F1 retro 1966 – part 1: Wizards of Oz

01st June 2016
Paul Fearnley

Torque was cheap for Jack Brabham: a stock block costing £11 fitted with Daimler con-rods at £7 a throw.

The most pragmatic man in Formula 1 had no time – nor budget – for complexity for complexity’s sake. His engine for the launch of the 3-litre era in 1966 was a light, compact and frugal V8 that produced sufficient power in all the right areas.


Bolted to the adapted tail of an existing space frame – simpler to build and easier to repair than a monocoque – Jack’s ‘Old Nail’ turned the screw mid-season by winning four Grands Prix consecutively.

Though it failed while leading at Monza in September, retirements for Jackie Stewart and John Surtees confirmed Jack as a three-time world champion.

“I flew home with him after the race,” says his designer and business partner Ron Tauranac. “When we landed at Fairoaks airport there was a crowd of journalists. I asked Jack what it was all about. He replied that they probably wanted to interview us about winning the championship.

“That was the first time I was aware of it. I’d been so focused on each event that I hadn’t taken in the bigger picture.”

Muckers since their formative Aussie dirt-track days, Jack and Ron had recently survived a rocky patch.


“At the end of our first full season of F1 [1963] Jack said that he would like to run his own team, the Brabham Racing Organisation,” says Tauranac. “The idea was that he would become a customer of [our] Motor Racing Developments and pay it £3,000 per car.

“After three seasons of no direct involvement, no feedback and no money for development, I had lost interest [in F1]. That's why, at the end of 1965, I said I didn't wish to build any more.”

Happily, this admission cleared the air and a new agreement was drawn. Tauranac was back onside: “I played a much bigger part from 1966 on. Jack and I had the partnership back to the way we had originally planned it.”

Brabham: “I never actually fell out with Ron, but we had to make sure that the F1 side was going to work. My driving had gone stale – but with Repco behind me I was fired up.”


And just who the hell was Repco?

Replacement Parts Company was based in Melbourne but had a presence in Europe, as well the United States. Brabham had courted and promoted it since the 1950s. Now he persuaded it to build him an F1 engine.

Its basis was to be a liner-less aluminium block designed – and shelved – at great expense by GM for Oldsmobile. Melbourne’s Phil Irving of Vincent motorbike fame was tasked with converting it to competition use.

“We put him in a Croydon flat,” says Tauranac. “He would start mid-morning and work deep into the night, smoking non-stop. I had no problem with him, but he had his own ideas and wouldn’t always stick to the pre-arranged plan. In fact, [Repco’s chief engineer] Frank Hallam came to England to get the project back on track.”

The eventual ‘off-the-peg’ unit, for which Repco made pistons, rings, bearings, valve guides, gaskets, and fuel and oil lines, retained Irving’s heads – mirrored to fit either bank to ease the spares situation – its two parallel valves per cylinder actuated by a single chain-driven cam in place of the original pushrods. Its bottom end stiffened by a steel plate and carrying a flat-plane crank, it generated 285bhp at 8000rpm on Lucas mechanical fuel injection.

When we landed at Fairoaks airport there was a crowd of journalists. I asked Jack what it was all about. He replied that they probably wanted to interview us about winning the championship

Ron Tauranac

“One of the reasons that the Brabham was so good was its flexible engine,” says Stewart, whose complex BRM H16 engine in contrast “carried enough fuel, oil and water for the Queen Mary”.

“More talent was required to drive a 3-litre,” continues Stewart. “My 1965 [his F1 debut season] had been seat-of-the-pants exuberance. I learned a lot more in 1966.

“A corner now began not when you braked but when you took your foot off the gas pedal. How you took it off also mattered. Removal and application [of throttle and brake] had to be smooth to avoid [unsettling] spikes.”

Approaching 40, Jack hadn’t won a GP for five seasons and probably would have retired after 1965 had not Dan Gurney flown the nest to create his Eagle concern.


Hunched over the wheel, he had a reputation for inconsistent lines and rarely looking in his mirrors. He was also tough, quick and mechanically sympathetic. Tauranac’s no-nonsense cars suited him perfectly.

BT19 had been designed originally to accept Coventry Climax’s cancelled 1.5-litre flat-16 of 1965. “It was chosen because we had one available and time was short,” admits Tauranac.

Eschewing much of what was fashionable – its coil springs were outboard for greater efficacy at the expense of aerodynamic drag – it was nimble and tractable.

Ready before its rivals, it suffered two frustrating retirements from non-championship races in South Africa and Sicily – and also contested a brace of Tasman Series races in Australia in 2.5-litre form.

But a comprehensive defeat of title favourite John Surtees’ Ferrari V12 at Silverstone’s non-championship BRDC International Trophy in May convinced Brabham that this might be his year.


Even after gearbox failure ended his Monaco GP and a monumental spin – “For the second time in my career I thought, ‘This is it!’” – persuaded him to settle for a safe fourth place at a sodden Belgian GP, his “sights were definitely on the championship”.

His bid began in earnest at Reims in June when he became the first driver to win a GP in a car carrying his own name.

“We were a very young team, but Jack and Ron were great teachers,” says Hughie Absalom, ‘Welsh Pom’ and Jack’s number two mechanic. “Ron was more abrasive, Jack more open to suggestion, but both knew their stuff.

“We had more control with Repco. Climax’s engine used to appear at our door and we’d drop it in a car, run it and, if it broke, take it out and send it back. The Repco arrived in packing cases as a complete unit, but it was us who stripped and rebuilt them.

“Everything suddenly clicked.”

Victories at Brands Hatch and Zandvoort – both tracks slick with dropped oil – and a dank Nürburgring put Jack firmly in the cheap seats.

Sorry, box seat.

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