Ron Tauranac designed of a lot of race cars, although he was perhaps best-known for his association with Brabham. He mapped out all of the Brabham Formula 1 cars from the team’s inception in 1962 through to its sale to Bernie Ecclestone in 1972, winning two world championships with Jack Brabham along the way.
He was also responsible for Brabham’s vast fleet of Formula 2 cars in the 1960s, its BT12 IndyCar (which was later used as the platform for the Brawner Hawk that took Mario Andretti to the 1965 USAC title), and its occasional forays into sports cars.
Away from Brabham, the Australian founded Ralt, which became one of the world’s biggest manufacturer of open-wheelers during the 1970s and 1980s, and later moved into consulting roles for clients as varied as Honda, Arrows, and V8 Supercar team Dick Johnson Racing.
Tauranac’s cars lived at the other end of the spectrum from the Lotuses designed by compatriot Colin Chapman. Where Chapman prioritized performance and innovation – sometimes at the risk of fragility – Tauranac’s Brabhams and Ralts were intentionally conservative, simple and reliable.
Several years ago, Tauranac sat down for a lengthy interview with now RACER.com Editor Mark Glendenning in which he shared his thoughts on the evolution of race car design, the importance of keeping secrets, and what he really thought of Chapman. Following the iconic designer’s death on Friday at the age of 95, we’re revisiting a piece that appeared in modified form on RACER.com in 2016.
Q: Like a lot of people, you started out as a driver …
RON TAURANAC: Well, I had to build my own car to be able to drive. I had no money, it was just after the war in about ’49, and we were driving out – Sunday afternoon drives used to be the fashion then – and I heard this noise, so I stopped and looked, and there were cars rushing up and down the airstrip. And I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind doing that.’
Then I managed to run into a chap by the name of Bill Heathrow, and he had a little motorbike workshop down near Central Station [in Sydney]. He told me about the 500cc Car Club, so I went and got some Autosport magazines and read about that, and went to Mitchell Library in my lunch hours and read all I could, and… built a car. There wasn’t very much about the car technically, it was hopeless.
Q: I read that it had no shocks the first time you drove it.
RT: I had no shocks, no money… What I did was stiffen the springs up, and then the next time up at Hawkesbury the wheel rolled under, because there was nothing to limit the travel on the swing-out axles. The eye of the spring broke, the wheel went under and it flipped me again and I landed on top of the barbed wire fence.
I then eventually found some money for some dampers, and realized that you had to limit the travel on the swinging halves, and then started designing a better geometry for the swinging halves. Instead of having the short swinging halves, I made a triangulation that crossed over, so that the half axle was in fact three-quarters of the width of the track – which Mercedes did a year later on their sports car. They didn’t see my design, of course, but it came out on that car a year later.
Q: When you started working, it seems that you had a lot of different jobs from which you gained skills that inadvertently came in very handy later on.
RT: Yes, that’s right. I did a number of jobs, but the leading one was working for CSR Chemicals. I was in designing – we all designed the factory – and it was jig and tool design where I was more of a specialist. They picked out of 50 draftsmen four of us to supervise the subcontracting of all the stuff. And as it happened, I chose rather than supervising all the welding, to do the casting side of it. So I got involved in castings and pattern making, and then I took the lead in mounted runners and risers on the board, so I knew all about that side of it.
So it was a bit of everything. CSR didn’t worry about qualifications. If you could do the job, you got it, so you went from one thing to another. Then it was all finished, and I was shift supervisor, and I didn’t like the shift work so I left and got into designing nuts and bolts and screws and all that sort of stuff.
When I was at CSR, there was a company called Quality Castings that we subcontracted most of the stainless steel casting to. So they offered me a job as works manager. I went there and met Jack (Brabham) by chance, and used to subcontract work for him, which is how we built up the relationship. He had a little one-man machine shop. We got talking, got friendly, and then I helped do design work on his car and he did machining for mine.
Q: Did you have any reservations about relocating to the U.K. when Jack asked you to move over there and join him?
RT: That was a big jump. I had a big job, I was works manager, and I had a wife and a four-year-old kid. He went to England, and after a few years he went to Cooper and became their works driver. When they were switching from the leaf-spring to the double wishbones he wrote me a letter and asked me what the proportions should be. He fed the proportions in to Owen Maddocks, who was there – he was more of a draftsman than a designer – without Charlie Cooper knowing anything about it. So that’s how a lot of the development work happened on that.
And he (Brabham) used to come back for the Tasman Series every Christmas and we’d see each other. Then when he was back in 1960, he offered me a return air ticket to go over and see if I liked it for six months. I swapped the return air ticket for one air ticket for me one-way, because I had to go via L.A. to look at a race at Riverside. I helped run his Cooper there in the sports car race. And my wife and kid got on the boat and went over. In 1960, that was a hell of a step. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it more (laughs).