Review: Formula 1 Car By Car 1950-1959

Racing Formula 1 cars in the 1950’s couldn’t be more different from the current era of hybrid cars, but there is much more to the first decade of the series than meets the eye.

Most F1 fans will already be aware of how dangerous racing was in the 50’s, that the engines were situated at the front of the car rather than the rear, that overalls were pretty much non existent and that most circuits were a world away from the current standards.

Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss were the stand-out names of the decade, but beyond these famous drivers and teams, very little is documented about the era.

It is easy to think of Maserati, Ferrari and Mercedes when recalling the teams of the 1950’s but the decade generated so many more, due to the fact that privateers were allowed to compete.

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As a result, any competent driver who had the budget and the car could turn up and race alongside their icons. It was also a way in which so many top drivers made their break in Formula 1, including the likes of Mike Hawthorn and Moss, and that is one of the main draws of the era for Formula 1 Car By Car 1950-1959 author, Peter Highman.

“For me, it is one of the absolute attractions of motor racing before 1981” explained Highman when speaking to Last Lap.

“It was 1981, if I’m correct, that the Formula 1 Constructors’ Association and Bernie Ecclestone decided they needed to professionalise the sport.

“You had to enter the whole championship and you had to build your own car, so the privateer was rendered obsolete, which was a pity because they are the sort of stories where somebody building a car can rock up [and race].

There are many incredible stories about privateers making it on to the main stage racing against their icons, and they got there in so many different ways. One driver who achieved his dream was Australian driver Paul England.

“There was one guy in 1957, an Australian called Paul England who visited the UK for one month.

“In that time he raced, I think it was a Cooper Climax [and I] think just made four different starts in a Formula 2 car and that included the 1957 German Grand Prix.

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“So, he was on the grid in the Formula 2 class of the German Grand Prix on the day that Fangio clinched his fifth world championship and had his greatest drive, and then he went back to Australia.

“So, just a bizarre way that you could just get on the grid.”

Although the 1950’s gave many privateers their chance to make it on to the grid, even if it was only to make up the numbers, it also gave drivers the opportunity to make themselves known on the world stage.

Hawthorn made his Formula 1 debut in 1952, and was entered by his father Leslie Hawthorn. In his book, Highman explains that Leslie Hawthorn ran the team and they used a Cooper T20-Bristol that was paid for by family friend Bob Chase.

23-year-old Mike Hawthorn then turned up at Goodwood and on his debut won the F2 race, before finishing second in the F1 Richmond Trophy. The Farnham-based driver then went on to put together a number of impressive drives, finishing fourth in the driver’s standings, and it was these performances that earned him a call up to Ferrari for the 1954 season.

The 1950’s also gave drivers and teams the ability to modify the cars how they wanted, which in turn enabled them to compete in multiple events across a number of different championships, with American driver Harry Shell demonstrating one of the greatest examples.

“In 1950 Harry Shell, the Franco American driver, entered the Formula 3 race, the supporting Formula 3 race in a Cooper” commented Highman.

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“Back in the early 50’s Formula 3 were really small, nimble cars powered by 500cc bike engines.

“Basically, he finished second in a Formula 3 race, beaten by Stirling Moss and then he took out his 500cc engine and put in a 1.1 litre engine, and he hadn’t done any practice, but he started the Grand Prix.

“Unfortunately in the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix, in the opening lap there was a mass pile up at Tabac and he was one of the people eliminated.

“And that was where Cooper’s Grand Prix story started, with a Formula 3 car that hadn’t even done any practice with a 1.1 litre engine.”

These stories only provide a snippet of what took place during F1 in the 1950’s but Formula 1: Car By Car 1950-1959 documents it all. The book details every car, driver and team that competed in every single season of of the decade.

It is the fourth book of the series, with the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s having been published previously, and it took a year to put together.

Although it was one of the hardest parts of the book, there are photos of every single car that competed. Most of these images were provided by Motorsport Images, however, a number also came from The Klemantaski Collection, Willy Iacona and the Revs Digital Library.

If you want an encyclopedia on F1 for the 1950’s look no further. The level of detail captured is absolutely fantastic, with the images and human interest stories really bring the era back to life, and is a great read for anybody who is interested in the history of the series.

Head to to purchase a copy of the 304 page book.

Formula 1: Car By Car 1950-1959

Book Details

Formula 1: Car By Car 1950-1959

Author: Peter Highman

Published: 2020

RRP: £50