Milestone Machines

Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it’s published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Story by Rich Taylor

Grand Prix racers have always captured our imaginations. No compromises, no fat, no concessions to the needs of the general public.

Even though these machines are constantly evolving and improving, our seven selections for the best-ever Grand Prix cars hail from throughout the past century. True, later racers may have rendered them obsolete, but our picks represent the best of their respective eras. They’re the ones that will be remembered as milestone machines.

1913: Peugeot L76 Grand Prix

The first modern racer–really, the first modern automobile–appeared a hundred years ago. The 1913 Peugeot L76 Grand Prix featured an inline four-cylinder engine with hemispherical combustion chambers, double-overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, dry sump oiling, knock-off wire wheels, adjustable shock absorbers and four-wheel brakes, among many other innovations.

How this groundbreaking design came about is a mystery. Some historians claim that Marc Birkigt of Hispano-Suiza designed the first engine of this type, and that Paolo Zuccarelli stole the idea and brought it to Peugeot.

What we do know is that racing drivers Zuccarelli, Jules Goux and Georges Boillot convinced Robert Peugeot to bankroll the construction of three radical new racing cars under the direction of Swiss engineer Ernest Henry. Peugeot’s jealous corporate engineers called the group Les Charlatans. No matter. The Peugeot L76 changed the world.

The marvelous 120-mph Peugeot won the first race in which it was entered, the prestigious French Grand Prix, in the autumn of 1912. In 1913, it won the American Grand Prix the Vanderbilt Cup, the Indy 500, and the French Grand Prix for the second year in a row. It won the French Grand Prix and Vanderbilt Cup again in 1915, claimed victory at the Indy 500 again in 1916 and 1919, and took second at Indy in 1914 and 1915.

The versatile Peugeot also won the first race after World War I, the 1919 Targa Florio. Sliding around the hairpin corners and mountains of Sicily is seriously different from driving around the paved oval of the Indianapolis Speedway, but the Peugeot easily mastered both in a way that no other car ever had–or has since. There was seemingly nothing the overwhelming Peugeot couldn’t do.

To fit various classes and formulas, the Peugeot Grand Prix was built in 7.6-, 5.6-, 4.5- and 3.0-liter versions, each more successful than the last. Almost everyone attempted to copy it, resulting in everything from the 1916 Premier financed by the Indianapolis Speedway right up to today’s DOHC four-valve race and street engines. Still, no automobile has been more influential than the landmark Peugeot Grand Prix.

1924: Alfa Romeo P2

In 1924, engineer Vittorio Jano moved from Fiat to Alfa Romeo. His assignment was to create a replacement for the unsuccessful P1 Grand Prix car.

Jano came up with a 2.0-liter DOHC inline-eight that was essentially two 1.0-liter fours put end to end. Each four had its own supercharger and carburetor. Alfa claimed 140 horsepower in 1924 and 155 horsepower in later years.

This unusual engine went into a straightforward front-engined, rear-drive chassis with a 103.5-inch wheelbase, front and rear rigid axles on semi-elliptic leaf springs, and a four-speed gearbox. The P2 only weighed 1350 pounds and was clocked at 121 mph.

Antonio Ascari drove the P2 in its first race, winning the Cremona Grand Prix in 1924. He also won the Italian Grand Prix, and Giuseppe Campari won the French Grand Prix in a sister car. The Alfa P2 eventually won 14 major Grand Prix races from 1924 to 1930, plus the 1930 Targa Florio.

Its best year was 1929, when the car won six Grand Prix. More to the point, the little Alfa was so good from the beginning, it dominated front-line racing for seven seasons with only very minor updates.

1938: Mercedes-Benz W154

During a six-year stretch in the mid-’30s, Mercedes-Benz factory team cars competed in 56 races–and won 34, a 60.71-percent average. Their nearest competitors–the Auto Union team that, like Mercedes, was supported by the German government–competed 61 times and won 24, a winning percentage of 39.34. Everyone else was even further behind.

Clearly, Mercedes-Benz dominated Grand Prix the way Peugeot had two decades earlier. The pinnacle of Mercedes success was the W154. Of the 17 events in 1938 and ’39, the Mercedes W154 won 12, finished second 10 times, and swept the podium four times with its three-car team.

The story really starts in 1934, when the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus decreed a new Grand Prix formula. It was essentially unrestricted except for a 750-kilogram maximum weight limit. Mercedes began with a supercharged, 325-horsepower, 3.4-liter inline-eight, eventually enlarged to 4.3 liters and 450 horsepower. This went into a conventional though beautifully engineered and crafted front-engined, rear-drive chassis with five-speed gearbox, ladder frame, front upper and lower wishbones with coil springs and rear swing axle on quarter-elliptic springs.

After three years of W25 development, legendary engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut replaced it for 1937 with an almost totally new car, the W125. This one was much sleeker, built on a tubular frame with independent front suspension, rear DeDion axle with torsion bars, a four-speed gearbox, and a supercharged 5.6-liter inline-eight. That engine was rated at 595 horsepower in race configuration and capable of 637 horsepower for a short period. The Grand Prix cars were easily capable of 190 mph, while a W125 with a 5.6-liter V12 and streamlined body was clocked at 268.9 mph! These were the most powerful road racing cars in the world until the unlimited Can-Am came along four decades later.

The AIACR legislated against Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union for 1938 by decreeing a maximum engine size of 3.0 liters. Uhlenhaut responded with a whole new car, called W154. This one used oval tubes to make the frame, all-independent suspension similar to that of the W125, and a five-speed ZF transaxle in the DeDion rear suspension. The engine was now a supercharged 3.0-liter V12 of 475 horsepower. Instead of handicapping Mercedes and Auto Union, the 3.0-liter formula made them more successful than ever with one of the most staggering Grand Prix cars of all time.

1959: Cooper T51

Starting in 1946, John and Charles Cooper built Formula 3 racers powered by 500cc motorcycle engines. These engines were placed behind the driver’s seat and drove the rear wheels through a chain. Campaigned by rising stars like Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Bernie Ecclestone, they won 64 of 78 Formula 3 races from 1951 to 1954.

By 1955, the F3 machines–engineered by Owen Maddock–grew into mid-engined sports cars powered by Coventry Climax portable fire-pump engines. These led to mid-engined, 1.5-liter Formula 2 open-wheelers.

Powered by a 2.0-liter version of the Coventry Climax FPF twin-cam inline-four, the tiny Coopers were even capable of competing against 2.5-liter Formula 1 cars. Indeed, Stirling Moss won the 1958 Argentina Formula 1 race driving Rob Walker’s 2.0-liter Cooper T43, the first World Championship race win for a mid-engined car.

An updated T45, piloted by Maurice Trintignant, came out on top in the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. Cooper factory driver Jack Brabham took first in the Formula 1 World Championship in 1959 driving a 2.5-liter Cooper T51; he performed the same feat in 1960 driving a similar Cooper T53. Cooper also won the Constructors’ World Championship.

In 1961, the FIA introduced a new Formula 1 of 1.5-liters–essentially Formula 2 of the previous decade. Lotus, Lola, BRM, Ferrari and everyone else debuted new mid-engined cars unabashedly derived from the revolutionary Coopers. Indeed, the last Formula 1 race won by a front-engined car was at Monza in 1960, when all the British teams stayed home and Phil Hill drove an archaic Ferrari 256 to lead a Ferrari one-two-three victory.

The revolution spread to the Indy 500 in 1961. Jack Brabham drove an obsolete Cooper F1 car fitted with a 2.7-liter FPF Coventry Climax engine and cruised easily into ninth place. By 1965, when Jim Clark won Indy in a mid-engined Lotus/Ford V8, there were only six front-engined racers in the field.

Mid-engined cars patterned after the little Cooper succeeded at Indy for the same reasons they succeeded in Formula 1 and, ultimately, almost every other form of motorsport. Compared to a conventional front-engined, rear-drive racer, the lightweight Coopers had a low polar moment of inertia thanks to their weight being concentrated between the axles. They were more nimble, less prone to spinning, easier to drive, more fuel-efficient, easier on tires, more aerodynamic, and had better rear traction. They were a true revolution that changed everything, even if Ferdinand Porsche’s mid-engined Auto Unions had presaged them back in 1934.

1967: Lotus 49

In the ’60s, Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth sold DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder conversions for the 1.5-liter Ford Cortina inline-four. They put two of these together to create a 3.0-liter V8 race engine that produced 405 horsepower at 8600 rpm; it was perfect for the new 1966 Formula 1 rules. Colin Chapman and Maurice Phillipe of Lotus designed a clever new mid-engined car around the Cosworth DFV, using the engine itself as a stressed member connecting the rear suspension to the monocoque.

Jim Clark won at Zandvoort on June 4, 1967, the first race for both the Lotus 49 and the Cosworth DFV. Clark led every 1967 Grand Prix and won four. In 1968, Chapman’s exclusive contract with Cosworth ran out, which meant half the Formula 1 teams immediately switched to the DFV. This remarkable engine won 11 of 12 races in 1968, and eventually 12 World Championships between 1968 and 1982. The DFV won 155 Grand Prix races in 16 years before it was displaced in 1983.

Parnelli Jones had a short-stroke, 2.65-liter version of this engine turbocharged to 885 horsepower at 9200 rpm. This Cosworth DFX went on to dominate Indy from 1976 on, eventually winning 10 Indy 500s. The engine that supplanted it, the Ilmor-Chevrolet, was designed by two former Cosworth engineers and is virtually identical.

1979: Lotus 79

Designed by Colin Chapman and Ralph Bellamy, the innovative 1978 Lotus Formula 1 car was the first ground-effects single-seater. The cockpit was very narrow, sandwiched between wide body sides. The bottom of the body on either side was shaped like an inverted airfoil, with moveable Lexan skirts to seal the gap between the body and the track. It all worked so well that Mario Andretti drove one to the Formula 1 World Championship win.

In 1979, Chapman moved the fuel cells from the body sides to a space behind the driver, so the ground-effects wings could be even larger. Every other Formula 1 designer, as well as the people who penned Indy cars like the Chaparral 2K and Penske PC-7, copied the Lotus 79. It continues to influence racing car design today.

2002: Ferrari F2002

In 1996, Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher joined Ferrari. In 1997, his former engineers at Benetton, Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn, also started working for the manufacturer.

Along with team manager Jean Todt, the foursome transformed Ferrari’s racing program. What was once a struggling effort that hadn’t won a Drivers’ Championship since 1979 or a Constructors’ Championship since 1983 became the most dominant team in Formula 1 history. It was a slow process: three race wins in 1996, five wins in 1997, six wins in 1998, the Constructors’ Championship in 1999.

For the 2000 season, Byrne designed the new F2000. This featured a 3.0-liter V10, seven-speed longitudinally mounted sequential gearbox, carbon fiber and composite honeycomb monocoque, double-wishbone independent front and rear suspension, and state-of-the-art aerodynamics. Michael Schumacher won the Drivers’ Championship, and Ferrari took the Constructors’ Championship.

Next year, the team used the same basic mechanical package for the F2001 but with aerodynamic changes to meet new FIA regulations. Traction control and launch control were now also legal. Schumacher finished first in nine races, earned a record-breaking 123 points, and won both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.

The next year’s F2002 was lighter, more aerodynamic and faster than the F2001, though still based on the same mechanical package. It now featured such tweaks as a titanium gearbox housing, a clutchless seven-speed transmission, and a hydraulic traction-control system.

Considered the most successful Formula 1 car of all time, F2002 won 15 out of 19 races. Schumacher amassed 11 wins and finished second in every other race, while teammate Rubens Barrichello won four races. They finished one-two in nine races. The Ferraris were one-two in the Drivers’ Championship, and the manufacturer won the Constructors’ Championship with twice as many points as all the other teams put together.

The new F2003-GA was developed from the F2002 and featured slightly different aerodynamics and a longer wheelbase. It was let down by Bridgestone tires, which were not as competitive as the Michelins used by every other team. Still, the F2003-GA won seven races and started from the pole five times. Schumacher was able to squeak out the World Championship for the sixth time.

The Ferrari F2004 displayed further refinement of the all-conquering platform. With Bridgestone now making competitive tires, the F2004 claimed victories in 15 of 18 races, started from the pole 12 times, and set lap records nearly everywhere it went. Schumacher won 12 of the first 13 races of the season, a record 13 wins out of 18 races, and his seventh World Championship. Teammate Barrichello was again second, and Ferrari won another Constructors’ Championship.MicS2000

In 2005, the FIA changed the tire rules solely to make Ferrari less competitive. Michael Schumacher retired as the winningest Formula 1 Champion in history, and Ferrari’s seven-year domination of the World Championship was over. The F2000 through F2004 are clearly the winningest Formula 1 cars of all time, and the F2002 is the pinnacle of that series.

Like stories like this? You’ll see every article as soon as it's published by reading the print edition of Grassroots Motorsports. Subscribe now.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more Alfa Romeo, Cooper, Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot articles.
More like this
View comments on the CMS forums
RoddyMac17 Reader
3/6/18 4:48 p.m.

Any reason why the Lotus 25 was left off the list?  It wasn't the first monocoque but it was the first successful monocoque chassis in Grand Prix racing, a true trend setter.  

Also, the Lotus 78 should have been included rather than the prettier 79.  The 78 was the trend setter for ground effect cars.

abcarman New Reader
3/12/18 11:13 a.m.

I can't really fault your choices.  It's a very difficult choice between the Alfa P2 and P3 - I probably would have gone with the P3 but I can understand choosing the earlier car.  However I would have added the dominant Alfa 158/159  multi[ple Worll Championship to the list. 

bosswrench New Reader
3/12/18 4:31 p.m.

Noting the shot of the '67 Lotus and its neck-high "roll bar", I remembered an interview with Stirling Moss questioning why he opposed FIA roll bars on GP cars. Stirling's reply was, "There's nothing in the car solid enough to connect to a roll bar! The machine is a box of matches and a gas tank on 4 wheels!" 

What Lotus did was add a tubular loop connected to the engine's cylinder heads.... Those guys all had huevos the size of basketballs!

4/19/18 3:15 p.m.

Very disappointed to once again, as this is not the first time, having to be exposed to inaccurate information from supposedly expert writers, this being fed to readers regarding the milestone that the Cooper-Climax "Indianapolis" car was to the racing world.
And I quote:
" The revolution spread to the Indy 500 in 1961. Jack Brabham drove an obsolete Cooper F1 car fitted with a 2.7-liter FPF Coventry Climax engine and cruised easily into ninth place."

In 1961, the 1960 Cooper T53 F1 was Grand Prix' state of the art, being the Formula 1 undisputed world champion. That the FIA in Place de la Concorde plotted with the Italian Mafia in Maranello to favor the Ferrari V6 to allow for an easy championship pick on pure horsepower is irrelevant, and forcing the fitment of a smaller displacement engine in the Cooper F1 chassis did not make it an obsolete design, far from it. Now, the Cooper T54 Indy car, while a brother to the T53, was also state of the art in its day: It was brand new car, specially engineered for the needs of the job at hand, a larger, longer, heavier car than the T53, and it was as advanced a design as any that year, far from being an "obsolete F1 car". Its engine, closer in displacement to 2.8-liter (2775cc) was the product of an experiment by Coventry-Climax and does not even bear, like all other twin-cam 4 bangers from them, an "FPF" number. Later "2.7" Climax FPF engines had larger bores but unlike the two experimental Indy engines, did not have a longer stroke than the standard 2.5-liter FPF engine. Could you please verify, then revised your flawed facts? Many of us enthusiasts would greatly appreciate.
Jack M


racerdave600 UltraDork
4/19/18 4:01 p.m.

I'd say the Williams FW15 also belongs on the list.  In many ways it is much more of a ground breaker than the Shumacher Ferrari.  

4/23/18 1:08 p.m.

You omitted a very siginificant American GP racer: the Duesenberg that Jimmy Murphy won the i1921 French GP. It is significant in being the only time an American has won a GP driving an American car until Gurney did it in 1967. It is also the first racing car to have hydraulic brakes - an advancement that gave then an "unfair advantage," as Donohue would say. You can see a sister car to the Murphy Duesey (the Joe Boyer car) at the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia.

OJR New Reader
4/24/18 8:10 a.m.

Lancia D50

Jim Pettengill
Jim Pettengill HalfDork
4/25/18 9:31 p.m.

No Auto Unions?  No Renault turbo?

Our Preferred Partners