The shambles, success and demise of Britain’s first big F1 team

There was still a shooting war in Europe when, on 2 March 1945, Raymond Mays mailed a circular letter from his home in Bourne, Lincolnshire, to the British automotive industry.

Then 45, Mays’ name spelled motor racing to the British public. He had been the founding figure behind ERA Ltd pre-war, and now he was advocating a co-operative effort to achieve for Britain the kind of technical prestige that Germany had enjoyed through her grand prix domination in the 1930s.

His charisma and powers of persuasion won support from Oliver Lucas, Alfred Owen, Tony Vandervell and David Brown. Mays figured the cost for a four-year programme at over £120,000 and, within a year of launching his scheme, he had £25,000 in cash and promises of similar value in parts for the car.

Over 100 companies contributed, and in July 1947 the British Motor Racing Research Trust was formed to promote, support and finance ‘The Mays Project’. They envisaged expenditure of £50,000 a year for the following five years. In effect the company responsible for the car’s construction, formed pre-war by Mays and former ERA chief designer Peter Berthon, changed its name from Automobile Developments Ltd to British Racing Motors – and so BRM was born.

Work began in the Old Maltings behind Eastgate House at Bourne, Mays’ home, where the ERAs had been built. Chief mechanic Ken Richardson and draughtsman Eric Richter were also ex-ERA and they worked with Berthon to produce the projected 1.5-litre V16 GP car.

Harry Mundy (later of Jaguar V12 fame) and Frankie May joined Berthon and Richter to complete their design, and by the spring of 1947 it was virtually complete. Orders for components were placed during the summer, but at this point the scheme’s inherent weakness began to show.

Parts orders were distributed among 350 companies then backing BRM. Rolls Royce’s exquisite centrifugal two-stage supercharger alone included 124 parts in its compact 12-inch by five-inch package, and many of them were sub-contracted through BRM to 24 outside suppliers.

Against a background of a Government exhorting people to “export or die” and the wartime Ministry of Supply still handling (and handicapping) raw material flow, the delays that dogged BRM became understandable. Almost all BRM work demanded time in vital toolrooms, so anything for the V16 would delay commercial projects. When it came to the crunch, BRM’s needs took second place, and parts delivery to Bourne was spread over 13 months.

Parts delivery for the first prototype was completed in May 1949 – over four years after Mays’ original circular letter – and still it was not running until December. The Trust were impatient, and they forced a still premature public release on 15 December 1949 at Folkingham Airfield, nine miles outside Bourne.

In all conscience the V16 should have been ready. Mays and Berthon knew it was not, and now their backers were shouting to press and public about the BRM ‘World Beater’. Mays and Richardson tested the prototype over hundreds of miles at Folkingham, where the 2000-yard main straight was approached from a 40mph corner.

Mays recalls seeing 190mph before braking at the end of this straight. With over 400bhp at 11,000rpm in original form, the BRM would spin its wheels at 140mph in top gear… all of which makes a good story today, but was not particularly helpful then.

Motorsport Images

Trust members chivvied Mays and Berthon into demonstrating their electrifying pale-green car at the European GP meeting in May 1950. Plans were laid for the car’s racing debut at Silverstone for the International Trophy in August. Then they struck real trouble.

Richardson had an engine blow at Folkingham. His car was fitted with the second engine, while a third went straight into the nearly complete second chassis – untested. At 11,000rpm persistent misfiring began, and then came major failures where the piston, rod and liner in at least one cylinder would be totally destroyed.

Two cars were entered for Silverstone, one to be driven by Raymond Sommer and Peter Walker, and the other by Mays and Reg Parnell. Misfiring persisted. Berthon was living in a flat in Folkingham control tower and Stuart Tresilian (ex-Lagonda/Rolls-Royce) had joined the team as trouble-shooter.

Weeks of all-nighters failed to solve the problems. BRM just had to appear at Silverstone, but missed first practice, and on the morning of the second both cars cracked liners in last-minute runs at Folkingham.

The Trust was adamant that the cars should run and at 0430hrs on 26 August a hastily rebuilt V16 burst into life in the Folkingham sheds. The Daily Express flew the car to Silverstone, Mays did one lap, Sommer three to qualify it, Tazio Nuvolari dropped the flag and the BRM sheared a back axle output shaft and died on the grid… Mays’ dream had become a nightmare.

At the end of the year Parnell won two races in pouring rain at Goodwood – one a five-lapper, the other 12. At Barcelona for the Spanish GP Parnell and Walker both retired after showing their cars’ speed.

In 1951 the team managed only two races, finishing in the British GP (above) but with cooked and exhausted drivers, and then failed to start at Monza.

The Italian debacle, in which the cars were handicapped by late arrival and thoughtless failures due to blocked oil tank filters, drained what little remained of BRM’s popular support. Vandervell in particular was enraged by talk of ‘bearing failures’ when his bearings could hardly be expected to work without oil, and he stormed out of the Trust to go racing his way – and founded Vanwall.

Alfa Romeo withdrew from Formula 1 and, with BRM unable to guarantee its cars starting, the class died on its feet. For 1952-53 world championship races were run for Formula 2 cars, and the V16 had been stranded by an ebbing tide.

Thereafter the BRMs ran in Formula Libre races and in the occasional rare non-championship F1 event. Tony Rudd had joined the team from Rolls-Royce as development engineer during 1951, and recalls that BRM was beset by lack of foresight.

The original budget was too low. The planners had not allowed for anything going wrong. When it did go bad, there was no time to recover before the next disaster. From the word go, the ambitious team management were fighting a losing battle. They were always one step behind.

Early troubles with the V16 had been traced to its liners sinking in the bores under load. With head joint rings too hard to maintain a seal, coolant entered the cylinder and caused a failure of such violence that all evidence of the cause was destroyed.

Tests at Monza after the GP failure revealed chassis faults. Young Stirling Moss found the car’s antics appalling after 20 months’ running. It was unstable, it shuddered at speed and the driving position was pure pre-war. It suffered chronic understeer, and hard cornering induced a lateral wheel wobble that was not communicated to the steering wheel! Rudd found a quarter-turn flexibility on the worm-and-nut steering box mounting.

Six months later, testing again at Monza, Moss found the steering improved but the front wheels still running with an awkward tilt (due to suspension arm weakness), and the centrifugal supercharger’s rising-rate characteristics made a conventional drift near-impossible. Once the wheels began to spin the engine ran away, boosting itself harder as it did so to create ever more furious wheelspin.

Rolls-Royce had intended to use an iris-throttle, like a camera aperture control, with fuel injection into the centre of the supercharger centrifuge, but it would have produced little power low down. So twin SU carburettors were adopted, with the power gagged by a restrictor plate.

Berthon was secretive about his test house results, but at 7000rpm the V16 gave around 160bhp, at 8000rpm more like 260-280bhp, and at 9000rpm it was beginning to ‘growl’ with 380 horsepower. There it already had more power than anybody else, but at 10,000rpm its output soared. Rudd recalls a flick reading of 640bhp, late in the engine’s career.

With the blower unrestricted, Rolls-Royce thought 850bhp (from 1500cc) a probability. Another 250bhp plus would then have been necessary to drive the supercharger, so you have some conception of what was going on inside those tiny cylinders.

On 4 September 1952 the Trust met at Stratford-upon-Avon, and Alfred Owen commended BRM’s sale since lack of success and credibility made it impossible to develop GP cars. Only British buyers would be considered, and seven offers were made. Rubery Owen were the only people prepared to take over all BRM’s assets and liabilities undivided, and on 23 October a meeting at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge accepted the Owen offer.

During 1953 BRM raced 11 times and Ken Wharton won minor British events for the operation. At Albi a full team of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Wharton broke the Ferraris to run 1-2-3 before tyre treads began to fly and Wharton had an almighty crash.

Rudd and Stan Hope were given the job of making a lighter, more nimble car using Wharton’s salvaged engine and gearbox. This prototype V16 Mark II (above) was based on some oval five-inch by two-inch tube that Rudd had used to build himself an Aston Martin special. It used Morris Minor steering, retained Porsche-type front suspension but had a new single-piece De Dion rear end designed by Berthon.

Whereas the Mk1 weighed 2248lb (around 1020kg) dry, the engine alone scaled 500lb (230kg) and the gearbox nearly 200lb (90kg). Its fuel tanks required two men to lift them, and now the MkII was some 6in shorter in the wheelbase, with the engine and driveline canted and a single 48-gallon tail tank. Berthon geared-up the blower to give more boost low down, and in this nearly 300lb (140kg) lighter form the BRM began winning consistently – but in formule libre races.

Rudd had investigated the V16’s problems deeply and found cooling water circulating only through the centre of the block, allowing the end-cylinder pistons to burn. He also discovered that boost pressure was blowing the inlet valves open when they should have been shut. Consequently stub exhausts were adopted, and then the house filled with fumes and constant shut-downs had to be made while fans cleared the atmosphere.

Alfred Owen decided to build a car for the new 2.5-litre 1954 formula, and a wild scheme was discussed to use the V16 with one bank of eight cylinders supercharging the other bank to form a blown 750cc alternative! They opted for a 2.5-litre/16-valve/four-cylinder that Tresilian had designed before joining Bristol Siddeley aero engines.

When he left, a single-cylinder four-valve test rig was running, but it kept losing its head – quite literally. Berthon screwed liner to head to solve this problem, but then valves began hitting the piston. An engineer from Norton joined the team and suggested a pair of huge ‘Tulip’ valves instead of the quartet system. Tests proved they allowed better gas flow, so BRM invested in yet more trouble.

In the meantime Wharton persuaded Owen to buy a Maserati 250F to keep in practice, and Rudd developed that car while the new P25 engine slowly progressed. Berthon had a severe road crash caused mainly by sheer overwork, and when he returned to work (in a wheelchair) the new engine was running.

In the tiny P27 chassis it went like the wind. The new car weighed just 1080lb (490kg), and with SU fuel injection offered 260bhp and 200lb/ft torque; but tests revealed a throttle lag problem. The biggest available Webers – 52mm jobs – produced a peak of only 240bhp, but unbelievable response and acceleration.

Peter Collins gave the car its debut at Aintree in 1955, but damaged it in practice when it slung oil over its own tyres. Then at Oulton Park (above) he led the race before the big four’s vibration shook off the oil pressure gauge needle. Without realising it was the gauge that was at fault, Collins retired.

Into 1956 Tony Brooks and Mike Hawthorn joined the team, but at Monaco those massive 2.5-inch diameter inlet valves lost their sealing discs. Solid inlets were tried, which limited revs to 7500 instead of 9000rpm and, in an attempt to compensate, nitro-methane fuels were used.

At Silverstone for the British GP – after missing three races – Hawthorn and Brooks bulleted into the lead as Ron Flockhart’s third car retired. Then Hawthorn’s gearbox leaked its oil and Brooks’s throttle rods vibrated apart. In the pits a pencil was taped to the rods by way of repair.

Brooks rejoined, the throttle jammed at Abbey Curve and the car somersaulted and burned out.

Now BRM was demoralised once more, and Alec Issigonis and Alex Moulton failed to find an improvement when they were called in as consultants. Berthon turned to Colin Chapman, who replaced the V16-descended oleo-pneumatic strut suspension with coil springs and, now that the suspension began to work, trouble centred on driveshaft joints that split their gaiters, lost oil and threatened to seize.

Berthon designed new shafts with ball-loaded plunging splines, and Rubery Owen made one pair in time for the 1957 Caen GP. Jean Behra used them – and won. At that time you could buy a new Maserati 250F for £5000… BRM’s new driveshafts alone cost £1200 per set.

Late in the season three BRMs placed 1-2-3 at Silverstone to wipe out the memory of the disastrous International Trophy debut seven years before. Owen put greater resources at the team’s disposal in response.

During the winter, F1 engines had to be modified to run on Avgas and Rudd designed a new front end with different suspension geometry to replace the old ‘Overstressed Skin Special’ chassis. It was welded onto chassis 253 and became Behra’s famous ‘Goodwood Chicane’ car by being written-off against that obstacle.

While modifying the original now 270bhp four main-bearing engine to run on Avgas, Berthon decided to modify its bottom end with a fifth man bearing amidships. The result was only 240bhp and the biggest oil cooler ever seen. During 1958 Behra regularly gave up and stomped off in disgust at its lack of power. His historic Masta Kink spin at Spa was caused by overheating engine oil frothing from the breathers to coat his car’s rear tyres.

Jo Bonnier, BRM P25

Jo Bonnier, BRM P25 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

For 1959 Berthon returned to the four-bearing crank. Now the car became truly competitive, and Mays still glows rosily as he recalls Jo Bonnier’s Dutch GP victory – BRM’s first major success after 13 years of endeavour.

But behind the scenes at Zandvoort both Bonnier and Harry Schell pressured Sir Alfred Owen to have a mid-engined car built. Work began to convert the front two bays of the P27 chassis to carry a midships engine.

Early in 1960 the new P48s completely replaced the front-engined cars, but they suffered from desperate braking and rear suspension difficulties that were slowly ironed out.

At Zandvoort again, Graham Hill and Dan Gurney refused to drive unless Berthon and Aubrey Woods concentrated on their engines, and Rudd was detailed to run the team and develop the chassis.

Berthon outlined a new 1.5-litre V8 engine for 1961 while Rudd designed the chassis to accept it. For much of that season the team ran Climax four-cylinder engines while the V8 neared completion. Berthon had detailed the basic concept using the V16 conrods and timing gear pack. Woods drew it and Rudd developed it.

The prototype was a Norton-like ‘squish’ engine in which flat pistons went right up into the head. Not until a third set of heads had been made with hemispherical combustion chambers did the unit begin to work properly.

The space taken by the brake jackshaft in Alec Stokes’ original 2.5-litre gearboxes was filed by a fifth gear for 1.5-litre use, and at 2300hrs on Thursday 12 July 1961 the first V8 was fired up, and produced 155bhp. Late development reached 178bhp, but Lucas’ electronic ignition box was troublesome, and delayed the engine’s debut.

Meanwhile the Owen Organisation was a vast undertaking, but it was wholly a family business. Sir Alfred ran it with his brother Ernest and sister Jean. She and her husband, Louis Stanley, had attended BRM’s races regularly since Monaco 1959. They listened sympathetically to the drivers’ grievances, and are recalled as a considerable force for good within the team.

When Owen’s expenditure on BRM passed the million-pound mark late in 1961 his brother was very upset and wanted to kill the project. The Stanleys wanted to see the new team and car given another chance, and Sir Alfred allowed one last season – 1962 – for them to make good. If they failed, they would be closed down.

Rudd became chief engineer and team manager, while Berthon and Woods were despatched to Harry Weslake Research at Rye to handle long-range development.

Of course, Hill and Richie Ginther excelled that year, and Hill and BRM became world champions. Vast V8 developments left only the original timing gear pack and inlet valves unchanged.

Graham Hill, BRM P261

Graham Hill, BRM P261 Sutton Images

Sutton Images

BRM maintained their new-found competitiveness throughout the 1.5-litre F1 years to 1965. New monocoque chassis were developed, a 32-valve V8 tried and discarded, and with Cyril Atkin as chief mechanic and the rest of the crew all ex-Rubery Owen apprentices, BRM was a truly top-line outfit without a single weak link.

But Alfred Owen wanted to see the team self-supporting, and heavy commercial loads began to grow. The Le Mans Rover-BRM project of 1963 was successful and, although it distracted much effort and talent, the businessmen from ‘The Kremlin’ at Darlaston saw the chance to interest the motor industry at large in future projects.

Effort was dissipated in a one-litre F2 engine, and BRM moved on to tune Formula Ford units, to build Lotus-Ford twin-cams, develop four-valve Avenger heads for Chrysler and even – secretly – to do a V12 three-litre engine design for Matra. A 32-valve V8 engine was designed to mount transversely in a Chrysler USA four-wheel-drive Indycar, also BRM-designed, and against this background the H16 came into being.

The Weslake team began its three-litre F1 engine feasibility studies in 1964, and Owen arranged for Weslake to develop a 12-cylinder and Bourne a 16. Berthon had had enough and walked out, and Woods completed a V12 for Gurney’s Eagle outfit.

Rudd chose an H-layout for his 16, with two V8s effectively flattened-out and geared one above the other. Geoff Johnson detailed and finalised the design. As a bet-hedger Johnson completed a V12 that was at least 50{22d08c03c7a24d93e425590ff0824241bdc3a783edadf58e6afae3a272b090fc} his own conception. Rudd remarks: “Wouldn’t things have been different if we had designed the V12 first…”

As it was, BRM encountered devastating problems, with the H16’s crank coupling gears failing. The most power ever seen from one of the complex H16s was 421bhp from engine number 7504 – which was bound for Lotus.

By mid-1969 the team was back in its old familiar state of demoralisation and, when John Surtees refused to drive the new P139 V12 car after its front suspension had failed on the opening lap of the British GP, Rudd planned extensive tests at the Nurburgring, to which Surtees declined. The Stanleys backed driver against engineer, and Rudd took up a long-standing offer to develop Lotus cars and engines for Chapman.

Tony Southgate and Tim Parnell joined the team as designer and team manager, and with the death of Ernest Owen and Sir Alfred’s disabling stroke that year Jean and Louis Stanley became joint managing directors of BRM – with Mr Stanley as chairman.

Pedro Rodriguez, BRM P153

Pedro Rodriguez, BRM P153 Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

In 1970-71 he attracted Yardley sponsorship for his team, perpetuating BRM’s ‘all-British’ image. Southgate’s immediate reaction on arrival at Bourne was, “Bloody hell, we can only improve”, and he found it a parochial place, isolated and out of the mainstream of development.

BRM had an outdated shape, and parts were made in a way calculated more to make full use of the incredible engineering plant than to make those parts competitive.

Southgate’s new cars were very competitive, and Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert were to bring BRM back to the top in those years, only to both die in unimportant races.

Relations were strained between Stanley and Yardley by the end of 1971, and in early 1972 he announced a new tie-up with Marlboro, and talked of plugging the name ‘BRM’. There were schemes to build 10,000 BRM invalid chairs a year, for BRM road wheels, for BRM snowmobiles to be made in Canada, and for a 200mph BRM road car.

A deal with Aston Martin for the road car foundered in their tanged difficulties but, after starting and finishing five cars in the 1971 US GP, BRM attempted to do so regularly under Marlboro colours.

Jean-Pierre Beltoise scored the team’s lone victory at Monaco during this red-and-white period, and during 1973 relations between Stanley, Marlboro, Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda deteriorated into charge and counter-charge. Stanley referred to “picking up other teams’ reject drivers” and considered he “could not make thoroughbreds out of selling-platers”.

For 1974 Henri Pescarolo brought Motul oil backing to the team, and with Beltoise and Francois Migault as his fellow drivers the team became ‘French Racing Motors’ to all intents and purposes. Southgate had gone to Shadow, while Mike Pilbeam (who had produced the 4WD BRM in 1964) was left to devise the neat little P201 in which Beltoise shone briefly at Kyalami.

Thereafter the team went from bad to worse, using ancient and much-patched engines, and finally reaching its nadir at Monza, where two cars retired without completing a lap and the third managed just three. Chris Amon worked hard in a P201 at Watkins Glen, and that was virtually the end.

At the close of October, Rubery Owen withdrew its support owing to the trade recession, but the Stanleys launched Stanley-BRM Ltd to maintain the racing and commercial projects. Pilbeam, ex-Climax engine man Peter Windsor-Smith and Parnell were “released”, and Stanley announced: “This is the chance for a complete spring clean.”

Now he wasn’t interested in finding a sponsor, he said: “Look at these other cars, with a fag packet on one end and a contraceptive on the other.”


But Mike Wilds and Bob Evans were unable to produce fireworks during 1975 and, with Ian Ashley driving, BRM’s apparent last gasp came at Sao Paulo this year [1976]. When Stanley announced his company’s temporary retirement from racing before the Brands Race of Champions it looked like the end of a motor racing legend.

But ‘Big Lou’ has proved us all wrong. Somebody once suggested that his fan club could meet in a telephone kiosk but, whatever his public image, Louis Stanley is wielding the longest-lived British name in big-time motor racing.

We must wish BRM well. After three controversial decades it now has one more chance to prove all the critics wrong.

2020 hindsight

Unfortunately, BRM only staggered on for one more F1 campaign, failing to qualify in most 1977 races, having run four different drivers across its fragmented effort.

Some of the cars and assets continued elsewhere, including the British Aurora AFX F1 championship, and there was an attempt to revive the name in sportscar racing in the early 1990s, but really BRM was dead.

It had spent most of its life struggling to live up to those early post-WW2 expectations, but its high moments had been just that. As well as the 1962 drivers’ and constructors’ titles, BRM racked up 17 wins in the F1 world championship, which as of 2020 is still good enough for 11th on the all-time list.