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Friday, January 27, 2017

Chain-Drive Frazer Nash: Not Your Grandpa's Nash

As part of our long-running series on car manufacture as a tool for achieving bankruptcy, we thought of presenting the Frazer Nash saga.  Then we noticed something odd: the company never quite went out of business.  It's true that founder Archibald Frazer-Nash and his  modest motor works skidded into receivership in 1927, three years after starting production of his spindly little roadsters.  But then the Aldington brothers bought the concern in 1929, and kept it going through the end of the chain-drive era and (against all odds) into postwar success as England's Porsche distributor.  The chain-drive cars, though, were among the first sports cars to be recognized as classics, and it's their aura which interests us here.  Minimalism wasn't much of a word in 1930, but it's hard to look at a Frazer Nash chassis from that year without having it float to the top of your mind.  It's a car that made an impression because of the things it lacked.  The list begins famously with the absent gearbox and continues with the absent differential, missing driver's door on most models, and largely absent weather protection.  Forget about effete nonsense like bumpers, radios and heaters.  In fact, forget about having the shifter and the emergency brake inside the car.  If you wanted to operate the shift, you'd hang your arm outside, and if it was raining (nearly every Frazer Nash lived in the British Isles) your arm got wet.  But then again, Frazer Nash tops were sketchy (when present at all) and time-consuming to erect, so in the event of rain you were likely getting soaked anyway...

Wait a minute, we just mentioned the shifter after telling you there was no gearbox.  A contradiction?  Time for a bit of history.  In 1910 Archie Frazer-Nash formed a partnership with H.R. Godfrey to make the G.N. cycle car.  In those early motoring days, cycle cars were a modest step up from drafty, hazardous motorcycles.  They offered the added stability of 3 wheels (the Morgan trike) or 4 (Amilcar, G.N.), and usually space for two smallish, friendly people.  In order to save weight and cost, Godfrey and Nash came up with a chain drive and dog-clutch system, with different diameter sprockets offering various speeds as on a bicycle.  There was a separate idler shaft for the reverse effect; the diagram below also shows the quarter-elliptic springs which were the source of the car's memorable ride qualities (think of an unhappy wild pony).  When a move upmarket failed and G.N. wound down, Archie Frazer-Nash took his chain-drive system and some G.N. parts, and started making cars on his own.  It was 1924...

Specialist car builders in Roaring Twenties England were catering to racing aristocrats, and to possibly less-expensive thrill-seeking by men (and some women) who'd managed to survive the Great War, and saw nothing especially scary about racing up a muddy hill in a flimsy little car which exposed you to the elements almost as much as a motorcycle.  Hill climbs became popular contests, and none was more famous than the one at Shelsley Walsh, which gave its name to the twin-supercharged s.o.h.c. 4 cylinder Frazer Nash Shelsley model.  Unlike G.N. which made its own two-cylinder engine, Frazer Nash sourced its engines from other specialists, including Gough, Meadows, Anzani and Blackburne, which made a refined twin-overhead cam six, at 1,657 cc the biggest of chain-drive 'Nashes.  None of the cars had differentials, so there was a bit of sliding in the rain and on tight corners.  Steering was startlingly quick, as little as 7/8 of a turn lock to lock on some models. The great automotive writer Ralph Stein likened driving a Frazer Nash to being on two motorcycles bolted together...    

The magic never faded, but the business of selling chain-drives suffered from competition  with upstarts like Jaguar, which offered bourgeois luxuries like interior shift levers, windshield wipers, and even heaters.  Production slowed to a a trickle, with only one chain-drive car produced in 1939, by which time Frazer Nash had signed up to distribute BMWs in England, an effort derailed by war.  The loyalty and enthusiasm inspired by the chain-drive Frazer Nash greatly exceeded what would be expected from a total production of 350 cars.  A high percentage have survived, along with this limerick about them:

Nash and Godfrey hated cogs,
Made a car with chains and dogs.
It worked.  But I wonder, would it if 
They had made it with a diff.?*

*Footnote:  The Frazer Nash was, of course, unrelated to the American Nash or to the Frazer produced by Kaiser-Frazer in the USA.  The author of our limerick is unknown, but it was popular in England's Vintage Sports Car Club, and I found it in William Boddy's The Sports Car Pocketbook, from Sports Car Press, New York, 1961.  If you need help telling a Schneider from a Salmson or a Senechal, Boddy's your man.

Photo Credits:
Top:  giddins@porsche.blogspot.com
Middle:  Giddins Racing
Bottom:  oppositelock.com

Monday, January 16, 2017

Unsung Genius: Pete Brock, Car Designer

American race car designer Peter Brock has rare talent, and he had the good fortune to live and work in Southern California during the golden age of American road racing.  His luck was not so good, however, when it came to persuading car manufacturers to put his creations into volume production.  The most famous product of his imagination, the Cobra Daytona coupe, is so well-regarded today that replicas far outnumber the meager six cars that were hammed out of alloy sheeting over a wooden buck in the mid-sixties.  But even though none of Brock's car designs broke out of single digits in terms of production, they had an influence far beyond their numbers. In his regard for formal purity and his intuitive sense of aerodynamic fitness, Peter Brock is America's answer to England's Malcolm Sayer, who created the iconic C, D, and E-Type Jaguars. Here are some favorites among the stable of Brock-designed competition cars...

In the photo above, the aluminum body of a Daytona Coupe is fitted to the AC Cobra chassis during the early days at Shelby American.  Brock conceived the Kamm-tailed coupe body to reduce air resistance compared to the 289 Shelby AC roadster; it added 20 mph to the top speed and was timed at 191 mph.  Below we see all six of the original Cobra Daytona coupes reunited at the 2015 Revival Weekend of racing at the hallowed Goodwood track in England, over fifty years after their first appearance.

In his next assignment for Shelby, Brock was tasked with designing a body for a mid-engined racer to compete in the SCCA program that became the Canadian-American (Can-Am) Series in 1966. The 1965 P70 used the De Tomaso backbone chassis that later formed the basis of the Mangusta. While De Tomaso fell behind schedule developing special heads for a bored and stroked version of the Ford 289, Shelby sent Brock to Italy to work with Carrozzeria Fantuzzi on forming the alloy bodies (and not incidentally, to keep an eye on De Tomaso).  This time, Brock's design incorporated the adjustable rear air foil which he had originally suggested for the Daytona coupe. The spare, fluid forms were startling on first exposure, but once studied they seemed almost inevitable, like much good design and a whole lot of good music.  This characteristic carried over into Brock's independent work.

Shelby cancelled the project when it fell too far behind to be ready for the 1965 race season, and De Tomaso kept the two cars of five planned, outfitting the second version with a windshield and doors complying with European racing regulations.  After taking over Ghia, De Tomaso credited that firm with the P70 and the revised Sport 5000 shown below, but the design was all Brock's.

The designer formed Brock Racing Enterprises after leaving Shelby American, and eventually had great success racing Nissan products. But his first team success involving Japanese imports was with the Hino 1300 Contessa, a MIchelotti-styled rear-engined coupe loosely based upon a mechanical format established by Renault.  Encouraged by BRE's competition success, Hino authorized Brock's design of a more focused sports racer built around the Hino engine.  The resulting car garnered plenty of attention, both from industry insiders and the press, and appeared on the cover of Road & Track in 1967.

The Samurai project allowed Brock to explore a more advanced expression of his philosophy, in that except for the engine, it was a completely new car.  The mid-engined chassis allowed a lower profile, and like the P70, the form prioritized smooth air flow above concerns with mere styling. The alloy body panels were tailored to the tubular chassis by Troutman and Barnes, experienced race car builders who had turned out the bodies for Lance Reventlow's Scarabs*.

Like the Shelby-DeTomaso P70, the Samurai featured an adjustable air foil at the rear.

The publicity surrounding the Samurai caught the attention of Triumph racer Kas Kastner, who then managed the firm's US racing department.  He approached Pete Brock about designing a Triumph prototype for racing and possible production. This car, released during the 1968 race season, duplicated the Samurai's success in attracting admiring attention, and it appeared on the cover of Car and Driver.

The prototype, christened the TR-250K and based on the just-introduced TR-250 (a TR4 with a six cylinder engine transplant) went from first sketches to final design within two months, but owing to delays in gaining approval from Triumph's home office, construction of the car in time for the 1968 Sebring 12 hour race was compressed into three months.  Still, the final product exhibited tight contours and deft control of proportions, achieved partly by moving the engine back for better weight distribution and a lower hood.  In the photo below, the photographer has cleverly accented the curves by using  tire tracks on the pavement as a compositional tool...

Those compound curves were accented by horizontal creases breaking along the car's centerline, and the compound curved glazing and steeply sloped parabolic windshield recall the work that Franco Scaglione had done for Bertone.  In the photo below, the adjustable spoiler, by now a familiar theme on Brock's designs, is visible.

The TR-250K's 1968 Sebring run was cut short by the failure of improvised hub adaptors for wheels obtained from the Chaparral team.  The overall design showed great promise, and was promoted by Kastner and automotive journalists as the shape of the future for Triumph.  But that company's management, distracted as it was by the 1968 merger with BMC, decided against financing series production...

Late the next year, Nissan Motors, which was providing cars for BRE to race in the USA, introduced the Datsun 240Z, a curvy coupe with a wedge profile.  The car quickly took over the American market for popular-priced sports cars, a market which had once been dominated by British manufacturers.  Triumph would build its last car, based by then on a Honda platform and mechanicals, in 1984.

*Footnote:  Lance Reventlow's Scarab sports racers are reviewed in the posting called "Timing is Everything: Reventlow Scarab Saga" in the archives for June 2, 2017.

Photo credits:

Top:  carbuildindex.com
2nd:  youtube.com
3rd:   carbuildindex.com
4th:   hemmings.com
5th:   thegentlemanracer.com
6th:   Hino Motors on pinterest.com
7th:   mycarquest.com
8th:   Road & Track Magazine
9th:    theroaringseason.com
10th:  Car & Driver reprinted on pinterest.com
11th:  centralcoastbritishcarclub.com
12th:  farm5 on flicker.com

Monday, January 9, 2017

AC Cars Part 3: The Shelby AC Cobra

The Shelby AC Cobra story has been told so many times that we're just giving a brief account, mainly so that we can talk about what came after.   By the time AC Cars persuaded Ford of England to supply their Zodiac inline six to replace the Bristol during 1961, Ford of Detroit was preparing to release their new lightweight "thin wall" cast iron V8 in the 1962 Fairlane, first in 221 cubic inch capacity and later as a 260.  It was the latter engine which Shelby persuaded Ford to supply for his first Cobra in 1962, and it powered the first 75 chassis which AC sent to Shelby in LA.  After AC engineer Alan Turner substituted rack and pinion steering and a ball joint front suspension, the next 528 chassis were powered by the punchier 289 cubic inch V8, and the 260 Cobra became known as Mark I.  Contrary to postmodern myth and legend, it was the 289 Cobra in Mark II form, not the 427 Mark III, which made the car (and Shelby) famous in road racing, and won the FIA Manufacturer's Championship in the over 2000cc class for Shelby American in 1965.* By the summer of 1973, the Cobra had reached the bottom of its value curve as a used car, but the rise of vintage racing was about to re-ignite interest in these shapely, lightweight roadsters.  I was offered a well-used example like the one below for $4,700, and turned it down because it needed a paint job and had a busted speedometer.  Today, of course, you could put three kids through Stanford on the proceeds from selling a car like it.  Pretty, isn't it?  Even with torn upholstery and a dent in the nose...

Not everyone agreed that the Cobra  Daytona Coupe, penned by Shelby designer Peter Brock, was a looker.  After the first alloy prototype was hammered out over a wooden buck in  California, the final 5 bodies were built in Italy by Carrozzeria Gransport.  The Italians did not love the appearance, but Brock (pictured with the car below) was convinced that the new contours would cheat the wind enough to raise the car's top speed; they actually added 20 mph.  The Daytonas contributed mightily to Shelby American's success in endurance racing... 

And they clean up nicely, making for an effective museum exhibit or living room display.

During that championship year, 1965, Shelby and AC turned away from the 289* to make the final Cobra, and production lasted through 1967.  The coil-sprung 427 Cobra Mark III (Mark I and II had transverse leafs, like the AC Ace) has claimed the distinction of the first computer-designed chassis (the computers belonged to Ford) and a rabid cult following which may have produced enough fiberglass-bodied Cobra replicas to outnumber the 348 alloy originals by at least 5 to 1.  It was a fearsome brute, but as we shall see, it was a hard act to follow...

*Footnote:  2nd place in the FIA Manufacturer's Championship in 1965 was taken by arch rival Ferrari.  After introduction of the Mark III, AC offered the new chassis design with the 289 engine for the home market and Europe, but produced fewer than 30 examples.

Photo Credits:

Top:  wikimedia
2nd:  simeonemuseum.org
3rd:   wikimedia
4th:   hemmings.com