1978 VW Beetle

It is not easy to summarize the importance of the VW Beetle in Brazil, my home country. The car helped us to become a motorized nation, with the Beetle we learned not only how to drive, but also how to fix it, how to take care of it, and, naturally, to love it with all our hearts.

The very first Brazilian Beetle left the assembly line on January 03, 1959. The car still had 46% of its parts imported from Germany but soon it would become 100℅ domestic. The Beetle’s off-road capabilities came in handy in a country where paved roads were a luxury. It was affordable, reliable, and easy to fix. No wonder we loved it so much.

My dad is an unconditional fan of the car and he owned more than a dozen throughout his life. For him, the little “Bug” was a daily driver, a race car, and now it became a hobby.

After his retirement a few years ago, he started buying and restoring old VW Beetles. Dad owns a small collection of 4 cars and recently he sent me some pictures of his red 1978 model which is, by far, the best one of the bunch.

He bought this Beetle from a used car dealer, in a neighboring town from where he lives. Dad is indulging himself with a hobby that is intended for people with deep pockets, but he is not a rich guy by any stretch of the imagination, he is doing this on a tight budget. Even though the car was in good condition and the asking price was fair, dad spent a couple of weeks negotiating the price until he brought it down to a number he was happy to pay. We were surprised that nobody else bought this Beetle before since it was sitting in the dealer for a few months. I guess it was meant to be.

This car is not 100% original, at some point in its life, the previous owner slightly modified it to look like a 1993/1996 model. The bumpers painted in the same color as the car, the fog lights, the bigger rear fenders, and tail lights, and the steering wheel we see here don’t belong to a 1978 Beetle. Dad is not worried about it now, since the car looks pretty cool this way.

The Beetle has no rust issues and was never involved in an accident.

The original 1300cc engine was completely rebuilt, and so were the transmission, brakes, suspension, and steering box. Mechanically speaking, no stone was left unturned.

Internally the car only received a new headliner since everything else was in good condition. The FM radio is not original but is period correct.

The 14 inches alloy rims came from another Beetle he owns, wrapped with a fresh set of Kumho 185/70 R14.

Dad does most of the job himself, and sometimes I am worried about him, he is 73 years old and he shouldn’t be removing and installing engines and transmissions alone. But I am also very happy because he is doing what he loves. His 78 Beetle looks great and drives like new, he couldn’t be more proud of it.

Good job, Pa!

To close this post, there are some interesting facts about the Brazilian Beetle I would like to share.

* In 1965 the German VW revised the majority of the Beetle’s body stampings, which allowed for significantly larger windows. The Brazilian VW never wanted to spend money on new tooling and our Beetle remained with small windows throughout its life.

Fafa de Belem was a Brazilian singer, very popular in the late 70s and early 80s. She was well known not only for her voice but also for her large breasts. In 1980 VW released a redesigned Beetle, with more protuberant rear fenders, and bigger, rounded tail lights. It didn’t take long for some joker to call the new model “Fafa”. The nickname stuck and even after all those years it is still widely used.

* The VW Beetle was produced in Brazil from 1959 to 1986. In 1993 the government and the automakers signed an agreement to build spartan vehicles, with lower taxes and incentives, allowing the lower middle-class buyers to have access to a brand new car. President Itamar Franco suggested the Beetle should be brought back into production and VW took it seriously. The company reactivated the assembly line in the same year, 1993, and built the car until 1996. During this period, 46000 Beetles were produced and they are commonly known as “Itamar Beetle”.

* In Brazil, we call it “Fusca”. In 1983 the Brazilian VW finally adopted it as the official name of the car.

Ray-Ban, The Icon Factory

-“When the Americans came here in 1943, they brought things we never saw before, like Coca-Cola, bubblegum, and Ray-Ban sunglasses”. – Recollections of one of the local residents of the Parnamirim Air Base, in Brazil, used by Allies during WWII.

Necessity is the mother of invention, this is a very wise proverb that fits perfectly in our daily lives but perhaps there is no greater time of need than when countries are at war. So many conveniences we enjoy nowadays were primarily created for military purposes. GPS is a good example.

Among the things invented to facilitate the lives of military personnel that inevitably slipped into the civilian routine; one of them even became a fashion icon. I am talking about Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Boeing P-12 fighter, circa the mid-1920s.

The creation

The iconic brand was born thanks to a necessity faced by military pilots right after WWI. Aircraft technology was advancing rapidly and as the pilots began to fly faster and higher, they started to complain about the brightness of the sun and the blue sky. They reported a series of symptoms attributed to it like headaches, dizziness, and temporary blindness. By the end of the 1920s, the US Army Air Corps Colonel John A. Macready was working closely with Bausch & Lomb, an American firm specializing in eye health products, to create sunglasses specifically designed for aviators.

The prototype was ready in 1936, made entirely of soft, crash-resistant plastic. The green lenses could block the glare without reducing visibility. Bausch & Lomb called it “Anti-Glare”.

The new sunglasses fulfilled the promise to ban the sun rays, it was also light and sturdy. It became an instant hit among aviators, military, and civilians alike.

The “Anti-Glare” was so good that the pilots began to wear them daily, not only during their missions. Bausch & Lomb saw there as an interesting opportunity and in 1937 the company released the sunglasses to the public. In the next year, it received a golden metallic frame, much more stylish than the plastic one, and B&L rechristened it Ray-Ban Aviator. The legend was born.

The success of the Aviator encouraged B&L to create more options, aimed at the adventurer customers.

Also in 1938, the Ray-Ban Shooter was released, featured with green or pale yellow Kalichrome lenses designed to sharpen details and minimize haze by filtering out blue light, making them ideal for misty conditions. The model’s signature feature was the so-called ‘cigarette-holder’ middle circle, designed to free the hands of the shooter… Oh, human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me!

During WWII, American pilots continue to rely on the Aviator, with the introduction of a gradient mirror lens with a special coating on the upper part for enhanced protection, but an uncoated lower lens for a clear view of the plane’s instrument panel. Some of the top brass of the American military also adopted the trustworthy Ray-Ban, like General Douglas MacArthur, seeing here carefully observing the landing of American troops on a beach in the Philippines, in January 1945.

From golfers to hunters, from Sunday drivers to fighter pilots, Ray-Ban became the standard of quality and style, making sunglasses part of our daily lives.

In 1952 the company put on the market the model that became the brand’s best-seller since day one, the Wayfarer.

Perhaps I am not the right person to talk about it, since I am a big fan of the model. The design is pure and sleek, when you hold it in your hands it looks almost too simple, too unpretentious, but when you put them on the magic just happens.

If I have to choose one object that could sum up all the charm and coolness of the 1950s/60s Americana, the Ray-Ban Wayfarer would be my choice, and the model hasn’t lost its charm even after all these years.

It is no secret that some of the gangsters of the 1940s/50s enjoyed dressing elegantly and here is a good example: The picture above shows Mobster Joe Gallo, who wore a pair of Wayfarer and pleaded the Fifth to all questions when he testified before the Senate Rackets Committee in 1958.

Bob Dylan was also a big fan of the Wayfarer.

A little help from Hollywood

The silver screen has helped drive Ray-Ban sunglasses’ popularity to the stratosphere. It became the brand of choice for many celebrities, either in front of the cameras or when they are enjoying some time off.

Audrey Hepburn consolidated the sunglasses as a stylish and fashionable accessory for the ladies when she wore a rounded Ray-Ban Wayfarer in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s

To show the world Ray-Ban could create a modern yet fashionable design, the company released in 1965 the Olympian. It was the chosen model for Peter Fonda in the 1969 cult movie Easy Rider.

Here, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are having a nice little chat with the legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker, on the set of The Blues Brothers, in 1980. Is there a single scene in which they are not wearing their Wayfarers?

That guy above, wearing a Ray-Ban Caravans, is Travis Bickle, the character played by Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver. A memorable performance that gave him an oscar nomination in 1977 and helped to define his career.

One of the most recognizable Ray-Ban models, the Clubmaster, was created by another optical company, called Shuron, in 1947. It was intended to be a frame for prescription lenses and was quite successful in the 1950s. Ray-Ban brought the stile back in the 1980s as sunglasses. That is the model given to Tim Roth to play Mr. Orange in the 1992 mob drama Reservoir Dogs.

Into modern times

In 1999, the Eyewear Division of Bausch & Lomb, including Ray-Ban was acquired for 640 million dollars by Luxottica, the world’s biggest company in the eyewear industry, based in Milan, Italy.

In 2016 Ray-Ban became a sponsor of the Ferrari Formula One team. As a result of this partnership, there is a whole line of sunglasses proudly displaying the “prancing horse”.

Ray-Ban is constantly offering new designs and all of them are heavily based on vintage styles. The company is adamant about keeping the traditional models in production, for the happiness of traditional fans, like Dave Grohl, the frontman of Foo Fighters.

The company’s latest innovation is the Ray-Ban Smart Glasses, equipped with dual 5MP cameras, speakers, and an internet connection.

The classic will never die.

From the airfields of WWII to the red carpet of the Oscars, Ray-Ban sunglasses have been part of pop culture for more than 80 years. The recipe for this success is quite simple: quality, affordability, and an unmistakable classic style that seems it will never lose its appeal.

How can we talk about Ray-Ban and not talk about Top Gun? So let’s close this post with the good old Maverick. The time came to replace his jet fighter, but he would never replace his Aviator.

Argentina, the world champion

December 13th, 2022; quite a few of us have abandoned our “battle stations” at the dealership to spend a few minutes in front of the TV, watching the final moments of Croatia vs Argentina. We are a bunch of immigrants from all corners of the world, cheering, commenting, and sometimes cursing; after all, that is what the World Cup is all about, isn’t it?

My coworkers are having a hard time understanding why I am not rooting for Argentina, and I try to explain Brazil and Argentina are bitter rivals in just about everything, specially soccer.

“If Croatia sent Brazil home, they should send Argentina as well”. -I shouted. They just smiled and shook their heads; rivalry, just like any other form of passion, is not easy to explain.

But as I watch the game, I see that Argentina is a better team, and they don’t deserve to go home. And they didn’t.

Watching the following games it was clear that our rivals have what it takes to be world champions. They are better than the other teams and much better than Brazil.

This is probably the last word cup for Lionel Messi, elected the best footballer in the world. Would be nice to have the title “world champion” in his resume. He certainly deserves it.

Sunday, December 18th, 2022, my wife and I are watching the word cup final match, passionately rooting for Argentina. It is a tense but beautiful game. Everyone agrees that the match was the most thrilling final in soccer history.

Argentina won its third world cup,and it was well deserved. Messi deserved it, but more importantly, the Argentinian people deserved it. The country is going through one of the most severe financial crises in its history. Years of mismanagement and corruption had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

It is the same old story all over Central and South America, corruption is like a disease that slowly kills a country. Look at Venezuela, it was supposed to be the wealthiest nation in South America, but now it is just a decaying corpse of a country.

Mismanagement and corruption bring poverty and criminality. We, Latinos, don’t have much to be proud of, but sports, sometimes, bring a little relief to our shame.

We just can’t help but be happy for Argentina and I bet, all the Latin America is shamelessly borrowing a little bit of that pride. Right now we are not rivals, we are hermanos.

Me da gusto por ti, Argentina!

1964 Simca Rallye

In the late 1950s, Brazil started a very ambitious plan that would change the whole country forever. The idea was to shift a good portion of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing, opening the doors to foreign industry and technology.

The motor of this revolution was the automotive industry, and the logic behind it is very simple: the country was about to create a wealthier middle class, willing to purchase items they previously couldn’t afford, and certainly automobiles were at the top of the list. Of course, the pride of having a domestic auto industry also played an important role.

Many automakers answered the call and they came to Brazil, full of hope. Some of them are still there going strong, like Volkswagen and General Motors, but some of them came and left pretty quickly. Among the ones that didn’t have time to lay down deep roots we have the French automaker Simca. 

The new 1963 Simca Rallye, in an advertisement picture, with the beautiful Rio de Janeiro beach in the background. The car was aimed at more sophisticated customers.

The Brazilian Simca was founded on May 5, 1958, and stayed in the country until 1969, when it was acquired by Chrysler. During this short period, Simca had a variety of cars, all of them based on the French model Chambord. It is a beautiful car, with an unmistakable 1950s American design and powered by a V8 engine. But the question here is: how did all this American DNA end up in a French car? The answer is simple, the Chambord was born as a Ford. Confusing? You bet! The history of this brand definitely deserves a post here in TCM.

The reason for this post is to present a gorgeous car, a 1964 Brazilian Simca “Rallye”, that belongs to a very good friend of mine, Marco Antonio Soeiro. Marco and I know each other since 1977, we grew up together in the city of Curitiba, in Southern Brazil. We were the kind of weird kids in the neighborhood that spent more time playing with slot cars than with a soccer ball. Marco became a successful mechanical engineer and a classic car collector, with a special interest in Simca.

The story of this Rallye starts in 1982 when the car was sold to a collector from the northeastern part of the country. It was shipped to the city of Recife, more than 3,000 km from our hometown, and once there, this classic Simca was kept in storage for many years.

Fast forward to the year 2000, Marco Antonio was attending a classic car meeting in the city of Nova Petropolis, when he casually met this collector. They started talking about cars and this guy showed him some pictures of his 1964 Rallye. Marco immediately recognized it and at that point, the idea of buying the car was born. After one year of negotiations, the Simca was back in our hometown.

The Rallye was the sports version of the Simca Chambord. The car has some exclusive details that set it apart from the other Brazilian Simca models, like the dual hood scoops, green shade glass, and brighter choices of color. Marco’s car left the assembly line painted in this superb color called “Santos Beige”.

Since the Simca Chambord was originally a Ford project, the car is powered by the 2.3 liters Flathead V8, but to live up to the name, the Rallye version needed something a little bit spicier under the hood.

Marco told me that the sports car company Talbot was helping the French Simca to get involved in racing and they created a dual carb intake manifold for the V8 engine, which was adopted for the new Rallye. The Brazilian engineers came up with a slightly bigger displacement (2351cc vs 2432cc), fed by a pair of Zenith Stromberg 32 carbs, and dual exhaust. The power jumped from 98 hp to 105 hp without compromising its reliability. That was the perfect engine for the Rallye and also for the Presidente, the luxurious top of the Chambord lineup.

In the eyes of an American hot rodder, the Rallye engine looks like the first level of preparation for any Ford “Flatty” V8. It is a simple and effective recipe; no wonder Simca decided to use it in a production car. Does the Rallye qualifies as a “factory hot rod”? I think so.

When this Rallye came to Marco, it was a pretty solid car, he only had a few minor issues to take care of. The original 3-speed manual transmission (3-on-the-tree) was a bit noisy and it was replaced with a better unit. The dual carb setup can be tricky to tune and probably that was the reason the previous owner replaced it with a single carb. Marco properly reinstalled the dual carbs with the original parts that came with the car. The Rallye also received a fresh paint job and a new set of tires.

The documents proved to be the most challenging part of the project. The previous owner never cared about them and Marco had to start from scratch. It took 6 long and painful years to make the car legal again.

In this advertisement, you can read: “The Simca Rallye is everything a dynamic man can expect from his car”. A pretty strong argument indeed.

By the end of the 1950s, Chrysler started to acquire shares of Simca, hoping it would open the doors of the European market to Mopar products. By late 1966, the acquisition was finished in Brazil, and for the next year, Chrysler gave the Chambord a facelift, and a new name, Esplanada. The Americans finalized Simca operations around the word in 1969, in countries like Brazil and Australia. On July 1st, 1970 the company title was formally changed to Chrysler France.

The Simca Chambord carries the honor of being the first V8-powered car produced in Brazil. It became the most iconic model of the first phase of our domestic auto industry and the Rallye is the most sought version by the brand’s enthusiasts.

The Best Job of My Life.

No doubt we are very proud to be “Gearheads”, the kind of people who are so in love with machines that most of our family members and friends don’t quite understand us. After all, we can easily forget important stuff but still have fresh in our memory the firing order of the piece of junk we drove in High School.

Most of those stories begin with our father taking us as kids to car meetings and races or asking for help to fix that old family car. My story is no different than that.

Another story is how we manage to keep the passion alive; from the not-so-expensive habit to spend hours on car-related websites to actually buying and keeping a dream car.

Some of us even found a way to make a living in a car-related business, like working in a repair shop or in a dealership, but I believe just a few lucky ones actually work with classic cars.

Well, I’m lucky enough to have found a place to work; not only around classics but around race cars also.

Between 2008 and 2015, I had the privilege to work for Powertech, one of the most traditional speed shops in the country. It is located in my hometown, Curitiba, in southern Brazil.

Powertech was born in the early 1990s as an audio/video import company but thanks to the founder’s passion for motorsports, it quickly shifted to auto racing/performance parts import. The company’s founder, João Alexandre de Abreu, had a drag race team even before Powertech was created, and getting the shop involved in the competition was a no-brainer. The white pro-mod Ford Maverick you see in the picture above, also known as “White Shark”, is part of the drag racing history in Brazil. Despite 15 years of retirement, fans still ask when the car will return to the track.

For many years, Powertech was one of the biggest drag race teams in the country, but after our racetrack was sold to a real estate developer, João Alexandre decided to quit the races.

The shop was also involved in Brazilian Stock Car racing, preparing engines and cars not only for their own team but for some of the top teams in the country. The car you see here is a Chevrolet (Opel) Astra. Of course, it’s just a fiberglass bubble over a chrome-moly frame, powered by a 350 V8 small block Chevy and a sequential 6-speed tranny. They quit Stock Car in 2007, right before I joined the company.

Powertech is not only a shop, it is also a manufacturing plant. The company produces many different automotive performance products like Nitrous Oxide systems and the bread and butter of the company, forged pistons, and connecting rods for a variety of engines.

Alongside parts and service for motorsport, Powertech also offers a huge variety of equipment for Hot Rods and classic cars.

A Ford “Flathead” V8, equipped with the legendary “Ardun” heads.

A classic 331 Chrysler HEMI, with electronic fuel injection that looks like a vintage “Inglese” stack system.

This V12 engine was removed from a crashed 1995 Ferrari 456. The idea is to install it plus the 6-speed manual transmission into a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr coupe. Will it be a nice replacement for the original V12?

During my time working at Powertech, I also was involved in buying and selling classic cars. I have a huge collection of pictures of those cars and I had a hard time selecting the best ones.

1960 Impala, powered by a 400 small block Chevy.

North American readers might find it difficult to figure this one out, the car is a Brazilian-built 1961 Simca Chambord. Simca was a French brand linked with Ford and then Chrysler. If you want to know more about the Chambord, click here:

1936 Ford convertible, powered by a 302 Ford small block V8, 1931 Ford Tudor powered by a Chevy 4 cylinder “Iron Duck”, and the “White Shark”, currently with no engine.

The boss is a fanatic about Cords, at some point he owned 8. This is a 1937 model.

Ford GT 40 replica

This 1947 Harley Davidson had been sitting for ages when the boss bought it. The engine had nothing but good compression, no electrical system, no clutch, no carburetor, no brakes…

The team put the old lady running properly in less than 2 weeks for an annual Hot Rod meeting in 2014.

These two Cords were bought to be “parts donors”, but the four-door is too nice to be dismantled. On other hand the convertible is doomed; the car was converted as RWD back in the 60s with an Oldsmobile V8 powertrain.

A Porsche 911 “Slant Nose”. To be honest with you, I don’t remember the year of this car.

This is a 1934 Ford Victoria. All the fenders are brand new and the top is already chopped. A very nice project; if I had the money, I would have bought it.

This 1937 Studebaker Coupe will receive a Viper V10 engine.

1937 Willys Coupe. As you can see, it is “all metal”.

A 1974 Jaguar XJ 12. It’s a little beaten up but it is running fine.

My job title at Powertech was “parts advisor”, but in this kind of business is just natural to embrace more than one position.

When an important Classic Car Meeting or a Drag Race is coming up soon, usually the hell breaks loose. Working late hours to make the cars ready, getting hotel reservations, paying fees, loading and unloading the truck, and then traveling to the other side of the country, spending a week away from home.

It is a labor of love and a lot of labor.

There I am, 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning, drying the dew on this 1939 Lincoln Zephyr, during the Brazilian Southern Nats Meeting, 2015.

From left to right: Ben Hur; Helder Gandolfo, team leader and the owner/driver of the yellow Camaro; Paulo Kuelo, hot rod builder; myself; and Adson Queiroz, a good customer that became part of the family.

But, when everything goes right, we can be proud to be part of the team that got the trophy. Dedication, hard work, and camaraderie can produce good results. In the picture above, the Powertech team celebrates the victory at the Top Fuel Class, Brazilian Drag Racing Festival, 2014.

That job was a real pleasure not only for allowing me to be surrounded by the stuff that I love but more importantly, to be surrounded by an extraordinary bunch of people who became my friends for life.

Classic Rock – Stairway to Heaven

It has been a while since the idea of diversifying this blog crossed my mind; perhaps it would be a good idea to write about something other than machines.

Following this idea, I decided to talk about another passion of mine, Classic Rock, but instead of telling the history of the bands, I will tell the history of songs that made those bands legendary. I hope you will enjoy it.

The Greatest Rock’n Roll Song Ever… (telling or asking?)

For this first “episode”, I chose Stairway to Heaven, the most popular song of the British band, Led Zeppelin, and one of the greatest works in the history of Rock’n Roll.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page started to work on new songs for the band’s fourth album as soon as they came back from their American tour, in December 1970. The band went to Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, for an inspirational holiday.

Page wanted an epic song for the new album, as he told in an interview, – “I don’t want to tell you about it in case it doesn’t come off, it’s an idea for a really long track on the next album … we want to try something new with the organ and acoustic guitar building up and building to the electric thing.”

Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant.

“Stairway to Heaven”, just like any other artistic masterpiece in history, took a long time to be finished. According to Page,  … “the song was written over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night”.

Page used to keep a cassette recorder around to register new ideas that could burst at any moment. The rest of the song is a collection of pieces and bits from those tapes that Jimmy masterfully sewed together.

The lyrics and the dark controversy

Headley Grange, being guarded by a “black dog”.

As the work for the new album progressed, the band went to Headley Grange, an old mansion, located in Headley, Hampshire. This huge, dusty, and historic house was the perfect venue for many bands who wanted a secluded place with a good acoustic for recording and rehearsing. Jimmy Page was strumming Stairway to Heaven on his guitar, around a bonfire and Robert Plant recalls writing the lyric in a flash of inspiration.

Robert Plant in front of Headley Grange, 1971. The truck is the mobile studio, owned by The Rolling Stones.

“I was holding a pencil and paper, and for some reason, I was in a very bad mood. Then all of the sudden my hand was writing out the words, –There’s a lady who’s sure all the hitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven. – I just sat there and looked at the words and then I almost leaped out of my seat.”

After revealing what happened that night, around the fire, Plant left the door open for speculations that “something else” wrote the lyrics. According to some conspiracy theories, members of Led Zeppelin gave their souls to the devil in exchange for what would become the greatest Rock’n Roll song of all time. Those theories even stretch to the point that if a certain part of the song is played backward, it sounds like a prayer for the devil.

The conspiracy of the so-called “Satanic backward massage” got some endorsement when connected with the fact that Jimmy Page bought a house that belonged to the English occultist Aleister Crowley, on the southern bank of Loch Ness, Scotland (picture above). In his books, Crowley advocated that his followers learned to read and speak backward.

In an interview with Musician magazine, Robert Plant expressed his frustration about the whole satanic theory: “‘Stairway To Heaven” was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music. It’s really sad. The first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn’t actually believe it, I couldn’t take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that’s the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.” 

Stairway to Heaven is a poetic message about our greedy, materialistic, society that believes everything, including a path to heaven, can be acquired with money, which is the opposite of what the conspiracies keep telling us. If they wanted to praise the dark side, why not do it openly like so many other bands did? But I will not try to convince you of anything here, after all, there is plenty of material on the Internet about the subject; you can do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

Led Zeppelin IV

The recording sessions for the new album began in December 1970, at Island Records, on Basing Street, in London. Stairway to Heaven received Plant’s vocals in 1971 (this part being recorded at Headley Grange). Bass player John Paul Jones decided not to play bass on this because of the folk character of the song. Instead, he added a string section, keyboards, and flutes. Bonham starts playing his drums at 4:18. The song was completed when Page returned to Island Studios to record his guitar solo.

Led Zeppelin’s label, Atlantic Records, wanted to release the song as a single, but the band’s manager, Peter Grant, refused it. The untitled album reached the stores on November 08, 1971. The fans quickly named it, Led Zeppelin IV.

Jimmy Page originally wanted a 15-minute epic song but the recording version of Stairway to Heaven has 8:03 min. The British critics didn’t show a whole lotta love for the song at the time of its release, some said the song was boring and even pretentious.

The first time the band played it live was in war-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland on March 5, 1971 – John Paul Jones noticed the audience wasn’t that impressed. –They wanted to hear something they knew – like “Whole Lotta Love”.

It was the American fans that first showed a better appreciation for the song. Jimmy Page said of playing it in Los Angeles, in August 1971: “I’m not saying the whole audience gave us a standing ovation – but there was this sizable standing ovation there. And I thought, ‘This is incredible because no one’s heard this number yet. This is the first time hearing it!’ It obviously touched them, so I knew there was something with that one.” 

It was also in the USA that Stairway to Heaven started a very successful radio journey. According to some experts, the song has a perfect format for it and it became one of the most-played songs on the radio all over the planet.

More controversies

Scandals of plagiarism are part of Led Zeppelin’s history and it was no different with Stairway to Heaven. The band was accused of stealing the opening guitar riff from a song called Taurus by the American psych-rock band Spirit, recorded three years earlier. If the case was lost, Page and Plant would have been required to pay a sizable amount of money in compensation. Just to give an idea of the kind of money we are talking about here, the song has earned, since it was released in 1971, more than half a billion Dollars for the band. The case dragged on in court for five years and the judges finally ruled the two songs were not intrinsically similar.

During the trials, in 2016, Jimmy Page shattered one of the most beloved Led Zeppelin legends, when, under oath, he declared that he didn’t start working on Stairway to Heaven in the mystical and ancient Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales.

Page said that he wrote the music on his own and first played it for his bandmates at Headley Grange mansion, where they recorded it using a mobile studio owned by The Rolling Stones. Plant corroborated the story in his testimony.

The fans elevated Bron-Yr-Aur (pictured above) to the status of holy ground for all Led Zeppelin-related stuff. The place became the destination of pilgrimage for thousands of fans that visit the cottage every year.

The Hermit; is one of the characters in Celt mythology. This picture was the inner illustration of the Led Zeppelin IV album.

The place also has a strong connection with the band’s (especially Plant’s) beliefs in the Celt culture and religion. It was a bit of a disappointment to know that Bron-Yr-Aur never had an attachment to the creation of Stairway to Heaven.

Final thoughts

Led Zeppelin, European Tour, 1980.

If Stairway to Heaven is the greatest Rock’n Roll song ever is a matter that will be passionately discussed for generations to come. But one thing is for sure, it became Led Zeppelin’s anthem.

Jimmy Page holds the song as the band’s best work. After that, he put Robert Plant to write all the lyrics for Led Zeppelin. In 1975, Page was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine and when he was asked how important the song was to him, he answered:

– To me, I thought “Stairway” crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its bestas a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with “Stairway”. –

The last time Stairway to Heaven was played live was in London, on Dec 10, 2007. The remaining members of the band got together for this concert, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones. The guy at the drums is Jason Bonham, the son of the legendary drummer John Bonham, who died on September 25, 1980.

Page’s words sum up not only what the song represents for the band but also for the fans: Stairway to Heaven is the zenith of Led Zeppelin history.

Oddly enough, it is not Plant’s favorite song; for him, Kashmir is the band’s best work.

A Future F1 Champion

Several months ago I started following https://demaras.com/, a very interesting blog that shows the adventures of the Demaras, a gearhead family, from Toronto. The emphasis of the site is on the development of the racing career of Daniel Demaras, the older son of the family and a young talent at the Canadian F1200. Chris Demaras, the “crew manager” of the family, graciously has published some of my posts on their blog, including the one talking about the history of the Brazilia F-Vee.

Daniel Demaras, showing his skills on wet pavement.

As a die-hard fan of the “VW air-cooled” cars, I immediately got hooked on the Canadia F1200 (also known around the world as Formula-Vee). This class has been going on for 50 years, with very few changes in the rules. It still holds all the characteristics that made the F-Vee so popular word wide: it is affordable and competitive, and the cars are rugged, simple, and easy to maintain. It is the perfect “school class” for young drivers who don’t have millions in their bank accounts.

A couple of months ago I asked the Demaras to write an essay about the Canadian F1200, to be published in the Brazilian motoring website: autoentusiastas.com.br.

Daniel wrote a beautiful text, telling about his successful first year competing in the F1200 and his article was published in Alexander Gromow’s column “Speaking of Beetles”. Gromow is one of the most knowledgeable VW air-cooled experts in South America.

Here it is, the Autoentusiastas article, translated into English.

https://autoentusiastas-com-br.translate.goog/2022/11/novo-causo-um-jovem-piloto-da-formula-1200-canadense-conta-sua-historia/?_x_tr_sl=pt&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=pt-BR&_x_tr_pto=wapp

A Rebel Driver

Spain has given us quite a few idols in motorsport, and many years before the world started following the career of Fernando Alonzo and Carlos Sainz, another Spaniard was already conquering hearts and minds in Formula One, his name was Alfonso de Portago, but the fans affectionately called him “Fon”.

He was a member of the Spanish aristocracy with the noble title of “Marquis”, which stands between Duke and Earl. Just like any other member of the nobility, he had lots of time and money to enjoy the good things in life but racing was his true love.

His career in motorsport was, unfortunately, very short (1953-1957), not allowing him to leave a more profound mark in racing. He could easily be considered the driver with the most exotic name ever, his full name was: Alfonso Antonio Vicente Eduardo Angel Blas Francisco de Boria Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton Carvajal y Are, (Cabeza de Vaca means, literally, Head Cow). To make things easier and assure everyone would be aware of his nobility, he liked to be addressed as Marques de Portago.

The Need for Speed was constantly flowing in his veins. When he was studying to become an aircraft pilot, Fon bet with a friend that he could fly his small airplane under a bridge. He won the bet but the authorities canceled his course and forbid him to ever get his license.

Portago was an athlete, a horse rider, and also a member of the Spanish bobsleigh team that competed in the 1956 Winter Olympics. He wasn’t a snobbish guy, always dressed frugally and according to his friends, whatever he did in life was for love, not for showing off. Fon was married with two kids but that never prevented him to act like a true Latin lover, having many love affairs throughout his life.

From left to right, Manuel Fangio, Peter Collins, Alfonso de Portago, and Luigi Musso. German GP, 1956

Alfonso, during his racing career, was more deeply involved with Ferrari, but it was a complicated relationship. Enzo liked the Marquis more as a customer than as a team member. Even though Fon was invited to be part of the Ferrari Formula-One team for the 1956 season, replacing Luigi Musso, when he could not finish the season.

Alfonso de Portago, borrowing his teammate’s car. Silverstone, 1956.

Fon drove for Ferrari in six races and his best performance was Silverstone. He was in third, behind Fangio and Moss, when he was called back to the pits, and the team manager asked the Marquis to give his car to his teammate Peter Collins. In a situation like that, the two drivers would share the points at the end of the race. Portago complied with the orders, visibly not happy. At lap 80, another Ferrari driver, Eugenio Castelotti, came to the pits and retired from the race after being involved in a minor collision. Fon asked if the car was still drivable and the mechanics answered “barely”. To Portago, that was good enough, he jumped into the battered Ferrari and left the pits like a maniac. (picture above)

The Ferrari died close to the finish line after only 12 laps. Portago removed his goggles, lit a cigarette, and waited until the end of the race. When Manuel Fangio received the checkered flag, the Marquis pushed the crippled Ferrari, crossing the finish line and ending the race in 10th place. That was classic Portago, but Enzo didn’t like the stunt, for him, it was shameful for the brand and unnecessary.

For the 1957 season, the relationship between Fon and Enzo Ferrari continued to be complicated. The Marquis kept writing letters to Maranello, asking for a position as a driver. Enzo, sarcastically, wrote back, sending pictures of the crashes, involving the Spaniard.

Portago finally found his way back to Ferrari when in May 1957, he was called to once again replace Luigi Musso, who had fallen ill and was unable to keep driving. His first assignment was to be part of the team competing in the legendary Mille Miglia. The Scuderia from Maranello had a superb team that year, the Marquis would be driving with Peter Collins, Piero Taruffi, Wolfgang Von Trips, and Olivier Gendebien.

The race was the 24th edition of the Mille Miglia, it was held on May 11-12, 1957. It was also the Round 3 of the World Sports Car Championship season. Ferrari had the strongest team on the field with 15 cars, 5 from the official factory team, and 10 driven by privateers. Portago invited an old friend to be his navigator, the American journalist Edmund Nelson. They would have the privilege to be on board Ferrari’s newest prototype, the 335 S – number 531 (pictured above).

Mille Miglia

Portago (with a white helmet), talks to Peter Collins (with a funny hat), right before the start of the 1957 Mille Miglia. The lady wearing a striped blouse is Peter’s wife, Louise Collins.

The Mille Miglia (thousand miles) was the most traditional and popular competition in the history of Italian motorsport. It took place on public roads and its format was close to the one used in rally, where the drivers race against the clock when driving from one checkpoint to the next.

The competitors are released at one-minute intervals. Slowers cars go first, based on engine displacement, increasing the challenge of the drivers in faster cars. In a time with no internet, no cell phones, and very limited resources in communication, (we are talking about Italy in the 1950s) the organization came up with a very ingenious way to help the race marshals to calculate the time at various checkpoints, the number painted on the cars is related to the driver’s allocated start time. For example, the picture above shows Von Trips, at the wheel of his Ferrari, the number means he started the race at 5:32 am on May 12, Fon was released 1 minute before, his number was 531. The slower cars were released on the evening of May 11.

For that year, the chosen route was a round trip starting in the city of Brascia going to Rome, and back to Brascia, totaling 992.332 miles, mostly on back roads. The Mille Miglia proved to be a very dangerous race, the roads are narrow, the turns are sharp and the pavement usually is not in prime condition. The slower cars starting at night had to deal with the darkness but usually, the road was free of traffic. The faster cars racing through the day had to deal with traffic, not only from other competitors but also from the locals, who didn’t care much about the orders to keep the roads free. Some Italian drivers dispensed the help of navigators, alleging they were familiar with those roads.

The Machine

A rare 335S survivor was auctioned in 2016, for US$ 36 million.

Maserati was working on a new prototype since 1954, the 450S and the company decided to follow the mantra: “There is no replacement for displacement” with a larger, 4.5 liter V12, rated at 400 hp, seriously outpowering Ferrari at the time.

But the house of Maranello was truly committed to winning the Mille Miglia that year. The team brought to the race a brand-new prototype, the 335 S, also equipped with a larger engine than its predecessors, a 4 liter, V12 engine, fed by 6 Weber carbs, producing around 400hp.

Ferrari was able to build only 4 prototypes in time for the Mille Miglia, which means one of the drivers would be racing with a “regular” production GT car. The team manager chose Oliver Gendebien to receive the less powerful GT Ferrari, based on his experience.

 

Enzo and Portago, having a little chat before the departure.

Enzo Ferrari was the kind of boss that never missed an opportunity to show disaffection toward the drivers he didn’t like. During a meeting, right before the start of the race, he said to Portago, -” I won’t be surprised to see Oliver (Gendebien) finishing the race ahead of you”. Fon didn’t say a word, he silently accepted the challenge.

The Race

Portago and Nelson, leaving Brescia.

Only Ferrari and Maserati had entered work teams for the 1957 Mille Miglia, The peculiar characteristics of the race had prevented more factory-backed cars on the field. Maserati had big hopes for the new and powerful 450S prototype and brought two to the race, one for the experienced Stirling Moss and one for Jean Behra. But things started to go sour for the team when Behra crashed his car during a pre-race test, leaving Moss to fight the Ferraris all by himself. Maserati’s hopes completely faded away when Moss snapped the brake pedal of his 450S right after the start and was forced to retire.

Portago and Nelson, somewhere in Italy, pleasing the crowd.

With the two Maserati prototypes out of the race, it seemed the competition would be smooth sailing for Ferrari. Portago arrived in Rome in 5th place and among the cheering crowd, he spotted the Mexican actress Linda Christian, with whom he had a love affair. He immediately pulled over to meet her, allowing his Latin lover persona to take over his duties as a race driver. After a little chat and a couple of kisses, the Spanish bon vivant left the city towards Bologna, where his car would receive the necessary repairs.

A beautiful picture of Peter Collins at the wheel of his Ferrari 335 Sport, taken by his navigator, Louis Klemantaski.

Once there, the mechanics found the front suspension was damaged and it would likely break before reaching Brescia. The team manager told Fon that his best option was to retire from the race to prevent an accident. The Marquis obviously ignored the advice, jumped in the car and left, determined to win the race.

Portago and Nelson, at Futa Pass. Mille Miglia, 1957.

Driving hard on his way back, Portago passed Manfredini in Parma and Gendebien em Cremona, proving to Enzo that he wouldn’t let a slower Ferrari cross the finish line in front of him.

At one of the checkpoints, the race marshals told Portago that he was in third, with Taruffi in first and Von Trips in second. The Commendatore Enzo himself had instructed his drivers that, at this point, they should not fight for positions, in order to guarantee an easy 1-2-3 victory for the Scuderia.

If Portago had accepted the instructions, we will never know.

The tragedy

With only 30 km to the finish line, Fon was approaching the small town of Guidizzolo. He was going flat out on a straight, at 220km/h, when one of the front tires exploded. The Spaniard lost control of the car and hit a telephone pole, then it flew over a brook, plowing a few spectators in its way. The destroyed Ferrari bounced back, running over more spectators, and finally stopped upside down, in a ditch on the other side of the road.

Fon and Nelson were catapulted from the car, after hitting the pole, the Spaniard died at the scene and his navigator perished a couple of hours later, at the hospital. Ten spectators also lost their lives, victims of the accident, among them five children.

The Italian government, shocked by the scope of the disaster, banned all motorsport activities on public roads, making the 1957 Mille Miglia the last one in history. Despite the tragedy, Ferrari finished the ill-fated race with a 1-2-3 victory, Piero Taruffi in first, Von Trips in second, and Olivier Gendebien in third.

The official cause of the accident was a blown tire, but everyone knew the team allowed Portago to keep on driving with a damaged suspension, which was the probable culprit for the tire failure.  Ferrari and the Belgian tire company Englebert were charged with manslaughter by Italian prosecutors in an investigation that dragged on for four and a half years.

Ferrari exhausted its financial resources fighting in court. The lack of cash brought the company to the negotiation table with Ford, in a deal that we are all familiar with. In the end, both companies were cleared of charges.

The doctors found in Portago’s leather jacket, his passport, and a note saying he was Catholic, and that in the event of any misfortune, a priest should be called.

The Marquis of Portago was seen by many as the perfect example of a playboy. He lived his life to the fullest but didn’t have time to prove himself as a competent race driver. He was passionate about Ferrari and was one of the few who dared to cross the Commendatore. He was 28 years old when he died.

The Marquis of Portago, at the wheel of his Ferrari 750, Monza, Italy – 1954.

The Scottish race driver and automotive journalist Gregor Grant wrote a passionate description of the Marquis of Portago: “a man like Portago appears only once in a generation, and it would probably be more accurate to say only in a lifetime. The fellow does everything fabulously well. Never mind driving, the steeple chasing, the bobsledding, the athletic side of things, never mind being fluent in four languages. He could be the best bridge player in the world if he cared to try, he could certainly be a great soldier, and I suspect he could be a fine writer”.

Portago’s short career didn’t allow him to be more than a footnote in the history of motorsport, but a whole book could be written about his life. I believe the events that led to his tragic death deserved to be told.

 

Note of the editor: This post was heavily based on a text written by Henrique Mércio and originality published in one of my favorite automotive blogs, Histórias Que Vivemos, maintained by Ruy Amaral Junior, who graciously allowed me to do so.

https://ruiamaraljr.blogspot.com/2022/10/cabeca-de-vaca-por-henrique-mercio.html

The Once Incredible Markham Airport.

Since my wife and I moved from Winnipeg, MB to Markham, ON, we immediately fell in love with the back roads of this area. Traveling between small towns, we see farms, woods, and beautiful tree-covered properties, nestled in this idyllic ride through Ontario’s countryside. (top photo courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News)

A Canadair CL-13A Sabre (photo credit Blog TO)

If you are traveling on Elgin Mills Road, between Ninth Line and hwy 48, if the corn fields are not too high, a trained eye will spot something quite unusual, a Cold War-era fighter jet, a beaten-up F-86 Sabre, sitting on a field. Beside it, another classic fighter, a wingless F-104 Starfighter. For a military aviation aficionado like myself, spotting this kind of machinery is like finding a treasure. I immediately started digging for some information about those planes and this is what I found.

From far away, it is kind of hard to tell but the planes are parked on the grounds of Markham Airport, a little facility of 200 acres, tucked away in between corn fields and the forest of the Rouge National Urban Park.

The airport was founded in 1965 by two former Polish air force pilots. It consists of a single 2,013 ft (614 m) runway for small and private aircraft only. Nowadays it is barely operational, it is home to The Royal Canadian Air Cadets Gliding Program and a dozen private small airplanes, but during the peak of its operations, the Markham Aiport housed more than 100 aircraft.

Although the stories of small countryside airports are always interesting, the real character here is a person, Allan Rubin, a Royal Canadian Air Force veteran, passionate about photography and aviation. Allan worked as the caretaker of Markham Airport since 1986.

Rubin joined the RCAF when he was 18 years old and after a brief period serving in Canada, he was transferred to the USA, to fly top-secret, high-altitude reconnaissance missions for NATO and the CIA. He was stationed in the most secretive and mysterious of all the American air bases, Area 51.

The legend of Area 51 was extensively explored by movies and TV series.

As the legend goes, Area 51, a CIA military base in the Mojave Desert, northwest of Las Vegas, is the facility where the American government keeps wreckages of extraterrestrial spacecraft, collected from crash sites all over the USA. Some conspiracists claim the base also houses corpses and even live species of aliens.

The SR-71 Black Bird. In fact, it does look like a sci-fi spacecraft.

But Rubin dismisses all the alien fuss around Area 51. In an interview with the Toronto Star, in 2014, the veteran pilot declared that most of the UFO sightings in the 1950s and 1960s were the result of commercial pilots crossing paths with state-of-the-art, ultra-secret spy planes, like the one pilots flew at Area 51,  the SR-71 Black Bird.

The job at the Royal Canadian Air Force was a dream come true, it brought him close to the two passions he had in life, aircraft, and photography, but instead of taking pictures of nature, he was now taking shots of Soviet territory.

Canadair CF-104D Starfighter (Photo credit Toronto Star, 2014)

Rubin was also an avid collector of aeronautical memorabilia. According to the Toronto Star, his office at the Markham Airport was littered with vintage airplane parts, from an old wooden propeller to ejection seats. But it was outside his office that the collection was much more interesting.

Beechcraft Expeditor. (photo credit Ray Barber, 2005)

Rubin soon realized that aircraft parts alone wouldn’t satisfy his passion, he wanted more. So he started to collect whole aircraft.

Canadair CF-116B. (photo credit John Bennett, 2006)

After more than 60 years of collecting aeronautical stuff, he ended up with a great assembly of Cold War-era jet fighters. All those airplanes once belonged to the Royal Canadian Air Force and after they were deemed obsolete and retired, the machines were demilitarized, which means the engines and armament were removed.

Canadair CT-133. (photo credit George Trussell, 2002)

All the aircraft, parts, and memorabilia collected by Rubin were the core of the Canadian Air Land and Sea Museum, a registered charity that he managed, parallel with his duties at the airport.

Photo courtesy of The Ferret, (Flicker)

Allan wasn’t just a caretaker of the Markham Airport, he was more like a general manager, and he had big plans for the facility.  During his interview with the Toronto Star, he showed the reporters the blueprints of all the renovations he had in mind, an extended runway, an air traffic control tower, modern hangars, a helipad, and a building for his museum. At the time, construction was well underway, even if the City of Markham never issued him a permit.

Unfortunately, Rubin’s plans never took off. The federal government has plans to build a new international airport in the city of Pickering, to mitigate the struggles of the Toronto Pearson Airport, in serving an ever-growing population. This new airport will be within 5 nautical miles of Markham Airport, which is not allowed by the legislation. In other words, the days of this little facility are numbered.

A shell of a Canadair CF-116, patiently waiting for a new owner. (Photo credit BlogTO 2021)

The pictures you see here were taken between 2002 and 2021, during this time Rubin’s collection steadily decreased. Maybe he was fully aware that his dreams would never come true and started selling his airplanes and parts to collectors.

The two most complete of CF-5s in the collection (pictured above) were sent to Garret Neal Aviation in San Diego, California, in 2017 and were fully restored to flying condition. (Photo courtesy of jetphoto.com)

Allan Rubin, in front of one of his prized possessions, a Canadair CT-133. (photo credit Toronto Star, 2014)

Sadly Rubin passed away on May 18, 2020, at the age of 81. According to people who worked with him, the veteran pilot was a unique man, with a bright mind. For me, it was a pleasure to write about him and his dreams. It is a very interesting little chapter in the history of Markham, the town we chose as our home.

Brazilian Formula Vee

In September 2022 I was delighted when Chris Demaras, the team manager of Demaras Racing, asked me to write an article about the history of the Brazilian Formula Vee.

The Demaras is a family of committed gearheads competing in the Canadian F1200, one of the most exciting and competitive classes in the Canadian Vintage series.

As it often happens, as soon as I started the research, I realized that what I knew about the subject was just the tip of the iceberg. The article was published in a two-part series on demaras.com, check it out:

The Widow Maker

During the Korean War (1950-1953), Allied pilots had the unpleasant opportunity to face the new Soviet jet fighter, the MIG 15. This new plane was fast, nimble, sturdy, and well-armed. The only thing that prevented the communists to dominate the skies in Korea was another extraordinary fighter, the F-86 Sabre, flown by well-trained American pilots.

The MIG-15 was a wake-up call, and even before the end of the war, most American aircraft companies started the development of a new generation of jet fighters, in an attempt to keep up with the surprisingly advanced Soviet aircraft industry.

Kelly Johnson, talking with USAF pilot Gary Powers, during the trials of the U2 spy plane.

Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the chief designer of Lockheed Corp., started his research by interviewing Allied pilots coming home from the war. What they wanted for this new airplane was pretty much what every fighter pilot ever wanted: speed, agility, and firepower.

Jonhson was in charge of a very talented team of designers, also called The Skunk Works (the reason for that name might be the subject of another post), the same team responsible for the creation of the legendary P-38 Lightning, one of the most revolutionary fighters of WWII. During the Cold War, they also created the U2 spy plane and the SR-71 Blackbird.

By the 1950s the American aircraft companies were leaning towards multirole jet fighters, consequently, those machines were becoming larger and larger in order to store massive amounts of fuel and ordinance, and also complex radar systems. Johnson and his team chose a different approach for this new fighter, their idea was a simpler and lightweight aircraft, with exceptional performance in speed, altitude, and climbing rate.

The team came up with a simple yet revolutionary design, a long, circular fuselage with a tiny 7-foot wing, sharp as the blade of a knife.  The wings are so small that could hold neither the landing gear nor the fuel tanks.

The prototype’s first flight happened on March 04, 1954, and with the green light from the US Air Force, production began in 1958. Lockheed called it F-104 Starfighter.

It didn’t take long for the USAF to realize the airplane wasn’t exactly what they were looking for. The 2000 km range was too short, even with the addition of two external fuel tanks mounted on the tip of the wings. The payload was also not great, 4000 lbs of bombs under the wings. The fuel tanks could be replaced by two Sidewinder missiles, increasing its offensive capabilities, but hurting the plane’s range.

The highlight of the Starfighter was its performance. Powered by a single General Electric J79 turbojet engine, producing a max thrust of 14800 lbs, the F-104 was the first production aircraft to sustain speeds above MACH 2 and an operational ceiling above 60,000 ft. Lockheed promised a fast fighter and they delivered.

The first version of the GE engine proved unreliable and underpowered. Kelly’s team was sure the F-104 could do better if equipped with the right engine. GE developed a larger J79 turbojet, able to generate 18000 lbs of thrust during afterburning, considerably improving the plane’s already superb performance.

The F-104 was also the first USAF equipped with the legendary 20mm Vulcan M61 Gatling cannon, giving the plane some serious punch, even if it carries enough ammunition for only 7 secs of continuous firing.

The unforgiving machine

The design of the F-104 is the result of thousands of hours of research and development by Lockheed. Those small, thin wings, mounted further towards the rear of the plane are a key element for its stability at high speed and also a smooth operation at low altitude. But the team compromised so much to get it done.

The diminutive wings are the culprit for the plane’s large turn radius, which can be very awkward (to say the least) during dog fights. The wing’s reduced lift is also the cause of another unwanted characteristic, the dangerously high landing speed.

The Starfighter also has a vicious pitch-up behavior: once it reaches an angle of attack of 15 degrees, the aircraft pushes itself to quickly increase the angle to 60 degrees following lateral and directional oscillation. The production version was equipped with an electromechanical device able to warn the pilot and even correct the airplane from dangerous angles of attack. But fighter pilots are a very proud bunch indeed, they don’t appreciate an airplane that corrects itself, and most of the F-104 drivers just turned off the device during their missions.

Since Lockheed tried to keep the fighter as light as possible a more complex avionics system was avoided, making the first versions of the Starfighter a plane for optimum weather operations.

The pilots soon realized that the F-104 was an unforgiving machine and the United States Air Force pushed it to more secondary roles. But the Starfighter’s few qualities would make the plane fit for a role that it wasn’t meant for.

Nuclear bomber

A Luftwaffe F-104 armed with the  B61 Silver Bullet atomic bomb. 

The first generation of western nuclear strike bombers was designed to fly as high and as fast as possible. Pilots and engineers alike concluded that was the best approach to avoid the Soviet fighters and the anti-aircraft missiles, but on May 01, 1960, a U2 American spy plane was shot down while flying a photo-reconnaissance mission deep inside Soviet territory. The aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile while flying at 70,000 ft. This tragic event showed that the high-altitude nuclear bombers were no longer safe during a possible mission over Soviet territory.

The Western air forces drastically changed the tactics of aerial nuclear strikes. They thought a small and very fast aircraft,  flying at low altitudes would have a good chance to fool the Soviet radar system. The Starfighter’s characteristics of high speed and smooth flying behavior at low altitude made it a pretty good candidate for the role. Those qualities would also become a strong selling point later on.

The Vietnam War

A pilot poses for a picture in his F-104. Da Nang, Vietnam, 1965.

The F-104’s baptism of fire occurred during the Vietnam War (1964-1972) when the USAF employed almost every single aircraft in its arsenal. The Starfighter flew more than 4,000 combat missions, mostly as an escort for the EC-121 Constellation Airborne Early Warning System, operating off the Coast of North Vietnam.

The Deal of the Century.

By the early-1960s, many NATO allied nations were in dire need to replace their aging first-generation jet fighters and Lockheed saw it as a wonderful opportunity to dump the production of the Starfighter. The F-104 was the chosen fighter to equip many air forces around the globe in what was called the deal of the century.

In total, the Starfighter was either sold to or produced under license in 14 different countries. The biggest customer was West Germany, between 1962 and the mid-1970s, the Luftwaffe (German air force) and Marineflieger (German navy) purchased 916 units.

What the Germans needed was a multirole, all-weather fighter, and Lockheed had to adapt the F-104 as best as they could. Two extra fuel tanks were added under the wings and much more complex avionics as well, making the plane 2000 pounds heavier. The company called this version, F-104G (G for Germany). You don’t need to be an engineer to figure out that the extra weight made the flying dynamics of the F-104 even more challenging for the pilots. Some top brass in the Luftwaffe deemed the Starfighter unfit for the job long before the first units were delivered but their complaints fell on deaf ears.

The deal between the Americans and the Germans is covered in shady schemes and politics. There are pieces of evidence that Lockheed even bribed some German officials to keep them quiet. The same methods were applied during the selling of the Starfighter to other countries as well.

The F-104G proved to be a deadly challenge for the pilots, during the first four years of operations, the Luftwaffe crashed 61 Starfighters and 31 pilots lost their lives.

Gen. Wernher Panitzki, the Luftwaffe Commander at the time, was one of the most vociferous opponents of the F-104. He was forced to resign when he said that the deal was politically motivated. His successor, the World War II ace, Lt. Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, immediately grounded all the F-104Gs, until new ejection seats were installed.

The fighter became known among the pilots and ground crew as “The Widow Maker”. The Germans in collaboration with Lockheed tried very hard to minimize the fighter’s problems, but even though the horrible rate of crashes continued. Around 15 Starfighters crashed every year between 1968 and 1980 when it was finally replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In the end, 292 of the 916 F-104G were destroyed, and 115 pilots died in the accidents.

Canada

Canada was another important NATO country that chose to equip its fighter squadrons with the F-104, but instead of purchasing the plane, they decided to produce it under license.

  A total of 200 single-seat aircraft were built by Canadair (now Bombardier) in Montreal. Another 38 dual-seat aircraft were built by Lockheed Aircraft in Palmdale, California. The Canadians renamed the fighter CF-104. Canadair also built spare parts for the German Starfighters.

This CF-104 Starfighter served with No. 439 Sabre Tooth Squadron in Europe. The distinctive yellow and black stripes recreate the squadron’s entry at NATO “Tiger Meet”. Many countries took part in this competition, represented by squadrons that had the Tiger as their emblem. The aircraft now belongs to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Mount Hope, Ontario.

The Starfighter entered service in the Royal Canadian Air Force in March 1962, primarily as a supersonic interceptor, but also used for low-level strike and reconnaissance. The CF-104 played an important role in Canada’s commitment to supporting NATO operations in Europe from 1967 to 1971. The airplane was also retrofitted to carry nuclear weapons.

In 24 years of service in the RCAF, 37 pilots lost their lives while flying the Starfighter, involved in 113 crashes. According to official documents, only four fatal accidents were due to aircraft system failures.

Italy

An Italian pilot is just about the leave her F-104 after a celebratory last mission, in 2003.

The last country to retire the Starfighter was Italy, the Aeronautica Militare operated the F-104 for 40 years until it was replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon, in 2004. Just like Canada, the Italians built their own Starfighter. In 1969, Aeritalia began producing the F-104S, also known as the Super Starfighter, the most battle capable of all the variants. A total of 214 F-104S left the Aeritalia assembly line, most of them for the Italian air force and some for the Turks.

The Italians know how to throw a party, and the Aeronautica Militare organized quite a few events to celebrate the retirement of their old warrior.

The F-104 in the picture above was painted in bright Ducatti red and received the #999 to participate in a very interesting drag race, against (you guessed it), a Ducati 999.  The same bike that won the 2004 Superbike World Championship.

The race consisted of two passes, first a 400 meters match and then a 1000 meters. To make things fair for the jet fighter the vehicles launched in a rolling start. At first, the duel seemed unfair but it proved to be well balanced, the Ducatti won the 400 meters race and the Starfighter scored the 1 km match.

The prancing horse painted on the plane’s rudder is the emblem of the ITAF 9° Stormo (the equivalent of 9th Fighter Wing), in southern Italy. Does it look familiar? You bet. There is a strong connection between the Ferrari logo and Italian military aviation. *

Conclusion

There are a handful of surviving Starfighters flying in the hands of civilians. You can go for a ride in one of them if you have deep pockets and the courage for it. If you are a licensed pilot you can enroll in training to become an F-104 pilot.

“If it looks good, it flies good”, this is a well know aviation adage, and more often than not, it holds true, but certainly the Starfighter is an exception. The F-104’s sleek, futuristic design is nothing short of gorgeous, but the plane lacks some essential qualities to be considered a good fighter.

But if the F-104 is that bad, why did so many countries choose it? Besides the USA, West Germany, Canada, and Italy, another 10 air forces adopted it as their main fighter. They are: Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and Pakistan.

A Pakistani Starfighter, during a patrol mission.

Some sources forget that the F-104 was sold to the Pakistani air force. It played such an important role during the India-Pakistan war in 1965 and 1971. Flight Lieutenant Aftab Alam Kham is credited to achieve one of the first Starfighter victories in combat when he shot down an Indian Dassault Mystere on September 06, 1965.

Awwww… The Italians are so emotional.

The pilots who flew the Starfighter had mixed feelings about it, they either love or hate the machine. The F-104 was a huge sales success but we will never know about all the shady methods used by Lockheed and the US Government to push those sales.

Besides all the controversies, the F-104 is one of the most emblematic jet fighters from the Cold War era. Lockheed called it: “A missile with a man in it“, and when you see one up close, you will definitely agree with the nickname.

A final thought

I wanted to close this post with a video, showing the F-104 in action. During my search, I came across a short video that shows a scene from the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, and I think it is perfect, but since it involves one of my favorite movies of all time and one of my childhood heroes, I need to put this video in context.

Among all the different versions of the Starfighter, perhaps the most mind-blowing one is the NF-104. This plane is nothing more than a regular F-104 retrofitted with a rocket engine, installed right above the exhaust of the main turbojet engine. This extra power was meant to take the aircraft up to 140000 feet high, in other words, up to the edge of the stratosphere. Up there the air is so thin that the aerodynamic controls are useless, instead, the pilot should “control” the beast using hydrogen peroxide nozzles installed on the tips of the wings and the nose cone. Well, if the 104 was complicated to fly under normal circumstances, let alone flying it at the border of space, so why the big guys came up with this idea? The NF-104 was created as an affordable platform for astronaut training. Getting the plane ready wasn’t much of a challenge, but finding a pilot to take it for a spin would be a different story. One guy jumped at the opportunity to ride the little monster for the first time, this guy was Chuck Yeager (pictured above), the same pilot who, in 1947 broke the speed of the sound the first time. Yeager flew the NF three times, around 100,000 feet and the missions were smooth sailing, everything was fine. On December 10, 1963, he went to break the record and pushed the aircraft above 108,000 feet, but at this time, things got out of hand, and he lost control of the plane. Miraculously he bailed out and survived the accident. The whole misadventure is depicted in detail in the book The Right Stuff and, of course, the film of the same name. I highly recommend both.

The scene was shot using a regular F-104, but that is OK, you will get the idea.

What makes a man get inside an analog machine with tiny wings and an insane amount of power and fly it to the edge of space? It is the fundamental quest to go over the limits? What those guys did back then, at the beginning of the space program in the early 1960s can be considered the pinnacle of human audacity.

* Note of the editor: -Here is the origin of the Ferrari’s logo, told by Enzo himself, The horse was painted on the fuselage of the aircraft of Francesco Baracca –  a heroic Italian WWI fighter pilot. “In 1923 I met count Enrico Baracca, the hero’s father, and then his mother, countess Paulina, who said to me one day, ‘Ferrari, put my son’s prancing horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck. The horse was and still is, black, and I added the canary yellow background which is the color of Modena.  (Enzo Ferrari’s birthplace).

The Fastest Rider on Earth.

Many years ago, I rode a beaten-up 1995 Yamaha V-Max, I didn’t have the guts to go full throttle, but even though the front wheel insisted on not touching the pavement in first and second gear, and by the time when I shifted to third, the speedo was showing me 160 km/h. For me, that was it, that was my “need for speed” on a motorcycle. When I jumped off the bike, my hands were shaken and my heart was racing like crazy.

That is why it is kinda complicated for me to wrap my head around the idea of closing the quarter mile on a drag strip in less than 5 secs, and well above 400 km/h… in two wheels. That is absolutely insane, but it is true. Let me tell you about it.

From September 8 through 11, 2022, the iconic Santa Pod Raceway in Northamptonshire, England, hosted the FIM Euro Finals drag racing. Any weekend at the drag strip is exciting, but when you see the world “finals” on the title of the event, be prepared for a whole lot more.

The Euro Finals is a mega event, featuring more than 250 race teams from all over Europe and a bunch of different attractions to entertain all the gear heads. But this weekend was even more special, the people who were there had the privilege to witness a new world record.

On Saturday, the 10th, the legendary French rider Eric “Rocketman” Teboul set a new personal record when he achieved a staggering quarter-mile time of 5.066 seconds, racing at 263.52 mph (424.09 km/h), riding his rocket-powered motorcycle. It was an incredible achievement, but for him, it wasn’t enough. He knew he could go faster.

On the next day, Teboul was back again at the starting line, with one goal in mind, to bring his time below 5 secs. The crowd that packed the stands waited in absolute silence while the Rocketman was getting ready for launching. When the green light flashed, he went down the strip like a missile on two wheels.

When Eric Teboul crossed the finish line, a new world record had been created. He became the world’s fastest motorcycle rider on the quarter mile, clocking 4.976 seconds, at an unreal speed of 290.51 miles per hour (464.81 km/h).

Eric promised his fans he would retire after this weekend but we all know how hard it is for a daredevil to hang his helmet. But one thing is for sure, if he is really quitting the drag strip, he is doing it like a king.

Usually, people involved with drag racing have mixed feelings about a vehicle that is not powered by something with pistons going up and down inside an engine block. Jet cars are a good example since they are mostly for “showing” rather than “going”, but Teboul’s bike is a totally different kind of beast. While jet cars are powered by aircraft engines, that bike is powered by a rocket engine, burning a mix of hydrogen peroxide fuel.

In the background you can see the “Rocketman”, taking care of his fans.

The best ideas are the simple ones and that is the case with this bike. Eric’s machine is gorgeous, with a frame made of chrome-moly tubes, partially covered with fiberglass, intentionally showing the rocket engine.

While jet engines have to suck air, compress it, mix with fuel, and then burn it to produce thrust, rocket engines burn a mix of fuel and oxidizer inside the combustion chamber, generating thrust when the hot gases leave the chamber through a nozzle (or nozzles). The power a rocket engine produces is instantaneous, making it a perfect choice for the drag strip. There is no connection between the engine and the wheels.

It is such a shame that the gear heads in North America don’t know much about the Hot Rod and drag racing scene in Europe. I must confess that it was only when I started to follow the blog Butterflies to Dragsters, that I got more informed about it.

Do yourself a favor and check it out, it is an amazing British photo blog about, you guessed it, butterflies and dragsters. Check out some cool pics about the Euro Finals 2022:

Motor Show

It’s summertime in North America and for the gearheads all over Canada and USA, that means race season, car meetings, and air shows.

Classic car meeting at the “Spanish Square”, happens every Saturday afternoon. (Curitiba)

But down south things are a little different, take my home country, Brazil, for example; in some cities close to the equator, it is summertime year-round, but if go deeper south, wintertime can get chilly, but not enough to stop the car related activities.

This meeting happens every Sunday morning at “Largo da Ordem”, located in the historic downtown Curitiba.

The racing season never stops, and the classic car meetings also run through the whole year. In my hometown, there are a few weekly meetings and the weather must be really cold and damp for the organization to call it off.

We also have some unique annual events like “Aguas de Lindóia”, the biggest classic car show in South America. Between 2008 and 2015, I had the privilege to work as a parts advisor for two of the most prestigious restoration/speed shops in the country. The job required traveling around the country to attend such events.

2012 Curitiba Motor Show

The Hot Rod paradise.

Of all the events I attended during that time, the most exciting was the “Motor Show”, which was born in my hometown, Curitiba. It was created with one main idea, instead of the traditional display of static cars, this event should be dynamic, with the cars taking the pavement of the local race track.

The average 1980s/90s cars can be an interesting platform for gearheads with a limited budget.

The event was also designed to bring together many different groups of enthusiasts, classic cars, Hot Rods, modern cars, bikes, drift, low riders, you name it, but the strongest one was always the Hot Rod community.

It became a meter of pride to drive your machine to the event and some rodders came as far as Cordoba, in Argentina, which is 2000 km away.

The highlight of the event is the Hot Rod Parade when the cars takeover the race track for a few laps. There is a pace car in front of the bunch in order to keep things safe, but some smartasses purposefully delay hitting the track, creating a gap where they can drop the hammer.

The first Motor Show happened on August 11th and 12th, 2012, that year I was working for Powertech and the boss decided to bring a few of his hot rods, like this 1936 Ford convertible, powered by a 302 small block Ford. I had the pleasure to drive the car for a couple of laps around the track.

This 1929 Ford Rat Rod was also from Powertech and yes, that is me at the wheel.

Yes, the parade is a lot of fun, but do you know what is even better?

Drag racing!!!! The organizers put together a “1/8 mile challenge” for all hot rods and muscle cars.

The guy in the orange 69 is my ex-boss. He jumped ahead of his opponent at the start but his car was no match for this red 68, powered by a 400hp stroker 347.

The guy wearing cheap sunglasses, in the picture above, is me. I was helping to push this 1934 Ford coupe to the starting line. The car is powered by a blown 340 small block Mopar. Not my car, not my team, but hey, that’s what friends are for.

Making the hot rodders even more at home, “rockabilly” bands played during the day and especially at night, through the weekend.

2013 Edition

For the next year, 2013, I was working for a different company, Studio Phoenix. That year we brought to the event a 1969 Mustang (picture above)

A 1972 Firebird.

And a couple of Harleys.

The weekend was cold and dump, but even though the show attracted 15,000 fans each day.

Once again the drag strip was waiting for the hot rods, for the “1/8 mile Challenge”, but another tournament was organized, with professional racers, called “The King of the Track”.

2014 Edition

For 2014 I was back to Powertech and we brought some of the boss’s favorite toys. The 69 Mustang, a GT40 replica, a barn find 1937 Harley Davidson, and the Hemi-powered top fuel.

The team made this old lady road worthy again in two weeks for the show. It has the left foot clutch and the shifter is operated by the left hand. It is a bitch to ride, I never went further than the second gear.

A friend of mine brought his 1937 Ford rat rod, powered by a V8 Flathead, with Ardum heads. On Saturday afternoon I was hanging with him, drinking a few cold ones (the car’s trunk was packed with beer) when it was announced that the track was open for the parade. He screamed, “Let’s go“. Well, he was visibly wasted but what the hell, we jumped inside the Ford, and off we went. He was going flat out on the straight and when the turn came, he downshifted, slammed the brakes, and obviously, lost control of the car. The Ford slid on the wet pavement but miraculously he brought it back. Have we hit the sandbox sideways we would have flipped his hot rod a couple of times.

2014 was my last Motor Show, in 2015, my wife and I moved to Canada.

In 2021 the Curitiba Race Track hosted the event for the last time. The facility was sold to real state development, a common fate to many race tracks around the world. The video above is a teaser about this last event.

The Motor Show is still going strong, experimenting with different formats and moving from one city to another, but I don’t know if it has the same feeling as the original ones. For me, it became a very good memory, from a time when going to work was actually fun.

If I close my eyes I can still hear the thunder of the V8s and the smell of burnt rubber. Good times indeed.

Note of the editor: None of the pictures above is mine, I stole them from:

Dragster Brasil.com.br – a bunch of gearheads journalists but the one I remember the most is Filipe Sturion, taking pictures of everything and everybody.

Fabiano Guma – One of the most popular gearhead photografer in town.

Antigo & cia blogspot

Portal Maxicar

Uriel Marques

The First Paris-Dakar Rally

“Do Not Go Where The Path May Lead, Go Instead Where There Is No Path And Leave A Trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Riding a motorcycle in a desert rally can be tricky, the car racers have the luxury of carrying a navigator along, still, the bikers have to do it all by themselves.

Thierry Sabine

In 1977, the French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine got lost in the Lybian desert, during the  Abidjan-Nice Rally, a region known by the locals as the Ténéré desert. In a desperate attempt to find the route, Sabine lost control of his Yamaha and fell, smashing his compass. After running out of gas, he found himself with no food and just a little water left. After a while, he abandoned his machine and started to walk under the unforgiving sun. The rescue party found him, on the verge of death, after 3 days and 2 nights lost in the desert.

The vehicles, aligned in front of the Eiffel Tower, on December 26, 1978.

For us, the average people, it is hard to understand the minds of the hard-core sports competitors and how they use adversity as an engine to move forward. For Sabine, that near-death experience only increased his fascination for the desert. It inspired him to create a new challenge, aimed at all those who share his love for the majestic beauty of Northern Africa. A new rally that would become the most legendary of them all.

The Frenchman envisioned a competition starting in Paris and stretching for more than 10,000 Km, crossing 6 different countries, France, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and finishing in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The route would present more than 3,000 km of gruesome off-road challenges: rivers, mud, bushes, rocks, and, of course, the magnificent Sahara desert, in other words, paradise on earth for the adventure seekers.

Thierry Sabine didn’t waste any time making his dream come true, and on Boxing Day, 1978, nothing less than 80 cars, 90 motorcycles, and 12 trucks gathered in front of the Eiffel Tower, for the very first Paris-Dakar Rally. The competition was created with one main goal, to give the amateurs racers equal opportunity to win, but the big corporate guys showed up strong for this first event.

Yamaha was the dominant brand among the bikers, 38 out of the 90 registered motorcycles were the mighty XT 500. One of the biggest Yamaha importers in France, Sonauto, entered a team with 4 riders, fully baked by the factory. The Yamaha-Sonauto Race Team was assisted by all the good stuff money can buy: technicians, lots of spare parts, a Unimog truck, and a Range Rover as support vehicles, and even a Piper Aztec aircraft for any sort of emergency.

Christine Martin, was one of the riders that chose the new Honda XL 250S.

Honda was determined to rain on Yamaha’s parade, and the weapon of choice was the newly released XL 250S, a bike that would become a worldwide success. The company offered massive discounts for entrants who decided to buy the XL and also complimentary support throughout the rally, with technicians, engineers, Unimogs, and even a DC3, a bigger airplane than Yamaha’s. In total, 29 XLs left Paris towards Dakar.

A few other factory-sponsored teams like BMW and Moto Guzzi could be found, but Honda and Yamaha were the strongest. All the other riders were amateurs, with little or no sponsorship at all.

Citroen Dyane, driven by C. Sandron and P. Alberto. Powered by an air-cooled 600cc boxer twin engine.

The amateur spirit, that Sabine wanted so much, was more intense among the car teams. The strongest competitors were Toyota and Range Rover, but a wide array of cars could be seen at the starting line, especially the French brands. A good example is the Citroen Dyane above, driven by C. Sandron and P. Alberto. The little car is powered by an air-cooled, twin cylinder, 600cc engine, although it was the “largest” displacement among the 2CV family, the little Dyane produced a meager 32 HP, with a top speed of 120km/h. The team was racing on a very tight budget but that didn’t prevent them from finishing the rally.

It is quite difficult to find either information or pictures of the trucks that participated in the first Paris-Dakar, but the one car that shows up in every Google search is the Thomson-Oasis red and white Peugeot 404, driven by Mark Andre and Philippe Puyfouhoux. This UTE became very popular around the world, thanks to its roughness and the “bulletproof” powertrain; qualities that are not commonly associated with French cars.

The car you see in the picture above is another proof of the indomitable amateur spirit that permeates the Paris-Dakar: Philippe Hayat, a journalist, Jean-Pierre Domblides, a school teacher, and Daniel Nolan, a technician from Renault Gordini, decided to face the challenge driving a 1927 Renault KZ 11 CV. Obviously, they were not looking for the glories of victory but simply for the intoxicating taste of the adventure.

Among the competitors, there were Seven women: all of them were motorcycles riders: Martine de Cortanze, Pascale Geurie, Martine Rénier, Marido, Christine Martin-Lefort, Marie Ertaud, and Corinne Koppenhague.

 A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.” – Thierry Sabine.

On December 26, 1978, the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Monsieur Dehais, waived the green flag on the first Dakar Rally. One hundred seventy-two vehicles tore out of the Place du Trocadero.

 The rally was divided into 8 stages, starting in Paris and crossing France down south, towards Africa. At the end of this part, the competitors embarked on a ship, crossing the Mediterranean sea and landing in Algiers. During their journey through Africa, they would face 3,000 km of “specials”, the name Sabine gave to portions of extreme hardcore “off rodding”.

Each day the competitors must have to cover an average of 550 miles, stopping at a base camp for a decent meal and a well-deserved rest. In many cases, the technicians had to work through the night repairing the machines for the next day. For the amateurs, life was a bit harder; with no support crew, drivers and riders served as mechanics as well.

During the third stage, some journalists left the city of Assamaka ahead of the riders, the idea was to position themselves along the stretch to take pictures of the passing competitor. Thanks to their inexperience, they took a wrong turn at a fork of the road, and to make the matter even worse, the first group of riders coming after them just followed the tracks on the sand, completely missing the original path. Thierry Sabine quickly dispatched the support helicopter to intercept the bunch before they got too deep into the desert.

The first casualty

Patrice Dodin

At the very beginning of Stage four, the French rider Patrice Dodin was approaching the starting line with his helmet unbuckled. He tried to fasten it while riding but lost control of his Yamaha and fell. His helmet rolled off and he struck his head on a rock. Since he was still at the base camp, the doctors immediately attended to him, and later on, he was airlifted to Paris but died a few days later in hospital.

Close to the end

Gilles Comte, waiting for help. He would finish the rally in second place.

After the end of the 5th stage, the competitors had a well-deserved day off, with plenty of time to rest and to properly fix their machines. Sabine knew too well this day off was necessary because the last 3 stages (more than 3000 km) of the race would be a real nightmare.

The 7th stage, the path from Bamako to Nioro, was a dreadful challenge for everyone, with holes big enough to swallow a Citroen 2CV and soft sand that could make the whole front wheel of the bikes disappear. Only one rider completed the stage on time: Philippe Vassard on a Honda XL-250S. Sabine decided to use his power and bent the rules by extending the length of the stage, giving more time for other competitors to finish the route.

Every day competitors were dropping off the race, victims of mechanical breakdowns, injuries, and extreme fatigue. The desert was eating engines and transmissions for breakfast and bones for lunch.

The first “King of Dakar

Cyril Neveu

With only one day left before reaching Dakar, Cyril Neveu was leading the rally when the engine of his Yamaha XT500 blew up. The mechanics were able to replace the unit overnight, securing Neveu’s leading for the next day, and sure enough, he was the first rider to cross the finish line. He won the rally without scoring a single “special” course. In the end, the overall qualifying was the most important factor.

Gilles Comte finished in second overall, confirming the superiority of the Yamaha XT500. (picture above)

Phillipe Vassard, was the third rider to cross the finish line, saving Honda from shame. His bike was the only XL 250S among the top 5.

The Range Rover driven by Alain Génestier, Joseph Terbiaut, and Jean Lemordant, was the first among cars and fourth overall.

Closing the top 5 positions, the brothers Claude and Bernard Marreau, driving a heavily modified Renault 4.

The “First Lady” of the 1979 Paris-Dakar was Marine de Cortanze, she finished 19th overall, riding a Honda XL 250S.

In the end, only 74 vehicles survived the onslaught. They gathered at the shores of Lake Rose, the official “finishing line” of the race, 30 km from Dakar. At that point the competitors forgot the fatigue and together, they celebrated the end of the most challenging rally ever.

Among all those modern, purpose-built machines, there was the valiant 1927 Renault. The team finished 71st overall.

Thierry Sabine’s original idea was a huge success, the Paris-Dakar Rally became an annual event, attracting all sorts of adventure seekers. Even celebrities who had nothing to do with motorsports like Mark Thatcher, the playboy son of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mark and his team, the co-driver Anne Charlotte, and the mechanic got lost in the Sahara desert for six days, during the 1982 edition of the Paris-Dakar, until the Algerian army found them, 50 km off the route.

The rally also cast a spell on some famous racing drivers, like the 6 times Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx. He gave Mercedes-Benz its first Paris-Dakar victory in 1983, at the wheel of a 280GE. (picture above).

A deadly competition

On January 14, 1986, Thierry Sabine was flying in a helicopter, during a rescue mission near the city of Timbuktu. He was looking for stranded competitors around that stretch of the desert when the pilot lost control of the aircraft and crashed against the dunes. Sabine lost his life as a victim of the accident. The two pilots and another crew member also died in the crash. The creator of the Paris-Dakar became part of a long and sorrowful list of victims related to the competition.

Any kind of motorsport activity can be dangerous and the competitors are well aware of this, but the Paris-Dakar rally stands on another level entirely. Since its first edition, 76 people have died due to being involved with the rally in one way or another.

So far, a total of 31 competitors perished while racing, 22 were motorcycle riders, 6 car drivers, and 1 truck driver. Two other competitors died victims of local rebel conflict. 45 casualties are considered “noncompetitors”, like journalists, support crew, and spectators.

The competition became extremely controversial and even the Catholic church publicly condemned the race. In 2007, a Vatican newspaper called the rally a bloody, irresponsible, violent, and cynical attempt to impose questionable Western tastes on the developing world. Well, well, look who’s talking.

The most popular rally in the world

The political instability in western Africa made it very difficult for the organizers to keep the original route. Every time a bloody revolution started in one of those countries, the rally had to take a different path. Even though the popularity of the Paris-Dakar kept growing and in 1988, it reached 603 participants.

That was the time when the official factory teams dominated the competition. Among bikes, Yamaha, Honda, and BMW fought fiercely for supremacy, and in the car field, the battle was between Citroen/Peugeot, Mitsubishi, and Porsche. The picture above shows the official Porsche-Rothmans team at a base camp, in 1986. Porsche obliterated the competitors that year with its new all-wheel drive, turbo-powered 959 model, a car that was originally designed to compete in the WRC. Porsche finished with an amazing one-two victory, René Metge/Dominique Lemoyne in first and Jacky Ickx/Claude Brasseur in second. The team had to overcome a serious issue when all three support trucks suffered mechanical breakdowns and were forced to retire from the competition. As an emergency solution, they packed the third ( and the slowest) 959 with the most essential spare parts end sent it to follow the other two cars. The “support” 959, even overloaded with parts, finished the rally in 6th overall.

The official Nissan X Trail, during tests, before the 2002 Dakar edition.

The 2001 edition was the last time the traditional route “Paris-Dakar” was used, from 2002 forward, the organizers would try different European cities as starting points and different routes as well. The name of the competition changed to “Dakar”, even if the city no longer had ties with the rally.

Dakar goes to South America

In 2008, the political instability in Africa forced the organization to cancel the Rally that year. As a replacement event, the first edition of the Dakar Series was held in Hungary and Romania.

For the next year, the organizer decided to abandon the African continent and the rally was transferred to South America. Countries like Argentina, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia have similar terrains to those found in Africa, with a much more stable political scenario. The debut rally in South America was held in Argentina and Volkswagen Tiguan (picture above) was declared the overall winner, claiming a 1-2 finish. That was the first time first a diesel-powered car won the event.

Saudi Arabia

Sam Sunderland, the winner of the motorcycle class in the 2022 Dakar.

South America held the Dakar rally for 10 years but after some countries failed to reach an agreement with ASO (the company that organizes the rally) for the 2020 event, the competition found a new home, in Saudi Arabia. As I write the final lines of this post, the plans for the Dakar rally 2023 are already set. From December 31st to January 15, the competitors will be crossing the country, starting from the beaches of the Red Sea and finishing at the sands of the Arabian Gulf in Dammam.

The real “King of Dakar”

Stéphane Peterhansel, the winner of the 1992 Paris-CapeTown Rally. He became one of the most successful bikers in the history of the rally,

In 1992, for the first time, the rally didn’t finish in Dakar, instead, the new route took the competitor all the way to Cape Town, in South Africa. The picture above shows the winner of the motorcycle class that year, Stéphane Peterhansel.

Peterhansel became the most successful competitor in the history of the rally. The Frenchman has won the competition six times riding motorcycles and eight times at the wheel of a car. He is still very much active, the picture above shows him in 2022 when he was forced to retire from the competition when he hit a rock and destroyed the rear suspension of his Audi e-Tron.

The modern Dakar

Not only the location has significantly changed after more than of Dakar rally, and some new classes were added, like the “Quad” and the “classic” (pictured above), but one thing has remained true, the amateur spirit of the competition. Certainly, the official factory teams will always outshine the independents, but the organization limits the big guys to a 1/4 of the total number of participants.

A VW Beetle, competing in the “Vintage” class. Dakar 2021.

That is how the Dakar was born, relying on the independent adventurers, the kind of people more interested in overcoming the challenges of the desert than in the spotlights of the victory.

If you want to see the amateur competitors in action, take a look at the video above. It shows the highlights of the Classic Dakar 2022.

Rock & Roll Car Show

As part of the Canada Day long weekend, the city of Stouffville, Ontario (50 km from downtown Toronto) promoted the “Rock’n Roll Car Show” with an emphasis on muscle cars and American iron in general.

The event took place at the “Village of Stouffville”, a picturesque historic downtown area, filled with boutique shops, and nice restaurants. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the place was bustling with people, eager to see a wonderful gathering of classic cars. As the name of the event suggests, the DJ kept playing a very good collection of “oldies but goldies”.

One thing we must learn once and for all: car shows here in Canada are short, this one was from 9 am to 2 pm. We got there at 1 o’clock and some of the cars were already gone.

The cars participating in the show were top-notch, but for those who spent a lifetime going to such events, at some point we realize we have seen it all. At this time, I tried something different, instead of taking the traditional pictures of the whole car, I shot the details that I see I interesting, trying to make the pictures a bit more “artistic”.

I might not have achieved what I was looking for but it was worth the effort.

1957 Ranchero
The one which started it all.
That tail light is a work of art.
Is it the perfect muscle car?
The magic of the big block
Blue sky and…
…the thunder.
In the 1980s, Center Line wheels like this were the rule.
Fins.
Supercharged
Sexy
Le Mans
Understatement.
Kiss my SS
Some British Iron.
And German, as well.
My favorite year.
1949 Mercury truck
1967 Mustang Fastback
No presentation needed
Convertible Fairlane
Hot Rod
Olds
The Elephant in the engine room.

It is easy to understand the mystique around the Muscle Car, it is a simple idea that worked perfectly: install a big, high-performance V8 engine into a median-size car and make it affordable for the average car guy.

Of course, all the “bad-ass attitude” of those cars was exploited to the exhaustion in the movies and songs, helping to perpetuate the legend. Now with the help of the internet, all the fascination won’t fade away any time soon.

Vintage Car Racing in Canada

Since the Coronavirus is somehow in our rear view mirror, we like to tell that “life is back to normal”, even if we know it is a lie. Recession, climate change, and the danger of nuclear armageddon are just a few reminders that life is far from normal.

Moss Corner, or turn 5, at Mosport International Raceway near Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Cars approaching from the right, under the bridge at turn 4.
The turn is named after racing legend Stirling Moss, who first suggested the double-apex design to make it trickier than the original hairpin configuration. – Picture and info thanks to Richard Wintle.

Undoubtedly, some aspects of life are going back to how they were before, especially for the gearheads. It is summertime and that means the racing season is at full throttle. The legendary Mosport Raceway is busy again, so my wife Estela and I finally got to visit this iconic racing venue.

We went to see the last day of the 2022 VARAC Grand Prix, on Sunday, Jun 19. The Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada is the biggest club of its kind in Eastern Canada. The club holds an annual gathering of vintage racing enthusiasts from across Canada and the US, as well as honoring a different manufacturer each year. For 2022 MG was the chosen one.

It was a glorious sunny day, a bit windy though. However, the sound of engines and the smell of burned high octane gas made me feel at home once again. Below are some pictures we took.

Some of the group 7/8 leaving the race track.
A Bimmer going back to the pits, after the Class 7 race.
A few Formula Vintage cars, ready for action. This category has F-Vee, F-Ford, and F4 cars racing against each other.
A 1967 Lotus Cortina.
MG was the featured marque this year, and there were enough cars to fill an entire grid with them.
A very wicked 914.
Volvo is Estela’s favorite brand, she was happy to see a couple at the pits, even if we missed them on the track.
Any car looks better in “race trim”. The statement holds true for this 1970 Volvo A142.
A few examples of the Formula Vee cars powered by the 1200cc air-cooled VW engine. The black and green #12 car belongs to the Demaras Racing Team. You can check their website: https://demaras.com/
No classic car racing event is complete without a 65/66 “Shelby” Mustang.

This race track has a huge heritage, it was inaugurated in 1961 and in 1967 the circuit hosted the first Canadian F1 Grand Prix. Mosport would alternate hosting of the GP with Mont-Tremblant until 1971 when it became the official track for the F-One circus. Mosport would continue to host the race until 1977, after which F1 left permanently for Montreal.

We fell in love with the circuit; it is one of the few “old school” race tracks around the world that hasn’t been altered from its original course. The facility has all the amenities to please the race fans, the grounds are surrounded by nature and always kept clean; if we owned an RV, we could live there. Mosport is truly a world-class circuit.

In 2012, the race track was renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, when the company became a business partner, but race fans still call it “Mosport“.

The First Jet Powered Car

The space-age, which started at the end of the 1940s and went all the way through the 1960s, was such a wonderful time. Humanity was fascinated with the possibility of “boldly going where no one has gone before“.

Various fields of society have been inspired by space travel, including literature, films, fashion, and so on, but was the industry that took this concept to the farthest.

The need for speed made piston engines obsolete in the aeronautical field and the transition to jet engines made it possible for aircraft to fly faster, higher, and smoother. It was just a matter of time for some engineers to develop the idea of a jet-powered car.

The advantages of the gas turbine over the conventional piston engine are clear: it is a simpler machine, with fewer movable parts, and offers a better power-to-weight ratio. Turbines can also burn pretty much any kind of fuel since it works primarily with compressed air.

Before we move forward, let’s have a little “crash course” on gas turbine engines:

Just like a conventional piston engine, starting a gas-turbine motor it is necessary an external source of power, it can be an electrical motor or pressurized air. The starter will make the shaft spin, “sucking” air through the intake and sending it to the combustion chamber, under pressure. The pressurized air will, naturally, increase temperate, then the fuel will start spraying, creating a flammable mixture inside the chamber (again, just like a conventional engine). In the next step, the spark plugs will ignite the mixture and on its way out, the hot exhaust gas will pass through the blades of the last section of the turbine, forcing it to spin and consequently, creating torque and thrust.

Gloster Meteor

Lured by the so-called advantages of the gas turbine engine, a few automakers around the world started to develop cars powered by this new technology.

The New York-based Carney Associates had designed a compact gas turbine engine for automotive use in early 1946, but it never saw production.

The Jet T1

The British automaker Rover had the honor to build the very first, fully-functional jet car. The company teamed up with the engineer Frank Whittle, one of the creators of the Gloster Meteor, the first Allied fighter jet to see combat during the second world war. Together they created the Rover Jet T1, based on the already existing model P4.

The T1 roadster was presented to the public in March 1950, but only as a prototype. The car was equipped with a centrifugal gas turbine, designed explicitly for automotive purposes, and placed in the mid-engine position. Since the jet engine produces enough power and torque throughout the whole range of RPM, (similar to an electric motor) the T1 wasn’t equipped with a gearbox. The centrifugal jet engine has a peculiar design, where the cold section sits on top of the hot section, making it more compact to fit in an automobile. It also has two separate shafts, the first one would spin at 50,000 pm and the second one at 26,000 rpm, producing 250 HP, enough to push the bulky roadster to a top speed of 150 mph (240 km), breaking the speed record for a jet car in 1952.

Rover was a traditional and austere British automaker and convincing its customers to replace their piston-powered car with completely new and futuristic technology never was an easy task, but the company was committed to seeing the jet car succeed.

In 1956, the new prototype T3 (picture above) was unveiled to the public. The elegant two doors coupe was equipped with some interesting refinements: disc brakes on all four corners, front and rear independent suspension, and all-wheel drive. The performance was close to the predecessor T1 since they were powered by the same jet engine, but the engine was relocated to the rear of the car.

Rover T4

By 1961, Rover revealed the T4, the last prototype of the series. The four doors sedan became the most viable jet-powered vehicle created by the company. The car was equipped with a 140 HP gas turbine, and just like any other sedan, the engine was mounted in the front.

It was able to go from 0 to 60mph (100 kph) in 8 seconds and after so many years of development, Rover came up with a jet engine capable of 20 miles per gallon when burning gasoline, but it could also burn diesel and kerosene as well.

The T4 was comfortable, roomy, and had a modern design, it was the closest Rover ever came to releasing a jet-powered car to the public, but the project never took off.

Thankfully, not everything was lost, the T4 was developed in parallel with the P6, which was, basically, a T4 with a piston engine. The car was a fairly successful product that marked the company’s transition from hand-built cars to more technologically advanced products.

Competition

Even after so many years of development, the Rover jet car failed to hit the assembly line, but the Brits had one more chance to show the world their supremacy in the automotive gas turbine technology.

For the 1962 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race organizers offered a prize of 250,000 Francs to the first gas turbine car to complete 3,600 Kilometers in 24 hours. That was the chance Rover was waiting for.

The company teamed up with the British Formula One team BRM and together they created the Rover-BRM race prototype, aiming for the 1963 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Graham Hill at the wheel of the Rover-BRM prototype, Le Mans, 1963

The team’s budget was very tight, BRM supplied a refurbished Formula One chassis that was used (and crashed) during the previous F-One season. On top of the chassis Rover fitted an open-cockpit, spider aluminum body. The car was powered by the same T4 jet engine, mid-mounted, producing 150 HP.

The legendary F-One driver Graham Hill and Richie Ginter were the chosen ones to take turns driving the Rover-BRM, here is how Hill describes driving the car: – “You’re sitting in this thing that you might call a motor car and the next minute it sounds as if you’ve got a 707 just behind you, about to suck you up and devour you like an enormous monster”.

The car was granted the # “00”, which means it would compete as an experimental entry, but not to be officially classified. Conventional cars were limited to a 109 liters fuel tank but the organizers allowed the BRM-Rover team to install a much larger 218 liters tank, making up for the excessive fuel consumption. The little prototype could easily go down the Mulsanne Straight at 240kph, leaving most of the 2-liter class car eating dust. At the end of the race, the car had covered 4,165 Km, winning the prize and finishing at 8th place overall, but then again, it was not permitted to be classified.

Motivated by the excellent result, the Rover-BRM geared up for 1964. The team came up with a gorgeous, redesigned new body, and the engine received some important improvements, like the ceramic heat exchangers, that greatly enhanced fuel efficiency. The prototype was considered suitable to compete in the 2-liter class.

Unfortunately, the truck which was transporting the Rover prototype, crashed on its way back from a practice section, seriously damaging the car. The technicians were unable to repair it on time and the team was forced to retire from the competition.

For the 1965 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rover-BRM team was ready for the challenge. The car was at the peak of its development and two British legends were hired to be behind the wheel, Graham Hill and Jackie Steward.

During the race, the car and the drivers were keeping up with the expectations, always among the top 10 positions but towards the second half of the competition, the jet engine began to overheat. With no time to fix the problem, the mechanics reduced the diameter of the air intake, bringing down the jet pipe temperature but also forcing the car to run at a reduced power level.

The Rover-BRM at the pits. Le Mans, 1965

Regardless of the disadvantage, the team finished the race in 12th position overall and 2nd in the 2-liter class, at an average speed of 159 kph. The team also received the “Motor Magazine Trophy”, for being the first British car to cross the finish line.

The Rover-BRM accomplishment at the 1965 Le Mans was nothing short of amazing, even if it was overshadowed by the first battle of the “Ford vs Ferrari” war.

The 1965 Rover-BRM was fully restored and it is on display at the British Motor Museum, in Warwick, UK.

The race was also the closing chapter of Rover’s involvement with jet engines, the company would now concentrate on the P6 sedan, which became one of its most successful models.

The work done by the Brits was an inspiration for companies like Chrysler, General Motors, and even Toyota to create some interesting prototypes powered by gas turbines. Some of those cars we will see here at TCM.