Three blokes and one chap

A small team but a lot of manpower went into creating Peter Bryant’s unique titanium Can-Am car. If only the rewards had been more forthcoming…

In racing, new ideas are high-risk. Get it right and you’re a visionary. Get it wrong and you lose, publicly. McLaren MP4/1 – first carbon-fibre chassis, changed the world. Ti22 – first titanium chassis, evaporated without trace. But it so nearly succeeded…

Forty years on, a reconstruction of this brave project is under way, overseen by its original designer, Peter Bryant. Bryant’s place in racing is extensive. He got into Formula 1 with Reg Parnell’s Yeoman Credit team, and became John Surtees’ chief mechanic. Crossing the pond he engineered Indycars for wacky Mickey Thompson and sports cars for Carroll Shelby, then worked for Haas Lola before pulling Shadow out of the shade of the bizarre Mk1 Can-Am wheelbarrow.

In among all that he designed and built the titanium car which almost brought USA honour in Can-Am – the home-grown series Europe dominated. As a naturalised Yank he’s proud of that, though he grew up in East London. We met up in a Surrey pub on one of his UK trips. Excited and garrulous, he fires out funny stories from his race career, and there are plenty. It’s hard to keep this bouncy man to one subject, but I have to. I can’t write fast enough to get everything down.

Bryant caught the titanium bug in ’64 when he was looking after one of Mickey Thompson’s wild Indycars. Thompson was a maverick team boss with as many ideas as Jim Hall – but the wrong ones. He tried out the super-light metal without bringing wins, but it was experience Bryant filed away in his mental hard drive, when Peter Revson invited him to jump into the Can-Am pool. With both Revson and Carl Haas Bryant was trying to make Lolas go as fast as Bruce and Denny’s McLarens, but every time he closed the gap there would be a new, quicker McLaren. At the back of his mind he began to rough out the perfect Can-Am car. “I need a millionaire,” he said to himself. And early in 1969 along came Ernie Kanzler.

A wealthy, creative go-getter who owned a marine firm called Autocoast, Kanzler was, says Bryant, “a man on the move. I liked him instantly”. It was one of those moments when things gel: the Titanium Corporation was anxious to showcase its product, and Bryant was brimming with ideas. But he had never designed a whole car; where did the confidence come from? “I just felt I understood what was going on,” he says. “When drivers described what the car was doing I could see a movie of it in my head. And,” – he says this with a straight face –“I have a fantastic grasp of the obvious.”

He also had a record of cunning solutions – including independently coming up with the Gurney flap. But now it was March 1969 and the first race was in June…

For 1970 Can-Am would ban high wings, so Bryant planned ahead and made his whole car a wing raked underneath to provide a degree of suction – long before the Lotus 78. That meant hard springs, so he looked around for a driver who liked crossing his arms. On the advice of JW Racing’s David Yorke he approached Jackie Oliver, who as well as a rising F1 career had just won Le Mans.

Oliver had never heard of this guy. “It was a total gamble,” he says. “He sent my wife and I tickets for California and I got on the plane. When I met him I liked him – a funny guy, very extrovert. And the car was fun to drive.”

In design the Ti22 (titanium’s atomic symbol and number) was straightforward; in aluminium it would hardly have raised an eyebrow. What you couldn’t see was the sheet metal bulkheads – the first full monocoque sports car built without tubes. The usual Chevy V8 sat in the back, while suspension arms looked conventional, though also made from the wonder material. Bryant himself modelled the body shape, without benefit of wind tunnels. Instead he relied, like everyone else, on gluing wool tufts and filming the car.

With completely new construction techniques to learn and only a tiny team, the build was hard. “We had so much trouble,” says Bryant, “and endless all-night sessions…” He wasn’t making it easy: titanium has to be welded in argon gas so it doesn’t shatter, it springs when you bend it, and it’s so hard it can wear out a drill in two holes.

The appeal? It’s lighter than steel but stronger than aluminium. And this precious metal was free – the distributor gave Bryant the raw material. “It should have cost half a million,” says Peter. “It cost us $16,000.” Despite the assembly problems, the chassis was amazingly light, and three times stiffer than its rivals.

At this time Bryant was running the team, designing, building, and digging for sponsors, but as a race mechanic he was used to late nights. A 16-hour day was his norm, and somehow he carried his team along. “Racing’s a disease,” he says, eyes still full of passion. “If you catch it, it doesn’t go away. But beer helps the symptoms.”

Deadlines came and went, and so did the early-season races, so excitement was high when the ‘new era’ machine was revealed at Laguna Seca in October 1969. The car weighed 120lb less than its rivals, and people were so intrigued by the new material that they paid little attention to the Ti22’s aerodynamics. But this was the beginning of the razor-edge sports cars; that chisel-nose scoured the track to flip as much air as possible over the body, while the side fences kept it where it mattered. Only Bruce McLaren was cute enough to ask what they were for… “Bruce was real nice to us, often helped us out,” says Peter. “He said he’d rather race us on the track than in the garage.”

Oliver recalls the feel of the Ti22: “It was unsophisticated; a huge wing and a huge engine – later on we had 800bhp and 800lb ft of torque. You could feel enormous downforce, like F1 cars 10 years later.” Colin Chapman, on a Can-Am briefing trip, got a clue as to why Bryant used this intractable stuff when he came to call. Bryant invited him to pick up a roll bar. He chuckles at the memory. “He almost fell over because it was so much lighter than he expected!”

Despite fuel pick-up problems and a broken throttle, the car looked promising and Oliver was happy to commit to driving it at Riverside. This time it carried a high wing so Bryant could do a direct comparison, but in the race a down-on-power engine knocked them back, even though Oliver qualified alongside Chris Amon’s new Ferrari. Bruce and Denny, of course, were on the row in front… What they did learn was that the car really handled – and that a team with an English driver, led by a cockney ex-pat, was now being fêted as the leading American Can-Am team. It made Bryant laugh, because, as he describes it, “it was really just three blokes and one chap!”

A suspension breakage knocked them out at Riverside, while more engine problems held Oliver back at the season-closer at Texas Speedway. But there was also a Japanese round at Fuji, where Oliver made fastest lap and was leading – when again the engine broke. For Bryant and his tiny team it was a sniff of glory followed by a slap in the face. It told Bryant he needed two things: a dedicated engine man and a major sponsor. Kanzler provided seed capital, but Bryant wanted to upscale, with a new chassis. They had built the first car and run three races on $150,000, but they needed more. Oliver recalls the shoestrings. “You were aware money was tight, that the team ran on philanthropic backing, that it was just a bunch of guys. But most teams were like that then. Autocoast was no different.”

With new premises and an engine man pinched from Chaparral there were now several more blokes, but the same chap driving. Bryant planned a new car for 1970 while also revising the old one – and desperately chasing sponsorship. They found a special crank which took their 7-litre engine out to eight litres (Can-Am was the ‘no rules’ formula), replaced the wing with lip spoilers and used ride-height measurements to balance the downforce. Now it matched the McLaren test times. But while touting for backing, Bryant reckons he blew his best-ever chance. Paul Newman asked for a drive and Peter refused. Newman would drive the Ti22, but a year later when the moment had passed.

However, by the time Mosport in Canada arrived Bryant finally had a sponsor – a hangover cure called ‘Morning Afta’, promising $10,000 per round. After a brilliant race with Dan Gurney’s McLaren, Oliver only lost the win thanks to a back-marker. Prize money for second tided the team over until that first sponsor cheque arrived, but ironically the deal would end up giving Bryant a headache… So did what happened at Ste Jovite in June. The cheque bounced – and so did the car.

Ste Jovite circuit, near Montréal, winds between low hills, a place where gradients meant that grunt really counted but so bumpy that downforce was grinding the chassis on the floor.

Jackie Oliver again: “At terminal velocity – maybe 180mph – you could hear the engine pushing against the drag and where the straight went into a fast corner you could feel the car digging in and hear the front spoiler chattering on the ground.”

Ste Jovite’s back straight rose to a crest where the brave guys hit 165mph, and as the track dropped away beneath them those chisel noses were going light. It was worse if you were tagging another car. Once air gets underneath a sports car… Qualifying third behind those McLarens, Oliver harried them off the grid – but didn’t come round again. Textbook reverse flip and Immelman roll. He said later he had time to protect his hands and close his eyes before the ground arrived. Jackie was hardly damaged, but the car was totalled. Mk2 was still a heap of metal plates, and the coffers were empty.

Bryant was ready to grab any option, and when Ecurie Vickie, a private team with some promising sponsors, offered to amalgamate, he jumped. It took the business worries off his shoulders – for a time.

They’d missed six races before Mk2 was running – longer, wider, with a fully stressed engine to cut weight. By the time Laguna Seca came, competition was even tougher: BRM and March were also after Can-Am’s hearty prizes, but Jim Hall looked like hoovering them up with the 2J sucker car. In the event Laguna and Riverside played the same story: Ti22 very quick (plus a lap record), but Oliver loses to Hulme after epic battle laps the field – twice.

The next car was bubbling in Bryant’s mind when the earthquake came.

Ecurie Vickie’s principals voted him out of the team he’d created. He had no comeback – he did not even own the car. Instead of having a new Ti22, Bryant was adrift. He never knew the reason.

But he knew Don Nichols, whose Can-Am Shadow had livened the grid by looking weird and failing. Don Nichols needed a Mk2, and a designer. He’d already tried to get Oliver into the Mk1, as Jackie recalls: “I said no – the concept is wrong. If you go more conventional I’d drive, especially if Pete Bryant designed it…” So another era began for Peter, bringing both hope and frustration, and yet more wild tales…

We finish our lunch and I have to stop Peter talking. He’s only in Britain for a couple of weeks, and it’s not enough for all the stories. (Try his new book Can-Am Challenger, published by David Bull.)

Shadow proved to be Bryant’s last racing involvement. He became an engineering design consultant in Las Vegas, and in his seventies still teaches suspension design. If he’d managed to produce his race designs under one consistent label he might be remembered as one of racing’s innovators. As it is he has plenty to be proud of, just not enough wins. He grins. “When you’re egotistical you worry people won’t remember you.” He will be fêted at the Monterey Historics in August, though, when Can-Am collector Craig Pence unveils a new Ti22 Mk1. Built from original drawings this will put Bryant’s design back where it belongs, on a smoking race grid.

In Surrey the south coast beckons. “I’m off to get some whelks,” says Peter. “Had a taste for them since I was evacuated to Weymouth in the war. Can’t get ’em over there.”