Team Connaught:
Remembrance of Things Fast

By Thomas O'Keefe, U.S.A.
Atlas F1 Senior Writer

Part I: What's in a Name?

It was a small firm, but there were those that loved it, and still do.

The Connaught team, a Grand Prix constructor active in racing from 1950 to 1957, epitomizes the life cycle of those who are courageous enough to go into Grand Prix racing: first the collaboration of people of ideas with people of means, then the feverish efforts by all hands to become and remain competitive, then the shining moment of success which blots out the darkest days of struggle, then the vicissitudes of fortune (monetary and otherwise) that have plagued every team in Grand Prix history, from Mercedes-Benz to Minardi, and finally, decline and extinction for a host of reasons, chiefly financial. Connaught's passage through this veil of tears is especially interesting because of when and how it happened and, as we shall see, its history is still in the making.

There is some controversy as to the origins of the "Connaught" name. The majoritorian view seems to be that the firm of Connaught Engineering had its name derived from the garage that its founder - Rodney Clarke - operated at Send in Surrey: CONtinental AUTomobiles, thus Connaught.

The minority view (and my preferred view as an Irishman) is that the name harkens back to an ancient Irish Kingdom named Connacht, that part of Ireland which includes the county of Sligo, where the prose and poetry of William Butler Yeats has its roots. It is also said that when Cromwell invaded Ireland he gave the Irish a choice: go to hell or go to Connacht. The CON...AUT people have logic on their side but I come down on the side of the Irish Explanation until someone can prove otherwise conclusively; after all, you have to be a romantic to get involved in Grand Prix racing - the car was green and it was going to need luck, why not have the Irish riding with you.

While the distinctive name is now all that many people know of Connaught, back in its heyday it was a very well known and admired marque. Indeed, although Formula One is today a major industry in England that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development, it is not going too far afield to say that Connaught (along with the better known marques such as Cooper and Vanwall) were the acorns from which the mighty oaks of McLaren and Williams - the current British teams - grew.

The moving force behind Connaught was Rodney Clarke, who had one of those typically British backgrounds that was so prevalent in Grand Prix racing in the post-World War II era: ex-RAF (a pilot at 19), an engineer by training (the Chelsea College of Automobile and Aircraft Engineering, the same school 1958 Ferrari World Champion Mike Hawthorn attended), a deliberate and perfectionist design engineer in the Ron Dennis mold (Clarke employed proper draftspersons and not just welders to design and build his cars and the engineering and fit and finish of the Connaughts was up there with the best) and most importantly - Clarke was a dreamer and a Man of Ideas when it came to designing Grand Prix cars.

Mike Oliver was Clark's working partner in developing Connaught, another ex-RAF pilot, and the engine man at Connaught. Both men had been Bugatti specialists after the war - indeed, Mike Oliver had driven a Bugatti single-seater - and it was only when the business from the Molsheim marque dried up when Bugatti production ceased that Connaught was born as an evolution of their core business, which was tuning high performance cars for customers.

The third indispensable partner of this triumverate was the man who financed Connaught Engineering, Kenneth McAlpine (a member of the family that owns the McAlpine construction firm) who got to know Clarke as a result of that most special of relationships - exceeded, only possibly, by marital bonds - that develops between any owner of a sports car and the mechanic that keeps it running, whether then or now. In McAlpine's case, he had acquired a legendary race car, the ex-Whitney Straight Maserati 8CM (he also had an ex-Prince Bira Maserati), and brought it to Clarke's Continental Cars Ltd. to be race-prepared.

One thing led to another and McAlpine's willingness to commit to a Connaught two-seater sports car - the L3 - while it was still on the drawing boards and McAlpine's subsequent commissioning of a Formula 2 car created sufficient working capital to permit Clarke and Oliver to shoot for the stars and design a single-sealer Grand Prix car.

In the course of preparing this article I interviewed Ken McAlpine, O.B.E., at his home in Kent where, at 80, he is still vigorous and busy operating a branch of the McAlpine family business as well as supervising the working farm he lives on with his wife, Patricia. McAlpine's history is a fascinating one.

Trained during World War II by the United States Navy to be an RAF pilot in Pensacola, Florida, flying a Catalina (he still remembers hearing on a car radio about the D-Day Invasion on June 6th 1944, while he was on the Gulf Coast of Florida), he returned to the UK later on that summer where he became a RAF flight instructor for the rest of the war. Once the war was over, he turned for recreation from flying to race cars, first with speed trials at Brighton Beach and Weston Super Mare (where he still holds the record in his Maserati), then hillclimbs and still later on he raced on the great road racing circuits of Europe, both in the Connaught L3 sports car and the Connaught single-seater Grand Prix cars.

How did McAlpine afford all this? During the 1950s, the income tax rate in the UK was prohibitively high (70% - 80%), and as McAlpine analyzed the situation, he concluded that it would make more sense to finance his racing by owning and operating a team as a deductible business expense rather than paying for the costs of his racing out of after-tax income. Thus was Connaught financed, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer an 80% "silent" partner.

And race McAlpine did, although he was at the time fully engaged building oil refineries and other civil construction projects as part of his work for the McAlpine family's construction business. He was on a fixed holiday system like everyone else at the McAlpine firm and was expected to be back on the job on Monday after a weekend of racing.

Indeed, because this particular Gentleman Racer had a Real Job, his racing was largely confined to England. But before it was all over, he had raced sports cars at LeMans (he raced the aerodynamic ALSR Connaught sports car in the 1955 LeMans race in which the horrific loss of life was suffered), had taught himself the 170+ corners of the Nurburgring, had experienced the vertical and horizontal G forces on the legendary AVUS track in Berlin with its 43 degree brick banking, had slipstreamed down the straight at Monza and of course competed at all of the English tracks, both the Grand Prix tracks like Silverstone and Aintree and the subsidiary club racing tracks like Goodwood, Snetterton and Castle Combe. And, as we shall see, he raced with some of the best drivers of his era.

Why did he stop racing? As McAlpine himself explains it, he proposed marriage to his wife Patricia on September 21, 1955, McAlpine's 35th birthday. He had promised himself all along that he would give it all up once he had formed an emotional attachment that was worth it because he thought the risks of flying and racing were inconsistent with having a family. To replace the exhilaration of racing cars, he took up yacht racing, completing a lifetime of knowing the tactile joys of speed, first in the air, then on a racetrack and ultimately on the high seas.

Today, McAlpine's wife Patricia is the keeper of the Archives and has put together a fabulous series of scrapbooks with rare clippings and pictures that trace her husband's racing career. Indeed, Patricia seems more interested in that phase of Ken McAlpine's life than her husband is; for his part, McAlpine closed the car racing chapter of his life when he hung up his helmet back in 1955 and has not looked back since.

But just because Ken McAlpine may minimize in his modest way what he and Team Connaught accomplished in the Fabulous Fifties of Formula One, it does not mean that we who have come after him cannot delve into and enjoy following in his wheeltracks.

The ABC's of Connaught

For those who treasure the intricacies of trying to document and trace the chassis numbers of old Grand Prix cars, Connaught presents its challenges, but its history is neatly divided into the "A" series, the "B" series and the "C" series of the marque; where possible, the cars will be referred to by chassis number.

According to the commentaries in Doug Nye's definitive History of the Grand Prix Car 1945-65 and in David Hodges's A-Z of Formula Racing Cars 1945-1990, there were nine Connaught A-Types, originally F2 cars, and they raced principally from 1950 to 1957. The first A-Type was Connaught A1, the prototype, and when it first raced in October 1950, on the outside it looked like an amalgam of several of the Grand Prix cars of the day. Although the prototype had vertical bars for a grille, the definitive A-Type as it evolved had the drooping nose and egg-crate grille of the 1950 Ferrari 125, an upper body that looked like the later Maserati 250F and pannier tanks for fuel low down on either side of the car anticipating the side-tanked Ferrari Squalo 553 which was to come in 1953.

Under the aluminum body shell of the prototype A1 was a conventional tubular chassis, with suspension by double wishbones and torsion bars front and rear. The rear axle was subsequently converted to an inventive de Dion tube that passed over the top and to the rear of the differential rather than passing in front or behind as de Dion tubes were typically constructed. A few subtle touches showed the vision and craftsmanship of Clarke: special magnesium-alloy wheels were designed for the A-Type, which were stronger and lighter than the wire wheels most cars sported at this time.

McAlpine recalls that once the suspension bits evolved "our road holding was fabulous compared with anything else of that period ... we were miles ahead of the opposition." Unusually for that time, in later versions of the A-Type the suspension was able to be adjusted so the car could be set up for different circuits; in addition, the low center of gravity of the pannier fuel tanks contributed to the car's good handling.

All of these extras were needed to help compensate for the Achilles Heel of Connaught, its underpowered 1767cc four-cylinder Lea-Francis engines that developed perhaps 135 bhp at 6,000 rpm. Later modifications to the exhaust manifold and exhaust pipe system increased horsepower and led to the crafting of a distinctive looking air box protruding from the bonnet of the A-Types. The Lea-Francis engines did have one virtue, however, in that they were made of a light alloy and weighed 90 lbs less than a cast iron block.

The Wilson-type four-speed, pre-selector transmission was another unusual feature of the Connaught and was chosen for weight-saving reasons over the standard Lea Francis gearbox. On most of the cars, the gear selector was mounted on the steering wheel column and by selecting a notch you selected a gear. The driver moved the lever to select a gear but it was not until the driver declutched that a gear was actually engaged. Inside the transmission (which was also used in the Armstrong-Siddeley road car) instead of the usual set of gears, there were a series of drums with a brake band around the outside, an epicycle box, and depending on what gear was chosen the drums would lock.

McAlpine explains: "The pre-selector gear shift worked like a motorcycle shifter and you flicked it up or down and then when you declutched, you freed up one band and locked the next one, automatically adjusting the tension on the bands in the process. Although the brake bands tended to wear out initially and getting the gear ratios correct took some doing, the pre-selector box was regarded by one and all as a clever box of tricks."

Other than weight savings were there any other advantages to the pre-selector gearbox? According to McAlpine, it made the car easier to drive: "If you are going into a corner, on the straightaway you could flick the lever up, have both hands on the wheel, then, at the critical moment, you would then operate the clutch pedal and that changed the gear, thus you selected the change of gear at a time convenient to yourself." The brakes were initially Girling hydraulic drum brakes but Connaught ultimately went over to disc brakes before that engineering advancement was in vogue, another innovative design feature.

With this conception of a light, compact and strong car that handled well, the Connaught A-1 prototype was ready to take on the opposition and showed well in its initial outing. Towards the end of the 1950 season, at Castle Combe in October 1950, Ken McAlpine entered a 10-lap F2 race and got his money's worth, finishing second in A1 to Stirling Moss in a 2.0 HWM-Alta that was an established runner. When reminded of this promising debut for the prototype A1, McAlpine, in his typically self-effacing manner, quickly interjects that "he [Moss] was a little young boy at the time," having just turned 21 years old. McAlpine also finished fifth in the Formula Libre race that day in A1.

Emboldened by this remarkable debut, A1's suspension was improved over the winter with the de Dion tube installation and in 1951 A1 ran nine F2 races and did so reliably and reasonably well, well enough for other privateers to come knocking on Connaughts door looking for A-Types.

1952: Formula One Becomes Formula Two

In 1952, because of the absence of a sufficient number of first rank Formula One cars (Alfa Romeo having withdrawn from racing), Formula One ended up being Formula Two and the F2-oriented Connaughts could therefore now compete with the top of the heap. Although 1952 evolved as an F2 year, the array of cars produced by various constructors were crowd pleasers: the Ferrari 500, the Maserati A6GCM, the Cooper-Bristol T20, the HWM-Alta, the ERA G-Type, the Gordini T15 and the Frazer-Nash FN48. It should be recognized that Clarke and McAlpine never intended to go into Formula One at all, their aim, according to McAlpine, being simply "to be the best Formula Two car," but with this turn of events if Connaught wanted to continue to build and race cars, it had no choice but to step up to Formula One as best it could.

And so, Connaught waded into this first tier of constructors, running an upgraded version of the A-Type, with the engine enlarged and now producing 145 bhp. But although Connaught was now eligible to compete at the highest level, because it lacked the resources of the Italian teams, Connaught participated mostly in non-Championship races in the UK and only in selected Championship Grands Prix.

One of the privateers most visible in campaigning the Connaught in these non-Championship races was Kenneth Downing, who, like Kenneth McAlpine, had been an owner of a Connaught L3 sports car and one of the fledgling firm's better customers. Downing acquired Connaught A3 (this was the second Connaught; no A2 was built) and went racing. After a disappointing outing at the 1952 Easter Goodwood meeting when all three Connaughts were non-starters because of bearing problems, Downing won some club races at Silverstone.

Downing also had a good result when he ventured to Europe on June 1st, 1952, for the GP des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium. Belgians Roger Laurent in a yellow Ferrari 500 and band leader Johnny Claes in a Gordini T15 were the local favorites but they managed to take each other out on lap 1 of the 22 lap race. Downing and Connaught A3 then led the race; indeed, at one point Downing was more than 40 seconds ahead of the HWM-Alta of Paul Frere, a Belgian journalist who would go on to win LeMans in 1960. But then Downing decided to back off to save the engine.

Mike Oliver, Connaught's engine man and a driver himself on occasion, takes up the story: "[Ken Downing] was so confidant of his massive lead that he didn't bother to look in his mirrors and got the shock of his life when Frere passed him just before he passed the [finish] line," Frere winning by one second. Ken Downing believes to this day that if only Frere had overtaken him on the previous lap he could easily have re-passed him before crossing the finish line. Nonetheless, Downing must have been satisfied at finishing a close second in this early outing in what would turn out to be one of the more successful Connaughts, A3. Back in England three weeks later, on June 21, 1952, at the West Essex CC Snetterton F2 club race, both of the patron "Kens" showed well, with McAlpine finishing second to Reg Parnell who was driving the original prototype Cooper-Bristol T20 (CB/1/52) and Downing finished fourth.

On July 19th, 1952, the Connaughts turned out in force for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, one of only three Grands Prix in which Connaughts would participate in the 1952 season. Four A-Types were entered and as a group Connaught did itself proud, keeping the Ferrari 500's (which finished 1, 2 in the hands of Ascari and Taruffi) honest.

For much of the race, Dennis Poore was running third in Connaught A4 ahead of Taruffi's Ferrari 500 (which produced 175 bhp at 7200 rpm vs. the 145 bhp at 6000 rpm developed by the Connaught) but the A Series Connaughts were not originally designed for a 500 kilometre race and Poore had to pit to take on fuel. Poore also got stung on the tongue by a wasp during the race, which understandably delayed him slightly. Poore ultimately finished a creditable fourth behind Mike Hawthorn in a Cooper-Bristol T20 (CB/4/52).

Right behind Poore in fifth place was Eric Thompson in the newest Connaught A6 and Ken Downing in A3 finished ninth. Unfortunately, Connaught Patron Ken McAlpine had a bad time of it, qualifying poorly in 17th and finishing 16th in A1. Nevertheless, it had to be considered quite impressive that all four Connaughts finished this race, particularly since Dennis Poore and Eric Thompson were competing in their first Grand Prix.

The Connaught four-car team skipped the next Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on August 3, 1952 and that turned out to be a prudent choice: the Ferrari's rolled over the opposition and finished 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6! On August 17, 1952, Ken Downing took his Connaught to Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix but failed to finish when his oil pressure dropped, putting him out.

On September 7, 1952, Ken McAlpine, Dennis Poore and 23 year-old Stirling Moss all drove Connaughts in the Grand Prix of Italy in what was intended to be the Continental debut of the team but the results were disappointing. Although Moss had qualified well in 9th ahead of the Cooper-Bristol and the other Connaughts and maintained that position for much of the race, he missed a gear and broke a pushrod, putting him out at 60 laps of the 80 lap race. Poore too had an unlucky and eventful race, finishing 12th. After Moss retired, Poore had worked himself up to 9th when he had to stop for fuel towards the end of the race. Poore had difficulty restarting the car and had to push it over the line after the winner, Alberto Ascari had taken the checkered flag. McAlpine's luck was even worse, out after only three laps with a broken de Dion tube.

It should be understood that during this era, there were many non-Championship and club races in the course of a season, and by the end of 1952, Connaught had racked up a very respectable record in these settings of six first places, five seconds and two sixth places. Indeed, as the 1952 season wore on Connaught was showing greater and greater strength. In the Newcastle Journal Trophy race in Charterhall, Scotland, held on October 11, 1952, the Connaughts of Dennis Poore (A4), Ken McAlpine (A1) and Connaught engineer Mike Oliver (A7) finished 1, 2 and 3 in a 40 lap race. On September 9, 1952, the Connaught also did well in the 7 lap Madgwick Cup sprint race at Goodwood, with Ken Downing in first place (A3), Ken McAlpine in fourth (A1) and Dennis Poore in second (A4).

Poore's performance was all the more impressive because he hit Moss's G-Type ERA and the Connaught of Eric Thompson (who was on pole in A6) and having lost that time in the collision, managed somehow to make the time up and finish second. At the National Trophy race at the aerodrome at Turnberry, Scotland on August 23, 1952, rising star Mike Hawthorn raced Connaught A5 and won.

Next Week: Connaught On The March in England and On The Continent

In addition to thanking Ken McAlpine, Mike Oliver, Alain de Cadenet and Martin Stretton for their gracious cooperation in the preparation of this series, the author wishes to express his gratitude to Sam Evans, Assistant Curator of the Science Museum's Transportation Collection, and to Rhiannan Sullivan of the Science Museum's Picture Library for access to the Museum's Technical File and permission to use pictures of Connaught Chassis B6 in this article. The Science Museum is on Exhibition Road in London.

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Print Version

Volume 7, Issue 23
June 6th 2001

Atlas F1 Special

Jean Alesi's New Start
by Timothy Collings

Team Connaught: Remembrance of Things Fast
by Thomas O'Keefe

The Newey Saga

Why It Really Matters
by Roger Horton

The Point of Lauda
by Karl Ludvigsen

Canadian GP Preview

The Canadian GP Preview
by Ewan Tytler

Technical Preview: Montreal
by Will Gray

Focus: Piquet in Canada
by Marcel Schot


Elsewhere in Racing
by Mark Alan Jones

The Canadian GP Quiz
by Marcel Borsboom

Bookworm Critique
by Mark Glendenning

Rear View Mirror
by Don Capps

The Weekly Grapevine
by the F1 Rumors Team

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