Old World Style, New World Power - A History of Merging European Design With American Displacement

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson

Americans and Europeans had similarly themed but opposite problems after World War II.

Americans had big, rumbling V8s in big, heavy cars that were decidedly un-sporty.

Europeans had small, lightweight sportscars without the power to back up the looks.

The solution was simple: combine them. The slinky Euro shapes were stuffed full with giant American engines in many guises — and the results spoke for themselves. The AC Cobra captured hearts of enthusiasts and race victories alike around the globe.

The Cobra was neither the first nor the last of these conglomerates that took V8s from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors and popped them into all sorts of coupes, grand tourers, sedans and convertibles.

I’ve restricted the pool of candidates slightly. Excluded is the aforementioned Cobra — probably the shining example of this combination that everyone knows about already. Also excluded: the Rover V8 and all of its derivatives. This may cause some of you to run for the pitchforks and torches, but there are at least 38 creations utilizing some variation that motor alone. I also left out the trio of American-powered exotics from Iso, Bizzarrini and Monteverdi we saw last week. Finally, GM subsidiaries Opel and Holden were left off, too.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the famous (and not so) Euro-American V8 creations throughout history in rough chronological order!

Allard

In 1946, with the war in Europe just over, Sydney Allard was one of the first to successfully fuse an American V8 from Ford with some European chassis components and bodywork. Alard built the resulting “J” models in very small numbers, but the recipe proved successful in competition.

Most famous was the 331 Cadillac-powered J2s. Ultimately, some 90 J2s would be built, and they found their way into the hands of some very influential racers — notably, Zora Arkus Duntov of Corvette fame and Carroll Shelby both cut their teeth in the J2s long before their own projects started. Formula 1 greats Peter Collins and Phil Hill also used J2s before heading to more famous horses.

Though born in competition, Allard was able to successfully parlay its race track victories into series production cars. Allard sold models such as the K, L, M and P in the hundreds to enthusiasts who wanted a unique and fast combination of European style and American power. There is still a very active Allard Club that tracks (and hits the track with) all things Allard.

Cunningham

Like Allard, Briggs Cunningham was a racer at heart — but with lots of cash to turn into metal. To top it all off, his middle name was “Swift.”

One of his first notable adventures was a one-off creation worthy of mention in this article — the “BuMerc”. Taking a 1939 Buick Century and fitting a Mercedes-Benz SSK body, he created quite a special, erm, “Special.” There is some great information about the first real international American racers on a website dedicated to Briggs Cunningham, which features the assault on LeMans and, of course, plenty of blue stripes over white bodies.

To qualify to run at LeMans, Cunningham needed to produce a road-going model. The resulting C-3 used the same Chrysler 331 V8 as its preceding racing models, the C1 and C2R. However, to make the car appeal to the well-heeled gentlemen drivers like Cunningham himself, he sent the car’s chassis to Vignale in Italy to fit it with a hand-crafted bodywork.

Final production resulted in 27 examples of the C-3 in the early 1950s, its scarcity apparently aided by the IRS’s removal of Cunningham’s manufacturer status due to slow production. Nevertheless, the Cunningham story and blueprint was influential to many others, and he and the cars he created remain one of the most celebrated stories in American automotive history.

Facel Vega

If there was an “it” car for celebrities in the 1960s, it was the Facel Vega. Facel produced a few different versions of their French-American creation, all featuring Chrysler power.

The FV model launched in 1954 with a 4.5-liter Chrysler V8, later upgraded in the FVS and HK500 models to 5.4 and 5.8 liters. Displacement topped out at 6.3 liters by the end of production in 1962. The Facel Vega II updated styling and power; the 355-horsepower 6.3-liter V8 had enough power to rival the more famous GT cars of the 1960s. The last of the run were even further upgraded to the 6.7-liter V8.

Although these cars were much more about elegance and style than all-out speed, the Vega is still remembered by enthusiasts as one of the most significant GT cars of the period. Roughly 1,000 of the Facel Vegas were produced, and a further 180 Vega IIs were made before the company folded in 1964.

Bristol

After utilizing “borrowed” BMW underpinnings for many of its postwar models, niche British manufacturer Bristol took the next step with Chrysler V8 power in 1961. The result was a 5.2-liter V8 delivering 250 horsepower and stately speed to the 407 model, which was the beginning of a long series of stately grand tourers.

Power increased in 1965 with the 409 model and pushed even higher in 1967 with the 410. However, the big change came with the move to a big block in 1969. The “new” (British for the same design with a new number designation) 411 had the 6.3-liter B-series Chrysler V8 under the hood, good for a 30-percent power increase and a distinguished 143 mph top speed. The 411 Series 4 moved to the 6.5-liter Chrysler V8.

The 412 represented a new (actually new this time) targa design by Zagato, but kept the 411’s underpinnings in the beginning. However, both it and what Bristol referred to as a “dramatically restyled” 411, now called the 603, moved to the 5.9-liter Chrysler V8 around 1977.

Bristol offered the 603 in many variations, including a turbocharged 5.9 and a 7.2-liter model. Bristol production numbers are pretty low in general, with most of the early models under 100 each and later production data not disclosed.

Amazingly, Bristol is still alive, but moved to BMW power after the Viper V10-powered Fighter in 2011.

Jensen

Jensen Interceptor. If you didn’t know the name before Top Gear’s famous homage to the model, you certainly did afterwards. Still, the Interceptor wasn’t the first V8-powered Jensen model: the C-V8 model in 1962 featured a Chrysler-sourced 5.9-liter V8. Jensen carried that blueprint over to the more well-known Interceptor model in 1966.

The Interceptor’s body design was started by Carrozzeria Touring and finished by Vignale, who then assembled early models with 273 and 383 V8s. The latter engine resulted in 325 horsepower, good for a 7.3-second run from 60 miles per hour. Post 1971, Jensen made available the 360 and 440 engines.

What was perhaps most impressive about Jensen was the Ferguson-developed four-wheel-drive system in the Interceptor-based FF model. Sorry Quattro fans, the FF beat the boxflared wonder to market by well over a decade. It also featured anti-lock brakes before the S-Class Mercedes-Benz “pioneered” them.

They were relatively expensive in period, with the CV-8 costing around $10,000 and the FF about $12,000 in 1966.

Iso

Last week, it was Iso’s Grifo that roared into life, but that model was the follow-up to Renzo Rivolta’s original creation. The Iso Rivolta IR 300 initially featured a 5.4-liter Chevrolet V8 and styling from Bertone. It would be this prototype that Iso used in nearly all its cars. The Rivolta was a surprising success, with 799 claimed to be built.

The Ghia-designed Fidia brought a sedan into the fray, available with either a 5.4-liter Chevrolet motor or (later in production) a 5.8-liter Ford unit, of which Iso produced fewer than 200. The angular Gandini-designed 2+2 Lele used the same engines as the Fidia, with slightly more sales success at just shy of 300.

Sunbeam Tiger

British convertible. Carroll Shelby. Ford 289. That works for us!


—minutes from board meeting at Sunbeam c. 1964

Although I omitted Carroll Shelby’s Cobra from this list (rabble, rabble, rabble!), I did not omit his influence. Alongside Cobra production, the Rootes Group — manufacturer of the very pretty Sunbeam Alpine — hired the American to play his greatest hits for them in 1964.

The resulting Tiger model, with a 4.2-liter V8 borrowed from Ford, wasn’t as powerful as Shelby’s more famous snake, but it was still considerably more potent than the Alpine and a lot more affordable (and practical) than a Cobra. As a result, Rootes produced some 7,000 Tigers between 1964 and 1967 before production ultimately ended due to Chrysler taking over the company.

Ford GT40

Carroll Shelby’s back!

While the GT40 might be the most successful American story, there’s little American influence outside the Texan, Ford’s backing and a 289 that make its way into the entry. And though it might be the fastest car on this list, it’s also one of the most scarce.

Ford’s efforts to beat Ferrari on the race track paid off in 1966 when Bruce McLaren (yes, that McLaren!) and Chris Amon won LeMans in a Mk.II. Ford wanted to capitalize on the success with a road car variant of the GT40, and thus the Mk.III was born.

In 1967, the Mk.III’s performance was only lightly turned down from the race track. With about 300 horsepower available from the 289, the very lightweight Mk.III hit 60 in a little over 5 seconds and could top 150 mph. These GT40s were all manufactured in England. If the performance was exotic, so was the price (especially so for a Ford); in 1967, you’d have to pay close to $18,000 for one. No surprise, most well-heeled enthusiasts opted for the established Italian norms, and Ford only produced seven Mk.IIIs.

TVR Griffith 200

Wait, didn’t I say “no Rover V8s”? Don’t scroll up, I did. So what’s a TVR doing here?

Well, the initial run of Griffith 200 models starting in 1965 featured the 289 Ford V8, not the more famous TVR power unit.

Based on a diminutive Blackpool Grantura chassis, the Griffith 200 was completed in New York by Jim Griffith (now you know), who stuck the 289 in place of the normal 4-cylinder. The Hi-Po V8 was only rated around 270 horsepower, but these were serious weapons as the Grantura only weighed about 270 pounds.

A claimed 192 Griffith 200s were sold with the 289.

AC 428 Frua

The name AC may be synonymous with the Cobra model, but Pietro Frua of Italy produced an alternative vision starting in 1965.

Built in England, the expensive ($9,000 in 1965) AC Frua featured beautiful and distinctive Italian lines with a big block 7.0-liter Ford V8. With 345 horsepower on tap, the Frua promised potent performance, but it was a more luxurious GT unlike its Cobra sibling. A total of 81 were produced before 1973.

De Tomaso

There were a few comments last week that asked why the Pantera was missing from the “Forgotten Supercars” article — but if there was an impressive DeTomaso that should’ve made the list, I’d argue it would be the Mangusta.

The slinky, mid-engine Mangusta was Giugiaro’s answer to Gandini’s Miura design. The Mangusta was also the answer to the end of the Cobra’s production cycle for Ford president Lee Iacocca, who then urged his friend Alejandro de Tomaso to produce a new lineup of mid-engine cars to rival Europeans like Ferrari. The result was some serious Italian style with Ford small-block power. The Mangusta featured a Ford 289 or 302 depending on market, with an outrageous gullwing engine cover. About 400 were sold.

The much more memorable Pantera followed in 1971, powered by a 302 and later 351 Ford V8s. It was an extremely successful exotic. Priced at only around $10,000, some 5,500 were sold in the United States.

Lesser known are the sedan De Tomasos from the 1970s; the Deauville 4-door and the Longchamp 2-door models. Both ran 351 Ford engines, with total production of about 600 units between them.

Much more recently, De Tomaso’s name once again appeared on a Ford-powered Italian exotic. The Qvale Mangusta, utilizing Ford’s modular 4.6-liter V8, was produced briefly in association with De Tomaso for about two years and a total of about 200 units.

Monteverdi

While the Monteverdi 375 High Speed took on the likes of the Ferrari Daytona, the company’s namesake saw an opportunity to expand beyond the sports car market. The result, using the underpinnings of the 375 model, was the a strangely proportioned but eye-catching luxury sedan. Dubbed the 375/4 High Speed, the same 440 Chrysler V8 found a home under the hood to create one of the fastest (if least frequently seen) sedans of the ’70s. Fissore in Italy produced the bodywork. Production numbers are scarce, but it seems about 25 of these were built, four of which can still be seen today at the company’s museum.

The oil crisis hurt Monteverdi’s clientele as much as the maker. Far from down and out, though, Monteverdi began to convert other cars with its own style. The Monteverdi Safari and Sahara were gussied-up International Scouts. Its Sierra model, a replacement to the outrageous 375/4, found its origin in the Plymouth Volare — 318 V8, TorqueFlite and all. Even with its breadth of available body styles — sedan, convertible and even a wagon — only 20 were claimed built.

Momo Mirage

If there’s one car you didn’t know about on this list, the Momo Mirage is likely it. Born from the Simpson-esque idea that the perfect car just didn’t exist, relatively unknown ( unless you’re familiar with Ferraris) 26-year-old Peter Kalikow and Alfred Momo (of Cunningham fame, who prepared the “BuMerc”) used a 5.7-liter Chevrolet V8 and dropped it into a Frua-designed body.

The result was the striking 1971 Mirage, but no more than five of the cars were produced. In 2014, a documentary about the Mirage was produced, and Mr. Kalikow continues to show his cars today. The entire production run used a wood template to hand-hammer the body, which was shown at the 2015 Lime Rock Park Vintage Festival.

Bitter CD

German manufacturer Bitter may be best remembered for building an off-beat Ferrari 400i copy based on Opel Commodore underpinnings. However, before that model (the SC) came to the market, Bitter produced an even more interesting hatchback called the CD.

The CD was based upon the Opel Diplomat platform. The engine came from Chevrolet in the form of the 327 borrowed from the Corvette. The design was from Frua in Italy. And it was all put together by Baur in Germany. Rated at only 230 horsepower, the slinky looks of the CD were met with only modest performance; 60 was achieved in 9.4 seconds and acceleration terminated at 130 mph.

But the oil crisis hit Bitter’s plan harder than the torque of the V8, and so the SC replacement had a more modest inline-six after only 395 CDs were made.

Honorable Mention

In the late 1990s, the Marcos brand was revived with a Mantis GT, which used a modular Ford V8. Speaking of the 4.6-liter modular engine, it also found its way into both the MG XPower SV (which was really just a Qvale Mangusta) and the neat MG ZT and ZT-T 260. But the ultimate development you probably forgot was Ford powering the Koenigsegg CCR, which boosted its bored-out 4.7-liter engine with two superchargers for a net result of 806 horsepower. Meanwhile, Ultima managed to strap a few turbochargers to some small block Chevrolet V8s and claimed over 1,000 Bugatti-shaming horsepower with its most recent Evolution.

[Sources, Images: Revs Institute, Pantera International, Bristol Cars, Facel-Vega.com, Silverstone Auctions, Stanguellini, Petersen Museum, Bitter Cars, Koenigsegg]

Carter Johnson
Carter Johnson

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  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Dec 19, 2016

    I think Bristol suffered quite a setback when their founder died a few years back. One of those "Well, what now?" situations for a small manufacturer of goods.

    • See 1 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Dec 20, 2016

      @WallMeerkat They should, because that's just a ridiculous practice.

  • WallMeerkat WallMeerkat on Dec 20, 2016

    The MG ZT, as featured in the footnote, was actually a fairly substantial re-engineering effort of the front driven Rover 75 (which was also sold with the V8). Background: The 75, produced under BMW's parentage, was a FWD midsize sedan which size-wise slotted between the 3 and 5 series beemers. The drivetrain layout, size and retro styling (launched at the same time as the S type but got better praise at the time) positioned it in a different market. After BMW divested themselves of Rover (the company, MGRover, but not the brand, so as to not annoy Land Rover's new parent Ford with any potential Rover CUVs) the new company wanted to add a range topper to their still-fairly-new product, looked to slot a V8 in. Despite the rumours, the 75 was not based upon a BMW platform (though apparently the outgoing E34 5 series platform was briefly considered), so the FWD platform had to be converted and re-engineered to RWD. Though there did exist a large central tunnel for chassis strengthening, which helped place the drivetrain. The V8 was sourced from Ford and placed into two different models - the range topping MG ZT260 (the MG ZT was the new sporty Rover 75 with a bodykit - something BMW did not allow Rover to do) and the somewhat more elegant Rover 75 V8, complete with full length grille (which was apparently based on the Rover P5, and a mere coincidence that it appeared on the Audi A6 at the same time). As they were the UK equivalent of the "image" the Toyota Camry had in the US (as in, a big comfortable midsize sedans for retirees), the V8s are absolute Q cars now.

  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.
  • Kat Laneaux I get the point that Musk is making. I wouldn't want everyone to know my secrets. If they did, they could or would shout it out to the world. But then, if Musk certified certain folks and had them sign Confidentiality agreements, which would allow them to work on cars that Musk had made, that could allow others to work on his cars and not confine vehicle owners to be charged an arm and a leg for the service. It's a catch 22. People are greedy little buggers. If they can find a way to make money, they will even if it wrong. People...sad.
  • 285exp I have been assured that EVs don’t require maintenance, so this seems pointless.
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