CARS THE STARS
Over the years, many interesting and internationally known cars made it to Singapore for the annual Grand Prix. Many were already in the region, owned by members of the Commonwealth forces and planters: Lotus Elevens, ERAs, a Ferrari Tipo 500, a Warrior Bristol, an Aston Martin DB3S, a Jaguar D-Type, numerous XK120 Jaguars and many others. Many had prior international race history, such as Malayan planter Barry Swann’s ERA R2A, local industrialist Richard Wong’s Porsche 906, Graeme Lawrence’s Ferrari Dino 246T and John Macdonald’s Brabham BT10, known affectionately to many as “Costin’s Mule”. Others were adaptations and home-built Specials, very popular in the region throughout the 1950s.
One such adaption originated from a Lotus 15 imported from the UK. Mindful that the Lotus Elevens and Lola Mk1s were starting to dominate local racing, architect Stanley Leong abandoned his Ferrari 2-liter-engined S.L. Ferrari (an MGA-chassis 250 TR-lookalike) in favor of an early Lotus 15. In went the temperamental 2-liter, 4-cylinder Ferrari Mondial engine along with the MGA gearbox. The troublesome and short-lived Lotus-Ferrari instantly transformed into the “Ferratus”.
The ex-Alan Hamilton Porsche 906 Spyder that Richard Wong imported was said to be the most expensive car on the island in 1968, and was one of the fastest when it arrived on Singapore’s shores. Albert Poon, who referred to Wong as “The Wallet”, was totally taken by the experience of driving it: “A terrific car! At that time, when you were using all these lousy Lotus, here comes a Porsche. My God, it out-corners the Lotus. It has so much power. Normally, you put your foot down…Brmmmmm seven-grand, change gear, brmmmmm seven-grand. This car, you put your foot down…zip seven-grand, zip seven-grand. Quad-cam engine. Beautiful!” Sadly, it arrived just as aerodynamics increased single-seater road holding beyond what the sports car was capable of around Upper Thomson Road.
Brabhams were also a popular choice when it came to racing in South East Asia. During the decade between the late 1960s and 1970s, Brabham racecars amassed over 20 outright Grand Prix wins in Macau, Penang, Philippines, Selangor and Singapore, a phenomenal record for a racecar manufacturer. John Macdonald’s Brabham BT10, one of nearly 30 Brabhams that raced in Asia, had already been successfully campaigned by Brian Hart, Mike Costin and Chris Meek before Macdonald raced it in Singapore in 1969.
“Costin’s Mule” required some fettling before it was tropicalized for the local clime. On the installation of the additional aluminum fuel tanks to the sides of the car, Macdonald shot: “Do you want to be safe or do you want to race?…When we got the car, the underbody just weighed a bloody ton and a half… How light can we get it? We’ve got to compete with Birranas and the like. So in the end, we threw the underbody away and made one up out of aluminum.” The front wings, attached by a broomstick and rubber bands, were abandoned as well.
There were Australian cars that few had heard of, like the first Birranas designed by Tony Alcock (who later worked for Graham Hill’s Embassy Formula 1 team) for Malcom Ramsay. Ramsay’s early Birranas were, according to Macdonald, “light as a feather…and we didn’t realize how much lightness was added until we saw the bullet holes in front of Malcolm’s car…The marbles, presumably kicked up by a car in front, went straight through Malcolm’s car…The car was full of holes…as if somebody had leveled a sub-machine gun against it.” Leo Geoghegan’s Birrana 273 set the course record around the Singapore Grand Prix circuit in 1973.