The word ‘Ralt’ is synonymous with its creator Ronald (Ron) Tauranac. Ron first started building and racing 500cc hill climb cars with his brother way back in 1949. They decided to name their cars ‘RALT’ an acronym drawn from the letters of Ron and his brother’s name (Ron and Austin Lewis Tauranac).
Ron moved to England in the early 1960’s at the invitation of his friend and soon to be business partner Jack Brabham, now already Formula 1 World Champion from 1959 & 1960. Ron first started converting and modifying road cars to a high performance spec, and in the evenings would design in secret the first BT1 prototype for Motor Racing Developments (later renamed to Brabham as MRD was discovered to be a French expletive). The model initials BT stands for Brabham-Tauranac. In partnership with Jack, Ron went on to design and produce 592 Brabham cars, from the BT1 in 1961 to the BT39 in 1972, before selling the business to Bernie Ecclestone.
After the sale of Brabham, Ron was a free agent, and it wasn’t long before Colin Chapman sent him a telegram offering him the position of Technical Manager for Team Lotus. Ron very nearly accepted the position at Lotus, but ultimately ended up consulting for a period with Trojan.
1974 he received a visit by fellow Australian Larry Perkins which would change the direction of his career. Larry had bought a GRD car and thought it needed improving. He brought it to Ron’s house, and Ron took a good look over it and said, “There’s nothing to be done with this, it would be easier to start from scratch.”
Ron started to design a new car from home and word quickly spread that he was producing a new Formula 3 car. He received orders for several cars from former Brabham agents in Italy and Sweden, Chuck McCarty and Ulf Svensson. Norma, Ron’s wife, found new premises for the company in Woking, and soon after Ron was contacted by former Brabham employees looking to join his new venture. The staff consisted of marketing manager Alain Fenn, designer Ian Bailey and Roy Billington who, amongst others, remained with Ron during most of the Brabham and Ralt years.
“At first we called the company Ron Tauranac Racing, and that was good while we were dealing with people in the sport. It helped to get us launched. Then we changed it to Ralt Cars; it was easier when writing cheques, and then the last thing you want in your name is ‘Racing’. You find, for example, that you’re your insurance premiums on your road cars will go up”
Ron was no novice when it came to Formula 3 construction, designing and building 289 cars from 1964 to 1972 with Brabham/Motor Racing Development. But this new Ralt RT1 (RT standing for Ron Tauranac) started with a blank sheet of paper, whereas each of his previous models had been an evolution of the last.
A batch of ten cars would be produced in 1975, and the Ralt marque’s racing debut came at Thruxton on March 31st with Larry Perkins driving for team Cowangie. Larry qualified in 2nd position and finished the race 5th overall, which was enough for people to sit up and take notice.
Larry Perkins went on to win a race in France, while his brother Terry secured a victory in Denmark. Larry won a couple of rounds in the British Championship, along with some podium positions. He went on to secure the European Formula 3 Championship that year which had a positive effect on sales in Europe for Ralt the following year.
Ralt had emerged at a time when Formula 3 was dominated by March, and represented by other marques like Lola, GRD, Safir, Modus, Royale, Alexis, Hawke, Palliser, Ray and Ehrlich. Ron approached Ralt with the same philosophy as he did with Brabham “rather than design a car that would be superseded each year we tried to envisage all the things necessary for Formula 3, Formula 2, Atlantic and even parts for Formula 1. So we knew the way the car would evolve before I even started turning metal”
“I laid out three different tracks and settled on making the medium width first, 50 ¼in front and 51in rear for Formula 3, going out to 55in rear with Atlantic or F2 rims. For the 1976 F3 we brought out a narrow track version, 47 3/8in front and 48 1/2in rear, while the Atlantics and F2’s were 50 1/4in front and 48 1/2in rear, retaining the front track unchanged but with a narrow rear end. Wheelbase was unchanged at 94in apart from an occasional variation when we had to fit a longer engine. The F2 Hart for example is 3in longer than the Ford’s which the car was originally designed around, and so we put in a 1 ½in longer engine bay to accommodate it…”
After a little more than a year in operation Ralt cars was contacted by Len Terry (Colin Chapman’s first ever design assistant) in an effort to assist Lotus, who were in the doldrums in Formula 1, due to the fact that their new 1976 model , the 77, appeared to be a complete disaster when it first came out. Len recognised that Lotus needed to change back to a conventional set-up, with the brake’s in the wheels. Ron provided the complete front hub units (uprights, sealed wheel bearings, stub axle and callipers), which were grafted onto the Lotus tub. This new set-up moved Lotus up the grid with Gunner Nilssen qualifying 4th at the British Grand Prix and the Lotus 77 winning the last race of the year.
Ron had no real production volume to reduce the unit costs of components since he first designed the RT1, so he tried to keep things standardised to increase order volumes. Thus, the lower wishbones turn over to fit either side, the rear uprights turn around to fit either side, and the rod ends are common all round the car. These clever design specifications cut costs dramatically and also eased the spares required for privateers.
Ron had produced a car that was the cheapest, strongest and best engineered. Ralt prices ran from 6,750 pounds for a complete rolling F3 less engine, 7,750 pounds for an Atlantic, to 9,000 pounds for a F2. If a client provided an engine Ralt would fit it for a fee.
During 1976 Ron produced 28 more RALTS, and later in the year Ron Dennis purchased a car for Eddy Cheever. Ron built three BMW- powered F2 cars for Cheever, Hoffman and Stuck.
1977 saw Ralt really start to challenge the competitors with the production of 51 cars against March’s 57, with most Ralt sales going abroad. Derrick Warrick and Nelson Piquet started the season with a Chevron and March respectively, but switched across to a Ralt RT1 through the season. Jack Brabham’s son Jeff also competed in a RT1 and won several races that season before switching to Indy Car. In Italy, Elio de Angelis also moved across to Ralt through the season going on to win the Italian Championship. By the end of the 1977 season, RALTS made up most of the European grids in Formula 3.
With the arrival of ground effects, Ron designed a new generation of RALTS. For 1979 there would be an RT2 (Formula 2), RT3 (Formula 3) and RT4 (Formula Atlantic). All these models would still incorporate the basic concept of involving sheet aluminium monocoque, inboard rocker-arm suspension and ground effects aerodynamics.
Honda had decided to return to motor sport after a 10-year absence, and Ralt was chosen to run their V6-2 litre Formula 2 engines in their new works cars. Honda had previously supplied engines to the works Formula 2 Brabham’s back in the 1960’s, so this was more of a re-union than anything.
The driver of the first Honda-Ralt was Nigel Mansell, who was taken on by Ron as a favour for Colin Chapman, who had signed Nigel as a test driver, he was joined by Australian Geoff Lees and by the end of the season Nigel has earned a seat in a Lotus Formula 1. His position was quickly filled by another antipodean namely Mike Thackwell.
The 1980’s were RALTS decade. In 1981 the successful RT3 won its first European Formula 2 title, and would achieve this again in both 1983 and 1984. Formula 3 would become known as Formula Ralt and it also dominated Formula Atlantic and Super Vee winning many Championships around the world. 1983 saw Ayrton Senna win the British Formula 3 Championship behind the wheel of his Ralt RT3, his success was repeated by Mika Hakkinen in 1990 with a Ralt RT34, and Rubens Barrichello in 1991 with a Ralt RT35.
In 1988 the tide started to turn for Ron and Ralt with the defection of his two works Formula 3 drivers, Eric Bernard and Russell Spence, taking their 400,000 pounds of sponsorship with them. There were also other contributing factors including the emergence of Reynard cars onto the track and the change of regulations making only Toyota engines eligible for the Formula Atlantic series.
At this time March Cars entered negotiations to purchase Ralt, as it realised that Ron had been running a very successful business and had made substantial re-investments in machinery and tools in his factory. If March were to sustain two Indy Car programmes for Porsche and Alfa Romeo then it needed two separate facilities, and buying Ralt would resolve this while giving a good profit return.
Ron continued producing Ralt cars under March, making the highly successful RT40 & RT41 Formula Atlantic, but the company had become a victim of its own success. For example, they moved into much larger, prestigious premises in Colnbrook, near Heathrow airport, while still retaining factory units in Bicester and the Ralt factory in Weybridge on which they were committed to paying rent. March’s owner Andrew Fitton enlisted the help of his former rally co-driver Steve Ward to streamline the business. Steve trimmed the fat, reduced overheads but it wasn’t enough. “Fitton made a big point of talking efficiently, but there were more people in the office than in the workshop, and the office included a full time accountant. I’d run Ralt with just one girl, who looked after the books, and she worked just 22 hours a weeks, with one telephonist and a sales manager” said Ron.
In 1994, after only four races, the works team withdrew from the season, by which time Ron was out of the picture only working on a consultancy basis while he re-united again with Honda. From 1992 until 1997 Ralt enjoyed total domination in the US Formula Atlantic series with RT40 and RT41 models but after a change in the regulations turned Formula Atlantic into a one-make championship, with the exclusive supply of the cars given to an American manufacturer, all this altered.
By the late 1990’s and early 2000’s many of the drivers engaged in the Formula 1 World Championship had driven a Ralt at one critical stage in their career including Ayrton Senna, David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Gerhard Berger, Damon Hill, Martin Donnelly, Eddy Irvine, Miko Salo and Mika Hakkinen. Across the pond this was also true for acclaimed CART Champ Car drivers Al Unser Jnr and Mario Andretti.
From 1975 to 1993 Ralt produced a total of 1,083 cars, of which Ron Tauranac takes the credit for a remarkable 1,047. After Ralt, Ron moved on to consulting work with Honda but later moved back to Australia after the death of his wife Norma.
Ron Tauranac is an engineer whose practical approach to racing design, detail advances and innovations have produced some of the most successful cars ever recorded in the annals of Motor Sport.
Ron continues to innovate and inspire and is always looking ahead for the next project he can throw his youthful energy into. His achievements and contributions were recognised in 2002 when he was awarded the Order of Australia.