Keith Duckworth

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

One of the most famous engineers of Formula 1's history, but very little is known about him. Read all about the legendary co-founder of Cosworth.

For my next feature, I am going to look at one of the most important engineers working quietly behind scenes during the 1960s and 70s, while revolutionising Formula 1.


Keith Duckworth was the brains behind Lotus’ success during this period as he designed the Cosworth DFV (Double Four Valve) engine. The engine was created in 1967 for Colin Chapman and was sponsored by Ford, and was used in Formula 1, Formula 3000, CART and sportscar racing such was its versatility.


Duckworth was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on the 10th August 1933 and was into engineering form a young age. His dad, a textile engineer, embraced this by buying him a lathe, vertical drill and grinder for when he was at home. As well we practising with his own machinery, Duckworth was also known for fixing his neighbours’ electrical and mechanical problems during his youth. Prior to his motorsport career, Duckworth spent two years completing national service with the Royal Air Force, in which he trained to become a pilot.


Following his time with the RAF, Duckworth studied engineering at Imperial College London, achieving a mere “pass”, the lowest grade. Duckworth was never one to mince his words, stating he was more interested in working things out for himself rather than learning about what other people had established. Once completing his degree in 1955 he joined Lotus as a volunteer after asking Colin Chapman for a job and by 1957, Duckworth was a full time employee with Lotus as a Gearbox engineer. The first task Chapman gave Duckworth was to fix their unreliable “Queerbox”, however he and Chapman fell out as the Lotus boss would not support Duckworth’s ideas financially.


After only three years at Lotus, Duckworth, along with Lotus’ Technical Director Mike Costin, founded Cosworth. The name was derived by combining the duo’s surnames, “Cos” taken from Costin and “Worth” taken from Duckworth. Due to a restrictive contract Costin signed with Lotus, Duckworth worked alone at Cosworth for the first few years as Cosworth’s only full time employee, however from the start, Cosworth were closely associated with Ford and Lotus.


Cosworth’s first job however was to build the perspex cockpit canopy for Vanwall which they used during practise for the 1958 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Cosworth quickly moved onto engine preparation for customers, specialising in Coventry Climax units.


Despite minor early readability issues at the end of 1959, come 1960, team found success in the newly formed Formula Junior category, a series created for drivers to join the single seater ladder for minimal cost. In March 1960, Jim Clark won at Goodwood, his first in a works Lotus or indeed any single seater car. It was also the first win for the Lotus 18 and a Cosworth engine.


Cosworth were contracted to Lotus for 1960 and quickly demonstrated their class, sending shock waves around Europe. That one season in Formula Junior put Cosworth and indeed British Motorsport on the map, showing the rest of the world that Britain had teams, drivers, engineers and indeed the machinery to surpass all others.


By 1964 Cosworth had moved base from North London to Northampton due to its proximity to the M1 and it being halfway between London and Birmingham. The first Cosworth own engine, the SCA, was designed that year, primarily for the upcoming Formula Two one-litre category. This was based on a Ford engine block and was a success.


Cosworth’s involvement with Ford increased in 1966 following an approach by Chapman for Duckworth to supply him engines. Duckworth replied with a fee of £100,000 which at the time was the cost of an engines annual upgrade. Armed with this offer, Chapman shopped about approaching the likes of Ford and Aston Martin with no success.


Following this initial disappointment, Walter Hayes, the then head of Ford UK’s public relations department, set up a dinner with Harley Copp, an American engineer who backed Ford’s successful venture in NASCAR.


After negotiations which included Chapman creating “specials” for Ford, the first being the 1967 Lotus Cortina, Ford agreed to back the deal of £100,000 over a two year period. The first year would be spent focusing on building a four cylinder engine and the second a V8 Formula 1 unit.


With the deal complete, and Cosworth working with Ford to provide Lotus with engines, Duckworth set to work at home while keeping in touch with Mike Costin, Dick Scammell and Benny Rodd at the factory. The first engine built was the four cylinder FVA with the second being arguably one of the biggest game changers in Formula 1 history, the DFV.


The DFV made its debut in the back of the Lotus 49 driven by Graham Hill and Jim Clark at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, the third of the Formula 1 season. The engine was an instant success with Hill taking pole and Clark the win. The Lotus’ reliability issues prevented Clark from mounting a title challenge however it was apparent that Lotus-Ford with their Cosworth engines were the team to beat.


For 1968, the DFV was made available for all teams to use and with its cheap price and its high power output of 400 brake horsepower, bhp, the DFV started being used up and down the grid, and spawned plenty of small budget British based teams throughout the 1970s.

Ford, as the funder, never had plans to sell the DFV to competitors however it became apparent to Hayes that there was a gap in the market. Ferrari’s comparable engine was less powerful, BRM’s was far too complex to run, Maserati’s was unreliable and Honda’s was overweight. Only Brabham’s Repco engine was near the DFV, however that was aging and there was little room for further improvement.


This lead to Hayes and Copp softly breaking the news to Chapman that Lotus would not be the sole user of the DFV, allowing other teams to purchase the engine. The engine was available to be bought through Cosworth first being purchased by French outfit Matra, headed by Ken Tyrrell with Jackie Stewart as the team’s number 1 driver.


Despite Lotus having to share their Cosworth engines with the rest of the field, Lotus still claimed the 1968 Formula 1 drivers and constructors’ titles with Graham Hill taking the championship with Stewart second and Hulme third. All three drivers were powered by the DFV.


This began a golden age for the engine as more and more teams were converted by the DFV’s reliability, ease of use and cheap price of £7,500. It ensured the engine replaced the Coventry-Climax as the engine of choice for independent teams.


As well as independents, McLaren, Matra, Brabham, March, Surtees, Tyrrell, Hesketh, Lola, Williams, Penske, Wolf and Ligier all used the DFV engine and from 1969 through to 1973, every Formula 1 World Championship race was won by a DFV powered car.


Between 1967 and 1985 the Cosworth DFV won 155 of the 262 races providing the power for twelve drivers’ championships. The Drivers who won the Formula 1 World Championship with Cosworth DFV power are Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet, and finally Keke Rosberg for Williams in 1982.


The DFV’s longevity in Formula 1 was due to many factors, those we have spoken about and also due to the use of ground effect in the sport, which favoured a thin engine, angling the cylinders upwards allowing space for the venturi under the car.


Once turbo power became much more reliable in the mid 1980s the DFV could not cope with the power output against the likes of Renault. The last outing in F1 for the DFV was in 1985 when the DFV powered Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell although he failed to qualify due to being underpowered.


Throughout the DFV’s lifespan, it was not just used in Formula 1 as it was modified to compete in championships around the world. It was most notably used in IndyCar where it was turbocharged and renamed the DFX dominating for years, at one point taking an astounding 81 consecutive victories. The DFV was also used at Le Mans where it won twice.


As well as cars, the engine was used for powerboats, however after its first race it was banned as it was far too dominant.


Following the DFV’s demise after a truly fantastic lifespan, Duckworth designed his first turbocharged engine the GBA V6, much to the surprise of those in Formula 1. They doubted he could design another truly competitive engine due to his known distaste of turbocharging in general.


After years of testing, and failures attempting to create a four cylinder engine, the V6 GBA was first tested by Haas Lola’s lead driver Alan Jones in the new Lola THL2 at Boreham Circuit on 21stFebruary in 1986. In freezing, snowy conditions the engine first ran with a conservative 2.5 BAR of boost. Also in attendance were Cosworth’s chief race engine designer Geoff Goddard, Lola’s number two driver Patrick Tambay and the THL2’s designer Neil Oatley.


The GBA was the most powerful engine Cosworth ever produced for Formula 1 with 900 bhp. Following Lola’s withdrawal from Formula 1 at the conclusion of the 1986 season, Cosworth solely powered Benetton for the 1987 season.


By this point Duckworth had stepped down from running Cosworth, after he decided he did not want to be involved with the day to day running of the company. Cosworth were sold to United Engineering Industries, UEI, in 1980, although he retained life presidency and day-to-day technical involvement throughout. He also became a UEI board member as part of the deal.


Once Duckworth had stepped away from the day-to-day running, he took up flying, gaining his helicopter licence. Sadly in 1988 Duckworth suffered severe heart problems and underwent multiple bypass surgery. This bought an end to his flying days and at the age of 55 he retired from Cosworth.


Duckworth remained active up until his untimely passing in 2005 at the age of 72. On a personal note, it is such as shame I was not old enough to meet him, as I was only twelve at the time of his death. It would have been fascinating to hear his stories first hand and it is something I wish I could have heard.

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