Page 78, Classic and Sportscar, February 1994.
Testing times
Ken Richardson, before he went on to perfect the TR sports car, was BRM’s development genius. Here he shares his memories from the tough days of trying to make the V16 work
My association with Raymond Mays began in 1934, when I joined the newly formed ERA team of Ray and his chief designer Peter Berthon. I had known Ray since childhood, as we both came from the same small Lincolnshire town of Bourne. I eventually became chief mechanic, works test driver and reserve driver to the ERA team, and those prewar years with the monoposto ERAs brought ample success, which served to reinforce Ray’s ambition to build a British grand prix car.
In the early summer of 1939 the original ERA team broke up, when Ray decided to part company with Humphrey Cook (who had financed ERA) and Peter Berthon and I joined Ray to run our own team at Bourne, retaining Ray’s personal ERA, R4D, which Ray purchased from Humphrey with the necessary spares and both 1.5 and 2.0-litre engines. Our last race in 1939 was due to take place in Bangkok over Christmas at the invitation of Bira’s cousin Prince Chula, but the war intervened, and all racing was curtailed for the next six years.
On the outbreak of the second world war our team disbanded, and I was seconded to experimental aircraft engine test and development, which included work on the first Whittle reverse-flow jet propulsion engines, and their installation in the E80 and F940 experimental aircraft. During this period I kept in touch with Ray and Peter. We often discussed ‘the new car’.
The war over, Raymond, Peter and I became the nucleus of the new BRM team which grew as the project developed. All the drawings for the new 1.5-litre supercharged V16 engine were completed early in 1947 by Peter and Eric Richter. Eric had been with us in ERA days and he was a remarkable design engineer with great vision. In fact, Eric was responsible in the main for the V16 engine.
The design complete, the first parts were ordered from July to December of 1947. Thereafter, though, a problem arose that put a major handicap on the V16 project which lost us about a year of development time - the late delivery of vital parts. The first parts were not delivered before April 1948, and were still being delivered in mid-1949! This spares problem was with us even when we had the first car built, and was due to the fact that, after the war, companies who had promised to sponsor us and supply important parts obviously gave priority to money-earning contracts.
The best example of our parts situation was at Silverstone when the inner halfshafts sheared on the line. I know for a fact that the entire halfshaft assemblies and universal joints had completed an enormous mileage during high-speed testing with myself at the wheel prior to the race, but we had no replacements.
This testing included a night session to run in a new engine and make final adjustments on the eve of the Silverstone race. It was pitch dark and I drove the V16 with two Lucas headlights fitted to the front of the car!
In fact the very first ‘road test’ of the BRM took place in the autumn of 1949, with the fuel injection engine fitted. The V16 engine was originally designed with fuel injection, but this was abandoned because the system simply didn’t work and we couldn’t spend time developing it. As the fuel injected engine was the only one we had at the time, however, we had to fit it into the chassis to organise oil and water pipe connections and so on, and the induction pipes for the replacement SU carburettors, which I made myself by hand.
Peter Berthon decided that, as it was connected up, it seemed a shame not to give the car a short run to check gear selection and so on, which is how the first road test of the prototype V16 BRM began at 1.30am around the streets of Bourne. As we knew the fuel injected engine would be impossible to start on the battery, Arthur Ambrose (our van driver) gave me a tow with the works van, and I remember instructing Arthur not to stop when the engine fired, as it would probably stall. After a few yards the engine burst into life with a deafening scream along with the usual misfiring associated with the fuel injection system and, after several stalls and restarts, I decided to switch off.
By this time we had completed about half of a short journey through the small streets of the outskirts of Bourne. We eventually turned into the rear entrance to the BRM establishment, which was adjacent to Raymond Mays’ house. By this time we had succeeded in waking up half of Bourne, and caused some very explicit directional instructions to be bellowed from bedroom windows. The tenor of one such instruction almost developed into polite conversation, however, when it was realised that I knew the person shouting the abuse should not have been at that particular bedroom window…
The first proper circuit test of the V16 took place at Folkingham airfield, our test circuit, about 11 miles from Bourne, and I remember thinking to myself that the cockpit of the V16 would become my second home for many months. On that first test day I went through the last-minute checks, which become second nature to test drivers, and, after a short push start, the engine burst into life with that ear-shattering scream that typifies the V16. After warming up, and a gauge check, I drove off and started to famililarise myself with the car, now running with twin SU carburettors.
As is usual on the first outing of a new car, there were many initial adjustments to be made. In particular, the suspension needed major work, and the engine wouldn’t pull more than 9200rpm, due to a carburation problem that we half-expected.
Before the next test session, Peter Thornhill (of the Thornhill’s tea family), the engineer from AP Lockheed who designed the strut suspension, made some adjustments to the mini-shock absorbers which fitted inside the air struts. These were small, fully adjustable, oil-pneumatic units that relied on about 25cc of highly expensive, constant-viscosity oil that Peter always guarded with his life.
The carburation problem was one of mixture setting and, prior to the next test session, our machine shop made up a set of jet needles in a wide range of sizes so that we could set up the carburation to suit each individual circuit.
On alcohol fuel, carburation is particularly sensitive to any variations in barometric pressure caused by different circuit heights. In the ERA days we had boxes and boxes of jet needles as we had a choice of three engine sizes - 1100cc, 1500cc, and 2 litres. The carburation from, say, Brooklands to Crystal Palace was quite different, even with the small variation in circuit height involved. In fact I’ve still got some of those ERA jet needles - they’re very handy for pricking out seeds.
On the next test session at Folkingham the handling was improved beyond measure, and, with the carburation sorted, the top end power of the V16 was phenomenal. I realised after my first high-speed lap that a careful learning process had to be adopted when driving the car fast. Comparatively little power was available below 8000rpm but once the supercharger began to deliver the gravy, as it were, the power came in with a bang, and it was quite easy to spin the wheels - in fifth gear!
It was when the performance of the car was coming up to scratch that another problem showed up. I was just accelerating out of a bend when the V16 decided to be sick, and deposited about two gallons of hot oil over me. I snatched my goggles off, switched off, and drew to a halt wondering what the hell had happened. Incidentally, for several tests the engine cover was removed to accommodate extra gauges.
In due course Peter Berthon drew up in the works van with Ray. He took one look at me, covered in oil, and said “That must have been some pigeon,” which convulsed the assembled company. After cleaning out the car and checking everything, we found no sign of a burst pipe or leak, and decided that the oil must have been ejected from the oil tank breather pipe.
After replenishing the oil, and changing into some of Peter’s clothes (for convenience Peter’s second home was a large caravan at the circuit), we decided to resume testing to identify the problem. Obviously, for safety’s sake I was trying to emulate the problem on the 2000yd straight, rather than have it happen through a bend, by holding the car in third at relatively high revs. Sure enough, after two laps another two gallons of oil burst from the oil tank breather pipe. When Peter drove up I said: “That pigeon has done it all over your clothes now…” The problem was indeed due to oil tank pressurisation at high revs which we cured by redesigning the oil tank and breather system.
Once we sorted all the teething problems there began months of serious testing, which often involved me driving the V16 from dawn to dusk, in all weathers. There were some serious high speed failures during that period, including that of a rear radius arm.
The most frightening day of my life, however, was when I had complete steering failure on two occasions coming into a bend. On each occasion I disappeared into the fields of sunflowers that bordered the circuit.
After insisting on a complete check on the V16, I decided to test a new ERA-engined sprint car we had built for Ray - only to have the rear hub and wheel shear off.
Later Ray asked me: “Well, what do you think we’ve accomplished today, Ken?” “I don’t know about you, Ray,” I replied, “but I’ve harvested about half an acre of sunflowers in the V16 for the farmer, and found out for the first time that adrenalin is brown in colour.”
On another occasion I arrived at Folkingham early one morning, to find the Lucas boys about to fit nine extra gauges to the car. After insisting that it would be impossible for me to read all the gauges accurately, one gauge was fitted that would do several tests. I drove off with instructions to note the needle reading. After a couple of laps I went in to the pits and reported that the needle went right over to the stop.
Now, as any test driver will tell you, when an unusual gauge reading is reported, the first reaction is a blank stare followed by the comment “Never!” to which I replied (tongue in cheek) “If you don’t believe me, either drive the car yourself or put someone on the back to read the gauge first-hand!”
This was followed by a heaven-sent opportunity. The Lucas team included Bernard Scott, then a personal assistant to the MD, later head of the company. He decided that a second opinion was indeed necessary, and the order “Woods! Get on the back!” was bellowed to Ray Woods, the competition manager of Lucas.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I enthusiastically lent Ray a pair of my goggles (while noticing Ray Mays and Peter Berthon desperately trying to hold back smiles) and instructed Ray Woods to sit on my shoulders with his feet on the chassis members to the side of the seat, and to hang on.
I drove off with Ray’s bum now wedged behind my shoulders, and as we gathered speed he adopted a posture resembling a national hunt jockey in full flight. Of course I couldn’t resist an ‘untidy’ lap, and paid particular attention to some wide slides coming out of the slow bends. About half-way round Ray began to complain in high dudgeon, and, after getting his assurance that he had read the gauge (plus the fact that his armlock on my thoat was becoming a serious threat) I slowed down and drew in.
Ray was a sight for sore eyes. The goggles I had lent him only covered one eye, and his upper lip was stuck to his teeth. He slowly regained his composure, whilst trying to work some moisture round his lips, then announced to the assembled compay: “Ken’s right. The gauge needle does go right over, and I’ve got some more information for you. If I’m asked to do that again you can stick your job right up your behind.”
Testing and developing the V16 prototype was exciting, exacting, and full of surprises, but once I had learnt the habits of the car - and that was the secret - I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. There was one design feature that I didn’t like right from its inception, which was the power brake servo system.
During initial tests I found the brake pedal too heavy to operate, and Peter Berthon decided to fit a servo onto the front brakes. The servo pump, however, was fitted to the rear of one of the camshaft housings and driven by the camshaft, rather than being driven from a power source that would be revolving if the engine was dead - the transmission, for example. Thus, if for any reason the engine stalled, you had no front brakes.
The V16 project was awesome, if only for the fact that the workload on all of us in the team sometimes brought us to our knees. A 70 or 80-hour week was the norm at Bourne in those days.
I always marvelled at the Mercedes team. Alfred Neubauer had about 160 permanent people in his team to our 36, and if a problem came up he could draw on as many extra staff as he required, together with an unlimited budget. Although Alfred was sceptical about us having the facilities to develop the Mk1 V16 properly (and he was proved right) he did say to Mays, after a visit to Bourne: “I’d like to congratulate your people on the design - it’s one of the finest I’ve ever seen or envisaged.”
Although the V16 could be a handful, and a definite learning process was required to drive it fast, I can think of other single-seaters I have driven that were far less controllable. The worst was the 1.5-litre supercharged Ferrari of the time. This was nothing short of lethal since it weighed about 1cwt more on the front than at the rear, even with a driver and full tank. Thus the handling got worse as the fuel load went down. It was perfect in a straight line, but show it a bend and it broke into a tantrum like a bull terrier with a wasp in its mouth.
There have been many criticisms of the V16, some right, some wrong, and, of course, there’s always room for improvement in any racing car. The fact remains that an extremely fast grand prix car was built by a small team there in Bourne, while handicapped by enormous financial and political problems. The V16 was years ahead of its time, and was in my opinion a great achievement by the designers, Peter Berthon, Eric Richter, and Harry Mundy.
Looking back, the learning curve proved too steep for us to climb to give it the fair chance of success that it richly deserved before the F1 formula changed.
Classic and Sportscar
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February 1994.