The very first decade of Formula 1 racing was one of great change for motorsport. The rules seemed to be altered at the end of almost every season, from F1 cars being replaced by Formula 2 regs, to supercharged engines being downsized, before eventually the rear-engined revolution arrived at the end of the decade. These are the seven cars we reckon stand proud of the rest.
The seven best F1 cars of the 1950s
Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta
The first champion F1 car was built long before the Formula 1 championship was ever introduced. The Alfa Romeo 158 was designed for the 1938 Grand Prix season, to compete in the voiturette class that acted as a second tier to the main Grand Prix competition. Indeed the 158 had won 18 races before the first Formula 1 race took place. But it was fate that meant the Alfetta would be the first great F1 car, long after it had ever been intended to compete.
Racing paused for the Second World War and then, when the fighting was done, very few people had the cash to build new racing cars. As a result pre-war racers were brought out of their hiding places, dusted off and pressed into action. The Alfetta was now the only real thoroughbred factory racer on the grid and duly swept the floor. Alfettas won the first two F1 seasons at a canter, but it is in 158 guise that it was at its most potent, winning every single F1 race of 1950 (the World Championship also included the Indy 500, which Alfa Romeo did not enter, preventing the team from winning every single race that season) and handing the title to Guiseppe Farina. There was no Constructors’ Championship until 1958, so Alfa wouldn’t double up its titles.
Love F1? Read the eight best F1 cars of the 1960s.
Pushed on by the force of nature that was Tony Vendervell, Vanwall was the first great British F1 team. British teams did not win a Formula 1 Drivers’ title until 1959, when Cooper arrived on the scene, but it was Vanwall that clinched the first ever Constructors’ crown, when the title was introduced in 1958.
After development through several versions, Vanwall reached its peak with the car known as the VW5. Powered by a home-made inline-four engine, the Vanwall would clinch the first British Grand Prix victory for a British car, with a joint performance from Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks in 1957, which heralded the start of a string of victories. After taking three wins in 1957 – leaving Moss as Fangio’s closest competitor for the title – Vanwall went into 1958 with every chance of glory. And it proved its mettle immediately, winning the first race in Argentina in the hands of Moss, before going on to claim seven wins out of 11 races. Vanwall came away from 1958 with that first ever teams title, but somehow, due to a combination of good sportsmanship and better reliability for Ferrari, no Drivers’ title.
Make sure you read our other list, the seven best F1 cars of the 1970s.
Anything his former employers at Alfa Romeo could do, Enzo Ferrari reckoned he could do better. While the Alfetta had won every race it entered in 1950 and 1951, for 1952 Ferrari would do exactly the same... if it hadn’t entered the Indy 500. The Tipo 500 became the first serious attempt from the other side of the pond to win the 500, but failed miserably.
Thankfully, it was such a dominant car in Formula 1 that it didn’t matter, and Alberto Ascari won every F1 race he entered (missing the opening round as he made his way to the 500) and Piero Taruffi won the other. The following season the 500 won all but two races (and didn’t bother trying to win at Indy). The biggest irony through all this? The Tipo 500 was actually a Formula 2 car. With no F1 cars left after Alfa Romeo withdrew at the end of 1951, the championship switched to Formula 2 regulations. Ferrari’s F2 car was the only one really ready for the new season, and therefore dominated.
There might not be a more iconic Formula 1 car of the decade than the Maserati 250F. Perhaps it’s the sheer longevity, perhaps the beautiful looks, perhaps the fact that so many raced for so long, or even just the connection with Fangio, but if you ask someone to name an F1 car of the ‘50s they will probably go to the 250F.
Two of Fangio’s five titles came at least in part in the 250F – the second and the final one – and it would be raced by drivers including Stirling Moss, Prince Bira, Jean Behra and Luigi Musso. A relatively massive 26 Maserati 250Fs would be built, most powered by a straight-six engine producing around 220PS, and between them they entered 48 races and won eight. But perhaps the most iconic 250F moment came at the Nürburgring in 1957, when Fangio would overcome a 48 second deficit to win the race, breaking the lap record an incredible ten times in a row. Amazingly 250Fs would still be racing in F1 in 1960, after the rear-engined revolution had begun to bite.
Have a read of our list of the eight best F1 cars of the 1980s.
The W196 only failed to win three F1 races that it entered in its racing history. A history that could well have started an incredible racing dynasty, but actually lasted all of 12 races. Mercedes decided to enter F1 for the 1954 season, having dominated pre-war Grand Prix racing, and found success in sportscar racing after the war was over.
The W196 was powered by a 2.5-litre straight-eight engine, with at-the-time state-of-the-art direct injection, developed from the Messerschmidt Bf 109E, and desmodromic valves. So ahead of the competition was the W196 that Fangio won the 1954 Drivers’ title despite missing the first three races. He would win four of the remaining six – including the Italian Grand Prix, where the W196 arrived clothed in an incredible low-drag body that covered the wheels. The following season Fangio was joined by a young Stirling Moss, who spent a season basically following Fangio and learning as much as he could from the master – winning the British Grand Prix – as the Argentinian won another championship.
But that would be it for Mercedes first foray into F1. The 1955 Le Mans disaster caused the company to pull out of all motorsport, and it wouldn’t return until 2010.
The Cooper T43 was the first rear-engined F1 car to win a race, in the hands Stirling Moss in 1958, and it followed it up with a second win at Monaco in 1958. The following year, the T51, took what Cooper had learned from its first true forays into F1 racing, turned them into a car that could compete over the course of a full season.
The T51 was powered by a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder Coventry-Climax engine, that had been developed after a joint request from both Cooper and Lotus to create an engine specifically for the revolutionary rear-engined F1 cars. Cooper began the 1959 season with another victory for Moss, this time in the non-championship Glover Trophy at Goodwood, before Australian racer Jack Brabham took his first F1 win in the opening round of the season at Monaco. Between Brabham, Moss and Bruce McLaren, Coopers won five of the nine races that made up the 1959 F1 season, and both championships went to the little rear-engined wonders. It won the title again in 1960 – in even more dominant style, before gradually fading from prominence as the visionary layout Cooper had pioneered became the norm.
Read another list: the eight best F1 cars of the 1990s.
No F1 car of the 1950s looked more interesting than the Lancia D50. It did, roughly, conform to the norms of the day, a widening cigar shaped fuselage with a bump behind the driver and the engine out front.
But, both on the exterior, and hidden under the body, the D50 featured a raft of ingenious design ideas that took it beyond the usual design of the day. First, the engine was a stressed member of the chassis, then it was offset in order to lower the overall height of the car. Finally, and most obviously, weight distribution and aerodynamics were improved by positioning the fuel tanks between the wheels – external to the main fuselage.
Originally built by Lancia, financial difficulties meant the team and assets were sold to Ferrari, which continued to develop the car, running it through the 1955, ’56 and ’56 seasons. With the legendary Fangio at the wheel the D50 – by then racing as the Ferrari D50 – would win the 1956 World Drivers’ Championship (no Constructors’ title existed) and took five wins on the way with Fangio, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins as the wheel. It did carry on racing into 1957, external fuel tanks removed, as the Ferrari 801, but failed to add any more victories.
Read our list: the seven best F1 cars of the 2000s.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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