BRM V16: The Icarus Engine

May 2, 2022

At full song, the BRM Type 15 supercharged V16 engine sounds like the war cry of a Hellbeast. After a race, double World Champion Alberto Ascari once commented that with all the noise produced by the BRMs, it was close to impossible for him to hear anything else while driving. (Note: He was driving a Ferrari, not the BRM!)

I was first introduced to the V16 BRM by the phenomenal book Into the Red by Nick Mason. It wasn’t the book, but rather the accompanying CD which recorded each of the cars presented that caught my attention. I would play the BRM V16 track on a loop at a volume that was definitely not OSHA-approved.

Fangio himself said this: “I consider it to be, basically, the best Formula One car ever made.... No car has ever given me such a thrill to drive, or a greater sense of absolute mastery. I will stand by it."

A BRM V16 piston (c) Toby Moody

It's easy to see why. The BRM Type 15 V16 engine produced more than 600 bhp from a mere 1.5 liters, a power-to-displacement ratio that wasn't topped until the 70s. The engine was effectively two 750cc V8s lashed together, with each cylinder displacing a shot-glass-sized 93ccs. A two-stage supercharger rammed air into the cylinders at more than 80 psi.

It was an epic car and is still revered to this day. Yet, it was a complete and utter failure. It was so fragile and complex that when it did manage to make it to the track, it would last only a fraction of the race. BRM Type 15s managed to appear at only two Formula One World Championship races with fifth being the top result. In its history, the Grand Prix car only made 16 race starts which yielded two victories and 10 DNFs.

Just as the Greek legend of Icarus taught us, the designers of the BRM Type 15 dared to fly too close to the sun, and ended up crashing down to Earth due to engineering that was ambitious to a fault.

Rebounding from WWII

Following the Second World War, Great Britain was rebuilding its economy and national pride. British constructor ERA had folded, but Raymond Mays (driver)  and Peter Berthon (engineer) had an audacious idea: Build a British-made Grand Prix car. In 1945, they founded British Racing Motors (BRM).

Berthon and fellow designer Eric Richter, had an audacious idea for their audacious project. It was centered around a 1.5L supercharged engine, laid out in a 135-degree V16. This unusual and ambitious design would have two key benefits: an extremely low center of gravity, and an unheard-of red line. They estimated they could reach 14,000 rpms due to the low mass of the pistons.

The project did accomplish the goal of garnering support from the British automotive industry. More than 300 companies joined the cause, including Lucas, Girling, Rolls-Royce, Vandervell, and David Brown (owner of Aston Martin and Lagonda), to name a few of the big names. One newsreel reporting on the effort in 1949 said, “Seldom has so much money been better spent.... In BRM, Britain has found a winner!” (Spoken a bit too soon!)

BRM V16 cutaway (c) Tony Matthews

The BRM Type 15 debuted in 1950, and the results were encouraging. The car won the International Trophy at Silverstone in May, and bothThe Woodcote Cup and Goodwood Trophy at Goodwood in June of the same year. That would be the only two victories the project would experience. 

The following year of 1951 was filled with frustrations and missed deadlines. BRM had attracted top drivers to the project, but rarely had a car ready in time to race. Both cars entered at Silverstone managed to finish, but were farther down the order in fifth and seventh places. Notably, in this year BRM fitted disc brakes made by Girling, a first in Formula One. 

The 1952 Formula One season ended up in chaos. Due to the small number of cars entered, FIA decided to use the Formula Two regulations for the World Championship. Thus, BRM did not qualify. The BRM project sputtered on, but funding was running out, and the Type 15 project ended in 1953. BRM managed to survive and go on to success later on, including a World Championship with Graham Hill in 1962.

An Engine Like No Other

A glimpse into the V16's complexity.

The V16 engine was truly a revelation, despite its lack of results. The engine was built with a light-alloy block and head. When broken down, it has a shocking number of components. The 135-degree “vee” gave it a similar profile to a boxer engine. 

The supercharger by Rolls-Royce was innovative, and was a two-stage centrifugal supercharger, derived from the Merlin airplane engine. The boost topped out at 5.7 bar, or 82.6 psi. The fuel/air mix was supplied by two custom-designed S.U. carburetors with dual inlet passages that fed directly into the superchargers. Each piston had two valves per cylinder, driven by double-overhead camshafts.

The pistons are remarkably tiny. In effect, this engine is two V8s attached in the center. The bore and stroke have a near-square ratio of 49.5mm and 47.8mm, respectively.

These are the smallest pistons ever used in Grand Prix racing. The pistons are hemispherical and the rounded part is about the size of a golf ball. They displace about 93.5 ccs, which is the equivalent of a double-shot of whiskey. 

When it worked, it really worked! Although developed in the late 40s, the engine held the record for the highest power/displacement ratio of 351 bhp per liter. That was only topped in the turbo era. In race trim, the engine would reach 525 bhp and redline at 12,000 rpm. In testing, measurements on the bench were able to top 600 bhp at 14,000 rpm! 

But What a Noise!

I will leave it to Nick Mason, a famous car collector who diddled around in music on the side. He wrote this in Into the Red:

The noise made by a BRM V16 is one of the most awesome events in motor sporting history. Nothing, but nothing, has made a sound like it, either before or since. It is not just the volume, although that is enough to make even hardened racewatchers cover their ears and grimace in pain, but its sheer intensity. The sound is so much deeper and more multi-layered than the shrill and equally painful modern Formula 1 engine. (Editor: published in 1998). The BRM’s noise assumes another dimension which you feel as well as hear, like a disco’s bass stack played too loud. It’s like a whole grid of NASCAR V8 stock cars in concert. It’s like a guitar howling round the amplifier loop, like an army of mutant chainsaws out of control. It’s all of them together. It rises and falls with the engine’s revs, swelling its it intensity while barely changing a note.

BRM V16 Epilogue

Just last year, BRM commissioned three tool-room continuations. As just four originals are known to exist, the Owen Family who owns BRM today wanted the public and future generations to be able to see -- and hear! -- the thunderous V16. 

BRM Type 15 V16 Continuation with Paul Owen (seated) and Hall & Hall. (c) BRM

The family commissioned Hall & Hall to construct three new Type 15 Mk 1s. The first one finally debuted at the 2021 Goodwood Festival and did some test laps. The other two are just getting started. Each vehicle will be given an original serial number, initially reserved when the cars were originally being built. The hope is that they can be raced in earnest in the coming years at some of the world’s biggest vintage race meets. 


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