Emerson Fittipaldi
Air Starter equipped car testing at Silverstone. Must be sunny as there’s lots of flesh on display! Note the nitrogen bottle in the foreground which provides the energy via the pipe attached from the starter.

I should have left McLaren and become an air-starter manufacturer because I could have sold hundreds of thousands of them and I’d be a multi-millionaire.

1976 I invented the Air-Starter

McLaren introduces the air-starter to their cars and Brabham races to catch up with the technology.

I was intimately involved with the making of the cars. I helped to design them and I helped to prepare them. I also made changes to them. I was the inventor of the air-starter. Nearly all race cars these days have an air-starter on them; not an electrical starter. The little air motor: this was my invention.

I used to spend many hours at McLaren not doing anything physically, because I’d got beyond that as the boss. But instead of going to the hotel and getting pissed or going home to the family as all the other managers were doing, I stayed at work. This meant that when there were decisions to make about anything I was there to do it.

During the day I was making decisions so night time was the only time I could do any paperwork. I used to stay at work, do my paperwork, wander round, and give advice. And then I started to play. One of the things I knew was that we had a big battery and a big starter motor that weighed a lot and didn’t work efficiently. We had air drills in the factory used to drill holes. They’d make a loud ‘whoop whoop’ noise. We had air all the time: compressed nitrogen bottles that allowed us to change the wheels quickly. We took them all over the world – a fantastic source of energy packed inside a bottle. Wheel off, ‘whoop’, wheel back on! And I thought, we must be able to start the engine with this.

So I fooled around and I ended up with a tiny air motor, just a few ounces. I put one on the car, fiddled with it… and it worked. You had to be able to start the car twice in the pit road and I put this little tank on and it started without any problems. In fact, it started it far better than the battery starter because it drains the battery.

I invented the air-starter and, stupidly, I didn’t quit. I should have left McLaren and become an air-starter manufacturer because I could have sold hundreds of thousands of them and I’d be a multi-millionaire. We went to the first race with them on and I’ll always remember Teddy coming downstairs and he said: ‘Oh boy, we’ve just done a deal. We just had Bernie on the phone’, who had his own race team with Brabham, ‘and he wants to buy four air-starters and he’s willing to pay £10,000 for them.’ Now £10,000 was what I earned a year, but I said no way. I told Teddy to ring him back and tell him he can’t have them. The whole idea with Grand Prix teams is, if you bring in a new invention they all have to copy it; it takes them time and energy. If we sell them to them, it will be easier for them to catch up.

Teddy had to go upstairs and tell Bernie we couldn’t do it because we’d changed our minds; that we hadn’t got the time. When I went to work for Brabham, I spoke to them about this and he told me how they couldn’t buy them so they had to spend a week or two doing nothing else but air-starters because Bernie wanted them in his car for the next race. They were less effective in the next race because they’d spent so much time just doing the air-starter. Within months all the Grand Prix teams had air-starters. 

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