Thursday, February 11, 2010

History: The Original

In 1940 the world was erupting into war. At this time America was still sitting on the sidelines, however, Germany was about to start sinking American merchant vessels moving resources to Britain. Also, the Japanese were about to overrun American held Philippines, while pressure from allied countries urging the Americans to get in the game made it clear that the US couldn't stave off conflict much longer. The US Army at this time was still using the aged Ford Model-T as their General Purpose (GP) vehicles. It was clear that a new vehicle would be needed for the coming war that would require a highly mechanized force.

In June 1940, the U.S. military informed automakers that it was looking for a “light reconnaissance vehicle.” The Army invited 135 manufacturers to bid on production and developed a lengthy specification list. They wanted a vehicle with a 600-lb load capacity with a wheelbase less than 75-inches, a height less than 36-inches, a gross weight below 1,300-lb, a fold down windshield, three bucket seats and blackout driving lights. But most importantly, this vehicle needed to have a two-speed transfer case and four-wheel-drive. Only three manufacturers answered the call, Bantam, Ford and a newly reorganized company called Willys-Overland.

Willys-Overland was founded by John North Willys who bought Overland Automotive from the Standard Wheel Company back in 1908, then renamed the company Willys-Overland. During this time Willys began buying up several automotive companies to the point that they had become the second largest automaker in the US by 1918, behind Ford. However, with the great depression the company fell into bankruptcy. By 1936, they had sold off all their acquisitions to become a viable automaker once again when the Army came calling.

In the summer of 1940, Willy's along with Ford and Bantam got approval to build 7 test examples of their respective designs. The Willys prototype, named the Quad, was initially thought to be too heavy. For a second round of field testing, the Government released Bantams blueprints to both Willys and Ford sighting that Bantam did not have the resources for war-time mass production. As a result Willys incorporated several of the Bantams designs in the new Quad and the engineers stripped out all the weight they could find. Bolts were cut, sheet metal thinned and ten pounds of paint was taken off. When weighed, they had seven ounces to spare, and renamed it the “MA” for “Military" model "A." Fords prototype, the Pygmy, also benefited from the release of Bantams designs. As a result, 1,500 examples of each were built for field testing purposes.

However, by this time, the threat of war was very real, and the Army still didn't have a standardized vehicle. At the time the MA was considered more attractive mostly due to its more powerful engine. And so the War Department hastily made the decision to go with the Willys bid, but wanted all the best bits of the Ford and Bantam incorporated into the MA. With the winning bid in hand, Willys complied, modified the MA with the desirable parts from Ford and Bantam and re-designated it the MB.

While the 4,500 field test prototypes where shipped to Russia and Britain as part of the lend-lease program, Willys began production of the MB late in 1941 at the companies Toledo Factory in Ohio. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America entered the war and production of the MB was increased to the point one vehicle was leaving the factory every minute and a half. Soon the US would find itself fighting in two theaters of war, so additional MB were built by Ford, under license to meet the demand, while Bantam was relegated to building trailers for the vehicles they had a major hand in designing. By the end of the war, Willys would produce more than 368,000 vehicles, and Ford an additional 277,000, for the Allied forces.

During the war, the MB was the lifeblood of the military, and its durability and performance proved without a doubt to be one of the major factors for winning the war. It could operate without strain from three to 60 miles per hour. It could handle a forty-degree slope, turn in a thirty foot circle, and tilt on a fifty-degree angle without tipping over. One soldier commented, “It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going.”

During its service in the war, the MB picked up a nick name given to it by the soldiers that drover it. Troops began calling the MB the Jeep. There is no definitive evidence as to how the name came about, but the more popular story is that when “GP” was slurred by soldiers, it sounded like they were saying jeep. Another story, says the name came from a character in the Popeye cartoon.

Willys trademarked the “Jeep” name after the war and planned to turn the vehicle into an off-road utility vehicle for the farm. As soldiers returned home from overseas, finding customers who respected the abilities of the Jeep would not be a problem. The first civilian Jeep vehicle, the CJ-2A, was produced in 1945. Willys advertisements marketed the Jeep as a work vehicle for farmers and construction workers. It came with a tailgate, side-mounted spare tire, larger headlights, an external fuel cap and many more items that its military predecessors did not include.

The CJ would continue to evolve over the years while Willys added several other versions based on the same platform. Willys came out with a delivery panel van in 1946, a one-ton pick-up version was conceived in 1947 along with a woody wagon. In 1956, a cab-over commercial truck was designed on a CJ-5 platform. Designated the FC-170, standing for “Forward Control,” due to its seating position over the front wheels for added cargo space.

Jeeps line of 4WD vehicles would become ever more popular over the years. The original little army jeep would transform into the CJ then the Wrangler. It has survived five corporate ownership changes to become the most recognizable 4WD brand. Today, the Wrangler Rubicon represents the best out-of-the-box all-terrain vehicle available on the market in North America. In it's military life, the MB would evolve into the M-38, then in 1981, the US military decided that after serving in three major wars, the little Jeep was obsolete. AM General won the contract to replace the jeep with their High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, HMMWV for short. Ironically, like the Jeep back in the forties, HMMWV when slurred by an American soldier sounds like “Humvee,” and thus torch was passed to start a new era in all terrain mobility.

History: A Special Breed

Last year something special rolled across the auction block at Mecum's inaugural Monterey Auction in August. A 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe. Accompanied by the it's designer, Peter Brock and the man who piloted the car to an FIA World Sportscar Championship, Bob Bondurant, this special piece of motoring history fetched $7.25 million USD, a new record for an American car sold at public auction. That is a massive amount of money for just on car, so one must ascertain what makes such a car so special to garner such attention.

Much like the birth of Fords GT40, the Daytona Coupe was a product built out of spite for Enzo Ferrari, and their domination of closed top GT racing. The 250 GTO won the World Manufacturer's Championship in 1962, 1963, and 1964. In order to compete with the GTO, Shelby would not only have to build a tin top, but also homologate it, requiring at least 100 examples be built. To get around the homologation issue the Coupe would be built on the original Cobra roadster chassis, which already had its papers and as such was temporarily designate the Shelby Cobra Coupe. Shelby brought in a young designer named Peter Brock to pen the lines of the Coupe, while Bob Negstad was enlisted to design the car's suspension.

It's said that Brock designed the cars silhouette by taking pictures of fellow engineer Ken Miles sitting in a roadster to get dimensions. Brock took these photo's and designed a roof line that would that would support Miles height and foot reach, and when the first copy went to the wind tunnel, the aerodynamics were considered perfect by the team. The problem was getting the car built. The creation of the body had taken so much time due to the exotic shape of the car, there was not enough skilled labour around to build the additional cars needed. Ironically, Italy is full of highly skilled coach builders that could start pumping cars out for the upcoming 1964 racing season. So with that, the original American built Coupe was sent to to Daytona to compete in its first ever race, while five other chassis' were shipped, even more ironically, to Modena, Italy where Carrozzeria Grand Sport would go on to build the rest of the six Coupes. Ironic since the remaining Daytona's were built a mere 17 km from the Ferrari headquarters, the heart of all Italia.

Meanwhile, back in Daytona, the Shelby Cobra Coupe had just won the GT class in its first ever race prompting Carroll Shelby to name the car the Daytona, and ever since the car has affectionately been know as such. The Daytona would go on to win the 1964 24h of Le Mans and 12h of Sebring, narrowly missing the overall championship won by the hated Ferrari GTO due to a cancelled race. This prompting Shelby to famously declare, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine!”

1965 would see Team Shelby commit an all-out attack on the championship, now armed with four examples of the Daytona. The season was shaping up to be a great war of rivals, however the Ferrari factory decided to limited involvement in the GT category, choosing to concentrate on the more prestigious prototype category. Without the full backing from the Ferrari factory the Daytona would go on to win nearly every race to take a commanding championship win over the GTO. It is this conquering of the most feared force in sportscar racing which gives the Daytona its prestige, even if time has forgotten a few poignant details.

However, the story of the Daytona does not end here. 1965 was also a year that Goodyear was hoping to break several landspeed records with their tires. They had Bonneville scheduled in September but did not have a car, while Firestone was waiting in the wings to also take some records for themselves. A call to Shelby procured the original American built Coupe for use in the task, but with the car fitted with tires ready on the salt flats, a driver was still needed. Craig Breedlove just happened to be hanging around the area after making some speed record attempts in a jet powered car, and was enlisted to drive the Daytona last minute. After mechanics showed Breedlove how to shift the car and some minor tweaking, he went out and set 23 new records for both the tires and the Daytona.

After 1965, the Daytona was obsolete as a top level racing car, and the Shelby team's attention was shifted to improving the GT40 with a MkII variant. So with that, the Daytonas were sold off to collectors, while the lone American built car went to music producer Phil Spector. Spector was known in LA well for always racing his Daytona Coupe through the streets, collecting several speeding tickets along the way. He had so many that his lawyer demanded that he sell the car or risk loosing his license. So, he sold it to his body guard, who would later give it to his daughter Donna O'Hara as part of a divorce settlement. Well, Donna would go on to become a recluse and with the Daytona, disappeared from the public in the mid-70's. For thirty years collectors and historians feared the car lost forever when Donna's body was found, apparently deceased as a result of suicide. The lost Daytona was then discovered in a rental storage unit in California and after a long legal battle, sold to a collector in Pennsylvania.

The Daytona's life was lived hard and fast, it was hand-built, with an illustrious history full of fierce rivalry, irony, great victories and defeats, while creating great stories of survival. It is these attributes that make such a car so special while such small numbers make it the dream car of even the richest of collectors. An icon so attractive, that it forced one man to part with $7.25 million USD.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Road Trip: Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass

About The Route

Places To Stop: Pullout just over the tunnel entrance for spectacular views (27 km), Swiss Border, kiosks and Inns at the top of the Col (33 km), Pullout near tunnel ventilation shaft with a history lesson of Napoleon's expedition and great views (36 km).

Total Distance: 74.8 km

Altitude: 2,469 m

Best time to go: Pass is only open between June and September.

Starting Point: Coordinates 45°44′28″N - 7°18′51″E. Beginning in Aosta, Italy, take the E27/SS27 (Ave Grand-Saint-Bernard) north into the Alps. At 19 km, leave the tunnel route and follow SS27 over the pass. At 33 km is the summit as well as the Swiss border, the route then tracks down the Swiss side joining back up with the new route and continues on to Martigny, Switzerland.

Finishing Point: Coordinates 46°5′16″N – 7°3′19″E, Martigny, Switzerland.

Road Type: Smooth flowing two lane alpine road on Italian side that turns into a rough and narrow lane that slows due to terrain.

Warnings: Due to altitude and snowfall the pass is only open during summer months. The Swiss side of the pass has large drops with only the occasional stone to prevent long drops off the road.


Who could forget the classic opening to The Italian Job. No, not Marky Mark walking through a Venetian piazza. The one from 1969 staring Michael Cain, that opened with Rossano Brazzi carving his way up an Italian Alp in a classic Lamborghini Miura to the musical mixture of a Lamborghini V-12 and the song “On days like these” performed by Matt Monro. Well, that special bit of road that Brazzi was enjoying until his untimely run-in with an ill placed bulldozer, was the Grand-Saint-Bernard Pass. After my adventure on the Col de Turini, I travelled north to experience the Grand-Saint-Bernard (lets call it the GSB) and ironically hit Turino at the hight of rush hour. Like Mini's full of gold loot, I too struggled to get my Z4 through the endless maze of traffic filled streets, for on the other side of the city lay the alps, and just beyond is the town of Aosta which leads to the hidden jewel that is the GSB.

Linking Aosta, Italy, to Martigny, Switzerland, the pass is a much more interesting alternative to the tolled tunnel that goes through the mountain. Experience has taught me when new roads are built under old ones, it’s a good sign that traffic will be light on the long road, and this was the case when I made the climb into the alpine border lands that mark the Swiss-Italian territories. Taken mid-evening on a weekday, I nearly had the entire pass all to myself, even the motorbikes and cyclists were few and far between, a trait the GSB is known for.

The route starts in the mountain valley leading north from Aosta, Italy, and begins as a winding country two-lane road. At the base of the Valais Alps, the road narrows to a single lane through a heavy wood, with rock barriers, so careful anticipation of oncoming is required. However, it all got interesting once I punched through the tree line and out into the alpine, a spectacular manmade line that traverses the side of the mountain four times before loping over the rocky crest. The expanse of the valley heeds a great view of any impeding traffic, while the narrow winding lane is littered with only a few sharp hairpins to give the driver an abundance of challenges.

Over the first crest, and I was greeted with a feast of meandering corners slowly making their way up to the famous tunnel of death just below the first peak. It is in this magnificent bowl that all the filming took place for the original Italian Job. No wonder, as this road is by far the most beautiful I've ever seen in terms of cosmetics, the route is a constant joyful challenge and the landscape is breathtaking. As I carved my way through the natural obstructions, I couldn’t help but whistle the iconic song to myself, with a disappointed look coming from my girlfriend from across the cabin. Yeah, it’s a cheese ball song, but at this particular moment in time, and in this particular place, no other song seemed worthy.

I have to hand it to the Italians, the condition of the road was immaculate, as it looked as though it just had a complete makeover prior to my arrival. The tarmac had that fresh black color with bright white lines, and the entire route up to the peak had clean, stained timber Armco barriers that acted as much of a decoration as much as a savior to the impending doom if anyone were to leave the road. Rightly so, several pullouts have been created for drivers to take a break from sweaty palm driving, to enjoy the rocky outcroppings, alpine meadows and brooks that make this place just that much more spec

ial. At the peak lies a mountain top lake, still half covered in ice, as well as the usual touristy kiosks, hotels and restaurants. Along the side of the lake sits a Swiss border guard shack, as the peak of this Alp represents the Swiss-Italian boarder, manned by two uniformed agents and a sharp looking Land Rover Defender. With a nod, I was waved through and began the decent down the Swiss side of the pass.

The Swiss side is a stark contrast to that of the Italian, as the road was very narrow, and bumpy. Nerves are tested with much larger drop offs and nothing more than a few stones planted on the side of the road to keep you alive - maybe. Arriving in Martingy, Switzerland, the end point of the pass, I had time to reflect on this beautiful stretch of road. While it may not have been the greatest driving road in the series, it still made for a truly special driving experience. Breathe taking views, great road construction, history, and a great mix of aggressive and challenging driving conditions all make the GSB is a must if you find yourself in northwestern Italy, or southwestern Switzerland.