Between 2008 and 2015, I had the privilege to work for one of the most traditional speed shops in Brazil, Powertech, the company was founded with a noble mission: to bring performance parts from the USA to South America, helping a legion of gearheads who craved speed but had nowhere to go. Powertech’s founder, João Alexandre de Abreu, is probably the most knowledgeable car guy I ever met. He is also responsible for bringing drag racing to a professional level in Brazil, but this might be a story for another post.
During my time at Powertech, one of my responsibilities was to take care of the “classic cars” the boss had for sale. One can’t complain about a job that requires cleaning, fixing little issues and driving around a collection of classic cars, from the 1930s to the 1970s, including some cool hot rods too.
Even though I remember most of them (if not all), some stand out, such as this 1929 Ford Tudor rat rod
The car was pretty much finished when it arrived at Powertech and only a few changes had to be made to bring it up to the boss’s level.
The hot rod was first powered by a 318″ small-block Mopar but when it came to us, the engine had already been replaced by a more “classic” unit, a 221″ Ford Flathead V8. The engine is easily identified as a first-gen, by the two water pumps placed in front of the cylinder heads, built between 1932 and 1936. The mill is bone stock but the team installed a pair of Stromberg 97 carbs, mounted on top of an Eddie Meyer Hollywood aluminum intake.
The Flatty is bolted to a 3-speed manual tranny that was removed from Chevy pickup truck.
The spoke rims were custom built by the Powertech team, 17″ in front and 19″ in the rear, wrapped with Firestone whitewall tires (4.75 x 5” and 5,25 x 5.50″).
The radiator grille came from a 1934 Ford and the big headlights from an REO truck that we don’t even know the year, very rare indeed.
The roof was chopped 2 1/2″ and to give this ultra-low stance, the body was channelled but I don’t remember how many inches.
A little explanation for those not really into the Hot Rod universe: channelling is a process of removing the car’s body of the frame, cutting the floor loose and reattaching it higher inside the body. This modification allows the entire body to rest closer to the ground without messing up with the suspension.
The interior is very simple, as a hot rod should be in my opinion. The gauges came from a 1939 Ford and the steering wheel from a 1970s Chevy SS.
Although the car is “too clean” to be qualified as a Rat Rod, the team considered it as such. After a while, it became known simply as “rato”, the Portuguese translation for rat. Old-timers like me called it “ratoeira” (rat trap), a term well known at race tracks, referring to a race car so poorly built that would most likely kill the driver.
The Rat Trap took an awful long time to be sold, and during that time we drove it to many hot rod/classic car meetings that happened in our town. Naturally, the team became attached to the car.
Now I just wonder if the new owner is treating it with as much care as we did.
Note of the editor: “The Flatties have their own music so, let them sing“. Check it out the video below and listen to the Rat Trap sound.
By the time when I began to better understand the Formula One universe, during my teenage years, Emerson Fittipaldi was struggling with the Copersucar race team and he naturally fell into obscurity. Fans like me were waiting for the next guy who would restore the Brazilian pride in F-One and that guy was Nelson Piquet.
Pique was born on August 17th, 1952, in Rio de Janeiro, and his career in sports started far from the race tracks, as a tennis player. At the age of 11, his father sent him to spend some time in California, to improve his game, training against American players, during this time he learned two very important things: first, the English language and second, he was not good enough to pursue a professional career as a tennis player.
At this point, racing was nothing more than a passion but now, free from his tennis obligation, he had more time to dedicate to his hobby. At 14 years old, he bought a Go-Kart in partnership with two other friends and he started to compete in the national circuit. Since his father was completely against his career as a race driver, Piquet started to used his mother’s maiden name Piquet (of French origin and pronounced as “Pee-Ké”) misspelt as Piket to hide his identity.
Nelson won the Brazilian Go-Kart championship in 1971 and 1972 but since he had no financial support from his family, the beginning of his career was slow and painful when compared with more fortunate young drivers.
In 1974 Nelson dropped out the Mechanical Engineering course he was attending for two years and found a job at a garage. Eventually he saved enough money to buy a Formula Super Vee.
Piquet was never afraid of turning wrenches himself, he extensively modified his F-Vee, especially the body. Going against the majority of the other racers, he eliminated most of the aerodynamic stuff that provided the ground effect for the car, making it fast on straights. When asked how he would drive a car that behaves badly on turns, he used to say: “Don’t you worry, I will deal with it.” Nelson won the regional championship in Rio de Janeiro in 1976.
The twice Formula-One World Champion, Emerson Fittipaldi, saw Piquet as the next Brazilian prodigy, he advised Nelson to pack his things and leave to Great Britain as soon as possible.
Piquet arrived in Europe with enough credentials to secure him a position at the British Formula 3, and a good sponsorship (Brastemp/Arno is a very popular appliance brand in Brazil). In 1978 he not only won the championship but also broke Jackie Stewart’s record of the most wins in a season. Now his career seems to be taking off.
In the same year Piquet was invited by two small Formula-One teams, Ensign and BS Fabrication, to do some tests and even before the end of the season, he had signed a contract with Brabham.
The Brabham Racing Team drivers for the 1979 season was Niki Lauda, occupying the first spot, and Nelson Piquet as the second. The season proved to be a fiasco for the team, the BT48 was a hard-to-tune car, powered by the unreliable 3 litre, V12 Alfa-Romeo engine.
Even driving a problematic car, Piquet qualified in the top 5 several times, often out-qualifying Lauda, the big problem was reliability, he failed to finish 11 races out of 15 races participated that year.
Brabham had the new BT49 ready for the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979, now powered by the trustworthy Ford-Cosworth V8 engine. Unexpectedly, Niki Lauda quit Brabham right before the race, leaving Piquet as the number one driver.
In the final race, the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Piquet started from the front row and took the fastest lap in the race, clearly showing the new BT49’s considerable potential.
It was in 1980 that the battle for Piquet’s first World title began. The BT49, designed by the South-African Gordon Murray, was at its peak performance, the car even had some very interesting features throughout the season, like water-cooled brakes and hydropneumatic suspension.
The water-cooled brakes became very controversial during the early 1980s, it was used by most of the teams racing naturally aspirated engines because the water tanks helped to bring their cars to the required minimum weight, during the pre-race inspection, turbo cars didn’t need it since they are basically heavier. The trick here is, the water evaporates pretty quickly along the race, making the car a lot lighter, improving considerably the overall performance. In most of the cases, (if not in all of them) the brakes never needed the extra cooling and there was no need for the driver to pit-stop to refill the tanks.
The 1980 season will always be remembered by the fierce battle between Nelson Piquet, driving for Brabham and Alan Jones, drivinf for Williams. At the end, Jones won the championship 13 points ahead of the Brazilian.
The First World Title.
Nelson’s first World Championship came in 1981, in a very dramatic season, he fought not only against his old rival, Alan Jones but also against the Williams second driver, Carlos Reutemann, from Argentina.
The battle for the title was carried on to the last race of the season, the Ceasars Palace Grand Prix, held in Las Vegas. Piquet was only a point behind the leader Reutemann.
It was a dreadful race in many aspects, Reutemann had a failing gearbox as early as lap 2 and he was falling behind pretty quickly. On lap 17 Piquet was getting ready to pass him when Reutemann slammed on the brakes much earlier for the turn, but fortunately, Nelson was able to avoid the crash. There is the suspicion that Reutemann deliberately tried to involve Piquet in an accident; he knew with a broken transmission he had no chance to score points in the race and the only way to secure the World Title was stopping Piquet, but of course, this is just a speculation.
The race was no smooth sailing for Piquet as well, suffering from heat exhaustion he could barely keep the car on track, at the end he finished in fifth position, just enough to score two points. When Piquet stopped at the pits, he was so weak that the mechanics had to pull him out of the car. He became World champion by one point ahead of Carlos Reutemann.
The turbo era and the second World Championship
By the early 1980s, Renault and Ferrari were actively racing turbocharged cars and even if the Ford-Cosworth V8 was still the dominant source of power for most of the teams, (it won the 79, 80, and 81 seasons), everybody knew the glory days of the old Ford V8 were numbered.
In 1982 Brabham closed a deal with BMW to supply turbo engines for the new BT49 D. For the first 4 races of the season, the car was still powered by the Ford-Cosworth, and it was only in the Belgium Grand Prix that the Germans finally delivered the turbo engine. The remaining of the season was used for developing the car, with no chance of fighting for the title.
For the next year, 1983, Gordon Murray presented the arrow-shaped BT52, a fully developed brand new car, powered by the 1.5 litre, in-line 4, BMW turbocharged mill. The unit was based on a production engine; some of them were even built with well run in blocks that had covered over 100,000 km and were sometimes retrieved from scrap yards. This controversial idea actually has a good point: a well-used cast iron block had gone through all the possible thermal stress; the expansion and contraction caused by the changes in temperature. The cast-iron block was fitted with a bespoke alloy head with four valves per cylinder. A KKK turbocharger helped to boost the power to 640 bhp in race trim and well over 750 bhp in qualifying mode.
Piquet won the opening race in Brazil, a second place in France and another second at Monaco also taking the fastest lap, but close to the end of the season, Alain Prost was comfortably leading with 14 points ahead Piquet, with only three races left in the season.
Pique managed to win the next two races, Monza and Brands Hatch, closing the gap to only 2 points, bringing the decision to the last race, the South-African Grand Prix. Post retired at lap 35, and Piquet had no trouble finishing the race in third, winning his second world title. It also was the first time a turbocharged car won the championship and was BMW’s first and only title in Formula-One.
For Nelson Piquet, Brabham was like his second family, he had a very good relationship with the mechanics, with the management, and especially with Gordon Murray, who was like a friend to him.
Right after his second title, Piquet was feeling the big boss was taking advantage of the situation, he was receiving one of the lowest wages in F-one and he was also frustrated by the fact that the team was making some decisions without consulting him, for example, the adoption of the controversial (at the time) Pirelli tires.
He was in contact with a few teams, like McLaren and Ferrari but was Williams who offered something impossible to refuse: a 3 times higher pay and a fabulous machine, the FW10 powered by the engine that would soon became dominant in F-One, the turbocharged Honda V-6.
After 7 seasons and 2 World titles, Piquet left Brabham at the end of 1985.
His start at the new team wasn’t easy, he was hired as number one driver, but Nigel Mansell, who was hired a year before, was already enjoying that position. This conflicting situation created a bitter rivalry between the two drivers.
The 1986 season became one of the closest and most fiercely disputed championships ever in Formula One, Piquet and Mansell went head-on against each other and this “inside war” was causing them to make too many mistakes, allowing Alain Prost, from McLaren to jump as the leader of the season.
However, Piquet was the best option to beat Prost, and Williams was under a lot of pressure from Honda to play “politics” on the track. The Japanese company wanted the slower driver to concede in favour of the faster driver, in other words, every time Mansell was to finish a race in front of Piquet, he should hit the brakes and allow the Brazilian to pass and collect the points.
Williams never did such a thing, even if this kind of politics was part of the contract signed by both companies. Prost became the first Frenchman to win a Formula One Championship, and Williams won the constructor’s world title.
The third championship
For the 1987 season, Nelson decided to leave the emotions aside and be more reasonable at the race track, even if the tensions between him and Nigel Mansell were still at the boiling point. Piquet played an important role in the development of the new Williams FW11 and the car was the best machine on the grid. The year was supposed to go by with no surprises and the title would be decided between the two Williams’s drivers.
The Brazilian suffered a severe accident at Imola, during qualifying, and following medical recommendations, he did not participate in the race. At the end of the season, Mansell won more races, but Piquet managed to collect more points and win his third world title.
Even before the end of the season, Piquet announced he had signed a contract with Lotus, to be the undisputed number one driver, a promise that was never fulfilled at Williams.
The beginning of the end
Piquet debuted at Lotus in 1988 with great expectations, after all the 100T was also powered with the same unbeatable Honda turbocharged, V6 engine.
The season proved to be a total frustration, Piquet didn’t win a single race and he was completely overshadowed by another Brazilian driver, Airton Senna, who won his first World Championship that year.
The 1989 season was a little bit better but not enough to bring him to the “Top 5” drivers. In 1990 he signed a contract with Benetton with his salary based on the results, but the good results never came and he quit Formula One all together in 1992.
The controversial one.
Nelson Piquet was never an easy-going guy, he always had a complicated relationship with the media and not a lot of teammates have good memories of him, but things got way worse when his career took a downturn. Piquet started to fire insults at people he didn’t like, he called Nigel Mansell “an uneducated blockhead” and also made remarks about the looks of Mansell’s wife, saying she was “ugly”. He called Airton Senna a “taxi driver” and later he said Airton “doesn’t like women”. Piquet had to public apologize for those horrible statements when he was threatened with legal actions.
The Indy series
After his retirement, Piquet followed the steps of many ex-Formula One drivers and he tried the American Indy car series. He was hired by the Menard Racing Team, to compete in the 1992 Indianapolis 500.
He seemed comfortable on the oval and was doing quite well during practice until he run over some debris on the track and he decided to go back to the pits, that was the moment when he made a typical rookie mistake while going around turn 4 at full throttle, he abruptly took his foot off the gas pedal, to enter the pit lane and his car spun out of control, hitting the wall at 300km/h.
“A picture is worth a thousand words“, and that certainly is the case of the photograph above, it shows how horrifying the accident was. Surviving that crash was nothing less than a miracle but Piquet suffered serious foot and ankle injuries. Even after all these years and lots of physiotherapy he still walks with the aid of a cane.
He came back to Indianapolis in 1993 but had to retire at lap 38 due to engine failure.
During his career as Formula- One driver, Piquet was also involved with Sportscar/GT competition. In partnership with the German driver Hans Stuck, he raced in the legendary 1000km of Nurburgring in 1980 and 1981, driving a (also legendary) BMW M1. The duo scored a victory in the 1981 edition.
In 1996, well into his retirement, Piquet competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving a McLaren F1 GTR, having Johnny Cecotto and Danny Sullivan as teammates, finishing eighth overall.
During 1996/97 he actively promoted the GT series in Brazil. In partnership with the Venezuelan driver Johnny Cecotto, they dominated both seasons, even winning the most traditional endurance race in South America, the “Brazilian 1000 Miles”. Always driving the McLaren F1.
“The last time I saw Piquet in action was in 1996 when the GT Series was brought to my hometown, Curitiba, in Brazil. What I saw that day was the Piquet like the good old times, not the retired F-One driver but the three times World Champion. He was bold but precise – no mistakes – leaving no room for the other drivers. Of course, the car he drove helped a lot, the gorgeous McLaren F1, powered by the sublime V12 BMW engine, a GT car made in heaven. At some point during the race, the guy driving in the second position was trying so desperately to close the gap that the engine of his Ferrari F40 exploded while he was going flat-out, right in front of the stands, 20.000 fans rose from our seats and we went like “wooooow” in unison!!!! “
“I have so many good memories of my hometown race track but that Sunday afternoon is one of the best.”
On January 20, 2006, Nelson Piquet won the 50th edition of the Brazilian 1000 Miles, in Interlagos, at the wheel of an Aston Martin DBR9. The driving duties were shared with the 4 times Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, the French race driver Christophe Bouchut, and Piquet’s eldest son Nelson Junior. At the end of the race, an exhausted Piquet was quoted saying to a friend he would “never sit in a cockpit again.
Now a days Nelson spends his time taking care of his businesses: fleet management software and GPS vehicle tracking and he keeps himself close to the race track managing the racing career of his two sons, Nelson Jr. And Pedro Piquet.
Piquet is also an avid classic car collector.
Nelson Piquet is the kind of character that inspires “love or hate” feelings among racing aficionados, especially because the Brazilian fans love to compare him with Airton Senna. For the majority of those fans, Senna will always be the “good guy”, the gifted driver that tragically died in pursuit of more titles and Piquet will always be “the jerk” who loves insulting people.
For me, he is the fellow Brazilian who won 3 Formula One world titles and remained a true gearhead ever after; the guy will always have my admiration.
When I went to see Mad Max for the first time, in 1985, the movie was already 6 years old and its two sequels had been released already. To be honest, the sequels never caught my attention, I was there to see the original. Even after so many years I still remember leaving the theatre in awe, the dark, dystopian, decaying society created by the director George Miller just blew my mind. At that time I had a pretty bleak vision of the future as well, I always imagined the big cities taken by hordes of criminals where the police had to use tanks to patrol the streets. In my mind, all the weirdness of the movie and its characters just made perfect sense.
The plot couldn’t be simpler: a decent cop, Max Rockatansky, goes on a bloody vengeance against the gang of bikers responsible for the murder of his best friend (Jim “Goose”) and his family. The trick here is not the plot, but how the movie was crafted, had it been done by Hollywood and it would have been a very cheesy one, but the Aussies worked out a not so brilliant plot, with a very limited budget and created a masterpiece.
Mad Max was a pioneer in many ways, it was the inspiration for most of the ultra-violent movies that flooded the theatres in the 1980s. The movie looks tame for today’s standards but it was pretty shocking back in 1979.
Another important point is: for the first time, a car was considered more like a supporting actor in the movie. The black Interceptor is considered more like a mythical creature, the last of the V8s, created by a weird scientist/mechanic and kept in the dungeons of the police precinct. The car became the perfect partner for Max to achieve his revenge.
Mad Max was also an ode to the Punk movement, which was at its peak in 1979. The complete disillusion with the future of society and, of course, all the black leather clothing seeing there are the two most important ingredients of the movement. Those ingredients would make their way to the cyberpunk genre, and, perhaps, the 1999 movie Matrix is the best example of it.
Mad Max was a creation of George Miller, who not only directed the movie but also wrote the original story and the screenplay, in partnership with Byron Kennedy and James McCausland. The trio also produced and edited the movie; an indie enterprise at its best.
The production worked on a very tight budget of only $350,000, and they got into trouble right after the shootings. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told the “CraveOnline”.
George Miller, who has medical degree, started to work on weekends as a emergency room doctor to help pay for the movie expenses.
Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.
The production did whatever they could to save money, the Mazda Bongo van that was destroyed during the opening chase was Miller’s personal car.
Most of the bikers we see in the movie actually were real bikers, from a Victoria based motorcycle clube, the Vigilanties. Close to the end, the cash level was so low that the production had to pay some of those bikers with beer.
When the Times reviewed the movie, in 1979, the title of the article was: “Poetic Car Nage”, which gives an idea of how important the machines are in the movie. For all of us with little or zero knowledge of the Australian muscle cars, the ones we see on the screen are just, well… cars, and that helps to blend them into the post-apocalyptic, comic-bookish scenario of the movie. Let’s take a closer look into those cars, and bikes as well:
The average cruiser of the MFP (Main Force Police) is the 1973/76 Ford Falcon XB 4 door, painted in a cool colour scheme that might be a little unusual for a police cruiser. The car shares its name with the American cousin but it is an exclusive product of the Australian Ford.
The Aussie Falcon was a complete line of cars, with 2 and 4 doors sedan, station -wagon, 2 doors coupe and even panel van.
The powertrain options were: 200cid /250cid inline 6 and 302cid/351cid V8.
The most popular version was the 4 doors and Ford even offered it in a “GT” trim, equipped with the 351 small block paired with either an automatic transmission or a 4-speed manual. Some of the yellow interceptors that appear in the movie are not GT but they had to be dressed to look like one.
The last of the V8s
Halfway through the movie, Max is introduced to the car that would become the perfect weapon to hunt down those crazy bikers. According to the mechanic who put the car together: The last of the V8 Interceptors… a piece of history!
The sinister black coupe, with a Weiand blower that could be magically turned on and off, is a 1973 Ford Falcon XB coupe GT. The car was slightly modified with some aerodynamic body parts to make it looks like something from a “near future”.
The Ford Falcon is, perhaps, the most beloved Australian muscle car ever made and a good example of this passion is the 2009 documentary Love the Beast, directed by the Hollywood star Eric Bana, where he talks about his 1974 XB coupe he bought when he was 15 years old. This documentary is another The Classic Machines certified recommendation.
The art director of the Mad Max movie, Jon Dowding, wanted a 71/73 Mustang to play the role of Max Rockatansky’s car but he had to drop the idea since the Falcon was cheaper.
If you have seen the movie, you might have noticed that pretty much all the bikes there are Kawasaki and the reason for that is simple, the producers score a deal with Kawasaki of Australia: in exchange for some publicity in the movie, the Japanese company gave them 10 brand new KZ 1000s. The bike is powered by a in-line 4, 998cc, 16 valve, air cooled engine, able to produce 90HP, which was some serious power back then.
The only problem is, the style of those bikes was not quite right for the movie, it looks too tame, too “1980s”. The actor Bertrand Cardant, who played the gang member Crank, received the task to bring those bikes to a more retro-futuristic looking. Cardant had some customizing experience since he owned a bike shop called La Parisienne.
Cardant even bought some molds and learned how to laminate fibreglass from a book. The fairings seen on Goose’s and Toecutter”s bikes are his own creation, inspired by the endurance bikes seen at the Bol d’Or. “It was amateurish stuff,” Cardant explains
The actor Hugh Keays-Byrne , who played gang leader Toecutter, and several others rode the 550 miles miles from Sydney to the movie set, in Melbourne, all dressed in their costumes. “It was a good rehearsal,” Keays-Byrne remembers.
Local motorcycle club The Vigilanties provided the rest of Toecutter’s gang. Actor Tim Burns recalls working with the bikers: “They all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” The Vigilanties also worked as stuntmen as well, participating in the making of some very dangerous scenes.
The long journey of the Interceptor
At the end, the producers still had a lot of bills to pay and the black interceptor was sold to stuntman Murray Smith, who brought the car back to its original appearance. Eventually they bought the car back for the sequels.
At the end of the third movie, the only surviving black Interceptor was sent to be scrapped but was saved by a guy called Henry Warholack, who later sold the car to a collector named Bob Fursenko in the mid-80s. Fursenko restored the manacing coupe to a showroom standard and it became a popular attraction at car shows around Australia. In 1993 the Falcon was sold to the Cars of the Stars Museum in Keswick, England.
The car remained in display until 2011, when the entire collection of the museum was bought and transferred to the US by real state mogul Michael Dezer.
If you want to see this legend up close, you must go to the Orlando Auto Museum, where the car is on display. The black Interceptor is once again for sale, but Mr. Dezer has already refused a 2 million dollars offer.
As for the bikes, the seven surviving Kawasakis were offered as a lot for 5 grand. Byron said: “One day they will be collector’s items”, at that point he was just joking, he had no idea his movie was just about to become cult. Some of them were scraped and some were sold, if any of those bikes has survived to this day, nobody knows.
Mad Max is still considered one of the most profitable movies ever made, it was a box office success, grossing over $100 million worldwide, with a cost of only $400.000,00. With some serious money in their pockets, Miller and Byron went on producing two sequels, the 1981 The Road Warrior and the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. George Miller even directed the 2015 Mad Max reinterpretation Fury road.
Mel Gibson wasn’t even supposed to play the role of Max Rockatanski, he was merely accompanying a friend who was auditioning for the part. When Miller saw him it was like love at first sight, Gibson was the perfect guy for the part.
The three Mad Max movies propelled him to become one of the most popular action-movie actors of the 1980s. He began a solid career as a movie director in the 1990s but after some homophobic statements he made in the early 2000s, Hollywood put him on the blacklist for a decade.
I always thought Mel Gibson was Australian but he was born in Peekskill, New York.
Mad Max is the kind of movie that the making of can be as exciting as the movie itself. There are a few websites that will tell you the whole story. A book could be written about it.
George Miller wraps up the adventure: “Mad Max is obviously very special to me. It was the first film, and after all these years it still means something to people. So even though it was a very hard film to make, we must have done something right!”
Does the movie still mean something for the fans? You bet! When my wife Estela bought her first car, a 1990 black Chevy Cavalier Z24, she inevitably named it Max.
Note of the editor: If you haven’t seen the movie, please do it, but be advised, Mad Max is a kind of weird movie, made more than 40 years ago, by Australians. This is not your average “Fast and Furious” stuff by any stretch of the imagination.
Brazil, if there is one sport that defines the country is soccer, after all, they won the World Cup 5 times, but there is another sport that the country won even more titles: Formula One. Brazilian drivers won nothing less than 8 F-One World Championships. Sir Jack Stewart once tried to explain the phenomena: “Must be something in the water they drink”.
The more contemporary Formula One fans will certainly remember the name of Airton Senna before anybody else but the Brazilian tradition in the sport began way before Senna, with the guy who paved the road for all other Brazilian race drivers, his name is Emerson Fittipaldi.
Fittipaldi was born in São Paulo, in 1946, son of a prominent Italian-Brazilian motorsports journalist and radio commentator Wilson Fittipaldi, also known as the ” Baron Fittipaldi”. His father was deeply involved with racing, Mr. Wilson was one of the founders of the “Mil Milhas Brasileiras”, in 1956, and the race became the most traditional motorsport competition in South America.
Emerson’s passion for speed started at a very young age, when he was 11 his father took him to watch a race in Interlagos and at the end, he convinced his father to ask one of his race driver friends to take him for a lap around the track. The little boy was exhilarated with the sound, the wind coming through the window, and with the thrill of the speed. Emerson was hooked for life.
At the age of 15, he was already racing motorcycles and at 16, he and his brother Wilson Jr. were racing hydroplanes. During one of those races, Wilson Jr. narrowly escaped death when he crash-landed his airplane and the duo agreed to give up air races and dedicate their time entirely to automobiles.
At the age of 17 Emerson won the Brazilian Go-Kart Championship, racing with a kart he had borrowed from a friend, and for the next year, the factory Renault/Willys race team hired him to be one of the official drivers.
In the early 1960s, the recently created Brazilian auto industry was heavily investing in competitions, race tracks were popping up all over the country, racing quickly became the second most popular sport in Brazil, in that scenario the young Fittipaldi blossomed.
In 1965 Emerson started to drive professionally for the Renault/Willys Racing Team, at the wheel of the race-specs Renault R8 (picture above), imported from France.
The Fittipaldi brothers abandoned the touring car races in 1967 in favour to the single-seater Formula Super Vee, with a car built by themselves. In his second season Emerson won the Brazilian Championship.
Not only a driver.
Emerson was not only passionate about speed but also about the machines. The Go-Kart he used to win the championship in 1964 was tuned by himself and he did such a good job that other competitors hired him to take care of their Karts.
In the same year, Wilson Jr. visited Europe and brought something that he couldn’t find in Brazil: a custom steering wheel for his mother’s car. The brothers quickly saw it as a business opportunity and soon they decided to produce something similar. The name of this new steering wheel was Formula 1.
In 1966 Wilson Jr. Bought a Porsche 550 1500 RS chassis that was abandoned in the back of a repair shop. To fix the powertrain and get the chassis ready for action was a no brainer, the real problem was to find a body in a good condition. Emerson, who at that time was studying automotive design, draw a new GT body and in a matter of 3 months the two brothers, with the help of the metal artisan Francisco Picciutto, hand-built a new aluminum GT body for the chassis.
The brothers called it “Fitti-Porsche”; the car was not only gorgeous, but it was pretty fast: at its first race, the 1967 edition of the “Mil Milhas Brasileira”, Wilson Jr. broke the 7 years standing track record, during qualifying.
The car was fast but, unfortunately, not reliable. The Fitti-Porsche led without difficulty every single race it entered until something broke down. Emerson won just one race with it, but the car was a good “hands-on” experience nevertheless.
Next stop: Europe.
Around 1968, Emerson and Wilson Jr. came to know the European Formula Ford, an affordable single-seater category that was the first step towards Formula One.
Emerson sold his Formula Vee, some other race-related junk, and with some extra help from his father, he gathered enough money to buy a second-hand Formula Ford and to support himself for 3 months in the UK.
Emerson finished the 1968 British Formula Ford Championship with 3 wins, 2 seconds, and 2 third positions out of 9 races; not good enough to win the title but good enough to catch the attention of the Jim Russell Racing Driver School; later on he was enrolled as a student but he also became one of the school’s official drivers.
In 1969 the young Fittipaldi was already at the wheel of a Formula 3, driving for the Jim Russell Team and he destroyed the competition that year, with 8 victories out of 11 races, easily winning the championship.
His impressive first season at Formula 3, immediately opened the door for a position at the Lotus/Bardhall Formula 2 Race Team for the 1970 season.
After a few races in F2, Emerson was spotted by Dick Scammell who convinced his boss, Collin Chapman, to offer the Brazilian a position as the third driver at the Lotus F-One Team.
At the pinnacle of motorsports.
The Team Lotus arranged a test for Emerson, in Silverstone, Chapman was there to see the test up close and so was the number one Lotus driver, Jochen Rindt. According to some people who were there that day, Rindt was not so happy to spend his day off at the track, teaching a rookie that could barely speak English. The Austrian drove the Lotus 49C for a couple of laps, to warm up the tires and then he “tossed the keys” to Emerson. After a couple of awkward laps, the Brazilian stopped at the pits complaining about the cockpit, which was still fit for Rindt, and also about the overall dynamic of the car. Rindt came to Emerson and said: “The faster you go, the better she will respond to you”.
Emerson followed the simple instruction to the letter and quickly he started to clock amazing lap times. Rindt who was distant in the beginning now was enthusiastically helping with the timing. At the end of the test, Collin Chapman said: “You start on the next race”.
The next race would be in Brands Hatch, the 7th of the 1970 season. The car Emerson received was the same Lotus 49C he drove that day, a “hand me down” from Rindt, who was already driving the modern (and yet to be legendary) Lotus 72.
Two years ago, Emerson Fittipaldi was racing Formula Vee in Brazil and now, he was already part of the most prestigious Formula One team in the early 1970s; if that can’t be considered a meteoric career, nothing else will.
The 49C was already obsolete at this point but was, nevertheless, a Lotus powered by the Cosworth Ford V8; perhaps the most glorious combination in the history of the Formula One.
The year of 1970 proved to be full of surprises, Emerson managed to compete in both categories, in Formula Two he finished third, only behind the more experienced Clay Ragazzoni and Derek Bell but his debut in Formula One was a bit more complicated, in September Jochen Rindt tragically lost his life in a brutal accident during the Monza Grand Prix, he became the only driver to win the championship posthumously. John Miles also left the team shortly after the accident, he was under a lot of pressure from Collin Chapman because of his poor performances and to bear the responsibilities of the number one driver was too much for him.
All of a sudden Fittipaldi was promoted to be the Lotus No. 1 driver on his fifth F1 race at the United States GP.
The young Brazilian proved up to the task and won the race, his very first Formula-One victory. The road for the Championship was wide open.
The year 1971 was spent with adaptations, the whole team had to face the new reality of having a rookie as the number one driver and Emerson had to deal with the revolutionary Lotus 72, the car at that point was still a rough diamond that needs a lot of polishing. He finished the season in sixth place, with 16 points.
The winner of the season was Jackie Stewart, driving a Tyrrell-Ford. (picture above).
For the next season, the engineers delivered the new Lotus 72D, this updated model had all the reliability problems that plagued the early version fixed. For the first time, the cars were wearing the iconic black and gold John Player Special livery, a partnership that would last for decades to come. Emerson Fittipaldi was still a rookie but a more seasoned one, in other words, Lotus had all the ingredients for a terrific season.
All expectations proved to be true, Emerson won in Spain, Belgium, England, Austria, and Italy, he became the World Champion even before the season was finished (there were 2 races left).
His dominance that year helped to propel the mystique around the Lotus 72D being the most perfect Formula One car ever built.
At 25 years old, he was the youngest World Champion in the history of the competition, an honour he held for 7 years.
The 1973 season wasn’t so good, Emerson struggled with the development of the new 72E and with the rivalry with his new teammate, Ronnie Peterson. The Brazilian finished the season in second place.
In 1974, he decided to leave Lotus and go to a new and promising team: McLaren.
At the wheel of the fabulous McLaren M23, Emerson was once again the favourite to win in 1974 but that was a hard-fought season: his second World Championship only came at the very last race when he finished with only 3 points ahead of Clay Regazzoni. That was the beginning of the McLaren vs Ferrari feud that would last a few more seasons.
The next chapter of the war, in 1975, was won by Ferrari, with the unstoppable Niki Lauda at the wheel. Emerson finished the season in second.
Fittipaldi was at the pinnacle of his career, a national hero, his face was everywhere. He was respected around the world and worshiped in his home country, Formula One became something like a fever in Brazil. At this point in his career, Emerson made the most controversial decision of his life.
The dream of a Brazilian Formula One race team.
While Emerson was in the spotlight, his older brother Wilson Jr. was competing for Brabham and at the same time, he was putting together the first (and only to date ) Brazilian Formula One team: the Copersucar.
Wilson, who was the number one driver and the team manager, drove the car on its inaugural season, in 1975, with mediocre results. The Coperçucar race car wasn’t that bad, Danilo Divila, a famous Brazilian designer came up with a sleek, ultra-aerodynamic body, and the power came from the trustworthy Ford Cosworth V8.
The name of the team came from its main sponsor, Copesucar, a giant sugar and alcohol exporter; the flow of money wasn’t unlimited but was steady, in Wilson’s mind, there was only one thing missing for the team to succeed: the talent and the prestige of a two-times World Champion.
The official invitation was made and Emerson accepted to be the number one driver for the Brazilian team for the 1976 season. For him, it was a gamble, he was leaving a very successful team that would likely give him his third World Championship, on the other hand, that was an opportunity to revive the old partnership with his brother and do what they know better: building and racing cars. It was also a matter of national pride, I don’t think his fans would have ever forgiven him if he had refused to help the team.
James Hunt was hired to replace Emerson for the 1976 season, which was, perhaps, the most exciting chapter of the war between Ferrari and McLaren. Niki Lauda was involved in a horrific accident during the German Grand Prix that year and had to quit the competition for six weeks to recover from his injuries. Hunt won the Championship just one point ahead of Lauda. Emerson finished the season at 17th position. (If you want to see more about the 1976 F-One season, please watch the 2013 movie Rush.)
The Copersucar team was a very enthusiastic bunch but with very limited know-how, the Fittipaldi brothers were expecting the team to grow as time passed and they gathered more experience but instead, they struggled with technical problems throughout 8 seasons and never achieved good results.
Emerson’s best result was a second place in 1978, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, in Rio de Janeiro (picture above). In 1980 he quit driving and became team manager. His last two years in charge of the team were very unhappy: “I was too involved in the problems of trying to make the it work, and I neglected my marriage and my personal life“. In 1982, deeply frustrated and bankrupted, the Fittipaldi brothers shut down the team.
The CART years.
A talented race driver like Emerson wouldn’t spend much time away from the race tracks. In 1983 he received an invitation from WIT Racing, a small CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) team, for a test and for the next year he was again at the wheel of a race car. He spend the next two seasons adapting himself to a different kind of open-wheel car and mostly, how to drive on ultra-fast oval race tracks.
In 1985 Emerson won his first CART race, the Michigan 500, driving for Patrick Racing (picture above). He stayed with the team for five years, a partnership that would eventually give the Brazilian a championship.
Fast-forwarding to 1989, Emerson was at the wheel of a superb combination, the coveted Penske PC-18, powered by the Ilmor/Chevrolet 2.7 litre, turbocharged V8, cranking up 800 hp. Just like in 1974, he was once again driving a car with the red and white Marlboro livery.
Emerson dominated the season, winning the championship with five victories and finishing among the top five in every race he completed. I took 15 years but “Emmo” (that is how the Americans nicknamed him) was once again a champion.
Among his wins, that year, was the Indianapolis 500. Emerson led 158 of 200 laps but close to the end, he got involved in a fierce battle with Al Unser Jr, making that race one of the most exciting Indy 500 ever. Check it out on the video above.
Emerson moved to the Roger Penske Racing Team in 1990 and continued to be among the top drivers in CART. Some unfortunate events prevented him to become some sort of the King of Indy 500: in 1990 he was comfortably leading the race went he got a blown tire and in 1991, the same situation happened, but at this time the gearbox box gave up.
In 1993 Emerson won his second Indy 500 when he passed Nigel Mansell, on lap 185 and managed to keep the lead until the end of the race. Mansell was another Formula One champion that migrated to CART.
The 1993 Indy 500 victory came with some unexpected drama: there is a decades-old tradition that the winner of the race must celebrate it by drinking milk instead of champagne, but that year Emerson decided to break the protocols and he drank orange juice instead. The reason for that is simple, Emerson owns orange groves in both Brazil and the USA but what was supposed to be a harmless advertising stunt, backfired enormously, the fans, the media, and the race organization never fully forgave him. Fans booed Emerson on several occasions even after he came publicly to apologize.
The end of his career.
The year was 1996 and Emerson was still driving for Penske and enjoying being among the CART top drivers. At this time, his car was powered by a turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V8, developing 1000 hp. Penske cars were dominating the season but during the first lap of the Michigan 500, Emerson was involved in a horrible accident, his car touched wheels with Greg Moore and he crashed against the wall at 320km/h. With internal bleeding and two broken vertebras he narrowly escaped death that day.
He fully recovered from his injuries but, at 49 years old, he decided it was time to retire. The accident was responsible for the end of his career as a professional racing driver but it also marks the beginning of a new life for him, Emerson saw his survival as an act of God and he became a newborn Christian.
Emerson Fittipaldi might be retired but he never left the race track, either managing teams or driving at special events.
Perhaps his biggest project right now is mentoring his grandsons through the beginning of their careers as race drivers. A whole new generation of the family has already started the long way to Formula One.
The DB4 model, produced from 1958 until 1963, was the car that put Aston Martin firmly in the sports coupe segment and started the iconic look that would define the brand throughout the next decades. If you look closely, styling cues from this car can still be found in modern Aston Martin models.
Aston made the DB4 to last, the combo chassis/body is undeniably overbuilt, heavy and strong. No doubt the car has all the good qualities to be a reliable, and elegant coupe for the streets but on the other hand, it was too heavy for the race track.
The Brits knocked at the right door asking for help: Carrozzeria Touring of Milan transformed the heavy DB4 into a race track beast, applying its Superleggera bodywork, with a series of interconnected steel tubes supporting lightweight sheet metal made of aluminum and magnesium alloy.
The wheelbase was also reduced in comparison to the street version which resulted in many cars not being fitted with rear seats.
The engine was also a masterpiece: the in-line 6 cylinder was available in two slightly different sizes, 3.7 L (3670 cc/223 in³) and 3.8 L (3750 cc/228 in³), both equipped with two sparkplugs per cylinder and two distributors, modifications to the aluminum cylinder head brought compression to 9.0:1. No high-performance in-line 6 is complete without a trio of side-draft Weber carbs and the DB4 was no exception.
Power output was 302 hp. Maximum speed for the GT was 151 mph (243 km/h) with a 6.1-second from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h). It was the fastest road-legal production car at the time.
The Zagato DB4
Carrozeria Touring built only 75 GT, making the car extremely sought by collectors. At the same time, other Italian coach builders also wanted a slice of the DB4; nineteen more were modified by the Zagato works in Italy. The unmistakable Zagato’s design can be seen all over it, always leaning towards a more aerodynamic concept.
The Bertone DB4.
Among all the Italian coach builders that reworked the DB4, it was Bertone who created the most daring design of them all. They basically built a totally new body for the car, leaving very little (if any) trace of the original design. The result is a stunning coupe, perhaps the best exemple of what a partnership between the Brits and the Italians can accomplish.
Doesn’t matter which one you like better, those machines are timeless classics from an amazing era, masterpieces of engineering and design.
Cars will never be built with such passion ever again.
Back in the 1970s, when the Japanese motorcycles started to take over the world, Norton was just another iconic, traditional British bike brand struggling to survive.
A mix of mismanagement and lack of innovation brought the company very close to bankruptcy, but it was in the late 1960s that Norton had a spark of brilliance, the engineering development team concluded that the best way to defend the company against the Japanese attack would be adopting a new and revolutionary technology, the rotary engine.
The Wankel Engine.
One can write a whole book explaining why the internal combustion, reciprocating piston engine is an absurdity in terms of fuel and thermal efficiency, but it was only around the 1950s the development of alternative engines started to pick up some momentum.
Around the late 1960s, the Wankel rotary engine seemed to be the most promising “revolutionary” engine. The original design was created by the German engineer Felix Wankel in 1929 but only became fully developed in 1957. Mazda was the only automaker to mass-produce a car equipped with the rotary engine, the RX-7, and on two wheels, Suzuki was another enthusiast of the Wankel.
Norton was somehow confident the new engine would give the company the advantage needed against the Japanese bikes, but the process was long and painful. It took more than 18 years to put a rotary-powered Norton bike on the streets. The development began in 1969, at the BSA Group Research Centre in Kitts Green, the Wankel engine was based on a Sachs air-cooled rotary used in the German-built DKW/Hercules model W2000. The Norton prototype was ready in 1972, at the same time the company finally got the license to use the engine from Auto-Union Group (the company that later on became Audi) the legal owner of the Wankel brand.
In 1973, Norton was absorbed by the BSA/Triumph group, and somehow the Wankel project survived all the complications of having 3 different brands under the same umbrella, but the problem is, the distance between the prototype and the final version can be very long.
It was only in 1987 that Norton unveiled the Interpol 2 police model P41, equipped with a 588cc, air-cooled, twin-rotor engine. A first batch of 350 bikes were sold to various police stations across England. It didn’t take long to realize that the project had a very poor development: rough idling, overheating, and blown engine seals were the most recurrent complaints by the police officers.
In 1988 Norton released to the public the Commando 588 model P53, equipped with a liquid-cooled rotary engine, solving most of the overheating problem. The traditional customer didn’t receive well the new bike, sales were modest when compared with the regular “piston” engine Norton models.
The Wankel Wizard.
Among all the employees who participated in the development of the Wankel-Norton bikes, perhaps no one was more enthusiastic than Brian Crighton, he saw all the potential of the rotary engine and he spent countless hours of his spare time squeezing more horsepower out of it. At this point Crighton didn’t have any official backup from Norton in this idea of messing up with those engines, he found his “research material” from piles of junk police bikes and he never got paid for his after-hours work. During the first stage of this development, he increased the power output from the stock 85HP to 96HP, it might not sound much nowadays but back then it was good enough to convince the very skeptical CEOs that a rotary-propelled race bike could be a good idea.
Brian Crighton’s work at Norton was fueled by passion and that is easy to understand, he had been a hardcore race biker during the 1970s, the race track was his natural environment. He just wanted to be back there and do whatever it takes to make Norton a winning team.
In 1987 Crighton was invited to be part of the Racing Development Team, and in a very tight budget, Norton started its competition endeavour in the British motorcycle racing season. At this point, the Wankel engine had reached 125 HP while retaining the stock 9.2:1 compression.
Norton RC 588
For the 1987 season, the RC 588 was still considered a prototype but in many ways, it was a very good one: the air-cooled Wankel engine was producing a decent amount of power, 125 HP and the awkward steel chassis (derived from the police street bike) was replaced with an all-aluminum full race frame produced by Spondon Engineering, and the front fork was supplied by Suzuki.
Racing started in late 1987 with employee Malcolm Heath as the official rider, he scored one victory during the season. Things got more serious in 1988 when Steve Spray, the second Norton rider, won two major races for the team, first was the TT F1 British Championship race and then the Powerbike International open race. These two superb performances got the attention of the British tobacco brand John Player Special and the company became the main sponsor of the Norton racing team.
Norton RCW 588
Norton started the 1989 season proudly wearing the iconic black and gold JPS livery. The new sponsorship certainly gave the team some room to breathe but still, when compared with the mighty Japanese and Italian factory teams, Norton was like a little mouse going after a bunch of tigers.
The Norton guys knew they had something special, the new bike, the RCW 588, received the improved, water-cooled version of the rotary engine, and that means 10 extra “ponies” of power. The bike was light (268 pounds), powerful (135 HP), and well balanced, a killer combination that caught the competition off guard.
What happened in 1989 was one of those stories that could well be the narrative of a movie: a small, underfunded team, streamrolling over way more powerful rivals and driving the fans into a frenzy.
Steve Spray won the 750 cc Supercup Championship and the British F1 title, Trevor Nation also had some awesome performances but 1989 season was definitely owned by Spray. On top of all the victories, he also set lap records at Donnington Park, Thruxton, Snetterton, Brands Hatch Indy Circuit and Cadwell Park during the season.
In 1989 Brian Crighton was promoted to Senior Development Engineer at Norton and the new responsibilities made it impossible for him to keep managing the racing team, at the end of the year, Barry Symmons the ex Honda Britain boss was brought in to run the works team.
The success continued in 1990, the Norton boys were not only riding to win races, they were on a mission to show the world Norton wasn’t dead yet. Nation won the MCN TT Superbike Championship and Robert Dunlop won both Superbike races at the North-Weast league.
There was a surge in TV coverage, Norton/JPS merchandise was selling like hotcakes, and the fans were going crazy. It was a British bike, sponsored by a British brand, and ridden by British riders, for the UK fans it was a matter of national pride.
It was also in 1990 that the fairy tale started to crumble, the father of the Norton racing team, Brian Crighton, resigned from the company, alleging some serious disagreements with the new team manager, Barry Symmons. Later on Crighton started his own Wankel-powered bike project, The Roton.
The 1991 season was proof that many of the changes brought by Symmons were not working as planned. Perhaps the worst of his decisions was to switch the tire supplier to Michelin, throwing out of the window all the development done with Dunlop.
Most of the original team members were gone and so was the magic of the 1989/90 seasons, Norton was no longer the dominant brand in the British Superbike Championship and the CEOs were signalling that the end of the racing program was near.
The greatest Isle of the Man TT
In 1992, two of the brightest stars in the British bike racing universe, Steve “Hizzy” Hislop and Carl Fogarty, were the protagonists of, what is considered by many, the finest Isle of Man TT races in history.
The two riders were not bitter enemies, just bitter rivals on the race track, Fogarty was rude and a blabbermouth, always bragging about his talent. He made more enemies than friends on his way to the top. Hislop on the other hand was calm and well mannered, always willing to listen before saying something. Their distinctive personalities were reflected in the way they behaved on the race track.
For the 1992 Isle of Man edition, Fogarty had a comfortable position at British Yamaha, but Hislop was having a hard time finding a bike for the event. A month before the race, Barry Symmons offered him a chance to ride for Norton and with no better option on the horizon, he accepted, but he was sure that, at this point, the rotary machine had no chances against the big guys.
On the first of the main races of the week-long event, the F1, Hizzy, even dealing with constant overheating on his Norton, was able to keep up with the two fastest riders, Fogarty on a Yamaha and McCauley on a Honda. The three riders imposed an insane pace, clocking laps with no more than 5 seconds from each other. Close to the end, Fogarty was forced to retire when the gearbox of his Yamaha broke down, leaving the first position to McCauley and Hislop in a close second.
Despite his amazing performance, Hislop’s bike wasn’t even completely set up for him. For the main race, the next morning: the Senior TT, the Norton team had to spend the night doing some critical changes. First, they installed a bigger windscreen, making it easier for Hislop to fit inside, improving the aerodynamic, then a wider handlebar for better control of the bike, and last, the front fender was removed increasing the airflow to cool down the engine.
At the start of the race, Fogarty was comfortable at the 4th position, but Hislop was 19th, it took him almost the entire race to get through the traffic but he did it masterfully, pushing his Norton to the limit but with elegance and precision, saving the machine from a possible breakdown.
Fogarty’s brutal ridding stile took a tool on his bike, it was literally falling apart but still in fighting conditions. When Hizzy finally closed in, one of the most intense duels in the history of the Senior TT race took place, they fought fiercely to the last lap but was Hislop and his howling Norton that crossed the checkered flag in first place. Norton was once again the winner of the Isle of the Man, the last time was in 1961. Hislop considers the 1992 Senior TT victory as “my greatest race ever”.
Hislop’s amazing performance at the 1992 Senior TT race was the swan song for the Norton Racing Team, the company was going through some serious financial crisis and it was time to end the program.
The official factory race team was over but that doesn’t mean the rotary Norton was gone from the race tracks.
The Wizard strikes again.
The official Norton-Wankel racing program wouldn’t have even existed if wasn’t for Brian Crighton, right after he left the company, in 1990, he started his own business, preparing rotary bikes for private teams and his team as well.
After the Norton works team left the competition, The Crighton’s machines started to shine, it was his turn to win.
The Crighton Team was always among the top qualifiers but they reached their peak in 1994, when their two riders obliterated the competition, scoring 52 podium positions, with Ian Simpson winning the British Supercup Championship and Phil Borley taking the 3rd position.
As one can imagine, the big brands were not so happy with this rotary madness, as Terry Rymer, a Honda rider at the time, once said: “I am a bit fed up with those Nortons passingby and spitting flames on my face, but I guess this is what makes the crowd happy“.
Well, the fans were happy all right but the big teams were not and the 1994 season was the last straw. At the end of the year, they got together to put some pressure on the organizers and for the next season the Wankel engine was officially banned from competing in the UK.
The Norton-Wankel era was short but intense, the fans will forever remember those years as the most exciting ones in British motorcycle racing history, after all, everybody loves to see the underdog winning.
The screaming, flame-throwing RCW 588 finished its career where it started: at the top.
But one guy wouldn’t let it go…
Brian Crighton never stopped messing around with the Wankel Norton bikes and after so many years of development, he might have reached the rotary nirvana. Here it is, his latest creation:
Crighton Racing CR700P.
For this new beast, the Crighton Team solved what was, perhaps, the most annoying problem of the rotary Norton: overheating. They created an ingenious hybrid cooling system that works with liquid and some sort of gas; sounds complicated? You bet, but he won’t tell us how it works, it a well-kept secret. The 700cc, twin-rotor Wankel engine can make 200 HP without the fear of melting internal components. The CR700P is scary fast and on top of that, it is gorgeous. Well done, Wizard.
Have you ever heard the howling of a rotary GP bike, flat out down the straight? Me neither, until I saw this video. Enjoy.
The official drag strip of Atlanta, GA isn’t exactly in Atlanta, the venue is located in a small town called Commerce, a little bit over one hour driving, from downtown Atlanta, via I-85 North.
The dragway opened its doors in 1975 and has been hosting the Southern Nationals since 1981. In 1993 it was bought by the National Hot Rod Association.
In October, 2000, my wife and I had the opportunity visit the strip, during the National Muscle Car Association-Power Tour. Over the weekend we took quite a few pictures but keep in mind we used an analog camera.
This is how drag racing was, 20 years ago. I hope you will enjoy.
It was during the crazy 1960s that cocaine started to become popular; at that time the drug was still expensive and hard to find, the kind of stuff reserved for celebrities. It was only during the 1980s that the drug became readily available to the average consumers and the responsibility for this social disaster is Colombian organized crime. It took 20 years for the Colombian drug lords to find contacts in North America and organize the logistics of the operations but once it was up and running, the cocaine traffic became the most lucrative criminal activity in the world.
Among all the drug lords in South America, no one was more powerful and, consequently, more popular than Pablo Escobar. He was the founder and leader of the Medellin Cartel and at the peak of his activities, Escobar was smuggling between 70 to 80 tons of cocaine per month into the USA. Naturally, he became one of the wealthiest men in the world.
As we all know, every super-wealthy villain must have some expensive hobbies and car racing was one of Escobar’s passions.
It was in the late 1970s, when Pablo Escobar (already the leader of the Medellín Cartel) started his racing driver career, competing on the recently created Copa Renault 4.
The “King of Cocaine” was an enthusiastic but mediocre driver but that didn’t prevent him to finish the 1979 season in second place. Most of his fellow race drivers will tell that Escobar’s cars were completely out of the regulation but, obviously, nobody ever complained about it.
Escobar later on bought a Porsche 911 RSR that was originally raced on the very first edition of the IROC Series, in 1973/74.
Before we move forward, it might be interesting to talk about the IROC Series: IROC stands for International Race Of Champions, which is a short series of races where a selected group of drivers race identically-prepared stock cars from a single brand, set up by a single team of mechanics
The idea of the series is to bring Champions from different categories of motorsports, like Formula 1, NASCAR, Indy, Rally, and so on, to test their skills on the race track, driving identical cars.
The 911 RS was the chosen model for the first season, in 1973/74, but for the next year, Chevrolet stepped in as the main sponsor of the event; consequently, the Camaro became the official car for the IROC Series until 1989.
The Porsche bought by Escobar has a very interesting resume, during the IROC inaugural season it was driven by the Brazilian F1 driver Emerson Fittipaldi, who had just won the 1974 World Championship. After that, the car was sold to a few different privateer racers in IMSA. In 1978 the 911 was entered in the Daytona 24 Hours and that was precisely when Escobar bought the car, using Konrad Racing as an agent for the purchase
Buying old race cars from the USA and Europe is nothing new, what Pablo Escobar did was a common practice among racing teams in South America. As soon as he got the 911 delivered he replaced the front fenders, making it look like a 935 slant nose and he painted the car with the iconic Martini livery.
Escobar competed with this Porsche in a series of races around South America but perhaps the most famous event was a hill climb in the outskirts of Medelin when Pablo bet he could finish the course in less than 15 seconds behind Ricardo “Cuchilla” Londoño, then Colombia’s most famous race driver. Escobar was being extremely generous to himself, after all, 15 seconds is an eternity in car races and sure enough, he did finish the climb within the time to win the bet, an accomplishment he bragged about until he died.
Cuchilla (knife, in Spanish) was the first Colombian to come pretty close to start a career in Formula One. In 1981 he even drove for the English team Ensign in practicing for the Brazilian GP. His career was cut short when Bernie Ecclestone found out that the Colombian driver was being sponsored by “narco-dollars” and denied him his F1 superlicence.
The Escobar’s “career” on the race tracks was also short-lived, during the 1980s his narco activities grew immensely, not giving him enough spare time for hobbies.
His narco empire reached its peak by the end of the decade and Pablo Escobar became the most wanted man in the world. In 1991 he struck a deal with the authorities: in exchange for his peaceful surrender, the Colombian government granted Escobar wouldn’t be extradited to the USA. He was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in a luxurious, self-built prison called La Catedral. In 1992 when the police tried to relocate him to a regular, state jail, Escobar escaped and went into hiding, triggering a nationwide manhunt. A year later, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed during an exchange of fire with the Colombian National Police. That was the end of the Medelin Cartel.
As a notorious car guy, Escobar had a small collection of classic cars. Most of them were destroyed in 1988 when soldiers of the rival Cali Cartel invaded the Escobar’s farm.
Somehow a few cars were spared from the rage of the rival family and later on, they were seized by the authorities and auctioned. Among those cars was the IROC Porsche 911.
The infamous Escobar’s 911 came to the spotlight once again when in 2021 it appeared for sale on the pages of DuPont Registry. The car was professionally restored to its original glory as the IROC race car driven by Emerson Fittipaldi.
To the untrained eyes (including mine) the 911 RSR looks like a regular street Carrera adapted to perform race track duties, but in fact, Porsche developed the car as a purebred racing machine. It was equipped with a 3.0 litre, flat-six, air-cooled engine, capable of 300HP, but this power output could be easily doubled if properly turbocharged.
The RSR became the darling of the GT cars in the mid-70s and early 80s, but Porsche only built 1,580 units, more than enough to homologate the car for the FIA group 4 GT class but surely, not enough to meet the demand at the time. As a result, the RSR became a very rare car to find and a prized possession for the collectors.
In 2016 Porsche honoured the legend of the RSR, when the company revived the nametag with a modern interpretation of the car, aimed once again at the professional and amateur GT class competition around the world.
If you have 2.2 million dollars to spare, you can be the next owner of this controversial RSR and the fact the car was once owned by the most infamous drug dealer of the 1980s is not inflating the price tag. The value lines up with another 1974 IROC 911, sold by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, in 2016, for 2.3 million dollars.
According to the ad, the car is even ready to see some action on the race track once again.
The BMW is one of the pride and joy of the German auto industry, the brand is well known around the world for stylish cars and cutting edge technology applied to them, but before becoming one of the most desirable automobiles in the market, BMW had its fair share of bumpy roads.
The BMW name stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke GmbH or Bavarian Motor Work in English. The roots of the modern BMW goes back to 1913 from the Munich firm Rapp-Motorenwerke, then this company was incorporated to the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG in 1916, after that, there was another restructuring process that brought the company to be incorporated into Knorr-Bremse AG in 1920 before being finally renamed BMW AG in 1922. A bit complicated? You bet, after all the company changed its name 4 times in less than 10 years, a clear indication that the founders had either little money in their pockets or their product had a very limited market acceptance or both, in BMW’s case.
BMW was born to produce aircraft engines and at this point, it seems the company had finally hit the jackpot, Germany was deeply involved in World War I (1914-1918) and the demand for this kind of engine was at its peak. The company’s very first product was the BMW IIIa, an in-line 6 cylinder, water-cooled, 230 HP engine.
The IIIa was a superb engine, designed by engineer Max Friz. Production started in the spring of 1917 and it was the chosen engine to power the Fokker D.VII, one of the finest German fighters of the war.
The profitable marriage between BMW and the Luftwaffe was short-lived, in November 1918 Germany capitulated to the Allies and all contracts with the government were cancelled. In the years that followed the end of the war, Germany dived into an unspeakable economic depression and BMW had to find ways to produce more useful products than engines for military airplanes.
For a while, the company managed to stay afloat mainly producing brake components for trains and even steel office furniture.
It was only in 1923 that BMW released its first motorcycle, the R33. The bike was a good seller, considering the hard times Germany was facing, in total 3,090 units were sold between 1923 and 1926. The R32 was equipped with a 494cc flat-twin that was good for 8.5 horsepower. Speedometers were optional but you didn’t even get a choice with the front brake, at least in the first year of production.
Showing that BMW holds dear its traditions, the twin boxer engine and the drive shaft transmission from the R33 can still be found in modern BMW motorcycles, like the 2021 R18.
The British roots.
After some success building motorcycles, by the end of the 1920s, BMW decided to venture into the automobile field. Since the company had zero expertise in this enterprise, they found a smart shortcut: in 1928 BMW acquired Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach, the third-largest German automobile manufacturer at the time. This company had a license from the British automaker Austin Motor Company to build the Austin Seven in Germany. Instead of spending some time developing their own car, BMW immediately slapped their logo on the cars being built by the acquired company.
Officially, the 1928 BMW 3/15 was the very first car produced by BMW, even if it was nothing more than a rebadged Austin Seven.
In 1932, BMW unveiled the 3/20, an updated version of the 3/15. It is pretty noticeable the new car still holds a strong resemblance to the 3/15, but the new model was entirely developed by the BMW engineering team.
The tinny 3/20 was offered in many different models: 4 doors sedan, 2 doors coupe, roadster, convertible, and even panel van. It was powered by an 800cc, 20HP, 4 cylinder engine.
Interesting fact, since BMW didn’t have the means to provide the tooling for the new car, Mercedes-Benz was hired to produce all the body panels for the 3/20.
The controversial BMW logo.
There is a theory about the meaning of the BMW logo that is widely accepted among the gearheads around the world, it goes like this: since the original BMW business was aircraft engine, the circular emblem with different colours in the opposite quadrants represents the blurred image of a spinning aircraft propeller. This rather interesting story has been around since 1929 when BMW starts advertising its new aircraft engine, using the illustration you see above. In a time when the German industry was still strictly forbidden to produce any aircraft-related stuff, BMW was allowed to build this engine in a partnership with the American company Pratt & Whitney.
In 1942 a similar advertisement was run in magazines, and that helped to seal the myth over the years. The real meaning of the logo couldn’t be more simple, the circumference divided in four quadrants is a very common sight in any technical drawing and the blue and white is a tribute to the national colours of Bavaria.
Throughout most of the 1930s BMW seemed to have found the right path, the company had a nice lineup of cars, motorcycles and aircraft engines.
Probably the most iconic BMW from the 1930s is the 328, the car that started the company’s long tradition in the sports car arena. With 328 the BMW racing team won in its class the 1939 edition of Le Mans.
The War Efforts
The triumph in Le Mans happened on June 18th, 1939; on September 1st, of the same year Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II and once again BMW would be dragged into the dirty business of war.
BMW had 100% of its industrial capacity shifted to help the Nazi war effort, the production of aircraft engines was at full steam, so was the motorcycle assembly line but the automobile production was cut altogether.
Quite a few different models of airplanes were equipped with BMW engines but the one that the allied pilots feared the most was the Focke-Wulf FW190, considered the best Nazi fighter of WWII. The airplane was powered by the BMW 801, an air-cooled, 41.8 liter, 14 cylinder radial engine, able to produce 2,000 HP, more than enough to pull the fighter to a top speed of almost 700Km/h.
It was the most produced radial engine of Germany in World War II with more than 61,000 built. Being such a powerhouse to the Nazi war machine, the BMW facilities were a prized target for allied bombers, at the end of the war there was not much left of the original factories.
Right after the surrender, the Allies took control of every aspect of German society and BMW was banned from producing motor vehicles, at least for a while. The company survived making pots and pans, and later on, bicycles.
In 1948 BMW resumed the motorcycle production and finally, in 1952 they unveiled their first automobile since the beginning of the war, in 1939, the 501. The car was also the first luxury-oriented model of the brand.
In 1955 BMW acquired the license to produce the interesting Isetta, an Italian microcar with a futurist design. The car has no side doors; instead, the whole front facia opens to give access to the interior of the vehicle.
The BMW produced 3 different versions of the Isetta, the 250, the 300 and the four-seater 600. The code names are related to the size of their engines: 250cc, 300cc (mono cylinder), and 600cc (flat twin) ranging from 10HP to 24HP.
The idea of producing the 501, a luxury model, in a country still struggling with the hardships of post-war, wasn’t a wise one, the car never was a good seller. The affordable Isetta helped to keep the company afloat for a while but in 1959, the rival Mercedes-Benz came real close to acquire BMW.
The company was saved from extinction by the two German industrialists, Herbert and Harald Quandt, who dumped a truckload of money into the company. It didn’t take too long to prove it was a clever investment.
It is safe to say that BMW only found its way in the 1960s, first with the 700, the car that has the credit of saving the company and then with the 2002, the BMW’s first worldwide success.
Those cars are well built, with superb handling and decent performance, all the qualities and character that won the hearts and minds of fans all over the world.
Nowadays, when looking at any magnificent BMW dealership, with all those beautiful cars, it is hard to believe all the challenges the company overcame in the past; a true sign of determination and resilience.
The Ford Mustang needs no introduction, after all, the car has been around since 1965; in the sports car universe, only the Chevrolet Corvette (1953), and the Porsche 911 (1963) can rival the Mustang in longevity.
Words like icon, and legend, have been loosely thrown around to better describe the “Old Horse” and we all know those words are true but the Mustang had had its fair share of bumpy roads throughout these years. Thanks to the oil crisis of the 1970s Ford tried very hard to detach the Mustang from the gas-guzzling, performance car image and bring it to the compact, fuel-efficient car field.
In 1974, Ford released the infamous Mustang II, the car the Mustang enthusiasts love to hate. In its first year, Ford went too far: for the first time in history, the Mustang wasn’t offered with a V8 engine. It didn’t take long before the company realized the number of customers that wanted the Mustang to stay as a performance car was too big to be ignored and the 302 V8 was brought back for the next year. During the 1970s, the 302 was severely detuned to make it a little more fuel-efficient and to make things even worse, a primitive emission control system chocked the engine down to a ridiculous 140 HP. Terrible times indeed.
Ford had a real conundrum at hand, how to keep the speed freaks Mustang customers happy and at the same time create this new image as an efficient car?
I believe History one day will give a fair trial to the Mustang II, even if it wasn’t anything more than a Ford Pinto in different clothes, I think it was the right car for the right time and it helped to keep the Mustang nameplate alive. Nevertheless, in 1979 Ford replaced the Mustang II with the car that became one of the most beloved Mustang platforms ever, the Fox Body.
With the Fox Body Ford gave the Mustang a more European look, and the company was determined to divert some of the Mustang customers away from the V8, giving them the option of a much smaller displacement as a performance engine and the perfect candidate for the task was the turbocharged version of the 2.3L, 4 cylinder, OHV Ford engine.
The engine was created as a 2.0L by the German Ford and at that time, it was a modern marvel: overhead camshaft driven by timing belt and crossflow cylinder head. For the North and South American market, the displacement was increased to 2.3L and the original aluminum head was replaced by a cast-iron piece.
The engine was code-named “Lima” but in North America, it is known as “metric engine”, since not a single bolt is in the Imperial system, or simply “Pinto engine”. At this point the 2.3L was already a veteran among Ford cars, it started its career in 1974, powering the Pinto, and later on, the engine could be found all over the Ford line up, powering cars, minivans, and light trucks.
The 2.3L is a sturdy little machine, that works comfortably “under pressure”, in other words, turbocharged and Ford was taking full advantage of this.
In 1979 Ford unveiled the Mustang equipped with the turbocharged 2.3L engine able to produce 132 HP, pretty close to the V8 version, with 140 HP.
All the turbo Mustang needed at that point was a little advertisement and Ford knew exactly what to do.
The plan was simple, the Blue Oval wanted to build a racing 4 cylinder Mustang to go against Porsches and BMWs, using, once again, the race tracks as an advertisement tool. To get it done properly, Ford brought some serious partners into this mission: The American tire company Firestone, Ford’s own parts division Motorcraft, and the British race car maker McLaren.
During the 1970s the partnership between Ford and McLaren had already won two Formula One World titles, 1974 and 1976. The brand was also very popular in North America while competing in the Cam-Am series.
The McLaren Mustang received the code name M81. The Brits had their headquarters in Livonia, Michigan, where the team prepared the little 2.3L with head-porting and balancing the internal components. The original cast pistons and connecting rods were replaced by forged units, the engine was then bolted to a 5-speed manual transmission; no option for automatic was offered. The final touch was the Garret T-3 turbocharger with variable boost control. The result of that hard work was 175 horsepower (and as much as 190 on full boost), 145 pound-feet of torque, and a 0-60 mph time of just under 10 seconds.
To keep the car glued to the pavement, Koni adjustable shocks were installed front and rear, working together with heavy-duty sway bars and springs. Race specs disc brakes in all four corners also were adapted.
All the body modifications were done by Creative Car Craft. Inside the Mustang was fitted with Recaro seats, a Racemark steering wheel, Stewart-Warner instrument gauges, and for the street-legal version, an optional air conditioning system was offered. Closing the package, BBS alloy wheels wrapped with Firestone tires, of course.
There isn’t much information about the racing career of the McLaren-Mustang, apparently the best result was 21st position overall at the 1981 24 hours of Daytona.
The media praised the car as a real competitor to the European and Japanese sports cars and Ford had plans to build 250 units, but the production was abruptly cut much sooner than expected. Of course, the price tag didn’t help much to push the sales numbers, the McLaren-Mustang was 25% more expensive than a regular “GT”, but the biggest nemesis of the car came from inside the house: The Ford’s SVO team (Special Vehicle Operation), apparently didn’t want to share the credits for the creation of the high-performance turbo-four Mustang with McLaren and they pressured the Ford’s top CEOs to end the program.
Between 1980 and 1981 only 10 units were produced, most of them received the official McLaren Orange colour, but the car could be ordered in white, black, or blue.
The SVO team released their version of the turbo Mustang in 1984 and they tried to push the design as close as possible to the European cousins, like the Ford Sierra. The SVO Mustang was in production for 2 years only and Ford sold almost 10,000 units; not too bad for a high-end 4 cylinder Mustang.
Although the 2.3L accompanied the Fox Body during its 15 years of production, Ford dropped the engine for the next generation of the Mustang. By the early 1990s, the unimaginable had happened, the world emerged from the oil crisis, and the price of gasoline was once again affordable for the middle class. In 1994 Ford unveiled the new Mustang platform, the SN-95, the car was bigger and bolder than the Fox-Body and also had some styling cues from the classic models of the 1960s. In this new scenario, there was no place for a 4 cylinder engine.
The McLaren-Mustang became one of the rarest “Special-Edition” Mustangs of all time and the car is getting the attention it deserves from the collectors, especially now that the stigma of the four-banger Mustangs is slowly fading away.
The year is 1985 and Brazil is facing terrible times, the mismanagement of the economy by the military government brought an imaginable inflation rate, something around 250% a year.
As one can imagine, car races wasn’t exactly a priority in this kind of scenario; only those categories backed by the automakers were surviving, like the Brazilian Stock Car, backed by General Motors.
But necessity is the mother of invention and a new hope for the amateur race teams was being conceived.
The idea couldn’t be simpler: let’s bring the VW Beetle back to the race track, after all, in the mid-80s they were still plentiful, affordable and parts could be found anywhere, even brand new since the Beetle was still in production (its last year would be 1993) and the Brazilian VW kept the faithful flat-four engine in production for another 2 decades or so, powering the VW Kombi.
The last time the VW Beetle was officially racing was in the 1970s, in the extinct “Division 3”, a category reserved for highly modified production cars. There, the teams had the freedom to extract the last drop of power from the air-cooled engines and to transform the Beetle with a fiberglass body kit, extra wide rims wrapped with slick tires, and 5-speed Hewland transmission. Those little monsters were adored by the fans and they affectionately called the cars “Atomic Potty”. Thanks to the oil crisis of the 70s, Division 3 had a very short life, and 1980 was its last season.
Those cars were not cheap to build but a well-balanced “Potty” in the hands of a seasoned driver would be a pain in the neck to the way more powerful Chevy Opalas and Ford Mavericks.
The “Atomic Pottys” were a crowd-pleaser, everybody loved to see the little Beetles giving a hard time to bigger cars, but they also were unpredictable on the track, mechanically unreliable, and very expensive to build.
This new category should be exactly the opposite, to make it affordable, the cars should be as close as possible to a stock VW Beetle.
In 1985 the “Speed 1600″ was born and the regulations were very strict:
*The cars should keep all the original steel panels and no cuts on the body were allowed, other than the one on the rear skirt to make room for the exhaust system and the other one on the front to make room for an additional oil cooler.
* Only the side windows could be replaced by plexiglass.
* Wheels should be 14″ no wider than 6”. Aftermarket alloy rims were permitted . Tires only “street use” radials, no wider than 195 and and the profile no lower than 60.
* Front suspension: stock with lockers to lower it. Rear suspension: stock with free camber adjustments. Shocks should also be OEM.
*Engine: stock (alcohol) 1600cc. Only a little “grinding” on the heads was allowed. Dual original “Solex” carbs with a little internal polishing. Free choice of jets. Free choice of exhaust, free compression ratio.
* Transmission: stock with free choice of OEM gears.
* Brakes: stock front discs and rear drums.
As far as I remember that was it.
The “Speed 1600” begun as a regional tournament in the city of São Paulo and became an instant success. It was cheaper to race a Beetle than a Go-Kart.
The category not only brought veterans drivers and mechanics back to the race track but also opened the door to a whole new generation of gearheads. Together they made the Speed 1600 the most popular racing category in São Paulo, grids with 40-plus cars were the norm.
In June 1988, the most popular auto magazine in the country, “4 Rodas” published a 5 pages article about the “Speed 1600” and then, the rest of the country suddenly got bitten by the bug.
The southern cities in Brazil (the ones with functional race tracks) immediately started organizing similar tournaments and since they tried to copy the same rules as the ones in São Paulo, it made things easier to have interstate tournaments in the future.
In 1987, in Interlagos, Sao Paulo, the Speed 1600 set the record of the biggest grid ever in Brazil, with 63 cars. The record still holds today.
My family returns to the competition.
My family always tried to stay involved in racing as much as the budget allowed them. My grandpa worked as a mechanic for a race team in the late 50s, not much for the money but mostly for the fun of it. My dad started his “career” at local rally tournaments and so did his brother. The picture above was taken in 1975 and shows dad at the wheel of his daily driver 1972 VW Beetle, during the Rallye da Graciosa, our version of the Monte Carlo Rally.
After a long hiatus away from the competitions, both, my dad and his brother saw the “Speed 1600” as the perfect opportunity to come back. My father found the right candidate for his next race car, his brother-in-law was selling an immaculate 1976 Beetle, already stripped for the track, and he bought it on the spot. The car was born as a 1300cc and the engine was quickly replaced by a 1600cc from a VW Kombi.
It took only a month to get the “44” ready for racing but then, the 1989 season was almost over and dad only had a chance to drive his car on the two remaining races.
Mostly, the “Speed 1600” drivers were also sponsors, crew leaders, and mechanics, all at the same time. Amateur sports at its best.
The official race track in my hometown was going through some renovations at the time, for this reason, the 1989 season happened on a dirt track located on the outskirts of the city.
For the next year, our track was ready and dad raced the entire 1990 season, and even after being disqualified for two races (for having the intake manifolds out of the regulation), he finished the season in third position.
In 1993 my father sold his car and the new owner kept the same livery and number. I remember seeing it in action a couple more times but after that, we lost track of the “44”
At the same time, my uncle also got his Beetle ready, a 1972 model, but unfortunately, he was not very lucky with his car. The “12” broke down in the first two races of the 1990 season, not finishing either one.
He became very frustrated and decided to bring the car back to his garage and he never touched it again. The “12” sat dormant for 28 years.
Unfortunately, my uncle passed away in 2017, it was a shock for the whole family, he was a super nice guy, always cracking jokes and making people smile.
He left a small collection of cars to my cousin, his only son, and obviously, the “12” was part of it.
For some reason that I still don’t understand, my cousin decided not to keep the old Beetle. Selling it would be complicated since the documents were pretty messed up and the car was badly rusted. So instead of selling the car for peanuts, he offered it to my dad, for free.
My father was blown away with this gift, he and his brother had been partners in business and hobbies since the 1960s, and having his race Beetle would be more than an honor.
Father retired in 2015 and he has been looking for something to occupy his time ever since. He immediately embraced the task to restore the “12”.
These pictures here show the day the car was relocated from the city of Curitiba to my dad’s home in Barra Velha beach, 200 miles away.
In April 2019, my wife and I finally took a couple of weeks off and we went to visit family and friends in Brazil. We haven’t been back home since we moved to Canada, 5 years ago.
Obviously, I was dying to see the old Beetle up close.
I even brought a little present, a VDO tachometer, pretty close to the one that originally equipped the “Super Fuscão”, the sports version of the Brazilian Beetle.
Dad is restoring the car on an extra tight budget and he is doing the job mostly on his own. He is 70 years old and for sure he is taking his sweet time to get it done.
When we got there, the bodywork was done and even the floor pans had been replaced.
He lowered the compression ratio enough to make the engine run on gasoline and replaced the dual carb system for a single one. He says: ” I want peace of mind, I am not going to race it anyway” .
He loves to take the chassis for short test drives; for sure I had my share of fun driving it. Without the weight of the body, the chassis can be pretty brisky.
In 2020 the mission of restoring the “12” was accomplished. At this point the car is halfway to be street legal, it has all the necessary lights but dad is refusing to install the bumpers, which is mandatory in Brazil.
Some people say a vintage car will never be completely done, so I believe that old Beetle will keep my father happily busy for a long time.
In Brazil, the VW Beetle is more than just a car, it is an institution. Simple, affordable, and reliable, it was the obvious choice as the first car for generations of Brazilians (mine was a 1966 model). The Beetle thought us not only how to drive, but also how to fix it, how to modify it, and ultimately, how to race it.
For my family, the “12” is much more than just a hobby, it is a beautiful homage to my uncle, a gentle guy that will live forever in the hearts of family and friends.
Nowadays, flying drones are such a common sight, from the harmless ones we use to shoot videos of our vacations to the deadly ones used by the military to kill enemy troops on the ground, drones are pretty much part of our daily lives.
The drone technology was born in the military and later on was granted to us, the civilians. The US Air Force has been developing it for quite a while; the first successful drones date back to WWII when adapted B17 FlyingFortress flew unmanned, “one-way ticket” missions, bombing heavily defended nazi targets.
After the end of the war, both the Navy and the Air Force converted hundreds of surplus airplanes to fly as drones, to be used as targets for weapons development programs, and that is precisely how this bizarre story begins.
The year was 1956 and the Cold War was already in full swing, at 11.34 am on August 16th, a bright red Grumman F6F Hellcat drone took off from Point Mugu Naval Air Station, in California, and according to the plan, the old fighter would fly peacefully over the Pacific Ocean before being destroyed by a missile.
Before we go ahead, let’s take a closer look at this plane: the Grumman F6F Hellcat was the most successful US Navy fighter of WWII, of course, it shares this reputation with the F4U Corsair, but the Hellcat was better suited to operate on carriers.
It was powered by the Pratt-Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, air-cooled radial engine, capable to crank up 2,000 HP, more than enough to pull the plane to a top speed of 630 Km/h. The Hellcat’s armament consisted of 6 Browning 0.50 cal machine guns. The F6F finished the war with an impressive victory ratio of 19:1. Grumman produced 12,275 Hellcats and since not a lot of them were lost during the war, the US Navy had a whole bunch of them to convert to drones.
Now, back to the story: Soon after the drone took off towards an offshore missile test area, it stopped responding to the command of the ground crew. The situation wasn’t, at first, much of a big deal, the plane should fly steadily over the Pacific Ocean until it runs out of gas and ditch itself into the water, but instead, it gracefully turned southeast, towards the city of Los Angeles.
Now, the Navy had a much bigger problem: Point Mugu air station didn’t have a single fighter that could be quickly dispatched to intercept the rogue drone. They immediately called Oxnard Air Force Base, home of the 437th Fighter-Interceptor Wing. This base was 8 km north of Point Mugu.
They quickly scrambled two F-89D Scorpions and flying at full afterburner the fighters soon caught up with the drone at 30,000 feet (9,100 m), northeast of Los Angeles, and that is the point when the story goes sour, but before we move forward, let’s take a quick look at the Scorpion fighter.
The Northrop F89 Scorpion was a high altitude, all-weather interceptor, designed to protect the USA from the threat of the Soviet nuclear bombers. It was powered by two Allison J36 turbojet engines producing 7,200 lbs of thrust each in afterburner mode, able to push the fighter to a top speed of 1,035 km/h.
The Scorpion was one of the first fighters built with no machine guns or cannons, following a new Pentagon policy that attested this kind of armament was becoming obsolete in modern air combat; instead, the fighter was equipped with the “Might Mouse” unguided rockets, kept in pods, located on the tip of the wings.
The Hellcat drone was circling Los Angeles, flying in a wide radius curve pattern, when the Scorpion pilots got the drone on visual, it was flying over Santa Paula, so they waited until it entered some unpopulated area to start the attack. As soon as the Hellcat reached the mostly inhabited Antelope Park, the first fighter got in position to shoot it down. The “D” version of the Scorpion was equipped with the state of the art Hughes E-6 fire control system, that integrates the plane’s radar and an attack-plotting computer; in other words, killing that drone should be a no brainer… Or so they thought.
First Lt. Hans Einstein was the first one to give it a try, he put his Scorpion in position, pressed the fire button and, nothing happened, he tried a couple more times until he gave up and called his wingman, First Lt. Walter Hale. Hale repeated the procedures of his colleague and again, not a single rocket was fired. The automatic fire system had jammed in both fighters.
They switched from automatic to manual and now it was time to get the job done in the old fashion way, WWII style, but there was another problem: the US Air Force had put so much faith in the electronic fire system that all the Scorpions “D” had their gun-sight removed from the cockpit. The crew’s job now was pretty much like firing a gun just pointing it to the target, but not aiming.
At this point, the drone had changed its course and it was once again flying towards LA. Lt. Einstein positioned his plane as best as he could behind the drone and fired a burst of 42 rockets, completely missing the target. The second interceptor moved into position and unleashed another salvo of 42, a couple of rockets even bounced against the drone’s fuselage but none detonating.
A single rocket would be enough to bring the old Hellcat into pieces but the pilots couldn’t fly too close to the target because the debris from the explosion could damage their fighters. Close to the town of Newhall the pair of jets made a second pass, launching 32 rockets each; again none found the mark. As the drone headed northeast toward Palmdale, each pilot fired a last salvo of 30 rockets at the target with no hits. Running low on fuel and out of ammunition, the Scorpion pilots had no other choice but to abandon the mission and go back to the base.
The Hellcat at this point was also running out of fuel and it crashed at a desolate section of the desert, 14 kilometers east from the Palmdale Regional Airport. Before hitting the ground, the drone severed some power lines along a rarely used road.
The “Mighty Mouse” used by the Air Force on that day was already a veteran of the American military, it is an unguided rocket, fuelled by solid propellant and its warhead is packet with High Explosive. Its dimensions are 6 ft long x 2 3/4 inch in diameter. It was named after a cartoon super-hero, very popular in the 50s, a flying mouse with superpowers, small but powerful. The two Scorpions fired a total of 208 of those rockets against the drone and if they failed to destroy it, they surely caused havoc on the ground.
The first set of rockets started brush fires 11 km northeast from the city of Castaic (northern LA) which burned 150 acres of bushes.
Some of the rockets fired on the second salvo hit oil sumps owned by the Indian Oil Co. The fires reached within 300 feet (91 m) of the Bermite Powder explosives plant. Other rockets started fires in the proximity of Soledad Canyon, near Mount Gleason, burning more than 350 acres of rough brush.
The final set of rockets were fired while the Scorpions faced Palmdale; many landed within the town. As the drone passed over Palmdale’s downtown, Mighty Mouse rockets fell like hail. A considerable amount of shrapnel damaged a few houses and cars within the city limits.
Two workers in Placerita Canyon had been eating in their utility truck; right after they left it to sit under the shade of a tree, the truck received a direct hit from a rocket and it was destroyed.
It took 500 firefighters two days to bring the brushfires under control. More than 1,000 acres were burned. Other than the pride of the US Air Force, no one got seriously hurt.
The incident, which became known as “The battle of Palmdale” brought even more controversies to the rivalry between the Navy and the Air Force: How come, not one but two, well trained Air Force pilots, flying modern jet fighters failed to bring down a WWII era, piston-powered Navy fighter… With NO ONE on board? Jokes aside, I believe the incident has a few points to analyze.
The US Navy can be excused for “losing” that drone, after all, this kind of technology was still in its infancy in the 1950, but then, we have to excuse the Air Force as well for the fail of the automatic fire system in both fighters, after all, the electronic guidance for missiles/rockets was also in its infancy. What is appalling is the decision of the pilots to fire the rockets while flying above a well-populated town. There is no register if the crew or the Air Force received any kind of prosecution.
Another important fact is the stubbornness of the military in ordering some fighters with no guns. It is clear if the Scorpions were equipped with a pair of the faithful Browning 0.50 machine-gun (and gun sight, of course) they would have shot down the Hellcat pretty quickly and with minimum damage to the ground.
This concept was pushed well into the 1960s, for example, the “superstar” fighter during the Vietnam War, the F4 Phantom, was put in combat with no guns and equipped with a very unreliable missile system.
Perhaps the real issue here is how big the American military was becoming during the Cold War and how often it would clash with the civilian population. Miraculously there were no fatalities during the ‘Battle of Palmdale”, but this incident is just one example of a series of events when mistakes made by the military brought real danger to the Americans.
As I started to write this post, right after Christmas day, 2020, the teams and drivers were getting ready for the kick start of the 2021 season of the World Rally Championship, or simply “WRC”.
As it has happened since 1973, the opening round will be the most traditional and important race of the calendar: the Monte-Carlo Rally. For this year, the “Automobile Club de Monaco” will be celebrating the 110th anniversary of the first Monte-Carlo Rally; the race, which is the oldest competition of this kind in the world, helped to immortalize the popularity of “Rallying” around the world and also helped to shape the image of the City of Monte-Carlo as a place forever connected to motorsports.
The First Edition
In the early 1900s, the automobile was considered more like a hobby than a necessity, something like a toy for the millionaires. The car owners were even considered as sportsmen and as such, they were constantly in search of new challenges and for this reason, rallies were very popular among them.
In 1909, Prince Albert I, of Monaco, came up with the idea of a rally competition that would not only promote all the technological advances of the recently created automotive industry but above all, attract wealthy car owners to the country and present Monaco as an amazing destination in the glamorous Mediterranean coast.
The First Edition
The Automobile Club de Monaco received the task to organize the competition and to turn it into reality. They didn’t wast any time and the first edition of the Monte Carlo Rally happened in 1911. The core of the rally was very simple, 23 cars left from different cities across Europe, towards Monaco and their start was staggered according to the distance to the capital city Monte Carlo. The competitors followed the rules of the regularity rally, also called time-speed-distance or TSD rally, which is driving each segment of a course in a specified time at a specified average speed. Competitors set off from Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Vienna and Berlin, arriving in Monte Carlo on Saturday, January 28th.
Seven cars failed to finish the rally, due to the harsh conditions of the roads during wintertime and the overall winner was the German sportsman Von Esmark, from Berlin, but thanks to a few controversial rules, he was disqualified.
Rallies in the early 1910s were quite popular among the adventurous car owners who were in pursuit of new challenges for themselves and their machines as well, but the Monte-Carlo Rally had a different approach. Since one of the main purposes of this event was to promote the city as an affluent destination in the French Riviera, some of its rules were related to the elegance of the cars and crew, and what would be considered laughable in modern times, were very important back then; important enough to push Von Esmark to the 6th place.
Points were given not only based on the skills of the driver but also based on the elegance of the car, the comfort of the passengers, and the condition in which the car arrived at the principality. At the end of the rally, the racers had to go on a parade around Monte Carlo and the machines were supposed to be clean and with the least possible amount of visible damages, and apparently, Von Esmark’s car wasn’t in “tip-top” condition.
Since the competitors were very wealthy people, some of them didn’t even bother to drive their cars throughout the rally, leaving the job to their chauffeurs and the comfort of the passengers was also an important aspect to collect points toward the victory.
In the end, the winner was the French airplane pilot Henri Rougier, who was among the nine competitors who left Paris, to cover 1,020 Kilometres (634 mi) route. Von Esmark, who finished the rally 14 hours before Rougier, considered himself the legitimate winner and he didn’t take lightly his disqualification, he refused his prize and also didn’t parade his car around Monte-Carlo at the end of the rally.
The Second Edition.
For the next year’s edition of the rally, the number of cars increased to 60, and there were ten different cities all over Europe as starting points.
Certainly, the most thrilling route that year was from Saint Petersburg in the Russian Empire to Monte-Carlo. It took more than 8 days for the Russian adventurous duo Andrej Platonovitsj and Vagym Mihajlov, to cover 3.257 km (2.024 mi) of treacherous winter roads.
They drove a 1911 Russo Balt model S24-55; the brand was well known for manufacturing military vehicles for the Russian Army and that might explain how the car withstood so well the punishment of the trip. The low average of 16.7 km/h (10.4 mph), and reputedly the less-than-shiny appearance of the car upon arrival and inspection by the judges, dropped them back to ninth place.
The picture above shows the winner of the 1912 Monte-Carlo Really: Julius Beutler, from Germany, and his French-built Berliet 16HP.
Female drivers were encouraged to participate in the Monte-Carlo Rally, not in the name of diversity but to bring charm and beauty to the event instead; quite sexist indeed. The picture above shows Mademoiselle Cabien, ready to start the parade, at the end of the 1912 edition. Cabien, at the wheel of her 2 cylinder Peugeot, had an admirable performance, finishing the competition with an average speed of 32Km/h. Very impressive for the 1910s standard.
The public and the media couldn’t understand how a few elitist rules, about elegance, comfort, and cleanliness, prevented the Russians to win the rally. After all, they overcame a much bigger challenge and they did it with gallantry. Just like the year before, the 1912 Monte-Carlo Rally ended in controversy.
After only two editions, the rally was failing to conquer the hearts and minds of the public. The sponsors of the event were pressuring the officials to change the rules, fearing the Rally wouldn’t have much chance to survive.
The economic uncertainties in Europe prevented the 1913 edition of the rally to happen and in 1914, WWI dragged the whole continent into 4 years of bloodshed and later on, into economic depression.
It would take 12 years for the next edition of the Monte-Carlo Rally to happen. For 1924, the Automobile Club de Monaco implemented some well-received changes, like eliminating most of the elegance rules and including a 90Km route throughout the Alps.
This mountain circuit gave the unique opportunity for the public to see the cars in action in the vicinity of Monte-Carlo, helping to popularize the event. Later on, this Alpine section became the core of the rally, even if, in the beginning, the French police almost ruined it because they didn’t allow the competitors to go over 30 km/h.
Of the 30 participants, only one failed to finish the competition. That year even motorcycles were allowed to participate.
The picture above shows the winner of the Women’s Cup of the 1927 Monte-Carlo Rally, Mildred Bruce, impatiently waiting for the refuelling of her AC “six”. Mildred, who was already a reputable adventure seeker at the time, received financial support from AC (the same British maker that gave the world the AC Cobra), to drive an AC car during the competition. Another clear sign that the rally was moving towards professionalism.
During the 1920s, the Automobile Club de Monaco started to reshape the rally towards a more professional competition. New rules were implemented, regulating the power and the weight of the cars and also the maximum number of passengers.
By the 1930s the automobile had evolved quite significantly, it was faster, safer, and quite reliable. If the cars had improved, so did the highways. Crossing Europe towards Monte-Carlo was a much easier challenge now than it was 20 years ago.
The organizers implemented a series of tasks to be performed at the end of the rally, meant to evaluate the driving skills of the participants, and on top of that, the Alpine portion of the competition was increased to 160Km.
By the mid-30s, the Monte-Carlo Rally was well established as one the most popular automobile competition in the world, attracting not only wealthy car owners but also, aviators, professional race drivers, and celebrities as well. Every year thousands of tourists would flock to this “fairy tale” principality to see the drivers and their machines and most of them also enjoyed everything Monte-Carlo has to offer, like the gorgeous beaches and marinas, and also luxurious hotels, and casinos. The mission given to the Automobile Club de Monaco to open the doors of the country to the world, was fully accomplished.
The last Monte-Carlo Rally of the decade happened in 1939, in that same year the Germans invaded Poland and started World War II.
Europe and the rest of the world were pushed once again to the horrors of a total war and it took 10 years for the organizers to put together another edition of the Monte-Carlo Rally.
The Modern Era.
After WWII, the rally steadily shifted to a more professional event. Since the highway part of the competition was no longer a challenge, the treacherous mountain course completely replaced it, and there was an ever-growing involvement of the automakers, with official factory teams.
During the 1950s and 60s, the rally experienced a surge in the number of small, affordable cars. Thanks to the evolution in technology, an average car was not only able to withstand the punishment of the rally but also able to fight for the first position.
The Mini-Cooper dominated the Monte-Carlo Rally in the 60s. The tiny British car won in 1964, and again in 1965, driven by the legendary Scandinavian duo Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen.
For 1966, the Mini-Coopers finished the rally in a smashing 1-2-3 position, but unfortunately, the organizers had imposed a draconian new rule for that year, stating the cars must be 100% factory original.
The Automobile Club de Monaco was firmly decided to put an end to the British winning streak. After the end of the rally, the technicians spent more than 18 hours, dismantling the cars, measuring and checking every single part. Everything seemed fine when they finally found something wrong: the original headlight bulbs had been replaced with a more powerful ones, and that was enough to disqualify all three winner Mini Coopers. The drivers, the team managers, and the fans were furious, they vehemently protested against the judge’s decision and even the press joined them putting as much pressure as possible to reverse the decision, but it was all in vain. Once again the Monte-Carlo Rally ended in controversy.
The stolen victory in 1966 was just a small set back, in the next year, Rauno Aaltonen, driving for the British Motor Company official team, brought the Mini-Cooper once again to the highest place on the podium. There is no doubt the Monte-Carlo Rally immensely contributed to the Mini’s popularity around the world.
The supremacy of the small cars in the rally was short-lived. During the 1970s the competition was dominated by sports cars like the Renault Alpine, Porsche 911, and the legendary Lancia Stratus.
Here it is, all the winners of the Monte-Carlo Rally, during the decade.
Lancia Stratus: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979
Renault Alpine A110: 1971, 1974.
Porsche 911: 1970, 1978
Lancia Fulvia: 1972
The 1970s were amazing years, not only for Monte-Carlo but for rallying in general. The heavy participation of the automakers plus some solid sponsorship, allowed the teams to bring to the battle amazing professional drivers and the best sports cars the auto-industry had at the time.
The decade set the perfect scenario for the introduction of the infamous Group “B” cars, during the 1980s, but that might as well be the subject of a future post.
The legend of the Monte-Carlo Rally lives on, it is impossible to imagine a WRC season without it in the same way it is impossible to imagine an F1 season without the Monaco GP. The evolution of the event helped to make rallying as we know it today, so demanding for the competitors and so passionate for the fans.
During the year of 2014, I had the opportunity to work for a big restoration shop in Brazil. Among many different activities we performed there, one of them was selling used “premium” motorcycles.
This little story happened on a hot summer afternoon. I was almost asleep on my desk when I saw an old guy coming through the front door, walking slowly, a cane in his hand. I would say he was on his eighties.
He passed by the Harleys and BMWs and he didn’t pay attention to the Ducatis either, but the Triumphs caught his eyes.
I got up, walked over to him, shook his hand, and even before I could introduce myself he asked:
“Do they till make Triumphs?”
“Yes, they still do. Brand new if you want”, I said.
He laughed, tapped gently on the gas tank of a Daytona 675 that was between us and said:
“Oh no!!! I don’t ride anymore”
“But I had quite a few Triumphs, long time ago. I think my first one was back in 1960.
Then he started telling me about a time when paved roads were rare and the broken bikes had to be fixed on backyards. Parts had to be adapted from other bikes or even built from the scratch.
He also told me about details of the machine that only a guy who tore them apart and put everything back together could possibly know.
He was the kind of guy who rode Triumphs not to show off, but because he loved them.
He even told me that he and his pals used to race their bikes on the back roads, outside of town.
“ We wore no helmets, no gloves… Just a bunch of reckless kids”
I tried to convince him that the bikes have changed a lot, but the kids… They haven’t changed that much.
– “Perhaps…” he said. “Perhaps…
Sometimes he would stare at the Triumph logo and be quiet. Maybe he was trying to remember more stories.
I would have gladly listened to them all.
I accompanied him to the door and before we parted, he looked at my left boot, with the leather worn out by the bike’s shifter.
“A biker yourself ?”
“Sure”, I said.
He smiled, shook my hand as strong as he could, wished me luck and left.
No, I never had a Triumph and most likely I’ll never have one, but it doesn’t matter; we are all bikers.
That handshake is record of a brotherhood. We can find our “brothers” anywhere in the world, in different situations.
We are bikers and we’ll always be; even if the weariness of time forbids us to keep on riding.
For all those gearheads who, in one way or another, have been involved with American V8s, the world HEMI means something special: the one engine that stands apart from the crowd; the “king” of the pack. But what makes this engine so special? Well, great ideas are, generally speaking, simple ideas, and the “HEMI” engine is no different. “Hemi” is the short for “Hemispherical Combustion Chamber” and that is exactly where the magic happens.
Basically, the difference between a Hemi and an ordinary V8 resides on the heads, everything else is pretty much the same. The shape of the cylinder head’s combustion chamber is approximately half of a sphere. This allows the intake and the exhaust valves to be placed one in front of the other, creating a direct, straight flow of the gases (fuel and exhaust in the picture above).
Another important aspect is the position of the spark plug, located at the top-center of the chamber, which shortens the burn distance of the air/fuel mixture. Those simple solutions make the Hemi engine extremely more efficient than a conventional one. The picture above shows a “flat-top” piston, which does not happen in real life, due to the hemisphere shape, flattop pistons could not produce sufficient compression, so domed pistons were used to make up the difference.
Well, if the Hemi design is much more efficient, why not all the brands have adopted it at the time? The answer is pretty simple: the greatest advantage of the HEMI can also be its biggest inconvenience, which is its physical size. Having the valves (intake and exhaust) lined up one in front of the other requires a considerably wider cylinder head and a complex rocker arm geometry, making the engine not very practical in an assembly line, unless if installed in full-size cars.
In a regular V8, the valves are placed side-by-side, allowing the engineers to design more compact engines and fitting them into smaller cars.
Chrysler didn’t invent the Hemi engine, the design had been around since 1901 and a few European companies like Alfa-Romeo, Jaguar, and Aston Martin had produced engines with this configuration before.
The first Hemi engine built by Chrysler was actually a massive 36 liter, water-cooled V-16, intended to power one of the most famous American fighters of WWII, the P-47 Thunderbolt. Later on, during the development, the Chrysler engine was replaced by a Pratt-Whitney radial engine and the Chrysler Hemi never went into production. On the other hand, the engineers who worked on the project gained valuable experience with the Hemi concept which they later applied to somewhat smaller engines.
In 1951, Chrysler unveiled its three most luxurious models, the New Yorker, the Imperial, and the Saratoga, all of them equipped with the all-new, 180HP, 331CI Hemi V8. At this time, the badge “HEMI” was yet to be adopted and the company named the new engine “FirePower”.
DeSoto, which was the second most prestigious brand in the Chrysler universe, received its Hemi in 1952 and named it “FireDome”. The DeSoto’s Hemi was a bit smaller, 276 CID, and able to crank up 160HP.
Dodge was the last one to receive the Hemi, in 1953. It was the smallest of the gang, with 241CID and with only 140HP. Dodge wasn’t seen as neither a performance nor a luxury brand at the time and for that reason they got the most “tamed” version of the Hemi.
Oddly enough Dodge named the engines: “Red Ram” for the cars and “PowerDome” for the trucks.
Plymouth was the only Mopar brand that didn’t receive the Hemi at that time, but Chrysler had more daring plans for the company: in 1951, the Engine Research Division was developing a Dual Overhead Camshaft, Hemi V6, displacing 235 cubic inches.
The new engine was meant to replace the venerable Plymouth “Flathead” in-line 6 that was in production for decades.
Compact, powerful, and fuel-efficient, the new Hemi V6 was way ahead of its time; when you think about it, the Overhead Camshaft concept would only become popular during the 1980s. Unfortunately, the project was scrapped due to the unusual design and the high production costs.
The Hemi engines produced between 1951 and 1958 are generally called “First Generation” and they range from 241CID (Dodge) to 392CID (Chrysler). The race teams across the USA quickly took advantage of the qualities of the Hemi and also learned how to squeeze even more power out of them. Soon those engines became dominant on the race tracks.
The American automakers have always been using the Stock Car races as an advertising tool and Chrysler didn’t waste much time before offering its new engine to the teams along with all the necessary factory support.
The results came quickly, in 1955, the new Chrysler 300-C, powered by a 331CID “FirePower” engine, completely dominated the NASCAR season. It was the first American car to break the 300 HP mark, more than enough to push the car to an astounding 27 victories and to give Chrysler the Constructor Championship.
When we think about a European roadster powered by an American V8, the first car that comes to mind is the Shelby Cobra, but 11 years before the first Cobra left the assembly line, the American entrepreneur and sports car enthusiast Briggs Cunningham, built a series of European style roadsters, powered by the Chrysler Hemi engine.
Cunningham’s ultimate goal was to win Le Mans with a car 100% made in America and the team’s performance during those years was nothing short of a success.
In 1952 the C4-R driven by Briggs Cunningham himself and Bill Spear finished fourth overall at Le Mans.
The best year for the team was 1953, a C4-R won the Sebring 12 Hours, and at Le Mans, the C5 R driven by Phill Walters and John Fitch finished first in the GT class and third overall. The two other Team Cunningham cars finished seventh and tenth.
The team returned to Le Mans in 1954 to its last attempt to win the race. They took third and fifth place overall. All those cars were powered by the 331CID Chrysler FirePower.
As we can see here, the American challenge to bring down the European dominance in Le Mans had started way before Ford vs Ferrari, in 1966.
At this point, the Hemi had already proven to be an amazing engine on race tracks, but, perhaps, in no other place, the engine had a greater performance than on the drag strips.
The drag teams quickly learned that the early FirePower engines had lots of room for improvement, with some internal rework they could substantially increase the already massive torque of the engine.
In 1958, Chrysler unveiled the biggest of the early Hemis, the 392CID and immediately it became the engine of choice for most of the drag race teams.
Topped with “roots” supercharger and fuelled with nitromethane, those Hemis could easily reach 1500 plus horsepower.
The Chrysler Hemi is a very sturdy engine but it has its limitations, in the beginning of the 1960s, the teams had already reached the structural limits of the factory cast-iron block and cylinder heads of those engines. That was the opportunity for some high-performance parts companies like Keith Black and Donavan to start the production of extra reinforced aluminum engine blocks for competition purposes.
The video above shows a Top Fuel dragster, powered by a Keith Black 3000HP HEMI engine. The car belongs to Powertech, a speed shop in Brazil, which I worked as a parts consultant, for more than 8 years.
The numbers of a modern-day Top Fuel dragster are nothing less than stunning: The 500CID, all-aluminum Hemi V8 burns a mixture of 90% of nitromethane and 10% of methanol and can crank up between 7,000 and 10,000 HP.
It takes 0.84 seconds for a Top Fueler to accelerate to 160 Km/h from standstill. At launch, drivers are subjected to up to 4.75 g–more than a space-shuttle astronaut.
The fastest speed achieved in a National Hot Rod Association in the Top Fuel class is 338.17 mph (544.23 km/h), by Brittany Force at the NHRA Nationals on 1 November 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Force’s record-breaking run came during qualifying. She took only 3.659 seconds to run the 1,000 ft drag strip.
In an attempt to curb the insane top speed of those cars, the length of the strip was reduced to 1,000 ft from the traditional 1/4 mile, 1,320ft.
All those crazy numbers are achieved with engines that still hold the same basic design of the 1951 Chrysler Hemi.
The Second Generation.
After only 8 years in production, Chrysler decided to pull the plug on the Hemi; it was an arguable decision indeed, the engine was efficient and powerful but it was also complicated to build and awkward to fit in the engine bay. But this hiatus didn’t last long, in the early 1960s, it was clear that the “Horsepower War” between the American automakers would be gruesome, and Chrysler decided to bring back its big gun.
Initially, the idea was to build the new Hemi exclusively for competition. Once again Chrysler was aiming at the two most popular forms of motorsports in America: NASCAR and drag racing. This second-generation brought two important features: first, Chrysler finally trademarked the brand “HEMI”, making it the official name of the engine, and second, they unceremoniously increased the displacement to 426CID, well into the “Big Block” territory. The new engine became so physically big that the technicians quickly nicknamed it “Elephant”.
It is not easy to precisely tell the specs of the racing 426 engine, but it is somewhere around 500HP, with 490 ft-lbs of torque at 4000 RPM.
If Plymouth was denied the opportunity to have its own Hemi back in the 50s, now Chrysler granted the brand to be the first one to receive the “Elephant”.
The 1964 Belvedere was the chosen model to represent the “Mopar Nation” in the NASCAR season.
On the third race of the year, in Daytona, the Plymouth finished on 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions, giving an idea of how things would be throughout the season.
The HEMI powered Plymouth crushed the competition so easily in 1964, that Ford and Chevrolet joined an effort to pressure NASCAR officials to change the rules for the next year, in an attempt to ban the new Chrysler engine. The pressure from the two biggest American automakers worked and NASCAR came up with a new rule, forbidding “purpose-built” engines. In other words, if Mopar wanted to keep the HEMI on the tracks, they need to sell to the public at least 500 “street legal” cars equipped with the 426.
For the 1965 season, Chrysler decided to withdraw its team rather than equipping the cars with some other engine. The company spend the year rearranging the assembly lines to receive the 426 HEMI.
For 1966, a few mid-size Chrysler models were selected to receive the street HEMI: the Belvedere, the Coronet, and the much anticipated “Sports-Fastback” from Dodge: the Charger.
The HEMI-powered street Mopars were not, by any means, your average Muscle-Car: they were expensive, the customer paid extra US$ 718.00 to have the 426 under the hood, equivalent to US$ 4,700.00 today, and they were not so easy to find, since Dodge and Plymouth built, all together, only 3,300 units that year, just enough to homologate the engine to compete in NASCAR.
On top of all those “inconveniences”, the extra powerful and torquey engine made them too “rude” to be used as regular daily drivers.
The HEMI-powered cars feel more at home on the drag strips than on the streets and there is the place where most of those cars ended up.
What, at first, seemed to be an unfair game played by Chevy and Ford, turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the new NASCAR rule pushed Chrysler to make the new 426 HEMI available for the public, helping to perpetuate the legend of the engine.
In 1966, the 426 was again at NASCAR. Dodge failed to win the manufacturer’s title but David Pearson won the driver’s championship at the wheel of his HEMI Charger.
The “Elephant” became so dominant in NASCAR and drag racing, that in 1969, Ford came up with its own version of the hemispherical heads engine: the 429 “Boss” V8. Just like Chrysler did 3 years before, Ford had to put on the streets 500 units of his new engine to homologate it for the race tracks. The chosen car for the task was the Mustang, even if the Ford engine wasn’t as successful as the HEMI, the 429 “Boss” Mustang became the “Holy Grail” for the Ford collectors around the world.
According to Allpar.com, only 10,904 426 Hemi-powered street Mopars left Dodge and Plymouth assembly plants from 1966–71. The engine was available for pretty much all the Mopar Muscle Cars during those years but the production was very restricted.
Not only the raw performance but also the scarcity of those cars that sealed their status as legends.
Perhaps no other brand captured the “badass” attitude of the Muscle-Car Movement, as well as Mopar, did, but just like everything else in life, good things don’t last long.
The Final Duel.
The design of the 1968-70 Dodge Charger made them one of the most desirable Muscle Car ever produced but, aerodynamically speaking, they are a disaster. Dodge had been working hard to fix this flaw and make the car more competitive for the superspeedways of NASCAR, and after the fiasco of the 1968 Charger 500, Dodge decided to go to the extreme.
For the 1969 NASCAR season, they unveiled the most unorthodox Muscle Car ever, the Charger Daytona. The car, which is a “B” body Mopar (either a Dodge Charger or a Plymouth GTX) with some radical body modifications, was designed to cut through the air more easily at high-speed. A huge 23-inch-tall (584 mm) stabilizer wing on the rear deck keeps the rear end glued to the pavement and a special sheet-metal “nose cone” that replaced the traditional receded front grille, drastically increased the aerodynamic coefficient.
Besides a good start in the season, The HEMI Charger Daytona wasn’t able to stop the Ford Torino “Talladega”, now equipped with the hemispherical 429 “Boss” V8, to win the Championship. It seemed that the Chrysler HEMI had finally met its match.
For the 1970 season, Plymouth presented its own version of the “Aero car”, the Superbird. The fans called both cars, the Daytona and the Superbird “Winged Warriors”.
The feud ” Ford vs Chrysler” continued full throttle, on March 27, 1970, during the Talladega 500, Buddy Baker, driving the No. 88 “Chrysler Engineering” Dodge Charger Daytona, was the first driver in NASCAR history to break the 200 mph (322 km/h) mark.
Dodge won the constructors championship that year and the fans were pretty excited about the next season since Ford had an “aero” version of the Torino ready to join the fight.
But the NASCAR officials decided to put an end to this party. They were (rightfully so) concerned about the extreme speeds those cars were able to reach and in the name of safety, new rules were imposed to slow things down a little bit. First, they lowered the maximum displacement for the Aero cars to 305CID, and later on, they banned those cars for good.
In 1971, Richard Petty decided to drive a Big Block “regular” Plymouth instead of a small block “Aero” and he proved to be right; that was the last time the venerable HEMI 426 won a championship
After 1971, both Chrysler and Ford phased out their hemispherical V8s, it was a wild but short ride. At the same time, the whole Muscle Car Movement was slowly dying, thanks to high insurance costs and the oil crisis from the 1970s.
Th legend didn’t die completely, Mopar maniacs still can buy a brand new, crate 426 HEMI, as Chrysler keeps a small production of the engine as “performance part”.
The Chrysler HEMI represents the peak of the Golden age of the American high-performance cars, and all this respect and admiration hasn’t faded away even after 70 years since the first one hit the streets.
Note of the editor: Although I had the intention to write about the third generation of the Chrysler HEMI, I decided to leave it out of the post. The writing had gotten already too long and I didn’t want to break the post into two parts. Maybe I will address the subject in the future.
The popularity of the Oldsmobile 88 and the “OHV” V8, helped to push General Motors as the number one name in performance in the USA, but that wasn’t enough, GM had broader plans for those engines. The idea was to maximize the profits as much as possible, making the V8 even more affordable. GM quickly transferred the “OHV” technology to its most popular brand: Chevrolet.
Chevy V8, Power to the People.
In 1955 Chevrolet unveiled its all-new automobile line up: the Model “150”, the “210” and the top of line, the Bel Air; all of them equipped with the optional 265CID “OHV” V8, cranking 160HP. Chevy also made available the “Super Power Pack” V8, with 190HP, for those who wanted a little more punch under the hood.
The combination of the sleek design and the power of the V8 made the new Chevy a smashing hit and a turning point for the company. That year alone, Chevrolet sold 250.000 more cars than Ford.
The company repeated the recipe for the next 2 years, making the Chevys from 1955, 56, and 57 instant classics and propelled the popularity of the Small Block V8 for years to come.
Saving the Corvette.
The Corvette was released in 1953 and its mission was to compete with the British roadsters that were invading the American market at the time. It was equipped with a 150 HP, in-line 6 engine and a two-speed automatic transmission, in other words, the car had the looks of a sports car, but was far from performing like one. The Corvette became a disaster in sales and Chevrolet was ready to axe the car after only 2 years of production.
One of the Corvette’s chief engineers, Zora Arkus-Duntov, insisted that the car deserved a second chance but with something more spicy under the hood. Duntov’s request was finally heard and in June, 1955, the 265CID V8 Corvette hit the showrooms across the USA. To make things even better, a 4-speed manual transmission was made available as well.
Sales were picking up thanks to this new combo, but Chevy decided to go even further, in 1957 the car received a 283CID with 10,5: 1 compression ratio that could have been optionally equipped with a Rochester mechanical fuel injection. With this combination, the Corvette reached a new milestone: 1HP per cubic inch, proving how efficient the small block can be. Chevrolet also provided lots of “race-ready” components like brakes, shocks, clutch, and so on, making the little Chevy a superb sports car.
The small block V8 gave the Corvette the necessary boost in sales and also made the car unbeatable at the race tracks. It was only in the early 60s that Carol Shelby, in partnership with the British A/C and Ford, came up with a car that could face the Corvette in equal terms: the Shelby Cobra.
The Horse Power war between the American automakers had officially began
The most popular engine in History.
Throughout the next decades, the Chevrolet V8 engines would not only power the company’s high-performance cars but also the less glamorous cars and trucks. Those engines were also extensively used in the marine industry, powering boats and on a much smaller scale, they even powered airplanes.
Chevrolet produced the “OHV” V8s in a variety of sizes, from the small block 265CID (4.3 liters) to big block 454 CID (7.5 liters) but was the 350CID that became legendary. Cheap, reliable, and pretty easy to squeeze lots of horsepower out of it.
The 350 Chevy became the engine of choice for the blue-collar Hot Rodders for decades, not only during the Golden Age of American High-Performance in the 1960s but also during those terrible years of the oil crisis in the 1970s/80s.
In the beginning of the 1980s, in order to optimize production, meet emission standards, and cut costs, General Motors decided for all its “satellite” brands (Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac) to stop the production of their own V8s and adopting the “corporate” Chevrolet “small block” V8 instead.
General Motors phased out the “classic” small block from its vehicles in the late 1990s, replacing it with the “LS” V8 family, but they kept the legendary 350CID V8 in production as “replacement part” for the millions of vehicles that are still on the roads powered by this venerable engine.
Chevrolet estimates that over 100 million small blocks were produced since 1955, making it the most successful engine in the history of the auto industry.
In the last post of this series, I will talk about the most legendary of the American V8s: the Chrysler HEMI.
It took 17 years for General Motors to come up with an answer to the Ford Flathead V8. Right after WW II, two different brands from GM: Cadillac and Oldsmobile, were developing the next generation of the American V8: The “Over Head Valve” or simply OHV.
In this configuration, the engine valves (intake and exhaust) were placed in the heads, on top of the engine, diverting the heat of the gases away from the engine block, solving the most annoying problem of the Ford Flathead: overheating.
The OHV head provides a much better intake/exhaust flow, allowing a higher compression ratio. With a higher heat exchange and efficiency, General Motors could pack more power in a physically smaller unit. The new V8 also has the crankshaft held by 5 main bearing, making the engine extremely reliable.
Cadillac was heavily lobbying to be the only one to have access to the new engine, they even asked the top GM CEOs to shut down the Oldsmobile program. Obviously, the big guys refused Cadillac’s request and gave the green light for both brands to keep their development programs. GM wanted to see the new engine powering not only the luxury Cadillac cars but also the more affordable Oldsmobile; after all, Ford made millions of dollars selling V8s to the blue-collar customers so, why not do the same?
In a time dominated by the “space race” between the USA and The Soviet Union, Oldsmobile wisely named its new engine “Rocket” and after a while, the name became so popular and so attached to the brand that in 1960 Oldsmobile adopted it as its official logo.
The new age of Hot Rod.
In 1949, Oldsmobile finally unveiled the much-anticipated Model “98” equipped with the new 287 CID, OHV “Rocket” engine, pumping out 135HP. Releasing the new engine in the “98” was a predictable move, after all, the car was the top of Oldsmobile line up but the company had something more interesting up its sleeve: a couple of months later Olds delivered to the dealerships a winner recipe: They put a spiced up 160 HP, 303 CID (5.0 Litter) “Rocket” V8 into the new Model “88” which was smaller and lighter (and also more affordable) than the Model “98”. The new car immediately caught the attention of the younger buyers and quickly became a smashing hit.
The “Rocket” engine, with 160HP was already a phenomenal improvement when compared to the 125HP from the latest versions of the Ford Flathead, but there was something else that the race teams quickly learned: the new engine had lots of room for improvement, a mild prepared “Rocket” could easily reach 300HP and still be considered reliable.
Racers all over the USA started adopting the 88 model and the results came quickly: in 1949, the Rocket 88 won five of the Grand National races in the NASCAR championship. In 195I, the “88” won the first edition of “La Carrera Panamericana”, leaving Porches and Mercedes behind.
The first Rock’n Roll song.
The majority of the music researchers agree that the first Rock’n Roll song ever recorded was the 1951 single “Rocket 88” written by Ike Turner and sung by Jackie Brenston. For the first time in history, all the key ingredients that characterize the traditional Rock’n Roll were put together in one song, and yes, you guessed it, it talks about the wonders of the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. That is a good example of how popular the car was among the youngsters.
The Oldsmobile 88/98 became a huge success and for a while the brand became the number one name in performance, but GM had plans to make its V8 even more popular. In the next post of this series, I will talk about the Chevrolet Small Block V8.