Coventry Climax was a specialist engine builder founded back in the early years of the industry. Their glory days were in the 1950s and early 1960s when they built several very successful racing engines. This article will concentrate on the engines they built initially for Formula 1, some of which ended up being used in the US and some were shipped to Australia for the Tasman series.
Firstly, a quick overview of the prior history of the company because they were not an overnight success. They were founded in 1903 as Lee Stroyer, named after their two founders, Henry Pelham Lee and Jens Stroyer. Lee had been an apprentice with Daimler after leaving the army and joined with Stroyer to create an internal combustion engine company – they saw this as the future over electric, steam and other power methods. When Stroyer left the business in 1905, Lee moved the company and renamed it Coventry-Simplex. After supplying the military with engines during the First World War, Lee renamed the company to Coventry Climax and started to supply a wide range of car manufacturers with equipment. They also moved into marine engines, military tank engines, water pumps and even forklift trucks.
The heritage of the racing engines starts with an influential designer. Walter Hassan, joined Coventry Climax in 1950 after working for Bentley, Jaguar and Bristol. Hassan had developed the Jaguar XK engine amongst others. His first engine for Coventry Climax was the FW (for Featherweight), a one litre Single Overhead Cam four cylinder originally designed as a fire pump and producing just 38 hp. After winning a Government contract to supply the engines, the growing car industry saw its potential so the engine was reconfigured as the FWA and then as motor sport was popular, the FWA became the FWB, bored out to 1500cc. The FWB was a limited run engine – only 35 were produced for racing purposes and Cooper used them in their Formula 2 cars.
The FWB was then used as the basis for the FPF. This was specifically designed for Formula 2 racing, which at the time, being the mid 1950s, was a 1.5 litre class. The FPF was still a four cylinder 1500cc motor and although it was successful in Formula 2, it needed to be enlarged for Formula 1. This was done, firstly to a two litre used by Cooper with Jack Brabham at the wheel and the team started to get success. The engine was then increased again to a 2.5 litre motor.
The FPF scored it first Grand Prix win in 1958 with Stirling Moss at the Argentinean Grand Prix. This was the start of the rear engined revolution that Cooper was instrumental in starting. Cooper took the Monaco Grand Prix that year as well and both wins were with a two litre version against the 2.5 litre competition. In 1959 & 1960 with the motor now increased to a 2.5 litre, Cooper won eleven races with Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. Brabham and Cooper took both the Drivers and Constructors Titles in both years.
Formula 1 went back to 1.5 litres for several years in the early 1960s and Coventry Climax developed a V8, the FWMV, based on a marine engine. It produced 170 hp and was fitted in Cooper, Lotus and Brabham chassis – it was the original customer engine and was supplied to privateers, Rob Walker, British Racing Partnership and Yeoman Credit who bought chassis from the main three factory teams. Power was increased year on year and Jim Clark took the 1963 and 1965 championships for Lotus using the FWMV. The motors typically ran with Weber carburettors and the distinctive 8 trumpets for breathing on the top – an evocative image for the period.
Climax looked at the possibility of making a flat sixteen cylinder engine to replace the V8. BRM were also going down this path and neither motors made it out of development. The Climax FWMV F16 was abandoned due to complexity of making sixteen small pistons work together!
With the Formula 1 rules changing again to a three litre class from 1966, Climax reduced their involvement in racing. By this stage Henry Lee’s son, Leonard, was running the company and he was concerned about the costs of further developments with limited public exposure not helping the sales of other products. Creating a new engine for the three litre class was going to be prohibitive and the bigger manufacturers were able to fund their own engines. Lotus moved to Ford Cosworth power, Brabham to Repco and Cooper had been sold to a private company which entered cars with a Maserati V12 engine.
In 1963 Coventry Climax had been bought by Jaguar and Walter Hassan finished off his career developing the Jaguar V12. With Jaguar being acquired by BMC to form the British Motor Holdings, the earlier decision by Leonard Lee to stop funding motorsport engines was a wise one. The company was then thrown around the British Leyland mess during the 1970s and it was split into several parts. The engine and forklift business was privatised, collapsed financially and the engine division was then bought by Horstmann Defence Systems to provide engines for their equipment. Incidentally, Horstmann manufactured several thousand cars in the 1920s and competed against Walter Hassan and the Bentley team in early motor sports!