Ron Tauranac "just designed bloody good racing cars"


Nick Goozée joined Brabham as a schoolboy in the 1960s, learning his craft under Ron Tauranac, before becoming MD of Penske Cars. He tells Paul Fearnley about life under the impatient but kind designer of brilliant racing cars

Ron Tauranac with Graham Hill in 1971

Graham Hill in discussion with Tauranac, as he assesses the BT34 in 1971

Victor Blackman/Daily Express/Getty Images

The schoolboy stood shyly by the flung-open workshop doors. It was the first day of his summer holiday of 1963 and he had cycled the short distance from his Byfleet home to gawp at his Brabham heroes.

His loitering did not go unnoticed: job list long, time short, he was put to work.

“Eventually someone came out and said, ‘Why don’t you make yourself useful?’ After that I worked there every day of my holiday, sweeping up, making tea and trying to be helpful.

“I wanted to end my academic education and Ron Tauranac agreed to meet my father. He told him that although Brabham didn’t do apprenticeships they would call me their apprentice: ‘If he buckles down, we will teach him all he needs to know.’”

Thus began the racing education of the man who would become Managing Director of Penske Cars. Nick Goozée spent the rest of the 1960s – bar a few “fish out of water” weeks at McLaren in 1969 – learning his trade in “monastic” circumstances.

“Brabham then was very harsh – not like the sanitised teams of today’s Formula 1 – and I was pompous and posh,” he says. “Basically I was ‘beaten into shape’ by these solemn Aussies and Kiwis in a very working-class environment.

“I was assigned to Denny Hulme. Whenever he was in the workshop – Denny worked on his own cars right through to the end of 1967 [his world championship-winning season!] – I would clean his cars, unload the truck, etc. Gopher-ish jobs. And when he was away racing I would get on with my ‘apprenticeship’.

Ron Tauranac, Jack Brabham

Jack Brabham in the BT33 talking with Ron Tauranac

William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images

“This wasn’t a case of somebody sitting down and teaching you how to bend metal or how to weld tubing; you had to do it in your own way and in your own time because everybody was so busy. I wasn’t the brightest candle in the box and Ron was a very impatient man. He shouted at me a lot, as he did with others, but I was used to that having come from a very tough boarding school. I just took my ‘punishment’.

“Not everything was drawn and so you had to make decisions: where to put a bracket or to hang something. Not until it was done would Ron come along and tell you that it was not in the right place or not what he wanted. We weren’t given prior instruction; we were given post instruction.

“My ‘apprenticeship’ faded as, I guess, I became useful. From 1968, Ron made me responsible for the build of the F1 cars. Also I would travel to about a third or half of the races, primarily as a fabricator but also as second mechanic to Ron Dennis on Jack Brabham’s cars.

“The only time I saw much of Jack and Ron together was when we were at the racetrack; back at the factory Ron spent more time on the production side of the business.

“The F1 cars sort of mutated. They were kept for quite some time and would become derivatives. Jack was primarily responsible for how they were configured and he and Ron used to have quite heated discussions. They were never disrespectful of one another – no shouting and no sulking – but Ron was emphatic and Jack was stubborn. I just waited until they told me what to do.

“Theirs was a husband-and-wife relationship: they ‘lived’ together but didn’t always see eye to eye. Jack very quiet even his victorious moments and Ron was never a demonstrative man;

he was not the sort to put his arm around you or say, ‘Well done.’

“But you somehow knew when you had their approval.

“I was working an all-nighter when the workshop phone rang. This voice said, ‘Who’s that?’ I replied ‘Who are you?’ It was Bernie Ecclestone

“Ron later admitted that he wished he’d been more able to deal with people in a more productive manner. He had quite a lot of regrets. His good side was overlooked because of his inability to be tolerant of people whom he thought made mistakes.

“There was a kindness to him and we became friends.

“I only attended two races with McLaren. I got on well with Bruce, and Denny, who had been the best man at my wedding, looked after me. But I was a Brabham man.

“At the second of those races, the International Trophy, I was having a pee in Silverstone’s awful brick pissoir when Ron came up alongside and said, ‘I’m thinking about designing a monocoque. Do you want to build it?’ Two weeks later I was back and glad to be so.

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“That BT33 of 1970 was typically extremely pragmatic. Its chassis was different but the rest of it was pretty similar to its predecessor. Had Jack not crashed it at Monaco, and had I not run him out of fuel at Brands Hatch, things might have been very different.”

Brabham’s retirement at that season’s end left Tauranac in sole charge of Motor Racing Developments – a role he that was unprepared for and did not relish. He was in negotiation with Bernie Ecclestone by the middle of 1971.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” says Goozée. “I was working an all-nighter with one other when the workshop phone rang at about 10pm. This voice said, ‘Who’s that?’ I replied ‘Who are you?’ It was Bernie Ecclestone: ‘I’ve just bought the team and wanted to see if anybody was working late tonight.’ When Ron came in the next morning he categorically denied it.

“About three days later Bernie and Colin Seeley – Bernie had bought Seeley Motorcycles, too, and was trying to combine the organisations – came to the workshop. Bernie stood on a box and introduced himself him and said, ‘You now work for me.’

I owe him more than anyone except perhaps Roger Penske. He was like a father figure to me

“From the little I understand the offer that he made was substantially more than he actually paid for it. At the conclusion of the contract, he decided that it wasn’t worth as much and that he wasn’t going to pay as much. Ron was exceedingly honourable, utterly straight – a very soft man in fact – and he wasn’t capable of taking on Bernie.

“Ron was very humble. Because his wasn’t an extravagant personality – unlike Colin Chapman’s or John Cooper’s – he just got on with his job, a responsibility that he took very seriously, without anybody really noticing.

“When you design a racing car that bears the name of the man you work with, you are bound to be in the shadows.

“He was not like Chapman, Adrian Newey or Gordon Murray, in that they are regarded as being innovative – he just designed bloody good racing cars, which a huge number of a drivers became very famous as a consequence of having driven them.

“Ron had a great career and a very many people should be grateful that he was a part of their lives. Despite his foibles, I owe him more than anyone except perhaps Roger Penske. He was like a father figure to me and the Brabhams I worked on in that period are those of which I am most proud.”

Jack Brabham with Ron Tauranac Leo Mehl and Jochen Rindt at the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix

Brabham with Tauranac, Goodyear’s Leo Mehl and Jochen Rindt at Spa in ’68

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

P.S. And this from former Brabham F1 mechanic Cary Taylor: “Working with Ron was challenging to say the least as he could be quite excitable with what I always thought was nervous energy.

“He was at his best in the design office. During a car’s build-up he always had plenty to say about what was to go where, but as there were no drawings he would then leave you to it.

“So, having figured out what I thought was the best option and then making, for example, aluminium pipes for oil and water, Ron reappears and, after looking at my finished work, says, ‘That’s good. But had you not thought of doing this or that?’ Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

“Never mind. We made it all work and achieved two world championships.

“He was without doubt one of the best – if not the best – tube-frame race car designer during the 1960s, and the BT24 – with apologies to Ron – has been written up as the most inferior racing car ever to have proved itself the world’s best.”