Motoring: Life and the Lotus position - Tony Rudd talks to Phil Llewellin about his half century of fun in motor racing

It is 50 years since Tony Rudd, one of Britain's most accomplished automotive engineers, completed his apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce. There is a framed certificate in Mr Rudd's downstairs lavatory to prove it. Further proof lies in his autobiography, subtitled 'My fifty years of high performance', which records the exploits of this key figure in recent motor-racing history (including driving the BRM V16 Grand Prix car at 200mph on a public road).

BRM (British Racing Motors), the great, racing-green hope of postwar Britain, was a humiliating failure when Mr Rudd became its supercharger specialist in 1951. He was destined to steer the team through its golden years before he joined Lotus in 1969. Graham Hill won the world championship with BRM in 1962, then finished second in 1963, 1964 and 1965. (In the world-beating year, BRM's budget was pounds 90,000, less than some Grand Prix drivers now earn in a week.) Mr Rudd also opened the Grand Prix door for Jackie Stewart, who finished third in the championship in 1965.

The title of Mr Rudd's autobiography, It Was Fun, reflects not only the fact that, in his day, Grand Prix racing was more a high-spirited sport than a high-pressure commercial enterprise, but also his love of a good anecdote. Today, happy memories of Graham Hill complement glowing references to Hill's son, Damon, who finished third in last year's world championship.

'Graham was an absolutely wonderful bloke,' he told me, ' and I also had a lot of time for him as a driver. He wasn't the greatest, but he was absolutely determined to learn his trade and worked incredibly hard. I think Damon has more natural flair.

'Graham and Bette were our youngest daughter's godparents. Bette often stays here. Last summer she was sitting where you're sitting, watching the British Grand Prix on television when Damon looked certain to win. I was just about to get the champagne out of the fridge when his engine blew.

'Damon is a very shrewd, pleasant young man who has inherited Graham's racecraft and may become a better driver. The family had a dreadful time after Graham's death (he was killed in an air crash in 1975). His business affairs were a mess and Bette had to sell everything. Damon suddenly went from enjoying a very comfortable life to being bloody hard-up and having to think about earning a living. He used to stay with us when he was racing motorbikes at Snetterton. He really fought his way up.'

Mr Rudd has driven many exotic cars but now finds a Vauxhall Cavalier SRi suitable for the 4,000 miles he covers each year. Given unlimited funds, his stable of thoroughbreds would include a Thirties Aston Martin - similar to one he owned just after the war - and a modern Bentley Turbo R. But no car built today would match the visceral thrill of driving the BRM of the early Fifties, whose supercharged, 1.5-litre, 16-cylinder, 64-valve engine eventually developed almost 800bhp at 12,500rpm.

Modern Grand Prix teams employ highly paid test drivers and use computers to monitor every aspect of a car's performance. Mr Rudd's role as BRM's development engineer included acquiring first-hand experience of the machinery. He was once doing about 190mph on a wet racetrack when 'the car aquaplaned into a huge, lurid spin', which ended about 400 yards from where it started. But the story of his drive down a public road in the same car is an even better one.

Problems with the V16's exhaust system had to be solved the night before the great Juan Manuel Fangio was due to race the BRM at Albi in France. The course was like the one at Monaco: it used public roads, which were closed only for official practice and the race.

'We did what had to be done, then needed to make sure everything was working properly,' Mr Rudd recalls. 'At first light on the Sunday I took the car to where the road formed a straight about four miles long. It was steeply cambered and very bumpy, and there were bloody great trees on both sides. The car was geared to do about 208mph. There was no sense handing it over to Fangio if it hadn't been driven good and hard, so I just hung on and got right up there to more than 200. The road didn't feel quite so bad at that speed because I was flying from bump to bump and missing the hollows]'

After leaving BRM, Mr Rudd spent 12 years as a top man in Group Lotus, working on everything from the company's own race and road cars to top-

secret projects for outside clients. He also helped to bring Lotus and General Motors together, and is candid about the shortcomings of the relationship, which ended last year when the company was sold to Bugatti.

Outsiders tend to blame GM for being unable to reconcile its mentality with an operation as small and specialised as Lotus; but most of the damage was self-inflicted, Mr Rudd says. 'When I retired in 1991, Lotus Engineering had almost 600 staff, but nearly 80 of them couldn't be charged directly to projects. Only three or four came into that category in 1987, when we had more than 500 on the staff. Fees had to be increased, and Lotus Engineering became too expensive.'

GM's corporate clout enabled Lotus Cars to borrow pounds 40m to finance the controversial Elan. Sharp increases in interest rates soon put the company in a position where servicing the debt cost more than the Lotus Engineering division was earning - and it was the profitable part of the operation.

'I honestly don't know what the future holds for Lotus,' he says. 'Bugatti is something of an unknown quantity, despite generating enormous amounts of publicity. Lotus was in quite a mess at the time of the takeover, and it will take 36 months to produce a new car.'

Mr Rudd is still chairman of Team Lotus - which now has nothing in common with the other Lotus companies, apart from the name. He recalled one of the original BRM team's old-school-tie stalwarts when I asked if Grand Prix racing was not what it used to be. 'Forty years ago, I remember Raymond Mays was always going on about the sport not being what it was when he was in his prime. I vowed never to echo those sentiments when I got old. But there are times when I have a bit of a job keeping my word.'

The reason is easy to understand. World championship racing is now a blend of high finance, politics, aerospace technology and advertising. It is impossible to imagine a latter-day Tony Rudd choosing It Was Fun as the title for his autobiography.

'It Was Fun' is published by Patrick Stephens at pounds 19.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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