Industrialist Tony Vandervell wanted to see British racing cars beating the Italians and in 1949 was one of the original backers of British Racing Motors. He soon concluded that BRM was never going to achieve anything because of its committee mentality and decided to run his own cars. He bought a series of Ferraris and renamed them Thinwall Specials, after his Thinwall bearings.

The first actual Vanwalls (the name came from putting Vandervell and Thinwall together) were known as Vanwall Specials and were built for the new Formula 1 regulations in 1954. The chassis was commissioned by Vandervell from the Cooper Car Company and was designed by Owen Maddock. The Vanwall engine was designed by Norton engineer Leo Kuzmicki, under the guidance of the company's chief development engineer Joe Craig, and was essentially four Norton 500cc engines combined into one 2-liter unit. Vandervell was able to use Norton because his father, C A Vandervell, was chairman of Norton at the time.

The first car appeared in the hands of Alan Brown at the International Trophy in May 1954 but was then not seen again in Formula 1 until the British GP where it was driven by Peter Collins. It registered its first finish at the Italian GP in seventh place and a couple of weeks later Collins finished second to Stirling Moss's Maserati 250F in the Goodwood Trophy. In October Mike Hawthorn was second to Moss at Aintree. For the 1955 season Hawthorn and Ken Wharton were hired to drive the cars, although Hawthorn later joined Ferrari, leaving Vandervell to sign up American Harry Schell who won a couple of minor British events. At the end of 1955 one of Vandervell's team in Acton, west London, Derek Wootton, suggested that Vandervell approach a young designer called Colin Chapman to try to improve the cars. Chapman recommended that the cars be substantially rebuilt and rebodied and suggested that Vandervell use a young aerodynamicist called Frank Costin. Former Jaguar engine designer Harry Weslake was called in to work on the engines.

The resulting cars were raced for the first time at the International Trophy by Moss (a contracted Maserati driver) and Schell with Moss winning the race. Thereafter Maurice Trintignant took over the drive. The cars looked promising but failed to deliver any other major results that year. In the autumn they were modified and Stirling Moss did a comparison test between the Vanwall, Connaught and BRM and decided to drive for Vanwall in 1957. Tony Brooks was signed up to drive the second car. Brooks finished second at Monaco but it was not until the British GP that the team won its first event with Moss and Brooks sharing the winning car. Moss won again at Pescara and - much to Vandervell's delight - at the Italian GP in Monza while the team's third driver Stuart Lewis-Evans finished second in the Moroccan GP at the end of the year.

In 1958 the Vanwall team won six of the nine rounds of the World Championship it contested. Moss and Brooks won three apiece and the team won the first ever-held Constructors' Championship. In the Drivers' Championship, however, Moss was pipped by Ferrari's Mike Hawthorn. Vandervell's triumph was tainted however at the final race when Lewis-Evans suffered serious burns from which he later died.

At the end of the year Vandervell announced that the team would not be continuing due to his ill-health. One new car was built for the 1959 season and was raced on occasion by Tony Brooks that year and in 1960 but without success while Lotus tested a Vanwall-engined car. A rear-engined Vanwall was built for the Intercontinental Formula in 1962 and driven by John Surtees but the series was a flop and the Vanwall name disappeared from motor racing.