Brabham Broke Rules: Sir John Arthur Brabham AO OBE 1926-2014

Loquacious Brabham wasn’t. Yet he seems to have talked himself into his first grand prix with an illegal car. He claimed a Cooper with a 2 litre engine was eligible, and ran in the 1955 British Grand Prix. It was the start of a 23-year career of 126 grands prix, 14 of which he won, setting 12 fastest laps and 13 pole positions. He won the world title twice in Coopers, once in his own Brabhams. 

 Jack Brabham in a later Brabham-Ford Cosworth

Jack Brabham in a later Brabham-Ford Cosworth

I watched him at that 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree. It was a curiously cobbled-up Cooper sports car in which contemporary reports showed scant interest. Designed for a 4-cylinder 1100cc Coventry-Climax engine in the back, Brabham squeezed a 6-cylinder BMW/Bristol engine in, by adding 2in to the wheelbase. It had a back-to-front Citroën final drive and a gearbox with only three ratios. The engine was behind the driver largely because that was where it had been since Coopers were 500cc cars with motorcycle engines. Charles and John Cooper were empirical engineers with little notion of polar moments of inertia that inspired Ferdinand Porsche. He put the Auto Union engines aft but by the 1950s they were discredited as too difficult to drive. Jack Brabham was to change all that. 

The Coopers didn’t have an expensive racing engine. The nearest was a 1971cc Bristol designed by BMW in the 1930s for a sports car, so they claimed they had bored-out the six cylinders to 69mm, increasing the capacity to 2154cc. Regulations obliged it to be at least 2 litres, so they claimed an unlikely 2200cc to look nearer 2500cc. A smart scrutineer would soon have found out, but Dean Delamont of the RAC wanted to get Brabham and Cooper into the contest, so turned a blind eye.

Motor Sport maintained the fiction even in its race report.

 He did speak sometimes. Jack Brabham (left) in deep conversation with John Surtees.

He did speak sometimes. Jack Brabham (left) in deep conversation with John Surtees.

 Grand prix cars were traditionally open-wheeled single seaters but Brabham’s contender had an enclosed body; there was nothing in the regulations to prevent it. Mercedes-Benz tried one in 1954 but the drivers didn’t like it. Fangio kept hitting trackside markers at Silverstone. Brabham’s Cooper had the driver in the middle all right, yet it still looked like a sports car without headlights or number plates. With something like 150bhp it had barely half the power of the 2.5 litre fuel-injected desmodromic-valve Mercedes. On race morning the clutch failed so Brabham had to start from the back of the grid. He was 20sec a lap slower than Stirling Moss in the Mercedes-Benz W196, the eventual winner, and was overtaken inside six laps. 

It was too much. The Bristol engine overheated and the car was out before half of the 90 laps.

Jack Brabham remained taciturn then, as well as in his triumph years at Cooper. He was one of the first to adjust his cars’ suspension for different tracks then, at the height of his success in 1962, left Cooper to build cars of his own. Engineered together with Ron Tauranac, almost as succinct as Brabham, they did well in Formula 2 with Honda engines, but success in grands prix were elusive. Jim Clark won the 1965 title with an astonishing six victories. When the rules changed in 1966 pragmatic Brabham went for a low-cost option, an Australian Repco engine adapted from an American Buick V8. The Brabhams looked too small, too light and under-powered but just as critics were dismissing his 1959 and 1960 titles as lucky flukes, Brabham won a third championship. 

He was still laconic. Amiable enough and polite to journalists like me, you could never call him effusive, such as Colin Chapman could be when he wanted you to believe something. He didn’t become uncommunicative during practice, like Graham Hill. He was never wary or suspicious, answered questions when asked, but he had a way of looking at something in the distance when the conversation was over.

 Autographed memento: Brabham and family

Autographed memento: Brabham and family

It was not until we turned up at The Savoy on 30 November 1970 for La Quenelle de Sole au Vin Blanc Mersault Charmes and Faisan Perigourdine for his farewell dinner that he became verbose. The speakers were brilliant gifted Walter Hayes, head of Public Affairs at Ford, Graham Hill witty, engaging and wry. “Chatty Jack” could only be an anti-climax. Yet perhaps because it was so unexpected he thrilled the audience with an after-dinner speech that was funny, revealing and went on at length. We heard more from Sir John Arthur Brabham AO OBE in 40 minutes than we had in all 23 years.