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The Vanwall Grand Prix engines


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Tony Brooks


Vanwall VW4




10th RAC British GP (July 20, 1957)

Tony Brooks, Vanwall, 1957 British GP

Over sixty years ago, in 1958 Guy Anthony Vandervell's team of Vanwall Grand Prix cars won the Manufacturers’ Championship, fulfilling seven years of endeavour by Vandervell to build and race his own cars against all comers, particularly the Italian teams.

Tony Vandervell or GAV (as he was known) was the dynamic founder of a highly successful industrial enterprise, Vandervell Products Ltd. (VP), set up in 1933 to manufacture thin-shell or Thin Wall bearings under licence from the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Company in the U.S.A. (These bearings comprised a thin steel backing with a bonded thinner layer of bearing metal, precision ground, that were quickly replaceable and could withstand high loads, and were a major improvement on existing thick-wall bearing practice that was more labour intensive to fit.)

Vandervell had a purpose-built factory constructed at Western Ave. Acton near Park Royal west of London, so that he could develop and manufacture this new form of bearing, which was readily adopted by the automotive market.

During WW II, Thin Wall bearings were utilised in military vehicles and aircraft engines and a special plant was built at Western Ave. Acton, opposite the Vandervell Products factory, for the manufacture of bearings for the Napier Sabre H 24 aero engine.

Post war, his company went from strength to strength and he was now a very wealthy man, who also had a passion for motor racing and in particular, racing engines.

In 1946, Vandervell became a director on the board of Norton Motors Ltd. in Birmingham, a company renowned for its powerful “500 Double Knocker” single cylinder racing motorcycle.

Then in 1947, Raymond Mays approached Vandervell for support of the BRM V16 Grand Prix project and Vandervell agreed, becoming a committee member of the British Motor Racing Research Trust and giving assistance with parts manufacture in his factory. With his involvement in Norton, Vandervell realised Norton needed to consider a multi-cylinder engine to combat their Italian rivals, so he arranged for a contract with Peter Berthon of Automobile Developments Ltd.(BRM's design arm) for them to design a 4-cylinder 500cc engine for Norton, based on their design experience with the V16. Very little was done, but in 1949, as part of this project, BRM did experiment with a water-cooled version of the Norton GP single which developed more power than the air-cooled version and could sustain it using the mandated low octane “pool” petrol of the time. This design was to be significant in the future of Vandervell's own cars, the Vanwalls.

Also in 1949, Vandervell purchased a Ferrari 125 GP car so that BRM could get some racing experience, while the troubled BRM V16 was developed. But Vandervell soon tired of the lack of progress at BRM and in 1950 withdrew from the project, except in an advisory role and set up his own racing team to campaign the Ferrari.

In 1950,an additional bearing factory had been built at Cox Green, Maidenhead (about 35km west of the Acton plant) complete with engine test beds and it was in this factory that the Ferrari and Vanwall racing engines would be tested and developed; while the racing team proper was housed at Acton in the old Napier Sabre plant with access to Vandervell Product's drawing office, tool room and major workshop in the main factory across the road.

The racing team at Acton became fully established with Fred Fox in charge and Phil Wilson as chief mechanic (he had joined from BRM in 1950) and the team acquired a succession of three Ferrari GP cars over the next couple of years and each was campaigned as the Thin Wall Special. Set upon this strong base, by 1951,Vandervell's driving ambition was to build and race his own British Grand Prix racing car.

Vanwall engine concept

When Vandervell decided to build his own GP car, Formula 1 was in a state of change. The FIA had announced a new Formula 1 for 2.5-litre un-supercharged or 0.75-litre supercharged cars starting in 1954. But with the withdrawal of Alfa Romeo at the end of 1951 and the uncertainty of competitive fields for races in the remaining years of the current formula, organisers opted to run their Grand Prix races for the years 1952 and 1953 to the existing Formula 2, which was for 2-litre un-supercharged or 0.5-litre supercharged cars.

This was part of the incentive for Vandervell. For in his position as a director at Norton he had also spent much time in their test house studying the latest “500” GP single engine used in the works racing motorcycles and discussing its design with Norton’s chief engineer Joe Craig and talented Polish design engineer, Leo Kuzmicki. This is where Vandervell got the idea of a 4-cylinder 2-litre Formula 2 engine for his proposed GP car, effectively based on four works Norton engines (water-cooled) on a common crankcase. The works Norton “500” developed 45bhp on 80 Octane petrol in 1951, so with Formula 2 engines able to use alcohol-base fuel, Vandervell's prospects for a very competitive engine looked good.

Providently, the experimental water-cooled Norton “500” single built by BRM in 1949 would provide much useful data. It had developed 47bhp at 7,000rpm on test while the air-cooled works engine only developed 44.2bhp, a gain of 6.3% running on 72 octane “pool” petrol .Applying this to the 1951 works Norton “500” x 4, equated to over 190bhp, not factoring in the potential gain from being able to use alcohol-based fuel.

Norton Motors were prepared to help with the design of the cylinder head for Vandervell's Formula 2 car and Vandervell expanded his racing facilities at Acton and Maidenhead to meet the task he had set. As stated, Fred Fox was in charge of the racing team assisted in design by Eric Richter who had moved to Acton from BRM in late 1950 (Richter had worked on the BRM project for Norton in 1949). Fox and his team were to do the overall design of the engine, while working closely with Craig and Kuzmicki at Norton, on the design of the cylinder head and valve gear and specialists in milling, grinding and turning would be transferred from VP to the racing team. With the coming change to F1 in 1954, the design also had to be able to be expanded to 2.5 litres.

The overall concept was essentially the same as the experimental water-cooled BRM/Norton single, with separate cylinder barrels spigoted into the cylinder head and crankcase, surrounded by a non-load bearing water jacket .There was a need for a strong bottom end to the engine to tie everything together and transmit the expected power. To avoid the long lead time in designing their own crankcase Vandervell and his team looked at existing crankcases/cylinder blocks that might be adapted to suit, looking at Coventry Climax diesels and even considering that from the Austin A90; but then Vandervell's eldest son Anthony, who had been a Rolls-Royce apprentice, suggested the Rolls-Royce B-series military engine that was made in 4,6 & 8 cylinder variants. The 4-cylinder RR B40 engine with a combined cylinder block/crankcase was considered a strong and viable basis to work from, even though it was made in cast iron. Accordingly, in February 1952 an order was placed for a RR B40 crankcase cum block so that Vandervell’s engineers could study it in detail.


Vandervell did not like publicity, having seen how it worked against BRM and accordingly, very little official information was released about his cars until they had achieved their purpose and beaten the “bloody red cars“. Before the first car was unveiled, every step was taken to conceal what was being developed by Vandervell Products and consequently, over the years, inaccurate and often confusing detail has been written about the Vanwalls. Then in 1975, Denis Jenkinson and Cyril Posthumus were given access to the racing team records by the then owner GKN, to write a detailed history in their book Vanwall, The story of Tony Vandervell and his racing cars (see part 3).

Reference sources and bibliography

Personal contact

The writer is very grateful for the learned help and advice given by Derek Taulbut BSc (Eng.) Hons, DMS (author of the website Grand Prix Engine Development 1906-2000) in researching this article. Valuable assistance was also provided by members of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club and the Austin Champ Owners' Club.

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