The Land Rover Writer

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Life Well Led

Word came today of the death of John Fitch, age 95, in Connecticut. His influence on the classic cars I admire and the sports car racing I enjoy, cannot be underestimated. We're a lesser world without him.

For Corvair enthusiasts John Fitch took the early model Corvair and created the Fitch Sprint. You could order the parts and install them on your own, or drive your Corvair to his garage near Lime Rock, CT and have his crew modify your Corvair to do everything Chevrolet should have done from the start. 

When the late model Corvair came out in late 1964, Fitch created an even more special Sprint, taking advantage of the improvements built into the new model.

Seeing the success built into the '65 Corvair he set his sights on using that platform to become the underpinning of the Fitch Phoenix.


His considerable talents also included sports car driving and engineering. Autoweek summed them up best in an obituary posted today, which I've reprinted here:

Dan Klein, Autoweek, October 31, 2012

We lost more than just one of our own early Wednesday. We lost a national treasure. At age 95, American John Cooper Fitch--the first Sports Car Club of America national champion and a star in European sports-car racing in the 1950s and '60s--died at 1:20 a.m. from Merkel carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, at his home surrounded by family in Lime Rock, Conn.

Fitch, who went on to become a pioneer in racing safety, was born in Indianapolis on Aug. 4, 1917. After his parents divorced, his mother married an executive at the Stutz company who introduced his young stepson to racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the boy wasn't impressed by what he saw.
“A bunch of cars going around in a circle. What's the point?” was a question he posed often, even later in life.

His first passion was airplanes, not cars, so it is not surprising that when World War II broke out, he volunteered to become a pilot. He was in England at the time (1939) on an extended trip to “see the world” and tried to join the RAF, since the United States hadn't yet joined the war. When this proved impossible, he returned to the U.S. and, in 1941, volunteered for the Army Air Corps. Fitch took easily to flying, and attained the rank of captain quickly, serving in northern Africa before entering the battle in Europe.

Based in London, Fitch flew many successful bomber escort missions. On one, he achieved elite status by shooting down a Messerschmidt ME 262 jet fighter. “We couldn't catch them in the air because they were simply too fast,” he recalled, “but I was lucky enough to come upon one that was taking off. It was relatively easy.” Whether it was modesty or bravado, Fitch often dismissed his heroic feats that way.
But shortly before the end of the war, it was Fitch who became the target. After three attempts to strafe a Nazi supply train--“When we scored a direct hit, the boiler sent up a magnificent plume of steam!”--his P-51 Mustang was hit by enemy fire. He survived the crash but was captured quickly. 

A mere seven years later, he became the first--and to this day the only--American to race for the Mercedes-Benz factory team. People asked Fitch often if that transition period seemed short to him, but it didn't.

“During the war we were soldiers. By the early fifties, we were drivers. No problem.”

When Fitch returned to the U.S., he was among the many young pilots who'd developed the need for speed during the war. He had also developed an awareness of road racing, having witnessed an event at Brooklands in the U.K. while on his grand tour. Unlike Indy's “roundy round,” this form of motorsport appealed to Fitch, so road racing became his logical outlet.

Like many of his contemporaries, he started out campaigning an MG-TC, primarily at nearby Bridgehampton, N.Y. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Fitch was good. So good, in fact, that he caught the eye of Briggs Cunningham, the wealthy racing enthusiast who encouraged Fitch to enter the 1951 Grand Prix of Argentina. Fitch couldn't afford a competitive car of his own, but he was able to borrow an Allard that had been wrecked in a previous race. This is a story Fitch loved to tell.

“The frame was bent, so I secured it to an oak tree with a chain and kept backing up till it was reasonably straight. Well, I won the race and was awarded a trophy by Eva Peron, who gave me a kiss . . . and died shortly thereafter!” With that victory, Fitch clinched the first SCCA National Championship.

He also clinched the support of Cunningham, whose financial clout allowed Fitch to race cars that complemented his considerable skills. Notably, Fitch scored a number of impressive victories in the early '50s in Cunninghams at then-fledgling road courses like Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen. But Cunningham had bigger plans: He had his sights set on Le Mans. His goal was to win the world's most demanding endurance race with an American car and driver, and Fitch was to play a leading role in that quest.
In 1952, Fitch came close to making Cunningham's dream come true. After setting fastest lap in his C-4R roadster, he was forced to retire late in the race because of bad fuel provided by the sanctioning body. Although others have questioned this “coincidence,” Fitch always accepted it at face value.

Ironically, the Cunningham's failure gave him the opportunity to take his career to the next level. During the race, Fitch was impressed by the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs. Similarly, Mercedes team chief engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut was impressed with Fitch's performance in the Cunningham. So when the American approached the German to compliment him on the new car, Uhlenhaut reciprocated by offering the opportunity to take a few laps in the innovative roadster after the upcoming Nürburgring race. Fitch knew that while Cunningham would probably wind down his eponymous Le Mans efforts in the near term, Mercedes-Benz would likely do the opposite. So he capitalized on the invitation to develop a relationship with the man in charge. The Nürburgring courtesy laps would be his audition to join the vaunted German race team.

Team manager Alfred Neubauer exhorted Fitch to take it easy, but the determined American's agenda was more aggressive: He drove his two allotted laps with the knowledge that his career depended on it. Neubauer's response? Do one more to prove they weren't flukes. Fitch complied by shaving a few seconds off his previous lap and the session ended with the proverbial, “We'll be in touch if something comes up.”

However, patience never was Fitch's strong suit; he decided to create his own “something” and doggedly pursued a reluctant Neubauer to enter a team of 300 SLs in the upcoming Carrera Panamericana, a race that wasn't even on Neubauer's radar. Fitch's persistence won out, and on Oct. 26, 1952, he was invited to Mexico City to pilot one of team's roadsters. He didn't win the race, but he did win Neubauer's respect, and that set the stage for his eventual invitation to join the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling to race for Mercedes-Benz in 1955, the greatest season in the company's competition history.
Two of the most significant events in Fitch's racing career happened that year. The first was his astonishing best-in-class, 5th overall finish in the Mille Miglia at the wheel of a stone-stock production 300 SL coupe, whose suspension was so bad, “we had to stop and tie down the axle with our belts.” Yet Fitch screamed into Brescia just one hour and 22 minutes behind overall winner Moss, who was piloting a full racing version of the 300 SLR. The only cars between them were Fangio's 300 SLR, a Ferrari and a Maserati--all dedicated race cars. Moss's navigator was journalist Denis Jenkinson, who will always be remembered for the famous “scrolling map in a box” he used to guide Moss through the treacherous course. But in fact it was Fitch who conceived and built the device, and he always treasured the note of gratitude that “Jenks” sent him for providing it.

The second landmark event, of course, was Le Mans. Fitch was waiting in the Mercedes-Benz team trailer, just behind the pit wall, having a last-minute cup of coffee before taking over from teammate Pierre Levegh. But he never got that chance. A crash involving Levegh's 300 SLR, Mike Hawthorn's D Jaguar and Lance Maklin's Austin Healey resulted in what has remained the worst disaster in the history of automobile racing. The crash killed more than 80 people, and changed Fitch's life forever. It was then that he realized something had to be done to improve racing and highway safety, a challenge that became an overriding pursuit for the rest of his life, leading to, among other innovations, the development of the ubiquitous yellow, sand-filled Fitch Inertia Crash Barriers--the yellow crash barrels seen on racetracks and highways--that have saved thousands of lives around the world.

But Fitch's racing career didn't end with Le Mans. At the end of 1955, Chevrolet's Chief Engineer, Ed Cole suggested that he help develop the Corvette into a world-class race car. The two hit it off, and in early 1956, Cole asked Fitch to develop and manage a team of Corvettes he planned to enter at Sebring, just six weeks hence. Corvette father Zora Arkus Duntov had already turned down Cole's request, claiming that it would be impossible to make the slow, overweight production two-seaters competitive in such a short amount of time, but in typical Fitch fashion, Fitch rose to the occasion.

Four cars were entered, but different engines put them in two different classes: B and C Production. Against overwhelming odds, the team won both classes, giving them the team prize as well. Years later, Corvette Racing's present-day manager Doug Fehan led his drivers in a standing ovation for Fitch, remarking that he had almost single-handedly achieved in six weeks what today would take an entire dedicated organization years to accomplish.

In 2010, Fehan again led his drivers in a salute to Fitch, this time at LeMans, where, at age 93, Fitch reunited with the 1960 Corvette that he and Bob Grossman co-drove to give Corvette its first significant international victory 50 years earlier (Autoweek, Aug. 16, 2010).

Fitch's motorsports achievements have been immortalized by numerous awards, including his induction into the Corvette, SCCA (inaugural class), Sebring, New England Racer, and Motorsports of America Halls of Fame. In June of 2012, he was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Great Hall.

Although Fitch and his self-designed Phoenix sports car remained a common sight in the Lime Rock paddock until shortly before his death, the Le Mans reunion marked his last major public appearance. Close friends noticed a marked decline in Fitch's vitality after his wife, Elizabeth, died in 2009. But he was insistent upon remaining in their 1700s “homestead” in Lime Rock, which they purchased in 1956, when Fitch was named the track's first general manager. Despite his on-going soil contamination issues with the state of Connecticut (Autoweek, April 14, 2008), he did his best to go it alone at home, even at the expense of his declining health. To no-one's surprise, Fitch remained fiercely stubborn and independent to the end.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

They Don't All Have to Be Gems

If you're a British car fan you have to adore the major British classic car magazines, Classic & Sports Cars and Thoroughbred & Classic Cars. The former seems more oriented towards those who drive their cars; the latter caters more to those who collect cars. Together they're wickedly expensive in the US, available only at the big box bookstores but worth every farthing. They're both brilliantly photographed and very well written, so much so that I've collected quite a library of them over the past 20 years.

Alastair Clements now edits Classic & Sports Cars and he recently posted this item on his company blog. It's so well done - and fits so well with my philosophy around classic car ownership - that I had to share it here.

Enjoy his entry!


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Back to the Future

It's been a while since my last blog entry; I plead a crazy summer of 24/7 work, demands of Rovers Magazine, and fatigue. There are lots of classic car stories to catch up one, but this one finally pushed me to post.

Sorry but I couldn't resist that title. It actually makes sense. Two rear engine cars met yesterday in Rockland, ME, both a trip back to the future.

 Yes, that's a Delorean, the first I've every seen in person. If the the Corvair provided a flair, grace, performance and balance that didn't resonate with GM or the American public, the Delorean provided an in-your-face rebuke to GM and a challenge to American consumers. At least both had the good sense to put the engine where it belongs, in the rear.

The car itself is rather remarkable but even more so is the story behind its presence.Ian Yanagisawa, Houston, TX, found himself laid off from his position as an Environmental Engineer, back in June. He admitted that the layoff angered him but he chose to take the opportunity to do something special.

Back in 1981 Ian's mother, Fern, bought herself this 1981 Delorean [the only model years were 1980 and 1981]. She proceeded to use it daily for work and logged 164,000 miles on it. When she reached an age at which she though she should no longer drive, she gave the car to Ian.

Step ahead to June when Ian found himself with lots of time on his hands and an eagerness to work off his frustration. The answer was the classic Road Trip.

Although you rarely see Deloreans on the road it's actually a perfect classic car for the 13,000 miles of driving he's undertaken this summer and fall. The engine and drivetrain came from the Renault-Volvo-Lancia 2.6 liter V-6 that powered hundreds of thousands of European sedans. Unlike the rear engine Corvair the Delorean is water-cooled but the engine bay doesn't look cramped. The switchgear and lights came from the volume-built cars of its era. It's low stance, 5-speed transmission and fine suspension make it an outstanding driver on twisty mountain roads but a perfect highway cruiser, too. 

The Delorean also featured a steel frame, onto which mounted a fiberglass shell, covered by the famous stainless steel panels that became the hallmark of the car. You have to be a fan of the wedge shape of that era but it certainly has stood the test of time better than my TR -7.

Ian did swap out the fuel injection system for a more contemporary one and went through the hydraulics and electrics to make certain they would prove reliable for the journey - and they have. He replaced the steering rack, installed LED lights and halogen headlights. As he lived in Texas he got the air conditioning system working with new refrigerant. And, of course, since it's a Delorean, he had to install a "flux capacitor." 

His one failure on the road occurred in California when a front suspension member [designed by Lotus] shook a bushing loose. That required a replacement but the car made it to a Delorean specialist in time for the repair. Oh, and a spark plug wire came loose, causing a misfire. That's been it so far!

Which highlights another feature of making the trip in a classic car. The primacy of internet-based communications assures that parts, assistance, information and service are instantly available. For example, when ex-pat Stephen Wynne found a private investor, he bought the parts stock of the former DMC and opened a new firm. By placing service centers in strategic locales [Texas, California, Illinois and Europe], by offering online chat assistance, by placing manuals and service bulletins online - no enthusiast should fear for his or her car. Remember a lot of classic cars were really well engineered - they could run for a long time when maintained as automobiles, not appliances. Ian confessed that when he first took over the car and looked at the engine oil, he wondered aloud if it had ever been changed.
In Rovers Magazine I recently ran an article on a new enthusiast, Bobby Sanderlin, who drove his newly-purchase 1971 Land Rover 109" with his family from Maine to North Carolina. He ran into a problem in Connecticut and called the previous owner for help. The P.O. posted a request on the Rovers North Forum for assistance. A phone call goes out immediately to a Connecticut enthusiast who happens to be out of state when he receives the call. He immediately called a knowledgeable mechanic back home, who got in touch with the Sanderlins, then met them and fixed the car - all within a few hours of the breakdown.

Ian has found similar resources available to him in keeping his Delorean running smoothly - it's now covered 13,000 miles on this trek. He's traveled from Texas through California to Washington state, then through the national parks of the northwest all the way to Chicago. 

He would up in New England at the offices of Hemmings, which interviewed him and featured his blog in Daniel Strohl's fine article. Once I read he was heading "Down East" I contacted Ian and we agreed to meet in Rockland, ME yesterday.

I enjoyed hearing his story as well as the company of his friend, Lisa Schreiner, who sounds like someone who has lived in Houston all her life. While it was Lisa's first trip to New England ("I'm loving it!") Ian lived briefly in Westport, CT, as as child and looked forward to his visit to his hometown. 

Ian noted that "I'm interested in how others are faring in today's world. My layoff left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I wanted to know about the prevailing attitudes of others. My brother thought I was nuts to make this trip but the people I've met have been very friendly." Obviously, some of that is because of car, but unless they're the "concours - obsessive" type, it's really because classic car drivers really care about each other as well as the cars.

Ian also hoped to find a place where he might swap out his defective speedometer cable drive [mounted on the front left hub] and find a shop that could successfully balance the four tires. On Monday morning, I called Copeland's Garage in Warren, ME, a genuine repair shop staffed by genuine auto mechanics who are genuine auto enthusiasts. Once they remembered just what a Delorean was, they found time to help Ian out and within an hour, installed the new drive [sent up from Delorean Texas] and properly balanced the tires. Despite finding a flat spot in one rear tire, Ian told me in a phone conversation that the previous vibration had disappeared and the speedometer worked perfectly. The entire staff was delighted to see the car in person, too.

The car did rivet attention. Ian had met me at the Maine State Ferry Terminal in Rockland, and when I saw the Delorean in the parking lot, I found myself followed by island friends and a ferry crew member. He remained so transfixed that he bolted suddenly when he realized he might miss the ferry's return trip!

Ian plans to enjoy New England's foliage season and then wend his way south and reach Texas in time for Thanksgiving. He's doing what every classic car enthusiast wishes to do - and long before it has to appear on a bucket list.