The first man to die at the wheel of a Formula 1 car was a little-known 29-year-old Anglo-American called Cameron Earl. He was an engineer and the team manager of Bob Gerard Racing. Earl had taken a pre-war ERA, updated to F1 spec, to the old Lindley aerodrome, better known today as the home of the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA), for a test run one evening in June 1952. The car flipped at high speed and Earl was crushed. He survived until the following morning.
Earl is, however, rather more than a sad footnote in motor racing history and is seen by many as one of the key figures in the history of the British motorsport industry, thanks to a 141-page technical analysis he wrote of the 1930s German Grand Prix teams. This included a huge amount of detail, revealing the secrets of the Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars.
How did an unknown 25-year-old Army officer get to be the author of such an important document?
Well, like many great stories, it began in Scarborough. This is a Yorkshire seaside resort where an American soldier decided to settle with a Yorkshire girl after World War I. They had a child and when the young Cameron was 17, World War II broke out. He was called up and assigned to the Royal Armoured Corps. His technical abilities were soon spotted, however, and he so he was posted to the Department of Tank Design (DTD) in Chobham, Surrey, where he joined the School of Tank Technology. This analysed foreign machinery (allied and enemy) and wrote reports about the innovations, so that they could be used in future British tank designs. Earl was later sent on attachment to the Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington, where he met a young engineer called John Cooper, who was working on the secret design of a one-man submarine.
After the Normandy landings in 1944, Allied intelligence began to produce reports on the German military and industrial information that emerged. These were written by teams of scientists, working for the Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (CIOS). Once Germany was defeated, the British created their own British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (BIOS) and continued the same work, creating 2,000 reports on German technology. Earl co-authored a report on German infra-red technology and this led to him being given a hurried commission as a Second Lieutenant in July 1945 in order to give him officer status so that he could acquire more information from captured Germans.
He was keen on motorsport and proposed that BIOS look into Germany’s automobile industry – and the pre-war Grand Prix teams. He went to Germany for a month in April 1947, obtained access to all the required files and blueprints and even interviewed old engineers. He submitted his report in March 1948 and it was published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office six months later. It was entitled “An Investigation into the Development of German Grand Prix Cars 1934-1939”.
By the time the report came out, he had left the Army and was studying mechanical engineering. He would then set up his own consulting business – Earl Automotive Patents Ltd. He found time to take part in the 1950 Monte Carlo Rally, with a Standard Vanguard. The consulting business was slow and do he went to work with Gerard, developing a hydrostatic infinitely-variable transmission for the ERA.
Information is power, so they say, and Earl’s insights played an important role in shaping the thinking of a whole generation of young engineers who flooded into the sport after the war, looking for excitement. These included his pal John Cooper, who would lead the revolution that created Britain’s motorsport industry of today with his rear-engined cars.
A concept that the Germans had looked at in depth…