Courtesy of Bonhams Cars

This remarkable “time machine” Formula Two racing car is offered here for the first time after no fewer than 49 years in its current ownership. Furthermore, this long ownership period has seen the car raced once only — back in 1975 — after which it was set aside pending more-thorough preparation, which its still-enthusiastic owner never got around to carrying out. Therefore, after only two properly active frontline seasons’ use back in 1951–52, this fascinating example of the small but in so many ways renowned Alta marque’s specialized output is, in fact, remarkably well preserved today.

Motor engineer Geoffrey Taylor was a practical-minded, truly hands-on racing enthusiast who founded his Alta Car & Engineering Company at Tolworth, Surrey, U.K., as early as 1929. He actually sawed, filed and fettled his very first Alta sports car engine virtually from solid stock on his home kitchen table, producing a simple-yet-effective 4-cylinder twin-overhead-camshaft power unit displacing 1,074 cc. Through the 1930s he built a small hand-to-mouth business producing sports cars powered by these engines, which he progressively enlarged from their original capacity intended for 1,100-cc racing, through 1,500 cc and on up to a 2-liter version.

In 1945, Geoffrey Taylor announced ambitious plans to build a supercharged 1½-liter Grand Prix car, later raced with some success by the hard-charging “Gorgeous George” Abecassis. Two other clients, Geoffrey Crossley and Joe Kelly, bought similar cars from Taylor. But since sale and service of the three GP cars hardly generated sufficient income to keep Alta Engineering afloat, Geoffrey Taylor then turned to the new un-supercharged 2-liter Formula Two category.

Initially he found greater interest in his engines than his complete cars. The contemporary Abecassis-run HWM team used Alta power units to achieve significant racing success throughout Europe in 1949–53. Taylor was able to launch his own prototype Formula Two car in 1951. The second car — “F2/2” now offered here — was completed for Gordon Watson.

Today “F2/2” survives in remarkably original unrestored condition, and it is offered here in historically unspoiled — and for many tastes, delightfully patinated — order. It has 16-inch front wheels instead of the original 18-inch, but overall, it has been considered to be the most original of surviving Alta cars. A complete technical inspection and rebuild will plainly be necessary before it is run again in earnest.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1951 Alta Formula Two
Years Produced:1951
Number Produced:5
Club Info:Vintage Sports Car Club of America
Alternatives:1953 Cooper T 24, 1953 ERA G-type, 1953 Maserati A6GCM

This car, Lot 294, sold for $120,605 (£96,600), including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams Cars’ Chichester, U.K., auction on September 9, 2023.

If you have an interest in motor-racing history, one of the most intriguing stories has to do with the fact that over the past 70 years or so, Formula One racing has been almost exclusively a British cottage industry. No matter what national colors or affiliation a racing team may proclaim, the managers, engineers and ultra-high-tech subcontractors required to field a successful Formula One effort are almost exclusively British. Even that most quintessentially nationalist team, Ferrari, has been most successful when it has had English managers and engineers.

This, of course, leads us to the question of why this is the case, which in turn leads us to weird, quirky, quixotic individuals like Geoffrey Taylor and Alta. Every industry must start somewhere, and in the economic catastrophe that was early post-war England, a few brave guys felt that motorsport was a worthy cause for their time and resources. Limited-purpose pieces had to be figured out, designed, forged, cast and machined to close tolerances. Money had to be spent, risks were taken, failure had to be accepted and fixed. This, all for a cause only a fool would expect compensation for, other than the pleasure of accomplishment. “Mad dogs and Englishmen” doesn’t just apply to the weather. It can be, however, how an extraordinary industry gets started.

From one to two

World-championship automobile racing sputtered back to life in 1946, but it didn’t start getting serious until 1947, and in honesty was scattered until about 1950. The initial rules reflected the late pre-war Voiturette formula of 1.5-liter supercharged engines with a 4.5-liter normally aspirated option that wasn’t used until later. Though it had been on the losing side of the war, Italy had come out relatively unscathed, with Maserati and Alfa Romeo having both a supply of pre-war Voiturette racers and basic factory facilities to support them and build new ones. Maserati sold their 4CL and 4CLT racers to private individuals while Alfa fielded its Tipo 158 “Alfetta” as a factory effort. Between them, they dominated the late 1940s.

English Racing Automobiles (ERA, the predecessor to BRM) and Alta were the only serious British entrants in those days, with 1.5-liter supercharged entries. “Serious” is, of course, a relative term; Alta built three cars, with only one being a contender. ERA did somewhat better, but none were really in the same league as the Italians. In response, ERA reorganized to become BRM and Alta decided to step down to a more-manageable situation in Formula Two. As a 2-liter non-supercharged class, it fit comfortably with the engines Taylor had been building and knew well.

Alta’s engine was an excellent design for the time, an aluminum twin-cam that was relatively light and efficient and could easily be scaled from 1.5 liters to 2.5. The cams were driven off the back, which kept mass centered in the car. The 2-liter version from 1951 made about 130 horsepower, which was adequate for the time. Initially the engine was used by regular customer George Abecassis in his HWM racers, and somewhat later became the power source for the 2.5-liter Connaught Formula One cars. Cooper also used Alta engines in its 1953 Formula Two cars.

Fun, not fast

The Alta Formula Two car we are discussing today was developed from the earlier Formula One design, which was itself a development of Alta’s pre-war approach. It had evolved substantially, with independent suspension front and rear sprung by circular rubber blocks. But it was also overweight, the result of having been designed for 230 supercharged horsepower, not 130 naturally aspirated ones. Surprisingly for the time, it used Alta’s own 4-speed all-synchromesh transmission.

I have no information about what this car was like to drive, but it was clearly not a front runner. In 14 races between 1951 and 1952, its best finish was 2nd at Castle Combe. The rest were mid- to back-of-the-pack results or DNFs. It was not a world-class racer by any stretch of imagination.

So who would want to own a car like this and why? It has been in current ownership for 49 years, but hasn’t run in 48, so the previous owner didn’t keep it for the joy of driving. This brings us directly to the motivations collectors have for owning weird old racing cars. I have no doubt that it would be a hoot to pilot: small horsepower, skinny tires, low expectations — and lots of room to be surprised and delighted without being too dangerous. Giggles count.

Cheap and cheerful

The academic in me sees this Alta as a wonderful artifact from the beginning of post-war auto racing — a clear statement of what Geoffrey Taylor thought would be a successful racer at the time. It drips personality and quirkiness. There is no computer optimization model nor committee decision even on the horizon. It’s one man’s vision. If you are a collector who cares about the history and development of the racing automobile, particularly the branch that became the British domination of Formula One, there should be a place in your heart for something like this.

And this is not a lot of money. Stuff like this is rare — most got crashed or thrown away years ago — but rare doesn’t have to mean expensive. Turning this into a proper vintage racer will probably cost around $60,000, which means that the whole thing sitting on the starting grid will cost less than buying a new engine for your early ’60s Lotus or BRM. And your entry will be welcome anywhere.

No, you won’t run at the front of the pack, but everyone in the paddock will stop to chat and ask questions. This, and a few like it, are where the entire British hegemony in racing started. History, interest, and fun can combine. I’d love to have a car like this; consider it fairly bought. ♦

(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams Cars.)

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