Air-cooled Pioneers : Ron Tauranac

One of the most famous names in the history of the modern-era race-car, Ralt, was devised for a series of cars built in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s by brothers Ron and Austin Tauranac. The name took advantage of the initial of Austin’s second   name, Lewis – which was appropriate, because he played an essential part in the construction of those early cars.

Ron Tauranac was born in Gillingham, in Kent, in 1925. He came to Australia with his parents in 1928, and the family was living in Fassifern, near Newcastle, NSW wheRaltBondi04 (1)n Austin was born in 1929. Ron joined Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Sydney as a junior draftsman in 1939, was accepted by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1943, and trained as a pilot; the war end- ed before he could fly in combat.

Ron and brother Austin didn’t have much in the way of precedents to inspire them when they started building their first 500 in 1947. There were midget speedway cars a-plenty, of course, but there was no local tradition such as that of the Shelsley Special which informed much of the British 500 movement in its early days.

So the first Ralt had some mistakes, but it was soon developed into one of Australia’s most significant locally-built 500cc racing cars. Legend has it that in 1946 Ron Taura-nac happened to be driving in the area of Marsden Park, some 60km north-west from central Sydney, on a day when cars were racing on a former WW2 emergency land- ing strip there. The legend says he then stopped and watched, and that as result he became interested in building a racing carof his own. The legend is improbable be- cause Ron was then just 21 years old, and would hardly have used rationed petrol to drive two hours from home, into what was at that time scrubby, thinly-populated farmland, without knowing exactly where he was going.

Be that as it may, ideas for amateur-built, low-cost racing cars had emerged in Eng- land during World War 2, and were given sympathetic coverage in British motoring magazines, which continued to be pub- lished throughout the war and were distrib- uted even to the outposts of empire. Jack Godbehear, who in the early 1950s built a very successful 500 in Victoria, remem- bered first reading about the 500cc move- ment in copies of the English weekly The Motor, which his mother bought in Mel- bourne and posted to him while he was serving in New Guinea.

The Melbourne monthly maga zine, ARalt1Right2ustralian Motor Sports, first ap- peared in February 1946; from its July 1946 issue AMS for a time carried an almost monthly series of articles encourag- ing Australian 500cc enthusiasts. In April 1947 the Australian Sporting Car Club in Sydney reported in its members’ newsletter on correspondence with the UK 500 club, ‘following on considerable interest shown by members and possible members in these machines’. Readers were advised that a meeting of interested parties would be held later that month, and the 500cc Car Club of NSW was duly formed at that meeting. Ron Tauranac, already an ASCC member, was a committee member of the new club from the outset, and Austin joined the com- mittee in 1949

The June 1947 issue of AMS carried an agreed set of regulations intended to govern all Australian 500cc cars and gave Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia contact details. In Victoria a sep- arate 500 club wasn’t formed until 1951, but from 1947 the Australian Motor Sports Club (a very hands-on club, but not con- nected with the magazine) had been offer- ing support. In September 1947 the first

Australian 500 to appear in competition, the Melbourne-built Low-Lane 500, ran at Rob Roy hillclimb. The first NSW car, the very effective Hooper 500, appeared just four months later at Hawkesbury hill in January 1948. But building a 500cc car seemed to be much harder than the theo- rists had assumed; new cars were slow to appear, and even in the 1950s the number of completed cars never matched the opti- mism of the movement’s early years. Two more NSW 500s made once-only appear- ances in the early months of 1948, and Ron Tauranac’s car, the next NSW car, didn’t make its debut until August 1949, more than two years after the first meeting of the NSW 500 club. His car was only the second NSW-built 500 to go on to regular appear- ances in competition.

Ron and Austin, who had served an ap- prenticeship as a motor mechanic, started building their first car sometime in 1947. The first published mention of the car was in September 1948, in the Club Notes sec- tion of Australian Motor Sports, where the 500cc Car Club of NSW’s contributor forecast, ‘Ron Tauranac will probably have his car complete early in October.’ The comment was entirely in keeping with the optimism of the whole 500cc movement in its early days, because the car was not mentioned again for another five months, until the club’s notes for February 1949 re- ported, ‘At long last Ron Tauranac’s car is rolling and it now remains to see what it can do.’ The club’s note s for the June 1949issue spoke of a planned debut at the 13 June Hawkesbury hillclimb, but this was again optimistic, and the car did not ap- pear. However, the notes show the car was by that time at least a runner, even if not quite fully sorted, saying ‘This car in re- cent times showed good promise, although it may take a little getting used to.’ In fact, as Ron remembers it, he had a bit of private practice on the road there, and crashed the car.

Finally, on 9 July 1949, at the Australian Sporting Car Club’s standing quarter-mile Records Day on the Mt Druitt airstrip, the car made its competition debut amongst some 70 other competitors. Sticklers for procedure, ASCC did not show the car in their result-sheet, most likely because it failed to complete runs in opposite directions. However ‘the Norton-engined Tauranac 500’ was mentioned in the AMS report of the event, as was its best time, one way, of 20.6 seconds. The 500 Car Club’s notes saw a glass half full, ‘Although the motor seemed a little unreliable, the car handled well.’

It was the culmination of some two years’ work by Ron and Austin, working in a rented single-car garage in Blair St, Bon- di, about a kilometre from the family’s flat, using only hand tools but able to get machining done on a lathe at a nearby work- shop. The car was built from Ron’s drawings, which reflected then current thinking about suspension design. Ron spent many lunch hours in the NSW State Library reading British motoring magazines, notably The Motor, which carried Donald Bastow’s five-part series in 1944 and Maurice Olley’s two-part series in early 1947.

The first Ralt was in many ways a typical 1940s 500, with 19-inch wire wheels, a tubular ladder chassis, wishbone/leaf spring front suspension, swing-axle rear, and an engine and gearbox from a road-going motorcycle, in this case a pre-1938 pushrod ES2 Norton. On only its second appearance, at Hawkesbury hillclimb in Septem- ber 1949, the car overturned and Ron was injured. They did not return to competition until late in 1950.

After contesting ten events during 1951, the Norton-powered 500 appeared during 1952 with a series of significant chassis modifications. The first versions of what was to become a family of Tauranac- designed 15-inch cast aluminium-alloy wheels were used, and the rear suspension was completely revised into a semi-trailing arm system. Combined with extensive development of the Norton engine, which included casting a stronger drive-side crank- case and adaptation of a square-finned Manx Norton head to use the ES2 rocker gear, this version of the car was far more effective. Motor Manual’s Racing Annual 3 describes the car in late 1952 or early 1953 form. The car was sold in late 1954 and raced vigorously, mostly by Merv Ward, until its engine blew up at Mt Panorama in 1957.

Australian Motor Sport, in its report of the November 28 Mt Druitt meeting, said, ‘Austen Taurenac (sic) has sold his Ralt to a syndicate, who had installed a late-model double knocker Norton in place of its former ES2, and painted it a dull orange, rather more conspicuous than its former leaf green…’

The syndicate included Merv Ward and motorcycle racer Bernie Short, and each of them drove the car during 1955. Short died after a motorcycle accident while racing at Mildura in late 1955. Ward raced the Ralt, using the ES2 and overhead-camshaft Norton engines, through until Easter 1957, when the ES2 engine broke and the car crashed. He continued racing with a Berkeley which he fitted with a 650cc Triumph engine.

The Ralt was bought, with the broken ES2 engine, by former motorcycle racer Bert Bartrop on the NSW south coast. He fitted the car with a long-stroke Manx Norton engine and ran it during 1958 at vari- ous south coast hillclimbs, although few records have so far been found. The damaged ES2 engine was bought from Bartrop by another south coast resident, Sid Smith, who was building an air-cooled car.

Bartrop sold the Ralt to former speedway driver Reg Mulligan, who raced it twice in 1959 before trading it in with Leaton Mo- tors, from whom he bought the ex-Davison HWM Jaguar. The Ralt was bought from Leaton Motors by Bert Lambkin, who crashed it in 1960 at Gnoo Blas on his first race. The damaged car was left with motor- cycle expert Cec Platt. Parts of the car wereused in building TQ midgets, and the rest apart from the two front wheel-centres – was dumped.

The next Tauranac-built racing car to be driven by Ron appeared in early 1957 (or possibly late 1956). This had a Vincent twin in a four-tube chassis which showed virtually no design similarity to any earlier Tauranac-built car. Its front suspension used Austin A30 wishbones and uprights and its rear suspension was Tauranac-built De Dion type. The wheels and the rack and pinion steering were also Tauranac-built. Noel Hall bought the car in 1957 and in his hands, and with Reg Mulligan in the early 1960s, this car worked very well.

From about 1958 Ron offered for sale multi-tube chassis, suspension components, wheels and racks. Many Sydney- built cars of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s used these components, and three chassis were eventually completed by private owners. These chassis had only similarity in detail to previous Ralts. When Ron finally accepted Jack Brabham’s invitation to work with him in England in 1960, a number of chassis and components were unsold. They became the basis for early examples of Lynx cars, using a variety of engines.

An engine and the two front wheel centres were left to Garry Simkin by our late editor Graham Howard, and it is on Graham’s research notes that this short history has been based. The Ralt Vincent was converted to a water-cooled engine and independent rear suspension, and survives in this form. Two of the three completed kit Ralts, both of which had used Vincent en- gines, also survive. There were other early Ralts but none like ‘Ralt 1’.

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