This may well be the most beautiful Tony Matthews cutaway yet at Mac’s Motor City Garage: the glorious, impossible BRM V16.
At once the great pride of British motor racing and its greatest disappointment, the BRM V16 program (1947-55) was one of the most ambitious Grand Prix efforts ever launched. Pink Floyd drummer and prominent car collector Nick Mason, who owned a V16 Type 30, described the project as “all the optimistic vision of Victorians trying to build a space rocket.”
Viewed coolly and analytically, as a scientist might, the car is an engineering nightmare. But through the eyes of those who simply love machines for their own sake, the BRM is the most wonderful gadget ever devised. And in any case, the British motor racing industry has long since been vindicated—today, Britain is the world headquarters of motorsports technology. Here’s Tony with one of its touchstones.
by Tony Matthews
For many small British boys and the enthusiast public in general, the BRM V16 was the epitome of Grand Prix cars, and the great hope for success on the GP circuits of the World. In retrospect it was a monumental effort from every angle and compared with the opposition, hugely complicated.
The BRM (British Racing Motors) Type 15, its official works title, was funded primarily by British engineering companies that had been persuaded to participate in this grand venture by Raymond Mays, about 350 companies in all. Considerable portions of the chassis were based on Mercedes and Auto Union design work, engineering drawings for the German cars having been acquired after WWII.
The engine was a 135 degree V16, in the form of two 750cc (45.4 cubic inch) V8s mounted back-to-back with the timing gears sandwiched in between, giving a capacity of 1.5 litres (90.8 cubic inches), and boosted by a Rolls Royce two-stage centrifugal supercharger. The engine and chassis designs were completed in early 1947 but a series of delays and the complication of the involvement of so many suppliers meant that the first complete car did not run until December 1949.
The Type 15 had a short and chequered competition career, and drivers such as Stirling Moss and Fangio had very different opinions of the car. Moss disliked it and Fangio, probably being diplomatic, was very enthusiastic. It failed to live up to the hopes of many, including the British public, and a second version, the Type 30 – lighter and with a shorter wheelbase – did not improve the image.
The engine suffered from the extreme power curve produced by the centrifugal supercharger, and years later was found to have been maintained to a standard that did not help much. When rebuilt to specification, and fitted with much better HT leads, the V16 produced the power it was originally designed to make, with reliability. The chassis looks antiquated in retrospect, and there was no innovation in the suspension, but it had huge presence, and one of the most distinctive exhaust notes in the history of automobiles.
The internet is the second best way of hearing a BRM V16 engine at work, and depending on the recording, is either quite scary or very scary, making me think of a Tyrannosaurus Rex roaming the plains: hungry, possibly in pain or searching for a mate. The best way is live…
I went to Bourne in Lincolnshire, UK, the home of BRM, on September 14 1981 for my first look at the car, and the illustration wasn’t finished until December 22, fourteen weeks later. This is a scarily long time, but a glance at my work diary tells me that a lot was going on at the time, and the BRM was done in fits and starts.
This is not how I liked to work, but obviously there were times when it was the only way of keeping several clients happy. It didn’t help that there was a degree of chaos at the workshop as the V16 and several other cars were being prepared for a sale of the everything-must-go variety, and I eventually made six trips to Bourne as various missing parts eventually turned up.
The reputation of the car was such that even 26 years after its last competitive outing it was still a great thrill to be commissioned to do the cutaway, and I rather regret not drawing the engine as well…
The cutaway image below is high resolution. Left-click to open and left-click again to expand to full size.
Text and images copyright Tony Matthews, all rights reserved. Used by permission. Be sure to see Tony’s other great cutaways at Mac’s Motor City Garage. Links open in new windows: