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« Success, Failure, and Heartache | Main | California Dreaming »
Friday
Dec222017

Let’s Make a Deal

By William G. Sawyer, Contributing Editor

The name Frank Reisner isn’t familiar to many auto enthusiasts. Despite his role as a key figure in the push to mate Italian flair with American power and reliability, Reisner isn’t revered in the same way as automotive icons Briggs Cunningham and Carroll Shelby. That may be due to his willingness to work in the background producing cars for others while letting them take the risk, although he often found he had to take control or lose his company. The wide-eyed passion that led undercapitalized dreamers to do business with Reisner’s Construzione Automobili Intermeccanica — commonly known as Intermeccanica for obvious reasons — bankrupted many, and nearly took Reisner down more than once.

A Hungarian-born, American-educated chemical engineer raised in Canada, Reisner and his Czechoslovakian-born wife Paula — who also was raised in Canada — didn’t allow trivialities like international borders curb their ambition. The couple, who spent their lives hopping back and forth between continents, were used to adapting to new cultures, languages and customs.

While on holiday in Italy in 1959, they decided to set down roots, living in a Fiat 500 in the Turin foothills. It was during this time, while living in a manner most might find odd for budding auto industry moguls, that the couple planned their entry into the Italian automotive scene. Beginning with speed equipment, they developed a line of free-flow exhaust systems to raise much needed capital. South Africa and North America were particularly strong markets. Stebro, the North American distributor of Intermeccanica’s exhaust system, sold them under their own name before eventually going into production on their own.

Next, Reisner was drawn into the coachbuilding scene, a business populated by artisans utilizing techniques passed down from generation to generation. Success required skill, an eye for proportion, the ability to make the mundane beautiful, and perhaps a bit of sorcery as well. Their initial product was The Intermeccanica Puch, or IMP, an aluminum two-seat coupe built on a Fiat 500 chassis. Powered by a Steyr-Daimler-Puch 500 cc air-cooled opposed-twin engine, it attracted 21 buyers, and disappeared not long after an IMP audaciously defeated one of Carlo Abarth’s products in the 500 cc class at the Nurburgring. Abarth, a fellow Turinese performance equipment and race car manufacturer, used his favored status with Fiat to cut off Intermeccanica’s access to its products.

With the experience of building low-volume vehicles and performance parts under his belt, Reisner soon found himself working with a number of ambitious Americans intent on, but not always capable of, achieving their automotive fantasies. Had circumstances been more accommodating, both of our latest Virtual Collection entries may have been successful.

1963 Apollo 5000 GT Coupe

(Photos © Hyman Ltd.)

The idea of mating European style with American power was all the rage following Briggs Cunningham’s attempt to do the same after World War II. And it was General Motor’s Ed Cole who increasingly provided the support to help make those dreams a reality.

Cole, an unabashed visionary, convinced the stuffed shirts on the 14th floor of the GM Building to create daring, innovative products that actually made it to the showroom floor. Cars with overhead cam six-cylinder engines, air-cooled flat-sixes mounted at the back, and aluminum V8s cruised down GM assembly lines and onto dealer’s lots. Though not everything he touched turned to gold, when combined with Bill Mitchell’s groundbreaking designs, Cole’s cars helped GM dominate the industry such that serious discussions were taking place in Washington D.C. about breaking up the company.

Ralph Nader, an East Coast lawyer with little understanding of engineering and a desire to end the carnage on American roadways took aim at the Chevrolet Corvair, a rear-engine sedan with a swing axle rear suspension design that proved to be a handful in the hands of uninitiated drivers. (Cost cutting kept the engineers from fitting a front anti-roll bar, forcing Corvair owners to run staggered – and incredibly low – tire pressures to keep it from oversteering. Many didn’t.) The damaging publicity — reportedly created when a low-level GM lawyer hired private investigators to dig up dirt on Nader — effectively ended GMs innovative streak, but not before it produced the small-block overhead valve Chevy V8 and a lightweight 3.5-liter aluminum V8 that became the darlings of racers, builders of homemade specials, would-be automotive entrepreneurs, and — eventually — Britain’s Rover.

Among those willing to risk it all in pursuit of automotive nirvana were a trio of twenty-something northern Californians. Milt Brown, Ron Plescia, and Ned Davis built on Brown’s experience designing race cars for Emeryson in Britain, and laid a simple ladder frame nestling Buick’s aluminum V8. Plescia, an Art Center grad, designed the body, and they contracted with Intermeccanica to produce the bodies. Reisner called upon Italian Franco Scaglione to make Plescia’s striking design more street worthy, shortening the front end and improving rear vision while maintaining the essence of Plescia’s opus.

What set out to be an affordable product ran head-long into fiscal reality. The expense of building the body in Italy and shipping it by sea to Oakland, California for final assembly and powertrain installation proved to be too much for International Motor Cars (IMC), the company Brown, Plescia, and Davis created. Despite complimentary press reviews and strong demand, the trio couldn’t afford to build more than two cars per month. This resulted in under capitalization and anemic cash flow swallowing their dream whole. Production ceased in 1964.

The failure sent Intermeccanica into a tail spin. In order to save Reisner’s company, the pragmatists at IMC allowed him to supply chassis to Fred Ricketts, owner of Vanguard Industries, a Dallas based manufacturer of aftermarket auto air conditioners. Vanguard took delivery of 22 chassis which they attempted to sell as the Vetta Ventura. Only 11 cars were produced before Ricketts unloaded the remaining chassis on his shop foreman, Tom Johnson. Johnson and others trickled a few cars onto the market over the years, but the dream was essentially over.

Our reference car is a 1963 Apollo 5000 GT offered by Hyman Ltd. (www.hymanltd.com) for $195,000. Rather than the 3.5 liter aluminum engine the marque began with, this one is powered by the less expensive to produce 250 hp., 300 cu. in. cast iron block/aluminum head Buick V8 Apollo turned to late in its production run. Red with a black vinyl and cloth interior, it was shown at the prestigious Greenwich Concours d’Elegance, and appears to be in excellent condition.

1971 Intermeccanica Italia Spyder

(Photos Gabor Mayer © 2017 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s)

Andrew “Jack” Griffith, an American car dealer, had the audacity to tell his friend Carroll Shelby he could build a car that would outperform the Cobra. To prove his point, he dropped a Ford 289 into a British TVR Grantura chassis and renamed it the Griffith. Putting a high powered eight in a chassis originally intended for a four cylinder can provide scintillating performance — and treacherous handling. The lightweight, short-wheelbase (85 in.) cars provided prodigious thrills for those brave enough to attempt to tame the beast.

To say the Griffith was a product of back-alley engineering is an understatement. When engine heat became a problem, they cut vents into the fenders. Desperate to make it look nice, one of the mechanics noticed the aluminum edging on a nearby Formica countertop, added spacers made from aluminum tubing, and fashioned a grille for the gaping hole. As a result, the first twenty-or-so Griffiths are known as Refrigerator Cars.

After producing a couple hundred TVR-based Griffiths, Jack decided it was time to produce something a bit more civilized. Robert Cumberford designed an elegant Italianesque sports car, while ex-BRM designer John Crosthwaite created the chassis for what became the Griffith GT. Intermeccanica was contracted to build the car, which was powered by the same 273 cu. in. Chrysler V8 usually found under the hood of Plymouth’s Barracuda, and debuted at the 1968 New York Auto Show. Unfortunately, a scant 14 Griffith GTs were built before the venture went bust. That’s when Steven Wilder, scion of a wealthy New England family and one-time Technical Editor of Car & Driver magazine, came to the rescue with bundles of cash and a desire to make the beautiful, star-crossed vehicle a success. He renamed it the Omega, replaced the Chrysler engine with a 289 Ford V8, and engaged Holman & Moody to perform final assembly. Thirty-three Omegas slid out the door at Holman & Moody’s facility in the shadow of the Charlotte, NC airport before Wilder threw in the towel.

Reisner, whose company built almost everything anyway, found himself backed into a corner with one of two choices to make: take over the project or watch as his business failed. He chose the first option, and initially renamed the car the Torino. However, Ford had that name trademarked, so he changed it to Italia, retained the Ford engine (the 289 would be replaced by the 351), and installed the running gear at his home base in Italy. The reconfigured car was finally a success, at least as limited production sports cars go. Intermeccanica produced 100-120 Italias per year, with final production estimated at 500 cars.

RM Sotheby’s estimates our reference car will bring $160,000-$200,000 at its Scottsdale Auction. The strikingly beautiful deep red convertible is modified for increased power and sharper handling. Hopefully, the price estimate has more to do with the desirability of the car in question, rather than the fact that it once belonged to Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Many of the personalities involved with these cars kept plugging away in the automobile business. Jack Griffith owned several successful car dealerships, built semi-convertible and targa versions of the Toyota Celica, AMC Concord, and Eagle, and co-founded the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance with Bill Warner. Steve Wilder, an MIT educated engineer, directed New York City’s Vehicle Emissions Lab, established safety standards for NYC’s taxi industry, and created the roof-mounted turn signals seen on cabs operating in the city. Frank Reisner built the Corvair-based Fitch Phoenix for racing legend John Fitch, produced nearly a dozen Murena sports wagons, and teamed with Opel to create the Indra using Opel and Chevrolet mechanicals. Always willing to make a deal to keep Intermeccanica going, he built hundreds of Porsche Speedster replicas with a partner. Frank Reisner died in October, 2001 from complications arising from sarcoidosis. The company, now known as Itermeccanica International, and located in Vancouver B.C., is still soldiering on with Frank’s son Henry at the helm.

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