When someone tells you about a Formula 1 car, the first thing that comes straight to your mind is a high-performance, technologically advanced, high-revving, V6, 200mph + beastly race car that might carry the name Mercedes W10 or Red Bull RB16B.
Although, when the words Formula 1 car comes to mind, most people don’t recognize or recall the cars that shaped the entire sport and made it what it is today. No seatbelts, stripped-down, raw, massive wooden steering wheel, no power-steering, ABS, or traction control, just you, the car, some thin tires, and the track. Pure racing. When the drivers in short sleeve shirts risked their lives in those machines just to get a tiny trophy cup and a weak handshake. The first decade of F1 saw race cars that created the sport from scratch into a phenomenon, and that set the bar for every single upcoming manufacture and their future race cars.
1. The Alfa Romeo 158/159 Alfetta
Alfa Romeo At Its Very Best: The Alfetta 158/159 – Petrolicious
The 1950s were not shy of game-changing and extraordinary race cars, just take a look at the Alfa Romeo 158/159 Alfetta, the car that started it all. Built by no other than the Italian Manufacture Alfa Romeo, the 158 came to conquer and dominate the first inaugural season of the Formula 1 World Championship. Not only did it dominate, but it rose up to become one of the most successful Formula 1 cars in history. The 158, and the 159 derived and highly inspired by the 158 took 47 wins out of the 54 Grands Prix it was entered into. And with Giuseppe Farina at the wheel of the nicknamed “Little Alfa”, Farina would battle his teammate Fangio for the first Drivers Championship, and in 1950 many records were started that year. The Italian racing driver was the first-ever Formula 1 World Champion, achieving that desirable title with the Alfa Romeo 158. Both Farina and the car went down in history for more or less starting it all.
Powering down the straights at unbelievable speeds due to its 1.5L supercharged straight 8, the Alfetta was the key to success for all the seven Alfa Romeo drivers during the first-ever season of the F1 World Championship in 1950. Imagine muscling and thrashing a raw, visceral, 190bhp race car with seatbelts and a short sleeve shirt around the fast corners of Monza… I would have soiled myself. Nonetheless, when you hear that supercharged Inline 8, and focus your eyes on that minimalist detailed body with that proud rounded grill, you realize how significant these cars are. And to sit in the same cars with your hands touching the wheel that the greats once touched is something many people want to experience one day. No matter how fast and how technologically advanced Formula 1 cars have become, there is always something special about the Alfetta, because it gave us the sport we have today, and proudly wears the name of the first F1 Championship car.
2. Mercedes W196 S
If you were driven by no other than Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss, then you are a special car. Nothing has changed, the Silver Arrows are still dominating, whether it was in the 50s or in the 2020s, you will always see a Mercedes on the top step. And the Mercedes W 196 and W196 Streamliner were no exception. Forget about Hamilton and Bottas, Fangio and Moss were the original duo that brought the Silver Arrows to fame and put them on the map. After evidently taking a break from racing after WWII, the German company that dominated pre-war racing was looking to succeed and take over Formula 1 and Sports Cars racing as well. The extremely advanced and streamlined Mercedes W 196 indirectly changed the Formula 1 world in many ways, the W196 only failed to win three F1 races in its entire career.
A 2.5-liter straight-eight engine brought the W 196 to life, as its state-of-the-art direct injection would let the silver car with its side exhaust pipes thrive. Despite missing the first three races, Fangio went on to win the 1954 Formula 1 title, taking 4 victories out of the 6 races. The low drag body that stood stable throughout the high-downforce corners and looked good while doing it was Mercedes’s first test and trail in Formula 1. They have come a long way, that’s for sure, but this was the car that shaped the way.
3. Lancia Ferrari D50
Hollow side slabs and a Ferrari badge slapped on the side made the Lancia D50 a car to remember and a car to differentiate. Yet, its long front that houses the engine and its rounded, short rear-end remind you that it’s still a 50s Grand Prix car. Even though it is from the 50s, its performance was nothing like what you would see in that decade. Designed by Vittorio Jano for Lancia for the 1954 Formula 1 season, finical difficulties hit the Italian company and the team was sold to Ferrari, the prancing horses continued to develop and upgrade the car, running it through the 1955 and 56′ season. It was a sight to see as the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio executed beautiful four-wheel drifts in this car around the streets of Monte Carlo. It’s front-mounted naturally aspirated V8 dominates the front end as Fangio, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins took 5 overall wins with the D50.
Fangio brought the Lancia D50 to enormous success, winning the 1956 title. With all its weight concentrated between the wheels, a 5-speed manual transaxle, a simple elegant dashboard, and a very low center of gravity, nothing could stop the pairing of Fangio and the Lancia.
4. Vanwall VW5
All British fans wished for was a British driver in a fast British car, was it too much to ask for? Vanwall answered the wish of the British fans and delivered it as well. Tony Vendervell set out to make the first-ever British team in Formula 1, not knowing how massive his impact was and still is. Even though Vanwall never accomplished the highest achievement that is the World Championship, the British team still inspired many other British companies to join the prestigious sport and take the fight to the Germans and Italians. British teams did not win a Formula 1 Drivers’ title until 1959, when Cooper decided to join the fight. After hard work, sweat, tears, and many versions of this car, Vanwall finally attained the perfect car and configuration they always dreamed of. It is known as the Vanwall VW5. Its Inline-4 might have been small or underpowered compared to its competitors, but, its lightweight body, power-to-weight ratio, and skillful drivers were able to push this car over its limit.
The Vanwall VW5 was the first British car to win at the British Grand Prix, Sir Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks captured that iconic 1957 victory, setting the Vanwall VW5 up for many victories to come in the future. Three wins were racked up throughout the 1957 season, and Vanwall entered the 1958 season with more than enough confidence that they could win their first title. In spite of winning 7 out of the 11 races in the 1958 season, Ferrari’s reliability, efficiency, and some admirable sportsmanship led to Vanwall not winning the title in 1958. Even though they never took the title, Vanwall will always be known for its impact in the sport, still standing as a team of “what could have been”.
5. Maserati 250F
If you don’t know what the Maserati 250F is, then do not talk to me. You are looking at one of, if not the most iconic Formula 1 race car of the decade. Why is it so great you ask? Just look at it, its beauty, its sheer power, its low center of gravity, its achievements, it’s pairing with Juan Manuel Fangio, how it raced for so long. What’s not to love? When Maserati creates such a car that has left such an impact in the sport of Formula 1, you can’t help but drool and memorize over its soft lines. Fangio’s two out of his five titles were tackled with the cigar-shaped Maserati 250F. Its traditional and simple straight-6 would let these drivers extract a total of 216 horsepower. Its most famous triumph was at the 1957 German Grand Prix, not only did Fangio show his masterclass and increase his already famous reputation, but the 4 speed manual 250F also became a household name.
Witnessing this incredible victory in person must have been a dream come true. To see the Argentinian champion power and thrash his ever-so-stunning Maserati 250F around the “Green Hell” is not something most people can say they witnessed. No one can explain such greatness that Fangio was and represented, and it is the only right thing that the 5-time world champion saved his best race for last. Fangio entered the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on the way to win his fifth world champion title. He was not only a crowd favorite, but a household name across the world, and after this race, the Argentinian name would be remembered forever. Fangio at the dangerous and corner-filled Nürburgring in 1957 was like a father Lion protecting his cubs, no one could stop him that day. Peter Collins and Mike Hawthorn battled with Fangio throughout the whole race in their Ferrari’s, but couldn’t get close to catch the flying Maserati. Juan himself planned a mid-race pit stop for fuel and tires, while his Ferrari rivals, Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins, ran non-stop. Running non-stop with tires from the 50s was definitely not the brightest idea, the tires were thin, and they didn’t grip as much as they do now, and running the whole entire race on an abrasive and menacing track… didn’t end well.
Juan Manuel Fangio put his legendary and gorgeous Maserati 250F in the first place, 28 seconds ahead of the Lancias and Ferraris, as in the beginning of the race he was three-quarters of a minute behind them. That naturally aspirated V12 Italian race car was drifted and beat around the corners, exhausted, yet satisfied after the now-famous Grand Prix race. We wouldn’t be in this position today without these ground-breaking cars.