Simon Taylor Full throttle
‘It lasted six laps before the leaders came past, and their wake blew it off the road into the ditch’
Iwheel f you think about it, cars have followed the same basic layout pretty much since the beginning: a wheel at each corner, people in the middle, engine ahead or behind. There have been exceptions, of course: three-wheelers with the single
at the back or the front, and even two-wheelers. The Schilovski Gyrocar, designed in 1912 by a Russian count, was a massive sixseater with one wheel at the front and one at the back, and a gyroscope to stop it falling over. It weighed nearly three tons. There have been other efforts to build gyrocars down the years, and even a large-diameter mono-wheel with the single passenger sitting inside it.
With a racing car you don’t need to worry about comfort, luggage capacity, fuel economy or service intervals. It’s just about going fast, in a straight line and around corners. A car’s overall length is decided, broadly, by the length of the driver and the engine, behind or in front of them. But several designers have reasoned that if you put both driver and engine in the middle, you can build a more compact machine, and there may be aerodynamic advantages, too.
The Grand Prix driver Piero Taruffi was a clever engineer, and in the 1950s he created the 500cc Tarf I and the 1720cc Tarf II for recordbreaking. Each consisted of two fuselages with the driver in one and the engine in the other, and each was steered in its tiny cockpit with two hand levers. In the early 1950s they broke a lot of distance speed records at up to 185mph.
But Taruffi was only trying to go in a straight line. In 1955, Enrico Nardi brought to Le Mans a car with two nacelles, one for the driver and one for the engine, with a centre section which held a surface radiator to cool the 750cc engine and a tiny passenger seat to comply with the sports car regulations. It lasted six laps before the leaders came past to lap it, and their wake blew it off the road into the ditch.
The STP Paxton turbine car that so nearly won the 1967 Indianapolis 500 had its engine beside the driver, but the strangest Indy car of all was Smokey Yunick’s 1964 effort. The car followed a conventional layout except that it had no cockpit. The brave driver sat in a sort of sidecar between the left wheels. It went backwards into the wall in qualifying. The ’81 Ardex-bmw Le Mans coupé had a normal cockpit – but the engine was in there too, beside the driver.
Really weird was a terrifying Can-am car built in ’83 by Herb Adams. It was as wide as Can-am cars were by then, but with the driver far out on the left between the left wheels, the engine on the extreme right between the right wheels, and the huge area in the middle entirely devoted to ground effects. For Milt Minter, who had the job of driving, it was impossible to feel what the car was doing from where he sat. No matter: the huge downforce in effect pulled the car to bits.
Occasionally an original idea really works, and everyone has to follow suit – or protest that it is unfair. Gordon Murray’s 1978 Brabham fan car sucked itself down onto the track so effectively that it won its first Grand Prix, so the rules were rewritten to ban it. The 2012 Nissan Deltawing sports-racing car, designed by Ben Bowlby, was triangular in shape with the front wheels very close together. It worked quite well and was raced at Le Mans and in the USA for several seasons before rule changes shut it out.
Original thinkers will keep on looking for the idea that will give them an unfair advantage. If it really works, within a year or two it will have become the new everyday way to do things. I’m sure Count Shilovski reckoned that by now we’d all be driving around in three-ton two-wheelers, and keeping our gyroscopes well polished.
Weird, weirder, weirdest. From top: the Deltawing Nissan; Smokey Yunick’s Floor Shift Special Indy car; Nardi’s 750 Bisiluro Le Mans competitor