In this second part, Driven To Write continues its examination of Britain’s twin aerodynamic pioneers – Frank Costin and Malcolm Sayer
By 1953, Frank Costin too had gravitated to the racetracks, becoming involved with the fledgling Lotus company and with Sayer’s services already secured by Jaguar, Costin rapidly became the freelance aerodynamicist to work with, if race victory was your aim. His work with fellow ex-De Havilland engineer, Colin Chapman produced the body skin shapes for Mark’s Eight though to Eleven, including some detail aerodynamic changes to Peter Kirwin-Taylor’s Type 49 Elite. His designs combined low drag, stability and clever use of airflow – his understanding of air pressures, ducting and how they could be used for cooling and extraction meant that Costin’s designs may not have always been easy on the eye, but they worked.
His work for Lotus brought recognition, but his involvement with the Vanwall Grand Prix car gave him credibility. The Vanwall wasn’t just a race winner, it was perhaps one of the most beautiful Grand Prix cars ever. Yet, it wasn’t always seen as such as Costin recalled, saying, “…if a car wins it becomes beautiful.” Costin professed to not having the slightest interest in styling, taking his cue from the aviation industry, telling a journalist, “If we find an aircraft flies better with three rudders and five tailplanes, that’s what we use”. Certainly, many of his designs reflect this, but cars like the Vanwall, the Lotus Eleven – (in some ways, a D-Type in miniature), and Costin Amigo suggested aesthetic sensibilities were not mutually exclusive to aerodynamic efficiency. Sayer by contrast channelled both his scientific and artistic backgrounds, producing exquisite, sinuous shapes.
Both men worked primarily from calculations – wind tunnels being both scarce and prohibitively expensive. Sayer was fond of observing his designs in motion using wool tufts – short pieces of wool fabric stuck to the vehicle bodywork in order to better observe the airflow; often spending hours at MIRA observing and photographing his designs in motion. Sayer’s D-Type was perhaps the most technically advanced racing car in existence in 1954 – the automotive equivalent of the beautiful De Havilland Comet – without its inherent fatal flaw. For both men, the primacy of their calculations outweighed all other considerations. Sayer once insisting the Jaguar badge be removed from the nose of one of his creations because it interfered with his exacting formulae.
Costin suffered worse barbarism when his specially commissioned Maserati for Stirling Moss was botched by Zagato, causing his carefully formulated shape to be butchered. So while Sayer enjoyed an element of authority within Jaguar, as a freelancer, Costin was often over-ruled or had his work altered against his wishes. Both men however, remained in the margins within the showbiz world of motor racing – a position both men presumably preferred. Costin had this to say about the industry he helped shape; “Motor racing is only the pop scene of engineering… I hated the publicity and the bull, it just wasn’t done in the aircraft industry where your work was signed only by your initials”.
For both men, the late 1950’s would prove to be the pinnacle of their influence – the following decades would see sheer horsepower became as important as aerodynamic efficiency. For Sayer, Jaguar’s withdrawal from front-line motorsport in 1957 meant that a sizable part of his remit was no longer relevant, although he would continue to run an advanced studio within Browns Lane until the late 1960s. For Costin, his work continued to be misunderstood and ‘messed with’ – often walking out on projects in sheer frustration, gaining a reputation as a prima donna along the way.
It’s been suggested that Costin and Sayer had a blind spot regarding air dams and spoilers, perhaps taking the view that use of such devices were indicative of poor mathematics, certainly Sayer’s mid-sixties XJ13 was devoid of them. However, a late-60’s Sayer concept for a mid-engined racer was clearly intended to feature movable aerodynamic elements, something that took decades to be more widely adopted. Costin was also reported to have discussed ground effects with Colin Chapman during the 1960’s, although neither man could work out how it could then be achieved. Clearly both Costin and Sayer were advanced thinkers but their theories and methods were becoming increasingly at odds with the aerodynamic orthodoxies of the 1970’s.
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