Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


FOR BETTER or worse, race cars today are replete with aerospace engineering. But it wasn’t always this way. Immediately after World War II, British motor enthusiasts wanted to race cars—surely it would be less dangerous than fighting Nazis. However, what with postwar rationing and the paucity of pre-war race cars, this called for innovative thinking. Thus, the birth of Formula 3.

A Cooper Formula 3 car, driven enthusiastically by a fellow named Ecclestone. Yes, that Ecclestone.

Britain’s Formula 3 class was devised in 1946 for the impecunious enthusiast, thus teaching a whole bunch of us a new word: “impecunious.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “having very little or no money often habitually.” Indeed, impecunious Brits had existed prior to WWII; a full story of F3 genesis is at

The first F3 cars were home-built: a chassis perhaps scammed from a Fiat Topolino or other small car, power from a 500-cc motorcycle engine, typically a JAP, short for John Alfred Prestwich, or a Manx Norton, and rudimentary bodywork encasing most, if not all, of the necessary bits in an open-wheel layout.

1950 Kaspar Formula 3 race car. Image from Vintage Sports Car, the fine member magazine of the Vintage Sports Car Club of America.

Logic dictated rear drive (to avoid multi-tasking of the car’s front wheels), and hence the engine was mounted aft of the driver with the motorcycle’s progressive gearbox between engine and rear axle.

One example of Cooper F3 powerplant: a 497-cc air-cooled single-cylinder JAP. Its chain drive to the gearbox is visible. Image from “Mount Equinox F3”.

Chain drive connected the engine’s output shaft to the gearbox, with another chain linking the gearbox output to the rear drive. Because motorcycle engines were amenable to exhaust tuning, a popular F3 feature was its megaphone exhaust.

Another Cooper F3 car with part of its rear bodywork removed. Note the megaphone exhaust. Image from “Can You Hear Me Now?”

Most F3 cars had A-arm suspension, front and rear. Others, like the Kaspar above, had a De Dion rear layout. F3 springing, front and rear, depended upon transverse leafs scammed from some small car or other, not infrequently that Topolino again.

In fact, Charles Cooper and his son John built their first F3 cars with Topolino chassis and front suspension bits. Only after their car-fabrication business took off did they run out of Fiat bits and resort to a chassis of welded tube. (Folklore has it that this chassis was sketched with chalk on the workshop floor.)

Britain’s postwar auto racing begin on July 13, 1947. Most of the competing cars were pre-war, but the 500-cc cars were invited as the only modern class. Eric Brandon driving the Cooper Special had an easy win, what with most of the others DNF.

It wasn’t until 1950 that the Fédération International de l’Automobile officially recognized 500-cc race cars as Formula 3. F3 cars soon included the British Cooper, Kieft, JBS, and Emerson, the Swedish Effyh (named after its designers Folke and Yngve Hâkansson), and even two German cars, Walter Komossa’s two-stroke DKW-powered Scampolo and Helmut Polensky’s BMW-cycle-powered Monopoletta (so named after his earlier Formula 2 Monopol).

VSCCA’s Mount Equinox Hill Climb, 1995: At the top of the hill, from right to left, David Cooper (no relation) in his Cooper Mark VII, Mark O’Brien in a Kieft, and my guest drive of David’s Cooper Mark IV.

F3 drivers of the 1940s and 1950s included the already cited Bernie Ecclestone and a young fellow named Stirling Moss. Eric Brandon, by the way, is remembered as one of the few drivers capable of competing favorably with Moss.

Another driver starting his career in F3 was Graham Hill, destined to be twice Formula One World Champion and the only driver to win motor sport’s triple crown, the World Drivers’ Championship, 1962 and 1968; the Indianapolis 500, 1966; and the Le Mans 24-Hour, 1972.

By the time Hill took his second World Drivers’ Championship, both Formula One and Indy cars had their engines aft of the driver. In a very real sense, this evolution began with the impecunious enthusiast’s 500-cc race car.

Racing is no longer for the impecunious. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

4 comments on “ELEMENTAL RACE CARS

  1. Tom Phillips
    January 23, 2018

    Great article Dennis, thanks.

  2. Michael Rubin
    January 23, 2018

    Racing is definitely no longer for the impecunious and spectating is moving in the same directions.

  3. Fred Pedersen
    October 23, 2019

    The chassis drawn up on the shop floor reminded me of the Balchowsky’s car, Old Yeller. Max and his wife were the genius home builders of the exotic-beating series of ugly, whitewall tired racers. Ref:
    Driven by the likes of Gurney and Shelby. Amazing.

    • simanaitissays
      October 24, 2019

      My favorite story about Max was his secreting new already-set spark plugs in paddock trash barrels. Then, pretending to scrounge around, he’d say, “Hey, these look pretty good. I’ll use them.”

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