The Remarkable History of American-Made Sports Cars of the 1950s and 1960s

Updated on April 5, 2020
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Like you, I'm crazy about cars. I hope here I can share a few unknown models with you. If you know of others, please share in the comments.

No. It emphatically has not exploded. Those great rolling swells of noise, like the unrelenting Galveston surf, are what it’s supposed to sound like . . . . And the vibration . . . . Just sitting here at idle, the fenders are rocking maybe two full inches up and down in time with the engine . . . . You’re rocking back and forth in time with the engine . . . You can feel the motor right in behind your sternum – throb throb throb throb throb.

— Rich Taylor, on starting the Shelby Cobra 427

20 Great American Cars

In this article we discuss twenty cars built by American entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of the fast and loud, with plenty of cross-fertilization from companies abroad.

  1. Arnolt-Bristol
  2. Bocar
  3. Chaparral
  4. Cheetah
  5. Cobra 289
  6. Cobra Daytona
  7. Cobra 427
  8. Shelby Mustang
  9. Corvette Sting Ray
  10. Cunningham
  11. DeTomaso Pantera
  12. Devin SS
  13. Dual-Ghia
  14. Edwards America
  15. Excalibur
  16. Griffith
  17. Kaiser-Darrin
  18. Scarab
  19. Sunbeam Tiger
  20. Thunderbird

1. Arnolt-Bristol

Stanley "Wacky" Arnolt 11 was a huge man who made himself even bigger by only ever wearing Texas Stetson hats and high-heeled boots. In World War II he won some big government contracts by making his Arnolt marine engines. By 1950 he was the biggest industrialist in Indiana and had factories all over the country.

He had a passion for cars, so he became the largest BMC importer in the Midwest. In 1952 Wacky attended the Turin motor show. He was drawn to the Bertone stand where Bertone was displaying a coupe and a cabriolet. Unbeknown to Wacky, Nuccio Bertone was suffering a huge postwar lull, and was just days away from bankruptcy. Wacky loved what he saw and marched right up to Bertone and said he’d like a hundred of each. Bertone literally fainted and had to be carried from the show. Bertone’s cars were based on MG-TD’s. Wacky went straight to Abingdon and got them to send the MG-TD chassis and running gear straight to Bertone. The only feature they retained was the MG grill. Bertone then made a body around them that wasn’t unlike a small Ferrari.

1955 Arnolt MG Coupe Interior
1955 Arnolt MG Coupe Interior

Being MG powered, these cars weren’t quick but they looked great. Wacky put a price of $3195 on them, which was $1000 more than an MG roadster at the time, and sold all that Bertone could make – that was 100 of them.

Inspired by this success, Wacky next headed to Bristol in 1953. Bristol were making some nice cars at this time. But they were building a really nice 6-cylinder engine that was designed for the BMW328 before the war. You could coax a lot of horsepower out of this motor, in fact 150 hp, but one problem it had was that it was very tall. Wacky took the whole car to Bertone who threw the body away and came up with something totally glorious.

Arnolt Bristol
Arnolt Bristol
Arnolt Bristol Interior
Arnolt Bristol Interior

It was a stunning example of how Bertone was able to create a beautiful body around a very tall engine. Wacky produced it as a street car, but before long amateur racers were powering them around tracks. It wasn’t long before Wacky had a factory team, and in 1955 and 1956 they finished first, second, and fourth at the Sebring 12-hour in the 2-liter class.

Wacky went on to make 130 of these right up until 1964, completely unchanged from the first. Incredibly, Wacky was able to buy the chassis from Bristol, ship them to Bertone who then made and assembled the bodies for them, then ship them to Chicago and he could still sell them for a profit at less than half what Bristol was charging for their cars in England. Wacky was charging $4250 and the Bristol 404 was $9900.

2. Bocar

The Bocar XP-5
The Bocar XP-5

Bob Carnes was sure, just like everybody else in the late 50’s, that if he built a nice looking roadster people would beat a path to his door. They didn’t do that until he built the Bocar XP-5, having failed with the XP-1, -2, -3, and -4.

1959 Bocar XP-5 interior
1959 Bocar XP-5 interior

Everyone was out to beat Lance Reventlow in the outstanding Scarab. But few could match Reventlow’s deep pockets.

The XP-5 was very close in performance but lacked the balance and sophistication of the Scarab. It actually went like hell; up to 175 mph, and through the quarter mile at 112mph. They were powered by Corvette or Pontiac engines. They were only 34 inches tall and you could have a choice of radio, heater, hardtop and seven different suspension set-ups. They ranged in cost up to $11,000.

Impressively, Carnes sold about 15 of them. He would have sold more but had a fire in his workshop in 1962 that destroyed a complete car along with two chassis. He went on to make a single XP-6 with a huge GMC supercharger, giving close to 400 hp. He then built a naturally aspirated XP-7 and three XP-7R’s. These cars wore a sleek racing body and were all supercharged.

Sleek and low Bocar XP-7R
Sleek and low Bocar XP-7R

Nobody’s too sure how many still survive. But the earliest car, the X-1, is in the hands of a Texan doctor; the X-2, X-3, and X-4 are still to be located. Only one XP-5 is known to exist, but I’m sure there must be others out there, and all three Stilettos survive.

3. Chaparral

1961/62 Chaparral
1961/62 Chaparral

Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes were responsible for Lance Reventlow’s Scarab project. They were brilliant at hot rod sports cars like this but out of their class when Reventlow took them to Europe to compete for the season in a Scarab F1. At years end when the writing was on the wall that Reventlow was so despondent about their F1 results, they knew that for 1961 they’d have to find a new job. By chance at a Riverside meeting they met up with Jim Hall. Hall said he’d bankroll them into a Scarab-type project, but this time they’d be selling the cars.

1961 Chaparral interior
1961 Chaparral interior

As Hall was from Texas, he called the car the Chaparral after the Texan road bird. They designed a very sophisticated chassis after their experience with the Scarab and fitted a bored-out Corvette engine of 318 cu inches and 325 hp. This was mounted right in the middle of the chassis, and the driver sat so well back that the driveshaft was only a foot long. Like the Scarab, the body was built in hand-beaten aluminum, and the whole car weighed 1700 lbs, 300 lbs less than the Scarab.

The Chapparals were only moderately successful, probably because others were catching up with mid-engined technology. They built about six of them and all were sold for a healthy $16,000 each.

4. Cheetah

Bill Thomas’s outrageous Cheetah
Bill Thomas’s outrageous Cheetah

Bill Thomas was Mr Chevrolet. He knew everything Chevy and became the go-to guy for them. He had a workshop out of Disneyland, California and did things like stuff Corvette V8’s into the back ends of Corvairs. What he really wanted to do, though, was be the Carroll Shelby to Chevrolet that Shelby was to Ford with the Cobra.

But Chevrolet didn’t want to know. So Thomas decided to go it alone and build the Cheetah to take on the all-devouring Cobras. He was right. They could blow the socks off a Cobra. So he set to build 100 of them for homologation for 1964, but only got to 16 before the money dried up.

Cheetah interior
Cheetah interior

The engine was planted so far back that, with the driver, 55% of the balance sat over the rear wheels. Also the engine was so far back that the 4-speed transmission was bolted up to the differential not by a driveshaft but by a U-joint. Most suspension parts were taken from the Sting Ray parts bin. The rear suspension which was all independent anyway was all Sting Ray except he changed the leaf springs over for coils. He built his own very strong tubular chassis for it and the whole thing even with a 400 cu inch; the 400-hp engine weighed only 1500 lbs.

The very mean little body was either made in aluminum, for the first ones, or fiberglass and sat on a 90-inch wheelbase. The brakes were from Chevrolet NASCARs so stopping a 1500-lb. car was quick and easy, as they were good on a 4000-lb NASCAR too. Massive magnesium wheels and tires completed the package. Thomas sold them for a fairly respectable $10,000. Today all sixteen survive.

5. Cobra 289

1963 Cobra 289 cu inch
1963 Cobra 289 cu inch

Carroll Shelby, a failed chicken farmer and dump truck operator from East Texas, is the hero of this story. He became a highly paid racecar driver and did remarkably well on both sides of the Atlantic, driving sports cars. He helped Aston Martin in 1959 win the manufacturers championship and he also won Le Mans with Roy Salvadori, but in 1960 he retired with some heart trouble.

He already owned a Goodyear racing tire dealership for the West Coast and a race driver school.

Shelby had heard that Bristol were no longer going to supply engines for the absolutely drop-dead gorgeous AC Ace, and he had an idea spinning round in his head that that little car would be perfect for Ford’s brand new 221 cu-inch V8. So Shelby called Dave Evans at Ford with a line that he was a rich Texas oilman and briefly told him the story of matching the AC with the new Ford V8. Within two weeks they delivered two shiny new V8s to Shelby in Los Angeles.

Cobra 289 interior
Cobra 289 interior

Shelby then shipped the engines to AC in Thames, England and had them shoehorn the V8 into the AC. The AC was a beautifully built, very well-balanced sports car, but had been underpowered with 2-liter engines its whole life, despite a breather it got with the 2.6 liter Ford Zephyr engine for a very brief time. But they found was that not only was the V8 lighter than all the other engines, it was smaller too, so they didn’t have to shoehorn it in at all; it was just a neat fit.

So Dave Evans backed Shelby with Ford money. Four months after that first contact with Evans, Shelby was testing the first AC prototype and it became part of Ford’s New York auto show exhibition. Lee Iacocca had just replaced Bob McNamara as head of Ford in late 1960 and luckily for Shelby he loved motor racing and saw it as a huge part of car marketing, unlike the other manufacturers. And Shelby unlike all other mad keen sports car manufacturers at this time actually secured a deal with finance from a major manufacturer. As soon as he’d signed the deal with Ford he employed Peter Brock, who was an assistant on the Corvette project and Phil Remington who had done such a great job on the Scarab and they started building Cobras at Lance Reventlow’s old workshop in Venice, California that had been the home of the Scarabs.

They finished homologation by building the required 100 Cobra’s by December 1962. By the time production started Ford had released the 260 cu-inch engine so these were used in this first run instead of the 221 cu-inch in the two prototypes. This pushed out 164hp compared to the 143hp of the 221 cu-inch. But almost as soon as Ford had released the 260 they started on the famous 289 cu-inch. So by the time Shelby had got to car number 76, the next cars appeared with the 289. This was the high performance version 271-hp version. The Cobra’s sold for $5995. The Corvette was $2000 less but incredibly you could have an AC anemic Bristol powered car for $5775, so the V8s sure were a bargain compared to what AC were actually offering.

Curiously though. the entire Shelby operation, which included both the 289 and 427 Cobras and the Shelby Mustangs from 1961 through to 1968 although completely funded by Ford, never turned a profit. But Iacocca just put this loss down to a very cheap marketing exercise that reaped rewards for Ford on the racetrack and the youth market.

This period in Ford’s life gave them a huge involvement as subcontractors in motor racing. In England they were supplying Ford engines to Lotus who turned them into twin cams and returned them to Ford for their Lotus Cortinas and Lotus-powered Ford Escorts. From 1967 right through to 1983, the engine of choice for F1 was the 3-liter Ford V8, 4 valves per cylinder Cosworth DFV engine that won 10 F1 championships.

Pete Brock was joined by the Englishman Ken Miles who was behind the design of the Scarab and they concentrated on the Cobra’s race program. Although the standard 289 was putting out 271 hp, you could opt it out with stuff like quadruple Weber carburetors that would ring it out to 370 hp for the race version. All manner of diff’s were available depending on what you wanted to do with it. A 2.72 ratio could propel you up to a theoretical 180 mph if you had the horsepower. But with the standard diff a Cobra was good for 150 mph.

6. Cobra Daytona

1964 Cobra Daytona with Kamm tail
1964 Cobra Daytona with Kamm tail

In 1964 Pete Brock designed the quite beautiful Daytona Coupe with aluminum body and Kamm tail. Through its aerodynamics it added 25 mph top speed to the roadster's top speed. The Coupe was designed for the 289 cu inch. It first appeared at Daytona and became the Daytona coupe from that day. Only six were built, but they spurred thousands of imitations around the world, as did the AC-bodied Cobra.

Production of the AC Cobra finished in May 1965 in Britain, although the English company made their own 289 until 1968. These were called AC 289’s. Two hundred were manufactured, so the entire run combined with the Shelby examples in 289 form, was 855.

CSX 2287  - The World’s most significant barn find?
CSX 2287 - The World’s most significant barn find?

I show this because this was the very first prototype made: Chassis CSX2287. It was the only Daytona made at the Shelby workshop by Peter Brock, at Venice, California. The other five made were bodied in Italy. This car was only recently found; we have very few details except it was recovered in Southern California and was once owned by Phil Spector. This Daytona is the first car to be recognized by the Library of Congress as a National Treasure.

7. Cobra 427: "Too Much Car for Almost Anybody"

The Cobra 427, with over 500 hp.
The Cobra 427, with over 500 hp.

I’m going to give you with Rich Taylor’s description of the Cobra 427 that he wrote in 1978 because I’ve never found anyone anywhere to beat this: Let Rich take you for a drive…

Shelby’s Cobra 427 is the quintessential American sports car for the quite simple reason that it is nothing more than a lightweight set of wheels upon which to set a great hulking V8 engine.

The whole car, in a very real sense, is merely an engine accessory, no more important than a spark plug. Driving a Cobra 427 is the closest it is possible to come in this life to riding bareback aboard a thundering V8 engine, and it’s not something you forget too quickly.

1965 Cobra 427 Interior
1965 Cobra 427 Interior

More brilliance from Rich Taylor, on the Shelby Cobra 427:

The Cobra looks like a car. Bright green, green and shiny in the soft green summer light, like a fire department hose truck on a hazy Saturday morning when they’re washing it down. And it’s startlingly small. Honest to God, the damn thing is within an inch or so in every dimension of being a Volkswagen Rabbit. Got this? This is a 2,100 lb. VW Rabbit carrying somewhere over 500 horsepower. Gives you pause, doesn’t it? That’s only 4 pounds per horsepower for those of you who weren’t keeping count.

This, then, is some different car than a goddamn Rabbit. Those huge mag wheels, for one thing. Real knock off hubs too. And the tires. Car outa handle, with incredible rubber like that on the road. Jeezus. This thing looks mean, no matter where you look at it from. Sort of scary too – like it would just as soon take a munch out of your leg as it sits there. Just kind of eyes you, quiet like. But you can see the muscles tensing under that smooth skin if you get too close. Mean. Don’t lean on it. It’ll probably bite your arm off at the elbow if you get too close.

Door handle’s on the inside. Careful, don’t startle it. Slide your right leg in first, snake it under the wheel, then…plop. No room for your knees, right? Driving position reminds me of a pre war Alfa. Wood rimmed wheel right up near your chin, hip hugger bucket seat that fits only if you take your wallet out. Pedals too close. And that long green hood stretching – grasping – out front.

The top of the windshield cuts right across your line of vision, so you sit up extra tall and look over the glass. Christ. Can’t see a damn thing.

What’s this? The tunnel is big enough to hold a driveshaft carved out of a telephone pole, and that curving gear lever has all the heft of a Louisville Slugger. The Cobra is not a, ahhh….dainty car. You know the minute you clamber in, it’s going to take some muscle to move that shift bat from notch to notch, and the steering’s going to take two hands. No showing off. Even the clutch pedal might take two feet, and God only knows about the brake. Anyway you get yourself all nicely slotted in for a long spell. Survey that double row of white on black Stewart-Warner gauges – the very best. Kind of aircraft. You know? Key’s over there on the left, behind the wheel. Neutral? Waggle to make sure. Ready? Contact.

Holy mother of God! Sheeut. No. It emphatically has not exploded. Those great rolling swells of noise, like the unrelenting Galveston surf, are what it’s supposed to sound like. What? I can’t hear you. What? It’s okay. Oh. And the vibration. Honest, this is no exaggeration. Just sitting here at idle, the fenders are rocking maybe two full inches up and down in time with the engine. Hell, the whole car is rocking back and forth on the suspension like a crazy thing. You’re rocking back and forth in time with the engine. That big 427 just sits there and throbs, right in cadence with your heartbeat, like a Double-A-Fueler. You can feel the motor right in behind your sternum – throb throb throb throb throb. Jeezus.

Lock your knee onto the clutch. Jam the old Roger Maris signature model into first. Eeaasee down on that throttle, gently up on the clutch and throb throb throb throb off we go in a faint squeal of tire smoke, just the slightest twist sideways. And that’s with no gas at all. Run it up to two grand in first. Get it all pointed nice and straight down the highway. All lined up. Now. Hold on tight, tense your back muscles and…. Floor this sumbitch. Yaaahoo! Shiiift. Ecstasy. You can’t hear anything, and the vibrations so bad you can’t see much, and your eyes are pouring out tears past your ears, and the winds whistling, and your goddamn knuckles are clenched so tight the wheel’s gonna crush in your hands. That pounding V8 plays up and up and up on the little nerves in the ends of your fingers and toes, and your pucker string is wound up so tight you won’t be able to crap for a week. Jeezus.

The blood’s all up in the back of your head, and your eyes are seeing little red dots swimming around like baby amoebas on your corneas and throb throb throb throb your blood is charging through your body like gas in a neon sign, maybe 5000 volts. Hell if it were dark out, you’d be goddamn lit up. Hooha. The trees are streaking by into a tight green tunnel with a black ribbon, yellow dots streaking under your ass. Hooha.

Your neck is already stiff from fighting the wind and the damn engine is just goin’ on and on. This incredible, painful tortuous, wonderful envelope of noise. Somewhere up around 160, it starts to feel a little wound up tight; a hard metallic clamor that seems like it would have to shatter something. Your eardrums maybe. The glass on the instruments. Hell, the damn windshield.

Enough is enough. Take your foot off the gas and let it roll. The bark from those big pipes comes sucking back in, crashing and booming. Touch, just toooouch the brakes. And whomph. Like running into a gigantic pillow. This huge Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture of a pillow comes down across the road, ten-foot high lipstick stain on the corner, and you run right into it. Whomph. And there you are, feeling kinda foolish, sitting in the middle of the highway, perfectly still, with only the incessant throb throb throb throb battering its way through your senses. The key. KEY. Silence. Jeezus. This is it.

A 427 Cobra is the most incredible experience in the whole damn world of automobiles. There are a few – damn few – racing cars that will accelerate faster. Turbo Porsche 917s, Can Am McLarens, top fuel dragsters and funny cars. But when it comes to street cars, this is it. This is the ultimate. Listen to the numbers. A Jaguar XK-120 – the hot car of the early 1950’s would do 1-100mph in 25 seconds. A Ferrari 275GTB/4 will do it in 15 seconds. A good – now I mean a really sharp fuel injected Corvette from 1964 onwards will go from 0-100 in 14 seconds. Which is very, very quick. I promise you, too fast for most people to handle.

No listen very carefully.

A decent 427 Cobra – not the best – not the worst – a decent 427 Cobra will go from 0-100mph and back down again to 0 in less than 14 seconds. Think about it. A 427 Cobra will do 0-100 in less than 9 seconds. And 100 to 0 in less than 5 seconds. Consistently, time after time. Hell, all day and all night. While that goddamn Ferrari is still struggling to get to 100, the Cobra will be sitting perfectly still, pipes crackling and brakes sizzling, having already been up to 100 and back down again.

The 427 is the Ultimate. But what a handful. Even though the leaf spring suspension was switched to coils and the frame was beefed up, most of the dimensions from the smaller Cobra – hell- from the AC Ace---from the 1953 Tojeiro-Bristol, really –remain, including the embarrassingly short 90 inch wheelbase. So a 427 Cobra will swap ends, and sides and middles and fronts for that matter, faster then anything.

This is not to imply that a 427 Cobra doesn’t handle. There is so much rubber on the road that you can go whipping around high speed corners so fast that your spleen will end up in the passenger seat, and if you’re really good – I mean really good – the 427 Cobra is faster, point to point, than virtually anything else on the road. Period. Its ultimate limits are much higher than those on the smaller 289, and it will go, and go and go and go some more, till you just can’t believe you’re still on the road, whistling through a 90mph corner at 140. However, and that’s a big however, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the Cobra will turn around and bite you faster than you can scream for help. Like a canny dog, it senses whether or not you are in command, and if you’re not – watch out. Once it starts to go, there’s no catching it. No gradual falling off, no reassuring understeer, just ….nothing. And there you are upside down in a pine tree. The Cobra 427 is not a car for the inexpert or the intemperate. It emphatically does not suffer fools.

So you end up with a tremendously ironic contradiction. The 427 Cobra is the quickest car you can buy. In first gear alone, it’ll easily break the speed limit and half again. But there’s almost nobody around who’s good enough to really push it. I only know one 427 Cobra owner who had the balls to drive the thing on the street anywhere near its limit on a regular basis, and he just got out of a Westchester hospital after a year of plastic surgery to give him back a nose, cheekbones and a jaw. When you hit something hard at 160, a Cobra 427 doesn’t offer many places to hide.

Personally, I can’t imagine racing one.

Just acceleration in a straight line overtaxes the limit of most drivers’ reflexes. Corners are much too much even to think about. The combination of 200mph in a chassis that’s basically engineered for about 90mph tops is not for me. I would not want to open one up in anger, thank you. The Cobra 427 is a damn brute is what it is, and too much car for almost anybody.

8. Shelby Mustang

In the mid 60’s, SCCA had some strange rules going on. Corvettes were beating most things in B Production and Ford didn’t really have an answer to that. In A Production Cobra’s just cleaned up, but Ford didn’t have anything for B Production.

Then along came Porsche and blew everything to the wall. This is where the rules were at odds with the cars. Porsche raced in the Trans Am and SCCA sedan classes where under the rules, cars had to be four-seaters. Porsche got away with it by putting a thinner back seat, so that there was just enough headroom for two adults, when before there was just enough headroom for two children. After a couple of years SCCA wised up and they were caned.

Shelby, though, wanted to enter the sports car category. All he had from Ford was the Mustang. The Mustang was just a Falcon with a long bonnet. What Shelby did to make it into a sports car was remove the back seat; he stuck a spare wheel there instead. SCCA agreed that it only had two seats so it must be a sports car. Shelby went straight up against the ruling Corvettes in B Production in 1965 and they won, then won again in 1966 and 1967.

1966 Shelby Mustang interior
1966 Shelby Mustang interior

Shelby made both street and track versions. For both versions he got them off the Ford assembly line after they were finished and just pulled out anything that wasn’t necessary to save as much weight as he could. For the street version he put a big sump on the standard 271-hp, 289-cu-inch motor, along with a high rise manifold, four-barrel carburetor and his own fabricated headers. This then increased the horsepower to an easy 306. The track version was even easier. They just slotted the 289 Cobra motor straight in to give 360 hp—hence the name GT-350. But you could easily get an unreliable 400 hp out of these little motors too.

The standard Borg-Warner 4 speed was left alone. They got a limited slip differential and the much heavier duty axle from the Fairlane along with front disc brakes and big drum rears. Shelby then relocated the front suspension mounts and stuck adjustable Koni shocks all around. They got extra instruments, Thunderbird sequential tail lights (66 only), fiberglass bonnets with race quick-release clips and optional rear buckets.

1966 Shelby Hertz GT-350
1966 Shelby Hertz GT-350

In 1966 out of the blue, Hertz Rental Cars gave Shelby an order for 936 GT-350s, but to be painted black with gold stripes. They were identical in most ways to the GT-350 except most got auto transmissions with a floor shifter.

There weren’t a lot of rules in hiring rental cars in those days; you just had to be over 25 with a license. Quite a few managed to get entered into B Production for a day's racing and at least one had its motor taken out and planted into a Cobra for the 1966 Sebring. All up Shelby built 562 GT-350’s in 1965 and 2387 in 1966 (Hertz cars included). For 1967 he built 3225 GT-350’s but they were on the new much heavier bulkier bodies and were never raced because of this, other than down boulevards. By far the cleanest, lightest cars are the ’65 and ’66.

In 1968 Shelby sold everything to Ford, so the 1968 and beyond Shelby GT350’s and the awful GT-500’s had nothing whatsoever to do with Shelby.

9. Corvette

1953 Corvette
1953 Corvette

Harley Earl was head of design at Chevrolet and was responsible for the LeSabre and XP-300 concept cars. These were displayed in the annual "GM Motorama," a road show that traveled the country and showcased the latest futuristic designs. In 1951 Earl was planning for the 1953 Motorama and wanted to include something that the crowd was going crazy for at the time, the sports car rage. He was looking at a target price of $1800, similar to the popular MG TC.

To get things going, he put Bob McLean on the job. Bob was both an industrial design and engineering graduate. He was also mad about sports cars. Legend has it that he started the design by drawing out one rear tire; then he put the seats as close as he could to it, then the firewall as far back as possible. What he came up with required a whole new platform. This dashed Earl’s dreams of something close to the MG TC’s $1800. In fact it was likely to roll off the line closer to Jaguar prices.

1953 Corvette interior
1953 Corvette interior

In May, 1952 McLean had made a full-size plaster model. Earl presented this Motorama car to the new chief of engineering, Ed Cole and the new President, Harlow "Red" Curtice. The story goes that when they pulled the covers off, Cole couldn’t contain himself and leapt up and down with excitement. He not only told them to get it ready for Motorama, but if the public liked it as much as he did then it was going into production. The engine they chose for it was the old Blue Flame six. Cole managed to wind the horsepower up from 115 to 150. They were going to call it the Corvair but changed their mind to Corvette, the famous sleek naval ships of WW11.

As expected, the Corvette was a stunning success at the Motorama and Curtice issued it into production for June 1953. There was talk of a steel body, but the public liked the novelty of fiberglass so they stuck to that in production. Cole later explained that tooling for steel would have cost $4.5 million, whereas fiberglass was only $400,000. Initially they only built 300 and then teased the public by only offering them to socialites and celebrities. They paid $3500. It wasn’t until July 1954 that anyone else could buy one, but it wasn’t long before they shut the plants down because nobody wanted one.

Because they were in such a rush to get the Corvettes to market, they pulled out of the parts bin, the very tired Chevrolet Powerglide automatic transmission in a sports car. They wanted a floor shift and it was the only transmission that they could use. Another thing the public didn’t like was the Blue Flame 6. V8s were all the rage then and they couldn’t see why they couldn’t have one in their sports car.

In 53/54 Chevrolet built 4000 Corvettes but only sold 2863. In 1955 they only produced 700, and in 1956 hardly any.

Then Zora Arkus-Duntov, an ex-Allard engineer and part time racing driver, took the project over. In late 1955 Cole dropped the 265-cubic-inch V8 into the Corvette and that’s where he started development. The Corvette would have been dropped forever at this point but was saved by the introduction of the Thunderbird. Duntov also cleaned up the rather terrible handling at the same time.

Bill Mitchell took over design and just made minor changes from 1956 through to 1962. By then it had quad headlights and was a very nice looking car, plus it was powered by a fuel-injected 283 V8 with 291 hp. With its Borg-Warner 4-speed it was good for 130 mph and could gather up the quarter mile in under 15 seconds.

1961 Corvette interior
1961 Corvette interior

At the time the Mercedes 300SLR Coupe was regarded as the world’s fastest production car—but the Corvette wasn’t too far behind, even though it was overweight, had terrible brakes and handling wasn’t up to much.

The end of the series, before it was replaced by the Corvette Stingray, was in 1963. By then the Corvette came with an optional fuel-injected 327 cu in V8 with 360 hp.

9. Corvette Stingray

1959 Corvette Stingray - prototype
1959 Corvette Stingray - prototype

In 1958 Bill Mitchell had been appointed vice president of styling for General Motors. He knew that to sell more cars, GM had to be at the racetrack.

Mitchelle grabbed the chassis of the Corvette SS car—in which his predecessor, Harvey Earle, had had a disastrous campaign—and had Larry Shinoda draw up a whole new fiberglass body shell, to his design for it. The whole idea of it was road adhesion. The body would be flat and low at the front, so air would just flow right over it. He called it the Sting Ray.

He turned it over to Dr Dick Thompson to race in C Modified SCCA. He had a frustrating year with brakes that just didn’t work right, but they came back in 1960 and won the championship. Mitchell then pulled it off the track, returned it to the styling department, and exhibited it in shows throughout the States.

1959 prototype interior
1959 prototype interior

Halfway through the first race season, Zora Duntov started putting together XP-720, the prototype of the new Corvette planned for release in 1963. He reduced the wheelbase down to 98 inches and used passenger-car front suspension, which saved so much money that he was able to completely redesign a new independent rear suspension.

The original Sting Ray design was carried over to the prototype, but incorporating a fastback roof line with a split rear window. It also included the high front nose even though this had caused severe lift on the racetracks. Mitchell insisted on retractable headlights for the front.

The new Corvette for 1963 went through five different redesigns and was horrendously expensive. But it looked great, and that was the point of the new Corvette; they didn’t really care about handling, it was all about style. And it worked. The public lapped it up at a price a little over $4000, and sales lifted from 14,000 for the last-of-the-line Corvette in 1962 to 21,000 for the new Sting Ray in 1963.

1959 and a half Corvette XP-720
1959 and a half Corvette XP-720

For an extra $600 you could opt for a 360 hp fuel injected lump and 4-speed transmission. The quality was dreadful and the handling was pretty bad too, but road testers everywhere ignored all that and praised it as the best GT ever.

The one thing they universally hated about it was the split rear window. Personally I’ve always loved that and it would be the only model I’d ever buy because of that feature. Mitchell also loved the split window, but caved in to public demand in 1964 and it was gone.

With the 360-hp engine, it was tested at zero to 60 mph in only 5.6 seconds, and 150 mph and a quarter mile in 14 seconds. Very fast, and much faster and cheaper than Jaguar E Types and Aston Martins at that time.

1963 Split rear window Corvette Sting Ray
1963 Split rear window Corvette Sting Ray
1963 Corvette interior
1963 Corvette interior

Little changed for 1964 apart from increasing the power to 375hp. In 1965, though, 4-wheel discs became standard equipment, and you could opt for the 396 cu-inch 425-hp big block. And in 1966, that increased to the 427 cu-inch. That’s when it all went pear-shaped. Very very fast in a straight line, but now with so much weight in the front that the handling, which wasn’t even good at the start, had now been reduced to appalling.

But for 1966 you could also specify the L88 engine option. This was incredible. GM wouldn’t put a hp figure on this engine, but most reckon it was good for about 560hp. The idea was that a few would take it SCCA racing and beat up the all-conquering Shelby Cobras. But that never happened, as the Sting Ray was hugely heavy in comparison at 3600 lbs., and Shelby had sorted the handling to be much more balanced than the Corvette's would ever be.

10. Cunningham

Le Monstre
Le Monstre

Briggs Cunningham lived rather a charmed life. After graduating from Yale during the depression, his movie star looks wondered what to do with himself. His father had astutely invested long before in Proctor and Gamble so Briggs didn’t have a thing to worry about.

He got married and honeymooned in Europe, all the while driving a blown SS Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo 6C.

Back home again, he became a championship small-yacht racer, an expert golfer and a top seaplane pilot. But he also became deeply involved in motor racing and building specials. One he built in 1940 was the famous Bumerc, which was a combination of a Buick Century and his Mercedes SSK body. It was raced well by the famous Collier brothers.

He spent the war years flying antisubmarine missions. After the war he took the Bumerc to Watkins Glen in 1948 and came in second. Next year he bought a new Ferrari and led the race for a while. This hooked him forever on racing.

In 1949 he met Bill Frick and Phil Walters. These guys were stuffing Cadillac V8s into brand new Fords and Studebakers and calling them Fordallics and Studillacs. Cunningham wanted to take a Fordallic to Le Mans, but he was turned down by the French, who said it wasn’t a proper car.

Le Monstre Spartan interior with column change
Le Monstre Spartan interior with column change

So they took two Cadillacs instead. It was truly an ugly car. The guys who dropped big Cadillac motors into Fords, Frick-Tappet Motors did the work for him on the Cadillac. The chassis was a Series 62 Coupe that Frick built his own body for. The French called it "Le Monstre." They also entered one tuned Series 62 Coupe.

Incredibly, in 1950 the Cadillac finished 10th and Le Monstre came in 11th. Cunningham was hooked. He employed both Frick and Walters under a new company called B.S Cunningham, with the sole purpose to win Le Mans in an all-American car.

They first produced C-1 as a prototype chassis and then they built three C-2’s.

Cunningham C-2 at Le Mans in 1952
Cunningham C-2 at Le Mans in 1952

The three C-2s were pretty powerful, powered by Chrysler Hemis of about 270 hp. All three retired, but John Fitch and Phil Walters were in second place in their one for over five hours.

In a road test of one, Motor Trend posted a 0-60mph time of 6.3 seconds and that was all in first gear. Second went to 100mph and they’d top out at about 150mph. They weren’t great around corners though, coming as they did from a box of bits from all the top manufacturers.

For 1953 Cunningham built a brutish car called the C-4RK. The suspension this time was built by Chrysler engineers at the factory. It had a whole new frame and now had 325 hp coming from the engine. Two roasters were built and one coupe. The coupe was designed by Dr Wunibald Kamm. Yes, the very man who invented the Kamm tail. This car was the beginning of every chopped-off tail of any racecar since.

Cunningham C-4RK
Cunningham C-4RK
C-4RK interior
C-4RK interior

The team used all American drivers for 1953. Duane Carter stuffed his car into a sandbank after Phil Hill had carefully brought it up to third overall. Cunningham drove one of the roadsters for 20 of the 24 hours, bringing it in 4th overall. Cunningham brought the same cars back for ’53 and ’54, finishing in 7th and 8th and 3rd and 4th.

For 1955, Cunningham went back to Le Mans with the C6-R. He’d dumped the Hemi and resleeved an Offy of 2942cc. They’d copied the body from the very successful Jaguar D type. Le Mans for ’55 was tragic. A high-speed accident involving an Austin Healey and a Mercedes saw the Mercedes hurtling into the crowd breaking up as it went. Seventy-seven people were killed. Remarkably the race went on and it was only in the later stages that Mercedes withdraw the rest of the team. The C-6R was very mediocre and dropped out while running 13th. Later in the US they repowered it with a 3.8 Jaguar engine but nothing really improved it.

At this time B S Cunningham, the company went out of business as it was becoming impossible to finance it to compete with the major manufacturers, but probably what really put the brakes on was that the IRS no longer allowed the company to write the whole program off.

Cunningham C-6R of 1955
Cunningham C-6R of 1955

Briggs Cunningham went on to race Jaguars, Maseratis and Corvettes with varying success. His other love was yachting; in 1959 he skippered the Columbia to win the America’s Cup.

11. DeTomaso Pantera

1966 Mangusta
1966 Mangusta

After Henry Ford’s disastrous attempt to buy Ferrari in 1963, Ford did something very bold in 1970 by buying DeTomaso, the Italian (Turin-based) coach-building company that had once been Ghia.

In 1966 Alejandro DeTomaso, an Argentinian married to a hugely wealthy American, Isabelle Haskell, borrowed handfuls of her money. After having Peter Brock design a quite fabulous mid-mounted chassis for the 5-liter 289 cubic inch Ford engine, he took it to Ghia in Turin to be bodied. Giorgetto Giugiaro was now running the show there and made a quite stunning design that they called the Mangusta.

1967 Mangusta interior
1967 Mangusta interior
1966 Mangusta from the rear
1966 Mangusta from the rear

The Mangusta was exhibited at the 1966 Turin Auto Show and received rave reviews. They made about 150 between 1966 and 1970 after DeTomaso and his brother-in-law bought Ghia completely out. Giugiaro stayed with them for a year and then left to start his own company Ital Design. Ital Design is still running today. It employs over 800 and is the starting place for car styling for Ferrari, Lamborghini, VW and Audi.

1971 Pantera
1971 Pantera

It was still fairly lightweight at 3100 lbs, and would hit 150 mph and go through the quarter mile in 14 seconds. After four years of production, Ford closed them off, having lost a sizeable bundle on each one. But they kept the Ghia shop open where they continued to style up their own production models.

12. Devin SS

The stunning Devin SS
The stunning Devin SS

Bill Devon was an early hot rodder from California. In 1952 he imported a Scaglietti-bodied Ermini 1100, which was drop dead gorgeous and took a fiberglass mold off it. What he did next was very clever. He sold the bodies to fit chassis from 78” to 106” and tread widths from 40” to 52.” How he did this was with modular molds fitted together in sections. Rather like an expandable dining room table.

You could buy one of these bodies in the mid-50s for just $295 in any modular form you liked. They sold like hotcakes and were seen on most tracks including Pikes Peak, with Corvette and Oldsmobile engines, instead of the little 1100cc that was in the original Ermini 1100.

It wasn’t too long, though, before a lot of others had copied the body style. About this time, Devin got an order from Ireland, from a guy called Malcolm McGregor, who happened to tell Devin that he was building a chassis for the SS. This intrigued Devon to the degree that he actually took a few trips over there to follow progress. It ended up with a company called Devonshire Engineering being formed in Belfast making very high quality chassis for Corvette engines and the SS body. Instead of just selling bodies, Devin was now selling complete cars.

The chassis was a work of art, and even incorporated side impact protection and rollover protection, all within a lightweight but very strong platform. Into this went the 283-cu-inch Corvette but with Devin’s own intake manifold and a 4-barrel carb set up to make 290hp. Large Girling disc brakes all around and a strong 4-speed Borg-Warner completed the package.

McGregor shipped across the chassis, and the bodies and mechanicals were assembled in his El Monte shop. They even had wire wheels, leather bucket seats and a trunk space to take a small suitcase.

Devin sold these for an unbelievable $5950. Pretty cheap when you consider that these competed head to head with Shelby Cobras. Zero to 60mph in 4.8 seconds—but this was long before the Cobra. We’re talking 1958 here.

The cars won races, had mad keen car reviews, and were beautiful, strong and fast and so damn cheap, but Devin couldn’t give them away. They only made 15. By 1960 the price had risen to $10,000, but considering the package they were still a giveaway.

So, in 1961, Devin after trying really hard just gave up on the project, and instead made a body for the VW, called the Devin D. This was the forerunner for the Meyers Manx. These were getting sold for $1495, but went the same way as the SS, just a general shrug of the shoulders. Hard to understand given the beauty and quality and price of the products. Maybe that was the problem. People perceive that quality costs money. Who knows what the problem was, but I feel really sorry for Bill Devin, because it must have hard doing everything right only for your dream to shatter in pieces in front of you.

13. Dual-Ghia

1953 Thomas Special
1953 Thomas Special

By 1950, postwar car designers and constructors in Italy were struggling. Ghia, though, had been constructing bicycles and trailers for some time just so they could pay the bills, and they were in much better shape than more famous designers who just relied on auto design, such as Bertone.

In the early '50s Chrysler had a showroom of fairly dull cars. Chrysler’s vice president, C.B Thomas, appointed designer Virgil Exner (inventor of the fins) to head up a team to restyle their fleet. Exner used Ghia to build the cars. The first was named the Thomas Special, after the VP. These cars were principally styled for the all-important motor shows, without too much thought of future production.

Chrysler’s French distributor happened to see the Thomas Special in Ghia’s coach-building studio. After awhile it became obvious that Chrysler had no intention of producing this model, and so a deal was struck with Gigi Segre, head of Ghia. Altogether they made 400 of these cars for the French distributor. All were powered with the 180-hp hemi V8 and on the Chrysler New Yorker platform.

1953 Thomas Special interior
1953 Thomas Special interior

Chrysler did make the GS-1 in 1954, albeit in limited numbers. Most actually went to Europe, as this was a design that appealed to Europeans more than most Americans at the time. They were very close to the Thomas Special in looks but were truly luxurious GTs that were good for 120mph.

Ghia – GS-1
Ghia – GS-1

Take a close look down the sides there and you can see a lot of Bentley Continental of 1952.

After the GS-1, Ghia built the Dual-Ghia: what I consider to be a really beautiful car, but the design was controversial nevertheless. This was a car owned by many celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Although Chrysler had built a show car similar to the Dual Ghia, they didn’t build the Dual Ghia and never had any intention of doing so. Shame really, because they could have cleaned up. Like many of these one-off luxury cars, it was left to rich passionate admirers to take up their cause, as these stylish cars would never get approval from the conservative boardrooms.

In this case the passionate admirer was Gene Casaroll, who owned a large auto transportation company. He approached Chrysler at a car show and negotiated the rights to build replicas.

1956 Dual Ghia
1956 Dual Ghia
Dual-Ghia Interior
Dual-Ghia Interior

Casaroll showed the first prototype off at the Grosse Point Yacht Club for a price of $7600, a real steal at the time. He shipped the Dodge platforms off to Ghia in Turin; they shortened them down to 115” wheelbase and put steel bodies on them. They then shipped them back to the Casaroll-owned Dual Motors in Detroit and they finished them off with leather interior, a Dodge hemi of either 230hp or 260hp and a no-option powerflite auto transmission. They then fitted every gadget known to man.

The cars were capable of 124 mph and hit 60 mph from zero in just 8.2 seconds.

In just two years he built and sold 117 cars between 1956 and 1958: more than one a week. The stars lapped them up. The only person who didn’t have one was Sammy Davis Jr., because Casaroll refused to sell him one.

1961 Ghia L6.4
1961 Ghia L6.4
1961 Ghia L.6.4 Interior
1961 Ghia L.6.4 Interior

In 1960, Casaroll redesigned the Ghia. Basically the front was the same but he made a dream boat fastback without fins. This time it had a 325hp motor but the price had gone up to $15,000. He only sold 26 between 1960 and 1963 because they were deemed too expensive. A real shame; it was a timeless design. After this Casaroll just shut the shop up.

14. Edwards America

The Edwards America
The Edwards America
Edwards America Interior
Edwards America Interior

Sterling Edwards was heir to a huge wire cable company in California and a well-known socialite. But he was also very fast on a racetrack. Since money wasn’t an issue, he bought two Jaguar XK-120C’s, a Jaguar C Type, and (a couple of years later) a handful of Ferraris. He did pretty well and was well known in West Coast racing. Then in 1955 he a bought a pair of Ferraris, had a great season, and then retired.

He’d started a really nice line of luxury type GT cars in a small factory next to the cable factory, with just three staff including the famous Phil Remington.

Following along the lines of most car builders in this era, Edwards used a strengthened Henry J chassis but plugged in a large Oldsmobile V8. The Henry J really wasn’t up to it so the next model they used a Mercury platform with a Lincoln V8. This gave about 205 hp, and with fairly fat wire wheels and tires, handling was much better than the Henry J.

The body was made from fiberglass and every car was hand built and very carefully assembled. It came with a lightweight removable hardtop. During 1954 and 1954 Edwards America delivered six cars. They cost $8000 each, so they were at the time one of the most expensive cars on the market. Edwards lost a ton of money on each one, even though lots of parts were taken from other popular automobiles. The taillights were from a ’52 Mercury, the dash was from an Oldsmobile, and Chrysler Newport supplied the wire wheels.

Four are still known to exist. Twenty years later Edwards himself was restoring two of them. So if you see one for sale down the end of your street, buy it.

15. Excalibur

Brooks Stevens next to his 1952 Excalibur
Brooks Stevens next to his 1952 Excalibur

If he liked it then he’d consider putting Kaiser funds into it. Brooks Stevens was actually fairly well off, so he set up the prototype in his styling space, hired a couple of local panel beaters, and got down to business. They made three identical roadsters out of Henry J's chassis.

First they put some nice wide wire wheels splined onto new hubs with Dunlop racing tires. They modified the standard Kaiser drum brakes with metallic linings, stiffened up the chassis and added stiffer shock absorbers. Out went the standard Kaiser engine, and as in the Kaiser-Darrin, it was replaced with the Willys 6 but with three SU carburetors and dual exhausts. It then made about 125 hp. They then mounted the Willys 28” further back to give almost perfect 50/50 balance. It topped out at 120mph and went round corners faster than anything else in D Class/SCCA.

The driver sat well back; in fact he was sitting where the rear seat would have been in a Henry J. They weren’t the best-looking things, but man they could go. The only thing that got close to them were Ferraris that had twice the power and cost four times as much. They even beat a Cunningham C-4RK once in 1953, which was a lot more sophisticated.

Stevens thought he’d proved his point and approached Kaiser yet again to put these roadsters into production for about $2000. Kaiser chose the Kaiser Darrin instead. Stevens was pretty angry about this decision. He’d spent the best part of two years and lots of money racing these Excaliburs all over the country and he lost out to a car that hadn’t even been near a track.

So for the next five years he just carried on with his styling work, which included the quite beautiful Studebaker Hawk GT. But in 1958 his teenage sons persuaded him to have one more crack at an Excalibur racecar. So they dropped a 3.8-liter Jaguar motor from an XK-140 into a Henry J chassis and wrapped a quite stunning body around it based on a Ferrari Testarossa. They raced it in B Modified and fitted a GMC supercharger to it. It won the SCCA championship, no problem at all.

1958 SCCA B-Modified Excalibur
1958 SCCA B-Modified Excalibur

Stevens then went on to create the Mercedes SSK with Corvette power that the Stevens family still builds today.

16. Griffith

1963 MG Midget powered TVR (the same body was used for the Griffith)
1963 MG Midget powered TVR (the same body was used for the Griffith)
Griffith interior
Griffith interior

The TVR was a small British sports car that had been built by Trevor Wilkinson in fairly small numbers since 1954. It was powered by a tiny four-cylinder MG Midget engine of 1098cc. It had a fairly ugly fiberglass body and a tube frame and a very short wheelbase, but held its own against Triumph Spitfires, Midgets and an assemblage of British hand-built specials powered by similar motors.

In the States, Jack Griffith was the Ford dealer for Long Island, and his good friend, Dick Monnick was the TVR dealer. Just at this time in the mid 60’s, every car man was aware of the success that Carroll Shelby had had with the English-bodied AC Cobra and also Ian Garrad with the English-bodied Sunbeam Tiger, so the path to riches seemed as simple as buying any British sports car and stuffing a Ford 289cu inch V8 where there had been a wimpy little 4 cylinder British engine.

You can imagine this was exactly what happened when two good friends, one representing Ford, the other TVR got together and thought . . . why not?

So, Griffith didn’t do any other modification to the TVR except plant a 289 cu inch Ford engine in where once had been a 66 cubic inch engine, and change the TVR rear bade to Griffith. He didn’t even cut it back into the firewall, it simply went straight over the front wheels. He then went about and made 200 of these little death traps that could suddenly accelerate to from 0-60mph in 6 seconds and top out at 145 mph. It all worked well unless you took it around a corner. But they were fairly cheap at $4500, until you consider you could have bought a much prettier Sunbeam Tiger for $3500.

He did manage to sell the lot, and not every driver was killed, as there are still quite a lot of TVRs available today—strangely mostly back in Great Britain.

Griffith (Part Two)

Apollo GT of 1962
Apollo GT of 1962

After Jack Griffith had successfully sold 200 of the incredibly dangerous TVR/Griffiths, he thought it was time to get serious about building a real sports car and got hold of Frank Reisner in Turin. Reisner was a Hungarian-born American who shifted over to Turin in 1958 to be part of the growing number of respected car stylists and coachbuilders there. He called his company Intermeccanica.

Reisner was a perfect fit for most American wannabees at the time, because he’d had a huge background in the States with American engines and drivetrains along with Italian experience with their brilliant chassis work. His first project was a car known as the Apollo GT.

Apollo GT Interior
Apollo GT Interior

The Apollo GT was really quite a nice looking fastback built with an all steel body, but sadly with the 215 cu inch Buick V8 that only produced 140hp. Thus the Apollos were really lacking grunt. Reisner built 90 of them for International Motors based in Oakland, California before that all came to a halt.

But not quite, because Griffiths had spotted one and got hold of Reisner to design and build a new model Griffith for him. Reisner built a nice sturdy ladder frame for them with four-wheel discs, and once again they opted for the 289-cu-inch Ford V8. Griffith had Long Island stylist Bob Cumberford design a quite stunning coupe and roadster body for them, and just like the TVR, they were to be shipped to Long Island where Griffith would drop in the running gear.

Bob Cumberford’s Griffith of 1966
Bob Cumberford’s Griffith of 1966
Griffith (Intermeccanica) Interior
Griffith (Intermeccanica) Interior

Reisner built 30 of them for Griffith, who by now had sold his Ford dealership to finance the deal with Reisner. Incredibly, though, as the cars came to Griffith to tbe completed with engines and transmissions, his bills had got so out of hand that he couldn’t pay for them.

Perhaps he still owed money to Cumberford, because it was Cumberford that took them over alongside a very good technical editor at Car & Driver at the time, Steve Wilder, who was wealthy through family connections. Wilder had connections with Holman & Moody, the NASCAR engineers, famous for building the best drag engines at the time. They in turn had a direct line to Ford so the engines could be ordered. But it suddenly became even too much for Wilder’s deep pockets and he had to abandon the project. In the meantime he changed the name to Omega so as not to tarnish the car even more with Griffith’s association.

In the meantime poor Reisner had 142 engineless cars sitting on the Turin dock that Griffith had ordered, without a port to send them to. He had no choice but to sell them himself. So, he changed the name to Italia, then got hold of Ford who sent across the engines and transmissions. He then opened a dealership in New York. Next he added a gorgeous convertible called the Torino and put them on the market for $8500.

Between 1967 and 1974, when American emission and safety laws became intolerable for most small-run car manufacturers, Reisner built and sold 1000 Omegas. And in 1969 things were going so well for him that he approached Opel in Germany with a joint proposal to sell them in Europe.

Opel loved the idea, and in 1971 at the Geneva Motor Show Opel had on their stand the European version of the Omega, called the Intermeccanica Indra. These were all powered either with the Chevrolet small block 327 cu-inch V8 or the 350 cu-inch. They were good for a 0-to-60mph time of under 6 seconds and a top speed of close to 150 mph.

17. Kaiser-Darrin

1954 Kaiser-Darrin with sliding doors
1954 Kaiser-Darrin with sliding doors

Howard Darrin, known as Dutch, had an odd passion for doors. Working for Kaiser he patented a sliding door in 1949 that was really quite bizarre. It slid forward into the fender to open up the rear seats and into the back fender to reveal the front seats. It never saw production, but he kept it in his mind until 1951, when he was working with K-F Management and they promised to put an electric sliding door of his into production along with a fiberglass body. When they broke their promise, he went out on his own to prove it would work.

Dutch got a used Henry J chassis and, in his workshop in Hollywood, built a roadster with a sliding door and fiberglass body. He showed it to Henry Kaiser and Kaiser gave him enough funds to build a few more. Kaiser was looking for something exciting that would sell in limited numbers as alternatives to the big guys, Ford and Chevrolet. He was right in his thinking, because eventually Ford had to come up with their own sports car, the Thunderbird, and Chevrolet, the Corvette. They both did it as a response to smaller manufacturers like Kaiser.

1954 Kaiser-Darrin Interior
1954 Kaiser-Darrin Interior

Kaiser liked what Dutch had come up with so much he commissioned him to make 435 of them. All the bodies were made of fiberglass by Glasspar, and just as they were about to go into production, Kaiser bought Willys, so they were powered by the Willys 6 and all had Henry J chassis.

This was at the end of the Korean War. Kaiser had huge contracts with the defense department, and with the war ended so did the contracts. Within a year Kaiser was no more. Besides, the timing was the same as the introduction of the Corvette, so the Kaiser-Darrin was doomed from the start.

After Kaiser went down, Dutch bought quite a lot of factory leftovers and stuffed Cadillac V8s into them. The difference in horsepower was considerable. The Willy’s was turning out an asthmatic 90hp and the Cadillac 285hp. Briggs Cunningham owned one and got it up to 148mph. He said it was damn dangerous at that speed, as the old Henry J chassis just wasn’t equipped for this type of power.

Incredibly, of the 425 made, 320 still survive.

Brooks Stevens, who worked for Kaiser as a styling consultant and industrial designer, had the same idea at the same time as Dutch Darrin that what was needed in the USA at that time was a manufactured sports car. Whereas Dutch was aiming for the market that the Thunderbird would soon take, Stevens, as a director of the SCCA and an amateur racer, was thinking more along the lines of the British Allard and Fraser Nash. Stevens came to the same conclusion as Dutch Darrin that the Henry J was the perfect platform to build his prototype. He approached old man Kaiser, and Kaiser thought his prototype idea was good too, and managed to encourage building it without having to put anything from his own pocket into the project.

18. Scarab

1958 Scarab
1958 Scarab

Lance Reventlow began his racing career at the age of 19. Being the son of Barbara Hutton, the Woolworths heiress, helped a lot in paying the bills. He was rather an indifferent driver, but had a little European success in a Maserati in 1957.

What he wanted was to build his own car. He approached Ken Miles (later well involved with Cobras) to build a space frame, and from there Tom Barnes and Dick Troutman built up a trio of Scarabs in a Los Angeles garage. Incredibly the body was made in aluminum even when everything else at the time was being made in fiberglass.

The Scarab was a work of mechanical art. Big discs all the way around, quick-change differential, deDion rear and independent front suspension and magnesium wheels. The Corvette engine they used was a fuel-injected 5.5-liter pushing out 385hp.

1958 Scarab interior
1958 Scarab interior

The Scarab made Reventlow from an average driver into a great driver. Reventlow hired Chuck Daigh as the number two driver but in realty he was much faster than Reventlow. Didn’t really matter. They cleaned up. Between them they won all major races in 1958 and broke most track records on the way.

For 1960 Reventlow had a dream to win F1, so some Offy based cars were prepared and sent to Europe. Scarabs were very fast, but a joke compared to Ferraris and Lotus. 1960 was the first year of the rear-engined Coopers which caused a revolution in F1. In fact the Scarabs only qualified a handful of times.

After this disastrous year Reventlow returned and never raced a year. He became a part-time polo player, as only the rich can do.

All three Scarabs are in various museums today.

19. Sunbeam Tiger

1966 Sunbeam Tiger V8
1966 Sunbeam Tiger V8

The Sunbeam Tiger was spawned by the Sunbeam Alpine, produced by the Rootes Group. It had definite design similarities to the 1957 Thunderbird, but that’s not a surprise when you lean that it was styled by American Ken Howes, who was also on the team designing—the Thunderbird.

The story goes that motoring journalist Bill Carroll happened to have a loan of one of Carroll Shelby’s prototype AC 260 V8 in 1962, and he picked up his good friend, Ian Garrad who was the California head of Rootes Motors, for a ride down the Pacific Coast Highway. Garrad was seriously impressed, and they eventually ended up at Shelby’s shop. Shelby said to him, "Why don’t you shoehorn one of these 260’s into that little Alpine of yours?"

Garrad could instantly see the value in this, because his Alpine came with all sorts of things that the AC lacked, liked a heater, wind-up windows and a hardtop. But better still, what was going through his mind was that AC were charging $5700 for the AC Bristol, and although he didn’t know what Shelby was paying for them he reckoned whatever that price was, he, Garrad, would still be ahead, because he was selling the Alpine for only $2500.

Ken Miles had a shop down the road, so it was decided that both Miles and Shelby would do a conversion as a comparison. Miles did one first by transplanting a Fairlane motor with automatic transmission into the Sunbeam. Although it transformed the speed, it was so much heavier than the 1725cc 4-cylinder motor that it added 200lbs to the front end.

Shelby waited to see what Miles had done and then simply chopped the firewall up, moved the 260-cu-inch Fairlane motor back in and mounted it back as far as he could. It all worked pretty well, so Garrad shipped it over to Rootes in England who sent it off to Jensen Motors, makers of the Interceptor, whose work it was to find the right type of diff for it and sort out the suspension. But Jensen also had a go at the firewall and now had a nice balance of 51/49.

Production started in 1963, with the cars being assembled at Jensen and then shipped to Shelby who checked them over and then sent them off to Garrad. The press loved them and they sold well at a price of only $3500.

Sunbeam Tigers came standard with the 260-cu-inch V8 Fairlane motor of 160 hp, but it wasn’t long until Shelby started supplying the 289-cu-inch Cobra engines of 306 hp to Rootes and you could specify one of these instead of the 260. The figures soared. Top speed for the 260 version was pretty good at 120 mph, but with the 289, top speed went to 150 mph. Zero to 60 mph time for the 260 was a really fast 7.5 seconds and it would go through the quarter at 85 mph, but with the 289 it went through the quarter at over 100 mph.

Luxurious interior of the 1966 Sunbeam Tiger
Luxurious interior of the 1966 Sunbeam Tiger

At about the same time that the Tiger’s production started, Chrysler took over Rootes in England. The only V8 Chrysler had was their 273-cu-inch, which was just too big and wouldn’t work without expensive chassis modifications. Incredibly, though, Chrysler didn’t kill the project, but kept it going for the next three years using Ford-based engines. Garrad probably had something to do with this, though as he was selling them as fast as they were making them.

Tigers were known as the poor man's Cobra, which is probably a little unfair, as although they both shared British sports car bodies and Cobra engines, the AC Cobra was always meant as a hot rod whereas the Tiger was just made as a refined fast sports car.

20. Ford Thunderbird

1955 Ford Thunderbird
1955 Ford Thunderbird

Whereas the Corvette was designed by people passionate about sports cars, the Thunderbird was designed by a committee and made purely for profit. In that way it worked. For the first five years Corvettes ran at a loss for Chevrolet, as the numbers show. In 1955 Ford sold 16,000 Thunderbirds and Chevrolet sold 1700 Corvettes. In 1957 Ford sold 21,000 Thunderbirds to Chevrolet's 6,300 Corvettes.

1955 Ford Thunderbird interior
1955 Ford Thunderbird interior

When Ford got wind that Chevy was designing a secret sports car, the race was on. Lewis Crusoe was General Manager of Ford at the time and George Walker was head of design. Between them they were desperate to beat Chevrolet to the market. Knowing Chevrolet was only going for the performance market, their plan was to design a car "all things to all men," therefore appealing to a much wider market. They raided all the parts bins right across the range. So taillights, headlights and instruments were all from other Fords.

They slotted the Mercury 292-cu-in V8 into it. A smart move, as Corvette went with the old tired Blue Flame 6. Instead of going with then-unfamiliar fiberglass, they went straight for steel. That theory worked too, as at the time once you’d built over 15,000 steel bodies a year, the cost was the same. A huge disadvantage though was when they finally rolled off the line they weighed 3600 lbs, 800 lbs. heavier than the Corvette.

There were actually pretty fast though. Top speed was 115 mph and a quarter mile took 17 seconds. They didn’t go around corners well, but the target market were boulevard cruisers so they weren’t going to go around corners fast anyway.

They only lasted until 1958, when a radical style redesign came out. The car had then completely lost its way. Gone were the porthole hardtop, subtle fins and egg-crate grill. But this was all about profit and Ford moved with the times.

The Thunderbird was only built for the middle class who didn’t care a scrap about motor racing. Nevertheless, I have to say, in 1957 the Thunderbird was available with a McCulloch supercharged 312 cu-in engine giving up 325 hp. A highly collectable verision now, if you can find one whose engine didn’t go into a drag car.

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