“Ground Zero” Cars: Driving The Start of Something Big
The start of something big that has been going strong for several decades: the 300SLS, as seen inside Mercedes design studio in 1955-56. (Photo courtesy of the Scott Grundfor archive)
It’s Thanksgiving time here in the States, and that got me thinking of how blessed I have been over the years to drive some truly landmark cars. Near the top of that list are the “firsts”—those rare machines (typically a one-off) that are Ground Zero for some automotive legend.
Such prototypes are interesting, for its akin to someone writing down all their thoughts on a sheet of paper, and you are reading it without distraction. But here, the paper is life size, and three dimensional in form. It also has personality, goes (sometimes quickly) and, in most cases, makes great noise.
The flashpoint of everything Lamborghini can be found in this sketch by stylist Franco Scaglione. This is one of his renderings for what would become Lamborghini's first ever car, the 350 GTV.
The Lamborghini that we looked at in detail last week was one such car. Driving the 350 GTV was especially rewarding because, up to that time, no journalist had been behind the wheel. It was a sweltering Italian summer day when I sat in the high-backed, comfortable driver’s seat, only to find the steering wheel was pretty close to my chest (something resolved in the production 350 GT). The Bizzarrini-designed V12 rumbled to life, its six downdraft dual-throat Weber carburetors hissing and popping away. Despite that drama not much accelerator modulation was needed, and Lambo #1 took off without issue.
My notes from that day, point out that the ride was stiff, making road imperfections much more pronounced, and the steering was heavy at a dead stop. Everything became more hospitable once at speed, and the engine pulled with greater urgency the higher the revs rose. The V12’s guttural growl was delicious the whole way up, that symphony topped off by a subtle hissing as massive amounts of air were sucked into those six carbs.
On several long straights the GTV cleared 100 mph, and in triple digits this prototype made it clear this is where it wanted to be, the ride becoming more compliant. Sure, the GTV wasn’t refined and silky smooth like the production 350 GT seen below; that was more than evident from the noise around the windows as they bowed out from air pressure. And the windows didn’t go down either, which made that cockpit one impressive greenhouse. But I didn’t care! I had just piloted the genesis point of the Lamborghini legend…
A Surreal Treat
That hour-long drive was a surreal experience, if for no other reason than over the past three decades the word “Lamborghini” has come to mean a radical mid-engine car. But that wasn’t Ferruccio’s original mission statement. “I want to make a GT car without faults,” he noted at his company’s 1963 Turin Show debut. “Not a technical bomb, (but something) very normal, very conventional…a perfect car.” The 350 GTV was an intriguing first step in that direction.
Another “Ground Zero” car of an entirely different nature was Mercedes’ 300SLS (above). It was built in 1955 in the company’s competition department, and was the first of the several hundred thousand postwar, open-air two-seat Mercedes road cars produced since.
The SLS was a delight on the move, having a bit of Italian flair and personality with the robustness and thoroughness of German engineering.
Created eight years before Ferruccio’s first, the SLS was much more resolved than the 350 GTV. Internal documents from November 7 1955 illustrate this beautifully, noting the only items needing to be addressed were things such as a dimmer switch having issues…
While that completeness is impressive for a Ground Zero car, what made the SLS more memorable was it was as if some Italian chefs had snuck into the corporate kitchen, and sprinkled some Latin panache into the SL design recipe. Compared to the lovely but restrained production 300SL Roadster, every body panel was different, making the SLS more sensual, voluptuous and taut.
There is a lot of Mercedes heritage in a single car. Every postwar open-air, two-seat Mercedes such as the SL55 in the background can trace its DNA back to the SLS.
Such touches were also evident when you clamored inside, a unique wooden steering wheel and just the right amount of chrome accents greeting you. The seat was a bit firm but comfy and, unlike “posti” in the 350 GTV, this had good side bolstering. The inline-6 engine was quite tractable, willing to pull evenly when the throttle was floored as low as 1200 rpm. There was no hiccupping and when you kept the pedal down, when you crossed 3500 rpm the SLS pulled with a greater alacrity, and the exhaust note became ever louder, and sharper.
The Only Downside
The car’s big letdown was the steering. While it lightened up once you started moving, and loaded up nicely through turns, there was a momentary delay on turn in and thus some vagueness, and a decided lack of feel. The suspension was the exact opposite, nicely communicative while having a lovely ride. Despite a fair amount of body roll and the sloppy steering, the car’s composure made high-speed sweepers just plain, good fun.
I went away exhilarated, and today can reflect on how much closer it was to a finished product than the Lamborghini. But that’s to be expected. Mercedes had decades of prior experience and much deeper pockets, while at Lamborghini alone, ambitious industrialist from other fields jumped headfirst into the deep end of the speed pool.
What Started as a Dream
As did an upstart in California in 1962. Carroll Shelby had been successfully hustling cars around racetracks at incredible speeds for a decade, that innate talent scoring numerous victories that included an overall win at Le Mans in 1959. But throughout most of those years, he told me he dreamt of making his own car.
The unique badge on the nose of Shelby Cobra CSX2000.
It all came together in late 1961 when he learned AC would be losing its supply of Bristol engines. He approached Ford about acquiring its new V8s, got them to agree, and then headed to England and AC about securing the rest of the car. In February of 1962 a new lightweight Ford-powered predator was cruising the highways of southern California, looking for anything to devour—especially Corvettes.
Here is a memorable automotive flashpoint in California in February 1962: the building of Shelby Cobra CSX2000. (Dave Friedman photo, courtesy of Shelby American)
The First of Many
That first Shelby Cobra was chassis CSX2000, and all I could think of when opening the feather light driver’s door was the history that followed its creation. Without CSX2000 there would have been no 260, 289 and 427 Cobras, no several generations of Shelby Mustangs, no Dodge Vipers or Sunbeam Tigers, and who knows what else.
Two different generations of Shelby: CSX2000 is piloted by Carroll's grandson Aaron, a super nice guy who is totally into his family's heritage.
Unlike the 300SLS and 350 GTV, that very first Cobra was in tired, unrestored condition when I drove it. The once-urgent V8 wheezed to life, and there was no way that throttle was going even half way down! God knows how many spokes on the wire wheels would have snapped, or worse…
Why is Shelby public relations man Scott Black smiling? You would be too if you were sitting in the flashpoint of the Shelby automotive legend…
Yet, the CSX2000 made the strongest impression of the three cars, for even going slow you could really sense the car’s spirit. It was like riding a racehorse that constantly tugged against the reins, begging you to go faster, if not flat out. That sensation was so pronounced that when I mentioned it to Gary Patterson, the CEO of Shelby American, he didn’t give me a strange look but simply replied, “I’ve noticed that too.”
And that’s what makes Ground Zero cars so special. They are rough around the edges compared to their production counterparts but give you the full sense of what is to come, that potential of everything that was in the creator’s original thoughts. These are the starting points to significant automotive history, and make the first chapter of the book all the more meaningful since we already know the story’s significant conclusion.
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