In 1966 a new set of regulations was adopted for Formula One racing. The 1.5-litre engine capacity ceiling for both normally aspirated and supercharged engines gave way to a 3-litre limit for NA engines, while supercharged units remained limited to 1.5-litres.
The racing world was alive with rumours, supposition and high chance. Ferrari, which always seemed to steal a march on its rivals in the first year of a new formula, was known to have a V12 engine ready, so the Italians were favourites to take the world championship. BRM designed a complex H-16 engine, alleged developing 425bhp, that would also be used by Lotus. Weslake constructed an elaborate V12 for Dan Gurney, Maserati was supplying V12s to Cooper. To be in with a chance, the pundits reckoned, you wanted at least 400bhp.
Sixteen thousand kilometres away from Europe, in Melbourne, Australia, Phil Irving was sceptical. All his engineering instincts told him that what was really needed was a simple, down-to-earth and reliable engine that produced an honest 300bhp. In February 1964, four months after the regulations for the 3-litre formula had been announced, Irving began thinking of adapting an alloy 3.5-litre Oldsmobile F85 V8 for racing purposes. His drawings were done at Aliwal Road, Clapham Junction, London, in 1964 and pencil first put to paper on March 15 of that year, the job completed in September. It was in the London office Phil shared with motoring journalist RAB Cook that he designed the Repco V8. RAB had no idea Irving was working on a F1 engine.
“Now and then I’d overhear a conversation in which special valves or something like that were being ordered,” RAB wrote in a Wheels story, “but for what I had no idea. Just ‘something for Repco’ was the response from Irving. When I look back, I reckon I missed a considerable journalistic scoop.”
Fifty-one weeks after the start of drawing, the first engine was running in Australia. The whole thing was done under a veil of dark secrecy. Phil and Jack Brabham had about six meetings, mostly in the middle of the night.
The engine, inherently light, readily available and cheap, showed plenty of promise as a racing unit. Phil designed new cylinder heads with single, chain-driven overhead camshafts for each cylinder bank. The block was stiffened, and each cylinder fitted with a cast-iron liner. Following this practical philosophy, the heads could be turned around so only one set of patterns was needed.
While BRM estimated its H16 would cost private teams between 6000 and 7000 pounds ($(A)21,000 to $(A)24.500) each, Irving was able to buy an unmachined Oldsmobile block for 11 pounds ($(A)38.5). He also discovered the conrods from Daimler’s 4.5-litre V8 would fit. They cost seven pounds each ($(A)24.50). The engine could be kept small so it would easily fit into an existing Brabham spaceframe, a conservative approach given the general move to monocoque construction begun with the Lotus 25 in 1962.
At first the engine was simply meant to replace the Coventry-Climax four-cylinder units used in the Tasman Formula racing cars, but Irving quickly realised it could be made in any capacity between 2.5 and 4.4-litres and this confirmed its potential for F1. On March 21, 1965, the 2.5-litre was fired up for the first time.
Aware of the engine’s promise, Irving convinced Repco, his consultancy employer, and Jack Brabham that they should mount an F1 challenge. During the summer of 1965, Irving worked with Brabham and Ron Tauranac in England and with Frank Hallam and his Repco engineers in Richmond, Victoria, on a 3.0-litre version of the RB620 engine. Gossip about the fabulous power outputs of rival engines persisted. Irving remained dubious and called this “printer’s ink” power.
With a longer stroke and Lucas fuel injection, the humble 3-litre Repco engine produced a mere 285bhp. But Phil and Jack knew they were on to a good thing. The engine developed real power over a wide band from 3500rpm to 8000rpm, with excellent mid-range torque. Irving always believed it would be sufficient because the Brabham-Repco BT19 was lighter than all the opposition and relatively easy to drive.
Despite the regulations being agreed in late 1963, the tardy development of the more exotic rival engines meant that as the 1966 season opened the leading British teams were forced to use a 2.0-litre version of the old 1.5-litre Climax V8, while BRM relied upon the Tasman Cup 1.9-litre version of the V8. With the complicated H16 further delayed, this engine eventually was developed to 2.1-litres. Ferrari proved to be Brabham’s only real rival but threw away its chances of winning when John Surtees walked out of the team halfway through the season.
Jack Brabham won four championship races (of nine) and two non-championship races that summer, as well as taking three pole positions to prove it wasn’t just reliability that proved the deciding factor. Driver and car took the two world titles. It was the first (and only) time a driver has ever won an F1 race in a car bearing his own name. Phil Irving’s gamble – although he never used that word – on a simple engine was vindicated.
More success followed the next year. Irving and Repco developed a lighter, all-new block and heads, with a central exhaust system. The 300bhp engine’s marvellous reliability saw it through the season with Denny Hulme winning the driver’s championship and Brabham finishing second, the Brabham-Repco again taking the manufacturer’s title.
In 1968, Repco felt a new, far more potent twin cam engine was needed. Irving disagreed. He argued with Hallam over the direction Repco wanted to follow and finally walked away from the development of the new engine. Throughout the 1968 season the Brabham-Repcos proved unreliable and desperately in need of Phil’s magic touch and sense of pragmatism. Almost inevitably Repco pulled back from F1 racing and the next season Brabham switched to Cosworth.
Philip Edward Irving was born in 1903 in Western Victoria. His grandfather was a classics professor at Melbourne University and his father a doctor.
Phil went through State school, Wesley College and Melbourne Technical College before joining Crankless Engines at 18, as a draftsman, but essentially, he had no formal engineering qualifications. He set up a motor cycle dealership in Ballarat but quickly realising the limitations of the Depression, left Australia in 1930 and didn’t return until 1949.
In England Phil spent time at a drawing board with Velocette. Phil also worked on “Leaping Lena”, a Brough Superior-based motorbike with a potential top speed of over 260km/h aimed at breaking records with a supercharged JAP engine.
He soon had a job with Vincent HRD and from that partnership came a series of bikes including the Black Shadows, Black Lightnings, Meteors, Comets and Grey Flashes. When most bikes used rigid rear frames, the key to their success was Phil’s triangulated rear suspension. In 1934 Vincent decided to make its own engines, and motorcycles bearing them were on sale in 1935. From then on there was a bit of transferring between Vincent, Velocette and Associated Motor Cycles (AJS and Matchless). lrving designs included the Velocette LE water-cooled flat twin, a supercharged vertical twin motorcycle of 500 cc with two crankshafts geared together and work on the AJS “Porcupine” supercharge racing machine.
When Phil returned to Australia, he worked for the Rolloy Piston Co where he was involved in the design of a Chamberlain flat-twin diesel tractor engine of 6-litres.
Then came the move to Repco Research. The first time Wheels magazine’s founding editor Athol Yeomans cracked the magic Ton – 100 miles per hour (160km/h) – he was driving a modified FJ Holden.
The secret to its wildly increased performance was a special Phil Irving designed Repco cylinder head that upped the power to 90bhp (67kW), a 50 percent increase over the standard ‘grey’ Holden engine. Repco produced about 100 of these completely rebuilt engines and they quickly became compulsory for anyone wanting a hot Holden. Today they remain highly collectible.
In 1959 Phil began to shuttle back and forth to England and was able to time things so that he didn’t see a winter for six years. Mostly, he spent his time writing books – most famously Tuning for Speed, which was in print for over 40-years and made it to a sixth edition – magazine articles and, of course, designing the F1 engine.
Years later, in 1992, came Phil Irving: An Autobiography, a now rare and valuable (at least $(A)500) 569-page tome offering fascinating insights into his life.
I first meet Phil in the early 1960s and again when he returned to Australia after working on the Brabham-Repco. A quiet, hard-working and essentially practical man, Irving was also great fun and a lover of fine food and wine. During the 1950s and ‘60s a visit to an Australian racing meeting almost always meant finding Phil, cigarette suspended from his lower lip, working on one of his own engines.
In his later years, Phil’s Warrandyte, Victoria, home, Owl’s Nest (so named by his son, Denis, because of the late hours that were kept when dad was in the throes of getting on to paper what was in his head), housed an old Land Rover and at least two ‘aunty’ P4 Rovers from the 1950s, plus sheds containing dozens of old motorbikes in various stages of repair, plus a small workshop. Why Rovers? After buying a Rover 12 when he returned to Australia, Phil was struck by how well it was engineered, the attention to detail, and it had a free wheel, a central floor gear change and one-shot lubrication.
In 1969, I asked Irving to drive an NSU Ro80 test car, as a precursor to a pro-and-con article on the rotary engine. Sceptical as he was about the German car’s rotary engine, he greatly enjoyed the NSU’s refinement, though he never came to terms with the clutch being activated whenever you touched the gear lever. Initially our progress was a series of jerks as Phil, obviously accustomed to resting his left hand on a Rover’s gear lever, engaged and disengaged drive to the front wheels.
Irving summed up his engineering philosophy in Australian Motor Sports & Automobiles (June 1967): “In my view, blind worship at the shrine of the super complicated is a thing to be eschewed with vigour – the simpler a thing can be made, provided it gets results, the better.”
To honour Irving’s “great achievements”, CAMS named its highest engineering award the Phil Irving Award, conferred on an individual Australian engineer or Australian engineering company demonstrating outstanding skills and achievements when contributing to competitive motor sport. One recipient was Brabham engineer Ron Tauranac.
Phil Irving, one of those blokes you’re always honoured to have met, died in 1992 at the age of 89. His supreme experience and knowledge, his unassuming character, are the essential stuff of heroes.