|BRM Type 30 'V16'|
Page 1 of 1
On May 13th 1950 Silverstone hosted the very first Formula 1 race counting for the World Championship. The gathered British crowd was possibly even more taken by a striking, pale green BRM (British Racing Motors) racer that put in some demo laps before the Grand Prix. It sounded like nothing they had ever heard and more importantly it was the first serious British Grand Prix car built in over two decades. This preview was the culmination of many years of design and developed work by a very small team that found its origin in the pre-War ERA (English Racing Automobiles).
BRM had been founded shortly after the War by racing driver Raymond Mays and engineer Peter Berthon. They had been two of three key players at ERA as well. The two very ambitious men considered two design avenues for their new Grand Prix racer. The first was a V8 and the second a V16 both fitted with a Supercharger and both displacing just 1.5 litre. While considerably more complex, Mays and Berthon believed the sixteen cylinder option would yield a bigger chance of success and form a better basis for future development. Near Mays' house in Bourne a small factory was created and the work began.
Although the V16 layout had been popular with American luxury cars there were only very few racing cars had sported sixteen cylinders. The most famous of these was of course the Auto Union Grand Prix car but the BRM was far more closely related to the unraced Alfa Romeo 162. Built just before the War it sported an impressive twin overhead camshaft engine where the Auto Union used simpler overhead valves. With the Alfa Romeo V16, the BRM engine also shared the 135 degree cylinder angle. This gave an even firing order and also kept the height of the engine. That's about where the similarities with previous designs stopped.
In accordance with the Voiturette regulations, which had now been adopted for the big Grand Prix class, the engine could displace just 1500 cc if a Supercharger was used. By comparison the Alfa Romeo and Auto Union were respectively two and three times larger. As a result the new BRM engine sported tiny pistons with a stroke of just 47.8 mm. This enabled the V16 to rev well over 10,000 rpm. Each bank of cylinders was split in two blocks of four. Sandwiched between the two 'V8s' were the gears driving the camshafts. This effectively cut the length of the camshafts in half, preventing excessive flexing. Due to the sheer size of the engine this was no unnecessary luxury.
Rolls-Royce was commissioned to supply a smaller version of the centrifugal Supercharger fitted on the Merlin V12 engines used in the Spitfire and Mustang fighterplanes. Originally it was mated to an elaborate Fuel Injection system. After problems early in testing this was abandoned in favour of a simpler twin SU Carburetor setup. At the first tests the engine produced 400 bhp, which was already more than any other comparable engine and by quite a margin. Further development brought the power up to an incredible 525 bhp at 10,500 rpm in 1950. At the time the engineers believed that 585 bhp would be possible but there were no suitable Carburetors available to make that possible.
Before drawing the chassis Berthon no doubt examined the dominant German Grand Prix cars of the 1930s. The frame consisted of side-members constructed of two tubes and four cross-members. The twin tubular side-members were reinforced with drilled plates along the full length of the car. The front suspension consisted of two trailing arms similar to the Porsche designed Auto Unions. At the rear the DeDion axle and trailing arms bore close resemblance with the last Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars. What was completely new was the use of Lockheed air-struts all around. These oil-pneumatic springs/dampers were fully adjustable unlike the more conventional coil, torsion-bar or leaf springs.
The hugely impressive engine was mounted in the chassis angled to the left and slightly tilted. This allowed the driver's seat to be fitted in the centre of the cockpit, alongside the prop-shaft. The transverse five-speed gearbox was in unit with the final drive. With the fuel tank mounted above the rear suspension, this meant that almost all the weight was found between the front and rear axle. This, combined with the relatively low engine and driving position gave the chassis all the right ingredients for great road holding. Stopping power was provided by drum brakes, which were assisted by a servo at the front. The package was completed by a tightly wrapped aluminium single seater body.
Although testing had begun late in 1949 teething problems meant that the BRM V16 or 'Type 15' as it was officially known, was not ready in time for the first Grand Prix of 1950. Due to the extensive media coverage of the project many of the spectators at Silverstone had hoped to see British finest beat the dominant Italians. So Mays put in some demonstration laps in the prototype before the feature race. He provided the crowd with a memory that they were not likely to forget; the incredible noises of the V16 engine. The combination of the centrifugal Supercharger and the sixteen pistons moving up and down over 10,000 times created a screaming soundtrack that is still unique to this day.
After the public display at Silverstone the pressure was really on. At the time BRM employed less than 40 people; a quarter of the workforce that built the equally complex Mercedes Grand Prix cars over a decade earlier. A second example was completed and both machines were entered in the International Trophy race at Silverstone towards the end of August. Engine problems prevented the cars from putting in any practice laps but one car was allowed to start from the back of the grid. In front of a packed crowd disaster struck as the gearbox on the car failed on the start line. The partizan spectators were enraged and responded with boos and some even threw coins at the stricken machine.
If the crowd's reaction wasn't enough the papers the following morning declared that BRM was short for 'Blooming Rotten Motor.' Undeterred the team continued to work on making the V16 reliable. With an advantage of over 200 bhp over the closest competition, the potential of the car was immense. Two months after the disastrous debut, BRM tried again and sent two cars to the non-Championship Grand Prix Penya Rhin at Pedralbes. The two V16s lasted a little longer but neither made it to the finish, retiring with a blown oil pipe and a broken Supercharger. In the hands of Reg Parnell and Peter Walker the two had qualified fourth and fifth behind three V12 engined Ferraris.
With limited resources the BRM team continued into 1951. The first rounds of World Championship were skipped as all work focused on the home Grand Prix at Silverstone. It seemed like 1950 all over again as neither car put in a time in qualifying and were forced to start from the back of the grid. Parnell and Walker did make off the line this time and fought their way up to fifth and seventh respectively. BRM had won its first two World Championship points! The BRM team made one more appearance in 1951 during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Unfortunately as it was another disaster as one car was withdrawn from the race with technical problems while the other was refused to start due to a problem with the driver's racing license.
To add insult to injury, the sports governing body decided to run the 1952 World Championship under Formula 2 regulations. This left the V16 eligible only for the minor Formula Libre races. The backers of the team (a large group of British companies) lost interest and decided to sell BRM off. One of the original backers, Alfred Owen of Rubery Owen stepped up and bought the team. He believed that the V16 was unfinished business and asked newly signed engineer Tony Rudd to continue working on it. The biggest modification was the installation of Girling discs, greatly improving the braking. Additionally the engine was reworked and was now rated 600 bhp at around 12,000 rpm.
The confidence in the V16 paid off and in the hands of the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Froilan Gonzales, the Type 15 BRM finally started to win races. It must be said that the opposition was never as strong as in 1951 but the V16 could match the Ferraris for speed. In 1953 the screaming machines were losing their edge and Rudd was asked to develop a new version for 1954. This Type 30 or V16 Mk2 had a considerably shorter wheelbase and twin trailing arm rear suspension. It was also a good 70 kg lighter. Two of these leaner BRMs were built and the winning continued. When the cars were finally retired at the end of 1955, they had won 16 out of a possible 33 Formula Libre races.
Today the BRM V16 is stuff of legends partly for the right reasons but equally for the wrong reasons. Although not very kind on the ear drums, the engine note is one of the most beautiful ever created and certainly unique. When one of the surviving cars was exercised at Silverstone recently a man living over 5 miles from the track instantly recognised the V16's noises. He had seen the BRMs in action in the 1950s and like most others who have heard it never forgot the sound. It did not only sound very good but when it was sorted, the sixteen cylinder engine also performed really well. It would take until the F1 Turbo-era that the 400 bhp/litre would again be broken.
On the other hand there is the handling and the reliability. Sir Stirling Moss described the V16 as the worst racing car he had ever had to drive. This was probably less down to the handling and more down to excessive horsepower and the little rubber available to transfer it to the track. Adding more complexity is the delivery of all those horses; nothing to very little until 7000 rpm and then a whole lot all at once. With its great weight distribution and low centre of gravity the chassis itself would have acquitted itself quite well with a slightly friendlier engine. The reliability is the only real flaw of the BRM. The mechanics had problems getting it sorted back in the day and a solution still has not been found.
Of the five cars built (three Type 15s and and two Type 30s) four have survived to this day (two of each). While all are in or close to running order, the reliability issues really limit their outings. So seeing and more importantly hearing the V16 is a rare privilege. One of the owners, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, has offered a helping hand by making a book and CD (Into the Red) about his collection. In a small clip on the CD the V16 can be enjoyed in all its glory. Perhaps the car would not last long enough but there is no doubt that many of us would greatly appreciate a full CD of V16 notes.
Below is a clip of Nick Mason's V16 Type 30 to give you an impression of the V16's glorious howl.
Page 1 of 1