed himself – much to Geoff’s approval.
That year on guard he had not an Alsatian, nor a Rottweiler. His guard dog was not a Dobermann, a Mastiff or a Pit Bull. Nope. Geoff told me, “I heard this chain rattling, and then snuffle-snuffle, oink-oink. It was a wild boar! Brilliant! Even for a Frog...”.
Oliver: no desire for return to Daytona
Jackie Oliver made his Formula 1 mark in those winged 1968 Lotus 49s, his drive having become available – tragically – due to Jim Clark’s death that April. But Jackie would always shine more brightly in Can-Am and World Championship of Makes sports and prototype cars.
He amused me recently when looking back on his experiences with the charismatic Gulf-JW Porsche team in 1970-’71. Recalling the 917s, I asked him about the recent Daytona gathering of those fabulous flat-12s. Had he been invited to take part? He adopted his habitual wide-eyed, querulous expression – like a particularly troublesome schoolboy – and confirmed: “Oh yes. But I thought, why should I want to drive a 917 again round Daytona?
“I already survived that once.”
Shoestring racing on a different scale
It’s so easy to rhapsodise in these pages over recollections of Formula 1 Lotuses and Endurance Championship Porsche 917s and Can-Am Chaparrals that it’s good also to recall the shoestring-budget privateers and their achievements at really serious international level.
As so often it’s the surviving photography which prompts due credit. I’ve found a print from the 1969 Targa Florio, showing the wondrously cut-down, lightened and modified Austin-Healey Sprite campaigned that year by Jack Wheeler and Martin Davidson.
The prototype car apparently overheated itself into retirement after only three laps, but three laps of the Piccolo Madonie course was sufficient for any driver to get his teeth into – over 130 miles – so that open-air sun-soaked charge around northern Sicily was surely more rewarding than half a season’s racing round Mallory Park or Rufforth. All these things are a matter of proportion – sadly denied to modern-day club racers.
What’s round the corner?
The BRDC still retains some long-shot hope of reaching an agreement with Formula One Management – Mr B C Ecclestone & Co – to keep the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Every turn and twist seems to generate a new hurdle to be cleared, a new demand or regulation to be met. The BRDC receives a fair amount of media stick – not all of it un-orchestrated or deserved – and much of it based upon a caricature image of “blazered buffoons”. But even the most capable of negotiators can be forgiven some bewilderment and frustration as – with the ball on the penalty spot and the referee yet to blow his whistle – not just the goalkeeper but the goal posts themselves start dodging about.
Some existing Silverstone corners have been condemned, not only by Formula 1 authority but also by the FIM motorcycle racing body. They seem to take particular exception to Bridge Corner. It’s too risky you see. Oh dear. On my study wall here is a picture of a real racing driver, on a real road racing corner, edged by a timber parapet fence about as safe as a meat grinder. It’s Jimmy Clark in his ever-frangible Tasman Lotus 32B on one of the bridges at Longford, Tasmania. Safety pioneer Jackie Stewart shone on this circuit. And even he recalls Longford today with a barely suppressed smirk of – I suspect – very real pride; “Look at that Doug. We just didn’t know any better in those days…”. No you didn’t, but you raced like blazes round it. Respect!
The first Jag XK special
Jersey furniture store owner Frank le Gallais built a series of delightful specials around the Second World War. He began driving competitively in 1934 in a stripped-out £10 Chrysler, before running a Wolseley-engined GN special. In 1938 he then acquired a straight-8 OM engine which he installed in a home-built chassis. During the Jersey occupation 1940-45 his father had the engine and chassis separated, one being stored in the family firm’s furniture depository and the chassis in a farmyard barn. Post-war, Frank le Gallais thought of mounting the OM engine in a more sophisticated self-built chassis, but instead took the easier option of dropping a 4-cylinder Wolseley 1500 unit into an MG TA frame, eventually adding the Villiers supercharger from the OM engine.
Among the annual visitors to Jersey’s Bouley Bay hillclimb were Alec Issigonis and George Dowson of ‘Lightweight Special’ fame. They encouraged Le Gallais to complete a lightweight tubular chassis with modified Citroën front suspension and ‘Lightweight’-type swing axles at the rear, sprung by rubber bands. When the result proved a terrible handful, he replaced the swing axles with a de Dion axle on torsion bars. He had intended to fit the OM engine, but in the meantime the new Jaguar XK 6-cylinder unit was announced. He wangled the promise of such an engine from Bill Heynes at the factory, but in the interim adopted a 3½-litre Jaguar Mark V pushrod unit to make his new special mobile. Thus emerged the LGS-Jaguar, configured with engine behind the driver, like a pre-war Auto Union.
In 1949 Le Gallais ran this startling new projectile in several hillclimbs, sprints and sand races. Two XK engines had been supplied ex-works to power boats before Le Gallais received the third unit to leave captivity. He then campaigned his LGS-Jaguar XK virtually throughout the 1950s. In 1955 he climbed the Bouley Bay RAC Championship course in 54.4 seconds and in 1956 covered a quarter-mile in 6.8secs, 132mph. In 1957 he drove the LGS on the road to Shelsley Walsh and Prescott, having rigged the car with cycle mudguards and two motorcycle-type silencers on lengths of flexi-tubing. As customer Coopers became widely available, and totally ascendant, the Jerseyman finally retired his LGS after 1958, and sold it through a friend in Kenya.
But the LGS-Jaguar remains an important historical sidelight – the first XK-powered sporting special – presaging HWM, Cooper, Tojeiro and Lister, and an offshore islander which proved capable of very effective pillage on its occasional marauding visits to the mainland hillclimb scene.
Crossley F1 car is a rare survivor
The ‘Berkshire Special’ is one of those very obscure Formula 1 cars which popped briefly above the horizon before fading into complete obscurity – and surviving for years, I believe, as a Jaguar-engined sports car in France. Geoffrey Crossley had campaigned a supercharged 1½-litre GP Alta before the cost damped his enthusiasm. When 2½-litre unsupercharged Formula 1 was announced for 1954 he staged a comeback by building himself a cut-price Grand Prix car from proprietary parts.
With friends Bruce Adams and John Lloyd he assembled a conventional twin-tube chassis with a Riley live back axle on quarter-elliptic leafsprings, and powered by a 130bhp Lea-Francis engine. The driving position was offset, and for a claimed £1200 the partners had an open-wheel F1 car. Crossley entered it for the 1955 Easter Monday Goodwood meeting, but after troubles in practice and the realisation it was utterly outclassed, the ‘Berkshire Special’ was withdrawn. Geoff Crossley told me years later that he then sold the car “for other purposes…”.
At one level the car is an intriguing F1 obscurity. On another, had there been a scrap-drive in progress at that time I wonder if it would have survived at all?