Richard Nisley


The Chevrolet Connection
Car Culture Released - Feb 18, 2020
Overlooked in the "Ford v. Ferrari" movie, was competition from a Chevrolet powered machine, called the Chaparral.

In the mid-1960s, Chaparral Cars was the sole Chevrolet runner to challenge Shelby/Ford dominance. Owned by wealthy Texas oilman Jim Hall, Chaparral Cars held the upper hand at times, such as at the 1965 Sebring 12-Hours of Endurance, where Hall's Chaparral-Chevrolet easily beat a host of Shelby-Ford GT40s. At the time, the slippery-fast Chaparral II was a mystery car, featuring an exotic fiberglass monocoque chassis, and a secret automatic transmission (courtesy of Chevrolet's Research and Development Department, the silent partner of Chaparral Cars). Shelby was so incensed he wrote a letter to General Motors demanding Chevy R & D sell him one of their secret transmissions, to level the playing field! In reality, the "secret" automatic transmission had no real advantage over the conventional manual four-speed transmissions run by Ford; if anything, the advantage was more psychological than real–Chaparral drivers could steer with both hands on the wheel, while Ford drivers had to make do with one hand on the wheel, while with the other hand shifting gears manually. To say the least, it was an interesting time for motor racing, with Ford and Chevy going head-to-head in the form of two charismatic Texans, Carroll Shelby and Jim Hall.

The Ford Motor Company, which was intent on winning Le Mans, countered by upping the stakes, with more money, more horsepower, and the super-fast Ford Mk IV (which Ford design engineer Ed Hull freely admitted was influenced by the Chaparral’s unique and effective design.) Hall countered with more advanced technology—a high-mounted aerodynamic rear wing to increase downforce on the rear tires, and with bigger engines and with more advanced automatic transmissions to handle the increased horsepower. Alas, it was Hall’s undoing. His Chaparrals were every bit as fast as the famed Ford GT40s but often let down by failed transmissions that could not withstand the increased horsepower of the 427 cubic-inch Chevy engines Hall now employed. When the newer automatic transmissions held up, Hall's Chaparrals were unstoppable, with memorable victories in Germany at the 1966 Nurburgring 1000 Kilometer, and in England at the 1967 Brands Hatch 1000 Kilometer. Ford, however, achieved its primary objective of beating Ferrari at Le Mans, not once but four-years running, from 1966 to 1969.

The high-tech Chaparral is not shown in the movie "Ford v. Ferrari" but it was there, at the two races portrayed: Le Mans and Daytona. While competitive, it failed to finish either event.

LANCE REVENTLOW

Early in the movie, the name of Lance Reventlow is casually dropped, without explanation. Who was he and how was he connected to the story? The answer: Carroll Shelby's race shop in Venice, California, had once been the property of Lance Reventlow.

Reventlow was heir to the vast Woolworth estate, and the shop in question is where he once built a precursor to the Ford Cobra, a Chevrolet-powered sports car, named the Scarab. Like Carroll Shelby after him, Lance Reventlow dreamed big. He wanted to build a lightweight sports car powered by an American V8, to beat Europe's best. Young, rich and handsome, he had an eye for spotting engineering talent, above average racing ability, and Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood as his trophy girlfriend.

With money from his family's fortune, he created RAI (Reventlow Automobiles Inc.) to build American racecars. To realize his dream he hired an all-star team of Southern California hot rodders, sports car engineers, skilled metal fabricators, and a bevy of ex-Indy mechanics. The aluminum-bodied Scarab was beautifully conceived and built and was the first sports car to run a small-block Chevy V8, and for one year thoroughly dominated American sports car racing. The culminating race was the 1958 Riverside Grand Prix where Scarab driver Chuck Daigh passed Phil Hill's factory V12 Ferrari to win the day.

Having beaten Ferrari at Riverside, Reventlow soon lost interest. He released his all-star crew, turned over his shop to Carroll Shelby, and took up the game of polo.

Among those released were fabricator Phil Remington and driver/mechanic Ken Miles, both of whom are portrayed in "Ford v. Ferrari".

I am indebted to two books with help in writing this story:

"Chaparral", by Richard Falconer and Doug Nye

"Scarab: Race Log of the All-American Specials 1957-1965",
by Preston Lerner

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