The first Roadrunner

Before he was a constructor, Jim Hall was a customer. Preston Lerner describes the hot-rod origins of the car which brought a new name to the track and a new designer to the sport

Despite its name, Chaparral 1 wasn’t the first Chaparral but the last in a long and storied line of front-engined, big-bore West Coast specials.

The futuristic Chaparral 2 and derivatives C through J were conceived and created in the Texas laboratory of Jim Hall, the premier road-racing mad scientist of the 1960s. Chaparral 1, on the other hand, was the work of Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, Southern California hot-rodders who’d made their bones building Indy roadsters and midgets for Frank Kurtis.

The year was 1960. Hall was an accomplished driver who’d flogged a cobbled-together Formula One car up to fourth place in the US Grand Prix at Riverside before being slowed by gearbox trouble. The Caltech grad was smart enough to realise that he’d never beat factory teams with customer cars, but lacked the expertise and wherewithal to build a sports-racer of his own. So he decided to hire somebody to do the job for him.

Troutman and Barnes had gone road racing several years earlier with a flawless home-built machine — the Troutman-Barnes Special, naturally — that epitomised the West Coast ethic: the hot-rodder’s anything-that-works spirit coupled with aircraft-spec craftsmanship and a large lump of Detroit iron. Later, they were two of the principal builders of the all-conquering Scarab sports-racer commissioned by Lance Reventlow in 1958.

By 1961, it was clear that the mid-engined configuration was the way to go. But there wasn’t a transaxle stout enough to handle the power of the small-block Chevy that Hall planned to use. So Troutman and Barnes crafted a more compact, more advanced version of the Scarab — the Scarab 2.0, if you will — with the engine pushed back to improve weight distribution, and disc brakes and other modern components to upgrade performance.

Troutman and Barnes planned to build cars — originally called the Riverside — for anybody who was willing to buy them. Hall took delivery of the first one in the summer of 1961, with Harry Heuer, a Midwestern brewery magnate who was already running one of the original Scarabs, getting the second chassis shortly thereafter. A total of five cars were built.

Hall renamed the car after the Texas bird also known as the Roadrunner. The Chaparral was fast, exceeding 180mph during testing at Riverside, but its handling left something to be desired.

“The Chaparral went like hell, but it was always trying to kill you,” Heuer recalls. “It didn’t stop all that well, and it didn’t handle all that well, except sideways. But it just went like gangbusters. It was a roller skate with a rocket on it.”

Hall chuckles at Heuer’s description, but he insist that development of his Chaparral turned it into a predictable and fast car. Still, even though it could outrun the Scarab or any other front-engined sports-racer — the Chaparral couldn’t keep up with the top mid-engined competition. As a result, despite winning numerous amateur events in the hands of Hall and Heuer, it came up short in the big pro races at Riverside and Laguna Seca as well as international competitions at Sebring, Mosport and Nassau.

But if Chaparral 1 failed on the racetrack, it did succeed in pointing Hall in a fruitful new direction. “Up until then,” he recalls, “I took things as they were and just manipulated the controls. I really hadn’t applied any of my mechanical engineering background before. I just assumed that Colin Chapman and Enzo Ferrari knew how to build race cars and I didn’t, and that was that.”

In 1963, Jim Hall — and the rest of the world — would learn otherwise.