Total Production: 23
Obscured by the haze of the Alfa Romeo 158's dominance of the first three places in Formula One's first season was a car from France that made its statement from the other side of the spectrum. While the 158s of the Alfa Romeo SpA team would utilize their superior horsepower and disappear into the distance, the Talbot-Lago exercised a different strategy reminiscent of the tale 'The Tortoise and the Hare'. Although often overlooked because it didn't have the power of many other cars it competed against, the Talbot-Lago T26C forced teams to think beyond power and speed. In its own way, the T26C helped define what a successful race car was and is.
It is the philosophy of most automakers that investing, if able, in motoracing will also benefit production cars. This was the viewpoint of Anthony Lago when he took over SA Automobiles Talbot. In that day and age, building a car and then entering it in some races to be tested and beat up was the equivalent of today's car companies and their vast proving grounds. In fact, Lago used his experiences designing and building grand prix cars to then apply that technology to the company's road cars. Lago started out building and designing the grand prix cars around the parts and features that worked or showed promise.
Using Talbot's existing 3 liter, 6 cylinder engine, Lago was able to improve upon this base and produced a 4 liter version for competition purposes. This engine would be widely used throughout the 30s. After World War II, Lago, helped by a new designer Carlo Marchetti, developed a 4.5 liter version of the 6 cylinder, but this engine was only able to produce 165bhp. This engine was later revised and able to produce around 240bhp. One interesting aspect of the design of the Talbot-Lago engine was that the pushrods that operated the valves were shorter due to the lateral camshafts located about midway up the engine block. This helped efficiency.
Before Formula One's first season in 1950, Lago further refined his 6 cylinder engine until it became capable of producing 260bhp. The horsepower increase, however, was going to be no match for the Alfa Romeos and others that were capable of producing well in excess of 300hp. However, the Talbot-Lago team found there were other ways that made themselves competitive. Talbot-Lago found that gas economy and reliability made up much of the difference.
Lago designed a chassis to be mated with his 6 cylinder engine for competition with Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari. The T26C chassis was a low-slung bobsled-shaped roadster. The overall oval shaped chassis was dominated on the nose by the radiator inlet due to the inline engine in front of the driver—an arrangement that was the norm of the day. The front suspension had a wishbone arrangement that utilized transverse leaf springs and friction dampers to help the car negotiate the bumps and to help with the all-important stability.
Travelling back from the nose the overall shape turned more triangular as the body design had to compensate for the height of the engine head. This, like most roadsters, led to the triangular shape because it helped aerodynamically with the engine but also with the driver that sat up into the airflow quite a bit. On the right side of the chassis up by the engine the air induction tube stuck out. The engine cowling was flattened out on the right side to cover the induction pipes as they connected to the engine. On the other side, exhaust pipes flowed from each cylinder, out through an opening and blended into two vertically stacked pipes that travelled the length of the car to behind the left rear wheel.
The T26C utilized a reliable 4 speed Wilson pre-selector gearbox, but the gearshift location was rather interesting for a racing car. Due to its compact size, the cockpit was rather tight, in many cases the driver's knees were in his chest. Therefore, like many automatic vehicles of today, the gearshift was located behind the steering wheel.
Snuggly fitted behind the large steering wheel with a small windshield, and with the mirrors attached to the chassis and located on either side of the steering wheel, this truly was the epitome of a Formula One roadster of the day, including the dangers the drivers faced. With the fuel tank located in the teardrop-shaped rear of the car, and the engine up in front, the driver was in a precarious situation driving a grand prix car of this era.
Despite the obvious performance deficiencies there were a couple of factors that always kept the T26C in contention. The T26C had superior gas mileage due to not being supercharged and only 6 cylinders. This meant that over greater distances, like a grand prix race, the fact the car could go the entire distance without stopping for fuel or tires meant the advantage gained by the more powerful cars practically disappeared. The other important factor the T26C used in its favor—and this makes all the difference for any team's aspirations—was reliability. While Luigi Fagioli had a consistent 1950 season with Alfa Romeo SpA having only failed to finish once, the underpowered T26C did as well. The car just did not break. This allowed Talbot's driver Louis Rosier to stay in the points. And despite never winning a race, Rosier was able to achieve fourth in the final championship standings. In fact, at three of the seven races Rosier was either fourth or better and this with a car notably short on power!
Within the grand prix racing circle the T26C's innovative contributions were much larger than the results of Formula One's first season would suggest. The Alfa Romeo 158 and the Alfa Romeo SpA team swept the first three spots in the 1950 championship. The car and the team apparently dominated. The achievement of the SpA team would easily overshadow any contributions of other teams. However, Louis Rosier's fourth place tremendously impacted the Formula One world. Many teams, based upon the achievements of Talbot-Lago, had to do some rethinking, expanding the definition of 'performance'. In fact, it is the same today in grand prix racing—the search, the longing, for the balance between the speed of the Alfa Romeo 158 and the strength and stamina of the T26C.
Despite being inferior in power by practically 100hp, the T26C threatened the more powerful teams by using greater gas mileage and reliability as its tactics. Through these tactics other teams came to truly realize their vulnerability. Other teams needed to seriously address these important issues to stay competitive. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, in Formula One, Talbot-Lago's T26C ushered in the balance between speed and endurance. This is why Talbot-Lago is probably even more famous for its endurance racing. Lago would design a wider version of the T26C, complete with fenders and headlights, to meet the rules and would actually go on to win the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1950. The 24 hour race was made for the Talbot-Lago chassis and engine combination and was one of the team's most notable victories.By Jeremy McMullenEcurie Belge
In 1950, there were many independent teams that took part in Formula One's inaugural season. These teams were comprised more of one driver and his own car, more than anything else. Often times, gentleman of society would form teams to go race. One of those teams was the Ecurie Belge team.
Octave John 'Johnny' Claes was born of a Scottish mother and Belgian father and was educated in England. After World War II, Johnny decided to get involved in grand prix racing. This desire, however, didn't start on a whim. In 1947 Claes served as an interpreter for British drivers at the French Grand Prix. This exposure to grand prix racing birthed a passion within Claes. The very next year Johnny made his debut.
Johnny bought his own Talbot-Lago T26C (see article on the Talbot-Lago T26C) and raced under the Ecurie Belge name that Johnny himself founded. After competing throughout 1948 and 1949, Claes never scored a victory, but Johnny remained very active in grand prix racing. Despite his lack of success, Claes competed in every event of Formula One's first season.
At Formula One's first race, the British Grand Prix, Claes qualified dead last for the race at Silverstone. Johnny would end up the race finishing 11th, 6 laps behind the winner Farina. Claes was the last car in the field still running.
The Monaco Grand Prix was the next race. Johnny ended up qualifying in the 19th spot. This was an improvement, but little consolation since the other two drivers that started worse did not have a qualifying time. Johnny made it through the melee on the first lap that claimed many of the other teams. Once again, Johnny would be the last car still running. But that consistency netted Johnny a 7th place finish at the prestigious race.
After the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One season moved on to Switzerland for the Swiss Grand Prix held at the 4.5 miles course in Bremgarten. Claes made an improvement in qualifying. Claes would end up starting the race from 14th on the grid, almost 17 seconds off of Juan Manuel Fangio's pace. In the race, Johnny would not be the last car still running. Claes drove a steady race, showing improvement as a racer. Johnny would end up finishing 10th, only four laps behind winner Farina.
Claes headed home for the next race in Spa, Belgium. The Grand Prix of Belgium touted a small entry of cars. Only 14 cars made the trip for the race, but to be sure, Johnny was not going to miss his home grand prix. Claes would end up not posting a time during qualifying, so he ended up starting the race from the last position on the grid. Johnny had experience starting from the back and coming up through the field, and this race would end up being no exception. Despite starting last, Johnny climbed all the way up to finish the race in 8th place, and only 3 laps behind the leader. Up to this point, despite qualifying rather poorly at each race, Johnny drove steady, controlled races and always finished higher than where he had qualified. Claes tried to keep this going into the last two races of the Formula One season.
The French Grand Prix was next on Formula One's calendar. During qualifying there were a slew of cars that didn't post a qualifying time, Claes being one of them. As a result, Johnny was relegated to starting the race from the 15th starting spot. It ended up that despite not posting a time Claes would end up starting the race from a far better spot than for most of the races he actually posted a time. The Belgian's race didn't fair well though. Throughout the season, Claes drove steady races to finish well, but not much can be done when it is the car that fails, not the driver. The engine on Johnny's Talbot-Lago started to overheat and, finally on lap 11 of the race, Claes parked his T26C…his race was done. Despite this bad result, Claes continued his streak of finishing better than where he started. Though he did not finish the race, unofficially, Claes finished 11th.
Johnny was hoping to end the first season of Formula One on a high note as it travelled to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. The race would be contested by a large number of drivers. Johnny would qualify 22nd, beating out five other drivers. The race was one of attrition, breaking cars left and right. Many cars would end up suffering engine, gearbox and overheating issues. Claes would end up being one of those that suffered from car troubles. Claes' engine began to overheat again, just like during the French Grand Prix. Finally, on the 22nd lap, the car was brought to a stop. However, due to the problems suffered by many of the other drivers, Claes would end up finishing, though retired, better than he had started. Unofficially, Johnny would end up finishing the race 16th.
Due to having only been racing for two years previously, it could be said the inaugural Formula One season was more of a time for learning and improving for Claes. Johnny ended up proving to be a quick learner and very adept. This point is only further reinforced by the fact Claes would end up winning the 1950 Grand Prix of Frontieres, a non-Formula One race. Although Claes showed great improvement throughout the Formula One season, he would end up without a championship point in the six starts he made.
There were perhaps more famous 'gentleman' racers during the period, like Prince Bira, Johnny Claes, however, proved a competent and competitive racer. He proved he wasn't just there because he had the means. He wanted to race, and he wanted to win. Though relatively obscure and unknown in Formula One history, Ecurie Belge was just another one of those small, privateer teams that helped shaped and flavor the early years of Formula One's history.By Jeremy McMullen