My latest automotive book includes photography of some of the finest cars I've shot over a 20-plus year career. Here's a peek at a couple of the outstanding cars in Muscle Car Action! 1969 — a Mercury Cyclone CJ428 and a Dodge Dart GTS M-code 440.
Frank Beard's Ferraris
Ah, here's a vintage piece from my archives. In 1995 I was assigned a feature story about a custom Ferrari owned by ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard (the one without a beard). A very cool car, and I remember Frank being a very gracious host. I had dinner with Frank's family and the builder of the car, who had flown in for the interview. Frank even invited me to spend the night in his then-new 25,000 sq ft house so I wouldn't have to make a late-night drive home to Austin. As I recall, the guest room was on the third floor, but I might be confused. I know we had to take an elevator to the home theatre, which was definitely on the third floor. Anyway, the article appeared in the September 1995 issue of EuroSport Car. Below is the story.
Frank Beard's GTO Spyder may be a custom, but it's enough to make any true Ferrari lover's heart sing
text and photography by Steve Statham
If you had to create an imaginary hall of fame for cars that should have been built but never were, one of the first to be inducted would have to be a Ferrari GTO Spyder. Sure, the original GTO was a racing machine, and therefore better suited as a closed coupe, but by the measuring sticks of sheer looks and driving pleasure a topless GTO makes perfect sense. At least that's the way it seemed to Mark and Lisa Gerisch of M&L Auto Specialists, and their well-known customer, ZZ Top drummer Frank Beard.
After some two decades of rock-n-roll stardom, Frank Beard definitely has the means to make a few automotive fantasies reality. And, being a dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiast (more on that later) with a penchant for Maranello's finest, it didn't take him long to start clearing a spot in the garage after he spied M&L's first stab at a GTO Spyder at the home of a fellow Ferrari enthusiast a couple years ago. As a member of the Ferrari Club of America and the owner of a serious collection of original Ferraris, Frank is a true believer, but that doesn't stop him from appreciating cars of a more custom nature.
Which is just the sort of thing Mark Gerisch's M&L Auto Specialists thrives on. Mark has been working on specialty cars for about 15 years, starting in the business doing mostly restoration work. He first started making body panels out of necessity, when restoration parts he ordered didn't fit properly. He branched out from there, working his way up to larger and more exotic projects. He made a splash some years ago with a completely shop-built aluminum 427 Cobra, fabricating virtually everything but the Ford V-8 itself.
People noticed the Cobra project, people with some clout in the automotive world. One of those movers and shakers suggested Mark concentrate on "remade" Ferraris, since original Ferrari parts were either rare or non-existent, and the cars were starting to soar in value. Mark's new benefactor footed the bill for Mark to travel to Europe to visit most of the Old World car manufacturers, and upon his return Mark dove headfirst into the business of reconstructing Ferraris and other exotic sports cars. Initially his shop just supplied body, trim, and chassis work, but now M&L can create entire cars.
M&L's first, and only other, GTO Spyder was created for Hilary Raab, an influential member of the Ferrari community, although Raab's needs dictated a longer wheelbase than the original GTO so it was not a quite the dead-ringer that Frank's car is. Still, the screaming yellow GTO Spyder attracted a lot of attention — in this case, Frank Beard's attention.
Mark and Frank met at a party at Raab's house in Crown Point, Indiana, where Frank made his initial inquiries into what it would take to get a GTO Spyder of his own. Later, Mark got word Frank was definitely interested in a Spyder that was exactly like a GTO, complete with dry-sump, six carbs, the watts link rear, and correct suspension. Three months later they sealed the deal, with one very important provision — the car had to be completed by the following Christmas, 15 months away.
"My stipulation was, my kids were six or seven, and I was still trying to convince them there was a Santa Claus," Frank said. "So I told them, I said 'Look, when you write your letter to Santa Claus ask for a red Ferrari for dad. And if there really is (a Santa), one will show up.' So I told M&L the car has to be in my garage December 24th. And on December 24th it was sitting there, and it was perfect."
Of course, that's the short version of the story. During those 15 months Mark and his crew essentially built a car from scratch. Using a 1961 250 GTE as the donor car, they removed the body and heavily modified the chassis. Still basically Ferrari in origin, under the skin the Spyder is essentially a modified GTE, with all the bracing and oval tubing made to be exactly as it was in a GTO. "If you look at this and look at a GTO you're looking at the same thing," Mark says.
To contain the body flex inherent in convertibles, Mark and Chip Pilner fabricated reinforcing sill plates along the rocker panels, along with a steel bulkhead in the rear in place of the stock aluminum pieces. After welding the sill plates and bulkhead together, they added a third level of reinforcement, a rollbar (upper hoop removed for the photos). "We brought what was the rollbar — you know you bring the rollbar up and over on the original car, the coupe has a rollbar in it — we brought that up and then we tied it in to the next level. So we were already at three levels of strength. When you can tri-level it like that you're automatically going to have more torsional strength," Mark said.
The rear suspension and differential are GTE parts, with a watts link added. "The springs were cut down, re-arched, and the four-link set-up and spring perch box were moved back, so that everything lined up and was the same swinging arc as the GTO," Mark said.
The sheetmetal was crafted at M&L, hand-made from flat sheets of aluminum .063-inch thick, a bit thicker than stock. The interior was also hand-fabricated, with the door panels and center tunnel left in the hammer-tone silver finish, as the original GTOs were. "It's built to be as vibration free as possible," Mark said. "Every place that we put one of those panels down with the stainless steel rivets was silicone-caulked in-between it and the panel..."
The V-12 engine is not quite up to GTO horsepower levels, although the heads were massaged with bigger valves. One interesting powertrain modification was the change to a BMW transmission. "We decided to go with a BMW M-Series box, a European box, (it) had the same pattern as the GTO. So there's a natural. Plus the box is a super, super strong box. I mean, you can put a lot of horsepower through a BMW box. And it's smooth as silk and it makes no noise. You can just spank that thing through the gears and it just loves it."
To fit the box, "we took the original 250 bellhousing and adapted it to that gearbox," Mark said. "There was a small adapter plate that was made up, and then we had to determine how much we took off and added, so that we had the correct throw-out bearing length." As you'd expect, the powertrain and modified body required a new driveshaft, which M&L made in-house.
The BMW tranny was a wise addition, if our brief test drive was any indication. The shifter moved through the normally balky Ferrari gates with hardly a hitch, something not normally said about other Ferraris — and we later drove a Testarossa that offered a back-to-back comparison. The transmission is indicative of the thought and skill invested in the car overall. Unlike many one-offs, we found the Spyder tight and rattle free. The car felt balanced and responsive, and with the V-12 singing its way toward the redline and the wind running through our hair, we can say Mark's GTO Spyder concept has definitely delivered on its original promise.
Certainly Mark's customer is happy. "It felt great," Frank said after taking the car out for one of its rare high-speed exercise sessions. "The car runs like a champ. I think it really goes." What with being on tour for long periods of time and having a house under construction, Frank hadn't had the opportunity to really play with the car since last August at the Monterey Historics. And even then the sometimes IMSA driver had to squeeze out the time. "I was lucky enough. We were on the road, but my schedule allowed me to spend two days in Monterey. I got to drive it around Monterey."
As you'd expect, with all the custom cars that parade through ZZ Top videos the band members are serious car nuts, although the beginnings of Frank's enthusiasm were a bit more humble than his present circumstances allow. "I've always been a car fan," he says. "When I was 15, My dad worked for Ford... he was the office manager of a Ford dealership. And I was taking my driver's ed course, and my dad was a big trader. He'd trade anything; lawn mowers, tractors, anything. About two weeks before I was going to take my test to get my driver's license, he shows up at the house in a black 1960 Squarebird — a black with red interior T-Bird. And that was going to be my car. And it was so fine. And about two days before I took my driver's ed test, he traded that off for an English Ford Consul. And that ended up being my first car. I was going to be king of the hill with a black T-Bird convertible, (and went) to having a little roller skate on wheels."
"And that right there kind of set the tone for my love of cars from then on," Frank remembers. "The first decent hot car I had was a ’60 Impala... I finally turned professional, and we worked three clubs called the Cellar, one in Fort Worth, one in Dallas and one in Houston. We did the circuit, we did two weeks at each place. So I made Dallas to Houston in three hours and ten minutes one time. And going back I was trying to make it in under three hours. And the car let go in Buffalo, Texas. The transmission let go... and when it did the engine just exploded. I mean it threw rods and stuff through the hood — I mean it could have killed me. And so, we stuck our thumbs out, me and the band, and hitch-hiked into Dallas... that was the last I ever saw of the car."
Frank started collecting cars seriously in 1985, beginning with a '57 T-bird. Since then he's bought and sold dozens of collector cars, finally settling on Ferraris as his marque of choice. The rest of his Ferrari collection consists of originals, but he's obviously got no qualms about modified examples. "Any Ferrari's altered, because there ain't no pieces available for 'em anyway," he jokes. For Frank, it's the driving pleasure that's the attraction. "That's all that I care about, the fun factor," he says. "I roll the windows down and listen to the motor."
Naturally, not everyone is thrilled at the idea of cutting up a rare original Ferrari to make a custom one-off. But most people who criticize the car are usually people who don't own Ferraris, Mark says. Most Ferrari owners get pretty excited about the car, he says, and appreciate it for what it is. As far as Mark is concerned, he's not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes by claiming the Spyder is some obscure original. He considers himself a coach-builder, as in earlier automotive times when wealthy customers ordered the body of their choice installed on a stock chassis.
Perhaps the highest compliment for the Spyder came from one who should know — Giotto Bizzarrini, Ferrari's chief sports car engineer in the early ’60s. Mark had a happy encounter with Bizzarrini at the Monterey Historics. "I had just entered the track and I heard a horn beeping behind me, and I looked in the mirror and I saw this Jaguar sedan and these guys waving their arms," Mark said. "So I slowed down to maybe about five mph, and these guys come up behind me, pull along beside me and then stop abruptly. And a little Japanese guy starts to get out of the driver's seat while the car's still rolling. He has to jump back in and put it into park. And this little old guy gets out of the car, walking and taking pictures at the same time... And I'm sitting in the car after a long day of talking to everybody about this GTO Spyder."
"So anyhow, this Japanese guy comes running back out of breath, he says 'sir, sir,' he says, 'We've been chasing you for four miles. Would you mind, Mr. Bizzarrini would like some pictures of your car.'" At first Mark was puzzled, not expecting Bizzarrini himself to be at the car show. After he saw the man's name tag, however, it slowly dawned on him who it actually was. They spoke through the man's driver/interpreter.
"And Mr. Bizzarrini's going around the car taking pictures of it," Mark said. "And he's talking in Italian, and gesturing his approval, and the Japanese fellow, he's smiling and laughing, and he says 'He really loves what you've done with his car.'"
If you're in a Corvette mood, I've got a feature story in the March 2012 issue of Corvette Magazine. It's about a pair of custom C5 Z06s owned by a father and son team. Keith and Chad were great to work with on the photo shoot, and that's saying something it was 107 degrees that August day in Houston. So sometimes we writers have to actually sweat for things other than late paychecks and rejected story pitches...
I received a very nice review by Sam Fiorani of my Presidential Muscle Cars e-book over at AutomotiveTraveler.com. Check it out, and then spend some time hopping around the site and reading the magazine. AutomotiveTraveler is a consistently good publication with a focus on high-adventure driving.
My 11 Year Anniversary
Has it really been more than a decade? I've been a contributor to Road & Track's annual Buyers Guides since the 2001 issue, and it's a gig I really look forward to each year. For the 2012 edition, I was assigned the write-ups on Chrysler, Dodge, Ram trucks and GMC. It just showed up on newsstands in mid-November, so if you're in the market for a new car, grab a copy.
50 Years of Shelby
There's a major anniversary coming up in 2012 50 years since Carroll Shelby founded Shelby American in 1962. For a half century, Shelby has given us the kind of hot cars that people dream about. It's an amazing story, and the new Shelby Annual magazine gives us the 50-year perspective. I've got a couple feature stories inside, and they were fun as hell to write. Look for it on newsstands through the end of 2011, and available directly from Shelby American throughout 2012.
I've got a short news piece in the December issue of Vette magazine, one of the articles that resulted from my trip to Shelby American HQ in July. What's that, you say, Corvette news from Shelby American? Indeed there is. Any Corvette owner can now take his car to Shelby American Motorsports for modification and tuning. For more info, look for the December (cover date) issue on newsstands during the month of October.
2011 Camaro RS convertible Well, that's one way around a blind spot
Chevy's new Camaro has many virtues (excellent ride/handling balance, more-than ample power, unique styling), but the view over your left shoulder isn't one of them. Thanks to the coupe's chunky B- and C-pillars, the Camaro has a truly world-class blind spot.Turns out there's a simple solution for that peel back the roof! That's just what Chevrolet has done for 2011, rolling out a convertible edition of their reborn muscle car. I got to spend a few days in a 2LT droptop recently, a Victory Red RS with 3.6-liter V-6 and 6-speed automatic. Even in our 105-degree heat wave, the Camaro convertible proved to be a powerful draw for all who saw it.
There's more here than dramatic styling, however. Chevrolet has done a good job of strengthening the body structure to compensate for the loss of the metal roof. A strut tower brace is standard, and other areas of the body have been bolstered. The result is a convertible that does not shake like an alcoholic's hands over rough roads, as is the curse of so many ragtops.
Also entertaining is the 312-horsepower V-6. No, it doesn't deliver the torque hit of the 6.2-liter V-8, but it revs quickly and pulls very strongly. There's enough power here to satisfy nearly anyone, and the V-6 is rated at 29 mpg on the highway despite the convertible's extra weight.
The top mechanism itself works well enough. To go topless you must first open the trunk to roll out the compartment divider. Back inside the car, the top has one large twist latch at the windshield header to unfasten. You then hold down the power switch by the rearview mirror and send the top on its merry way.
If there was one unsatisfying aspect of the top-lowering process on our test Camaro, it was the tonneau cover. Our test car simply did not have the two posts necessary to latch the front of the cover, as indicated in the owner's manual.What
should have been a simple operation quickly turned frustrating. The
tonneau cover would have turned into a parasail had we attempted
highway speeds without securing the two front snaps, so we left it off.
Considering the engineering resources that went into turning the Camaro
into a convertible, it was shame such a simple detail marred the
2011 Camaro 2LT Convertible (as tested): $36,185
I was at Shelby American in Las Vegas recently working on a couple of articles, when I had one of those great "You lucky pimp" auto writer moments.
Oh, I know writing about cars is a good job, but it's not usually as exciting as people think. Most of the time my job involves staring at a computer screen, trying to force the words into order. Or researching some obscure historical or technical factoid. Or trying to take a troubled story written by someone else and hammer it into shape. Or waiting for a check to arrive for an article I wrote three months before. But some days... oh man.
So I'm finishing up my second day of interviews and photography at the Shelby Speed Shop, when Vince LaViolette, the senior designer in Shelby's R&D department, comes over and says "Hey Steve, I've got to test this new brake kit on this GT350 over at the track. Want to ride along?"
Why yes. Yes I would.
So just that quick I got to experience all the g-forces a GT350 can deliver, from lateral forces through the turns to whatever the forces are called that pool your blood in your forehead because a test driver just stood on the brake pedal with both feet. Several days later, I'm still not sure if all the blood has returned from the periphery of my brain. The photos at right show the action from the outside, and then the inside. I think the g-forces affected my Nikon as well.
And no, I didn't get any nosebleeds, nor did I barf. If I can pass through the gauntlet of TSA goons at the airport without barfing, I'm certainly not going to spew all over a perfectly good GT350 interior.
1970s Alaska Auto Racing
Ever wonder what the auto racing scene was like in Alaska in the 1970s? I didn't either, until I viewed photographer Stephen Cysewski's site. I'm glad someone was there to record it before it was lost forever. Strap on your helmet and go here.
Our New Little Italian Friend
I recently had the opportunity to attend a press conference at the new Fiat dealership in Austin, as the first Fiat 500 ordered by a local retail customer was delivered.
Fiat has been absent from the U.S. market for 28 years, but I g
otta say, the Italians are making a smart return to these shores.
The Fiat 500, to recap, is the first Italian product (by way of Mexico) from the Fiat-Chrysler merger to arrive in the U.S. The car goes head-to-head in the market against the Mini Cooper, in that you get a dose of high style and Euro design along with your fuel economy. In contrast to the dreary subcompacts that defined the breed for so long in the U.S., with their monotone hard plastic interiors and almost defiant lack of comforts, the 500, like the Mini, is very nicely detailed. It's small, but doesn't scream "cheap," and doesn't look like the kind of forgettable economy car that will depreciate 80 percent before the first oil change.
The Austin dealership is located in a corner suite in one of the buildings in The Domain complex.
The Domain, for those of you outside Austin, is one of those new upscale retail/residential/dining high-density developments that make "urban planner" types pee their pants in excitement.
It's actually not a bad location. A Fiat dealership more specifically, the diminutive 500 itself would get lost if plunked down in the middle of the typical "motor mile" along an interstate, squeezed between Ford Super Duty pickups and Chevy Suburbans. This boutique location targets the stylish city-dwelling buyer Fiat is seeking. It's definitely not the typical new car buying experience.
In fact, to deliver a car, the salesmen have to drive it down the sidewalk in front, navigating between the decorative potted plants, and down a ramp to the street. The 500 is petite enough you can do that.
There are three models, the Pop ($15,500), the Sport ($17,500) and the Lounge ($19,500), with a Cabrio version arriving later in April. There are a few minor differences between the European 500s and U.S. versions. For one, ours have wider seats to better handle the, er, heroic proportions of U.S. backsides. We also get armrests, which are apparently an exotic concept in Europe.
I drove a Pop with the 5-speed manual (most 500s in the U.S. will be automatics). The quick take: Yes, it's small, but has sufficient room for this six-footer, although models with the sunroof cut significantly into the headroom. And the 500 is no torque monster, but thanks to its light weight, it moves around in a sprightly enough fashion. The 1.4-liter, sohc, 16-valve four-cylinder delivers 101 horsepower. (Fiat recommends premium fuel for best performance.) The official fuel economy rating is 36 mpg, but it shouldn't be hard to beat that number.
All models come with a Sport mode engaged by a button on the dash, and the feature does make a noticeable difference in suspension feel, and especially tighter steering feel. The clutch and shifter have a smooth and easy action. This is a car that would be easy to use to teach a young driver how to operate a manual transmission.
Fiat seems to have its target market well cornered. Stylish urban car, trendy dealership location, price no one can argue with. Perhaps Fiat is here to stay this time.
Vintage Racing Programs, No. 3
Ok, I'll grant you that to call a program from 1987 "vintage" is a bit of a stretch. But I'd hate for this race to be forgotten. From 1987-1990, San Antonio hosted a downtown Grand Prix, featuring IMSA sports prototype cars. I attended a couple of them as a fan. I was not yet a working journalist, although that goal was in my sights. I lugged my camera around and took what shots I could with only a general admission ticket for access (no, you can't see them, and be grateful).
Like a lot of street circuit races, this one lost money and folded after four years. And yes, it was hard to be a fan unless you sprang for good grandstand seats. The sightlines for general admission were awful. But this was still a fun race. San Antonio is a great city for this sort of thing. It has a beautiful downtown, and the street vendor food was about as good as you could ask for. I remember two things clearly from that first race the watermelon punch sold by one of the vendors, and AJ Foyt driving the wheels off his race car, visibly faster than his co-driver had been earlier in the race. Plus, it looked like he filled every millimeter of the cockpit.
Vintage Racing Programs, No. 2
No, NASCAR racing in Texas didn't begin with the opening of Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth in the 1990s. At left is a program from the first big-time NASCAR race in the Lone Star State, held in 1969 at the new Texas International Speedway near College Station. (The name was later changed to Texas World Speedway.)
Texas International Speedway was no armadillo-infested rural dirt track. It was (and remains) a two-mile oval patterned after Michigan International Speedway, and was then part of the American Raceways corporation. It hosted several major racing events in the 1970s, including NASCAR Grand National and later Winston Cup events as well as USAC races.
However, the track had to learn the hard way about the Texas sports pecking order in 1969. The first major race was a Can Am event held on November 9, a state holiday Texans celebrate know as "deer season." The inaugural NASCAR race was held the same weekend as the epic Texas vs. Arkansas football game in Fayetteville, the "game of the century." The Longhorns won 15-14 on their way to the national championship. (Bobby Isaac won that first race in a Dodge.) To say the least, paid attendance was not optimal for the track that December day.
I actually attended the last NASCAR Winston Cup race held at Texas World Speedway, with my dad and brother Jeff in 1981, which was won by Benny Parsons. Short version: it was the hottest, most humid sporting event I've ever attended, and that's saying something. I didn't get all the way to heat stroke territory, but I was close enough I could see it from the stands.
But back to the program; at lower left is a rarely seen Ford ad from the inside cover highlighting the Mustang pace cars used that year by American Raceways (click to enlarge). About 10 years ago I photographed one of those Texas pace cars for my Maximum Muscle book. It was one of only two surviving American Raceways cars I ever encountered.
Vintage Racing Programs, No. 1
Here's one from my dusty archives, a program from Austin Speedorama, 1972. And yes, this was no eBay purchase, I got it in 1972 at the Speedorama itself. This track was located southeast of Austin, and was later know as Longhorn Speedway. (Every third business in Austin seemed to be named "Longhorn," much as every third business in San Antonio is named "Alamo.") In recent years you could still see the remnants of it while taking off from Austin-Bergstrom Airport, and probably still can. Funny that in 2012 there will be a Formula 1 race in Austin, not too far from this old track. No doubt there will be a glossy race program so pretty that you could sell it as a coffee-table book. But will it have any ads announcing the great new Premium Light beer from Pearl? Will it have any ads from South Austin Auto Supply, or Ed's Austin Speed Equipment? I think not. So there.