Brabham: seven decades in the making

With a legacy spanning over 70 years, Brabham has been a major motor sport influencer. Its dramatic back story spans the globe and a raft of famous names…

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Back in the 1950s from a land down under, a bloke who enjoyed the flow of beer as much as a Vegemite sandwich was busy becoming an unstoppable force in midget racing. Jack Brabham began his endeavour for success racing machinery that looked like a Formula 1 car that had lost its battle with a large vice.

The pug-like racers have been the stepping stone of many since their introduction in the 1930s – although, typically, those successful at the sport ended up rocking the Indianapolis 500, not Formula 1 in good old Blighty.

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During his years building and racing cars in Australia Brabham became chums with Ron Tauranac, and – realising they could probably take over the industry – the pair decided to team up. In a turn of events that was as insane as Trump barging his way into the Oval office, they actually did just that.

In 1955 Brabham packed some tinnies and landed himself in England. He quickly joined the Cooper Car Company as a mechanic and, soon after, he became a driver, competing in the 1955 Aintree Grand Prix.

Brabham bludgeoned his way to the top in staggering time. He claimed his first win at the 1959 Monaco Grand Prix in a Cooper T51, finishing 20 seconds ahead of his closest rival.

The season ended in spectacular fashion, with Brabham running out of fuel on the final lap of the US Grand Prix. He claimed his first world title by pushing his car over the finish line, finishing fourth overall. He kept the title for the 1960 season as well, bringing Cooper another astonishing win for the T51.

By this point, Brabham had begun to realise that he could do a better job at the whole racing team malarkey. He quickly got on the blower to Tauranac, and they established Motor Racing Developments (MRD) Ltd in Surrey.

The pair had already been working together at Jack Brabham Motors, spending time making ‘breathed-on’ versions of the Sunbeam Rapier and Triumph Herald. However, in order to keep their dastardly plans away from the watchful floodlight of the press, the new company didn’t use their initials. That cheeky rascal Brabham was still gainfully employed at Cooper, thus secrecy was paramount to the partners’ initial success.

Unveiled in 1961, their first creation was an entry-level Formula Junior car. There began the company’s unstoppable force – although not before the name was changed to Brabham, as a journalist allegedly pointed out how, phonetically, ‘MRD’ sounded rather like ‘excrement’ in French, making for some A-grade historic banter.

The 1960s quickly became Brabham’s golden years. To this day, the 1966 FIA Drivers’ Championship remains the only title whose winner bore the same name for both driver and maker, with the Brabham BT19. The BT designation, by the way, stands for Brabham and Tauranac.

Jack Brabham regularly recalled this moment as his career highlight, saying it was ‘probably the most satisfying race I’ve ever had’. The remainder of the ’60s were as colourful for Brabham as they were for free love, culminating in the firm claiming title as the world’s largest manufacturer of open-wheel racing cars for sale to customer teams.

By 1970 the company had shot out more than 500 cars from the factory gates. These competed in every discipline imaginable, from Formulas 1 through 3, to the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 5000.

Along the way, Brabham demonstrated some fine innovations including in-race refuelling, carbon brakes and hydro-pneumatic suspension – ideas and products that laid the foundations of what we came to consider common practice as the years went by. That’s before we throw around the heavyweight names of yesteryear who were all notable staff members of the monopolising brand at some point, including Bernie Ecclestone, Ron Dennis and Gordon Murray.

Jack Brabham retired at the end of the 1970 season, coming fourth in the Constructors’ Championship. Tauranac bought out Brabham’s share of the team, and managed a singular year as king of the venerable castle.

Ecclestone then stumped up the cash and bought Brabham for £100,000. Sadly, the pair failed to play fair, resulting in Tauranac leaving by 1972. In 1973 a young South African engineer by the name of Gordon Murray was promoted to chief designer. You may remember him for moments of automotive black magic and sorcery – such as the McLaren F1.

The 1970s proved turbulent for Ecclestone and the team, as Bernie sought some pragmatic flexing of the term ‘competitive advantage’ by going against the grain and shipping in Alfa Romeo’s booming flat-12 as his weapon of choice. As with most things Alfa, this scheme ended rather abruptly due to seemingly obvious reliability issues. The motor made a cracking noise, though… when it worked.

Come 1978 Ecclestone was fired up by the recent years of regression for the team, so a deal with struck with none other than Niki Lauda, who was poached from Ferrari. The 1979 season wasn’t the best, with the not-so-great Alfa resulting in Lauda claiming a measly four points over the season and the team falling to eighth for the Constructors’ Championship.

The season saw the initial use of what was dubbed the ‘fan car’, a vehicle whose rear looked like the wrong end of a baboon, thanks to the rather brash fan that was meant to assist engine cooling as much as increase downforce, by sucking the air from underneath.

Sadly, the engineers had a moment of amnesia, and only eventually realised that you can’t create downforce if the car is stationary. Having a beating heart of an Alfa, it enjoyed doing ‘stationary’ rather a lot. The ‘fan car’ saw one race, and was retired due to regulation issues with the aforementioned fan set-up.

Brabham’s contract with Alfa was soon dissolved despite new engine offerings that remained just as unreliable as they were charismatic, and the Cosworth DFV was brought back to the table. Despite these presumably prudent changes to the team’s set-up, Lauda left to retire permanently, stating that he was ‘bored of driving in circles for a living’.

The early ’80s saw the last of Brabham’s successes on the circuit. It claimed the Drivers’ Championship in 1981 with Nelson Piquet at the helm of the BT49C, a car that had seen its fourth season, as well as enjoying second place in the Constructors’ Championship. Piquet managed to claim the final title for the team in 1983, while also boasting the accolade as the first driver to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship in a turbocharged car.

Sadly, the fate of Brabham was already on track for disaster, as Ecclestone was increasingly bored by his role within the team. His time was spent focusing on the crown jewels of the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association. With Murray increasingly involved in the running of the team, the age-old formula began to show its age, resulting in Gordon’s departure for McLaren in 1986.

The team frequently changed hands during the latter part of the 1980s, with the nail in the proverbial coffin being the missed deadline for finding an engine supplier for the 1988 World Championship.

Ecclestone sold up, with the team eventually taking its curtain call in 1992. The Brabham name still provokes interest, however, with the track-focused BT62 having been recently unveiled. The car mimics the gnarly Ferrari FXX-K and the McLaren Senna GTR, and sports an equally bamboozling price tag of £1.2 million.

With the stunning pedigree of a brand enjoying its 70th anniversary, the 5.4-litre Brabham V8 leviathan shows that the venerable name requires as much respect now as it did in its formative years.

Photos courtesy of Motorsport Images

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