An ideal distraction from the Coronavirus and stock market meltdown over the past few weeks has been the marvelously campy shows that permeated television in the 1970s. I was in my teens and young 20s back then, and one thing that captivated my attention was the underground race, “The Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Dash.”
As noted in last week's blog, it was cooked up by Brock Yates, a true gearhead and iconoclastic journalist at Car & Driver magazine. “We were convinced the automobile as we knew and loved it was as dead as the passenger pigeon,” Yates noted in his marvelous book “Cannonball,” referencing Ralph Nader, the Clean Air Act, OSHA, the EPA and more. “Therefore," he went on, "what better time to add to the national psychosis?” by holding a coast-to-coast race. His only rule was, “There are no rules.”
Several months before the first Cannonball was held in November 1971, Yates, his son Brock Jr. and colleague Steve Smith took a slightly modified Dodge Custom Sportsman van and went from one side of the country to the other in 40 hours 51 minutes. When the first official Cannonball was held, Brock and racing great Dan Gurney traveled 2800+ miles in 35 hours and 54 minutes in a Ferrari Daytona to best the handful of competitors.
Other Cannonballs occurred in 1972, 1975 and 1979, and recalling all this recently brought back memories that my brother and I briefly considered running in the 1979 edition. So if by some miracle I had the knowledge back then that I have now, and could have found and bought anything to run in the event, what would it have been?
Last week we explored several interesting alternatives from the 1960s; below are several that were made in the 1970s. Intriguingly, my first entry is something I actually toyed with trying to find for the event:
- 1969-1974 Iso Fidia. Here’s one many people wouldn’t know of, but in many ways it’s the ideal Cannonball car. Around the turn of the decade Iso’s sales brochure called the Fidia “The World’s Four Fastest Seats,” and with good reason. Like all Isos, it had an American V8 for reliable power, and could be ordered with a 5-speed transmission, which is what I would have wanted. This gave it a top speed of around 145-150 mph, making it realistically the world’s fastest sedan. Fidias are comfortable with plenty of leg and headroom, and superlative at a steady 120 mph gate. There is gigantic trunk to store stuff and a real back seat to zonk out on while your co-pilot is at the wheel—something not available in Iso’s faster two-seat Grifo.
- 1969-1973 Maserati Ghibli SS. This Berlinetta was Maserati’s big dog until the Bora went into production in late 1971, and as much as I love that mid-engine missile, for the Cannonball I’d rather have the front-engine Ghibli. After all, if 7'1" NBA star Wilt Chamberlin owned one, that’s all you need to know about its roominess. That big V8 is nice and torquey, and after a few years of being in production, hopefully any ills would have been ironed out. With the right gearing Ghiblis saw 160 mph in period road tests, and the car’s ride at triple digit speeds is sublime. Make mine an SS with the 4.9-liter engine and 5-speed transmission, and I will meet you in New York to start the trek.
- 1969-1974 Ferrari Daytona. I really debated on putting a Daytona on the list, for as noted above and last week it won the first Cannonball. But that is as good of reason as any to include it. Having owned this particular Daytona for two years back in the early 1980s, the utter brilliance of the car’s capabilities came through loud and clear when I put 24,000 miles on it during that time. I remember seeing 165 mph in it early one Sunday morning with a friend, and it was still pulling with no hesitation.
- 1971-1979 De Tomaso Deauville. Another good wildcard is De Tomaso’s Deauville. These comfy sedans were powered by a Ford 351 Cleveland and 3-speed automatic transmission, and could be imported in the late 1970s under the period’s loosely enforced gray market laws. Decades ago I spent a small amount of time behind the wheel of a friend’s who had brought it into America, so looking at the only in-period road test I could find, England’s Autocar noted “There is no substitute for cubic capacity to give mid-range acceleration; add to this a taut, sensitive car that for its size handles, holds the road and steers like no other businessman’s express I have driven before.” Sounds like a good Cannonball car to me…
- 1975-1979 Porsche 930 Turbo. Those who follow this blog know I have an affinity for Porsche’s first turbocharged road car, and the 930 has all the makings of a great Cannonball machine. Top speed was in the range of 155-160 mph, and it would get there rather quickly. It’s a comfortable cockpit with high back seats and decent storage behind them, and it sported taut handling (assuming one doesn’t lift in the middle of a corner or get surprised by the sudden thrust of the engine’s delayed boost). There is also Porsche’s reputation for reliability, and the 930 would likely be the least thirsty of all the cars I’ve posted over the past couple of weeks.
A number of others were considered, but I wanted to stay with cars I had personally shot and had digital images ready to post. Those in my archive that are in slide form and would have been contenders include Ferrari’s 330 and 365 GTC (1966-1969), 365 GTC/4 (1972), Gordon-Keeble (1964), Lamborghini Flying Star (1966), Maserati’s 5000 GT (1959-1963) and Shelby’s GT500KR (1968). I was also tempted to include a Plymouth Superbird (seen below) but couldn’t find a period road test with actual top speed. And while nothing shown over the past couple of weeks is particularly stealthy, the Winged Warrior’s looks are perhaps the most outlandish of any car on my list.
If you could jump in a time machine and head back to the 1970s, what would be your perfect “blast across the country” machine, and why? As mentioned last week, the most best and/or most creative response posted here by April 10 will get a copy of my Zagato-commissioned American landscape book that's signed by Andrea and Marella Zagato, and myself. So have fun with your responses, and stay safe and healthy as we ride out the Conoravirus storm together.