This week’s Vintage Racer is one that was born in the late 1950s road racing renaissance here in the good ol’ USA.
As more and more people imported Eurpean race cars to compete on courses in America, some of the more bucks-down guys started to build their own stuff to run against the high-brow makes like Jaguar, Maserati, MG, and others. These garage machines were crude and effective, often running wheel to wheel with the big-dollar stuff.
The natural progression was for American builders to evolve and start building machinery to match not only the performance of the foreign jobs, but also the swoopy good looks and refined engineering.
One of the first to do just that was Lance Reventlow, the heir to the massive Woolworth Department Store fortune. He had been racing cars for some time and decided to investigate just what went into building the dominant European cars. He spent most of 1957 touring around to various factories looking at cars being built. At the end of the trip, the wealthy and gutsy 21 year old decided he could do it just as good as they were.
Reventlow, the mastermind of the operation, built an incredible team of professional engineers and racers to help construct his killer car. They succeeded in building the first one in just a couple of months. Reventlow named the car the Scarab after the sacred Egyptian dung beetle.
He was hell bent on keeping the car all American and largely he succeeded. One of the few non-USA sourced parts was the steering box which came out of a little British Morris Minor. He even went as far as putting four-wheel drums on the car to avoid using British sourced parts in a disc brake system.
The motor was a Corvette 283 that was bored and stroked to roughly 340ci. Topped with Hilborn fuel injection and every period hot rodding trick known to man at the time, it made about 380 hp. Package that motor, an aluminum-cased four-speed, and the 1900-pound, car and they had a sprightly piece that was ready to bring the noise with Europe’s best.
In 1958 some small refinements were made to the package and the MkII was released to showcase them. The car was a success and managed, with racer Chuck Daigh at the controls, to beat the Ferrari of Phil Hill at the Times Grand Prix at Riverside Raceway.
The cars won a couple more races at the end of the season and bolstered the confidence of Reventlow enough that he wanted to try racing them in Europe.
Swapping in an Offy to meet displacement rules, the cars were a flop. The little Offy could not hang with the big six- and twelve-cylinder mills across the pond. Reventlow tired of that scene and sold off the cars at the end of the season. They remained successful racers and at least one was driven by Carroll Shelby in the early 1960s. Another racer won an SCCA national championship with a Scarab in the early 1960s as well, definitively proving that the cars were comparable with anything being built across the globe.
We have to guess that Ol’ Shel used some of the finer points of those cars when he began crafting his initial 289 Cobras.