Jacques: Racing for the American dream
Growing up, I didn’t realize my dad’s sports car was out of the ordinary. What I most remember is being scared of the engine’s roar.
As I got older, however, I learned that not everyone’s dad builds a car from scratch.
With Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in full swing, I’m reminded of this car and the dream it once held for my dad.
Fresh out of college with an engineering degree and a love of racing cars, Dad decided he’d start his own company building specialty street legal sports cars. He was inspired by the Porsche 917, and modeled his design after it.
It took Dad four years and 6,000 hours to finish the car — what he hoped would be the first of many. He toiled in the evenings and on weekends, while holding down a day job to pay the bills. During this time, he also met my mom and got married. Mom read a lot of books in those early years.
Dad did all the work himself, fashioning the body out of aircraft aluminum, and adding in features like Corvette disc brakes. And although he would have loved to get his hands on a Porsche engine, he decided using a turbocharged Corvair engine would do the trick — at a much lower price point.
By 1978, the year before I came along, the sports car was finished. It certainly caught attention wherever it went, with its sunflower yellow paint job, gull wing doors and sleek racing design.
“It really was fun to drive,” Dad recalls.
And I remember the stares we’d get when my dad would take me for the occasional spin.
My parents presented the prototype at a few car shows, including hauling it down from Oregon to the Long Beach Grand Prix in California, where Dad got some space to display it.
He was ready to take orders. Although he didn’t get any that race weekend, a highlight for him was when a group of Lotus mechanics in their oily coveralls came over and gave the car a thorough review and then invited him to stop by the Lotus factory when my parents would be in England later that year.
Since Dad envisioned his specialty sports cars being street legal, he wanted to make sure his business met necessary government requirements. He sent a letter to Neil Goldschmidt, then head of the U.S. Department of Transportation under President Jimmy Carter.
Goldschmidt wrote back, congratulating my dad on his company. He proceeded to say the government would need three cars to crash test. And the cars would have to meet all the same emission controls as the major U.S. automakers. There were no exceptions for a small, startup company.
Imagine if Henry Ford had faced such regulatory hurdles at his start.
“It was a dream, an American dream, in the environment of today,” Dad says. “It had the potential to be the best street legal sports car in America.”
Dad didn’t let this devastating news get him too down. He shifted gears, and turned to rebuilding Corvair engines for much of his career. He says engineering the sports car was “good character development” and taught him vital skills such as drafting and tool development.
My parents decided to sell the sports car over a decade ago, and now some fellow in the Midwest owns it.
But it will always represent a pivotal time in my dad’s life — as cars often do.