Shadow’s first car was one of the strangest devices ever seen on a racetrack. Preston Lerner recounts how innovative ideas on the drawing board became fundamental flaws in the flesh.
Picture a car the size of a go-kart. No, a tad bigger. Say knee-high, with tyres that wouldn’t look too out of place on a Ford Ka. Now picture a hulk of Detroit iron. No, bigger. A lot bigger. Say seven litres of Chevy big block crowned by an intake manifold that resembles a grenade launcher. Now picture one shoehorned into the other. Uh huh, a 675bhp kart?
Now imagine your name is George Follmer, and you’ve got to drive the damn thing.
“Don’t remind me!” Follmer says now, 30 years after his last ride in Shadow’s first Can-Am car. it was an absolute rocket-ship down the straight. But it wouldn’t stop. And it wouldn’t cool. And it bounced around like crazy because it had hardly any springs, and the shocks came off a Model T. It had a lot of clever ideas. But basically, it was an awful car.”
The AVS Shadow Mid might best be described as a vision of motorsport’s future as seen through a grotesquely distorted crystal ball. Raced intermittently in 1970, it just might be the oddest, most radical, least-likely-to-succeed car ever to post reasonably competitive lap times in a world-class field.
True, many of the car’s most startling innovations were winnowed away between when the “Whatthe-hell-is-that?” mock-up graced the cover of Road &Track in August 1969 and its race debut at Mosport in June 70. Even so, the Shadow was bristling with a fantastic assortment of beyond-cutting-edge technology, ranging from clutchless shifting and microscopic suspension travel, to rear-mounted radiators and underbody aerodynamics.
“It was the perfect project for a wild character like me,” says the car’s designer, Trevor Harris. “I was willing to go out on a limb in as many areas as you’d care to name because I knewl could pull it off. And I still think it was doable, given enough time and money. But I learned that you don’t want to incorporate too many untried technologies in one car. Don’t ever do such a crazy thing.”
The car was a disheartening failure, a mini-maxi mongrel stubbornly barking up the wrong tree. The original chassis twice failed to finish before being written off by a drunk in a stolen car. A second chassis was parked nine laps into its first and last race because it was undriveable in traffic. Conventional wisdom had prevailed again. Or had it?
“We were ahead of our time,” team founder, Don Nichols, insists. “Carbon brakes, for example, would have solved our fade problem. But for one reason or another, the car never reached its full potential.” Rarely have a car and its owner been better matched than Nichols and his Shadow. Both were unconventional, provocative and, above all, mysterious. When Nichols showed up in southern California in 1968, a tall, bearded stranger full of strange notions, he seemed to have materialised out of nowhere. Actually, he’d been a major player on the Japanese motorsport scene as a tyre distributor, parts importer and race promoter. But he shunned publicity like the military intelligence officer he’d once been, and cultivated an image perfectly attuned to the team logo — a shadowy figure cloaked in a black cape. He named his company Advanced Vehicle Systems, which called to mind lunar rovers rather than race cars. The front door of his shop was locked to discourage visitors. “If people wanted to see us,” he explains, “they dumped their business cards through the mail slot.”
In 1968, Nichols commissioned Harris to install a big-bore Chevy into a Lola for Pedro Rodriguez to race in Japan. Harris was — still is — an engineer-for-hire, constantly working on his own speculative ideas. One of his more outlandish fantasies was stuffing a hot-rodded engine in the back of a scaleddown race car. When Nichols saw a Harris-built mock-up resting on wooden wheels, he seized upon the concept. “If I wanted to be ordinary,” Nichols says, “I could have bought a McLaren.”
Inaugurated in 1966, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup was the world’s most lucrative roadracing series. It was also the apotheosis of the American approach to road racing: take the biggest V8s, then bore ’em, stroke ’em and strap ‘ern to purpose-built race cars with open cockpits and full-width bodywork. Technically, the cars had to meet the FIA’s Gp7 specifications. But for all practical purposes, the Can-Am cars of 1966 to ’74 were the last of the unadulterated, unlimited ground-pounders.
In 1970 the series was dominated (as usual) by the works McLarens, but the competition included Porsche, Ferrari, March, BRM and Lola. The most notorious car was the Chaparral 2J, the `sucker car’ that used a two-stroke snowmobile motor to produce a pioneering form of ground effects. But the Shadow was odder still, and by several orders of magnitude.
Harris was the son of two university professors, and taught himself his trade by buying a 1935 Maserati grand prix chassis, junking the frame rails, building a tube frame, designing and fabricating independent front and rear suspensions, then designing and fabricating a fibreglass body. He planned to maximise the Mid’s top speed by minimising frontal area. Assuming that appropriately sized tyres were available, he calculated that he could limit the height of the bodywork to no more than 24 inches — a full foot lower than contemporary McLarens. Because the car was so low, the team talked about it as being two-dimensional, hence the name Shadow. Nichols pitched the project to Firestone, which agreed to develop ultra-low profile tyres, 17-inch at the front and 19 at the rear.
The tub, a sophisticated pop-riveted and bonded aluminium monocoque, was so small that the driver sat with the sloping steering wheel next to his crotch and his feet splayed out at a 45-degree angle. There was room for only two pedals — throttle and brake; the clutch was hand-operated. “It was a difficult car to drive,” Harris allows, “and George did a terrific job. He never used a clutch, anyway.” The suspension arms were, again by necessity, extremely short. The springs — three per wheel — were so tiny they appeared to have been mistakenly picked up out of the valvetrain parts bin. Even so, space was so limited that Harris couldn’t use a conventional damper. He drew inspiration from, of all places, his 1935 Maserati and created multiplate, Teflon-coated, anodised-aluminium friction dampers. That’s right, friction dampers — the fastest and, most likely, last friction dampers of all time. “I hope nobody decides they can use them on an all-out race car ever again,” he says.
Harris realised the 10 and 12-inch wheels didn’t leave much room for brakes, so planned to supplement them with air brakes that would pop out of the front fenders and rear bodywork. However, moveable aerodynamic aids were outlawed during the car’s gestation, so he fitted the wheels with Corvair engine fans to cool the undersized and overworked rotors. Tyres were an even bigger stumbling block. Not only were their compounds uncompetitive but they required astronomical pressures of 50-60psi just to produce a workable contact patch. There were engine problems, too. Power wasn’t an issue (sadly, the Flash Gordon-style ray gun intake manifold didn’t make the final cut) though cooling was a constant headache. When the engine was running, however, the ratios of the five-speed Hewland ‘box limited top speed to 165mph. So Harris performed emergency gearbox surgery, reversing gear sets, cutting them apart and welding them back together. He then rigged an oil pump to force feed the trick gears, and they worked fine.
Another novel and successful touch was the divergent duct under the nose, which created a form of ground effects. The full-perimeter lower spoiler also broke new ground. The car would turn in, Follmer recalls, but the virtually flat bodywork generated no appreciable rear downforce — and 75 per cent of the beast’s weight was at the rear. Oversteer? You betcha.
Harris had no choice but to slap a rear wing onto the Shadow, and then, knowing the radiators had to be relocated for better airflow, he ingeniously slung them on top of the new wing, where they served double duty as spoilers.
All this development took lots of time and money. “Before we started,” Nichols recalls, “Trevor told me, ‘It’s going to cost a lot of money.’ I said, ‘How much?’ And he said, ‘Oh, about $60,000.’ In the first 20 months, we spent nearly $1 million on the programme — and that was before we started racing.”
Although Ford and several other would-be sponsors showed interest in the project, none of them produced any money except for Coca-Cola, which paid $10,000 for the rights to a model that was never built. Further complicating matters, a civil lawsuit prompted a pair of law enforcement officers to descend on the team’s shop a month before the season was scheduled to begin with a writ of attachment for two Shadows.
As fate would have it, the first two cars the policemen saw were the mock-up (as featured in Road & Ttudz a year earlier) and an unfinished Shadow containing a four-cam Toyota V8 that had never been so much as fired up. What the cops did not see was Shadow’s race car, which was rolled out the back door and secured in a second, secret shop. Two cars were eventually impounded and crushed, but not before the team started racing the prototype MU.
The 1970 Can-Am season opened at Mosport Park — fast, bumpy and dangerous — but Follmer remained undaunted. Motoring “like a raped ape down the straightaway” in the words of a rival, he broke the 190mph barrier while the 8.1-litre McLarens were barely reaching 170. But the car’s marginal brakes and pathological instability left him sixth on the grid, three seconds off pole. Even worse, his engine had been damaged, and it puked after 25 race laps.
A fortnight later, the team was in St Jovite and the Shadow’s rear wing had now been outlawed. Harris relocated the radiators inside a new hollow wing, but there wasn’t enough time to plumb them properly, and Follmer lasted only 13 laps before the engine overheated. After the race, the car was squashed to death when the trailer carrying it was wrecked by a drunk driver in a stolen car. Nichols began work on a second Shadow. By this time, Harris was gone, and Follmer soon followed. “After St Jovite,” he says, “I knew it was time to look for something else to do. So I conned Vic into driving it.” He laughs. “I’m not sure if he holds it against me or not”
Despite substantial testing, Vic Elford — rally star, Daytona winner and the last man to drive an Fl Cooper — could do little with the new, slightly more conventional Shadow. Starting seventh at Mid-Ohio, four seconds off the pace, he parked after just nine desultory laps. The MkI never raced again, but Nichols is thinking about restoring a chassis for historic racing. For its four highest-profile players, the project was the low point of otherwise successful Can-Am careers. After Mid-Ohio, Elford put the Chaparral 2J on pole three races on the trot. Two years later, Follmer won the Can-Am championship in the Porsche 917/10K. Two years after that, Jackie Oliver won Can-Am for
Nichols in the DN4. Harris either designed or reworked the cars that won five consecutive Can-Am tides after the series switched to a single-seat formula. Yet Nichols, Harris and, to a lesser degree, Follmer will always be associated with the bizarre AVS Shadow Mkl, a car that wasn’t so much ahead of its time as it was the resident of a parallel universe.
“We went into the project not knowing what the hell we would get out of it,” Harris says. “Motor racing is about winning; when you’re not — and don’t have a sponsor — you’re in big trouble.” Follmer, too, is philosophical about the first — and worst — of the Shadows. “Trevor is a very clever guy, and the car had a lot of very good ideas,” he says. “It just would have taken a Ford Motor Company to make it work.”