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1949 grand prix car with Black Country connections

By dan shaw  |  Posted: March 02, 2013

  • Chassis frame of the first BRM, built by Rubery Owen in Darlaston

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WE thank Peter G. Smith of Finchfield, Wolverhampton, for supplying these rare photographs that show the development of the first BRM racing car in the late 1940s. Although the grand prix racing team was based in Bourne, Lincolnshire, it had close ties with the Black Country, particularly with Darlaston’s Rubery Owen, which took control of BRM in 1953.

The pictures come from four photograph albums that belonged to Peter’s father-in-law, Bill Lewis, who worked for Rubery Owen for many years as a material controller.

Founder British Racing Motors was founded in 1945 by the racing driver Raymond Mays, who had enjoyed success with his English Racing Automobiles in the 1930s. His aim was to build an all- British racing car that would rival the likes of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, which dominated motorsport in the post-war years. Several British engineering firms would have a stake in BRM, each offering their own branch of expertise; Rubery Owen was one of the key players as supplier of the chassis and several other components.

However, it proved to be an unwieldy organisation and lacked clear leadership, leading to delays in getting the first racing car on to the track.

The first BRM car, the BRM 15, was powered by a 1.5 litre supercharged V16 engine that produced 600bhp at 12,000rpm. It was basically two back-to-back V8 engines with cam drives and gears in the centre of the engine. The main engine components were made by Standard Motors of Coventry, the camshaft by English Steel of Sheffield, and the supercharger by Rolls-Royce of Derby.

Among the other suppliers were: High Duty Alloys Ltd, Slough; Coventry Gauge and Tool Ltd; Firth-Derihon Ltd, Sheffield; Vandervell Products Ltd, London; Joseph Lucas Ltd, Birmingham; David Brown and Sons, Huddersfield; John Garrington and Sons, Darlaston; Electro-Hydraulics Ltd, Warrington; Firth and J. Brown Ltd, Sheffield; Burman and Sons Ltd, Kings Norton; Austin Motors, Longbridge; Specialloid, Leeds; Teclamit Ltd, Brentford; Midland Motor Cylinder Ltd, Smethwick; F.H. Lloyd and Co Ltd, Wednesbury; Birmid Ltd, Smethwick; Chloride Electrical Storage Co Ltd, Manchester; Dunlop Rim and Wheel Co, Coventry; and Brooke Tool Ltd, Birmingham.

Work on the car began in 1947 but it did not run until December 1949. It was intended to enter the BRM 15 in the first Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 but problems with the engine meant that the car was not ready in time, although Raymond Mays did drive some demonstration laps in the car.

Its first race was the Daily Express nonchampionship race at Silverstone in August 1950 which saw the car, driven by Frenchman Raymond Sommer, break down on the start grid. However, in September Reg Parnell won two races in the BRM 15 at Goodwood.

In July 1951 two BRM 15s were entered in the British Grand Prix, driven by Parnell and Peter Walker, finishing 5th and 7th respectively, despite suffering extreme heat in the cockpits from the car exhaust, which required the drivers to wrap burn dressings around their legs in order to continue.

Parnell andWalker entered the Italian Grand Prix at Monza that year, but both had to withdraw from the race due to gearbox trouble. One car remained at Monza after the race for testing and was driven by Stirling Moss.

Moss drove the BRM 15 in the 1952 Ulster Trophy but failed to finish, though at Goodwood that year the cars finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

In 1952 Alfa Romeo pulled out of Formula One, leaving Ferrari and Maserati as the only major manufacturers in the sport. Raymond Mays hoped to entice the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio from Alfa Romeo to drive his BRM. He tested the car and drove well in it, describing it as “the best Formula One car ever made. All it needs is improvement in certain details. No car has ever given me such a thrill to drive, or a greater sense of absolute mastery.” But BRM were unable to make it to the Formula One race held in Turin in April 1952 and in their absence Ferrari took the first six places.

This led to a change in the rules governing Formula One. Such was the dominance of Ferrari without a realistic competitor it was decided to run the rest of the season to Formula Two regulations.

This meant that the BRM 15 was obsolete before it had had a chance to establish itself.

Fangio then broke his neck racing for Maserati at Monza and was out of competition until early 1953.

Fangio’s potential replacement behind the wheel of the BRM 15 was Mike Hawthorn, who test drove the car but had a very different opinion of it. He said, “It was no use – every time I came to a corner and went below the 8,000rpm mark, the power went right off. Then, suddenly, as you reached the 8,000 mark the full power would come in and you had a job to hold the car straight. At 8,000rpm it really did motor, but the steering was nothing to write home about.” Hawthorn chose instead to race a Ferrari for Tony Vandervell and the BRM 15 was next driven by Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Ken Wharton.

The BRM 15 and its V16 engine were plagued by reliability issues and by the time these had been sorted Formula One rules had been changed and the car was ineligible. The engine was very powerful but it seems it could not deliver that power smoothly. Stirling Moss later said of the car, “without doubt the worst car I ever raced – it was a disgrace.” The main factor contributing to the failure of the BRM 15 was the chaotic structure of BRM. With so many different manufacturers “gifting” their components to the car, often only producing them on an ad hoc basis, the company had no real control of production. By the end of 1952 Mays was looking to wind up BRM. Alfred Owen saw the potential of the project but knew that it could only work with firm leadership. In 1953 he acquired BRM and established the Owen Racing Organisation, although the cars still competed under the BRM name and the team was still based at Bourne.

In all BRM entered 197 grand prix, winning 17 and gaining 11 pole positions.

In 1962 Graham Hill became world champion driving a BRM and the team won the constructors championship; they went on to be runners up in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1971. Noted BRM drivers over years included Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni, Maurice Trintignant and Jo Bonnier.

Rubery Owen was founded in Darlaston in 1884 by three brothers, John Turner Rubery (1849-1920), Samuel Rubery (1844-1910) and Thomas William Rubery (1856-1925) as an ironworks specialising in making fences and gates.

When John T. Rubery retired in 1910 the firm was bought by Alfred Ernest Owen and he expanded the business into new areas of manufacture, such as aviation engineering and motor frames. When he died in 1929 the business was taken over by his sons, Alfred George Beech Owen and Ernest William Beech Owen.

Alfred Owen was knighted in 1964 and remained in charge of the business until he suffered a heart attack in 1969. Control of Rubery Owen passed to the next generation of the Owen family and Sir Alfred died in 1975.

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