Don Nichols: Shadowman

With a masked figure as its emblem, the Shadow team sported a mysterious air centred around its unconventional principal Don Nichols – a decorated war veteran, tough entrepreneur inspired by grand visions, and rumoured CIA operative. As a new book attempts to cast fresh light on the shade, its author Pete Lyons recalls his own dealings with a complex and enigmatic man

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Shadow founder Don Nichols stands as his designer, Trevor Lee Harris, demonstrates his concept for the AVS MkI, which would eventually make its Can-Am debut in 1970

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I don’t think the idea ever was to make money. It was to make an art piece, an active art piece which was not only attractive but high performing, and unique, and innovative. Something really innovative in an area where the innovation could be shown and proven, which of course is motor racing.

“I’m a creative of beauty. I like the hardware — I like the artistic aspect of the hardware. That’s about all I can say about my motivation. It wasn’t very well thought out.”

It was August, 2013, and Donald Robert Nichols was 88 when he made that remark in quiet, matter-of-fact tones. I remember thinking, well, each of us is multifaceted, and even the most combative, determinedly acquisitive of people may mellow with age. An aesthetic sensibility, though? This may not be the first character trait mentioned by some who knew this man during his 1970s ventures into international motor racing.

The late American entrepreneur had imagination, drive and daring, of course. Also an air of cultivated mystique mixed with courtly bonhomie, a salesman’s glib palaver delivered in rather stately language, perhaps an overly stubborn sharpness of the business pencil. But an artist’s soul?

Yes. Most of his Shadow competition machines were indeed beautiful creations of advanced concept, elegantly drawn and finely crafted by a masterfully talented team — often despite daunting deficits in terms of resources and time. Shadows won races in Can-Am, Formula 1 and Formula 5000, though not many. Nichols claimed to have fathered more than 100 of his beloved objects of action art, and most still survive these long decades later, reverently restored and often enthusiastically shown at speed. For their custodians today, it is mainly about the splendid racecars.

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As the 1970 Can-Am season begins at Mosport, itʼs Dan Gurney up front as usual in his McLaren. But the real story was Follmer’s tiny AVS MkI, back in sixth

Cahier

But so many of the Shadow stories such people tell circle around the Shadowman himself. Tall, taciturn, reserved in manner and restrained in emotional expression, he seemed innately enigmatic, even forbidding. Rumours swirled behind him; for many people, he might have been more talked about than spoken to. More myth than man. Be wary of dealings with him, was the reputation he had gained. Yet some closer associates found him congenial, even openhearted. Members of his racing team in particular seemed to rekindle the old camaraderie he had cherished back in his military career. With them he could show an impish, mischievous sense of humour that might have surprised outsiders.

Talking of him now that he’s gone, one tends to find that people’s opinions are bipolar; some feel admiration, even affection, while others think darkly of him. Expressions this author has heard ranged from “I love the man” to, literally, “I wouldn’t piss on Don Nichols if he was on fire!”

Speaking personally, my own impressions of the man never extended to either extreme. I first met him during the Can-Am season of 1970, when our interactions were those of a race reporter speaking with a racer. This continued when Nichols took his Shadow team into Formula 1, so we would have stopped to talk in one pitlane or another around the world through 1976.

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Nichols loved his time in the army and later in intelligence

Our conversations were almost always cordial. When approached in 2013 to collaborate for my book, a book he himself had long intended to write, he was wary but finally welcoming. My wife Lorna and I spent hours that became days with him, immersed in memories.

From the archive

We would meet of a misty morning at his stored old racer’s warehouse, a graceless steel shed in an unlovely part of plebeian Salinas, over the hill from patrician Monterey, California. The cavernous interior was stuffed three tiers high with treasures: complete racecars or monocoques, body sections, suspension and running gear parts, engines and transmissions or their elements, racks of new metal stock and boxes of old junk, design drawings, pictures, banners, trophies, filing cabinets… thousands of keepsakes of bygone times. The Wizard’s Cave, I called the magical space.

The old Wizard was lean enough — he denied himself midday meals — to claim proudly that he could still wear his old Army Captain’s dress uniform. He would sit with us for hours in his shabby office, his lanky frame bent into a rickety old swivel chair, knitted stocking cap and upturned jacket collar defying the chill of his unheated space, answering our questions or trying to. Oft-times the memories came hard, sometimes not at all.

But then there would be a sudden spark and he would leap up and dash out across the shop floor to find something he had thought to show us. He knew just where it was and, much spryer than I, the 88-year-old would clamber like a young gymnast up and up through precarious levels of rough timber flooring. He gave me to think that he had erected this scaffold-like structure with his own hands 20 years before.

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Packed storage unit housing Shadow memories. Below: Vic Elford drove bizarre MkI Can-Am in 1970

In motor sports history, Shadow is not ranked among the premier teams. It did win races, but never regularly; its cars were often fast, but too often fragile; the one drivers’ championship, by Jackie Oliver in the Can-Am of 1974, was a worthy achievement by a well-run team, but unfortunately came against thin opposition at the tag end of a dying series.

Asked about his fondest memory from the Shadow days, Nichols paused to consider it. The pause grew long. Finally his agelessly acute eyes refocused and he said slowly, “Maybe winning the Race of Champions with Tom [Pryce], the first F1 win for Shadow.”

Ah, yes. That was at Brands Hatch in March of 1975. Despite the event’s name this early-season sprint for F1 cars, together with a few F5000s, was not a grand prix, not part of the world championship, so not all GP teams and drivers participated. But the grid did host the likes of Donohue, Fittipaldi, Ickx, Jarier, Peterson, Scheckter and Watson. Beside Shadow’s team of two, there were full-on works entries from McLaren, BRM, Ensign, Lotus, Penske, Surtees, Tyrrell and Williams. Young Shadowman Tom Pryce out-qualified them all. Then he beat them all.

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Nichols prided himself on doing things differently. He shares his iconic black cowboy hat with Ferrari chief Luca di Montezemolo on the grid in Canada, 1974

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It was still early in the American team’s third season of international F1 racing, a season that started with exciting promise. Shadow’s new DN5, its third single-seater model, showed immediate speed. In January, lead driver Jean-Pierre Jarier qualified fastest for both the two opening grands prix, Argentina and Brazil. They were Shadow’s first pole positions in Formula 1.

Mechanical problems spoiled those races and also round three in South Africa, but victory at Brands Hatch was a timely morale booster even though it did not count for championship points. But what about Shadow’s maiden grand prix victory, when Alan Jones came home first in the 1977 Austrian Grand Prix? Did Nichols remember being elated, thrilled, delirious with joy? Once again he had to stop and think way, way back. “I guess we were kind of matter-of-fact. We thought we deserved to win, and we were ready to win, so this was it, so Hallelujah. Good.” Typical racer. Always looking forward, optimistic there’s better to come.

Yet in motor sport there’s always a worse side, dank underbellies of insecure stepping stones waiting to turn uppermost. Like other teams of the day, small fraternal bands of warriors in the treacherous field, Shadow suffered loss. Two of its drivers – Tom Pryce and Peter Revson – died at the wheel in ugly, gruesome crashes impossible to cleanse from the mind. Is the triumph worth the risk of tragedy? Every racer confronts the question sooner or later. How they answer determines whether they stay in racing.

Was Don Nichols actually a racer, though? Not from boyhood, no. He was in his middle years when the whirlwind caught him up. But in his youth he had emerged as a born man of combat, a career military veteran who already had endured innumerable grisly World War II experiences of his own — Normandy, Holland, Belgium — without losing his appetite for battle, long before even thinking of auto racing.

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Extreme even into his golden years. Nichols remembered all of his drivers, and still appreciated the artistry of his cars.

So the artistic side seemed incongruous, but it definitely was there. Invited to prowl freely among the countless bits of old competition equipment strewn like timeless treasures in a hoarder’s attic, Lorna and I discovered surprising gems of artisanship. These included a suspension arm of shaped and welded steel, a commonplace component but made with such skill and pride as to stand glistening testimony to race car metalwork as fine sculpture — but this one savagely bent by some terrible force.

“Look at this, isn’t it beautiful,” Don murmured with reverence as he displayed the discarded old part. “Bent but not broken! We had the best designers and fabricators in Formula 1.”

During one of our several days of interviews, he broke off to lead us to a nearby shop where Dennis Muir, son of Shadow race engine builder Lee Muir and himself a former mechanic with the team, was completing his restoration of a DN8 Formula 1 machine. Don had prepared documents declaring that this chassis was the very one that in 1977 carried Alan Jones to victory in Austria.

We had visited the shop earlier, but this time he wanted to witness a grand moment: first fire-up of a freshly installed Ford Cosworth DFV racing engine. During preparations I noticed Don spending a long while standing in one place behind the glistening machine, gazing at it, so I joined him. “Just look at it,” he said softly. “Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

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Shadow finally broke its grand prix duck when Alan Jones triumphed in Austria in 1977 aboard the DN8

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Nearing the end of our time together, I asked Nichols how he wished to wrap up our story of his years in racing. This time his words flowed easily, as if the thoughts had long been formed.

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“It pleases me,” the old warrior told me, “that we were able to make attractive equipment, [cars] that were extremely well received, and we were able to find sponsors and support.

“It’s satisfying to recall that we had an opportunity to do things that we didn’t always do well, but we tried to do them in an innovative, creative and, I suppose, exciting and appealing [way]. We tried to make attractive, well-decorated cars and we tried to do programmes that appealed to us, or to me. It was something I had ability to control — our participation and our expression. “We thought it was an artistic expression.”

What a complex personality, I was thinking as I reviewed my own impressions of him. Naturally artistic, but instinctively adversarial. Man of combat, man of fellowship. A face held inscrutably impassive to conceal a mischievous wit and a wicked sense of humour. Inspirationally motivational as a promoter of his ambitions, yet ruthlessly avaricious in business, he could be genial in one circumstance, almost breathtakingly greedy in another. Abstemious in his personal habits, he was known not to drink or smoke, yet should wealth fall to him he seemed incapable of frugality. Affectionate with associates and often generous to family, but miserly at other times and seemingly coldly, even brutally indifferent to creditors.

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George Follmer raced with Shadow in Can-Am, and in F1 for a single season in 1973

The same shoulders that warmly embraced old friends could turn icy against others. The same father of eight who, as age advanced, had great difficulty remembering their names, but who could effortlessly and proudly rattle off the particulars of every professional driver who ever conducted one of his Shadows… some 37 of them, by his tally. A teller of tales, a holder of secrets. A man loved… and loathed. Everyone has a spectrum, but his extremes reached far beyond the norm.

Shadow: the Magnificent Machines of a Man of Mystery
by Pete Lyons, is published by Evro.
ISBN: 978-1-910505-49-6
Available from the Motor Sport shop priced at £75,
motorsportmagazine.com

 

 

 


AVS MkI – The tiny one

Having left the military, Don Nichols embarked on a radical project that resulted in a miniature ‘rollerskate’ racer – unusual even for the free-thinking Can-Am series

Don Nichols returned to the US from his entrepreneurial years in Japan with ample wherewithal for his next adventure, and an eye out for what it might be. He spotted it in Trevor Harris’s concept sketches for a radical new Can-Am race car.

Slung ultra-low between ultra-small wheels, and wrapped within super-slender bodywork meant to pierce the air like a missile, this knee-high vehicle promised to show straightaway velocities far above the reach of conventional machines of the day. Would it actually reach them? And would straight-line gains make up for any speed sacrificed around corners? Back then few race teams had another way to evaluate something new. Only a few of the largest automakers had computers; our effortless, ubiquitous desktop simulation was unimaginable.

Engineering experimentation carried out in the open air, where everybody could watch the craziest brainstorms succeed or fail, was the very thing that made Can-Am race cars so exciting. But seriously, what a strange-looking contraption. Seemingly the product of an uncontrollably inventive mind, with every detail driven by the myriad challenges of very small tyres, Harris’s AVS MkI departed from convention at almost every point.

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Car was far smaller than the rival McLaren

Looking back these long years afterward, Trevor freely admits that in the heat of youthful enthusiasm he made many problems for himself. His tyre choice did yield that marvellously minimalistic body profile, but it carried adverse knock-on consequences affecting braking performance, suspension layout, road-holding and handling, weight distribution, aerodynamic stability, engine cooling, transmission gearing, chassis design, fuel capacity, cockpit configuration, driver comfort and control — almost everything needed to put a competitive car on the grid.

As problem after problem came to light, Harris was forced to alter just about every fascinating feature of his original design, in some cases even to abandon them. And that burned up time, along with Don Nichols’ money. AVS’s original plan was to compete in the 1969 Can-Am season. But as the days ticked down toward June’s opening date, reality hit the little novice team like a cold wind. The car wasn’t even built.

The tiny AVS team finally made its debut on June 14, 1970 at Mosport. Driver George Follmer remarked that the Shadow was so much lower than other cars that sometimes their drivers seemed unable to see him alongside. On the other hand, even with a large wing now in place, Trevor Harris’s low-drag concept did yield higher terminal velocities. Along Mosport’s long, uphill back straight the Shadow was easily the fastest car in the field, by some 18mph — 194mph versus McLaren’s best, 176. Remarkably, Shadow achieved that despite having the smallest-displacement ‘Big Block’ in the field, Chevrolet’s everyday, off-the-shelf, 427 (7-litre) with standard iron block — the only spec the team could afford. Soberingly, the Shadow’s straight-line speed advantage was more than lost into and around the corners. Front-wheel braking was nearly non-existent, and roadholding frankly terrible. Trackside observers were alarmed to see the tiny tyres bouncing completely clear of the road. Yet fearless Follmer qualified the little ‘rollerskate’ sixth-fastest overall.

From the archive

The McLaren M8D ‘Batmobiles’ of Dan Gurney, the ultimate race winner, and 1968 series champ Denny Hulme, his paws wrapped in bandages, topped the times. Keep note of who came next: future Shadow Can-Am champion Jackie Oliver driving the Peter Bryant-built Ti22 ‘Titanium Car’. Then it was Peter Revson’s new Lola T220 and Lothar Motschenbacher’s McLaren M6B.

Follmer’s grid time was a whopping 3.1 seconds slower than Gurney’s in the new McLaren. But such gaps were routinely seen in the old Can-Am. It may have been a driver’s championship, but the bellowing, bestial, wildly individualistic cars were what Can-Am fans came to see.

In the race Follmer passed Motschenbacher for fifth place, but the Shadow’s temperature gauge was rising and he eased back to avoid an engine failure. He knew the team couldn’t afford another. Their pre-race testing had been hard on their dwindling stock of tired iron engines. After only 24 laps of the scheduled 80-lap race, George finally pitted and switched off. Perhaps he wasn’t too bitterly disappointed.

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MkI’s tiny wheels allowed super-low body; rear scoops fed radiators; bazooka intake soon dropped

But Nichols and the team certainly were. This opening race was to be televised across North America, giving the distinctive orange Shadow oddity the best possible publicity. That might result in sponsorship. But when the race began, TV was still covering something else. As Harris remembers it, “They didn’t start broadcasting our race until lap 25… The one right after we dropped out.” So Don Nichols’ bold play did “lose big.” A whole year late and many dollars beyond projections, his Advanced Vehicle Systems’ ultra-advanced vehicle appeared in only three of the 1970 season’s 10 rounds, showing a bit more performance than perhaps outsiders had expected, but a lot less reliability than any team can accept.

Racers are risk-takers, they always aim high, but bitter experience teaches them not to over reach. Not to allow what was supposed to be a competitive vehicle to become a science experiment. Trevor Harris would rebound from his overly ambitious Shadow MkI experience to become one of the most sought-after creative engineers in motor sport. His long resumé of successful car designs includes championship winners for Brock Racing Enterprises, Gurney and Nissan; he also holds numerous patents for innovative designs such as bicycle transmissions and high-angle constant-velocity joints. Eventually he reconciled with Don Nichols and rejoined him for two further projects.

Versatile Vic Elford, having shown his eagerness to try something novel, got a call later that summer from Jim Hall, inviting him to drive Chaparral’s similarly experimental 2J ground-effect vehicle. Unlike the tiny tyre Shadow, the Chaparral Fan Car was fast. Tiny tyre maker Firestone had taken its best shot; now it was time to move on. The expense had probably been higher than anticipated, but supporting the Shadow experiment was a normal cost of business.

The money was well spent, in fact. The Akron race tyre engineers could in good conscience report back to their Detroit client that they had tried their hardest to make ultra-small tyres work in the red-hot crucible of auto racing. Oldsmobile could be satisfied that failure was not due to lack of effort.

And indeed, the automaking industry did not go in that direction. Styling’s ‘hidden wheels’ idea was quietly forgotten.


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