'Out of this world' Chaparral 2J fan car: Vic Elford on the machine that blew rivals away

Sports Cars

Jim Hall's Chaparral 2J introduced fan-powered ground effect to Can-Am racing and blitzed the opposition... until it broke down. Vic Elford tells the story of racing the 'ultimate driving car'

1970 Laguna Seca, Vic Elford, Chaparral 2J

Chaparral 2J at Laguna Seca

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Seven years before the ground effect-harnessing Lotus 78 and all-conquering Brabham ‘fan car’, Jim Hall introduced a racing innovation which – almost quite literally – blew away the opposition.

It may have finished only once in its short history, but the reverberations created by Hall’s pioneering Chaparral 2J have been felt ever since.

Fifty years on from the 2J’s final competitive appearance, Vic Elford, who drove the car for its last three races, spoke to Motor Sport.

“Just out of this world – the ultimate driving car,” he says of the machine that looked more like a Star Wars prop rather than a 1970s sports car.

Fans from a M-109 Howitzer tank could pump out a cool 9650 cubic feet of air per minute

Chaparral Cars, the racing team and constructor founded by oil-dynasty-heir-turned-racing-driver Jim Hall, had been experimenting with aerodynamics throughout the 60s.

In collaboration with his friend and fellow driver Hap Sharp, Hall had already exploited downforce with pioneering moveable rear wings on both his 2E and 2F cars. Inspired by an unusual letter he received from a young Chaparral enthusiast, the Texan elected to take the downforce concept even further.

Elford had previously recounted the car’s genesis in conversation with Simon Taylor: “A 12-year-old kid sent Jim a little drawing, saying: ‘Why don’t you put a helicopter rotor in a car, so it sucks the air out and then sucks the car down?’ He got together with the General Motors guys, batted it around,  and then they worked out how to do it. I don’t know what Jim said to the kid, but he’s still got those drawings.”

Hall, in collaboration with the car manufacturer and his engineering accomplice Don Gates, made the idea a reality.

Chaparral 2J, 1970 Riverside

Vacuum-generated ground effect made the car incredibly quick when it wasn’t breaking down

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

The result was an all-white wedge-shaped car with two turbines (powered by an auxiliary 2-cylinder engine JLO engine) attached to the back. Taken from an M-109 Howitzer tank, these fans – which operated at 6000RPM – could pump out a cool 9650 cubic feet of air per minute.

Moveable plastic skirts, made from a new “unbreakable” plastic called Lexan, were attached to the front, sides and back of the car’s floor, their alignment to the road surface meaning it stayed planted to the asphalt as the fans sucked the air underneath the car and pushed it out the back, creating the vacuum effect. This provided unprecedented levels of downforce – over 2220 pounds to be exact. Regardless even of the fact that the car, driver and all, weighed about 1800 pounds, these were incredible figures. The car would pull up to 2G through corners.

Before anything to do with airflow, ground effect or downforce was even mentioned, the Chapparal’s big block engine was giving it serious shift in the first place, an aluminium Chevrolet V8 which produced 650hp.

From the archive

Elford first came into contact with the 2J when competing at the Can-Am Watkins Glen round for Porsche. The Brit and his fellow competitors found the 2J as baffling as it was breathtaking.

“I think we all just thought ‘Jesus Christ, how the hell does that work?’ he recalls, “I mean I’d seen some of Jim Hall’s creations before, [but] I guess we were all a bit shocked!”

In an age when the designs of other Can-Am vehicles might be described as fantastical, the 2J was somehow shockingly functional in its space-age tendencies. The plain liveried car, with its lightweight fibreglass body which covered the rear-wheels before being brutally cut off at the point where the turbines emerged, was described by Motor Sport’s David Gordon as “the big white shoebox”.

GM had pulled in one Jackie Stewart to pilot the 2J for its debut at the Glen. In his book Faster, the Scot was wide-eyed in his description of the car’s capabilities.

“The car’s traction, its ability to brake and go deeply into the corners, is something I’ve never experienced before in a car this size or bulk,” he said, “Its adhesion is such that it seems to be able to take unorthodox lines through turns, and this, of course, is intriguing.”

Certain components couldn’t take the strain of the loads they were put under. After problems in qualifying with the auxiliary engine (which was being run full-throttle the entire time) meant the car couldn’t exploit its full downforce potential, Stewart then retired from the race with brake failure – but only after setting the fastest lap.

“Adapting to it mentally is difficult because no other car has gone around a corner this fast”

After the race, Elford received a phone call from the Chaparral boys, who were coincidentally staying at the same hotel as him.

“I went to Jim’s room. He said to me ‘Well, you saw the Chaparral today. Would you like to drive it?’ I replied, ‘C’mon Jim, you’ve got Jackie Stewart driving!’

“He said: “That was just a one-off PR thing with General Motors. We now need a proper driver for the rest of the year. We’ve been looking at people and we think you’re the best one that we’ve seen out there – to understand the engineering, work with the engineers, and drive the car into the bargain. So how about it?’

“And I said ‘Of course, love to. Thank you very much!’ So that was how it all started.”

Vic Elford, Chaparral 2J, Riverside

Vic Elford at the wheel of the Chaparral 2J at Riverside

Fred Enke/Getty Images

Chaparral’s newest driver flew out to Midland, Texas to start testing the car. The sleepy desert town was home to Chaparral’s workshop and also their bespoke testing track – Rattlesnake Raceway.

In spite of the wide variety of machinery he’d already sampled, the Chaparral 2J was like nothing else Elford ever encountered.

“Driving the car was just out of this world,” he says, “The [start-up] procedure was a bit like an aeroplane I suppose. You didn’t just jump into first gear and drive away.

“I would put my left foot hard on the brake to make sure it didn’t go anywhere. Then I would fire-up the little engine which would immediately start to drive those two monster fans at the back, sucking up the air underneath.

“When I did this the car would literally go: ‘Shhhp!’ and lower itself down to the ground by about two and a half inches.”

Such was the sucking power of the turbines, the car would move of its own accord at about 30mph, hence the driver needing to have his foot on the brake throughout the start-up procedure.

“I drove around the outside of Denny in third gear. He went into the pits and sulked for the next half an hour.”

The new driver/car combination’s first race was at Road Atlanta, Round 6 of the 1970 Can-Am season.

Despite its obvious promise, the car had so far only driven a few laps in competitive anger. In Motor Sport’s race report at the time, Elford described the challenge of driving such an ‘easy’ car:

“You get to the stage of thinking that it’s just not possible that the car can go around any corner at that speed,” he said, “and adapting to it mentally is the most difficult approach because no other car has ever gone around a corner as fast as this one… Another great thing about the suction is that it doesn’t allow the car’s handling characteristics to change as you go through a corner … Whichever way it’s set it remains like that at all times, whether it’s a slow corner or a fast swerve – it remains absolutely constant”.

Elford’s eventual confidence in the car translated into pole position for the race, taken by 1.26sec ahead of McLaren’s Denny Hulme.

Come race day though, it all started to fall apart. Chaparral’s sluggish getaway at the start didn’t help.

“The problem was I only had a three-speed gearbox,” Elford explains, “They [Hulme, McLaren’s Peter Gethin and Lola’s Peter Revson] all had four. Although I was way out [in first] on the starting grid with a rolling start, they all went by me at the startline.”

Vic Elford driving the Chaparral 2J at Laguna Seca in 1970

A sub-1 minute lap at Laguna Seca was easily enough for pole at Laguna Seca

Fred Enke/Getty Images

Ignition issues put the 2J out but things were looking good for the next round at Laguna Seca.

Elford didn’t disappoint, taking pole once more. On this occasion, it was an even bigger margin of 1.8sec despite the Monterey circuit being particularly short. The Chaparral’s drubbing of the opposition was described by Motor Sport’s David Gordon as a “demoralisation process”.

“I went around [Laguna Seca in] 59sec and it was about five years before the next car managed to go under a minute – and then that was an IndyCar anyway,” says Elford.

However, come the warm-up, reliability gremlins struck again. This time, the Chevrolet engine fell on its own sword as a connecting rod punched a hole through the block.

“I remember people coming up to me, throwing their arms around me, sobbing in the paddock and saying, ‘Please go and change the engine, it only takes a couple of hours to change a Can-Am engine!” Elford remembers, laughing.

“And it probably did in a McLaren. But it took all day in a Chaparral, because you had to literally take the whole damn car apart!”

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The team had one more roll of the dice for 1970, down the California coast at Riverside.

Cue an even bigger qualifying margin: Elford was on pole this time by 2.2sec. “At one point we came into Turn 9 with Dunny Hulme just in front of me,” says Elford. “I was right up against the wall and I probably didn’t even change gear. I drove all the way around the outside of Denny in third gear. He went straight off, went into the pits, took his helmet off, sat on the pitwall and sulked for the next half an hour.

The mercurial 2J’s race appearance was once more short-lived though, as the auxiliary engine failed on the second lap. After coming so close to success in Can-Am, Elford found the car’s failures hard to take.

“We did three races and I was disappointed not to win each one,” he says. “Not as in ‘Oh, that would’ve been nice’ – I was really upset because had it been in an unbreakable state right from the word go, I would have been on pole position and won every race – and blown everyone into the weeds! Of course this never happens with a new car…

“That disappointed me terribly, probably more than Jim, because as an engineer he looked at it like ‘Oh that’s a shame, that’s something we need to fix for next week.’ While as a driver, you go ‘I could’ve won that. I would’ve won that. I should’ve won that.’

Vic Elford driving the Chaparral 2J at Riverside Laguna Seca in 1970

New car gremlins meant the Chaparral’s pace was never converted into victory

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With the team planning for all-out domination in 1971, Jim Hall told Motor Sport what happened next: “At the end of 1970 there was a terrible outcry from the rest of the Can-Am competitors about our car. We had been premature in going to the racetrack with 2J, but when you think you have something that will put you ahead of the field, you are in a big hurry to get out there before any info leaks out. We made a decision to go ahead and do it, learn about the car this year, and win with it the next…”

McLaren, fearing domination (ironically), had been lobbying the Can-Am governing body SCCA to ban the 2J, alleging that it exploited “moveable aerodynamic devices”. Under threat of being sued by the protesting team, the SCCA acquiesced and outlawed the 2J.

From the archive

Elford had had visions of a long winter of testing Texas-style, an off-season spent pounding round Rattlesnake Raceway in preparation to avenge his Can-Am travails in 1971.

It was not to be though, and the dream died in the desert. Elford moved on to more F1 and sports cars appearances, scoring a second Le Mans class win to crown a glittering racing career. Hall stepped back from motor sport before returning with another ground effect car, the Chaparral 2K, which brilliantly won both the 1980 Indy 500 and IndyCar Championship.

Some machines often have the same effect on the human psyche as the cult hero or the underdog. The dream of the unfulfilled, the potential performance, sometimes fires the imagination more than actual success.

The Chaparral 2J might just be argued to be racing’s greatest example of this.