Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cigar Car Meditation

Before the aero era, "If it looks right, it is right" was a race car engineering truism.  The most consistent exemplars of this rule among rear-engine cars were Colin Chapman's string of Lotuses: the 25, 33, and 49.  But I've always thought that Dan Gurney's Eagle-Westlake (designed by Len Terry, who learned at Chapman's knee) was the epitome of the rule.  So purposeful, with only hints of "styling," notably the beaked radiator intake.  Here's a link to a Wiki piece on the car that's both detailed and good, for those who want more:


It looks even better from a slight angle with unfinished wheels.

The Eagle won only one Grand Prix, but it was a doozie: the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in 1967.  Dan was at the wheel, becoming the only American to win a Formula 1 race in a car of his own manufacture.  The engine was on its last legs; he probably wouldn't have completed another lap.  And he won partly because faster cars dropped out.  Still, a win is a win.

Above: back-in-the-day--Dan Gurney rounds the La Source hairpin at Spa on his way to victory in the 1967 Belgian GP.
Below: Gurney reprised his win in a demo run at Spa decades later.

For a few races before the Westlake V-12 was ready, Gurney ran Coventry-Climax engines.  Still the prettiest "cigar car"
of the early rear engine era (1959-1967).  This is a pic of a Climax-engined car at Monaco in a vintage event.

Of course, cigar cars were rolling firebombs.  Gasoline was packed wherever it would fit around the driver, in aluminum tanks without fire-resistant bladders.  No on-board fire extinguishers.  A sideways impact would collapse the monocoque, possibly trapping the driver and likely injuring his internal organs. 

The racing became steadily more dangerous in the mid 1960's as wheels went from 5-6 inches wide to 8-10, and tires got grippier.  Jackie Stewart spearheaded a move toward passive safety after his near-death-experience in the Masta Kink at Spa in 1965.  But I, and I think most other road-racing fans, was not tuned in.  Those were still the days of "You know the risk when you get into the car," and, as a 20-something with delusions of immortality, I had two serious problems with reality: 1) a juvenile, romantic, Hemingway-esque notion of death and 2) a juvenile, stupid, notion that death in a race car comes only to those lacking skill and judgement.  The ante was upped considerably in 1966 when engine size doubled from 1.5 liters to 3.0.  Power more than doubled, from about 175 to over 400, in cars that weighed about the same.

Several motorsports writers have remarked that Jim Clark's death in an "unimportant" race at Hockenheim in 1968 was a hammer-blow to the 1950's world-view that we shared.  Clark was the driver to beat from 1962 to his death.  He was the standard other drivers measured themselves by.  He never crashed.  "If it can happen to Jimmy, in a Formula 2 race when he's not even dicing with other drivers, it can happen to anyone."  Precisely.  And it was a sideways impact with a tree that killed Clark.  It was the beginning of wisdom for road racing fans, drivers, circuit owners, and sanctioning bodies.  We began listening to Jackie Stewart.

By 1969, cigar cars had become aero-light, even with all that drag from tires and suspension in the air stream.  Lateral grip had increased exponentially, vastly increasing corner speeds.  Colin Chapman tried huge, high, wings on the Lotus 49.  In the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich the rear wing on Jochen Rindt's car failed.  The car was completely destroyed and Rindt was lucky not to be killed.

The FIA banned high wings altogether, and began legislating the size and location of rear wings.  Designers began searching for maximum downforce and lower drag.  The era of shovel noses, tea-tray front wings, side radiators, and proto-sidepods had arrived.  The beautiful cigar car disappeared.  For 1970, Colin Chapman came up with the next breakthrough design, a wedge.  In its own functional way, it was good-looking too.  But not as pretty as my beloved, lethal, cigar cars.

Lotus 72 at a vintage event.  With torsion bar suspension, side radiators, and a wedge shape. it was a breakthrough design
that remained competitive for five years (1970-1974), a lifetime in Formula 1.  And the gasoline was enclosed in a fuel
bladder in a triangular tank between the driver's back and the engine: a less disaster-prone location, although it was
located there partly to minimize the effect of an emptying tank on weight distribution.  But I missed my cigar cars.

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