A major focus of Formula One today is to stem the tide of the exorbitant price tag it costs teams just to compete, let alone be successful. The high prices has forced many smaller teams to try and make a splash, but ultimately sink into the annuls of Formula One's back-markers. This, however, is not a new problem. In fact, this is a problem Formula One faced from its very first season. The Alta Car and Engineering Company was one of those privateer teams that had an appearance in Formula One's history but really ended up disappearing behind the dominance of bigger and more well funded race teams. However, Alta represents the competitive heart that helps make Formula One what it is.
Alta was one of the true privateer teams in F1's history. Most privateer teams, throughout the history of Formula One, designed and built perhaps a portion of their cars but still relied on components designed and built by other teams or companies to help finish the car. Often times, due to the costs involved, a team will be supplied engines by another, larger, team. Very few teams have ever done everything 'in house' so to say. Alta, however, did it all. Based in Surbiton, Surrey, England, Alta started out making racing machines. But unlike many other smaller companies, Alta built all its own components for its racing machines, including the engine.
Founded by an engineer by the name of Geoffrey Taylor, Alta's first ever automobile was a 1.1 liter sports car produced in 1929. Although produced in 1929, Taylor's sports car employed some rather impressive technology. The car utilized an aluminum block engine with shaft-driven twin overhead camshafts, all of which Taylor designed himself. The car was offered in a couple different forms. The car could be purchased in a normally aspirated model or in a supercharged version. The small 1.1 liter engine developed 49bhp in the normally aspirated arrangement, but was capable of producing 76bhp when supercharged. The addition of the supercharger made the car capable of touching 120mph and could go 0-60mph in around 7 seconds. The available power and the choice between a 4 speed non-synchromesh or pre-selector gearbox helped Alta to have steady but not impressive sales.
It wasn't too long before Taylor produced the first Alta chassis that was designed specifically for competition purposes. Taylor and the Alta Company also developed two whole new engine liter options; a 1.5 liter and a 2 liter option. Alta's new single-seat competitor was a good light-weight chassis but, however, struggled with reliability over the course of longer events. However, Alta's car proved to be very good in shorter events. Alta's chassis did become quite popular with club racers due to the fact it was rather inexpensive compared to other customer chassis like that offered by companies like ERA. But also, Alta's chassis proved popular due to the ease with which the car was able to convert from the 1.5 liter and 2 liter versions. This meant a driver could compete in two classes with one car instead of having to purchase a whole other car.
Taylor and Alta continued to update their chassis designs, and in 1937 Alta employed an independent front suspension on their newly revised competition model. Revisions such as this led to a number of victories just before the start of the war. It is possible there could have been many more victories that Alta could have scored were it not for the interruption by World War II. In fact, just prior to the start of the war, Taylor had been developing a new chassis that was purpose-built for the new straight 8 cylinder engine he was designing. This design was destined to use an all-new fully independent suspension, which would have made it highly advanced for its time. Like many of the other car manufacturers, the war halted production of any of Alta's designs. Instead, the Alta Company stepped into the role of producing material for the war effort.
Taylor continued to develop his designs throughout the war despite the few raw materials that were available. As a result, Alta would be the first British constructor to build an all-new chassis after the war's end. The small size of the company, however, caused there to be hindrances in the development of Taylor's other road going sports cars. Due to the fact there weren't many new updates to the sports cars popularity and, thus, sales dwindled across all of Alta's sports car models. Alta's sports cars weren't the only models that suffered, even the previously successful pre-war chassis was finding it hard to be as successful as it was before.
Taylor's development and evolution of ideas he had prior to and throughout the war materialized in 1948 in the form of the Alta GP. A portion of the Alta GP could be seen to have been birthed from components of his pre-war designs. However, the Alta GP had some important updates and improvements. Alta took the parts and innovations that were proving successful and tried to redesign or update other areas of the chassis to enable the GP model to become a complete and serious contender. For starters, Taylor further developed and refined the independent suspension. Also, the Alta GP was powered by a supercharged 1.5 liter engine which boosted power to around 230bhp. And while prior to the outbreak of the war Alta offered two gearbox options, coming into 1948 Alta dropped the non-synchromesh gearbox in favor of the 4-speed pre-selector gearbox. This helped to minimize the costs and reduced compatibility issues. The choice to offer only one option also further helped with issues associated with needing materials for more than one option. Taylor and Alta redesigned the chassis. The resulting GP2 model utilized much more aerodynamic construction in an effort to gain performance and stability.
Prior to the GP2 chassis most of Alta's designs appeared more like cigars in shape, but that changed with the GP2. Instead of the cigar-like shaped chassis, Taylor and Alta employed the use of the tubular chassis which provided great strength but at less weight costs. The use of the tubular chassis allowed the GP2 to be designed with much sleeker and smoother lines. Overall, the shape of the chassis appeared tear-drop or similar to an upside-down T. In addition to the design improvements, Taylor employed wishbones along with his independent suspension design to create a stable and capable competitor.
As with the designs of the day, the nose was dominated by the radiator inlet to help cool the inline engine that sat in front of the driver. Though wide, the nose, from the side, protruded out in front of the front wheels and allowed the design team to create a gentle contour of the bodywork back over the engine toward the driver and the rear of the car. The wide tear-drop shape of the bodywork allowed most all of the components of the car to be hidden from the passing air, which helped to reduce drag. Compared to cars like the Talbot-Lago T26C, the Alta GP2 was very sleek. The engine cowling on the Alta was dominated by shark-like gills, which would use the low-pressure of the passing airflow to help extract the heat built up from engine combustion, but also, in an attempt to help cool parts around the engine as well. The inlet on the front combined with the vacuum created by the slits meant cooler air passing through the engine compartment.
Despite all of the updates and the new chassis design the Alta GP2 still could never really shake Alta's Achilles heal—unreliability. Although the car set a number of speed records over short distances, the car proved too fragile going much further, and therefore could not improve Alta's success in long distance events.
The Alta GP2 became the chassis of choice for Geoff Crossley and Joe Kelly. In 1950 Crossley focused on speed records, while Kelly competed extensively in the Irish races. Crossley and Kelly then both brought their GP2 chassis to compete in the first Formula One grand prix race, the British Grand Prix. Once again the Alta proved fragile as one of the cars retired due to transmission issues. The other entrant, however, was able to finish but was unclassified. Alta GP2s were entered in the Belgian Grand Prix some time later and would score Alta's highest finish ever in Formula One with a 9th place finish. Alta would see victory again in the 1952 BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone but only as an engine supplier, not as a supplier of whole cars.
By the time Formula One came into existence the individual trying to build a competitive race car was almost extinct. Without the financial resources of major motor companies or other investment sources it was, and still is, hard to be competitive. But it's easy to come and go. Despite the genius and talent of Geoffrey Taylor, Alta would be remembered in Formula One mostly for its engines. Very easy is it to forget that teams competed with entire chassis that were built by Alta throughout Formula One's early history. Although many people and teams will never have the funds and the resources to be a serious contender, like Alta, it's hard to defeat the privateer spirit. Formula One owes a bit of its success to men and teams like the Alta Car and Engineering Company, the Davids amongst a bunch of Goliaths. The teams that people, deep-down, would like to see drive to victory and spit in the face of conventional wisdom.
And although Alta is a relative footnote in Formula One's history, the competitive spirit that compels people to compete and that drove Alta to compete against larger, more well-funded, teams lives on. And this is a record Alta has a share in that is as important as all of the victories Ferrari has ever achieved.By Jeremy McMullen