While today Adrian Newey is considered the design guru of modern-era Formula 1, were one to rewind the clock almost fifty years, the sport was dominated by two designing legends.
One was a brash, publicity-hungry Englishman who founded Lotus Cars called Colin Chapman; the other was an unassuming English-born Australian called Ron Tauranac, the man whose car designs propelled Jack Brabham to his third and final championship crown. Today, Brabham still remains the only driver to be crowned World Champion in a car entered under his own name, and he has his designer to thank for that.
While today’s F1 designers are often confined to specialist design roles and form part of an overall design team whose work is done on computer, Tauranac was a one-man show – part of a rare breed who could conceptualise and design an entire racing car with paper and a pencil. Windtunnels, CAD/CAM and CFD design were still light years away in Tauranac’s era.
From an early age, Ron and his brother Austin were fascinated by building racing cars, naming their very first effort (in 1946) a Ralt, in deference to the initials in their names.
While he spent working in design, fabrications and machining, Ron would continue to design and occasionally race his own cars, admittedly not with much success.
But it was through these adventures that he met Jack Brabham, and the pair remained in touch while ‘Black Jack’ carved himself a phenomenal career in Europe. Indeed, Brabham would secretly send design concepts to Tauranac to work on, and many of his ideas would lead to added success on the race track for Brabham.
In 1960, Brabham hankered after setting up his own Formula 1 team, and he invited Ron to join him in the UK to act as the design brain behind the operation.
Together, the pair convinced Australian group Repco to build bespoke engines for their F1 project, and Jack went on to storm to the 1966 World Championship title. A year later, Brabham’s team-mate Denny Hulme would repeat the feat.
Brabham would retire at the end of the 1970 season, and sold his shareholding in the team to Tauranac, who ran the outfit for a year being selling it on to a certain Bernie Ecclestone. He later went on to set up the Ralt racing car design group, which went on to dominate the junior level motorsport scene for much of the 1980s.
Never a man to seek the spotlight, Tauranac always quietly got on with the job and didn’t suffer fools lightly. Eventually, he consented to a biography, Brabham Ralt Honda: The Ron Tauranac Story, being written about him, and it pulls no punches in profiling this single-minded and driven man.
Ron kindly accepted our interview request, and we talked for a good couple of hours about all aspects of his fascinating motorsport career in this interview that we share with you today. We offer our sincerest thanks to Ron for his time and support in making this interview possible.
How did your biography come to be written and achieve your endorsement?
We were testing a works Brabham at Goodwood, I had the car on a pit and was working underneath when this gentleman (Mike Lawrence, the book’s writer) approached me. I didn’t know who the hell he was and I told him to get lost!
Years later a mutual friend explained who this person was, a school teacher who wrote books on motor racing companies. He asked if I was interested in having a book written, I replied ‘No’.
Years later (1988) when I had sold the RALT Cars business to March he was writing a book on March and they arranged for him to interview me. And later still when my wife and I decided to sell our large house and move into an apartment where were short on space, I contacted Mike Lawrence through our mutual friend and told him I was now interested in having the book written.
I never kept scrapbooks, and I had boxes of magazines that contained articles about Brabham and RALT, and when I downsized and moved to my apartment, I got in touch with him and asked him if he wanted to write the book, and if he did, that he was welcome to these articles if they would be of any use.
When writing the book, Mike called in to my apartment to interview my wife and myself. We both used to go to the annual Motor Show so he parked his car at my place and came as a passenger with me, interviewing me while travelling. At the Motor Show I introduce him to previous customers and employees so he could interview them.
Once he’d written it, he sent me a disc containing the entire soft-copy version of the book and gave me full license to edit it as I saw fit. I was happy with the book being a ‘warts and all’ approach with comments from people who worked with me – some of it was not complimentary, I will admit – but I left the edit almost completely untouched.
The only comment I took out was a quote from Ron Dennis, who worked for us as chief mechanic in the late 1960s. We were testing with Jack one time at Silverstone, and Jack suffered a tyre failure that caused an accident, and he was trapped in the car. Ron raced over to the accident scene; a petrol tank had burst flooding the surrounding area with petrol and he helped cut Jack out of the car. When Ron gave a quote about the incident for the book, he’d said that he didn’t understand why Jack didn’t recognise his rescue efforts with a thank-you card! I’m sorry, Ron, but you were a mechanic, and that was your job. I thought that was insulting and unnecessary from Ron.
That diversion aside, what pleased me so much about the book was the level of detail Mike had put in. It’s been well-received, and I’ve even had some of my former mechanics – whom I’d long since lost touched with or forgotten about – get in touch with me and tell me how much they enjoyed the book, and that’s lovely.
You had some individuals who worked for you who would go on to achieve their own success in motorsport, including Gordon Murray and Ron Dennis. Did you have any indication at the time that they would amount to that later on?
I had a lot of team members come and go, and I’ll be honest by saying that I was never a good judge of their potential. I employed them to do a job, and they either did it, or they didn’t.
I remember Ken Tyrrell once telling me that whenever a new aspiring mechanic applied to him for a job he suggested they come and work for me for a year and then come back to him.
When Ron Dennis came and worked for me, he did so as a chief mechanic, having previously worked for Cooper. He was very good at keeping everything organised, neat and tidy, but the number-two mechanic, Neil Trundle, was the top mechanic They would go on to form Rondel Racing, which competed in Formula 2 in the early 1970s.
McLaren chief Ron Dennis started out as a Formula 1 mechanic, firstly with Cooper, before he followed Jack Brabham into his new team as his number-one mechanic. His famous organisational skills were already apparent, according to Tauranac, but it was Neil Trundle (Dennis’ sidekick) who was “far better than him”. The pair would go on to establish the Rondel Racing Formula 2 team, the launchpad to Dennis’ eventual takeover of McLaren. Pictured above are Tauranac, Dennis and Brabham (L-R) [Image via The Cahier Archive]
Let’s rewind back to the late 1940s when you first dipped your toe in motorsport. Can you tell me more about that time when your interest was first sparked?
I’d been in the air force during World War II and trained as a fighter pilot, getting out just before peace was declared. I’d been in the workforce for a few years after and bought myself a basic car to drive around. And I remember one weekend I was going for a drive and I heard this almighty noise: I checked it out and there were these cars racing up and down the the Marsden Park airstrip.
I thought it looked like good fun, so I started to research how to build cars and read every book I could at the library to learn how to build my first car. I’d been reading that swinging half-axles and a high roll centre were the things to have, and of course this turned out to be completely wrong because I landed up crashing it on its first run.
Your first outings were in a car you’d designed and built yourself, although your racing career could have been curtailed pretty quickly when you were flipped onto a barbed wire fence…
The barbed-wire fence was on a guard rail, and that was the second accident I had in as many outings in the car!
With the first time in November 1950, my brother and I towed the car to our first meeting, and we took the car up and down the local air strip to see how it felt and to make sure it ran. When we got to our race event – a hill climb – we took the car off the trailer and I was going to drive up the hill for practice.
The car was also designed not to have shock absorbers which I couldn’t afford and instead relied on interleaf friction, the bottom wishbones being a leaf springs. On the second outing at the same hill I reached the last corner when one of the springs broke, the car flipped over with the rear end landing on the fence. I put my hands out to break the landing breaking the joint between my thumb and forefinger.
So from that point, my attitude became that I would design and engineer the car my way – instead of relying on these books for their wrong guidance – and learn from any mistakes as I went. It’s been my attitude and approach to this day.
Vocationally, you picked up a lot of different skills in your early work life with CSR and Quality Castings that came in handy in the years that followed…
I did a number of jobs before I turned to motorsport, but the principal one was when I worked for CSR. I worked as one of fifty draughtsman in design – we all played a part in designing the factory – and it was jig and tool design where I was more of a specialist. They picked four of us to supervise the subcontracting of all the products. I chose, rather than supervising all of the welding work, to get involved in the casting and machining side of it. So I started working on castings and pattern-making, and then I took the lead role in making mounted runners and risers, so I learned all about that side of manufacturing. By the end, I was a bit of a jack of all trades. CSR didn’t worry about what qualifications you had. Their attitude was: if you could do the job, you got it. So you often went from one project to another.
When it was all finished, I was made Shift Supervisor. But I didn’t enjoy the shift work, so I left and went to Frank D Spurway, which made bolts, screws and the like, as a draughtsman, but was soon made assistant works engineer.
It was there that I was approached by Quality Castings – which was a company that CSR subcontracted much of its stainless steel castings to – who had heard that I’d left CSR. They offered me a job as a works manager.
And it was at Quality Castings that you met Jack Brabham. You used to compete against him in hill climbs and the like…
I met Jack by chance, and got started to subcontract work to him from CSR, which is how we built up the relationship. He had a little one-man machine shop, and I went up there to buy a Velocette motorcycle engine off him to install in my car. We got talking, one thing led to another, and I subbed work out. Our relationship grew from that point and we got friendly; I helped do some design work on his car and he did machining for mine in return.
Jack later went to Europe to pursue racing and you would land up following him later on when he asked you to join him. Did you need much in the way of convincing to up sticks and bring the family over to the UK?
Looking back at it now, I’m still amazed that my wife agreed to move to the other side of the world with me, particularly when the role I was going into was seemingly so uncertain. By this point, I’d become quite friendly with Jack, and when he was driving for Cooper, he used to write air letters to me to get my advice on changes he was wanting to make to his car.
At one point, the team was switching from the leaf-spring to the double wishbones. He wrote to me and asked me what the proportions should be. I sent my recommendations back, and he then fed the proportions in without (team boss) Charlie Cooper being any the wiser. On another occasion Jack had the idea of lowering the Coventry Climax engine by three inches. He sent a sketch showing drop gears; I drew the Bell Housing and had a pattern made which he collected on his trip to the Tasman, and this became fundamental to the Lowline Cooper of 1959.
Jack also used to visit Australia every year over Christmas to compete in the Tasman Series, and we’d always make sure we caught up and saw one another.
It was in 1960 that he asked me if I would come to the UK for a six-month trial. I wasn’t keen on a six-month period leaving my family behind, but I did tell him I’d come over if the move was going to be more permanent. This really appealed to me, and it was going to be another adventure I could embark on.
So I exchanged my return airfare for a one-way ticket, and used the difference in money to buy boat tickets for my wife and daughter so they could join me in the UK. I had to go via America to engineer a Cooper sports car Jack was to drive
Jack didn’t want Charlie Cooper to know we were going to manufacture race cars that would be in competition with them. So I would work on Jack’s car conversion business during the day, and at night I worked on designing a Formula Junior race car.
When the design was finished we hired a shed for me to start building the first car. Since it was still secret I had difficulty in finding component suppliers but eventually completed the car.
We sold the first FJ to Tasmanian Gavin Youl who early on raced at Goodwood in August 1961, he was quickest in Saturday practice 0.8 seconds under the lap record, Lotus rushed of to Cosworth to get new engines. The conversion business involved fitting a twin Weber tuning kit to a Sunbeam Rapier and modifying a Triumph Herald to fit a Coventry Climax engine.
Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac became one of the sport’s most formidable duos, with Jack claiming his third World Championship title in 1966 – he became the first (and so far only) drive to win the championship driving a car under his own name. [Image via Ron Tauranac]
After setting up Motor Racing Developments, you were initially working on Formula Junior cars until Jack could leave Cooper and set up his own team, which was effectively a customer of MRD. What was the relationship like between the two of you in the early years while you were bedding in the operations?
Jack put down £2,000 to kickstart everything (I didn’t have any capital to invest), and we split the ownership 60:40 in his favour.
After the Goodwood success it became known that Jack was involved in the venture. On finding out, Charlie Cooper dispensed with Jack’s services so we had to build our first F1 car in a hurry.
The first year, the F1 racing was a MRD (Motor Racing Developments) venture but at the end of the season Jack said that he would like to use his Tasman team to run F1 and he would pay £3,000 per car, less engine.
The way it actually worked was that I fronted Motor Racing Developments, while Jack’s Brabham concern would pay a nominal amount and buy cars from us. But if I came up with new modifications and enhancements, they were fed straight onto his cars at no charge; I just drew a nominal salary and that was it. I could also draw my shareholding, but only if the company made a profit.
It remained this way until 1965, before Formula 1 changed from 1.5-litre to 3-litre engines and I told him I wasn’t prepared to build F1 cars anymore. So he agreed to change the arrangement of the ownership to split it 50:50 and the racing team was a joint venture.
Jack wanted to retire and sold his shareholding to you in 1969. Were you entirely comfortable with having to take a greater control in the Grand Prix team, on top of your other workload? Were you ultimately cut out to deal with its many responsibilities, particularly on the commercial side given how much more commercial the sport was becoming?
Jack had a lot of pressure from his wife to stop racing, and she especially didn’t want their three kids to get into it – not that it worked, mind you! – so they’d bought a farm back in Australia and she was very keen for them to return home.
When I went to races with Jack, I always had his company, and we would go out to dinner on most evenings before returning to work and making sure everything had been done for the day at the circuit. Without him, it was a lonely existence and I didn’t enjoy this ‘single life’.
You stayed in the role of Team Principal until the end of the 1971 season, and then sold the team to Bernie Ecclestone. How did he come to start negotiations with you to buy the team, and what was he like to negotiate with during this time?
Selling the team was both a good and a bad decision, in some ways. I’d been introduced to him the year before by Jochen Rindt (who Ecclestone managed) at the Monaco Grand Prix, and Bernie offered to buy half of the shares in the team.
I knocked back the offer, and explained that I’d had a business partner for ten years who was a good friend of mine, and that I didn’t want another partner who I didn’t know. So instead, I offered to sell him the entire team.
We agreed on a deal that he would pay asset value for all of our equipment, so I itemised everything at cost price (rather than what they were actually worth), and I came to a figure of £130,000, and sent all of this to Bernie.
And then at the eleventh hour, he called me and offered my £100,000 – typical Bernie! – and I should have knocked him back and told him he should not go back on his word.
But I was never a smart businessman, and I thought about it for all of three minutes and agreed to it. I was too scared of the prospect of a protracted negotiation with him, and having to source tyre and fuel suppliers, having advised all of my previous suppliers that I was selling out.
You stayed on in your design capacity under his ownership in 1972, but the marriage didn’t last long and you quit the team. What were the circumstances in doing so?
I stayed on with the team after I’d sold it to Bernie, but he was devising all sorts of ways to get rid of me. A couple of things would happen, like making me jump through a few hoops before I’d get paid such, or instructing the payroll team to delay my wages.
The final straw was when I went to Kyalami to help Frank Williams with a car he was running at a race event. I asked Bernie if I could take a long weekend, and he agreed, so I flew down to Johannesburg and planned to come back before the following week.
When I came back, I found more of my responsibilities had been stripped away. The game was really up by the point – Bernie had clearly figured out that I was no longer interested – and so I left the team.
You were still in hot demand, and came close to signing to work for Colin Chapman at Lotus. How did he initially approach you for the job opportunity, and why did it fall through?
My family and I took a trip back to Australia while we figured out what we were going to do next, and while I was there I received a letter from Peter Warr, Lotus’ team manager and Colin Chapman’s right-hand man. The letter said that the team was interested in my services, and it asked if I would be interested in a meeting at the Northampton headquarters.
So I returned to the UK contacted Colin, who flew down to Fairoaks Airport and collected my wife, two children and I to be put up in hotel for the weekend so we could find a place to live and a school for the girls.
Everything was agreed, and Chapman was actually going to pay me more than Peter Warr. But the only way he could do this (without Warr knowing) was to have me paid from several sources – he devised this scheme where a portion would come from the F1 team’s accounts, while another sum would come from his road car operation. All up, it amounted to a very handsome salary, and he had his pilot fly us home.
We returned home to start packing, and on the Monday morning I got a phone call from him, asking if he could put the deal on hold for a little while, as he was still in the process of communicating my appointment to the team and there were obviously a few egos at stake.
My response to him – foolishly, I will readily admit – was: ‘Well if you can put the deal on hold, then so can I’. I never heard about the deal again.
It was so typical of me to respond so impulsively, but I look back on it today and consider it a lucky and smart decision not to go there, because I never would have set up Ralt and gone on to do all of the other things I’ve achieved.
I don’t think Colin and I could have ever worked together successfully. He was so obsessed with weight reduction, his cars used to fail constantly, whereas I had a completely different, and more responsible, outlook on racing car design.
In later years you kept your involvement in Formula 1 with work for the Trojan and Theodore F1 teams, although the success of these programs was largely down to the lack of investment in these teams than any actual issue with your work.
It was good to sell the team to Bernie, and it was good to leave the team. It gave me the opportunity to do some consulting work, and I spent time with the Frank Williams Racing, Trojan and Theodore teams in subsequent years before going on to set up RALT.
Post-F1, you also worked on setting up the RALT company, which went on to produce over 1,000 racing cars and win countless championships in the junior formulae. How was this time of success for you?
RALT was far more successful than Brabham ever was. We built and sold more than twice as many cars than we ever did with Brabham – and in a shorter period – and cleaned up in every championship that we contested.
My design philosophy was completely different: I’d look to build the ultimate car that would be good enough for the next five years; it had to be reliable enough to last the distance, but quick enough that it would just beat the opposition. That way, I knew it would hold together. With that foundation in place, I could then work on refinements, and release a new update each year. It was this process that made RALT so successful.
Tauranac’s reputation for building safe, simple, strong cars that were manufactured to very high standards was second to none, and there was no better example than his RALT racing cars, which dominated a host of open-wheel championships, including Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula Atlantic. RALTs quickly acquired an enviable reputation as the best-built "customer" cars of their era. [Image via Flickr]
How much has the whole notion of designing a racing car changed in recent years? You were responsible for the entire car as a designer, but today’s designers seem to be isolated to creating specific components of cars, rather than being able to make the entire package. Has design become too scientific and specialised, in a way?
The whole concept of designing a racing car has changed enormously over the years. When I first started out, you used to design the whole car on a drawing board, whereas today’s designer concentrate on isolated components, working on computers.
Our early notions of wind tunnel work were to get little tufts of wool, stick them all over the car, and drive it up and down a runway and have it photographed to see what aerodynamic effects were occurring.
It’s difficult for me to give too in-depth an opinion on today’s designers, principally because I don’t have any hands-on experience of what is happening today. There is perhaps too much reliance on wind tunnels rather than obtaining proper practical data, and I’ve always taken the approach that wind tunnel results should be treated as a crude guide, rather than gospel. I don’t think that’s always the case with some teams, who seem to still be surprised when the car is terrible on the track, despite the wind tunnel figures indicating otherwise…
Do you enjoy watching Formula 1 today?
I rarely sit down to watch an entire race in one sitting. I usually record the races, and grab a few minutes here and there in my spare time, such as when I’m having a meal at home.
I’ve travelled to a few Australian Grands Prix when they were in Adelaide and now that they’re in Melbourne, but my motivation in going is to either do some work or to catch up with the people I used to work with, but most of them have since passed away. Bernie sends me paddock passes to every Australian Grand Prix but I don’t always land up going down there.
Technology and innovations in motor racing should only be used if there is a practical application that can be transferred into road cars. I’m not a fan of the Drag Reduction System because if the restrictions under which it can be used – it’s far too artificial.
KERS is all right. There’s a great tactical approach to its use – when to use it and when to harvest and store braking energy each lap – and there’s a logical application for road cars.
However, I’m not a fan of electric cars: you use more carbon making, charging and running the battery than you would for a car with a combustion engine. But I think hybrid technology has great potential and this needs to be explored more in motorsport.