The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sir Jack Brabham obituary stated that the ‘BT’ model prefix in Brabham racing cars stood for ‘Brabham Team’. Most followers of motor racing would have spotted the error (that ‘T’ is for Tauranc), but the sad fact is that plenty of the Herald’s readers likely remain as oblivious as its obituary writer of the importance of Ron Tauranac in the career of Australia’s greatest racing driver.
It is a shame that Tauranac isn’t more widely recognised in Australia. Not that the man himself seems too bothered about it. The quintessential quiet achiever, Tauranac was the back room toiler responsible for all the Brabham sports and racing car designs pre-1971, and following that the Ralt cars which dominated the junior formula ranks for significant periods in the late ‘70s and ‘80s – but that’s a whole other story.
The Tauranac-Brabham association dates back almost to the beginning of Brabham’s career. Back then, Tauranac was also a driver, and even then was building his own racing cars. Brabham and Tauranac were aware of one another as fellow hillclimb competitors, but they only became properly acquainted when Tauranac enquired about a motorcycle engine Brabham had advertised for sale. Out the back of Brabham’s home in Penshurst in southern Sydney, Tauranac saw that Jack was operating a small machining
workshop. From there, he began subcontracting machining jobs to Brabham.
“This went on for quite a while,” Tauranac recalls today. “When I was going out to see him at his place, I started taking some of my parts out there and I’d use his machines to make things for my car during lunchtime. It went on from there.”
The collaboration didn’t begin properly until some years later, after Jack had relocated to England to race with Cooper. The tyranny of distance was a real factor in the late ‘50s: if Jack wanted to ask Ron’s advice about how to improve his car, the only way to do it in the late 1950s was via letters in the mail.
Initially Jack sent home for ideas about modifying the Cooper’s rear suspension. Later Brabham had Ron design a new bellhousing for the Lowline Cooper in order to take advantage of a new dry sump system and allow the engine to be mounted lower in the chassis. This was the car in which Brabham would win his first world championship.
“I drew up a pattern for the bellhousing and a pair of drop gears,” Tauranac says. “I had the pattern made in Australia; I gave Jack the pattern and the drawings for the gears, and he took them back to England.
“They (Cooper) didn’t have a designer. They only had a draftsman, so he couldn’t come up with designs, he just drew what was what. So this (bellhousing design) got fed in, but Charlie Cooper didn’t know – he thought they were doing their own thing. But John Cooper knew; he and Jack were good friends.”
Jack eventually persuaded Tauranac to join him in the UK. Ron’s day job at Brabham’s new workshop business was designing the modified Triumph Heralds and Hillmans which Brabham was selling. By night he was drawing up an altogether different car which Brabham also hoped to sell. However, since Jack was still driving for Cooper, Tauranac’s Formula Junior had to be kept secret – ‘he didn’t want Coopers to know anything about it’, Ron says. So the design and build were done largely after dark, behind closed doors.
The first Brabham Formula Junior was named MRD to reflect the new company, Motor Racing Developments, although MRD would soon be dropped and replaced with Brabham, on account of the unsavoury phonetic resemblance it had when spoken in French… That first car was bought by Tasmanian Gavin Youl. In a way, Brabham and Tauranac became victims of their own (immediate) success. So quick was the new MRD in a test day at Goodwood that Colin Chapman packed up his works Lotus team in disgust had headed home to have new Keith Duckworth engines fitted. A Lotus won on race day, but Youl was second –and everyone was talking about this new MRD.
The first car was bought by Tasmanian Gavin Youl. Charlie Cooper then got to know about it, and that Jack was involved, and he decided that Jack was stealing their ideas. So Jack lost his drive for that year
Above: The first Brabham (or MRD as it was know). Gavin Youl prepares for a front-row start at Goodwood in 1961. Right: Jack and John Cooper in happy times. Below right: Brabham debuts the first Brabham F1 car, the BT3 Climax, in Germany in 1962.