Len Frank on the Grand Bahama Vintage Grand Prix
Original Grand Bahamas race photos courtesy Matt Stone collection
My vision of the Grand Bahama Vintage Grand Prix was really composed of fantasies held close and polished by time of the Nassau Speed Weeks from a few decades before. Most of my impressions—hell, all of my impressions of big time races in those days (save Sebring 1956—I was there), came from the grainy pictures and turgid words in the car magazines; everything vital, everything heroic, everything far, far, larger than life. I think that the confusion is natural (and encouraged), but it’s still confusion.
I once worked with a guy who was famous race driver and a notable drunk. He won the revival of the Vanderbilt Cup, a couple or three national championships (in cars now become icons or, worse, trading pieces: AC Bristol, 300SL, etc.), ran on the official Lotus team at Sebring, and raced, variously, a Stanguelli Formula Jr. and a Lotus 11 or 23—he couldn’t remember which—he was drunk—at Nassau.
Nassau was the only race experience he would talk about regularly, and then it was the escape from New England in mid-December, a guttural rectation of beaches and
bodies and oversized moons, all washed along by rum and gin and somebody else’s money. Tales of leading off the line in whatever Lotus and having to slow before the first turn because he was too far gone to remember which way the first turn went.
Why did that seem so wonderful, so devil-may-care? When did we begin to enter the New Calvinism that makes it so difficult to even try to relive the past? Thomas Wolfe’s dictum about not being able to go home again is like a much-tested bench under a “wet paint” sign. I suspect that Wolfe was more frequently right than the sign.
Anyway,there were a few minutes of equivocation when packing, about ties and whether or not to take my Nomex, or at least my helmet…but that, I thought, would be pretentious, so I settled instead for a bathing suit and my SCCA and IMSA licenses.
There are songs about Jamaica and Bermuda and Nassau but I can’t think of a single one about Grand Bahama. I can imagine a tourist embarking at the airport or getting off the cruise ship, anxious to melt the chill of Cleveland, or Columbus, or Cincinnati from his bones, stamp the slush of Indianapolis or Ithaca from his feet, avid for the sun and a tall glass musical with ice cubes, topped with a little umbrella. But I was going there from southern California where the sun does shine almost daily and I have a wide choice of places to go where I can avoid little umbrellas in my drink. What I wanted was, oh, I don’t know, steel drums and small open-fronted restaurants where gap-toothed friendly fishermen trade their catch for local beer (and imported beer is Red Stripe). I wanted to find that place where they serve the ultimate conch fritter. I wanted to be greeted by the Arawaks in their native tongue.
I was greeted (at the airport) by a cab driver 1n a ’78 Caddy 75 with a fringe of rust around the edges. His was one of a long line of Cads, Buick Electras, Checker Marathons. I wondered where they had all gone. Off to the Lucayan Beach Resort without tripping the meter. Undoubtedly he had made the trip before.
The islands do promise: languid days in the sun on beaches so white guests risk snow blindness, game fish, gambling, skin diving, glass-bottomed boats, duty free plunder from the Rodeo Drives of the world. And vintage car racing.
Which, of course, was what brought me there. The scheduled apres-race parties were over for the day when I arrived, but there was the excitement of a journey completed, and, a three hour time differential to keep me awake. But it was terribly quiet there at the hotel, hard to believe that it was only ten or so. Outside my room, across the lawn, the moon reflected off of the sand, the surf crashed on the beach. But quiet. I could have hopped another cab, but I really didn’t know where to go. The casino was open but I don’t gamble much. I’ll sleep, I’ll get my body on to local time.
So to bed. With the TV on, of course, and what have we here? A cable rerun of “The Godfather.” Coppola proving to the money guys that he can do a commercially viable flick that still gets critical acclaim. All those awards. All those phrases that have become part of the language…let us reason together…make him an offer he can’t refuse. I couldn’t refuse, reasonably.
It really is a good film. Is that a Derham-bodied Packard used in the assassination of the son-in-law? Did they really shoot up that lovely silver-grey ’41 Lincoln Continental? Did he really blow up the Alfa 2500 Freccia d’Oro?
Coppola’s actually a car freak of sorts—he owns three Tucker 48s. He’s doing a musical version of Preston Tucker’s life, dancing camshafts and all that stuff…He wouldn’t have used real bullets and bombs in some overblown quest for realism. Would he? I fell asleep about five AM watching something called “Solarbabies.” Not really worth a review, but it seems to have been done for the skateboard and roller skate crowd. Will little urethane wheels and scabby knees and elbows replace good healthy hydrocarbons? One answer is “yes.” This, happily, is not the correct one.
The next morning—I was pretty sure it was morning—somebody was using a chain saw that sounded just like a Coventry-Climax FWE right outside my sliding glass doors. It didn’t go away. And voices: the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, the sanctioning body of the Vintage Grand Prix, were setting up their pre-race concours on the lawn outside. The FWE was in a Lola Mk.I, one of two there. The SVRA awards points for participation in the concours, which gets people out early with toothbrushes and cotton swabs.
The lawn was crowded. There was a fawning little knot around Stirling Moss who wasn’t officially granting audience until 3:30—an autograph opportunity for his book began then. Moss looks wonderful: tanned, fit, bald. He was over, the program said, from London to run his Elva- BMW. Always the question: had he not had that final horrendous crash would he have become World’s Champion? Would Jimmy Clark, then fast rising, or Dan Gurney, already established, or Stewart…what happened, happened. The talent is still there. Later in the week, when it was his turn, he was able to demonstrate what he had been brought there for.
Less so, unfortunately, for Bob Bondurant and Brian Redman who had rides in Formula Vs. Still, the celebs appeared to have enjoyed themselves. Speaking of FVs, Redman and Bob Fergus (who has been an imported car dealer and racer since there were imported car dealers and racers— almost) were in a pair of brand-new 1965
Formcar FVs. Seems that west coast Porsche/BMW/Audi dealer Vasek Polak (who has a superb collection of racing Porsches and BMWs) had bought up the world’s supply of Formcar kits when the company went out of business circa 1966 and they have been decorating one of Polak’s ware-houses ever since. That is, until Kevin Jeanette of Gunnar Porsche in Fla. (best known as crew-chief of the Daytona-winning tube-framed “Moby Dick” Porsche 935 and superbly prepared 962s) bought them and has decided to run his own celebrity vintage series, or perhaps turn then into vintage renta- racers. Cute. Looking at them reminds one how far automotive technology has really come.
The little Vs are very similar in concept to the very first Porsche (356-1), save the single seat fiberglass body. With all-up weight just less than a half ton and about 45 horsepower they are just fast enough to be amusing but hardly a challenge for the likes of Redman or Bondurant (who drove a slightly faster model).
There were some interesting American specials and domestic semi-production cars that too often get overlooked in the Grand Scheme. It’s true that none of these cars ever won LeMans or the Targa Florio (or were even entered), but they represent a kind of American folk art, at least, and, at most, make one wonder what the outcome would have been had they been developed by a major factory and produced in some quantity.
First, alphabetically at least is the Bocar XP-5. Constructor Bob Carnes (BOb CARnes) built a large handful of cars in the Denver area in the late ‘fifties using the ubiquitous Chevy V-8, sometimes with a huge, crank-driven Roots blower, sometimes with—help us and save us—VW Beetle suspension to control over 300 horsepower. There were even a few built with, improbably enough, DKW three cylinder engines. All share exotic Euro-shapes that look like like Maser/Ferraris with injections of testosterone.
There were two real Devin SS roadsters and a Devin-bodied Echidna. Old Bill Devin came about as close as anyone, short of Chevrolet, to building an American sports car. Best known for his $295 fiberglass bodies built in sizes to fit anything from a Crosley to a Mogul-Mallet locomotive, Devin just wanted to build real cars. The first ones were powered by two-cylinder Panhards, but the SS were proper tube-framed chassis with DeDion rear suspensions, purpose-built A-arm fronts, disc brakes all around, and a Chevy (with Devin manifold). Finances, phase of the moon, temper of the times…who knows. Fewer than a dozen were built but Devin is building at least one more. Price will be at least six times what it was in 1958.
The Echidna (means “spiny anteater”) is typical of Chevy-powered specials from the late `fifties (except for the name),and that it (actually they—there were three) was featured in SCI (5/60) when it was new. It’s uses a cut down 56 Chevy frame and modified suspension to go along with the engine. It was capable of beating Ferraris and D-Jags on a given day back then, and has been the recipient of an exceptional restoration (as had the Bocar). And it will still beat a Jag or Ferrari.
There was a Kellison J4R—a quasi-production car–more probably a kit, using the, yes, Chevy drive train and a somewhat primitive tube chassis hidden under a ‘glass body that could only be an American fantasy. The-meanest-coupe-at-the-drive-in-look.
And from Canada, the Sadler Formula Libre, a neat single seater built in 1960 when any transaxle strong enough to hold a healthy Chevy was as rare as a color TV set. Sadler’s solution was to use lots of torque and no transmission at all—just a good clutch and a modified Halibrand quick change. Again, a wonderful restoration.
In the same vein (more-or-less) were a clutch of Corvettes, an ex-Penske Trans-Am Camaro, a good running Sunbeam Tiger, a Shelby GT-350, and assorted McLarens. That means that about 15% of the cars present had domestic V-8s. It could be worse, but maybe I’m spoiled by the Monterey Historics. Except for those in “The Godfather,” there were no pre-war cars.
The actual racing is parceled out over the week, practice, pursuit races, celebrity races, qualifying, interlarded with the parties to welcome, parties in honor of, paddock parties, farewell banquets. But I never could get into sync with local time. And I was never really able to use the racing or the parties as a kind of time machine to get back to the Nassau Speed Weeks. Nassau, for me remains grainy rotogravure memory.
That’s okay. Nassau was Nassau. Grand Bahama is today, now. I liked the V-8s. I saw my first Lotus 17 (all of the others, I think, have self-destructed). There were a brace of early, wire- wheeled Lotus 7s, a late style Sebring Sprite that was faster than hell, especially with Moss at the wheel. The Bocar guys had endless problems, the Echidna
was faster than it ever was, there was a modsport Aston DB-4 that may not incorporate the spirit of vintage racing, but was amusing to watch anyway.
Less amusing to watch was a film called “Last Resort.” It’s about an American who hates his lifework and so to get away buysa Club Med-like vacation package for himself, and his family. They flee the wintry north for a sunny little Carribean island, complete with orgies (among the vacationers), revolutionaries, deviants, bad accommodations, obnoxious staff, flat one-liners and no plot.
Maybe I’m too hard on it. “Last Resort” really has something for everybody: drugs, alcohol, hinted-at reverse kiddie porn, bad social conscience, irresponsible airlines…you have to remember that I’m watching this while on a Carribean (sort of) island, having gotten there on a series of airlines, and returning, I hope, the same way.
Movie guys, most of them, have trouble with cars. They usually call attention to themselves upstaging the plot and the stars in the process. There have been exceptions: The films of Jacque Tati (“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”,” My Uncle”,etc.) “Harper”, “Diva”, “LeMans”. But in “Peggy Sue Got Married”, generally a pretty good film, her boyfriend’s ’58 Chevy convertible just calls too much attention to itself. But at least the flic was worth staying awake for–and I’ll never confuse Karen Allen and Nancy Allen again. Because Karen was in another of those late niters,”Until September” with some Frenchman who’s too good looking to live, great scenes of Paris, the Provinces, a high speed run in a Citroen 2CV, cruising in an XJ-6…
I can tell you a little about conch fritters, nothing about steel drums. All of the natives tell me that they go to Jamaica on vacation. Or the States…things are cheaper in the States.
Top image: Sunset over the ocean waters under clouds in the Bahamas (public domain, courtesy Good Free Photos)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano