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British car designs and daredevils began to dominate the racing circuits

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes, Transport on Monday, 30 September 2013

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This edited article about motor racing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Juan Fangio, picture, image, illustration

Juan Manuel Fangio driving a Mercedes-Benz

Much in the same way as Mercedes had dominated the Grand Prix scene on the eve of the First World War, so Mercedes Benz, with interruptions from Auto Union, dominated it on the eve of the Second World War.

Alfa Romeo, not having been very successful with their Grand Prix design during the ’30s, concentrated on the Formula 2 class and produced a 1 ½ litre supercharged car called, at this time, the Alfette, and later the type 158/159, which became the greatest racing car of all time.

In 1938, it won the first race in which it was entered – the Coppa Ciano – (the driver was Villoresi) and just before Italy entered the war it was successful in the Tripoli Grand Prix. In this it was driven by Dr. Farina at an average speed of 128 mph. This was one mile an hour faster than the 3 litre Formula 1 record set up by Herman Lang on a Mercedes in 1938.

After the guns had ceased firing in Europe, Grand Prix racing returned very rapidly. The formula which had been 3 litres supercharged in 1939 was now 1 ½ litres supercharged. Thus, the Alfa Romeo Formula 2 champion of 1939-41 now became the Formula 1 car. When Farina won the Grand Prix de Nations in 1946 on the 158 Alfa Romeo, he started an incredible run of 27 consecutive Grand Prix victories.

In 1950, he won the first Grand Prix Drivers’ Championship.

The following year, Juan Fangio won his first Grand Prix championship driving the type 158. After this, Alfa Romeo retired from Grand Prix motor racing and have never returned. Theirs was the only car ever to win both Formula 1 and Formula 2 championships.

Earlier than this – in 1948 – the British Grand Prix had returned and took place at Silverstone. The new, very low slung 4CLT Maseratis won, Villoresi being the driver. But the significance of this event was the appearance in the supporting race of the little rear-engined cars called Coopers. They occupied the first four places and, although no one realised it, they were the distant prototypes of the Grand Prix champions of the future.

In 1948, also, the Jaguar company launched their immensely successful series of XK 120 cars. In 1949, a brilliant designer, Alec Issigonis, gave us the Morris Minor, which for 20 years faithfully served the family motorist.

In 1949, the Jaguar XK 120 won its first race at Silverstone, when it was driven by Leslie Johnson. In 1950, Stirling Moss was victorious in the TT in the same car and in 1951, Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker scored a tremendous victory in the le Mans 24-hour race – this time driving the new C type.

Stirling Moss took the C type to Italy in 1952 for the Mille Miglia. Although he was not successful, this event was significant because it was the first time that Jaguars used disc brakes, a new form of brake borrowed from the aircraft industry.

Jaguars scored many great victories at le Mans and elsewhere, re-establishing the reputation that Bentley had created for British sports cars in the ’20s.

Mercedes Benz returned to Grand Prix racing in 1954 and, as they had almost always done in the past, they completely dominated the field. Fangio, driving a Mercedes Benz, won the Grand Prix Drivers’ Championship for the second time in 1954. Still on the same car, he repeated his success in 1955; as he also did in 1956 and 1957, but on these occasions driving a Lancia/Ferrari and a Maserati respectively.

In 1955, however, a new British challenge to continental supremacy emerged. Rodney Clarke, the designer and brains behind the project, produced and raced his first Connaughts in 1949. These were sports two-seaters called the L type.

Success with this led to Formula 2 cars being designed and raced which, in turn, led to the famous B type Grand Prix car. In the hands of Tony Brooks, this scored the first Grand Prix victory ever for a car designed, built and driven by an all-British team, for the Sunbeams of the ’20s had been of Franco-Italian design.

This great success took place in the Syracuse Grand Prix in 1955, and Rodney Clarke and his team virtually pointed the way to British supremacy in Grand Prix racing which followed during the years to come.

In 1956, 1957 and 1958, British Vanwall cars scored sensational victories in almost all the classic Grand Prix events.

They were the brain children of the millionaire industrialist Tony Vandervell, who was quite determined to put Britain in the forefront of Grand Prix racing.

The main drivers of Vanwall cars were Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans. Between them, they secured the Manufacturers’ Championship for Vanwall and for Great Britain.

During 1958, a new name appeared in Grand Prix racing, when a Cooper driven by Maurice Trintignant won the Monaco Grand Prix. Cars with engines at the back, last seen in the ’30s, had returned to Grand Prix racing.

In 1959, Jack Brabham, driving this rear-engined Cooper, won the Grand Prix Drivers’ Championship, and Cooper won the Manufacturers’ Prize. Brabham repeated this triumph in 1960, both for himself and for Cooper.

With this, the pattern for the Grand Prix racing car was set for the next decade.

In the same year on the home front, Alec Issigonis appeared again with yet another winner for the family man, the front-wheel drive Minis. And so it came about that Issigonis’ Mini met Cooper, the Grand Prix champion. The result of the alliance was the Mini-Cooper, winner of countless rallies and races.

By pioneering improvements in their cars, racing enthusiasts have benefited the private motorists, because many of the developments found their way into cars driven by the family man.

But during the war, there was no racing in Europe; nevertheless progress did not stand still. It so happens that one of the most important vehicles to be built for the use of armies in the Second World War was the American Jeep.

From it has descended the British Land-Rover, and cars like it have been built by Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Peugeot.

Its ability to travel at some speed over rocky ground and to climb steep hills fully loaded made the Jeep a useful vehicle for the artillery and infantry.

With a 2,199 c.c. engine (four cylinders in line and side valves) which developed 60 h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m., the Jeep proved invaluable in a war of retreats and advances. The driver had a twin set of ratios to use on his three-speed gear box (he could choose the ratio most useful for the ground he was covering). He could also decide whether to use the drive on all four wheels or on the rear wheels only.

After the war, when new cars were scarce, some coach-builders converted Jeeps into runabouts for farmers and country doctors crossing hilly terrain.

Clearly, before a car appears on the road, a wealth of design skill and engineering craftsmanship ensure the car’s excellence. British manufacturers produce just under two million cars a year, of which a little under half are exported.

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