The History of the Ensign Racing

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Morris "Mo" Nunn

The Ensign company was founded by Morris (Mo) Nunn, a racing driver, who started building racing cars largely because no manufacturer would offer him the sort of car he wanted. Nunn's racing career began in the sixties when he was running a garage business in Walsall, Staffordshire. He began in 1964 with a Lotus 23B sports car, with which he was quite successful. He then decided to move up to Formula Two in a Lotus 22 with sponsorship from wealthy industrialist, Bernard Lewis. The car was not suitable for Formula Two, so Nunn converted it to Formula Three specification and raced it in 1965 with a good deal of success. He then switched to a Lotus F3 car and again enjoyed some noteworthy results despite the fact that the Lotus was not an easy car to drive.

By 1968, he had sold his share in the garage business and began to build up and repair racing cars for other drivers when he was not racing himself. In 1969, Nunn was asked to drive for Gold Leaf Team Lotus in Formula Three, which was just about the ultimate accolade for a driver in that category, but the Lotus 59 of that season was not a good car and, coupled with a great deal of engine trouble, Nunn had little success.

Formula 5000

After five years in Formula Three, he decided to move into Formula 5000 and was asked to join the Doug Hardwick team, which was racing a Lola T190-Chevrolet. Unfortunately, the car never went well and, before the end of the season, Nunn left the team. After searching around unsuccessfully for a sponsored drive in 1971, he decided to build his own Formula Three car. Although he had received no racing car design training, he was a natural engineer and had assimilated a great deal of theoretical and practical knowledge.

Bernard Lewis, Nunn's original sponsor, offered to finance the project, and the first car was built in the garage of Mo's house in Walsall. The car's steel space-frame chassis was relatively conventional but it was strengthened by sheet-aluminium bracing and, instead of fitting a single radiator at the front of the car, Nunn fitted twin side-radiators beside the cockpit; this allowed him to use a low 'chisel' nose which endowed the car with a very low drag factor.

Nunn was not allowed to drive the car under the terms of his agreement with Lewis, so he engaged the fiery Bev Bond to race the car, which Nunn named Ensign, during the 1971 season. Bond almost won his first race in the car, losing only by a few inches to Colin Vandervell's Brabham, but he soon notched up a win and eventually finished third in the Shell Oil F3 Championship. Drivers began pressing Nunn to build them Ensigns but he was still in his small garage at home and had to turn down all but Steve Thompson, who put in some fine drives in the car, including a victory at Montlhery in Paris, and David Purley who took delivery of a car later in the season and took fifth place in the Lombard F3 Championship.

Nunn was inundated with requests for his Ensigns by early 1972, but he had now found premises and was able to meet these orders. Among the well-known drivers who took delivery were Colin Vandervell, David Purley, Mike Walker, Stan Mathews, Jeremy Gambs and Rikki von Opel. The new model Ensign, the F372, went even better than its predecessor, with Mike Walker picking up eight victories in British races and von Opel a further six. Colin Vandervell also did well with his car and the marque, Ensign, was well and truly on the map.

Vern Schuppan made his debut at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles
Vern Schuppan made his debut at the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix at Nivelles. Fuel pick-up problems prevented him from finishing higher than 15th.

Rikki von Opel in action during practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix
Rikki von Opel in action during practice for the 1973 United States Grand Prix. Von Opel retired on the first lap of the race with jammed throttle sides.

Rikki von Opel
Rikki von Opel, who was heir to the Opel empire - and was the man who financed the original Formula One Ensign cars.

Formula Two

The team branched out into Formula Two, building a car which John Burton was due to race, but, after one appearance at Mallory Park, it was decided not to pursue the design as it was straining the resources of the small workshops. The wealthy Rikki von Opel, scion of the German Opel car empire, was ambitious for success in Formula One racing and suggested to Morris Nunn that he build a car for the 1973 Formula One season. Nunn was reluctant, pointing out his lack of experience and resources, but von Opel offered considerable financial inducement and Nunn finally consented.

Opel provided the Cosworth-Ford DFV engines, Hew land gearboxes and funds to hire mechanics and buy the myriad parts but, even with all this assistance, it was not until July 1973 that the car made its first race appearance at the French Grand Prix; von Opel finished fifteenth, three laps behind the winner and the team returned to Britain, realising that they had a great deal to learn.

The Racing MNoi

The car itself, numbered MNoi (MN for Morris Nunn of course), was relatively conventional, featuring a monocoque chassis with the engine bolted to the rear of it and acting as a structural member. Suspension was by double wishbones at the front and by transverse links and radius arms at the rear, as on most other F1 cars. The oil radiators were mounted beside the cockpit with the water radiator in the nose; an unusual feature of the car was the attractive full bodywork, which contrasted well with other more naked F1 cars. However, the team never got to grips with Formula One, largely through inexperience, and the car seldom finished a race during the 1973 F1 Season.

On the production side, Nunn's preoccupation with the Formula One car had allowed design and development to stagnate and many drivers switched their allegiance to other makes. Several F3 cars, to the 1972 design, were sold, but it was not until Nunn acquired the services of ex-Lotus designer Dave Baldwin and put Brian Henton into a revised car that the Ensign got back into the running again. However, at the end of 1973, Nunn decided to sell the production side of the company to Peter Bloore Racing so that he could concentrate on the Formula One car.

Rikki von Opel

Von Opel decided to continue in the F1 car for 1974 and Nunn revised the car considerably, but it became apparent, early in 1974, that von Opel was not making competitive practice times and he became rather disillusioned with the project. He was entered to drive in the International Trophy race at Silverstone in April, but he decided to withdraw, allowing Nunn to engage Brian Redman to race the new car, the N174. Redman managed to place the car on the fourth row of the starting grid and went well in the race until he was forced onto the grass and damaged the car's bodywork but he recovered to finish eighth.

Redman's effort convinced von Opel that he would be better off joining a team with an experienced number one driver who could teach him the necessary race craft and show him how to set up a car for racing. He left the project, taking with him the engines and gearboxes, but Nunn decided to continue with the car, and Vern Schuppan, the Australian driver, was given a test, following the Silverstone meeting. He put in a very fast time, 1 min. 18.4 seconds, just 2 seconds outside the lap record and was able to persuade his sponsor, Teddy Yip, to finance the Ensign for the remainder of the 1974 F1 season.

Larry Perkins and the Boro

For 1975 the team had a new model, introduced with chassis number MNO4. This new car was designed by former Lotus designer Dave Baldwin and was announced at the Dutch Grand Prix. It was quite sophisticated, using rising rate suspension all round. The works car was sponsored by the Dutch company HB Bewaking and driven, with a conspicuous lack of success, by Dutchmen Roelof Wunderink and Gijs van Lennep. Wunderink managed only one finish from five races while van Lennep fared a little better with a three out of three finishing record, including sixth place at the Niirburgring. That gave the team its first championship point. The sponsorship deal ended acrimoniously when the backers used a loophole in the contract to take possession of most of Nunn's assets. The MNO4 was raced again during the 1976 F1 Season as the Boro, driven very impressively by Larry Perkins.

During 1975, Nunn had acquired the services of Chris Amon, who raced in Austria and Italy and was very impressed by the car's potential. Before he could develop the car further Amon's cruel luck intervened in the form of a serious road accident and progress was halted until 1976. With the new season the team's fortune took a definite upswing; Amon recovered and returned to the team to drive a new car, MNO5. The car had several sponsors on temporary terms during the season but was still a distinctly low-budget operation. It did not deter the close knit and enthusiastic organisation and on the new car's first appearance, at Jarama, Amon scored fifth place. The larger teams began to watch closely and were even more surprised when Amon battled Jody Scheckter for fourth place in Belgium. Ensign's moment of glory was short lived, however, for the car lost a rear wheel and cartwheeled to destruction.

Chris Amon Retires

Amon miraculously emerged unscathed. Undeterred, the Ensign was soon back on the grids but Amon had another massive accident at the Swedish Grand Prix after having set third fastest time in practice. Again the team came back, but in Germany Amon considered the implications of Lauda's near-fatal accident and retired from Formula One racing virtually on the spot. At Zandvoort Jacky Ickx entered the plot, having left the Wolf-Williams team to try Nunn's obviously promising car. Ickx wasted no time in silencing the critics who had accused him of being over the hill; he lost a hard fought sixth place through electrical failure near the end of the race. The season ended with Ickx surviving a horrific accident at Watkins Glen in which the Ensign was virtually chopped in half and was totally destroyed by the ensuing fire.

Nunn's enthusiasm and faith for his project was not shaken of course and the team arrived at the first race of the 1977 F1 season in Argentina with new sponsors, a new car and a new driver - Clay Regazzoni. On his first ever outing with Ford power Regazzoni scored a fine sixth place. He followed that success by scoring five points with best finishes of fifth in Italy and America. In 1978 the team entered cars for Danny Ongais and Lamberto Leoni, but Ongais left after two races and Leoni after four races. Jacky Ickx would race the next four races. Derek Daly would race the rest of the season scoring a point in Canada. Also in 1978 Nelson Piquet made his debut in Formula 1 at the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring driving the Ensign. In 1979 Daly stayed with Ensign but he left after the Monaco Grand Prix and was replaced by Patrick Gaillard. Gaillard only qualified at two out of five races and was replaced by Marc Surer for the final three races of the season.

In 1980 Clay Regazzoni again joined Ensign but at Long Beach Regazzoni's brake pedal broke causing him to go straight on at the Queen's Hairpin crashing in the parked car of Ricardo Zunino leaving him paralyzed. Tiff Needell raced in Belgium, but failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix. Jan Lammers raced the rest of the season. Marc Surer raced for Ensign in 1981 and finished in a sensational fourth place in Brazil where he also took fastet lap of the race. Surer also finished sixth in Monaco. Eliseo Salazar replaced Surer from Spain onwards. Salazar finished sixth in Holland. In 1982 Roberto Guerrero raced for Ensign. He only finished in two races.

After the 1982 season, Ensign was merged into the Theodore team, which it had previous ties to via financier Teddy Yip and took that team's name. During many seasons, the connection between Ensign and Theodore was so great that in some years they used almost the same car, much as Red Bull Racing has a second but separate team, Toro Rosso, in more recent times. Ensign driver Roberto Guerrero continued on with the newly merged team for 1983, as did the team's main car designer. The Theodore F1 team did not last the 1983 F1 season, though, and shut down late in the year.
B. Bira's ERA B-Type Racer
Rikki von Opel driving the Ensign Ford developed by Morris Nunn. Von Opel's inexperience in Formula One proved a great handicap during the 1973 season.
B. Bira's ERA B-Type Racer
After Chris Amon left Ensign, Belgian Jacky Ickx drove MNO5 in the closing races of the 1976 season. He is seen here at Watkins Glen shortly before the car was destroyed in a spectacular accident.

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