Profile: Ken Richardson

Nationality British
Date of Birth 21st August 1911
Team BRM (1951)
Races Entered 1
Races Started 0
Best Result DNS (1951 Italian GP)

Part 1: The beginning of an E.R.A.

William Kenneth Richardson was never destined to be a racing driver. Already, his early life wasn’t the kind you’d expect a racing driver to have. The son of a local butcher, Richardson’s father wanted him to join the family profession. Instead of a life of chopping meat and slicing beef, Richardson wanted chop shops and slicing metal instead, and so he ditched his father’s aspirations by earning his living as a mechanic.

Okay, maybe not quite the living his father imagined the junior Richardson would have, but for Ken it worked out a treat. He spent a few short years in the trade before being picked up by racing driver Raymond Mays in 1933 to become his chief mechanic for his new little project: English Racing Automobiles. And the little project, shockingly, went quite alright for Mays and Richardson. Despite being built by panel-beaters and early chassis suffering from horrendous handling issues, they stumbled upon a masterstroke. With Dick Seaman and B. Bira (who named his chassis Romulus, Remus and Hanuman, how sweet of him) at the helm, ERA notched up rather notable results both locally and internationally.

By 1939, though, their investors opted to pull out of the team. This would demotivate any aspiring constructor, but not to Mays or Richardson. Mays had a vision for a brand-new motor. It was bold.

1.5 litres. Supercharged. Vee-freakin’-sixteen.

Just LOOK at this thing.

Just LOOK at this thing.

While the war would put these plans on hold, by 1947 Mays was all ready to start building the behemoth. With some notable backers like Tony Vandervell and Sir John Black, the new project would no longer be under the E.R.A. banner. The factory got sold off to a bus manufacturer and the name and assets handed over to Leslie Johnson. The new project had a new name: British Racing Motors, or B.R.M. for short. Ken Richardson continued to be under the employ of Raymond Mays as both a development driver and a chief mechanic for the insane project.

Richardson probably thought that he’d remain in those roles for the rest of his time in British Racing Motors. Fate, though, had other plans.

Part 2: Chucked into the deep end

Fast forward to May 1949, and still the B.R.M. V16 wasn’t finished yet. It was going through the motorsport equivalent of development hell. This prompted backer Tony Vandervell – later to start up the Vanwall team – to give Raymond Mays, Richardson and co something of a break from the long, tireless work on the engine.

The 1949 British Grand Prix was coming up, and Vandervell was entering one of his “Thinwall Specials“, a Ferrari 125, into the race. Given that Mays was a journeyman racing driver himself, Vandervell offered him the drive. Of course Mays wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to race a Ferrari in a Grand Prix. Having done so for several races previous, he once again roped Richardson into being his chief mechanic for the upcoming event.

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Ken Richardson (right) being all smiles next to his boss, Raymond Mays before the 1949 Jersey Road Race

Mays could only qualify nineteenth in the field of 25, though. If the qualifying performance wasn’t an indication he was struggling big time. The car was absolutely nasty through the turns, the ill-handling chassis frustrating Mays to no end. Exhausted by his attempts to keep the thing on track, Mays made a ballsy decision during a pitstop.

He handed the car over to Richardson. The poor lad, as far as my sources go, never took part in a competitive race before today. Yet here he was, tossed into the shark-infested deep end with a devilishly difficult car to handle. On lap 82, the inevitable happened as Richardson’s Ferrari pirouetted right round at Abbey Curve and impacted the crowd. But for the grace of god, none of the five spectators he struck were seriously injured. After this close shave, Richardson wisely stepped away from racing and continued to labour over the B.R.M. V16 project.

On December 15, 1949, B.R.M finally unveiled their Type 15 to the public at their test track at Folkingham, with Mays behind the wheel for a couple of demonstration runs. The car was far from the finished product, though, a major tip off being that it had no wing-mirrors whatsoever. It would need more and more development, more and more upgrades and more and more testing before it was to be race ready.

Richardson clocking in the endless miles he would go through testing the BRM Type 15 (Marcus Clayton Collection)

Richardson clocking in the endless miles he would go through testing the BRM Type 15 (Marcus Clayton Collection)

So Richardson stepped in. As Mays and designer Peter Berthon did the schmoozing and promoting, Richardson did the trucking. With Ken behind the scenes testing the car round-the-clock, non-stop, Mays previewed the V16 at the British Grand Prix in a demonstration run in front of Prince Phillip. Richardson even claimed he reached the dizzying heights of 203 miles per hour in the car. Everything was on the up for them…

…up until their racing debut at the 1950 BRDC International Trophy, that is. In tests at Folkingham three days before the event, both of their V16 engines gave up the ghost completely, seemingly beyond repair. Yet still, their backers still urged them to compete in the trophy and get some representation on home soil. Ken Richardson and his crew then went on to complete the greatest feat in engineering that you’ve never heard of. They somehow managed to craft one V16 engine out of the two broken ones in an insane all-nighter. Cutting down from the original plan of four entrants, the sole chassis was left to Frenchman Raymond Sommer to do B.R.M. proud. He completed a three-lap test run in the warmup to make sure the makeshift engine was actually functioning before the race. It seemed like the B.R.M. would be ready to show the public what it was made of…


British Pathé weren’t exactly masters of subtlety. Sommer couldn’t get his Type 15 off his grid spot at all. A dull metallic crunch indicated a broken transmission. The once supportive crowd turned on B.R.M. in an instant. The viewing public tossed pennies into the cockpit as the car got pushed back into the pits. In the snap of a finger, B.R.M would transform from Britain’s greatest promise in motor racing to a laughing stock. Nevertheless, Mays and Richardson pressed on with the project. Their morale was revived somewhat when Reg Parnell led the B.R.M. to victory in a small, rainy Goodwood meet later that year. Buoyed by the promise showed at Goodwood, their sights were set on the 1951 British Grand Prix, entering two cars for Parnell and Peter Walker.

The B.R.M squad managed to flip opinions during the race, with Peter Walker coming in seventh and Parnell an impressive fifth. However, their races were hampered by the simplest of design flaws: the exhaust for the car ran within the bodywork of the car. All this caused a nigh-unbearable heat in the cockpit for Parnell and Walker to deal with. Though Parnell was able to withstand it, you couldn’t say the same for Walker. He was on the verge of passing out over the last fifty miles and he could barely walk out of the car under his own power. By the time the Italian Grand Prix rolled around, Walker wisely opted to stay away from burning himself further in the oven and join Jaguar for the Tourist Trophy that same weekend, so there was one seat to spare…

… enter the one guy with more knowledge about the car than anyone else, Ken Richardson. The mechanic and perennial test driver got gifted a golden, glorious chance to enter a Formula One World Championship event.

Starting it, however, was an entirely different story.

Part 3: License, Legend, Refused, Retreat

Straight from the off, it would seem Richardson’s attempt at starting a Grand Prix would be in jeopardy. The Royal Automobile Club (RAC) were having doubts about Richardson right off the bat, given how his only appearance in a race ended with his car becoming a human lawnmower. Raymond Mays pleaded with officials to allow Richardson to race, and in a show of heart, the RAC relented. But with a condition. Richardson would be allowed to drive during practice while under scrutineering from officials in Monza, who would then inform the RAC about proceedings, and only then will the verdict on Richardson come out.

So, in layman’s terms, the qualifying session for the Italian Grand Prix was also Ken Richardson’s equivalent to a superlicense test.

As practice went, Richardson actually seemed to impress out in Monza. Though a full three seconds behind teammate Parnell, Richardson managed to place his B.R.M tenth on the grid, ahead of the entire Gordini squad, the bunch of Talbot-Lagos and even Chico Landi’s Ferrari. He skidded into the straw bales on one lap, but despite that, officials in Monza sent a positive telegram to the RAC.

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Reg Parnell’s (right) and Richardson’s smiles in the Monza paddock look and feel forced. Given B.R.M’s track record at the time, I don’t blame them.

Richardson was back in mechanic mode on race day tending to Parnell’s car, whose engine busted due to a clogged oil filter. His work was interrupted by news from Britain. Thanks to that one excursion into the hay bales, the RAC denied Richardson of his license to compete in the Grand Prix. Yep, the tenth placed driver on the grid was not allowed to start. With Parnell’s car beyond repair and Richardson refused a license, it was almost like B.R.M. were never going to start when a saving grace came.

Hans. Freakin’. Stuck. For some reason, the 50-year-old driver from Auto Union’s glory days way back when was in the same hotel that the team were residing. Out of NOWHERE, B.R.M. had this racing legend on hand with nothing to do, all prepared to take over Richardson’s car. To have an Auto Union legend step in to replace your handy mechanic for the race was the stuff of B.R.M.’s dreams.

And yet, as with most of B.R.M.’s early outings, it ended up a nightmare. All Stuck’s practice laps proved was that Richardson’s trip into the bales rendered the car irreparable and once again, B.R.M would go home with two ugly Did Not Starts. One of those DNS’s would be Ken Richardson’s only blemish on the Formula One scene.

With the World Driver’s Championship next year reverting to Formula Two rules, the V16 was rendered obsolete. Now completely ridiculed, B.R.M would pretty much retreat to entering Formula Libre and local races for the next few years, not returning until 1954 with a much more successful outcome. By then, though, Richardson was gone from B.R.M, but he was yet to venture into his most successful tenure in motorsport

Part 4: Triumph at Triumph

Skip ahead a good year or so from the 1951 Italian Grand Prix. It’s 1952, and you’re Ken Richardson, having seen your F1 debut go up in smoke and your pet project labelled obsolete. Furthermore, Tony Vandervell offered you another opportunity to impress in a five-lap race at Goodwood, only for you to bin his car – again – on lap 1. Chances are you’re feeling a little down. Then comes a call on your phone and it’s from one of the last people you expect.

It was Sir John Black, a former backer of B.R.M, who contacted Richardson in October. He recently released a concept car, the Triumph 20TS, a sports car that would be relatively affordable to the general public, and he called up Richardson’s years of testing experience to give the car a good shakedown.

Let’s just say Richardson’s vetting of the concept wasn’t exactly…positive.

“I think it’s the most awful car I’ve ever driven,” Richardson enthused, “it’s a bloody death trap!”

Other quips included “This caused several moments for me than can only be described as very unpleasant adrenaline cocktails”, and “…like a dog’s breakfast.” Hardly an auspicious start for Triumph’s new car.

The sensible decision for Sir Black would be to fire him. Instead, out of the blue, Sir Black offered him to help develop the “death trap” into a usable sports car. Richardson himself was well up to the challenge. Under his guidance, Triumph released the renamed TR2 in 1953. Much improved from the “dog’s breakfast”, the car started to be a huge hit in America of all places, and pretty soon the car became Triumph’s top earner. For Sir John Black, though, he set his mind on one thing: speed. He wanted to prove how fast the TR2 was.

So, he asked Ken Richardson to point the car down the arrow-straight stretch of highway in Jabbeke, Belgium and absolutely throttle it. Richardson complied, and the power was something to be believed. As evidenced in this film, Richardson and his Triumph trashed the speed record for cars under 2000cc with a mind blowing 124.88 mph in speed trim.

Richardson and his record-breaking Triumph TR2 at Jabbeke

Richardson and his record-breaking Triumph TR2 at Jabbeke

With such speed, it’s no wonder the TR2 was a showstopper in the Motorsports world as well. With privateer TR2’s dominating the 1953 RAC Rally, Triumph made the move to set up a competitive division with its boss being the butcher’s son, Raymond Mays’ former personal mechanic and speed record holder Ken Richardson himself.

Under his guidance, Triumph went on to be a dominant force in the Rally scene, with their complete top 5 lockout in the 1956 Alpine Rally and the Team Prize in the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans being the biggest highlights under Richardson’s leadership. Richardson himself offered a hand in driving his own cars in events like Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, teaming up with Maurice Gatsonides, inventor of the speed camera. Unlike his previous, futile attempts behind the wheel, he actually didn’t embarrass himself, even managing to win his class in the 1955 Liege-Rome-Liege rally.

Ken Richardson and Maurice Gatsonides in their Triumph for the 1954 Mille Miglia

Ken Richardson and Maurice Gatsonides in their Triumph for the 1954 Mille Miglia

Richardson quit Triumph in 1961 in opposition of British Leyland’s takeover of the company. However, some sources say he was actually dismissed by Leyland, so this is a bit of a contentious issue here. Following a brief and unsuccessful stint managing TVR’s competition division in 1962, disappointing founder Trevor Wilkinson so much he left the company, Ken Richardson backed away from major motorsport competition, only competing in the odd racing meet from time to time. He passed away in 1997 aged 85, leaving behind a legacy developing one of the more insane engines to grace Formula One, one of the most dramatic careers without even a single start and developing one of the most famous British sports cars of the decade.

Sources:

The Illustrated History of Triumph Sports and Racing Cars
By G. William Krause

Grand Prix Ferrari: The Years of Enzo Ferrari’s Power, 1948-1980
By Anthony Pritchard

Raymond Mays’ Magnificent Obsession
By Bryan Apps

BRM V16: How Britain’s Auto Makers Built a Grand Prix Car to Beat the World, Volume 16 By Karl Ludvigsen

Motorsportmagazine.com

British Pathe

Edward Tiben’s YouTube Channel

http://www.mossmotoring.com/names-know-triumphs-kenneth-richardson/