The BRM V16 Roars Again

The return of a legendary British racer

Continuation cars produced by manufacturers like Jaguar and Aston Martin have been all the rage during the last couple of years. To be frank, these have not particularly excited me, as real D-Types and DB4 GTs are rare but not quite made of “unobtainium.”

However, my heart skipped a beat when I learned of the British Racing Motors (BRM) plan to produce a run of three additional examples of the V16 Grand Prix car of 1950. The press release revealed that this was very much a passion project and certainly not one designed only to benefit the company’s bottom line.

The driving force behind the new V16 is John Owen, the son of long-time BRM backer Sir Alfred Owen. John said, “Watching the likes of the Pampas Bull (Froilan Gonzalez) and, in particular, Juan Manuel Fangio, master the power of the V16 was very special. And the fabulous noise of the engine still rings in my ears seventy years on! In a selfish way, I have always dreamed of hearing that sound again but now I’d also love to share that sensation with others. To hear the V16 screaming at full tilt for the first time is something special – something you never forget.” The first car will be built for Owen himself while the other two will be sold to customers.

Owned and exhibited by the National Motor Museum in the UK, this is the only original Mk1 V16 remaining.

While several examples of the original BRM V16 have survived, they certainly do fall into the unobtainium category. Of the Mk1 or Type 15 version, which BRM intends to reproduce, just one is known to exist. This car has been part of the collection of the British National Motor Museum for many years. It is in full running order and is regularly demonstrated at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but it is certainly never driven at racing speeds. Even during these demonstrations, the howl of the supercharged V16 engine is already compelling, so the prospect of hearing one being properly put through its paces is absolutely tantalizing.

Intended to showcase British engineer prowess to the world, the BRM V16 has quite the reputation and mainly for the wrong reasons. When it made its delayed debut during the 1950 International Trophy at Silverstone, it failed to make it off the grid with a gearbox issue. This did not please the partisan crowd and some even threw coins at the car and its stricken driver Raymond Sommer. The following day, the newspapers declared BRM to be short for “Bloody Rotten Motors.” A year later, a young Stirling Moss, not one known to refuse a drive, handed back the proverbial keys to BRM’s team manager, Raymond Mays, after he found the car a disaster to drive.

Despite its problematic debut and poor reputation, the V16 BRM is also one of the most fascinating Grand Prix cars ever built. Powered by a supercharged V16 engine with a tiny 1496 cc displacement, it is an engineering work of art. In addition to being very complicated, the car also featured many unique elements, including the centrifugal supercharger inspired by the RAF’s Spitfire fighter plane, Lockheed pneumatic springs and dampers, and a rotating drum for a rev counter. BRM was soon to discover that works of art do not necessarily make great racing cars.

Maintained to full running order, the V16 is regularly demonstrated by museum manager Doug Hill.

The car that debuted at Silverstone in August of 1950 had been the culmination of five years of work by a small team of engineers led by Raymond Mays. They were many of the same men that also produced the successful ERA (English Racing Automobiles) cars during the 1930s. Mays had gathered backing from several wealthy British industrialists, which included Sir Alfred Owen, to produce what would be Britain’s first proper Grand Prix car in more than two decades. With the 1930s dominated by cars from Italy and particularly Germany, it would now be time to show that Britain could also win the battle on the racing track. The effort received a lot of attention in the media and the expectations were high, which also explains the bitter disappointment when the V16 failed so miserably at its debut.

The Type 15 BRM had been built to the regulations that previously were used for the junior Voiturette class and were adopted for Grand Prix racing after the Second World War. The displacement limit was set at 1500 cc for supercharged engines or 4500 cc for naturally aspirated engines. The pre-War ERAs that were eligible to run under these regulations used six-cylinder engines while the Alfa Romeo and Maserati Voiturette racers had successfully campaigned eight- and four-cylinder engines respectively. Just why the BRM engineers felt that only a sixteen-cylinder engine would suffice remains a bit of a mystery. Mays did believe the engine could produce as much as 600 hp once it had been properly developed.

In many ways, the V16 engine was in fact two V8 engines fitted end-to-end. As had been common practice on long, straight-eight engines, the V16 featured centrally mounted gears to drive the overhead camshafts. This cut the length of the camshafts needed in half and prevented excessive flexing. With a very short stroke of just 47.8 mm, the BRM engine would be capable of revving to well over 10,000 rpm. Rolls-Royce had been commissioned to design the centrifugal supercharger, which was close to a downsized version of what had been fitted to the Merlin engine of the Spitfire. While an elaborate fuel-injection system was tried, eventually more straightforward SU carburetors were fitted. The first engine ran in 1947 and produced around 300 hp. By the time of its debut, this figure had risen to around 400 hp or 525 hp if Mays’s over-optimistic claims were to believed.

The rotating drum rev counter is one of the V16's signature features.

In order to compensate for the big and, above all, heavy engine, the steel ladder frame used for the BRM Grand Prix car was drilled throughout. This was particularly obvious on the side-members of the chassis, which featured large, round holes. The V16 engine was mounted at an angle in the chassis, which allowed the propeller shaft to run alongside the seat, lowering the driving position. The rear end featured a transversely mounted five-speed gearbox. The suspension was conventional in its layout, with trailing arms at the front and a DeDion rear axle. The springs were far from conventional, as they consisted of pneumatic Lockheed struts, which never worked right. The tightly wrapped aluminum body initially was quite elegant, but due to excessive cooling requirements, the Type 15 debuted with a gaping mouth of a grille.

The driveshaft that had failed Sommer at the Silverstone debut was quickly repaired, but the Frenchman did not return behind the wheel of the BRM. Instead, it was Reg Parnelli, who raced the car at a couple of minor events at Goodwood. With Grand Prix cars still in short supply, he won both the Woodcote Cup and the Goodwood Trophy. Towards the end of the season, two cars were dispatched to Barcelona for the non-championship Penya Rhin Grand Prix. Parnell was again one of the drivers with the other V16 piloted by Peter Walker. They qualified fourth and fifth fastest behind three Ferraris but reliability issues forced both BRMs to retire.

BRM sat out the opening rounds of the 1951 Formula 1 season to focus all its efforts on the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Naturally, the top priority was to prevent further embarrassment, but the weekend looked set to become another disaster. Neither car set a time in practice but were fortunately allowed to start the race. Parnell and Walker had a remarkably trouble-free race and actually finished an impressive fifth and seventh. The fifth place finish of Parnell had earned the team its first two championship points. However, it was business as usual at the Italian Grand Prix, where neither car made it to the start due to technical and administrative reasons.

The rear-end consisted of a DeDion axle and a transversely mounted gearbox.

Having dominated the first two F1 seasons with what was effectively a pre-War design, and unwilling to commit the resources to build a new car, Alfa Romeo pulled out at the end of the 1951 season. This left BRM and Ferrari as the only real contenders in the F1 class. This did not sit very well with organizers, as they feared one-sided races. BRM had to step up to become a real contender in 1952 but instead, the team withdrew from the first race it was scheduled for that year. Even though this was still a non-championship event, the organizers had seen all they needed and decided to run the World Championship Grands Prix for Formula 2 cars in 1952 and 1953. With a stroke of a pen, the BRM V16 was rendered ineligible for top-level, international racing. The decision made little difference to the championship, as Ferrari won all seven Grands Prix run to F2 regulations.

Mays persevered and the BRMs gained disc brakes and there were revisions to the steering layout and cooling arrangement. Most of the team’s backers had lost interest, with the exception of Sir Alfred Owen. He bought the team outright at the end of 1952. He brought in Tony Rudd as chief engineer and he further modified the car and also developed a lightweight Type 30 or V16 Mk2. These cars were raced by the likes of Gonzales and Fangio in minor Libre events. Both Argentinean drivers took to the car remarkably well and were quite successful. In the Libre races, the V16 BRM scored sixteen victories out of thirty-three starts.

Rick Hall (left) and John Owen, standing behind the first of the continuation cars, which is almost ready to run.

Under Owen’s ownership, BRM would return to the World Championship during the second half of the 1950s with the more conventional Type 25. In 1959, it was driven to the team’s first Grand Prix victory at Zandvoort by Jo Bonnier. Three years later, Graham Hill drove a BRM P578 to four victories and the World Championship in what was BRM’s most successful season. Although not all BRMs were quite as extraordinary as the original V16, the team remained fiercely independent, at times indulging in similar exuberant designs. The most famous or infamous example of the latter was the H16 engine of 1966, which consisted of two flat eight engines mounted on top of each other.

Considering Sir Alfred Owen’s reluctance to give up on the V16, it is only fitting that his son John and three of his grandsons, Simon, Paul, and Nick Owen, have commissioned the construction of three continuation cars. “Growing up, I was very aware of the old man’s passion for the BRM V16, especially the sound it made,” said Simon Owen. “Like most of my generation, I never had the privilege of hearing it race in anger but now we are all very keen to change that and bring the BRM experience to a new generation of fans. We are in a unique position to sanction the build of additional cars using these original chassis numbers, and it became our mission to make it happen.”

The National Motor Museum at the Beaulieu Estate in Brockenhurst, UK, is proud to show off one of the highlights in the collection.

Using around twenty thousand original drawings that have survived in the massive BRM archive, the work will be carried out by marque experts Hall & Hall. Co-founder Rick Hall has had a personal connection with the brand for nearly half a century: “I have been passionate about BRM since I joined the team at the end of ’72,” said Rick. “I have spent the last fifty years or so working with these remarkable pieces of British and Formula 1 engineering history and am delighted to be teaming up with the Owen family and BRM to be their official historic racing partner. I only wish I were twenty years younger!” Hall & Hall will also be in charge of running the cars at events, which will ensure they will be campaigned as well – and more importantly, as loudly as possible.

Construction of the cars has already started at the Hall & Hall facility in Bourne, Lincolnshire in England; the first should be ready to run in 2021. We can’t wait to see, and hear, it in action.