Thursday, September 23, 2010

Switch to Rear-Engines

1959 Cooper T51   
By 1959 the British had answered the Italian hysteria for speed with a cool and calculated efficiency. The engineers at BRM had produced a new species of Grand Prix cars with the engine moved form front to rear. Cooper and Lotus followed. With the weight now centered just behind the driver, the cars were more balanced and agile as they slipped around the corners. The change also lent an aerodynamic advantage: Without the engine up front the hood was slimmer and posed less wind resistance.

What I'm unsure about is this: What cultural disposition led the Brits to make this change? Was it that they lacked the kind of robust manufacturing base that supported Ferrari and Maserati, and therefore had to rely on ingenuity?


  1. I don't know if you can really put it down to purely cultural disposition of the British so much as that of the Italians-- Italy is generally resistant to change. Ferrari in particular has an undeserved reputation for innovation when in fact they were usually the last to adopt anything. They were the last team to adopt mid engines, last to adopt independent rear suspension, last to ditch wire wheels for cast alloy, late to the game with disc brakes, monocoques, side fuel tanks, scoffed at the value of aerodynamics. The list is extensive. I think that postwar Britain saw a generation of new engineers (too many to list) come about who would revolutionize F1 to this very day, and the move to mid engine was just a first step. The process happened more organically than it seems. Don't forget that Auto Union had done this before the war, and also mid engined cars were common in the smaller formulae in the late 50s before it came about in F1. But the shift down to a 1.5 Liter formula in 1960 really accelerated the trend towards mid engined cars because the loss of horsepower made handling and low curb weight so crucial suddenly, and F2 cars could now be hotted up and raced in F1 without being outgunned. So economy did play a role as well. I am sure there is plenty more to the story, but that's my quick 2 cents.

  2. Thank you for that. Following up on your comments, I wonder why postwar Britain saw a generaiton of new engineers who would revolutionize the F1? Was it a case of innovations initiated by the war effort trickling down to the car industry?

  3. I certainly think there were a lot of engineers left over from the war and a lot of new factories needing engineers to design technical products, whereas on the continent, most factories were destroyed, putting England at a distinct industrial advantage. Who can really say though? Even to this day, England is the epicenter of the auto racing engineering world. Every F1 team except maybe Ferrari has a major facility or is headquartered in the UK. Basically the English have dominated the design of racing cars since the Cooper and Lotus revolution of the late 50s/early 60s. Name almost any highly successful F1 or Sportscar program of the last 40 years and there is probably an English development team somehow involved. (Examples: the "All American" Ford GT40 was largely developed in England with partnership from Lola Cars. Some of the best Ferrari F1 cars were designed by Englishman John Barnard, etc.)

  4. I am reading right now about the Mercedes and Lancia teams in the 50s and learned some other aspects of why Britain:
    Recall that Alfa withdrew from F1 in the early 50s after initial success with the 159, which was really a well developed prewar car, Mercedes - an engineering juggernaut- withdrew from F1 after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, and Maserati, Lancia, Bugatti, and others suffered from money problems as the 50s wore on. So other than Ferrari (covered above), there really wasn't anyone left but the British to develop new racing technologies by the end of the 50s. Except maybe Porsche, but they were still a small company at the time, and while they flirted with F1, they decided, like Jaguar, to focus on Sports Car racing.

  5. The development of rear-engined F1 cars by Cooper followed logically from the old 500 cc F3 cars of the 1950s (many, if not most, of which were Coopers). It made sense to put the engine behind the driver in these F3 cars for the sake of cheapness and mechanical simplicity: you could have a straightforward chain drive connecting the engine to a rigid rear axle. The handling advantages became obvious at once. What is surprising is that it took so long for this configuration to be adopted more widely. Rear engined cars (Coopers) started to appear in F1 in 1958. By the time the new 1.5 litre F1 was inaugurated at the beginning of 1951, they were universal. Only one front-engined car (the Ferguson FWD experiment) appeared in a Grand Prix (the British) in 1961. The complete dominance of F1 by Ferrari in 1961 was down to the fact that (a) they had six-cylinder engines against the V4 Coventry Climax engines used by most other competitors and (b) their new "sharknose" rear-engined car was a superb piece of aerodynamic design for the time.