Reo Grand

Ernesto Blanco and his Reo ruled the roost in Argentina for three decades. Richard Heseltine tells their story before playing in the dust, photography by Peter Spinney/LAT

When the legend becomes fact, runs the adage, print the legend. Take Ernesto Blanco and his maniacal Reo. Trawling through the historical archive which accompanies this car (a few newspaper clippings and a mildew-stained copy of Corsa), The Man in White is depicted as a spectral figure seemingly chased by the devil himself as he tore up Argentina’s back roads in search of glory, a giant of a man who devoured five nutritious walnuts after each meal in the belief that they would build up his stamina. Aboard his Duesenberg-powered Indycar he had no equal, besting allcomers from the 1920s to the ’50s.

Except not all of this is strictly true. Just the success bit. Born on March 13 1893, the altogether more modest (and shorter) Blanco began his competition career with bicycles before graduating to motorbikes and, at the dawn of the 1920s, to four wheels after purchasing a Reo (although the Argentinian concessionaire briefly replaced the middle vowel with an ‘i’ as Reo means ‘criminal’ in Spanish). Success was pretty much immediate, major victories including the 1926 ACA 12 Horas at the Circuito de Morón. But precisely where the car was built remains a mystery. What is certain is that he had two of them and this, the second car, never went anywhere near Indianapolis — it was built in Buenos Aires — nor did it feature Duesenberg power.

Speaking to Corsa, Macoco de Alzaga claimed: “Luis Viglione and myself designed the car one afternoon in 1930. We were trying to copy the ‘Gold Seal Special’ Chrysler of (Juan Antonio) Gaudino which was a gorgeous car. To be honest, the only virtue of the Blanco car was its looks. Unlike the Chrysler the Reo was a very big car with a high chassis.”

Based on nothing more exotic than a Reo Royal Eight production car, the frame was stiffened and the flathead straight-eight moved further back in the chassis to aid weight distribution. The engine capacity was then enlarged to seven litres, the duo adding downdraught carburettors imported from US hot rod pioneer Ed Winfield which, according to de Alzaga, “were thought to be the best you could buy at the time. Now I realise that they would be the best for a small Fiat and not for the Reo. Still, it was a good engine and we managed to get 180-190bhp from it, an improvement (over the original 135).

“We were trying to copy the Indianapolis type of car, as I had done with ‘The Betty’ of Benedicto Campos which was similar to a Miller. Problem was, the circuits in Argentina were very different to Indianapolis, which was smoother. Even so, there wasn’t much competition for the car as it was so powerful. That is why it won so often.”

And the Reo did just that, winning the arduous 1932 Gran Premio Argentino, a two-leg event that took in 960 miles of largely unpaved roads from Buenos Aires to Córdoba and back. A year later the prestigious ACA Premio Otoño fell to the Reo, but it was two years later that Blanco and his car’s endurance were comprehensively tested as they vanquished rivals to win the Automóvil Club de Tres Arroyos — all 8845 miles of it. He would repeat this extraordinary feat in 1936, the same year he upset the odds to take the Rafaela 500 Miles race. Not expected to feature on the dust-compacted oval circuit, more commonly used for horse racing, he traded the lead with Carlos Arzani’s 2.9 Alfa, Romeo (a converted two-seater which set the fastest lap of 105mph, Blanco’s best being 96) during a furious battle that led to journalists launching into hyperbole overload as they tried to describe the contest.

Quite aside from his sheer resilience in the heat of combat, Blanco’s real forte was his finely honed mechanical sympathy. His great opponent Gaudino, talking to Corsa expressed their differences in style: “It’s true that he was a rival and we would argue, but outside of racing we were good friends and partners in many things. Most drivers used to race without caring for the consequences but Blanco had a very different way of competing. He used to really look after the car — to nurse it. For me that’s not racing but he got such good results…”

Indeed. Despite his advancing years, he continued to campaign the Reo for decades, winning the Rafaela 500 Miles race once more in 1940, claiming the runner-up spot seven years later and third places in 1951 and 1954 — by which time he was near pensionable age. Blanco finally abandoned the Reo a year later. Not that retirement beckoned: he bought an Alfa and continued racing until shortly before his death in 1961. The car subsequently disappeared until the late ’60s, when it was discovered languishing unloved in a field in rural Argentina. Fortunately its saviour, Roberto Vigneau, recognised its importance and, together with his father-in-law Busquet Serra, the car was rebuilt (as opposed to restored) to the same condition as it last raced, hence the wide track and gumball tyres. It’s presently in the keep of a very enthusistic collector who read about the car as a child.

If it’s possible for an inanimate object to emit an aura, this one does, wearing its battle scars like a badge of honour. Blurry period images project a graceless and galumphing device, but in the metal it’s glorious, being neither ugly nor pretty.

Yet it’s with an air of trepidation that you approach driving this car. Perched on what passes for a seat, the original steering wheel fronts a simple dashboard formed from a sheet of aluminium and home to Jaeger instruments: the speedo reads to 200kph, the tachometer to an optimistic 6000rpm. The cockpit sides are cut away, slivers of daylight peeking through the panel gaps near your feet. Bodywork is in place, it seems, merely to keep you from getting pebble-dashed. Fat chance.

Once primed, the Reo erupts into life with a whirlwind of uncoordinated din, finally, reluctantly settling down to a lumpy idle. This ungodly bellow has to be heard to be believed. Loud is not the word. Select first on the three-speed dog-leg ‘box, let up off the heavily burdened clutch, and under advisement you keep the revs well up, awkwardly whoops-a-daisying off the line as the rear Michelins redistribute a few tonnes of gravel.

The sheer amount of torque here is astounding. Change up at about 40mph and the Reo gets bogged down. Change back into first. Expecting some play in the steering, you’re still forced to heave on two turns of lock just to keep it on the straight-ahead. Not that it remains especially straight, each bump, camber change or twitch of the throttle launching it sideways in an instant. Yet the Reo remains pretty faithful with it. You can play with its attitude as long as your upper-body strength holds out. Walnuts or no walnuts, Ernesto Blanco must have had almost superhuman reserves of vigour to drive this car at racing speeds over such long distances. On our dirt track the need for constant wheel twirling is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.

And despite the constant upgrades during the course of its competition career, there’s predictably nothing as frivolous and unnecessary as servo assist to the four-wheel drums. Seemingly abyss-bound with every pump of the middle pedal, the secret to retardation, it would seem, is simply not to use the brakes until you’re at about walking pace. You simply rely on the Reo’s admittedly very impressive ability to traverse corners broadside to scrub off excess speed. What is surprising is the bump absorption from the massive leaf springs. Yes, you’re often forced to cling to the wheel merely so as not to fall out, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you might expect.

Nonetheless, each mile adds more to your appreciation of Ernesto Blanco. While his name might not be woven into the fabric of European motor racing lore, his efforts deserve veneration. In the words of Derek Smalls: “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” You’d have to be altogether lacking in imagination to contemplate driving this car for days on end at racing speeds, especially on roads that are a stranger to tarmacadam. Yet in doing so, Blanco fired the imagination of others, one such as Juan Manuel Fangio, for which we should all be truly grateful.