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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Roadside Attraction---Shelby American Collection Part 2: Ford GT40

Before we return to the Shelby American Collection to look at a bunch of Ford GTs (a big bunch by anybody's standards) it might be worthwhile to review how Ford Motor Company's crash program to win Le Mans began.  Most historians credit the Lola Mk. 6 prototype which first appeared at the London Racing Car Show in January 1963 as the takeoff point for the GT40 design.  Lola chief Eric Broadley's car attracted Ford's interest because it used a mid-mounted Ford 260 V8 behind the low, glassy cockpit. After the prototype's steel monocoque chassis with fiberglass body, two more cars were built with aluminum chassis panels, and Ford bought two cars to assess their performance. John Frayling's body design had some features which may have influenced Ford's thinking, including extremely low overall height which prompted door openings extending into the roof...

Eric Broadley worked on the GT40 program as a consultant for one year, as Ford began to ramp up its Total Performance marketing scheme based on success in road racing, rallying and also the Indy 500.  At the 1963 Indy 500, Jim Clark piloted a mid-engined Lotus Ford V8 to 2nd place, and he won convincingly in 1965... But the Lola (and Lotus) boosters among Ford historians sometimes forget that in 1962, Ford had already shown a mid-engined 2 seater car powered by their German subsidiary's 1.5 liter V4, with stressed-skin aluminum body, predictive side-mounted radiators, and integral roll bar.  This was the Mustang I*, and it was conceived by British-born aeronautical engineer Roy Lunn, who ran Ford's Advanced Vehicles team...

After this warm-up act, Ford put Lunn in charge of the design effort on the GT40 project. Five open GT40 roadsters were built alongside the more numerous (and famous) coupes, and on these the increase in aerodynamic drag was (from a driver's perspective) offset by a vast increase in headroom…The only aluminum chassis GT40, the X-1 roadster, won the Sebring 12 hours in 1966. But that victory, and the 4 Le Mans wins notched by Ford in the 1960s, only came after lots of trial and error in 1964, when the racing effort was run by former Aston Martin team manager John Wyer. Ford handed their endurance racing program to Shelby American late in 1964, and though the Shelby team notched a win in their first race at Daytona early in 1965, the real breakthroughs came the next year.

Unlike the early roadsters, the GT40 coupes featured pronounced side air intakes echoing those on Mustang I, though the radiator was front-mounted on the GT. In an effort to decrease lift, the design team tried low-penetration nose designs with more overhang.  Wire wheels were traded for one-piece alloy units early in the program.  In the photo below, engineer Roy Lunn stands next to his brainchild; it really was only 40 inches tall... 

The Shelby American Collection displays at least one of each type of GT40, including road and race versions... 

There are even two Mark IVs on display, and there were only a dozen Mk IV chassis completed. The yellow and bronze cars below are Mk IVs.  Unlike the previous Ford GTs, these were built entirely in Michigan, so the 1967 Le Mans win by Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt in a Mk. IV was the first Le Mans win in a car entirely of  American manufacture.  

This view below of chassis #GT/104 is one many competitors would've seen during its racing heyday.  A "pre-production" Ford GT, it was the first of 4 chassis built with thinner gauge steel to reduce weight.  The original engine was the Ford 256 Indy engine, and like Clark's Indy-winning Lotus, the car had an Italian Colotti T37 4- speed transmission, while later versions used a ZF 5-speed, and the Mk. II ran a Ford-designed Kar Kraft 4-speed. The GT40 chassis and body were constructed at Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough, England. Considering that Henry Ford II had originally tried to take a shortcut to endurance racing success by purchasing Ferrari, perhaps the international flavor of the GT40 effort should not be a surprise.  In some ways, it was a preview of the transnational car industry of the 21st century...  

Early GT40s like this one featured short front overhangs, and the team tried various air dams and nose contours to deal with the front-end lift which had shown up at the car's first Le Mans effort in 1964...

The Mk I shown below sports the longer and deeper nose contours, wider rear wheels, and also the Gulf Oil colors which appeared on the GT40s raced at Le Mans in 1968 and 1969. After victories in 1966 by the 7 liter Mk II and in 1967 by the Mk. IV, the FIA limited prototypes to 3 liters, which obsoleted the Mk IV as well as the 4 liter Ferraris.  But the 4.9 liter Mk I counted as a production sports car, so it was eligible to race at Le Mans.  John Wyer brought the Gulf-sponsored cars back, and amazingly, the same car, GT40P / 1075, won in '68 (driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi) and '69 (driven by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver).  

The Mk. II below can be identified outside by the convex air intake behind the side window (note the concave intake on the Gulf Mk. I above) and also under the engine cover by the 7-liter FE series V8 which put the car into the Group 6 category.  A Mk. II  was the first GT40 to win at Le Mans, in 1966, and Fords finished 1-2-3 that year, also winning Sebring, Daytona and the Manufacturer's Championship. 

The blue car pictured below is the Collection's Mk. III, part of Ford's effort to offer a more practical road version of the race car.  Total production of the Mk. III amounted to seven; only three had right-hand drive as shown on this example.  The front fenders were raised and 4 round lamps fitted to meet lighting regulations.  The tail of the car was also extended to permit more luggage space, and the Mk. III featured a center-mounted shift, unlike the right-hand drive (and right-hand shift) racers. 

This view below of the yellow Mark IV shows the narrower cabin which reduced frontal area compared with the Mk II.  What it doesn't show is the Mk. IV's innovative aluminum honeycomb chassis, which reduced weight by about 300 pounds compared with Mk. II. Some of the weight advantage was negated by the steel roll cage Ford fitted to the cars after a fatal accident during a prototype test by Ken Miles.  Another aspect of the Mk. IV which in not obvious in the photo is that it manages to be even lower than the GT40, measuring 38.5 inches from road to roof.  Dan Gurney's 1967 Le Mans winner featured a famous bump in the roof to clear his helmet...

This survey of the Shelby Collection's Ford GTs doesn't touch upon each car, and we haven't even started on the Shelby Mustangs.  The Collection is supported by generous donations of cars and automotive memorabilia, and includes models, books and documents. Operating expenses are offset by an annual raffle. The car being offered this year is a new Shelby Mustang GT-350R. The winner will be announced in September, and details are available at the Collection's website: shelbyamericancollection.org.

*Footnote:  For more detail on the Mustang I, one of four Mustang proposals rejected by Ford management, see our post for August 26, 2015 entitled The First Mustang: Ford's Forgotten Mustang I.

Photo Credits:  
Top (Lola Mk. 6):  lolaheritage.co.uk
2nd (Mustang I):  Ford Motor Company, reproduced at silodrome.com
3rd (GT40 roadster):  girardo.com
4th (Roy Lunn + GT40):  Ford Motor Company
All subsequent photos are by the author.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Roadside Attraction---Shelby American Collection Part 1: AC and Cobra

Nearly everyone who likes old cars has a Car That Got Away story, and mine involves a Cobra. On my first visit to the Shelby American Collection in the northern reaches of Boulder, Colorado, the guy running the front desk stunned me by remembering a Cobra I'd seen in Denver during the summer of 1973. It was faded metallic red with a busted speedometer, and I'd thought the price was a bit high at $4,700 (back then I only had $2k to my name). He not only recalled this car and the dealer, but actually knew the current owner of the car.  He pointed out the Shelby American registry, which tracks the ownership of all known Shelby cars.  I decided to return on a recent weekend to do a bit more research, and this time there was another guy at the welcome desk. I've always been curious about the ratio of Cobra replicas to originals, and guessed that of the roughly one thousand Shelby AC Cobras built, there probably couldn't be more than five thousand left. He smiled at this and commented, "Actually, there were 1,007 Cobras built, and we're estimating that there are around 50,000 replicas in circulation."  So I'd only been off by a factor of ten...

The history of the Cobras, along with that of the Shelby Mustangs and the mid-engined Ford GT endurance racers, is carefully (some would say obsessively) represented in this museum, with at least one example of every major variation on the design formula for each car.  The row of roadsters demonstrating Cobra lineage begins with a 1957 AC Ace Bristol* roadster, the 2 liter six cylinder British car which provided its independently-suspended chassis and sleekly contoured alloy bodywork as the basis for Texan race driver (and idea promoter) Carroll Shelby's first Cobra... 

As with many appealingly simple ideas, the Shelby AC Cobra had a complicated gestation. Shelby wasn't the first person to consider a V8 replacement for the tall, heavy Bristol inline 6, which had been based on a pre-war BMW design. The Hurlock family, owners of AC in Thames Ditton, England, had approached the Daimler firm in Coventry about using one of their modern, hemi-head V8s, either the 2.5 liter version in the new Daimler Dart roadster, or the 4.5 liter version which went into the Majestic sedan. Either engine would have been better suited to the AC, which had a more modern chassis than either Daimler and a much sleeker and more coherent body design than the Dart*. When their request for V8 power was turned down by the Daimler people (who soon sold the company to Jaguar), the Hurlocks took dealer-tuner Ken Rudd's advice and offered the English Ford 2.6 liter Zephyr inline 6 in various stages of tune, then modernized the lines of their Ace roadster by standardizing a curved windshield and a simplified grille opening with the famous "mustache" contour smoothed away. Starting in 1961, AC built just over 3 dozen of the Zephyr-powered roadsters and another 8 Aceca coupes, but in 1962 Carroll Shelby took the Ford idea one step further by approaching AC when Ford released a couple of its new Fairlane V8 engines to him. The AC works built a prototype with relocated steering box to clear the new engine. Internally this was known as the "3.6 liter" as it was built with the 221 cubic inch engine, but this was traded for the larger 260 version when the car was delivered to Shelby American's SoCal workshops, and the first 75 of the Series 1 Cobras were outfitted with the 260. Another 51 Series 1 cars would be built with the 289.  The prototype was originally fitted with inboard rear disc brakes flanking a differential like that on an E-Type Jaguar, but the brakes were moved outward on production cars. Another change from the prototype was moving the fuel filler from the rear fender to a central position above the trunk opening.

That first Cobra, CSX2000, shown above as it appears at the museum in Boulder, shared the latest windshield and grille opening with the Ford Zephyr-powered cars, plus radiused wheel arch extensions formed into the alloy bodywork which added space for wider tires as well as visual (and perhaps actual) strength to the wheel openings. Tested in England by Shelby and Derrick Hurlock, the V8 provided far more horses than the 170 offered by racer Ken Rudd's maximum tweak of the Ford 6, the version with aluminum head and triple Weber carbs. As Shelby's V8-powered version was more cost-effective than the Ruddspeed 6, production at AC Cars would shift to the V8 program, for both the home and American markets, during 1963. This first Cobra is displayed with a lot of what collectors call "patina" and is in the same condition as received when purchased at auction from the Shelby Trust by the Miller family.  That includes seats with a certain lived-in look...

If CSX2000 is the founding icon of the Cobra creation story, CSX2345, displayed two cars down, may be the Holy Grail of Cobra roadster road racers.  With no less than six 1st place finishes during 1964 and 1965, it helped the Shelby American Team win the 1965 F.I.A. World Manufacturer's Championship.  And while it's one of two survivors of the five F.I.A. roadsters built, it's the only one to remain intact... 

In this case, "intact" means the same condition it was in when it completed the 1965 road racing season by winning at the Rossfeld track in Germany.  The car's owner told me that he still exercises it at vintage car meets; it won two 1st prizes at the Pebble Beach Concours in 2012. Both awards reflect the growing concern for maintaining historic cars in a condition reflecting the way they were built and used, rather than the sort of over-restored, "better than factory-fresh" approach that ruled car shows in decades past.  The dents and scratches on CSX2345 were hard-earned...

One of six Cobra Daytona Coupes sits between the Cobra prototype and the F.I.A. roadster. The aerodynamic coupe body was designed at Shelby American by Pete Brock*, a prolific shaper of slippery road racers. The Daytona body added roughly 20 mph to the Cobra's top speed, and helped win the 1965 Manufacturer's Championship.  
In addition to the blue Daytona shown above, the museum displays the red Willment Cobra coupe below.  British Ford dealer John Willment had success racing an early Cobra roadster, but was turned down when he attempted to order a Daytona from Shelby. Undaunted, he commissioned his own alloy body on a bare Cobra chassis.  There are numerous differences in form and detail between the right-hand drive Willment and the Daytona, but both had successful careers.  The Willment car won its first race at Snetterton in 1964...
In its mission to commemorate all aspects of the Shelby American racing efforts, the collection includes the Sunbeam TIger parked next to the Willment Cobra, and several Shelby Mustangs like the white example you can see in the background behind it.  Then of course there are Cobras raced in the SCCA, the USRRC, and a drag racer or two...

And that's a Ford GT40 in the foreground above.  The museum has examples of each phase in the progression of the GT40 development, with examples of the the Mk. I, the 7 liter Mk. II, the Mk. III offered briefly as a road car, and the Mk. IV.  In the photo below, the GT40 (chassis # GT/104) that finished 3rd at Daytona lurks behind a 427 Cobra, and sits in front of the Falcon panel van which once belonged to Pete Brock and served as a tow car for the team.  There's a lot of history captured between the walls of this museum, and we will return to the subject of the Ford GT40 in Part 2...

The Shelby American Collection has a stunningly complete collection of historic race cars and artifacts from the Golden Age of road racing, but its presentation is informative, friendly and unpretentious. In fact, the gentleman dispensing tickets and information last Saturday turned out to be Steve Volk, the Collection's President and the owner of that F.I.A. Cobra roadster as well as the ex-Pete Brock Falcon. Imagine how surprised you'd be to encounter the Curator of Collections at the front desk on your next visit to, say, the National Automobile Museum in Reno. The Shelby American Collection is open to the public on Saturdays only, 10 AM to 4 PM, and admission is $5. The museum is supported primarily by the annual raffle of a car, and this year it's a new Shelby Mustang GT350R.  There will be more on that, and those Ford GT40s, in Part 2.

*Footnotes, bibliography & miscellany:  The Shelby American Collection's website (shelbyamericancollection.org) is an excellent source of facts and figures on many of the cars it displays. Other stories from this blog's archives related to today's post include a survey of Pete Brock's work entitled Unsung Genius from 1/16/17, Happy Accidents with Bristol Power, from 12/24/16, Forgotten Classics: AC Part 2 from 12/25/16, AC Part 3 from 1/9/17 and AC Part 4 from 8/20/17.  There are also notes on the Daimler Dart V8 in Worst Car Designs Ever: Part One, a Tale of Two Darts, from 7/28/16.

Photo Credits:  All photos are by the author.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Unsung Genius Franco Scaglione: The Arc of Success

In 1953, when this Stanguellini* Fiat 1100TV appeared, there weren't many car designs featuring parabolic arcs. Franco Scaglione, chief designer for Nuccio Bertone's coach building house, loved them.  They appear in the car's side elevation and the shape of its delicate tail, and are echoed in the shape of the rear wheel cutouts...

...and again in the plan view of the roof, as well as the plan view of the large, divided rear window. The expansive rear hatch was a novelty in 1953; Aston Martin would offer a smaller version that year, and Jaguar's E-Type would emulate the side-opening feature in 1961. Another feature which would find echoes in future designs from the house of Bertone was the side glazing, which was curved in plan to follow the teardrop plan of the passenger compartment.

Headlights were usually separate from grilles and air intakes in the early 50s, but Scaglione integrated these separate elements into a coherent arrow shape, pointing downward to the road. According to Nuccio Bertone, his financially challenged firm built around 10 of these coupes, and at least 3 of these included power-enhancing modifications which extracted up to 70 hp from the inline 4, which featured pushrod-operated valves, unlike the twin-cam Stanguellini racing engines.

When Alfa Romeo released the first production version of its groundbreaking twin-cam, aluminum-engined Giulietta at the Turin show in 1954, its sheer, undecorated flanks, tapered roofline, and vaguely parabolic rear window bore the fingerprints of Scaglione. Unlike the Stanguellini coupe, it moved Bertone into the category of mass production, and the firm would produce thousands of copies over a decade of production...

Before the Giulietta started production, however, Franco Scaglione plunged into what seemed a frenzy of creative activity, releasing the first of the wild Berlina Aerodynamica Technica coupes on the Alfa 1900 chassis, and then proposing a more practical 2000 Sportiva coupe based on the 1900.  The BAT series would be completed in 1955, and would comprise the trio of BATs 5, 7 and 9...

While the BAT coupes reflected aircraft practice in their approach to reducing wind resistance, their organically-curved surfaces recalled sea creatures. The more subdued forms of the 2000 Sportiva shown below reflect the same concerns with air flow, and similar parabolic arcs in plan, elevation and section. But in adapting these ideas to a car suited to practical series production, Scaglione anticipated the trend away from spartan open roadsters to the smooth, sophisticated closed GT cars of the 1960s and 70s. 

While addressing the parameters for the design of a practical road car, Scaglione also created a coherent and distinctive visual expression of the Alfa Romeo theme of engineering for performance. Unlike some of the designs from competing coach builders, the Sportiva could not be mistaken for any other make of car.  Perhaps owing to Alfa's preoccupation with producing the new Giulietta, only 4 copies of the Sportiva were produced; 2 coupes and 2 spiders.

During Bertone's breakthrough year of 1953, Scaglione also designed an Aston Martin roadster for Chicago dealer S.H. Arnolt*.  When Aston Martin management discouraged Arnolt from continuing the project, Scaglione adapted the design for the Arnolt Bristol, and this car attained a production of 142 units.  Most of the cars were open roadsters, but there were half a dozen coupes which added a smoothly curved roofline and concealed headlights to clever features present also on the roadsters.  These include exuberantly curved and peaked fenders, which, along with the peaked hood with air scoop, serve to conceal the tall engine bay resulting from the long-stroke Bristol (BMW-designed) six. 

By 1957 Alfa's Giulietta was available in sedan and Pininfarina spider form as well as the Bertone Sprint, and Scaglione designed a special low-drag coupe as a performance variant.This was accepted for production, and early versions featured the "low nose" grille and fender profile shown on the car below. This early prototype lacks the traditional Alfa grille shape and the bumpers which appeared on later versions.  But it shows Scaglione's skill at repeating sculptural themes and echoing these themes in details like the parabolic arc of the roof and the plan shape of the roof, with side windows curved in plan to match the teardrop cabin plan. 

The rear view shows the smooth integration of fenders and roof forms, and an early version of the chopped, Kamm-inspired tail with inset panel, which would become common on 1960s GT cars. This Sprint Speciale became a successful offering in the Alfa line, with production continuing from 1959 to 1966.   Total production of Giulietta (1300 cc) and Giulia (1600 cc) versions attained 2,766 units.

Sadly, this kind of commercial success did not greet Franco Scaglione's final project for Alfa Romeo, the Stradale based on the mid-engined Type 33 race car.  Designed after Scaglione left Bertone, the 4-cam 2 liter V8 coupe was bodied by Marazzi, a small firm which also built bodies for the Lamborghini Islero.  Only 18 chassis were completed, and most estimates say that only 10 of them had this body style, a masterpiece of integrated curves with Scaglione's trademark parabolic windshield and teardrop roof.  This view also shows off the butterfly doors with windows curving into the roof.  The first prototype is shown in black and white below...

Later cars featured more cooling vents in the alloy bodywork, as well as sliding windows for cockpit ventilation...And like nearly all of Franco Scaglione's work, the Stradale is prized by collectors today.

:  For more on the Stanguellini marque, see our post for March 21, 2016, entitled 
Chasing a Mirage, the Last Stanguellini.  The Bertone-bodied Astons (and MGs too) are shown in Forgotten Classics---The Other Arnolts from October 15, 2016.  And the Arnolt Bristol story is reviewed in Forgotten Classics: Muddling Through with Bristol from September 22, 2016.  

More Design Notes:  Evidence suggests that Scaglione designed with scale models rather than laying his cars out in full-scale plan and elevations like Malcolm Sayer at Jaguar, or beginning with elevation studies, like Giorgetto Giugiaro.  This is intriguing because so many Scaglione designs are especially striking in overhead view; it seems that we are then seeing them the way he conceived them, looking down while he held them in his hands.  Surfaces flow into each other, so that it becomes difficult to say where side ends and top begins.

Photo Credits
Top & 3rd from top:  the author
2nd from top:  pinterest.com
4th, 6th & 7th:  Alfa Romeo S.p.A.
5th:  wikimedia
8th &  9th: Carrozzeria Bertone
10th & 12th:  wikimedia
11th:  Alfa Romeo S.p.A.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Plywood Sundae with Fiberglass Topping: Marcos GT

As noted in our previous piece on the Colorado Conclave, there were some pretty rare cars (and more than a few pretty and rare cars) in attendance.  These included several species of Lotus, as well as more arcane exotica like TVR and Marcos.  It is the Marcos which is today's subject. Britishers Jeremy Marsh and Frank Costin (a body designer already known for his work on Lister and Lotus race cars) contrived in the late 50s and early 60s to offer English club racers the benefits of light weight and high strength provided by adoption of a plywood chassis.  This was not like the ash frames which merely supported the body panels on cars like then-current Morgans and vintage Rileys and Alvises.  The suspensions and drivetrains on all these cars were supported on steel chassis frames. The Marcos, however, featured a load-bearing automotive fuselage (Costin had been involved with the design of the RAF's Mosquito fighter-bombers, also with plywood fuselage material). Costin and Marsh first tried this structure on the Xylon (Greek for 'wood') GT in the 750cc class.  While the relentlessly homely body design challenged the Bristol 450* for title of world's ugliest race car, the little Xylon performed well enough to permit a promising bloke named Jackie Stewart his first racing victories...

Costin left the company in 1961, and not long after that Marsh and stylist Dennis Adams and his brother Peter set to work on a proper, road-going GT with the same values of simplicity and light weight as the Xylon.  When it emerged in 1964, however, it was clear the brothers had not been inspired by the Xylon's ill-proportioned exterior. What replaced the ugly duckling was a swan by comparison...

The picture below depicts that famous plywood chassis under the smooth contours of the fiberglass body.  Here it is without the steel tubular subframe supporting the front suspension and engine...

In order to guard against moisture damage, the plywood structure was covered with fiberglass during the production process.  Early cars featured a De Dion rear suspension with inboard drum brakes (cutting edge technology from a dozen years earlier) while there were outboard discs at the front.  This design was later simplified for cost reasons to a live rear axle, whilst (for stopping reasons) disc brakes replaced the drums. Sometime after mid- 1969 the Marcos team replaced the plywood structure with a steel frame of square section tubing. The photo below shows two Marcos GTs parked between a charming mid-50s Austin sedan and psychedelically-painted Morris Minor.  It helps to have those human figures for scale; the Marcos is a shocking 41.5 inches tall, about 6.5" lower than an E-type Jaguar coupe. Note that the Marcos featured a forward-tilting bonnet in unit with the front fender tops to allow unhindered engine access.  The first engine to appear in this space was the 1800cc Volvo, chosen for reliability and adaptability to performance enhancements.  At $6,700 in the US, the Marcos faced still competition from Porsche and Jaguar, so the company made various attempts to reduce costs and / or offer more performance.  As a result, during the car's initial production run from 1964-72 Ford inline 4s of 1500, 1650 and also the modern 105E in 1600 cc size were tried, as well as a 2 liter Ford V4, a 3 liter Ford V6, and inline 6s from Volvo as well as Triumph.  The profusion of mechanical approaches reflected, perhaps, a level of indecision that showed up in the design department after the evergreen GT first appeared.

While the Marcos team suffered from indecision on the drivetrain front, their first serious attempt at a production car design managed to make a strong and decisive first impression on the public. Around a hundred of the plywood chassis cars left the factory, of which just over 30 were of the De Dion suspension type.  Many more were sold of the steel-framed cars, helped no doubt by the passing resemblance in proportion and particular the handling of the tail surfaces to Giorgetto Giugiaro's one-off Alfa Canguro show car, which appeared the same year as the Marcos GT. The Canguro is the red car above.  Meanwhile, the Marcos team, while facing frequent shortfalls of cash, decided to produce a Le Mans racer based upon F1 components including Cooper suspension assemblies, a Brabham Repco 3 liter V8 (aluminum GM block with sohc heads), and a body with such a collision of curves and angles that it recalled automotive pioneer James Ward Packard's dictum, "Let's do something, even if it's wrong."  The resulting Mantis XP is shown below...

During the same year, 1968, the Marcus team hatched a production car called the Mantis, but it had no resemblance in engineering or visual terms to the mid-engined Mantis XP. Instead, they proposed a 4 passenger GT coupe powered by an inline 2.5 liter Triumph 6. Much of the body design appears as though the design team decided to save time by placing a plastic model of that year's new Lamborghini Espada in an oven, turning up the heat, and then going off to play cricket...

As for the car's anteater snout, no Italian inspiration can be found.  It took a long while to get the Mantis into production, which had only barely started when it was shut down in 1971 after 32 units been assembled.  A Marcos-styled Mini was built from 1965 for about 10 years, outlasting the bankruptcy of the original firm by 3 years, and sold under the Midas name for some years after by another firm.  Jem Marsh revived Marcos in 1981, founding its product line on versions of the original GT.  Production stuttered on into the 21st century, with interruptions by liquidations and bankruptcies in 2002 and 2007, that last being the final one, perhaps...

*Footnotes:  An informative essay by David LaChance on the restoration by a father and son team of the '65 Marcos 1800 GT pictured second can be found in the Hemmings online post from April 2015. The Bristol 450 race car design is depicted in our post entitled Muddling Through with Bristol, from 9/22/16.

Photo credits:
Top:  silverstoneauctions.com
2nd:  hemmings.com
3rd:  pinterest.com
4th:  the author
5th:  bertone studios
6th:  autoblog.nl
7th:  wikimedia
8th:  classic-kitcars.com

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Etceterini Files Part 12: Virgilio Conrero, Tuner or Hot Rod Maestro?

The world of etceterini was animated by tuners, enterprising and improvising mechanics that Americans would call hot rodders, as well as some true car manufacturers, albeit at a small scale. In the case of Virgilio Conrero, it's difficult to say where one description fades into another, but it's not so difficult to appreciate his work.  Born in Turin in the last year of World War I, Conrero served as an aircraft mechanic during World War II and started Conrero Autotechnica in 1951. He began by tuning Alfa Romeos, and was just in time to capitalize on the launch of the new 1900, Alfa's first mass-produced car.  Soon he was putting his own personal stamp on race cars such as this 1953 Conrero Alfa 1900, which marked the first appearance of Ghia's "Supersonic" body style...

The sleek, low-roofed design by Giovanni Savonuzzi referred to the world of aircraft in details like the fins, jet exhaust-shaped tail lights and transparent roof.  In the photo above, the car takes off on its ill-fated run in the 1953 Mille Migia, Italy's legendary thousand-mile race on public roads. The car crashed, but not before attracting a lot of attention, which led Ghia to build versions of this body on Fiat 8V, Aston Martin and Jaguar chassis.

It may be appropriate that the Supersonic outfit wound up clothing several different makes of car, because under the skin Conrero's Supersonic was already several makes. The tubular chassis designed by Conrero featured a Fiat 1400 front suspension, while the twin- cam Alfa Romeo 1900 inline four sent power to the rear wheels through a transaxle sourced from a Lancia Aurelia.

During that same year, Conrero produced this Alfa 1900 Sport below, with right-hand drive and bodywork reminiscent of Vignale's Ferrari spiders from the same era. The simple grille design, with concave vertical bars, would appear on some Zagato-bodied Fiat 8V coupes which would compete with Conrero Alfas in the 2 liter class...

Throughout the 1950s more competition spiders appeared; some, like the 1957 example below, featured the traditional Alfa grille shape.  The coachwork supplier was not credited, but the body was in alloy on a tubular chassis.

By the time the Sixties arrived, Conrero's racers had made enough of a mark that Standard Triumph approached the Italian firm to design a trio of racing coupes for Le Mans.  These were to use the twin-cam Triumph Sabrina inline four which had appeared in the TRS racers at Le Mans in 1959...by accident or design, Conrero seems to have become a specialist in coaxing more performance out of two-liter inline fours. The body design was by Giovanni Michelotti, and it was built in alloy over a tubular chassis with a disc brake at each corner...

Only one example, the purposeful green car above, was completed in 1962 before budget-conscious Triumph management cancelled the program.  Tested on the M1 motorway, the 165 hp Conrero Triumph managed nearly 150 mph.  It never made the starting grid at Le Mans, but was sent to the States with some other Sabrina-powered racers, and is now being restored in England. The aerodynamic nose would have presented an appealing face if it had been allowed to influence the conservative company's production cars.

The Conrero Alfa Romeo Goccia from 1961, also designed by Giovanni Michelotti, displays a similar concern for slippery passage through the air. Unlike the Conrero Triumph, the Goccia (Italian for teardrop, and pronounced "gotcha") was not part of an official factory racing program. By 1961, Zagato was already bodying Alfa Romeo Giuliettas for racers and rally drivers, and these were offered through Alfa dealers.  Conrero had, however, started modifying the alloy block Alfa 1300 engines, offering some with twin-plug heads before Alfa got around to that, with alternative displacements of 1100 or 1500 cc.  The Goccia was based on a 1957 Giulietta spider chassis, with 4 speed gearbox, and claimed a top speed of over 130 mph. 

By 1965 Conrero had built an Alfa-based Le Mans spider with a Giulietta-based engine with displacement reduced to 1100 cc.  It featured sparse, low-drag bodywork in light alloy, and an independent rear suspension with inboard rear brakes, all in a tubular chassis to Virgilio Conrero's design.  During this period, Conrero also began to work on Simca and Renault engines. 

In 1970, shortly after the appearance of the Opel GT from GM's German division, Conrero began tuning and preparing Opels for competition.  As at the beginning, Conrero was again working on coaxing race-winning performance from a 1.9 liter inline four. In the first year, the Conrero Opel GT won its first race in the Italian Touring Car series.  Conrero-modified 4 and 6 cylinder Opels continued to find success in European rallying and touring car racing through 1987.  Virgilio Conrero died in 1990, but his firm continued its work modifying and tuning Opel race cars until 1997, making it one of the longest-lived of the Italian competition specialists.

Photo Credits:

Top through 3rd:  coachbuild.com
4th: mossmotoring.com
5th: pinterest.com
6th & 7th:  mossmotoring.com
8th: classicdriver.com
9th: Phil Ward
10th & 11th:  Auto Italiana Magazine
12th: conrero.com (official company site)