In the 1950s, Britain had a problem. Despite having a healthy supply of talented racing drivers, few teams could get within touching distance of the Italians who dominated Formula 1 with the engineering excellence of Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. But, from the moment Tony Vandervell vowed “to beat those bloody red cars” in the mid-1950s, all of that would change.
Getting serious in 1956, Vandervell drafted in Lotus founder Colin Chapman to design the chassis and Frank Costin to design the wind-cheating Vanwall body shape before calling on none other than Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Stuart Lewis-Evans to drive for the team in 1957. With a crack squad at his disposal, the Vanwall outfit was firing on all four cylinders of its unique 2.5-litre engine and the team sailed to victory in 1958 to claim the first World Constructors Championship Trophy in Formula 1 history.
“In its era, Vanwall bestrode the world,” says Vanwall Group MD Iain Sanderson, who’s made it his ambition to restore the Vanwall name with a run of six faithful continuation cars since buying the brand. “It was a titanic battle. It was Moss against Hawthorne on the track and it was Tony [Vandervell] vs Enzo [Ferrari] off the track - it was the red cars versus green. It was brilliant.”
From there, the Vanwall’s success deteriorated, as did the health of its founder and by the end of the 1950s, the Vanwall’s racing efforts were all but over. “Vanwall to me is the most important car ever in F1 history. I think it’s because the nation’s mindset went from losing for nine years to winning and that was critical,” adds Sanderson.
As the years went by, a number of attempts to restore the Vanwall name in top-flight racing passed but none were successful. Fast forward to 2004, and the Vanwall name made a reappearance on the road as a small outfit led by Arthur Wolstenholme, the creator of Ronart Cars, started to produce road-going replicas of the Vanwall racer under licence. The cars were close but not quite true to the original recipe with a Jaguar XJS V12 engine nestled under the slightly modified bodywork.
Then, in 2008, when Iain Sanderson set eyes on the car in the Ronart facility, the fortunes of Vanwall would once again be changed forever. “The connection to Vanwall came through a car that I was interested in called the Lighting, which was a V8-engined car that was first shown at the London motor show in 1999 and built by Ronart,” Sanderson explains.
Remaining close to the project, Sanderson went on to re-launch the Lightning (pictured below) almost ten years on as an all-electric sportscar at the 2008 London Motor Show, where it won the car of the show. Despite the widespread appreciation and award, the investment needed to kickstart production failed to materialise, scuppering the operation before it could get off the ground.
Eventually acquiring the Vanwall brand, Sanderson threw himself into the project, revealing plans for six 100% accurate and authentic Vanwall continuation cars, on the anniversary of the team’s victory.
“The real acid test for a continuation car is if the Duke of Richmond will let it race [at Goodwood] and he confirmed he’s happy with continuation cars so long as no original ones are racing,” says Sanderson.
“To make it a household name again would be wonderful but to also make it recognised for what it was as a mindset changer to the British F1 industry would be fantastic.”
Recreating something so unique is no easy task and the job of reproducing the 1958 Vanwall falls to historic F1 car specialists Hall & Hall in Lincolnshire, who have access to the 1957 and 1958 cars’ blueprints.
“The first car we make will take one/two years and the ultimate goal is to have a Vanwall continuation car back on the grid within three years,” says Sanderson. “It would be a dream to have one running around Goodwood not just doing a parade lap but going around in some form of anger,” he says with a smile.
Asked about who he’d like to see behind the wheel, Sanderson runs off names like Jensen Button and Martin Brundle but lands on four-time IndyCar Series champion and a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 Dario Franchitti as his ideal pilot. “I’d like to see Dario Franchitti driving it - he’s fun and lively and a brilliant driver,” he says enthusiastically.
Although busy finding new homes for the six cars, Sanderson spares a second to think about the future of the company and where the brand goes from here, entertaining the possibility of a road-going model in the future. “If the right road car opportunity came along, we’d have a very good look at it again. But it would have to be the kind of car that Moss and Brooks would’ve loved to have driven,” he insists.
Priced at £1.65 million each (before tax), the Vanwall is a highly prised and specialist investment. In a world where new one-offs and low production run specials seem to appear overnight, the market for these rare cars is both exclusive and highly-engaged.
“Exclusivity has its own badge and that will always be a badge of honour,” says Sanderson. “Our job is to nurture and protect the Vanwall brand. With a car like this, the decision-making process is usually six months to a year.”
While getting such an ambitious but admirable project off the ground is daunting, Sanderson and Vanwall’s journey so far has not been without its perks. “It was great to meet Tony Brooks and I met Sterling a couple of times. I’ve met some extraordinary people along the journey, so that’s very important to me but, above all, to have a direct connection with an extraordinary team name is amazing.”
With the first continuation car set to make tracks within the next two years, the moment this British racing legend is revived and relived by all will be a momentous occasion for not just motorsport fans but the British public too. Flying the flag for British post-war engineering excellence, the Vanwall name is locked into Formula 1 history books forever, so having a living and breathing representation of this for all to see is as exciting as it is essential.
“It’ll be very exciting. It’ll be amazing. It’ll be a triple marathon competed in one-day - the automotive equivalent of an Iron Man!” says Sanderson excitably.
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