Return of the Chaparral
B.S. Levy has the first dance in 34 years with one of the front engined era's legendary racing cars. Color photography by Bob Harrington, vintage photography by Bob Tronolone.
My friend jack Boxstrom looked nervous, which is not a normal state of affairs. Jack's been racing just about everything imaginable for more year's than he'd care to mention, and I've personally seen him climb into the hariest of rides without a moment's hesitation or flutter of doubt. But this was different. Inside the big white gooseneck trailer in the Shannonville paddock was, as he put it, "the most important piece I've ever had my hands on." And that's saying a lot for a guy who regularly collects, resores, trades, and races the living tarout of some of the finest, fastest, highest-pedigree motorcars this world has ever seen. Then again, I was there to drive it.
The car in the trailer is Jim Hall's original Chaparral, the first of only five of this type built and surely the last and best of the great front-engined ground pounders. Conceived by renowned California hot rodders and Indy car builders Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes as an updated version of the all-conquering Scarabs they'd built for Lance Reventlow. Their plan was to sell customer copies under the "Riverside Racer" name until the pair met Jim Hill at the Grand Prix at in November of 1960 and the project had found its angel.
The lanky Texan had been partners with Carroll Shelby in a sports car business in Dallas that was little more than a front for their racing ambitions, and it had given Hall the opportunity to drive all the latest and fastest imported machinery, including a punched-out 5.7-liter Maserati and a supercharged Lister Corvette. Hall's driving skills were of an unusually high order, but his passion for building and designing race cars equalled his driving interests and out of that came the ceaselessly ingenious series of Chaparral racing cars that followed and regularly set the motor racing world on its ear.
But even if that first Troutman-Barnes car wasn't strictly a Jim Hall design, it was the first car he was "in on" from drafting board to finished product, and moreover the first race car he ever owned where there was no oracle in Europe to consult if there were problems. A Cal-Tech graduate, Jim Hall was an engineer by both training and temperament, and his continual experimentation and development of this first Chaparral
(even though it was a "store bought" design) laid the groundwork methodology that led to the startlingly original Hall Chaparrals of later years.
Unlike those cars, the first Chaparral (as the "Riverside Racer" was quickly renamed at the suggestion of one of Hall's Mexican friends) was a decidedly conventional design. In a sports racing world already turning in the direction of mid-engined configurations such as the Cooper Monaco and Lotus 19, Troutman-Barnes stuck with the tried and true front engined layout. It was simple, it was something they understood, and there was moreover no transaxle available that could handle the gear-shredding torque of a hot-rodded Chevy V8. Besides, the three-year-old Scarabs were still doing pretty well-if they couldn't exactly beat the new European stuff through the corners, at least they could get there first-and the original concept was to produce a "second generation" Scarab that would be smaller, lower, lighter, better-handling, and just as monstrously powerful. Hopefully, it would also attract all the well-heeled American boy racers who were shelling out big bucks for the latest hot iron from Europe and regularly getting less (or at least different) from what they paid for. At $16,500 complete, if the new Troutman-Barnes car was fast, it seemed inevitable that a line would form at their door.
The final product was stunningly small and lean for a front-engined V8 race car. It was proportioned more like a Birdcage Maserati than a Lister or a Scarab, and the shapely aluminum bodywork (drawn up by Art Center graduate Chuck Pelly of Eagle Rock, California, who also did the rear-engined Scarab in 1962) clothed a solid, simple, and well-thought-out chassis. The big 31 8-cubic inch Chevy was originally set up with triple Stromberg 97s "or three deuces in the popular Stoplight Grand Prix lingo of the era" and sat well back in a sanitary chrome moly space frame, yielding a low polar moment and perfect 50-50 weight distribution. Fuel was carried in a pair of centrally located aluminum side tanks (which also formed the lower bodywork) so the handling characteristics wouldn't change as the fuel load lightened. Front suspension was by the usual dual A-arms, but the rear was also fully independent (unlike the Scarab's DeDion setup) with twin trailing arms, single top link, reversed lower link, and beautifully designed rear hub carriers originally cast in magnesium, later in aluminum. Splined halfshafts fed power to the wheels from a much-modified Halibrand quickchange mounted solidly to the frame with inboard Girling aluminum brake calipers hung on either side. The handsome magnesium wheels were also by Halibrand, and the entire design was brought together with the kind of elegant simplicity, thoroughness, and All-American craftsmanship that had always been the hallmark of Troutman-Barnes equipment from El Mirage to Gasoline Alley.
The bare aluminum prototype had its first test at Riverside in June of 1961, and it was quick right out of the box, lapping just two ticks off Dan Gurney's outright lap record in the Arciero Lotus 19. No question the new Chaparral had great potential. And the car lived up to it, too, taking second in its first outing the following weekend at Laguna Seca (Hall might well have won except for a broken rocker arm). But the real test came later that season when all the top international stars descended on California for the so-called "West Coast Pro Series," which was unquestionably the most competitive sports car racing in the world at the time. The first event was at Riverside, and by then a second Chaparral (chassis #002) had been built and sold to Harry Heuer's Meister Brauser team for Augie Pabst to drive. It was basically identical to Hall's car except that the wheelbase had been stretched from 88" to 90" for a bit more legroom. Meanwhile Hall had switched from three Strombergs to six in search of more power and was already fiddling with the aerodynamics to cure an unsettling nose lift at high speeds. At Riverside in October of '61, Hall's Chaparral sported perhaps motor racing's first ever chin spoiler although he called it a "turbulator," and recalls today that it "was not very effective." This was the first of many pioneering aerodynamic ideas Hall and eventual partner Hap Sharp (chassis #003) tried during their three seasons with the front-engined Chaparrals. Remember that the word "downforce" simply didn't exist back then, and though they went up a lot of blind alleys (Hall's first "reduced lift" nose actually made matters worse!) the lessons learned surely came to fruition in the later Chaparrals.
At Riverside, against the very best in the world (Moss and Gurney in the latest-spec Lotus 19s, F1 teammates Brabham and McLaren in new Cooper Monacos) Hall's Chaparral lined up on the second row next to Gurney, the top five separated by half a second! The European four-bangers were never a match for a big-inch V8 when it came to brute acceleration, and Hall quickly rocketed up to third behind Moss and eventual winner Brabham. In a tribute to both the rightness of the original design and its marvelous execution (not to mention Jim Hall's driving, which is too often overshadowed by the technical brilliance of his cars) the Chaparral finished a solid third after 203 hard miles and set the fastest trap speeds (an impressive 180 flat in qualifying) of the entire weekend. It was a stunning performance.
The first Chaparral was never a dominant car like the Scarab, but it remained incredibly competitive for three seasons against opposition that was both tougher and more technically advanced than the Scarabs ever faced. Hall scored its first victory at Road America's June Sprints in 1962 (a 1-2 steamroller with Harry Heuer in the newly Hilborn-injected Meister Brauser Chaparral second) and followed that up with another win at the grueling Road America 500 in September and the first car to ever complete the distance in less than six hours. But even more impressive was the way Hall and his front-engined "dinosaur" fared against the best in the world at Sebring, Daytona, Nassau, and the West Coast Pro series. Hall ran third at Laguna before sliding off on oil dropped by Pabst's Maserati, then came a big battle with Stirling Moss' Lotus 19 for the overall lead at Nassau before suffering mechanical problems. Come 1962, Hall battled Phil Hill and Ricardo Rodriguez for second behind Gurney's flying Lotus 19 at the Daytona Continental and had both cars in the top ten at Sebring in spite of running reduced-capacity 4.0-liter Chevy engines to meet the idiotic FIA regulations. One car dropped out, but the other survived to finish sixth overall and first in class. Hall qualified the Chaparral on the second row at Mosport, cut the fastest race lap and finished second to Roger Penske's all-conquering Zerex Special at Riverside, beat the existing lap record and qualified fifth (but DNF'd) back at Laguna, and worked his way up from midpack to second before spinning during a sudden rain squall in the hotly-contested Governor's Cup at Nassau.
By 1963 the front-engined Chaparral was getting a bit long in the tooth, and Hall and his cohorts were secretly hard at work back in Midland, Texas, on their revolutionary plastic monocoque, mid-engine Chaparral 2. But it was nowhere near ready, so Hall started the season driving partner/teammate Hap Sharp's 2.7 Cooper Monaco at Daytona's USRRC round. He won in a driving rainstorm, but had to yield the pole to Harry Heuer in his "customer" Meister Brauser Chaparral. The final appearance of the original team Chaparrals (which became known as Chaparral 1s after the unveiling of the radical 2 series) was at Sebring, where one car managed to lead early on until a water hose failed and the second dropped out with rear end problems. Meanwhile Jim Hall had been hired to drive for BRP in Formula One and the new Chaparral 2s would soon be ready, so the front-engined cars were sold off after Sebring. A fourth Chaparral, chassis # 004 was sold to Chuck Jones' Team Meridian and a fifth car went to British hillclimb enthusiast Phil Scragg of Manchester, England. Harry Heuer won the June Sprints again in #002, followed by a win at Meadowdale and a fifth at Laguna in spite of a pit stop to fix a flat tire. Jim Hall coincidentally unveiled his radical Chaparral 2 at Laguna, and the new design proved an immediate three seconds per lap quicker than the old front-engined car. That probably helped convince Skip Hudson to abandon his Chaparral in favor of the more promising Chevy-powered Cooper Monaco he drove for Nickey Chevrolet. From there, the original Jim Hall/Troutman-Barnes Chaparral drifted, as all old racecars do, into obscurity.
How it wound up with my Canadian friend and occasional track nemesis Jack Boxstrom is a long and convoluted version of the old "car in the barn" story. Like so many others, the original Chaparral trickled down ever-poorer through a series of owners, dreamers, hoarders, and flea-market hustlers. "It had no value then," Jack laughed over our morning coffee. "I think once it was traded for a rusted-out Mercedes diesel and a sack of potatoes." The carcass and boxes of parts (in rough shape but amazingly complete) wound up in a Canadian barn belonging to a fellow who had some inkling what it was but no desire to sell it. He became friends with Boxstrom over the years and kept telling him: "I've got a car you'd just kill for, but I'm not going to tell you what it is. If I did, you'd never stop pestering me to buy it." But the time finally came when he was willing to or needed to get rid of it, and he called Boxstrom and told him he had the remains of Jim Hall's original Chaparral sitting on a couple rickety sawhorses and stuffed into various crates and boxes in a musty outbuilding.
Jack was on a plane the next day.
The distance between ownership of a hulk and bragging rights to its place in history is measured in time, sweat, money, research, endless long distance phone calls, and tough decisions. You need to decide exactly how and to what specification you want the job done (doubly difficult for a car like the Chaparral, which was in a constant state of evolution and development through out its career) and whether you want to do an accurate period restoration or build yourself a modernized track weapon for today's vintage wars. Although Jack's a hardcore racer-my best memories of him are from the cockpit of David Whiteside's tiny Lotus 17, watching him wag the back end of his bellowing Aston Martin as we battled for the HSR's Rolex Endurance championship at Sebring, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio, and Savannah-he knew he had to go Purist Correct with the Chaparral. Besides, at six-four and a yard wide at the shoulders, he couldn't even fit in the blessed thing!
I was pretty excited when Jack told me about the secret car project he had coming together in John Clerk's shop in Florida, and really thrilled that he wanted me as the test driver on its very first outing. After the usual Marx Brothers scheduling routine ("The car's ready. We'll do it at Gingerman" "We lost our transport, the car's still in Florida" "We're picking the car up in Pennsylvania, can you make it to Shannonville?" "The photographer's not done yet. Don't go to the track, come to the house") we finally got together for a Friday afternoon test session at Shannonville Motorsports Park, about two hours east of Toronto. As I said at the top, Jack looked pretty nervous about turning me loose with his new baby. "It's like you've come to pick up my 16-year-old daughter for a date," he explained, only half joking, "and I know what you've got in mind. Sit down here on the couch, young man. I want to have a talk with you." But eventually the trailer door came down and Jack gingerly winched the gleaming, stark white Chaparral down the ramps to the pavement.
The first thing you notice is how low and compact it is for a front-engined racing car. And is it ever beautiful! But part of that beauty comes from all the longing memories attached to it. I remember hanging on the fences at Road America-just a high school kid with my fingers wrapped desperately around the wire-watching this very car come barreling down into corner five on the way to its first win. And as it charged up that steep hill towards six-V8 thunder reverberating off the hillsides-I felt it pull something inside me along with it, like an undertow.
A crowd of appreciative Canadian racers gather as Jack takes me through the standard drill that applies to any car that's been built up from the first bolt and never turned a wheel. "I want you to use 4000 rpm at first. Bring it in after three laps so we can check it over. If you're good, I'll let you use 5000 later on. And I want you to be sure and watch the gauges, too, because I'm going to ask you what they were. And not when you're rolling down pit lane, either! The brake pads are new, so don't drive like an idiot and glaze them. Oh, and you'd better wear earplugs."
Jack and engine man Paul Cowan fire up the monster V8 to warm things up while I go out for a few familiarization laps in my rental car. I'd never seen the place before, but fortunately Shannonville is an ideal test circuit: Flat, straightforward, no significant blind spots, and (perish the thought!) plenty of runoff area. Back in the pits the car is ready, so I pull on my flameproofs-trying to be cool about it but all giddy/nervous inside and ease myself into the seat Jim Hall first occupied on a quiet June test day at Riverside some 36 years ago.
Regardless of the age or historical aura surrounding a great racing car, there is a transformation that inevitably occurs where the present overtakes the past and you find yourself dealing with it as a mechanical personality rather than a vessel for history. The first thing I wonder is how a fellow as tall and lanky as Jim Hall ever fit in this thing! You sit with your legs splayed out around a four-spoke sprint car steering wheel that sticks out of the dash like it's on a stalk and sits at a bus driver angle. The naked Borg-Warner T10 four-speed, complete with Corvette T-handle reverse lockout, fills the center of the cockpit, and has the usual, deliberate, Industrial Strength Corvette feel. I notice there's no scattershield, and ask Jack if there's one inside the bellhousing. He tells me "no," and it occurs to me all over again why the stars of the past seem such superheroes today. The man sitting in this very space on the grid for the 1961 Times-Mirror Grand Prix was surrounded by 45 gallons of high octane in two plain aluminum tanks that did double duty as cockpit interior panels on one side and likely impact zones on the other. He was held in place by a simple three-inch lap belt, and his head stuck up a good six inches past the top of the roll bar. We marvel at such bravery today, but the unvarnished truth is that they simply didn't know any better.
Now it's time. I fire it up and wait for the oil to circulate. Belt tight. Helmet on. Gloves last. One final glance up at Jack (he's got the look of that father with the 16- year-old daughter again) and there's nothing left but to ease out the clutch and head for the circuit. The car fits pretty well, actually. The seat offers a lot of side support (good thing, too, since the steering column is decidedly flimsy) and the pedals are all in the right place, even if your feet do come in at strange angles. Like every good racing car, ergonomic concerns vanish the instant the track starts coming at you in earnest.
And so the test begins. The car feels surprisingly light on its feet, well balanced, and extremely powerful. Better yet, it feels solid, and that was not always the case with late '50s-early '60s sports/racers. Temps look good, but then the tech needle goes all spastic and instantly pegs the telltale. Thank goodness I'm the only car on the track so Jack can hear that I'm not really twisting its tail! As I start to give it a little more pressure in the corners (still well off race pace, but getting into the G-forces a bit) I see the oil pressure drop alarmingly in right-hand turns. I take one more lap just to make sure what it's doing and head into the pits. We talk it over and decide to add another quart of oil (it's a five-quart pan, unlike the eight-quart jobs and dry sump systems found on modern Chevy race motors) and we're hoping it's just the level. I go back out and try again, but it's no better. Still, the pressure's only dropping from 70 to 30 (never to zero) so Jack says to try a few more laps to get a feel for the chassis, but keep an eye on the gauge and be careful. So I do. And as I start pressing on harder, feeling the car drift a bit here and there on its skinny Dunlops, load up on the nose under braking, and rear back like a speedboat coming on plane when I bury the throttle for a brief spurt down the backstraight, I can really appreciate why this car was so damn competitive. Simply put, it's user-friendly. It's decently nimble in the tight stuff, there's a reassuring hint of understeer in fast bends, it feels all of a piece, and it's thoroughly benign. But the real heart of the design is still that big, throbbing V8. In spite of its grocery-getter bloodline and pushrod-operated valves, the smallblock Chev has earned its place as the generic American racing engine from the dragstrips to the salt flats to the Saturday night bullrings. In 1961, it was the most powerful engine in sports car racing, and the Chaparral I was simply the best-built, best- handling package available to carry all that muscle from one straightaway to the next. Driving the Chaparral 1, the Moment of Truth happens every time you come out of a come and mash the gas pedal mashed to the floor, and feel what three deuces and a big ol' Chevy can do with 1500 pounds of racecar. I'm having fun!
But then a new problem appears. I enter a third-gear right-harder a bit faster than before and an ugly cloud of bluish-white oilsmoke billows out from under the hood, then vanishes as quickly as it appeared. What the hell was THAT? I go gently around a few more corners-seems OK, gauges all good-and pick up the pace again. Next time through the right-harder, same thing. Valve cover gasket, maybe? So I pull in one more time. Apparently we've overfilled it with that last quart, and now it's coming out the breather on the valve cover. There's oil all over the left side of the engine, so Paul wipes it down and ties a shop rag around the breather like a diaper. Jack asks me if I want to go out again for a few more laps. With terribly mixed feelings, I tell him no. I've really gone about as fast as I should under these circumstances, and I can already feel that tempting old Speed Demon inching up my spinal column towards my fading reserve of judgement. Besides, there's no point blowing oil all over that freshly-restored and operating room-sanitary engine compartment. So I put my helmet back on (this time for a photo shoot) and trundle out gently behind Jack and ace lensman Bob Harrington in a VW Golf that's been pressed into service as a camera car. We make a few painfully slow laps with Bob directing me this way and that for the sun and the angles, and I feel pretty stupid trying to strike a Serious Racing Pose while creeping along at 30 something miles an hour. Then I catch a whiff of something burning and see a wisp of smoke lick out the hood vent. But the smell isn't like oil this time. In fact, I can't place it, except to say it reminds me more of a wood fire than anything made of metal. Plus the temp gauge is starting to creep up from all this slow running. So I pull up next to the camera car, point helplessly at the gauges, and (just one more time) punch it hard. The Chaparral's rear end squats and greases sideways as the big Chev dumps more torque through the skinny Dunlops than they can handle and we rocket off down the backstraight, nose up like a speedboat, gobbling fresh air into the radiator. By the time we reach pit lane, the needle on the temp gauge is back where it belongs. But the burning smell is still there, and there's even more smoke coming through the vents as I pull to a stop. Paul looks underneath and discovers his makeshift shop rag/diaper has caught fire off the headers. He yanks it loose and stamps the smoldering pieces out on the asphalt. It's only then that I notice how quiet it is.
"Well, you did a pretty decent job," Jack tells me later over our first round of beers. "You pegged the telltale, broke the tech, forced half the damn oil out of the engine, and set it on fire."
I thought it was a pretty good afternoon's work myself.
Want more information? Search the web!
Search The Auto Channel!