At Full Chat: Summer 1998

Usually, I take a fairly strong position about most topics…at least, those I deem worthy of an opinion. For the past year or longer I have been working up a head of steam on several subjects. Allow me to share my thoughts on one of them with you. You might look upon yourselves as my pressure relief valves!

I’ll start by stating that I firmly believe that the owner of an automobile has the right to do whatever he or she wishes with that property, including replacing its drive train to suit his or her fancy…and as long as he or she doesn’t try to invest the result with any spurious legitimacy. Bill Frick, the creator of the Studillacs and the Fordillacs of the early 1950s, once told me that there was no such thing as an impossible engine transplant, “as long as there’s enough room and enough money!” Of course, I realize that many engine swaps have been done for a different reason than the latter half of Frick’s rationale, “because there wasn’t enough money” to do the job right.

Nick Harley, a colorfully ribald Brit, showed up at Pebble Beach a couple of years ago with a Merlin-powered Phantom II cabriolet, a la Gurney Nutting. The word magnificent doesn’t come close to doing justice to that particular effort. Jay Leno also has a Rolls Royce tourer that has been given a similar steroid injection. No unwieldy truck this—I’ve seen lantern-jawed Leno motoring along the Mulholland Highway in his blown 27-liter hybrid at some truly astonishing speeds.

I am confident that Bill Frick would have endorsed, even applauded, Gary Wales’ latest achievement—the mating of a pair of 5.9-liter Rolls Royce straight-eights into an H-16 behemoth. The subsequent installation of this powerplant in a pre-WWII Wraith chassis has led to the vehicle being dubbed the “Bentley Royale!” Gary’s ultimate engine transplant made its debut last November at Essen, Germany, where it was a featured exhibit, enjoyed by the many thousands who attended during the 10-day run of the show.

Moss Motoring readers will recall an earlier At Full Chat in which we highlighted another of Gary’s toys, a spectacular recreation of an early 1930s Blower Bentley. That too might be termed a hybrid, as it’s powered by an engine other than its original, albeit a later one of about the same displacement from the same company, in this case, a supercharged post-WWII Mark VI engine. For reliability and parts availability, both these cars run on post-WWII powertrains for which parts are still available and which offer greater economy.

Some 40 years ago, I recall seeing Walt Hansgen compete at Westhampton Air Force Base at the wheel of an Offenhauser-powered Aston Martin DB2. He was quite quick, but was the car still an Aston? Bill Krueper, a regular member of our Marina Del Rey breakfast dub, owned an Arnolt Bristol many years ago, into which he shoe-horned a small block Chevy V8. It is still a potent combination, and he’s pretty sure it was the same car I encountered last year at the Mt. Equinox Hillclimb.

Jensen Interceptors, Facel Vegas, and Cunninghams (the ones Briggs built in West Palm Beach in the ’50s) all shared Chrysler hemi-power. The Gordon Keeble used a small block Chevrolet engine, as did its Italian “kissing cousin,” the very similar Iso Rivolta. Allards were available with a variety of V8 power; Ford, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Chrysler being the most popular, though several K-3s are known to have been powered by Jaguar XK engines. A Cunningham entry at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix was the famous Bu-Merc, a pre-war Mercedes with a Buick straight eight under its bonnet.

Bristol is another company that relied on outsider engine technology, first with the BMW-based Bristol engine, and later by the same Chrysler hemi V8 found in the aforementioned Jensens, Facel Vegas, and Allards. On the flip side of the coin was the Nash Healey, featuring Donald Healey-designed bodywork around an overhead valve straight eight from Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The Moss Motors Festival at Flag Is Up Farms draws a fairly eclectic mix of hybrids. I recall seeing MGs and Triumphs that boasted V8 steroid enhancements, if indeed these could be so termed. Also, there’s usually a contingent of DeLoreans, built in Ireland with Renault V6 power from France. Before we forget, there was the Sunbeam Tiger, a V8 powered Alpine that is still sought by collectors who admire the Alpine’s styling, but who lament its non-sporting lethargy. It’s too bad that America only saw the Austin-powered MGC, a less than brilliant match-up, as opposed to the MGB GT V8, which was powered by a Rover-updated version of Buick’s erstwhile 215cld aluminum block engine, and was a much better proposition.

The first MG TC that I came to know intimately belonged to a neighbor…who had substituted a Lea Francis engine in his quest for greater performance! Since then, I’ve seen T-Series MGs, Morris Minors, too, with Ford and Volvo engines, all providing better than stock performance.

But is the Bill Frick philosophy justification for bastardization?

An argument can be made either pro or con. Not so is the practice of installing Japanese drive trains in these British icons…at least that’s how I see it. Worse still is a Jaguar XK120 look-alike seen recently in an exotic car showroom. Under its fairly faithful fiberglass bodywork was a Datsun/Nissan 7 carb. I kept my distance, afraid that this misanthrope might somehow transmit some deadly disease. Also, I have been told that somewhere out there is a Mazda rotary-powered MGB, and the rumor is probably true, despite my fervent prayers to the contrary!

The definitive hybrid has to be the Shelby AC Cobra, which has become the most often imitated hybrid in automotive history. About 1,000 Cobras were produced by Carroll Shelby in the 1960s, but many times that number of replicas have appeared since, some of which may even pass the original in terms of engineering sophistication and production quality. The replicas have certainly racked up aggregate sales in multiples of the cars that Carroll built. In his continuation series, Shelby himself can be characterized as building his own replica series. Personally, I really would prefer an AC Ace or Aceca to a Cobra. Besides, weren’t the AC Bristol and the Aceca Bristol themselves hybrids, powered by a British-made version of a pre-war BMW 328 hand-me-down engine? Also, how should we label the four continuation “DB4 GT Zagatos” that Victor Gauntlelt commissioned from Galbiati in the early 1990s?

Why then are my feelings about hybrids and their place in history so ambivalent? Why do I disdain the same treatment when performed by an individual? Is there something declasse about the marriage of one brand name engine to another nameplate’s chassis? Is my attitude evidence of sheer automotive bigotry? Perhaps!

I prefer to think that certain hybrids are acceptable because they were produced, or al least sanctioned, by the original manufacturers, and the powertrains were usually supplied by their originators. Most often, the objective was greater performance, not the expediency of lower cost or greater operating economy. Certainly, economy in the form of reliability and durability was a consideration when opting for large displacement, relatively slow turning American engines. But, the primary reason was that these were a means to expand the chassis’ final envelope.

One final point for you to ponder. I feel strongly that anything using a used engine should be a hot rod and disqualified from using the nameplate of either chassis, body or engine maker!

(I feel sure we’ll hear more about this from our readers, who I know have strong opinions on spurious automobiles!—Ed.)


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