DesignworksUSA is a design ‘skunk works’, a hotbed of automotive styling located in southern California. But it wasn’t always in BMW’s hands. It was purchased from Chuck Pelly by BMW.
So who is Chuck Pelly and why would BMW want to purchase the company? Well, Chuck Pelly was no slouch of a designer himself. Maybe if his background was more widely known it would become clear. The following story may help tell the tale. (And if you click the links, you’ll get a good glimpse of American racing from right before to right after WW II.)
Los Angeles – This town is a bubbling cauldron of automotive genius. Gearheads, mechanics, designers, and rich dudes roil and boil in a veritable witches brew of high performance. Miller got his start in LA; Offenhauser was his shop foreman. Joel Thorne threw the cash around and Art Sparks spent a good chunk of it building one helluva DOHC in-line six in the ’30s (when BMW was struggling to find funding for theirs).
Add the aircraft industry during World War II and the catalyst to explode the stew was added. It produced Kurtis Kraft, Carroll Shelby, and the ultimately sublime Scarabs from Reventlow Automobiles Inc. Frank Kurtis got his start before the war, working at custom shops, built a couple of tube frame trailers too. A taste of the aircraft industry during the war and he decided that a tube chassis was the way to go. And the Roadster era was off and running at Indy with Bill “The Mad Russian” Vukovich damn near winning in ’52, winning in ’53 and ’54, and in the lead when he was killed in a horrible -over-the-wall wreck in 1955.
Kurtis had a couple of kids working for him, a pair of fabricators named Troutman and Barnes. They knew tubes. The stuff Kurtis was putting out the door filled hundreds of dirt tracks and fairgrounds with fans. Between his midgets, roadsters, and thinly disguised roadsters masquerading as sports cars, there was no way a kid didn’t know about his cars. And those in the know and on the scene knew who was behind it too.
Lance Reventlow was the trust fund kid of an ultra rich woman who went through husbands like they were dime store nylons. He caught a break with one of his revolving step-dads, turns out he was a racer – and a good one at that. He fed that bug with a stint of racing in Europe with his pal Bruce Kessler. While the big buck, big shots in LA (like Tony Paravano) dipped deep into the high zoot Italian hardware, like Maserati and Ferrari, Lance came back knowing that he could beat the European constructors at their game.
Lance decided to be a constructor and figured he could use it as a tax shelter – he had five years to conquer the world, before the IRS rules would close the books on write-offs for a losing business. Lance hooked up with Ken Miles after coming home, but Miles’ design was a dead end. Troutman and Barnes were on board (Kurtis Kraft having been purchased in ’57), so was Chuck Daigh (as engineer and driver) and after reviewing Miles’ design it was apparent that they could do better.
Chrome moly thin wall chassis and an unequal length A-arm setup up front, trick De Dion tube rear end (with provision for changing camber and toe) and the chassis was set. The damn FIA rules prohibited anything bigger than three litres but what the hell, Lance decided to race here. The sports car scene’s booming in California and the logical choice of power was a 283 Chevy coupled to a Corvette four speed tranny. Put a Halibrand quick change rear on it and the Ferraris would never know what hit them.
Troutman and Barnes knew a kid with a design background they’d worked with at Kurtis, Chuck Pelly and he was brought on board to draw the skin. And the design was a timeless marvel. Emil Diedt, panel beater to the stars, transmogrified the paper drawings into aluminum surfaces so pretty they make grown men gasp.
And that was the start, they built one left hand drive, then moved the shop to bigger digs in Culver City where the right hand drive racers were built. Serendipity struck, next door to the new digs was a little company run by a guy named Travers and another named Coon, Traco Engineering to the cognoscenti. And then the right hand drive sports car were built and they proceeded to WIN. Everywhere and everything. Right out of the box.
And when Reventlow crossed his Rubicon to challenge Formula 1, the cars lived on in the mid-west piloted by Don Devine and Augie Pabst under the Meister Brau livery. And they continued to WIN.
There were only three front engined sports racers built. As fleeting a chrysalis as could be imagined yet more brilliant in design and execution than most anything of the time. Carroll Shelby occupied the space in Culver City when RAI folded and it’s interesting to think about what would have been if Lance had decided to turn a profit and produce a few more of the exceptional Scarabs. But then you hear that they sold the sports cars for about $17,000 – more than Luigi Chinetti was willing to gouge you for a Ferrari. And at $17,000 it was discounted $30,000 off cost.
These sports racers were the ne plus ultra of American sports car technology. Now corporate goo has taken the place of the irascible characters in the small shops that beat the world, and we’re none the better for it.
The Scarab has been recreated and is being built in the Kansas City area by Scarab Motorsports. The recreation remains quite faithful to the original. It utilizes chrome moly tubing, a quick change rear-end, aluminum skin, and solid motor mounts (plates) like the original. It dispenses with the deDion tube rear suspension and substitutes an IRS setup in its place. Find a nice tuned 350 Chevy to put in it and the lightweight Scarab will fly. The pictures were taken at the KC assembly location.