From the archives with Doug Nye

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Strutting their stuff

Remembering the Chaparral 2F and the greatness of a key figure at its helm

That old debate about what constitutes the world’s ‘greatest racing car’ will, of course, run and run. The Porsche 917 pretty consistently wins most polls, but I’ve always had a really soft spot for Jim Hall’s fabulous Chaparral-Chevrolet 2F coupé, and 50 years ago – on February 5, 1967 – the great white road-runner from Midland, Texas made its racing debut in the Daytona Continental 24 Hours.

It failed to finish, and would have a troubled season’s racing, but no matter. It was a rocket ship on wheels and I always loved it. Its drivers were 1961 world champion Phil Hill – ex-Ferrari, ex-Ford, ex-Shelby Cobra – and the too often forgotten, consistently underrated Englishman, Mike Spence. 

Phil had already been a Chaparral man for one full season and, in constructor Jim Hall’s preceding, truly gorgeous Chaparral-Chevrolet 2D coupé, he and co-driver Jo Bonnier had won the 1966 Nürburgring 1000Kms. Phil almost won that year’s Can-Am Championship in Jim’s Chaparral 2E, which introduced the tall strutted wing to major-league motor racing. 

Jim then gave his 1967 Chaparral endurance racing coupé the next alphabet letter as its suffix, and so the now renowned 2F coupé emerged, with its 7-litre Chevrolet V8. One amazing feature of the first Chaparral-Chevrolet 2F is that it wasn’t new at all. Its chassis monocoque was still one of the first three fibreglass tubs originally produced for Chaparral way back in 1963-64. This was a tribute to the structure’s incredible durability and also to the soundness of Hall’s original concept. 

The slab-sided new coupé’s most jaw-dropping feature was, of course, its high rear wing, drawn directly from Can-Am experience with the 2E cars, mounted on two tall struts way up there in clean air. With more than adequate downforce being generated on the rear wheels, the problem was that only the nose bodywork was being presented to the airstream to add balancing downforce on the fronts. 

Hall fixed the balance problem by providing what looked like a conventional nose cooling duct, but which really allowed airflow to enter a tunnel that could be shut off by a spring-loaded flap arranged to open progressively against air pressure at speeds above 120mph. That duct, and the airflow exhausting through it above the nose, had a significant effect on lift in that area and so balanced the car front to rear.

The duct’s presence prevented the use of a conventional nose-mounted radiator, so instead two radiators were fitted, placed each side of the cockpit behind the doors. This reduced the volume of coolant required within the complete, fully piped, system. It increased rearward weight bias within the chassis, and kept the cockpit notably cool. Without warm air issuing from the nose-top duct, cold air could reach the carburettors without any need for the tall snorkel that had been fitted to the previous year’s Chaparral 2D coupé.

The 2F also broke new ground in using sandwich techniques, better known in aeroplane and surfboard technology, to produce body mouldings that were light yet rigid. This featured
in heavily loaded areas of the nose and rear deck. 

At last, pin-drive wheels with single centre-lock knock-off hubs were adopted to save time that Chaparral had previously – and so inexplicably – lost in every tyre change. The new Chevrolet engine was the 427 ‘Porcupine’ V8 already well known to NASCAR customers but now cast in aluminium. It gave about 500-525bhp, but it was in quite mild tune. Phil would recall: “They told me they were seeing similar power from some 302s. The auto transmission, which I still regarded with grave suspicion – in fact not far short of detestation – was now a three-speed…” He had always muttered darkly about the Hall/GM fascination with auto transmission.  

Team mechanic Franz Weis would remember Phil’s new team-mate and co-driver, Mike Spence, like this: “Nice, very nice. Quiet person, quicker than hell. He really stood on the gas! A really first-class driver. I don’t think he ever really got due credit. I think he was better than the press made him out to be. The guy treated everyone equally. There wasn’t anyone better than he was. That meant a lot to the mechanics…”

Phil: “As just another mechanic who also happened to drive race cars I empathise absolutely with that warm tribute – and the man he describes is exactly the Mike Spence I knew, too. At Daytona we ran the 2F in a kind of semi-developed state. The high wing was fixed in the downforce position – its struts didn’t have their fairing shrouds fitted, and the nose duct ‘trap door’ device was also locked off. 

Phil led away from the rolling start – which compensated for the Chaparral’s slow pick-up from a standing start with its auto box. “The car was good to drive and very, very fast around the banking [but] the track had been resurfaced, and in places was breaking up. This was particularly so where the infield road circuit rejoined the banking. Well into the race, when I took the car back from Mike, I just wish he had said something like ‘Watch the marbles going back onto the banking.’ 

“I just sort of went back out there and not even fast, but the car slid on those marbles and just flew straight up into the wall. I was stunned. I had never experienced such chagrin and remorse as that. It was terrible.

“Jim was upset. Anyone would be. If I had been him I would really have let me have it. I was ready to commit suicide. I had damaged the car’s right-rear suspension and although I limped it back to the pits we had to retire…”. Typically Phil, looking back even 45 years later this most intelligent and thoughtful of great racers – and, make no mistake, Phil really was a great racer – would still be beating himself up.

In that 1967 Daytona Continental Ford’s huge fleet all sank, and Ferrari finished in line abreast, 1-2-3, delightedly crossing taking the flag in formation to avenge their previous year’s defeat by Ford at Le Mans. Only six months had passed since then, and here was Ferrari rubbing Ford’s nose in the dirt on its home soil. Phil had walked out of Ford at the end of 1965, estranged by corporate in-fighting and politics, but he derived no satisfaction from their Daytona defeat at his former team Ferrari’s hands. Instead he recalled bluntly: “I was too submerged in my own misery even to think about it…”

Circumstance, GM’s fragile auto transmission and Jim Hall’s insistence upon using a lightweight and inadequate motorcycle-sized battery foiled Chaparral hopes in the following races at Sebring, Monza, the Targa Florio (blimey), the Nürburgring and Le Mans, before Phil and Mike Spence shared a single 2F in the BOAC 1000Kms at Brands Hatch on July 30, 1967.

Race organiser Nick Syrett of the BRSCC hadn’t been able to get a straight answer from the always enigmatic Hall about whether they would actually attend. The first Nick knew they really would be running was when he came up behind a GM ute towing a covered trailer which had two holes in the cover – and a strutted wing protruding through them. “Yahoo!” would not be an overstatement.

Phil recalled some doubts: “I expected the worst around that very hilly, twisty circuit because our auto gearbox had plainly never been designed to transmit the torque we were putting through it from the 427 engine.” But Jim would later say: “There was a definite ability to using the Chaparral gearbox… Phil was very good at it – you could always look inside and tell.” Phil: “Given my druthers I’d rather have had a big solid ZF transaxle. It would have saved us so much grief, frustration and pain.”

Ferrari and Porsche fought out the world championship title between them at Brands. As the race developed, Ferrari, Mirage and Porsche all took turns at leading. Phil: “We lost nearly two minutes in an unscheduled stop to replace a punctured tyre, but I was then able to pull back two seconds per lap. Despite a late charge from Chris Amon and Jackie Stewart in another works Ferrari 330P4, it wasn’t difficult to maintain a cushion ahead of them and then the clock was ticking down, the laps were being reeled off, the transmission was holding together – and we had won.

“And I just felt this enormous, all-embracing kind of flood of pure relief, and satisfaction wrap around me like a big, warm comfort blanket… There was this surging sensation of happiness for myself, for Mike, and for Hall and Sharp and for all our guys back there in the pits.” And with that great success Phil decided his career as a professional racing driver was over – and he discreetly retired.

For the better part of 20 years now we have been compiling Phil’s racing autobiography, combined with his magnificent full-colour photography from 1950-1962 as he globe-trotted the racing world, and which he shot “just to show the folks back home”. Our aim has been to produce the finest world champion racing driver’s book ever produced – or ever likely to be produced. This massive three-volume work is now in final production and, as a shameless plug, you can read more about it at http://philhillbook.com and phil-hill-book.com. For me it’s been a labour of love, in honour of a great man I really liked and admired immensely.

And through what proved to be Phil’s final racing season some of my fondest memories from 50 years ago are of that handsome snow-white rocket ship with its tall, strutted wings wringing lap time out of thin air…

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