The BT3 was the Genesis, Brabham’s first F1 car. But the late birth was accompanied by uncertain first steps. After the wrong exhaust was supplied to the team, Ron Tauranak’s design did not replace the stalled Lotus 24 as Jack Brabham’s wheel until the 1962 German Grand Prix.
An engine failure during practice at the Nürburgring forced the team to fit a throttle lever borrowed from the 24 for the race. The improvised effort was not enough and Brabham retired the car from the first trip. A potential dream debut lay in tatters.
Brabham was absent from the next race at Monza, allegedly due to a disagreement over starting money. But at the last two rounds at Watkins Glen and the South African circuit in East London, the BT3 finished fourth. Rising fortunes were followed by Dan Gurney signing a contract with the team for 1963, which ushered in a new car, the BT7.
A delicate, precise and responsive chassis had to be combined with a more reliable engine. The Coventry Climax took the BT3’s 1.5-litre V8 and ditched the Weber carburettors. Mated to a Hewland five-speed gearbox, the revised fuel-injected unit produced 190 horsepower. At just 475kg on the move, the BT7 had innate pace. Gurney and Brabham finished fifth and seventh respectively in the 1963 standings, giving the team third place in constructors’ points.
On paper, the duo appeared to have regressed the following season – sixth place for Gurney, Brabham tied with Peter Arundel for eighth and fourth in the team standings. But numbers and headlines rarely tell the full story. The 1964 season is most notable for John Surtees becoming the first, and so far only, man to win both the two-wheel and four-wheel world titles. It also marked Ferrari’s return to form, which had been in decline since 1961.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find Gurney’s sixth-place finish belies the robust claim that he should have – or at least could have – won the crown. With the exception of the US Grand Prix, he either won, led or qualified on the front row in each of the 10 rounds.
Gurney’s contemporaries, Surtees, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Richie Ginter and Lorenzo Bandini, were by no means immune to unreliability. But through mistake after mistake in his Brabham BT7, rather than driver error, 1964 is the story of how Gurney lost motorsport’s greatest prize. Gurney failed to score points in seven Grands Prix that season, despite some outstanding performances.
Gurney was one of the fastest drivers in 1964, but his Brabham BT7 often let him down
Photo: Images of motor sports
The World Championship season started with 100 laps around Monaco. Clarke and Brabham occupied the front row, but Gurney could only qualify fifth, behind Sertiz and Hill. A poor performance was soon undone in the race. Gurney passed Hill while Surtees was out with gearbox problems. Clarke’s lead would be destroyed when he pitted to have a damaged anti-roll bar removed. He emerged behind Gurney and Hill, who engaged in “a real battle that had the crowd screaming with excitement”, as Gregor Grant wrote in the Autosport report.
Having profited from the reliability issues of others, it looked like the tall American would start the new season at his best. But in a sign of the season to come, he retired on lap 62 with gearbox failure and had to be treated for hot oil burns on his leg after breaking a pipe.
Two weeks later, Formula 1 came to Zandvoort from Gurney on pole from Clarke, Hill and Surtees. Clarke was quicker away and passed forward. That first points of the season would continue to elude Gurney, his handlebars breaking to force an early bath after a fierce battle with Surtees and Hill.
After the Dutch GP, the screen above the fuel injectors was removed from the BT7 engine and this freed up another 250 rpm on the top end. That extra firepower showed. At Spa, as Grant put it, “nobody wanted to touch” Gurney, “who made the lap record look silly” in his most dominant performance of the year.
At Spa, as Grant put it, “nobody wanted to touch” Gurney, “who made the lap record look silly” in his most dominant performance of the year
He qualified on pole by an unlikely 1.8 seconds and led Surtees at the start before the Ferrari 158’s engine let go, leaving the BT7 half a minute outside the field. But the increased power of the engine led to a miscalculation with the car’s fuel consumption. Gurney was forced to make a dash, but there was no more juice at the pit stop.
He decided to return despite this, but stopped at Stavelo on the very last tour. All he could do was watch Clark fly past as he passed a fuel-run Bruce McLaren within sight of the flag to take the win.
Gurney’s luck with the BT7 was to change at the next round, the French Grand Prix in Rouen. Polesitter Clark was chased by Gurney, who started second, before Clark’s Lotus 25 suffered a valve failure. Grant began his report:
“Finally the World Championship race was won by Brabham Coventry-Climax” as Gurney took his first win of the season, his second French Grand Prix and the first of Brabham’s 35 F1 triumphs.
Gurney took a late first victory in 1964 at Rouen, his second French Grand Prix and the first of Brabham’s 35 F1 triumphs
Photo: David Phipps
Brands Hatch for the European Grand Prix was business as usual. Gurney started from the front row, but had to retire to the pits due to overheating of the ignition unit. At the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, future champion Surtees had yet to win. Gurney took the lead on lap four, outpacing his rivals on the racers’ course. And yet, as was quickly becoming the norm, reliability issues marred his race as debris blocked the BT7’s radiator. The car overheated and although the mechanics ran cold water over the engine in the pits to reduce the temperature, it knocked him off the pace as Surtees held on for the win.
Clark fell to the side of the road during the first World Championship Grand Prix in Austria, leaving Gurney in front and all he had to do was bring the car home. But the lower front radius tried to break free from the chassis. No assessment.
In Ferrari’s backyard, Gurney impressed in wet qualifying to start second behind Sertiz at the Italian Grand Prix. They battled at the front, but eventually the Ferrari driver brought him home for the fans after Gurney’s fuel pump let go eight laps from the flag in a race that “will long be remembered for … the utter failure of Dan Gurney, who kept swapping the lead with Surtees”. according to Grant.
Watkins Glen proved critical to the title fight. Surtees was the form driver but Hill led the points. Neither Clarke nor Gurney scored points, with “engine failure” the latest issue to claim the BT7.
It was too little too late in the title race when Gurney won the season finale in Mexico – and far more memorable was Bandini, driving the more powerful flat-12 Ferrari, passing to his V8-powered team-mate Surtees, allowing the Briton to take the championship for a single point.
The BT7 could be considered something of a giant killer as it burst through to score Brabham’s first World Championship wins and give Gurney a potentially difficult victory at each round. But because of the car’s unreliability, labeling 1964 as an annus horribilis is also unfair.
The BT11 replaced the BT7, and as a testament to the latter’s strong platform, only the front suspension received major changes. After 1965, when Danny Hume made his Grand Prix debut in a BT7 at Monaco, a period of hill running followed for the Gurney chassis.
Gurney led the Austrian Grand Prix from the start, but the ending would have been familiar in what otherwise might have been
Photo: David Phipps
American historic racer James King became its longtime owner after being bought from a trailer in Italy. Moreover, it is believed to be the only surviving example.
“My chassis [F1-1-63] number one,” says King. “We don’t know where number two is, no one has ever suggested it. They only made two BT7s so this is the only one left.’
Even at the time, Gurney’s car was unique. Thanks to the tall frame, the multi-tube chassis was extended over Jack Brabham’s chassis.
King and his BT7, prepared by Kendle Adams Motorsport, made regular appearances across Europe at the Goodwood Revival and Historic Monaco GP, as well as trips to Dijon and Estoril. This brings with it additional pressure. Although Gurney often missed the checkered flag in 1964, it was rarely due to driver error. Naturally, King wants to stay that way.
“As far as I know, he never spun or crashed the car that season. It shows once again the level of skill when they fly around the Nürburgring” James King
“As far as I know, he never spun or crashed into a car that season. It’s again a testament to the level of skill when they fly around the Nürburgring,” King continues.
“It’s one of those things that we all think about in historic racing. Whether it’s your car or you’re a guest driver in someone else’s, you need to keep a little in your hands. Ultimately, this is the car that Dan has sat in, won and challenged world champions.”
Unfortunately, as King noted at Revival 2018 when he brought the Glover Trophy package to Madgwick, anticipating the movement of backmarkers is part of the risk.
Gurney comfortably beat Clarke at Spa when he ran out of fuel to finish in an unremarkable sixth
Photo: Images of motor sports
The BT7 is largely original – even the engine has been verified by Climax for authenticity. So much so that when King first got the car, it had two pieces of black tape wrapped around the steering wheel.
King developed a real friendship with Gurney and his wife, Evie, after purchasing the car in 1999, and they were able to shed light on the purpose of the tape. In fact, along with the higher engine revs, they were the secret behind Gurney’s blistering pace at Spa. Gurney revealed that these asymmetrically attached pieces of tape were meant to show where to place his hands so he wouldn’t crash the car at high speed through the Bridge’s fracture.
Gurney’s combination of driving prowess and affordability made King a fan for life. At the age of 19, King (and his son Alex) was on the circuit at Spa, Rouen, Nürburgring and Monza, and produced a 20-minute film, Summer of ’64. It reflects both a quiet season and how, if BT7 had been more consistent, it could have brought Gurney the world title.
The 1964 title went to Sertiz, but could easily have belonged to Gurney and Brabham had the BT7 been kept together more often
Photo: Images of motor sports