Continental Notes, June 1964

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While at the Targa Florio I had occasion to be taken for a short ride in one of Carroll Shelby’s Cobra cars and it was quite an experience. These cars consist of a primitive chassis comprised of two large-diameter tubes, with independent suspension at each end by means of lower wishbones and an upper transverse leaf-spring clamped at its centre point to the chassis frame. In front of the cockpit is installed a 4.7-litre push-rod o.h.v. Ford V8 engine using four Weber downdraught double-choke carburetters and developing in the region of 350 b.h.p. at 7,000 r.p.m. Drive is taken by a 4-speed gearbox through an open propeller shaft to the chassis-mounted differential unit. The chassis-body unit is fundamentally by A.C. Cars of Thames Ditton and is what used to be the A.C. Bristol, and before that the A.C. Ace with vintage 6-cylinder A.C. engine, and before that the design was John Tojeiro’s home-made “special.” All the chassis components have been considerably beefed up to take the power of the Ford V8 engine, and what started as an amusing hot-rod built by Shelby, has now become an homologated GT car produced in numbers and backed by Ford of America. As can be imagined, when Shelby put the first engine into a standard A.C. Bristol it proved to be pretty vicious, which probably accounted for him calling it a Cobra, and when he started a production line in conjunction with Ford Engine Division and A.C. Cars the name became A.C. Cobra; as it became more successful in competitions the name Ford was tacked on, and then Shelby added his own name, so that it became the Shelby A.C. Cobra Ford V8. Now the business of name-dropping is beginning and A.C. have been dropped in various countries, and we now get entries of Ford Cobra, Shelby-Ford or Shelby-Cobra.

The cars in Sicily were all open 2-seaters which are hairy sports cars, even though the F.I.A. accept them as GT cars, and the juddering, noise and vibration when the engine is started has to be experienced to be believed. Coming out of a corner there is no rising crescendo to peak r.p.m. before the driver changes gear, there is just a shattering explosive noise and the engine is doing 7,000 r.p.m. and the driver is wildly grabbing for the gear-lever, and the next moment he is standing on the brakes and trying to scrabble round the next corner. With his foot off the accelerator pedal there is comparative quiet, but he only has to prod it lightly and there is this shattering explosion of noise again and there you are at the next corner with little or no feeling of actual acceleration. It was a strange experience and because of the negligible cornering power the car possesses, a twisty road becomes a series of “fits and starts” with the steering wheel kicking and juddering and the whole car alive with shaking and vibration. It was all good heroic stuff in the best vintage tradition, but those Ford V8 engines don’t half push out some poke. I murmured afterwards that it didn’t seem to have much road-holding and the driver said it had a great big anti-roll bar on the front suspension that converted it into a flexible beam axle; I am not sure I understood what he meant!

However, next time I am out in a vintage car and the inevitable peasant comes up and says “Ah! they don’t make ’em like that nowadays,” I shall not give my stock answer of “No, I am happy to say,” but instead I shall say “Oh yes they do, and they are called Cobras.”

* * *

Spending some time in Modena recently I was greeted by the news that the mighty Fiat concern had introduced a new “tin box” for the populace. They already make boxes in 500-c.c., 660-c.c. and 1,300-c.c. sizes, and this new one was 850 c.c. One newspaper came out with the headline that said: “New Fiat 850 will fill a gap.” Now of that I am quite sure, for at the moment it is just possible to drive fast in Northern Italy by dodging in and out of the gaps in the streams of cars that clutter up the roads, but when the 850 has filled these gaps, as they surely will, then fast motoring will cease and we shall join the happy throng of 50-60-m.p.h. queue-dwellers. Though perhaps that is not what the journalist-gentleman meant. Lovers of real motor cars can take heart for Ferrari and Maserati are still in production with GT cars and the latest 250 and 330GT Ferraris get prettier and more desirable every day. Maserati have just got under way with a new version of their 6-cylinder GT car, the engine now being enlarged to 3.8-litres and a new and spritely-looking coupé 2-seater has been introduced. The previous 3500GT Maseratis. always looked a bit ponderous alongside a 250GT Ferrari, but the new one is shorter and much more Gran Turismo looking.

A few miles out of Modena there are some interesting happenings in the GT world at a brand new factory at St. Agata, built by Cavv. Lamborghini for the production of a 3½-litre V12. cylinder GT car. This project has been under way for some time and the end of this summer should see production begin. Lamborghini is a man who owns a large industrial concern that manufactures agricultural tractors, air-conditioning plants and refrigeration plants, and he decided he would like to go into the luxury, high-performance GT car business. He has known about fast cars for a long time and has two Ferraris in his family at the moment. Unlike some well-meaning enthusiastic types who try to start a business on a shoe-string, Mr. Lamborghini has sunk a large sum of money into the project and built a brand new factory, in which test houses and machine shops are already functioning, as well as the design department. The basic design of the car was done by Giotto Bizzarini, who used to be with Ferrari, and a team of young designers has taken over the development work. The heart of the Lamborghini is undoubtedly the engine and the very first one was built almost as a racing power unit, with a free hand to carburation, cam-design, compression ratios and so on. It is a 60-degree V12-cylinder of 77 x 62 mm. bore and stroke, giving 3,464 c.c., and has two overhead camshafts to each bank of cylinders, the drive being by triplex-silent chain. Inlet ports are down between the inclined valves on each head and exhaust ports are on the outside of the heads. The first engine used downdraught carburation and dry-sump lubrication, and immediately gave 360 b.h.p. at 8,500 r.p.m., and as this was far in excess of what Lamborghini wanted the original specification was detuned to give 270 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m. This was a very sound start to producing a flexible and reliable engine for touring, not for racing, and the production engines, of which the first fifty are now being produced and assembled in the St. Agata factory, have horizontal double-choke Weber carburetters mounted above the exhaust camboxes and feeding through right-angle manifolds into the downdraught inlet ports. This arrangement gives a low overall height to the power unit and sufficient power, as well as utilising a mass-produced Weber carburetter, it also fits in with the air intakes and filters which are built into the front-wheel valances. Wet-sump lubrication is used on the production unit and coil ignition with an alternator, while in front of the radiator are two electric fans, one coming into operation through an automatic thermostat switch, the other being switched on by hand as and when the driver wishes. The chassis frame is a very robust platform arrangement built up from square-section tubing, mainly because it costs no more than round-section tubing and is easier to attach things to. Suspension is independent all round, by double wishbones and coil-spring-damper units at the front, and double wishbones and stabilising links at the rear, with coil-spring-damper units, not unlike the 1963 Formula One Cooper layout. A 5-speed ZF all-synchromesh gearbox is attached directly to the rear of the engine and a two-piece propeller shaft with a centre bearing effectively gets rid of all vibrations. A Salisbury differential-final drive unit is mounted rigidly to a sub-frame which itself is attached to the main frame by Silent-bloc bushes and so arranged as to take all torque reactions and spread them evenly in all directions. The 2-door coupé body was designed and built by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan and the accent has been on touring rather than on sport, with very luxurious seats, electric windows and beautifully finished Interior. There is an occasional seat in the back, for the inevitable leg-less dwarf that always seems to want to go for a ride in a fast GT car, and while doing this I was rather impressed by the lack of vibrations from the two-piece prop.-shaft or the chassis-mounted differential.

The prototype car has nearly completed its programme of testing and already the decision has been made to start a series of five hundred cars to the same shape and specification as this car, even though there are bound to be minor design changes to assist production methods. The opportunity was taken to drive the Lamborghini up and down the local roads and first acquaintance was very pleasant, the 12-cylinder engine having a very wide rev.-range and ping to over 7,000 r.p.m. need be, and making that wonderful exhaust note that only a 12-cylinder engine can make. The use of a proper 5-speed gearbox, as against four speeds and an overdrive, was very satisfying and blended in with the freely revving engine, while the visibility through the very raked screen was excellent. The windscreen is very much a wrap-round shape and the side windows are curved inwards at the top, and even with both side windows open there is very little wind noise or internal disturbance at 100 m.p.h. The windscreen has the unusual feature of having a single central wiper that cleans the whole screen in one sweep, while rectangular Cibie headlights are used.

When the car is in production it will sell for a price somewhere between the Maserati GT and the Ferrari 250GT, which is not cheap and is certainly not for the peasants to use to fill gaps, for the Lamborghini will be one of those cars that is going to need the gaps for hurrying along. The general set-up at St. Agata is one of seriousness and industrial knowledge, and I feel sure that Mr. Lamborghini will be able to utilise the factory and equipment for something else if the bottom should suddenly fall out of the high-performance, luxury-car market.—D. S. J.

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