Ahead of Bicester Sunday Scramble taking place this week, we wanted to share a piece from the BRM archive that makes reference to the airport at Bicester. The following is a first hand account of the building of the BRM Racing Cars V1 and V2, and the struggle to get the car to Silverstone for the 26th August. The extract is taken from Raymond Mays’ archive, and is written by S. Phillips, a fitter who worked on both cars at Bourne and Folkingham during the period.
Just over six weeks before Silverstone it became apparent to the Executive at Bourne that unless the skilled labour force was considerably augmented, there was a danger that the B.R.M. car which had been so much publicised and promised to appear at Silverstone in August, would not materialise. On the Board of Directors hearing this, the two chief directors Messrs. W. T. Hather of Sheffield and Mr. A. G. B. Owen, Chairman of the Owen group of Companies, decided immediately that in spite of their already enormous contributions to the B.R.M., that the car or two cars if possible should race at Silverstone, and accordingly the Owen group sent able men from several of its Companies including Rubery Owen, Brooke Tool, Electric Hydraulics and Coventry Motor Panels. Also there were experts on their own particular jobs from Lucas, Girling, Lockheed and others who were contributing to this effort to put British Motor Racing on the map. Mr. Flather sent his chief racing mechanic, a man of great ability with a splendid record in the Fleet Air Arm. I was not chosen in the first place, but was asked to go when it was found that the original choice was under treatment from his doctor and could not leave Birmingham.
Every new arrival at Bourne was given a job to test his ability. Some stayed, some were sent away. I am pleased to be able to say that no operative from the Owen Group was sent back. On seeing Bourne for the first time we wondered however we should spend our spare time. A little “One Hoss” country town with a few little pubs and a tiny cinema. We little knew that we should not have time for a haircut, let alone social activities.
We were asked to commence work immediately on arrival and digs would be found for us in the meantime. For the first fortnight we worked twelve hour shifts with an hour break for meals. The night shift did the same. In just over that time the first car was sufficiently completed to go to Folkingham Aerodrome, part of which had been taken over by the B.R.M. for its running trials. These were so successful after a further week that it was decided to ask the French Ace driver Raymond Sommer to come and try it out. He came and thoroughly examined both cars, as of course his safety as the driver was at stake. The men who were working at Folkingham at the time gave me a glowing account of the runs he made. I had only seen our test driver in it, and after seeing Silverstone I know that even his speeds were something remarkable, although the track at Folkingham is not long enough for sustained high speed, and when the throttle was opened for a burst on power it had to be closed again almost right away, to take the sharp bends at each end of the circuit. At 10,000 revs the engine sounded like a jet plane and could be heard in villages three miles away. The villagers always came up to the Aerodrome to watch these cars flash by, when they could hear them at practice.
I cannot vouch for this, but I believe Raymond Sommer was then asked to test Car V1 to conditions far beyond what it would have to stand up to in the race, and unfortunately during this test a piston broke.
This was a major catastrophe for us, with Silverstone little more than a fortnight away and although the engine of the second car was almost completed, the assembling of the rest of the car had only been started barely a week before. Prior to this the Chairman of the Directors had called all the men in both teams together and told us that if we got two cars to Silverstone, we should receive a handsome bonus (which I believe was to come from their own pockets). If one of the cars won the bonus would be doubled.
The whole of the men in both teams worked like demons and I am quite sure that the bonus was a secondary consideration with them, for I have never worked with a finer set of men, who even at the very last minute when tempers must have been like hair triggers and nerves as taut as fiddle strings through lack of sleep and constant hard work, they worked as one man and the co—operation was something to marvel at.
During this time we were constantly being visited by noted Pressmen and famous Cartoonists from the Big Dailies, famous racing drivers and designers. One great personage who arrived with an entourage was pointed out to me as being the Managing Director of Rolls Royce. The Heads of famous firms who were contributing to the B.R.M. watched the progress and all appeared quite satisfied with what they saw.
A week to go, and by this time we were working all kinds of queer hours, but the engine of V1 had been completely rebuilt and the second car was ready for its trials, all personnel with the exception of machine shop men and Drawing Office were now working over at Folkingham Aerodrome and the Executive and Technicians were with us night and day throughout the whole of the last week. A constant liason and transport team was maintained between Bourne and Folkingham.
Both cars did 85 running in laps and then tests were made under racing conditions, with racing drivers Raymond Mays, Peter Walker and Reg Parnell driving, and it was during these tests that it was found that the great volume of fuel required for full throttle driving was piling up in the lower ranges. This would tend to wash the oil from the cylinder walls and must be overcome, and although the rectification of this would not normally have been an insuperable difficulty it required much consideration, Experimentation and Modification of the Induction manifolds and by now, Silverstone was only hours away.
The deadline for the cars to reach the course in time to do the qualifying practice laps was 4.p.m. on Friday 25th of August and people were coming from all parts of the world to see the B.R.M. Time was the enemy. Another few weeks and I am convinced that the cars and the drivers would have covered themselves with glory.
The piling of fuel had caused trouble with a cylinder liner and we worked on the cars right up to 4.p.m. on Friday, when the Executive at Folkingham knowing that we were over the deadline ordered cease work and dispersed the men to get some much needed rest.
The Directors of the B.R.M. trust, who were anxiously waiting at Silverstone, were informed by wire and the Executive and technical advisers went immediately to them for consultation.
The Stewards of the track were approached and gave a concession that if the car could be ready to do its three practice laps by 9.45 a.m. on Saturday morning, they would allow it to run between two of the races. The Daily Express on being informed of this, offered to fly the car and its attendant vehicle and mechanics if it would be got ready.
Even at this there were great difficulties for the B.R.M. directors, who were kept on the go all night. Even if the car could be got ready, it could not be picked up at Folkingham or put down at Silverstone, as neither of these were chartered Aerodromes. Permission had to be sought of the Air Ministry to use Cranwell and Bicester Aerodromes and I must pay tribute to the R.A.F. Officers and personnel at these stations for their timing and co—operation, without which it would have been impossible to get the car to its destination. This of course also applies to the Captain of the plane.
A message was sent from the directors to Folkingham for one of the two magnificent transporters presented by the Austin Motor Co., to travel through the night to Bicester in readiness to pick up the car when the plane landed. The other transporter was kept at Folkingham to transport the car to Cranwell.
The directors knew that every road to Silverstone was choked with traffic for over twenty miles radius and had to apply for a Mobile Police escort to make way for the transporter, should the car arrive in time.
Back in Bourne, a member of the B.R.M. staff had received a wire from the directors telling him to re-muster every man he could find and send them over to Folkingham to re—commence work on the engine of V1. The car simply must go to Silverstone. The man who re-mustered the personnel did a good job in record time. Some of the men had already entrained for their homes in distant parts of the Kingdom, others to get much needed sleep.
The early arrivals quickly got to work on the engine, as every second was of the greatest value, more men rolled up one by one and the job was well advanced by the time the Executive arrived back from Silverstone just after midnight. The work already done was immediately checked over by the designer of the engine, Mr. Peter Berthron, and from then went on under his personal supervision, with himself working along with the technical advisers, the Works Manager and the men.
Mrs. Berthon who had accompanied her husband, brought back piles of sandwiches, some apples and made black coffee laced with Brandy, and we eat and drank as we worked. Our tiredness seemed to have left us, as every moment gave promise that what had seemed an impossible task was within sight of being achieved.
By 5:45 a.m. the last detail had been attended to and the work done received a final check over by Mr. Berthron, Raymond Mays and the Head Mechanic. After rapid re—fuelling, checking of oil levels, tyre pressures, wheel tightness, instruments, Brake Test and suspension jacks, the car was handed over to Raymond Mays who gave it a very severe test and as already stated the engine had never been better. We were confident that if it arrived in time if would win easily.
At this point the Chairman of the Board who had been arranging the air transport, police escort etc., arrived looking very tired and unshaven. He saw the car loaded into the transporter and despatched to Cranwell. He and myself went to Cranwell in his car and arrived there just as the plane came into land.
The car was quickly aboard the plane and safely secured. The other mechanics went by air with it, but I preferred to go by road. I had never been in an aircraft before and as the pilot had orders to go straight in on arrival and not stop to circle the aerodrome I felt that this was not the time to get initiated. We had some anxious moments on the road when we did not see the plane until we were between Kettering and Northampton, then suddenly it passed over quite close to us and flying fairly low. This was at 9.10 a.m. and we thought they would never make it, but the plane must have landed in the next five minutes and the police escort must have been on the job because the car arrived on the track with seconds to spare and I heard a thrilling account from the other mechanics of how they covered the 19 miles from Bicester to Silverstone in something like 28 minutes.
When we arrived at Silverstone we were very surprised and pleased to hear that the car had got there in time and had done its three laps to qualify, and from then onward we had no doubts. For anything to have happened to the transmission was unthinkable and yet for some reason the car did not start.
Anyone who has not seen the building of a racing car of this description could never appreciate what it entails. The vast amount of detail, trials, testing, stripping, re-fitting, modification in the light of experience gained, testing of materials, balancing of parts, the use of nearly every known material, Inspection, collation of data from Test House and a thousand and one other things make it a job that cannot be hurried.
In my opinion it was a mistake for the Newspapers to publicise the B.R.M. so much and I venture to predict that in the not so distant future the B.R.M. car will emerge with its teething troubles gone and justify those who have had and still have such faith in it.
We are incredibly excited to be taking the Chassis IV V16 to Bicester Sunday Scramble this weekend. If you’re coming along, make sure you come and say hello – just follow the noise! A huge thank you to James Turner at Sports Purpose and the team at Bicester Heritage for inviting us to attend what promises to be a spectacular event.