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ENGLISHMAN TONY Vandervell’s business was producing bearings in Acton, West London, but his passion was international Formula One racing.
By 1959, when Tony’s health precluded his running these two activities, the Vanwall team had broken a motor-racing record set in 1923, won a World Constructor’s Championship and given F1 drives to the likes of Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and a young engineer named Colin Chapman—yes, that Colin Chapman.
Vandervell Products bore the name Thin Wall, and Tony called his earliest Formula Libre race cars, modified Ferraris, the Thinwall Specials.
Tony started building his own race cars in 1954, his purpose, “beating those bloody red cars.” To achieve this goal, he hired the best people he could find.
The chassis of the Vanwall was designed in 1956 by Colin Chapman, only dabbling with his own Lotus cars at the time. The Vanwall’s sleek bodywork was the product of aerodynamicist Frank Costin, who also penned the Lotus VIII.
Grand Prix racing of the era evolved from a 2.0- to 2.5-liter limit on engine displacement. Until 1958, fuels were alcohol-based. These criteria—and Vandervell’s close connections with the Norton motorcycle racing team—dictated the Vanwall engine design. Its four cylinders shared dohc head technology with Norton’s 500-cc racing cycles; its crankcase was Rolls-Royce-derived. As early as 1955, Vanwalls had Bosch fuel injection.
At the onset, Vanwalls were decidedly fast—and notoriously fragile. Nor were they particularly lucky.
In the 1956 French Grand Prix at Reims, Vandervell met a goal of entering a trio of cars, de rigueur at the time. Their regular drivers were English star Mike Hawthorn and American-in-France Harry Schell; the third car, piloted by Colin Chapman.
Alas, during practice Chapman crashed into his teammate Hawthorn at the circuit’s Thillois Hairpin. Hawthorn’s car survived; Chapman’s didn’t—and there went Vanwall’s third entry.
The team’s first World Championship victory came at the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree. Stirling Moss took over the car piloted by Tony Brooks (allowed in those days) and stormed through the field to the checkered flag. This was the first Grand Prix win for a British car with British driver since 1923, when H.O.D. Segrave’s Sunbeam won the French Grand Prix.
The year 1958 was even better, though a change of fuel to Avgas gave an initial challenge to the team. The Vanwall’s 4-cylinder layout had relatively large bores, and these pistons had profited from the cooling influence of the previous alcohol fuels.
To its benefit, the team decided to concentrate solely on the nine events of the manufacturers’ championship (at the time, there were lesser events not counting). Drivers were again Moss and Brooks.
Of the nine races, Vanwalls took six: Holland (Moss), Belgium (Brooks) and the last four consecutively, Germany (Brooks), Portugal (Moss), Italy (Brooks) and Morocco (Moss). Vanwall’s domination earned it the 1958 International Cup for F1 Manufacturers.
Having two highly capable drivers precluded either from winning the 1958 World Championship of Drivers. Mike Hawthorn, driving for Ferrari, beat Moss by a single championship point, 42 to 41.
Stirling Moss remains the world’s greatest race car driver never to have won a world championship. Tony Vandervell achieved his goal of beating “those bloody red cars”—in a big way. And that driver Colin Chapman? He didn’t do badly at all with Lotus. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013