How to arrive in style

This is how one brave American effort made its way to Grand Prix racing – but the results didn’t live up to the team’s impressive presentation
Writer Gordon Cruickshank Photographer Matthew Howell

For sale – old lorry. Doesn’t sound very tempting, does it? Yet if you bid for it at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival auction, be prepared to hand over more than you’d spend on the new lightweight E-type. After all, this old lorry was once a film star…

It is, of course, a special old lorry, a racing car transporter from the era when they looked different, unusual, specially formed for their job. Today’s slab-sided pantechnicons may be sophisticated mobile machine shops, but shorn of their team livery they could just as well be transporting washing machines or welly boots as the highly developed products of race engineers. In the 1950s, before anyone found the word ‘logistics’ in the dictionary, when race teams used old coaches or furniture vans to haul their precious machinery from track to track, there was a sudden burst of creativity when these lorries went from mere cargo haulers to travelling displays of their purpose.

And if I seem to have forgotten the rest of the package we show with this truck, then my apologies to the shade of Lance Reventlow. His was the passion – and the pennies – which produced the pair of glittering blue metallic Formula 1 single-seaters which are also on offer: a brace of Scarabs. All three have come from the same collector, a passionate Scarab racer, and they go together like horse and horsebox, because it was once this transporter’s job to deliver these ambitious American contestants to Grand Prix venues across Europe.

It wasn’t built to lug Scarabs, and since that brief adventure folded it had half a dozen liveries and served an assortment of teams before being parked in a desert and forgotten. But on a wave of new-found interest in these workhorses of the racing world it has surfed back into towering life. It and the cars are being sold separately so it may have a new life carrying a different marque, but we have corralled the trio in the Goodwood paddock. Whoever buys one or all, they’ll very likely find themselves back here before long.

If you are born “the world’s richest baby”, heir to the vast Woolworth fortune as Reventlow was, your horizons are bound to be wide. Though a school rebel who dropped out of college, chain-smoking Reventlow was far from a mere playboy.

A voracious reader, he was happier in garage than nightclub. But on his way to becoming an accomplished skier, sailor and pilot he was swept up by the surge in European-style sports car racing that blossomed in the US during the 1950s. Two of his many stepfathers (his mother Barbara Hutton married seven times) were racing drivers – Prince Igor Troubetskoy and Porfirio Rubirosa, though the young man wasn’t close to them, or to his own father, a German count. In fact, following a turbulent childhood of custody battles, contemporary interviews comment in surprise on how well-balanced this wealthy and highly eligible young bachelor was.

So Reventlow did more than buy the usual Jaguar; he invested in a Cooper and in 1957 came to England to find his racing feet in Formula 2.

A brief affair with a Maserati sports car ended in the wall at Snetterton, but a bigger impact came from a visit to Lister. Then the customer car to have, a Lister was successful but hardly complex. It triggered a thought in the mind of the ambitious American: “I could do that…”

The sports cars Reventlow came home to build as Reventlow Automobiles Inc brought success to the Scarab badge, but only at home: with the 1957 switch to a 3-litre limit the brawny small-block Chevrolet V8s he fitted became ineligible in Europe. While the cars were immensely successful through 1958 in SCCA and other US events, notably under engineer/driver Chuck Daigh, there was no suitable home-grown 3-litre power pack for overseas, and Reventlow really, really wanted his cars to be all-American. His team included Leo Goossens, designer of the Indy-dominating Offenhauser engine, and Scarab tried a 3-litre variant of that dependable four-banger, but its disappointing output highlighted something the Chevy unit had glossed over: Scarabs were beautifully built, but heavy. It was a factor that would contribute to the failure of Reventlow’s most ambitious aim of all – to take America into Formula 1.

With a crew now including engineer Phil Remington and respected fabricators Tom Barnes and Dick Troutman, it seemed RAI had all the firepower needed to stamp stars and stripes over the Grand Prix grid. But that’s not how it panned out. While RAI spent 1959 building its single-seaters, it seems to have missed the headlines – that the World Championship had gone to a rear-engined car. The nicely prepped blue and white pair that arrived in Monaco for their debut race embodied a lot of Indy roadster theory and almost no F1 practice. And it was during practice that the truth became clear.

But before clouding those clear blue Monte Carlo skies let’s indulge in that optimistic moment as the towering blue truck rolls noisily into town with American hopes stacked high on its rattling double decks. It’s been here before: commissioned by Maserati in 1956, originally on a two-axle Fiat bus chassis, it went to commercial vehicle coachbuilders Bartoletti who assembled the same double-deck, three-cars-plus-lockers pattern they supplied to Ferrari, Lancia and others. In striking blue and yellow livery, it carried the Modena Grand Prix team to a triumphant 1957 title before Reventlow bought it when Maserati wound down its Grand Prix operation in 1958. Now after a steady slog from RAI’s British base it’s back in the principality, repainted in Reventlow blue. Beneath the floor the six-cylinder fuel-injected Fiat diesel oozes torque enough to heave the bus over an Alp or a Pyrenée (if they make it through to the Monza and Oporto rounds) while being in little danger of collecting speed tickets – 60mph is a brave target, even with air-boosted brakes.

As winches thrum and cables clank to lower the racers to the Monaco ground there’s a supportive atmosphere – new teams are welcome variety as long as they don’t look too promising, and Reventlow is continuing in the admirable mould of compatriot Briggs Cunningham – the wealthy, leisured, cultured sportsman, the trans-Atlantic equivalent of Rob Walker. And Reventlow’s team-mate is Chuck Daigh, known as a tough and gritty driver and someone new for the Europeans to measure themselves against.

Drivers and mechanics stroll over to see what the truck has delivered. Within the Scarab’s sturdy but conventional steel tube frame, Goossens’ four-cylinder lies almost flat with driveshaft under the driver’s left arm feeding a rear transfer box, yet against this lower centre of gravity the driver sits up at a bus-like wheel. Fuel injection feeds the motor, but it breathes through desmodromic valve gear that needs another season – or two – to sort. When asked about power, the team mutter about a 260hp target; later Daigh would concede 220 was about the best so far. Ferrari’s Dino V6 is handing out 280.

Sharing a pit with the compact Coopers, the Scarab seems a weightlifter to a hurdler. Motor Sport’s DSJ is unimpressed: “The only newcomer on the scene has been the four-cylinder Scarab engine. As this was an almost open crib of half of the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 engine, with desmodromic valve gear and near-horizontal cylinder position, it can hardly be considered to be progress”.

Events wouldn’t belie that view. In practice the Scarabs prove heavy, underpowered and slow, so slow that Reventlow asks Stirling Moss to see if he can extract anything extra. Later in Motor Sport Jenks tries to be kind: “Just to see if it was the cars or the drivers, Reventlow let Moss try one. He did 1min 45sec, which equalled Jimmy Clark’s best time with the Lotus-Junior, so the answer to the Scarab trouble was cars and drivers. However, there were other factors, such as first time out, first attempt at anything so exacting as Monte Carlo, and the simple fact that their Goodyear tyres are not as good as Dunlop tyres. A set of Dunlops would certainly have given Moss 1min 43sec. If it had been his own car and fitted him properly he would have done 1min 42sec, and if he had been trying he could have done 1min 41sec, and if starting money had been involved he would have got down to 1min 40sec, which would have been a reasonable time for a new car to new conditions.” Moss’s pole time was 1min 36.3; Trintignant’s tail-end slot, 1min 39.1.

The ramps on the Bartoletti come down again, the winch whines, and the cars are loaded up. The deflated debutants are leaving the ball without being asked to dance.

It is a portent. In their single season, the cars not only fail to finish but do not even start four of the five GPs entered. Summoning all his restraint for the home US Grand Prix at Riverside, Daigh drags one lightened car to tenth place by keeping the revs below 7000rpm. That’s the season high-point – apart from Daigh’s scary lap of Spa in the transporter with Scarabs aboard…

Reasons for the flop? Multiple. That front engine is not enough of an excuse: if not for Moss and that wieldy Lotus 18 a front-engined Dino could have won at Monaco. What else? Despite their skills, no-one on board has F1 experience. They’ve given themselves inadequate time, and this is an alarming financial drain even for the multi-millionaire – his mother’s will leaves him all the money, variously $60-100 million, but meantime he manages on $500k a year. And on top of this it’s no help if your drivers aren’t of the first rank. Although there’s a rear-engined Scarab on the stocks, the team has no engine to fit the new 1500cc Grand Prix rules; thwarted and frustrated, Reventlow pulls the plug on the F1 dream. Sports car projects bubble on, including a Chevy mid-engined car, but by 1963 RAI is wound up and Reventlow turns to other things. Though surrounded by perpetual wealth, his life is as fragile as anyone’s: in 1972 it is claimed by a light aircraft crash.

As it doesn’t travel to Riverside, the truck’s last F1 trip bearing Scarab livery is thus a sorry trek back from Reims in July 1960 with a bunch of broken engines. It’s fired up again in ’61 to let Chuck Daigh contest three of the Inter-Continental races for the now obsolete 2.5-litre cars using a conventional 3-litre Offy engine, one at Goodwood (sixth in the Lavant Cup) and two at Silverstone (seventh, and a major smash that puts Daigh in hospital). Dragging the wrecked GP-2 away is Scarab’s last job for the Bartoletti.

It’s a good vehicle, though; Lotus hires it for a year, then Carroll Shelby takes it over in 1964 to carry Daytona Coupés around the European sports car rounds. They’re heavier than F1 cars, so the team adds a third axle to the truck to cope – a useful feature for next owners Alan Mann Racing, who load it with Cobras and weighty GT40s. Then it heads to the dragstrips carrying John Woolf’s dragsters before relentless privateer David Piper takes it on. It’s Piper who makes it a star during the filming of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans film: with some quick spraygun costume changes from Piper green to Gulf colours it becomes a Porsche truck for 917s, a Mirage hauler in blue and then, in crimson, a Ferrari version. After all, it’s a brother to the Maranello transporters, and in that appropriate colour Anthony Bamford thereafter utilises it to carry his historic Ferraris.

It’s Shelby Coupés which take the now tired vehicle to the US, where Cobra collector and author Michael Shoen feels it’s the perfect transport for the Daytona Coupé he owns, but a protracted legal battle sees the truck trapped in an open-air compound under harsh Arizona sun for almost 20 years before Scarab collector, restorer and racer Don Orosco adds it to his stable. Not scared of a major undertaking, Orosco’s portfolio includes restoring a Scarab sports car and the GP-1 single-seater and constructing a perfect Grand Prix Scarab copy. (Those are the two cars which will accompany the transporter in the sale.) After all this time the Bartoletti is in sad shape, but Orosco bites the bullet and undertakes a full restoration – $600,000-worth. Unlike your Lister-Chevy or even Can-Am McLaren, no-one is making parts for this; it becomes a two-year welter of one-off tasks – glass, trim, grilles, bumpers, on top of the sheer 38ft bulk of metal. Finally it emerges from four days in the paint shop onto the Pebble Beach lawns where it overshadows every Miller, Duesenberg and Bugatti, in every sense. Loaded with Orosco’s Scarabs, two single-seaters and a sports car, it becomes the package every race organiser wants to invite.

Now it’s back at Goodwood, sucking attention from the supercars and historic racers around it like a Dyson on re-heat. With its tall tyres (Continentals despite the carefully reproduced Goodyear stickers on its flanks) and high chassis it has ten times the presence of a modern equivalent, though the unassisted steering, bare cabin, and skimpy seats take you right back to the Fifties. Unlike the Ecosse truck there are no workshop or kitchen facilities; those locker doors reveal one huge empty cavern, though there is a spartan bed behind the three seats. Somewhere along the line the Fiat motor came out, replaced by an 11-litre Leyland and five-speed box, so it remains a practical device. Sensibly Orosco chose to retain the extra load-dependent axle, so it’s not quite as Reventlow and Daigh knew it, but the blue livery hints at its back story. Alongside, chassis GP-1 and the built up car complete a perfect trio, and the way things turn both cars can now be competitive in the historic world. Although Daigh finally got a desmo engine going well in the 1980s, these (and Julian Bronson’s GP-3 which came out of the Donington museum) run the 220 Offenhauser motor and in a front-engined field will be in their element. Perhaps one buyer will pitch in with the estimated $1.1-1.5m and $625-825,000 respectively.

Behind them the transporter gleams, fresh from another paint job; we’re forbidden to lower the ramps and load a car or two in case of damage to something now estimated to make $900,000-1.2m. I can almost hear the hollow laughter of the tired, despondent Scarab team as they wearily chain up the cars and fling the ramps aboard after another fruitless track foray. Yet it’s great that a new generation is starting to appreciate these classic commercials. A major historic meet attracts Ecosse, Tyrrell, BRM, BMC and Ferrari transporters, and Roald Goethe has built up a period Mercedes lorry as appropriate transport for his Gulf Porsches. Who will be first with an Alfa Romeo 500 truck to deliver their 308C to Monza?

Our thanks to Bonhams. The transporter and the Scarabs form three lots in Bonhams’ auction at Goodwood Revival on September 12