“The sun is simple. A sword is simple. A storm is simple. Behind everything simple is a huge tail of complicated.”
~Terry Pratchett – I Shall Wear Midnight~
Diminutive and verdant green, the die-cast car immediately grabbed my attention. The words, BRM – Formula 1 – Grand Prix, embossed on its underside further piqued my interest. I was browsing the display cabinets at our local “antique” shop, on the lookout for vintage Formula One cars. This one caught my eye as I had never before seen a car that was such an unusual colour. It was a BRM Type 25 and the colour was colloquially termed “British Grazing Green”. I had always thought the darker “British Racing Green” was the traditional British racing car livery, but I have since discovered that any shade of green was considered to be “British”.
BRM struggled for several years to perfect the Type 15, their first foray into the cut throat world of Formula One. Its 1.5 litre V16 supercharged engine was excessively complicated and after only one championship race it was relegated to minor events when it was unexpectedly superseded. For its successor BRM decided to exchange small and complex for larger and simpler. They had learned their lesson from the mistakes they had made with the Type 15 and this time they would stick to the tried and tested…or would they?
Stewart Tresillian designed them a 2.5 litre 4 cylinder DOHC engine. In the original plan it had four valves as it had a wide bore of 102mm and a short stroke of 74 mm. Unfortunately chief engineer Peter Berthon made the decision to cut the four valves back to two. Maybe after the tribulations of the V16 engine he decided that the less moving parts the better. This immediately negated one of the major advantages of having an over-square engine – plenty of space on the cylinder head to put lots of valves! When the fuel was changed to AvGas in 1958 the resulting increase in engine temperature caused their overlarge valves to distort, requiring further modifications to prevent a loss of horsepower due to poorly sealing valves.
The original air strut suspension was subsequently replaced by leaf springs in an attempt to improve deficiencies in the car’s handling. This had little success and the drivers continued to struggle with the cars on-track behaviour. After yet another season of minimal results to show for their efforts they called in design guru Colin Chapman to give some much needed advice. He recommended that they change to coil springs…which shouldn’t have been a surprise as it was what everyone else was using! Sometimes in F1 you should just follow the crowd, rather than trying to go off down a little used track and get yourself lost in the undergrowth.
The engine and suspension problems paled into insignificance when compared to the issues the car had with braking. After all, having an engine a bit short of horse power because of poorly fitting values and drivers complaining about understeer are only minor matters when compared with a sudden inability to bring the car to a stop. The car had a innovative single brake disk mounted on the rear of the gearbox. Having one of something instead of two could be seen as the simple option…or could be seen as creating even more variables and unknowns to have to deal with. The advantage was less overall weight, but this was offset when vibration from the engine caused the pipes to fracture with monotonous regularity. The end result was brake failure that put the cars and their drivers into difficult situations far too often for comfort.
The car made its debut at the 1955 Oulton Park Gold Cup, where it suffered from multiple teething troubles. Clutch difficulties plagued them during practice on Thursday, followed by a broken oil-pipe on Friday, resulting in driver Peter Collins having an oil “bath”. After hasty repairs it returned to the track only to snap the propeller-shaft. Collins only managed to qualify 13th but during the race the car showed its potential when it catapulted through the field and was in 5th place by the end of the first lap. To the amazement of the crowd he passed Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari-Lancia D50 for 3rd place before having to retire on lap nine when once again the car lost oil pressure. After the race it was discovered that the needle of the oil pressure gauge had merely been shaken off its spindle by the excessive vibration of the new engine. It’s hard not to think of what might have been…though at that point the car hadn’t been on the track long enough for its brakes to fail!
For several years the car was tinkered with and modified, but the single brake disk remained despite brake failure occurring on a regular basis. Mike Hawthorn claimed it “tripled his laundry bills” and the car’s reputation preceded it so that it was often difficult to find talented drivers who were willing to put their lives on the line to drive it. The reaction of Roy Salvadori summed up how many drivers felt about the car when he got fed up with his brakes locking during practice at Goodwood in 1957, and went off to find a Cooper to drive. “Where’s Salvadori?” asked Raymond Mays. “On the track. In a Cooper!” was the reply.
The Type 25 finally achieved the high point of its career with a win at the 1959 Dutch GP. This was aided in part by Stirling Moss doing extensive testing at the track in the week prior to the race, ironing out the brake issues and perfecting the tyre setup. Jo Bonnier got the BRM on pole with an identical time to Jack Brabham who was driving the season dominating Cooper. Bonnier took the lead at the start and never fell further back than second place. Masten Gregory (also driving a Cooper) rocketed off the start, zipping from the third row of the grid into second place, passing Bonnier but eventually losing the lead on lap 12 when his gearbox started to cause him difficulties.
The next threat was from Brabham, who took the lead on lap 30, but he then lost second gear and Bonnier passed him back shortly afterwards. Finally he was chased down by an on-fire Stirling Moss (in yet another Cooper) who at the start had been engulfed by a multitude of cars from which he took some time to disentangle himself. After 24 long laps stuck behind Jean Behra’s Ferrari (who he later lapped much to the annoyance of Behra) he eventually caught and passed Bonnier on lap 60, but three laps later his gearbox failed completely and he was out of the race, Bonnier re-taking the lead for the third time.
Bonnier must have been holding his breath for the last 13 laps of the race…would his car hold out to the end? There were so many things that could go wrong, and with BRM they usually did. Harry Schell in the sister car was already sitting on the pit wall after a gearbox failure on lap 46. Gingerly nursing his car to the finish he took the chequered flag for both his and the Type 25’s only victory.
Just as the car started to become marginally more reliable it was rendered obsolete as the mid-engine revolution meant that front engine cars were struggling to make the grade. The Cooper T51 won five races that season and the Type 25’s were all carved up and remade into the mid-engine P48 for 1960. All except one. The car which won their only Grand Prix fortunately had a last minute stay of execution and is the sole survivor of the eleven BRM Type 25 cars constructed between 1955 and 1959.