Having explained in Part 1 where the term “British Plastic” came from I just wanted to expand in Part 2 upon my thoughts as to how and why such an unusually large number of British fibreglass car manufacturers came and went during the ’50s,’60s and ’70s.
A while back I bumped into a very nice chap at Donington Historic Festival who wanted to have a chat about our respective 911s. In the course of the conversation he almost guiltily confessed that although he really liked his 911 – his main passion was for “British Plastic”. His definition of “British Plastic” was British cars with Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) bodywork built during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
In a scene reminiscent of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – I had to own-up to having had a previous predilection for British Plastic myself through brief ownership of a TVR Vixen. I obviously stressed that I had successfully overcome this problem and had since moved firmly into German metal.
The term “British Plastic” stuck in my head as it reminded me of the interesting cars that were around or on my potential shopping list during my “plastic period” in the late ’70s and I thought it merited a post or even two posts under my A to Z of Car Stuff page:-
British Plastic – Part 1 covers the following marques:-
On the one hand – there are the modern internal combustion engine/battery powered vehicles built to save the planet and/or salve the collective consciences of automotive eco-warriors (isn’t that an oxymoron?).
On the other hand there are Euro/US Hybrids – sleek and elegant European styled cars with stonking great American V8s shoe-horned into their delicate chassis. These cars have a simple purpose in life – to tear-up roads and circuits at the fastest possible speed but in the best possible style and taste!
1) The special thing about petrol/electric hybrids is they’re NOT new. They were designed and driven donkey’s years ago thanks to Ferdinand Porsche.
2) The special thing about Euro/American hybrids is that they combine the best of European styling with the rugged power of American V8 engines. A number of specialist manufacturers have created beautiful and innovative sports cars, GTs and saloons that have graced the roads and race circuits of the world for years. Long may this Euro/US Hybrid cross-breeding programme continue.
To my mind – the things that make the Porsche 917 special are:-
1) Form and function working in harmony. A perfect combination of a lightweight but beautiful body/chassis with a brutally powerful air-cooled flat 12 engine to fling it round race circuits.
2) The 917 took outright speed to new levels at Le Mans and it took outright power to ludicrous extremes in the Can-Am series. It was designed to reach 250 mph and it achieved this on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in K (K=Kurz-heck or short tail) form pretty well straight well out of the box. In Can-Am racing – engine power reached 1100bhp in race mode and a crazy 1580bhp for qualifying!
3) The 917 finally secured Porsche’s 1st outright win at Le Mans in 1970 in the capable hands of Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann. A further outright win came the following year when a 917 driven by Gijs van Lennep and Helmut Marko crossed the line first.
I think there are many parallels between the development of the pre-war Auto Union race cars (Types A, B & C) and the Porsche 917. Both were bold and radical Porsche designs targeting domination of the new race formulae in which they were about to run. Both had well established and highly proficient competition in the form of Mercedes for Auto Union and Ferrari for the 917.
Both cars went through a phenomenally rapid design and construction phase and both attempted to mitigate risk as much as possible by utilising as many tried and tested concepts, technologies and components as was possible at the time.
1) The name! Let’s face it – if someone asks you what you’re driving these days and you respond by saying with “well actually old chap I’m driving a Gordon Keeble” it’s highly likely to be a conversation stopper. You might as well say – “I’m driving a Milton Keynes”.
2) Beautiful and understated Italian designed GT bodywork. This was a Giorgietto Guigaro design when he was still working for Bertone and it contains some design details which link it to other Guigaro designs for Alfa Romeo in particular. Unusually – the bodywork was executed in fibreglass instead of metal but this doesn’t detract from the overall beauty of the car.
3) Seriously powerful and flexible Chevy Corvette engine, all round disk brakes and De Dion suspension. Depite being manufactured in tiny numbers – there were some great design features on this car and using a race proven engine, Dunlop disk brakes and sophisticated De Dion rear suspension was a master stroke.
4) Its rarity but also it’s influence on cars to follow. Only 100 Gordon Keebles were made of which around 90 are thought to survive. Despite this – certain aspects of Gordon Keeble design had a profound influence on Giotto Bizzarrini in his creation of the Iso Rivolta GT, the Iso Grifo and the Bizzarrini 5300 GT Strada/Corsa.