Sometimes we have to be willing to take a chance and go after our own dreams instead of hoping another would make it happen for us. Rodney Clarke and Mike Oliver had a dream, but they would be forced to take a step of faith to see it become a realization.
Clarke and Oliver had been friends all through their days as pilots in World War II. They had a dream of starting their own racing team and garage. Initially, they looked to Bugatti as their means into the door. The two men went to work for Continental Cars in Send. Bugatti; however, would not resume production right away after the war. This left the dreams of Clarke and Oliver firmly planted on the ground until a man by the name of Kenneth McAlpine came along.
Kenneth McAlpine, of the McAlpine engineering empire, had started to get into racing and had the wealth to fund it. He would end up taking a Maserati 8CM to Continental Cars to have it prepared for races. This was where he met Clarke and Oliver. In time, McAlpine would encourage the pilots to take the risk and to open their own workshop. The two would do just that, and with the funding of McAlpine, they would have the means to get it off the ground.
They were going to go through with the idea, but they needed a name for the company. They would decide to play upon the name of their former employer Continental Cars. What would result would become known as 'Connaught'.
McAlpine was a racer, and from a lineage of engineers, he recognized talent when he saw it. He would encourage Clarke and Oliver to use their talents to create a light, compact and strong race car in which could be used for racing. Clarke was an incredibly detailed and talented engineer that became obsessive about the little things. This would both hamper and help development of new car designs. The first one would be built in 1949. The car handled well but was vastly underpowered.
Ahead of his time, Clarke would envision such ideas as a mid-engined GT car, anti-lock braking and a self-leveling suspension. However, while these ideas were quite revolutionary, they were so revolutionary that there wasn't the means and the money to really develop and integrate these ideas into anything. But that would not stop Clarke and Oliver from applying some truly innovative features into their first really competitive Formula 2 car, the Connaught A-Type.
The innovations in the A-Type would start right away with the chassis. The chassis was made of a steel tubular ladder-type frame that offered great strength and rigidity at a lighter weight. Covering the ladder tubular frame was thin aluminum. Overall, this combination would make the Connaught a light car, which was important given the notoriously short on power English engines made available at the time. The finished car would weigh in at a scant 1220 pounds.
Pushing the smaller-horsepower engines as hard as what would be required in a grand prix race required keeping the engine as cool as possible. Therefore, the nose of the car sported a large, oval-shaped grille that would either be blunt or protruded outward from the rest of the bodywork. Hidden behind the grille was the engine's radiator and oil cooler.
The bodywork of the car was wide and round with an overall cigar-shape. The width of the nose was necessary to help conceal another innovative feature of the A-Type chassis—adjustable suspension. The double wishbone suspension, with its Armstrong hydraulic dampers and torsion bars, was adjustable to help meet the needs of any given circuit. An anti-roll bar helped to provide great comfort to the driver. Once again, handling would be very important for a car short on power. The Connaught A-Type offered confidence for the driver that he could throw the car into the corners and power on through.
The profile of the car showed the nose swept gently up and back to cover the 2.0-liter, dual overhead cam Lea-Francis straight four. This engine was capable of delivering 150 hp and could turn at over 6,000 rpms. Coupled to an Armstrong-Siddeley preselector 4-speed manual gearbox, the A-Type could go zero to 60 in a little under eight seconds and could cover a quarter of a mile in a little over sixteen. Flat-out, the car could reach speeds in excess of 150 mph.
The induction pipes for the straight-four protruded out the right-hand side of the car. An airbox ram intake shroud was fitted to provide fresh, ram air, to the headers and the dual carburetors that delivered the fuel and air mixture to the engine. This helped the under-powered car develop more power in order to be able to compete with its rivals.
Obviously, the exhausts for the engine exited out of the left side of the car and ran back uncomfortably close to the driver in the cockpit. To aid in protecting the driver, a slight bend in the exhaust pipes were added, as well as a perforated shroud that provided a little protection to the driver's arm. Nonetheless, the extremely hot exhaust pipes were right there, actually passing over the top of the cut-out sides of the cockpit.
Other than the steering wheel, perhaps the most prominent feature found in the cockpit of the car rested between the driver's legs. Right between the legs of the driver sat the transmission for the car. This made for tight foot boxes for each foot. Sticking up out of the right-hand side of the cockpit was the gear lever for the Armstrong-Siddeley preselector 4-speed manual gearbox. Other than the single-piece windscreen, the two round mirrors and an rpm gauge, there was very little else to distract the driver's forward view.
After lessons learned with early prototypes of the car, the A-Type would be fitted with a de Dion rear axle that had Armstrong shock absorbers with progressive torsion bars. This replaced the independent rear suspension that was used on previous prototypes but that had proven rather unstable. The newest model would also have some handling problems initially, but they would soon be ironed out.
Of course, one of the most important aspects to a car that affects handling would be the car's brakes. On the Connaught it was decided to use Girling hydraulic drum brakes one each of the wheels. Fade with brakes is always a concern on a race car, especially one with drums. Therefore, as with most, if not all of the period, the drums would have machined grooves in them to allow the cooler air passing between to extract the heat built up, out.
Clarke looked for every advantage possible when it came to designing the A-Type. Even the wheels would be an area not left untouched by Clarke. The spoke-rimmed wheels of the day were notoriously heavy. Therefore, in an effort to reduce weight in any way that he could, Clarke would develop and employ another innovative feature into the A-Type chassis. Clarke would utilize magnesium wheels on the chassis. Magnesium, despite its incredible dangers in a fire, was known to be lighter, and yet, just as rigid and strong.
When Clarke finally got done messing around and meddling with the car what was produced was one of Britain's best hopes against the might of Italian design at the time. The car handled well and had decent performance. This would make the car quite popular with privateer entries. However, Connaught wouldn't just provide the car to privateers. The company would form its own works team, which included its major funder Kenneth McAlpine.
Connaught Engineering would selectively enter races with the A-Type chassis. In its first appearance in the World Championship, which would be the British Grand Prix held at Silverstone, Dennis Poore and Eric Thompson would finish in the points. Poore would finish 4th while Thompson would finish 5th. This was an incredible start to the team's participation in the World Championship. However, that would be as good as it got for the team throughout the rest of the 1952 season.
The result at the British Grand Prix compared to the other World Championship rounds in which the team participated would be indicative of the performance of the A-Type compared to the best from Italy.
On home turf, Connaught's A-Type was one of the best, if not the best chassis to have. However, on foreign soil the car routinely struggled. This was mainly due to the competition the Connaught faced. In Britain, where the majority of the races would be against British teams, the superior handling, along with the decent performance, made the A-Type the chassis to have. However, against the Ferrari 500 and the Maserati A6GCM that would be introduced a little later on in the season, the car could not compare in sheer performance. Only in its handling could the car keep pace.
In spite of the difficulties when facing foreign adversaries, there would end up being plenty of moments in homeland races for the Connaught Engineering team to celebrate. Mike Hawthorn would run in only one race for the team and that would be at the relatively minor race at Turnberry in Scotland. Hawthorn would promptly take the car he had never raced and would go on to take the victory. In the fall of 1952, Ken Downing would win the Madgwick Cup race at Goodwood. He would be followed home by Dennis Poore making it a Connaught Engineering one-two. This would only be eclipsed a couple of weeks later when Connaught would finish one-two-three at the 1st Newcastle Journal Trophy race at Charterhall in the Scottish Borders. Even Mike Oliver took part in the race and finished 3rd, thereby ensuring a clean sweep of the podium for his very own team.
After the considerable, albeit local, success the A-Type achieved during 1952, Belgian racer Johnny Claes would purchase one and race it in the all-yellow Belgian national colors during the 1953 season. Privateer driver, Tony Rolt, would also purchase an A-Type chassis and would go on an impressive run of victories including Crystal Palace, Snetterton, Oulton Park and Thruxton.
The works team would feature Roy Salvadori and John Coombs. Salvadori would finish 2nd behind Hawthorn at the International Trophy race. While international success was very limited, Salvadori would end the year earning the victory at the Madgwick Cup race, making it two in a row for Connaught at the race.
Although Connaught struggled abroad, it was well and truly Britain's best hope in grand prix racing. Oliver and Clarke would build upon the A-Type chassis and would make some truly competitive chassis. However, none of them would be able to take the fight to the Italian cars, except for that one race in 1955 with a dental student at the wheel.
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