Classic F1 Cars – Ensign N173

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Ensign N173

Ensign N173

The Ensign N173 was not the most successful Grand Prix car ever built but it certainly has a great story to tell and to understand how it came to be, it is best to go back to the late sixties. A young driver by the name of Antonio Bronco was trying to make his way in the lower formula’s and by 1970 he was putting in some good performances and was on the verge of joining the ranks of Formula 3 in a privateer Lotus.The time had come to reveal his real name and identity, Rikky Von Opel, the heir to the Opel (car manufacturer) dynasty and great grandson of the founder Adam Opel. Credit must be given to the young Von Opel, as he did not want his name to either enhance or hinder his racing career; his wealth would come into play later. His efforts in 1971 secured him a works F3 drive with the Ensign Team run by Morris (Mo) Nunn, who himself went on to achieve great things in Champ Car two decades later. Under Nunn’s guidance Von Opel won the 1972 Lombard Formula 3 Championship, so for the 1973 season he asked Mo Nunn to build him a Formula 1 car. Rikky Von Opel was born in New York in 1947 but drove under the flag of Liechtenstein, a land locked tax haven in the Alps; the only F1 driver this tiny country has ever and probably will ever produce. Von Opel put the funding in place, Nunn got to work and the N173 came to be; a simple chassis with a Ford DFV V8 attached to a Hewland gearbox and the first Ensign F1 car was ready for the 8th round of the 1973 GP season in France. The N173 was 7 seconds a lap slower than the pole sitter (Jackie Stewart) and at the back of the grid.  In the race Von Opel stayed on the circuit and finished 15th and 3 laps down. At the following British GP the car qualified 21st ahead of 5 other cars and finished 13th, progress had been made but this was to be the highlight for the N173 as the rest of the season resulted in DNFs or non-starts. For the 1974 season it was replaced with the N174 but after a disastrous first race of the season Ensign and Von Opel parted company.  The Liechtensteiner went on to take a paying seat with Brabham, where he silenced some of his critics with a couple of 9th places. Mid-point in the 1974 season the Brabham boss (Bernie Ecclestone) decided Von Opel’s funds were nolonger required and he was never seen on the race track again; an F1 career that started in France and finished there 12 months later. As for the striking looks of the Ensign N173, they can still be admired in the GP Masters Series here in the UK with Sidney Hoole at the controls. by Grant Ford.Tags: