Look back in history Sunday: A BRM V16 competing in the 1954 Lady Wigram Trophy race

| Photographer Credit: Terry Marshall

The fact that Brit Ken Wharton finished third on the podium in the 1954 Lady Wigram Trophy race in Christchurch, driving a BRM P15 1,496cc V16, is reasonably minor. What stands out as the most important three letters/digits in that first sentence is ‘V16’. Not only that, the engine size, 1.5 litre across 16 cylinders. That’s 93mils for each cylinder. Tiny!

Ken Wharton’s BRM V16 in the pits at Wigram, 1954

On paper, the British Racing Motors (BRM) supercharged V16 looked a winner, if not an ambitious design. The choice back in those post-war days was to have either a 1.5 litre supercharged or 4.5 litre naturally aspirated engine for what would become the Formula One category. So why a V16?

They say the sound was stunning! The advantage would be a high revving engine and a smooth delivery of power. The disadvantage was having more moving parts and in the end this was the case. It ultimately proved unreliable and difficult to develop.

BRM were a relatively new company to racing with strong ambitions. Founded straight after WWII in 1945, it eventually competed in 197 Grand Prix between 1951-1977. It was in 1962 that they won their only Formula One constructors title with driver Graham Hill.

Previous to the 1954 Lady Wigram Trophy race at Wigram, Christchurch, Ken Wharton had entered the New Zealand Grand Prix and put the BRM on pole. Within 27 of the 100-lap race, he had almost lapped the entire field. However, while the engine remained reliable, it was his failing brakes that was his undoing and history records that he finished second to Australian Stan Jones in a Maybach Special. What the results don’t show is that several protests were entered into after the race regarding the finishing order and laps completed. Inexperienced time-keepers made the investigation difficult with several weeks passing before an official result was posted.

Similar to the 1954 NZGP, the Lady Wigram Trophy attracted a fine assortment of cars (see final classification below). It was the fourth running of the race at the Wigram Airfield on the outskirts of Christchurch. Wharton was to finish third behind fellow Brit Peter Whitehead (Ferrari 125) and Australian Tony Gaze (HWM/Alta 1972cc 4 cyl).

Unfortunately Wharton was fatally injured during the Ardmore Sports Car Race which preceded the 1957 NZ Grand Prix held on 12 January. The accident occurred on 18th lap after Wharton led away in his Ferrari 750 Monza, pursued by Jack Brabham’s Cooper with Bob Gibbons third in a Jaguar D-Type. Wharton ran wide in the fast corner near the control tower, hitting straw bales and then began rolling violently. He was thrown from the car and was killed on the spot.

1954 Lady Wigram Trophy Race Results – Wigram Airfield, Christchurch, NZ

ResultDriverNatCar / EngineLapsTime
1 Peter Whitehead UK Ferrari 125 / Ferrari 1995cc V12 s/c 48 1hr 09m 51.3s
2 Tony Gaze Aust HWM / Alta 1972cc 4cyl 48 1hr 10m 32.3s
3 Ken Wharton UK BRM P15 / BRM 1496cc V16 s/c 48 1hr 16m 19.5s
4 John McMillan NZ Alfa Romeo Tipo B / Alfa 2905cc 8cyl s/c 48 1hr 16m 59.4s
5 Arnold Stafford NZ Cooper Mk VII / Norton 498cc 1cyl 48 1hr 17m 00.0s
6 Ray Archibald NZ Jaguar XK-120 / Jaguar 3442cc 6cyl 48 1hr 18m 19.5s
7 Allan Freeman NZ Cooper Mk IV / JAP 1098cc V2 46  
8 John Horton NZ MG TD / MG 1250cc 4cyl s/c 45  
9 Wally Darrell NZ ACE Special / Vauxhall 1300cc 4cyl 43  
Ret Hec Green NZ RA / RA 2100cc 4cyl s/c 42 Engine
10 Halsey Logan NZ HRG / Singer 1496cc 4cyl s/c 41  
Ret Peter Ward NZ JBS / Norton 498cc 1cyl 37 Engine
11 Arthur Kennard NZ Fiat Special / Fiat 1094cc 4cyl 35  
Ret Morrie Stanton NZ Stanton Special / DeHavilland 6124cc 4cyl 32 Gear Lever
Ret Ross Jensen NZ Austin-Healey 100 / Austin 2660cc 4cyl 14 Rocker Arm
Ret Frank Shuter NZ Edelbrock Special / Ford 3992cc V8 7  
Ret Fred Zambucka NZ Maserati 8CM / Maserati 2992cc 8cyl s/c 5 Oil Leak
Ret Ron Roycroft NZ Alfa Romeo Tipo B / Alfa 2905cc 8cyl s/c 2 Engine
Ret Ronnie Moore NZ Kieft C50 / Vincent 998cc V2 s/c 1 Clutch
DNS Don Ransley NZ Ransley-Riley / Riley 2443cc 6cyl s/c    
DNA Syd Jensen NZ JBS / JAP 1098cc V2    
DNA Max Winterbourn NZ RA Vauxhall / Vauxhall 1442cc 4cyl s/c    
DNA Hec McLean NZ SH Special / RA 2088cc 4cyl s/c    

Fastest Lap: Ken Wharton 1m 23.5s (Record)

Benjamin Carrell

Benjamin Carrell is a freelance motorsport writer and currently edits talkmotorsport.co.nz. He writes for a number of Kiwi drivers and motorsport clubs. That's when he's not working in his horticultural day-job or training for the next road or mtb cycle race!


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