With the exception of the well-versed Formula One fan, hardly anyone would be able to recognize Connaught as Britain's most successful Formula One constructor throughout 1955 and 1956. However, after one of the most improbable performances at Syracuse by a young dental student, Connaught would have absolutely no trouble in capturing the attention of their competitors. And the car in which would do that would be the Connaught B-Type.
The tale of Connaught would start in the early 1950s when Rodney Clarke and Mike Oliver, two engineers, set about creating their own racing cars. Earning all-important backing from Kenneth McAlpine, Clarke and Oliver would set to work creating sports cars and single-seater grand prix cars.
Kenneth McAlpine, the son of Robert 'Concrete Bob' McAlpine, had developed an interest in motor racing in the years following World War II. Coming from a dynasty of civil engineers, McAlpine would be interested in just about every facet of grand prix racing, and therefore, would be intrigued by Clarke's and Oliver's innovative ideas. Therefore, McAlpine would determine to bank roll the two men he had come to meet when they worked for Continental Autos, a garage based in Surrey. Taking from the company they worked for, Clarke and Oliver would create Connaught and would set to work.
Connaught's first single-seater grand prix cars would be known as A-Types and would make use of Lea-Francis 2.0-liter engines to power the Formula 2 class car. But although Connaught would just begin making single-seater grand prix cars, it would quickly find itself competing with the likes of Ferrari, HW Motors, Gordini and Maserati as the era of Formula 2 in the World Championship would begin in 1952, the same year the first A-Type Connaught's would be completed.
The A-Types would be successful but mostly in non-championship races throughout England. However, there would be a few moments when the Formula 2 A-Types would score some impressive results over on the European continent.
Besides a victory in the hands of Mike Hawthorn at the 1st National Trophy race held at Turnberry on the 23rd of August in 1952, perhaps the greatest moment for the A-Type Connaught would come on the 11th of October at Charterhall. In what was the 1st Newcastle Journal Trophy race, Connaughts would sweep the top three positions with Kenneth McAlpine and Mike Oliver finishing 2nd and 3rd behind Dennis Poore.
Although Connaught was nothing compared to the size of the Ferrari factory effort and those of others, the A-Type would still be competitive on home shores and abroad simply because of one reason—better handling. McAlpine, in recalling memories of racing during the Formula 2 era, would state, 'Because we could corner faster than anybody else we could keep up with the faster cars through the corners and then get a town down the straight, running faster than the power of the car would indicate.'
Unfortunately, despite the handling advantage of the Connaught A-Type, the 1953 season wouldn't be anywhere near as successful as the season prior. The small manufacturer would continue to produce A-Types and would enter numerous non-championship races with very little success. A number of privateer teams and individuals would also make use of the A-Type in World Championship races. But while Connaught would earn a few championship points in 1952, the best result earned during the 1953 season would some at the hands of Stirling Moss at the Netherlands Grand Prix.
If top results in 1953 would be hard to come by, then they would be practically a myth with the return of Formula One to the World Championship in 1954. The increase to 2.5-liter engines and the update of new designs meant the A-Type was no longer a competitive car, especially not in the Formula One races, championship or non. Part of the reason why the Connaught would not be as competitive by 1953 would simply be due to the fact that other manufacturers took notice of Oliver and Clarke's work and would create their own examples of elements that made the A-Type competitive. In fact, there would be some design features that would be clearly evident on Maserati's famous 250F that would come from the A-Type Connaught.
With the A-Type now well out-classed, Oliver and Clarke would make plans for an all-new design. An engine program idea from Coventry Climax, a V8, would catch Clarke's eye and he would build a car specifically for the proposed powerplant. However, at the last minute, Coventry would abandon the project and Connaught would be left without an engine.
Despite boasting features that many of the top manufacturers would come to borrow in their own designs, Connaught would be in financial trouble by 1954. Struggling through the 1953 season, and the fact it was a small firm trying to compete with some of the biggest manufacturers in the world, the company would be going through money with very little return on investment.
Being the manufacturer's biggest backer, McAlpine would grow weary seeing the company constantly in the red. Clarke's new design seemed to promise Connaught would rise to prominence with yet another innovative design. Known as the J5 project, Clarke would design a car that made use of a monocoque tub with a V8 engine and transaxle mounted backward so as to be positioned at the rear of the car. Already known for creating great handling cars, Clarke's new design certainly seemed to promise the company would regain its edge in cornering speeds. And with the V8 Coventry engine, Connaught seemed destined to rise to the top. But all that would change with Coventry bailing on its proposed V8 plans.
Money and time short, Clarke would set about designing a more conventional chassis, one in which the engine would be positioned back at the front of the chassis. But McAlpine needed a design that would promise to be competitive as he was tired of seeing all of the red in the company's books.
Delayed by Coventry's decision, Connaught would set about constructing Clarke's substitute design designated as the B-Type. Clarke's idea would be a vast departure from the A-Type. In fact, it would be nothing like the A-Type.
At the same time Mercedes-Benz was creating its streamlined W196 racer, Clarke and his team would be building his own streamlined grand prix car. The nose would feature sweeping curved lines and a squared-out radiator inlet. The bodywork would be fully-enveloped with wave-like upper lines covering the engine and front wheels. An obvious feature in the nose would be the inclusion of a large NACA vent providing air to the engine air-inlets and carburetors.
Wrapping around like large bulbous features, the front wheels would be halfway hidden behind the bodywork which would blend seamlessly back along the sides of the car before arching upwards once again over the rear wheels.
Behind the driver's head would be a large fin-like piece of bodywork that would double as a headrest and would help with rear end stability as the bodywork acted like a large control surface as it extended backward before falling straight down to reconnect with the lower bodywork wrapping around the back of the car.
Clarke had his new car but needed an engine to power it. The solution would come in the form of a four-cylinder engine produced by Alta. Alta had just finished construction of a new 2.5-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine capable of producing about 240 bhp.
To make the streamlined car a competitive machine capable of competing with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, the team at Connaught would complete the design with alloy wheels to help reduce its weight. But also, the design was to make use of servo-actuated disc brakes to help with braking power.
The streamlined design would go on to great success for Mercedes-Benz when it debuted at Reims in the French Grand Prix. However, when the team arrived at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, even the great Juan Manuel Fangio had problems for he couldn't see the wheels going through the corners. Not surprisingly, Connaught would struggle with the same problem, McAlpine would relate, 'in theory we were going to go faster, in practice, we couldn't see the wheels!'
Delays in the Connaught streamlined B-Type chassis meant the car wouldn't even begin running until September of 1954. Too late in the season, Connaught would look to the future, desperately holding on in the face of growing economic trouble.
The streamlined B-Type would finally make its debut in 1955 but would quickly come to bear some of its short-comings. Besides the visibility problems shared by the streamlined W196 Silver Arrows the streamlined B-Type would also be very difficult to maintain with its all-enveloping bodywork. Therefore, Clarke would set about designing an even more conventional-looking design.
The streamlined bodywork would be thrown away. But, with the use of the 2.5-liter Alta four-cylinder engines, Clarke would manage to create a car that looked quite elegant and fast. Using longitudinally-mounted Lea-Francis engines in the A-Type, the design of the chassis stood tall with something of an egg-shaped design. However, Clarke would work with the new design and would manage to give the car a lower profile, seemingly lowering the majority of the weight of the car lower to the ground. This new design, with a lower profile, would help with handling.
Clarke would design a car with a much more narrow nose with an oval-shaped radiator inlet. The upper lines of the bodywork rose gently from the tip of the nose and would even flatten out slightly as it neared the wrap-around windscreen. This gave the car an overall much sleeker, compact and aggressive look. However, Clarke's much tighter bodywork presented some challenges. In an effort to reduce drag and instability as much as possible, Clarke's design would make use of flared bodywork, not to cover the wheels, but the coil-sprung front suspension. Additionally, portions of the bodywork just aft of the front wheels would be missing some coverage area as it would not neatly cover the Alta four-cylinder engine. Therefore, it would be Clarke's decision to cut out that portion of the bodywork and leave the top of the engine exposed. Though this increased stability in this area it would allow undisturbed airflow to the engine to help produce the 240 bhp the Alta engine was capable of producing. Still, the decision to leave a portion of the bodywork off the engine cowling would certainly be a much more elegant route to take than the large canister-type inlet that would be mounted to the side of the A-Types.
The cockpit area of the B-Type would bear some similarity to the Maserati 250F in that it would feature a wrap-around windscreen and cockpit sides that would hide more of the driver. The updated B-Type design would lose the fin-like, headrest bodywork and, instead, would sport just a simple cigar-shaped backend covering the car's fuel tank. But all in all, the rear of the car's bodywork would be very clean with barely any portion of the rear suspension being seen protruding out the side of the car.
The much more conventional B-Type would finally be finished and would make its first appearance in a minor Formula One race, the 3rd Cornwall M.R.C. In that race, Leslie Marr would drive the new car to victory in its first race. However, it wouldn't be all that exciting of a result as the small field would boast of no other Formula One cars.
The new car's first Formula One World Championship race would be the British Grand Prix. And although the race would take place on home soil, there would be very little reason for celebrating as four of the cars would retire and a fifth would not start.
Seeing the condition of the company, McAlpine would grow increasingly discouraged. It was clear the company was on the verge of shutting down. But then came the Gran Premio di Siracusa on the 23rd of October.
Connaught had rarely ventured away from the British Isles. However, organizers with the Gran Premio di Siracusa were desperate for competitors to come and take part in the race given that Scuderia Ferrari would not come to take part in the event that year. McAlpine would be against the opportunity, but would could not refuse an incredible amount of starting money the organizers offered for each car that would be entered in the race. Therefore, Connaught would take up the challenge.
On the surface, it seemed like an embarrassment waiting to happen. No fewer than eight Maserati 250Fs would be listed in the field. Five of the eight would be entered by the Maserati factory team itself. And with such drivers as Luigi Villoresi, Luigi Musso, Carroll Shelby, Harry Schell and Luigi Piotti, it seemed almost certain one of the factory Maseratis would take the victory.
It would seem all the more the case when Connaught arrived with just two cars driven by the steady Les Leston and a young dental student by the name of Tony Brooks. Still, Brooks would surprise just about everyone capturing the final starting spot on the front row. But the real surprise was still to come in the race.
Out-numbered and out-gunned, Tony Brooks would blast off at the start of the race and would absolutely dominate the remainder of the proceedings. It would be one of the most impressive and humorous scenes in all of grand prix history. The Maseratis were supposed to run away with the race, but here this young driver at the wheel of a car practically thrown together wasn't merely leading the way, the pair would be destroying all comers. Brooks would blow through a lap of the circuit with a time more than three seconds faster than the pole-winning effort posted by Luigi Musso. What's more, just Musso remained on the lead lap with Brooks heading into the final lap.
Stunned by what they were witnessing, the Sicilians would watch as Brooks crossed the line to take what had been an indomitable victory having more than fifty seconds in hand over Musso in 2nd place and more than two laps in hand over Villoresi in 3rd.
It would prove to be Connaught's final, and perhaps best, victory ever. As spectators and teams packed up and left the circuit that day celebrations could still be heard in the Connaught pit. Clarke's thrown together creation had beat them all and would give grand prix racing its first occurrence whereby a British driver and British manufacturer won a race together. And it would all come at the wheel of a Connaught B-Type.Sources:
'1952 Connaught A-Series News, Pictures and Information', (http://www.conceptcarz.com/z19863/Connaught-A-Series.aspx). Conceptcarz.com: From Concept to Production. http://www.conceptcarz.com/z19863/Connaught-A-Series.aspx. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
Capps, Don. 'Complex Mind, Complex Output', (http://8w.forix.com/connaught.html). 8W: The Stories Behind Motor Racing Facts and Fiction. http://8w.forix.com/connaught.html. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
O'Keefe, Thomas, 'Team Connaught: Remembrance of Things Fast', (http://www.atlasf1.com/2001/can/okeefe.html). Atlas F1: The Journal of Formula One Motorsport. http://www.atlasf1.com/2001/can/okeefe.html. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
'Connaught', (http://www.ddavid.com/formula1/conn.htm). Dennis David and Family. http://www.ddavid.com/formula1/conn.htm. Retrieved 20 September 2012.
'Drivers: Kenneth McAlpine', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-mcaken.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-mcaken.html. Retrieved 20 September 2012.By Jeremy McMullen