Brabham Viva: Vauxhall's Forgotten F1 Tuned Coupe
The Mini Cooper. The Lotus Cortina. Brabham Viva? Tuned up and forgotten about, here is the car that didn't quite become the icon it could've been.
When you talk to anyone about the small list of production cars with Formula One influences, the chances are that two notable examples will immediately spring to mind. The Mini Cooper and the Lotus Cortina. Two cult cars that have gone on to achieve instant icon status over the years. Both were developed in part by geniuses of their trade in John Cooper and Colin Chapman, two men who effectively reshaped the landscape of top line open-wheeled formula's in their time. The provenance that comes with these vehicles has made them a goldmine for classic car collectors, a good quality Cortina for instance will cost you upwards of around £50,000 nowadays.
Strangely though, no one seems to remember the other Formula 1 inspired production released around-about the same period, the Vauxhall Viva-Brabham.
First released in 1966, the HB Viva was a an update to the antiquated HA Viva that came out 3 years prior. It was a good looking thing, with 'coke-bottle styling' similar to American cars of the early 60's and powered by an enlarged 1159cc four cylinder motor that produced a paltry, but adequate for the period 40hp. Some Viva's also came with an automatic gearbox, practically unheard of for a car of this size due to the stresses the transmission would endure. Whilst this was space-age however, it was slow. Painfully slow. In fact it's very hard to find a 0-60 time for this particular model, but estimates say it ranges somewhere between half a minute and 3-5 working days.
So, as it rolled sluggishly of the showroom, it's understandable that the regular Viva wasn't one to set the pulses racing with excitement. A car churned out for the masses and not for the enthusiast. Then along comes Jack Brabham.
Jack Brabham, at this time, is a motor-racing and engineering genius. A painfully underrated star of 1950's and 60's Grand Prix racing, he was a former Air Force mechanic turned racing driver, and it was this engineering pedigree that enabled him to extract pace from every engine he touched. He won two titles with Cooper Cars before starting a team bearing his own name in 1962. By 1966 he was a three time world champion, to date he's the only man to win a championship with a car of his own making. A quiet and reserved gentleman, he was a total god of motor-racing, a reputation that remains over fifty years later.
It's not exactly clear how Brabham came to be involved the Viva. Somewhere along the line, the men at the top of Vauxhall must've looked at Brabham and his clear engineering talent as the perfect way to spice up their dreary little coupe, and guarantee a bit of improved social respect that would naturally come with a car bearing the name of a respected star of motorsport at the time.
The theory was simple, Vauxhall would sell the Viva at a dealership over the counter and offer the opportunity for the buyer to have the car tuned by the specialist folks at Brabham. With this package, you got some shiny twin carburettors, a reworked exhaust manifold and an uprated camshaft which all combined to boost the power to a tasty 68hp. Coupled with that, you got a slightly upgraded interior and perhaps most importantly, some nice racing stripes on your bonnet to really hammer home that this isn't the same Viva you would normally see being overtaken by men on push bikes, this was a Brabham Viva. All for £37 and 10 Shillings, a total bargain for the period.
Unfortunately, the Viva was already a slow beast prior to the Brabham induced trickery that was tacked on later. As a result, the end product was a car that was all show and no go. A car bearing the name of the then current World Drivers Champion, but with all the performance and prestige of a milk float.
It went further than the power output on offer as well. The HB Viva is renowned for having brakes that could only be described by a survey in 1971 as 'problematic'. They were more than likely to fail at some point in the vehicle's lifespan, and given the majority of the outer shell was designed with the same structural integrity as wet Plaster-of-Paris, the Viva wasn't the safest car on sale in 1966. It certainly wouldn't pass an NCAP inspection. Especially when paired with steering that didn't quite seem to be attached to the front axle it was meant to be guiding, and an interior cobbled together with spare rags, baco foil and glue.
With this combination of factors, it's no surprise the tuned Viva failed to sell well on its release. Which is a shame, because Brabham is probably one of the greatest engineering minds ever to come out of Formula One, certainly up there in that regard with Chapman and Cooper. It plodded along for little over a year before being effectively replaced with the 1600 in 1968. Its failure however, has allowed the Brabham Viva to transcend to something else. An endangered species. This is an exceptionally rare bird, it's not known how many survive at present but it's certainly less than 10. As such, when any do come on the market, they sell for prices bordering the obscene. Definitely more than the Lotus Cortina and Mini Cooper.
I think that's a fitting way to look at the Brabham Viva. It wasn't an era defining car, it might not have been very good to own and drive, it certainly wasn't representative of Brabham's engineering genius. But the story behind it is interesting, it bears the title of one of the greatest names in Formula 1's long and colourful history, and its commercial failure has led to it becoming one of the rarest cars around today. And I think the quiet and modest Sir Jack would be quite proud of that.