Words: Tim Nevinson
Spurred on by the blood-curdling scream of a BRM V16 in full song, Tim tries his hand at analysing why the sounds of certain racing engines send tingles down his spine.
The news that Lincolnshire artisans Hall & Hall were to build three ‘continuation cars’ of the BRM V16 was, literally, music to my ears. I’m not big on continuation cars. It seems to me that mostly they are a means of making more money for the manufacturers based on a flimsy PR story about cars that were planned and never happened for whatever reason – or most likely they would never have sold at the time!
It all smacks of bandwagon-ism, and the reasons given are schoolboy public relations. I don’t doubt continuation series cars are a cheaper alternative to the real thing, but they cheapen and water down the wonder that great and highly valued originals possess, and those that are prepared to take such cars out on a race track – particularly when those that choose to race rather than ‘demonstrate’ are taking a huge personal risk in providing a unique spectacle. Plus, there’s the danger that they get beaten (undoubtedly) or clobbered by one of these lesser mortals being given the full beans.
However, the V16 BRM for me is different. No matter what the intention was at the time, and later when they were occasionally unleashed, no BRM V16 outing was anything more than a demonstration run; they were so fragile, seemingly having a service interval of about 20 miles.
To hear, or (more accurately) to be assaulted by the noise of a BRM V16 is truly the holy grail of motor racing. The problem is they are so rare, so valuable, so complicated and so fragile that they are very rarely seen or heard in public. I am hoping that the three millionaires that Hall & Hall sell these replicas to are going to release them out to the public on a regular basis, because every enthusiast should be allowed to let the glorious noise of the V16 wash over them.
Despite its inherent attractions, the car itself was a dud, and a very expensive one. Depending on the age, they can look pretty
or plain ugly; however, as we know today, the fastest racing cars wouldn’t be loved by their own mothers.
It was so complex, and so powerful, that they just couldn’t keep up with the weakest links breaking. The power augmented by the aircraft-derived centrifugal blower was completely the wrong sort of power, or torque curve, required to delicately balance engine power through the comparatively tiny tyres of the era.
The great Fangio described it as a “monster” and Stirling Moss, while deriding it as one of the worst cars he’d driven, used the word “terrifying”. I think we can take it that, in today’s parlance, it wasn’t user friendly.
Hall & Hall have been building and rebuilding BRMs at their base close to the original BRM works in Bourne, Lincolnshire, since they began, and before that they worked for BRM. They handle any type of racing exotica but specialise in Matra and BRM. They would have had a hand in Burson’s F1 P201 that must be heard to be believed in New Zealand.
To rebuild the V16s, they have access to 20,000 original drawings. While one car goes to the Owen Organisation, the original paymasters of BRM, it is hoped that all three will be unleashed on the public rather than squirrelled away within dusty collections.
For me, motor racing goes hand in hand with noise. It is the single most exciting thing about the sport. Hearing a racing engine from the spectator car parks is one of the few things that will cause me to break into a trot.
It’s terrific to hear a big V8 or BDA on full noise; for me, there’s no thrill like it. But these are common or garden great noises. There are some that are in a different league, and I would listen to them all day if I could.
Feel the Noise
At the very top is the feral, biting yowl of the BRM V16. My father said you could hear every gear change at every point on the circuit when he saw it on a track, despite the noise of the other racing cars. There is nothing else like it.
I cannot account for the straight-eight and V16 Silver Arrows of the thirties live, but the recordings I have heard of these supercharged, dope-fuelled monsters is pretty impressive – though not as impressive as the BRM. Perhaps, more importantly, they did stay together and win – as did the post war Alfetta 158/159s, equally brutal when it came to sound quality.
So, these four vehicles are at the top of the pyramid, noise-wise; those hairs on the back of your neck take on a life of their own when one of those cars blasts past you.
In the next division you have the 3-litre BRM (again) and Matra V12 from the seventies, screaming visceral engine noises that get you right there. These engines are pretty similar; in fact, Matra used BRM engines in their early days, so maybe that isn’t too surprising. The Matra has it on noise by a nose.
While BRM won a few GPs with their V12 in the hands of Rodriguez, Siffert and Gethin, Matra never did, apart from a non-championship Grand Prix in Argentina, won by our own Chris Amon. However, Matra were pretty successful at Le Mans with essentially the same engine. Matras sound sweeter and crisper and sharper than the BRM.
The next level for me includes the flat-12 Porsche 917 and V12 Ferrari 512 sports prototypes. I could sit and listen to the soundtrack of Steve McQueen’s movie, Le Mans, all day. The Porsche has two soundtracks going on at once, which is rather unique.
We were lucky in a relatively recent period of F1 when Mansell, Alesi, Berger and Hill were running around in V10s and V12s made by Honda, Ferrari and Renault, among others, reaching up to 20,000rpm – real screamers. Hearing a full grid of these on the throttle stops, we didn’t know how lucky we were.
Going down the rev range I must not forget the pre-war Bugatti T35B: ‘B’ for Blower. The Bugatti straight-eight sounds so cultured in the T35, but when accompanied by a whining supercharger the noise is ungodly!
In New Zealand, the noises that make the hairs stand on the back of our necks are altogether more prosaic, but still right up there in the thrill factor. Highly tuned Detroit Iron is right up there, big 5-litre V8 engines can make quite a variety of tunes depending on the exhaust layout and crankshaft pin layout, and a whole grid full of F5000s or muscle cars is a joy to the ears.
It helps if it is a multi-cylinder, it helps if it is revving over 8,000rpm, and generally the smaller the cylinder displacement the better.
But the soundtrack doesn’t necessarily have to come from a multi-cylinder engine to crack a smile. A throaty Ford BDA with fully open Webers must be one of the sounds that gets your heart beating, and particularly pleasing to hear bouncing off the trees in a darkened forest.
I was really looking forward to hearing the 3-litre BRM H16 at Goodwood in the back of Jim Clark’s Lotus, but it was as flat as a pancake, a drone that didn’t even come close to a Cosworth DFV.
If anyone has heard the multi-cylindered W12s and 16s that grace the VW Group’s more exclusive brands – Bugatti, Lamborghini and Bentley – I would imagine they would be as disappointed as I am.
BMW seem to be able to make their sixes much sweeter than Jaguar, and one of their DTM E30 M3s can outcry a BDA on full song.
So, is it sheer revs or firing order? What is it about these special noises that awakens something deep inside the brain? Is there a link that takes our subconscious back to our animal roots? I think both factors have a part to play, along with volume. It has to be loud to create a real tingle.
Certainly manufacturers and aftermarket tuners the world over have spent fortunes on achieving an exciting exhaust note. It must be said that it isn’t just the exhaust; in my view, the Ford BDA and DTM BMW noises emanate as much from the induction as the exhaust. Some noises, such as a Ducati Desmo, come from the mechanical pieces.
I am convinced there is something visceral and primeval about these sounds and our reactions to them, so I decided to do a bit of research.
Motor manufacturers have gone some way to finding what exhaust notes tickle our fancy, discovering that our eardrums pick up air pressure disturbances that manifest themselves as a frequency, measured in Hertz (Hz) or how many times the sound wave oscillates per second. Our brain processes and interprets this as a distinct pitch. As you can imagine, every car engine has its own pitch, which varies under a number of conditions – load, throttle opening, and so on – but the dominant frequency is the pressure waves from combustion, keyed to the engine’s rotational speed. However, the pressure waves can change due to the firing order, the exhaust and intake layout – and, of course, volume.
In a six-cylinder, it’s also called the ‘third engine order’ because the frequency is three times that of the engine’s rotation. In an eight-cylinder engine, the firing frequency is the fourth engine order; in a V10, it’s the fifth. Most aggressive-sounding cars have very high half-orders, such as 2.5 and 3.5 times the firing frequency.
Certain production cars with production mufflers do sound just right: an MGB is good, a Daimler SP250 or Triumph Stag are just right, as is a small capacity air-cooled Porsche 911, any six-cylinder BMW and pretty much any Italian exotica. On two wheels, there’s Ducati Twins or Triumph Triples.
That’s about as far as the manufacturers have got, as far as I know, although they now mix frequencies electronically and pipe them into the car cabin. I don’t think they know what is pleasurable about them, or why mechanical noises can have an effect on the human consciousness.
I have always felt that the primeval scream or beat has some subconscious effect on our brain, causing what we variously describe as ‘raising the hairs on the back of our neck’, ‘goosebumps’ or ‘spine-tingling’. It turns out that this is actually a thing. Scientists group these phenomena as ‘aesthetic chills’ – not related to temperature control, necessarily – and, to give the experience its medical term, they refer to it as ‘piloerection’ (honestly!).
It can happen in pleasant and unpleasant circumstances, and scientific papers have been written that link it to music, such as changes in tone and volume, although I can’t find anyone who has linked it to the animal world, which is where I think they should be going with it.
Specifically, the studies conducted have linked ‘the shivers’ to changes in the tempo and melody of music, and the word ‘awe’ comes up regularly as a causal factor. But I can’t find any research that shows what the animal instinct is that makes it happen, and what its supposed to do when it does.
I looked up the call of wolves, because if there is one spine-tingling animal noise, that is it, and that is what the BRM P15 sounds like. There seems to be some correlation. Its not a mating call but a social call, used for bringing the pack together or keeping it separate from other packs, and each level in the hierarchy of the pack has a different frequency. When they all call together it is to make the pack sound bigger and more dangerous, and it can become melodic and changeable in pitch. Is this received as ‘awe’, ‘danger’ or ‘this is where my pack/family is’?
I can’t find any real evidence that shows why I get the shivers when I hear a BRM V16, but my suspicions are outlined above. So, if any of you budding anthropologists out there are looking for a PhD subject, please sort this out. Unfortunately, we may all be in soundless electric cars by the time we have the answer.
Meanwhile, for the rest of you who don’t feel a PhD coming along in the here and now, I would recommend you get onto Google, turn the speakers right up and type in ‘sound of BRM V16’ – and when you get bored with that, which you won’t (but your fellow dwellers might), try ‘Matra sound’ or ‘BRM V12 sound’, or any of the above mentioned, and see whether they make your spine tingle.