The Car From U.N.C.L.E.

For me car boot sales these days are as much about rummaging through boxes of old toys as they are searching for interesting books, and of late, as my son shows an ever-increasing interest in all things both two and four-wheeled, my most valued quarry has become the Tonka toy. Famously robust, the steel fire engines and diggers will probably still be doing the rounds twenty years from now, but until recently I had no idea that Tonka (unlike equally desirable contemporaries like Buddy L) were still making toys, only nowadays their wares are plastic-bodied, and as easily breakable and disposable as something you’d find in a pound shop.
Plastic simply doesn’t age well, just ask anyone who collects early Scalextric cars: it warps, cracks and splits unless stored in well-regulated temperatures, and becomes increasingly brittle with age. A problem, you’d think, largely confined to toy collectors, for the fibreglass used in the likes of the Daimler SP250 or Reliant Scimitar has proven its relative strength over the course of many years, but then that would be forgetting one of America’s most interesting sports/racing cars of the sixties: the plastic-bodied CRV Piranha.

 

I mentioned the Piranha a few weeks ago, in reference to its brief appearance in the latter series’ of The Man/Girl From U.N.C.L.E. but as it graced a total of only six episodes its place in the pantheon of spy cars must be considered slight at best. As I recall it didn’t really have any answer to T.H.R.U.S.H.’s autogiros in The Karate Killers, Solo having to poke his P.38 through a gap in the awkward gullwings and fire off a few random shots, as opposed to deploying any fancy hardware. Bizarrely though, according to the designer of the AMT Piranha and creator of the 1967 U.N.C.L.E. special, Gene Winfield, the car was as close to the real deal as any of its contemporaries, the nose-mounted flamethrowers, rear propellers (for amphibious use) and braking parachute all being fully functional. Indeed, given a little more time Winfield believes that the Piranha could actually have been further customised for amphibious use. Other non-functioning equipment also included door-mounted rocket launchers, a laser gun, rocket boosters and infrared TV and radar concealed under the revolving dashboard, all of which makes a certain Aston Martin seem a little under-equipped.

 

Originally Winfield had been hired by the shows producers to customise a Dodge Charger, which was due to arrive in showrooms that year (1966), but with the project close to completion MGM execs pulled the plug, fearing that having received such strong publicity for their new model, GM might just cut short their contract. As a result the Charger made only brief appearances, in unmodified form, and into the limelight, albeit briefly, would step a truly unique car Winfield was in the process of developing: the Piranha.

 

Marbon Chemical, a division of Borg-Warner, was eager to promote the use of plastics in the automotive industry, but rather than approaching the Detroit manufacturers with small-scale proposals, elected instead to demonstrate the versatility, strength and durability of their product by constructing an entire car – running gear aside – from it. Racing engineer Dann Deaver, co-founder of Michigan-based Centaur Engineering, was recruited to design the car, and by late ’64 a prototype was under construction, based upon a racing spaceframe and rear-mounted four-cylinder water-cooled Sunbeam engine. The most important element would, of course, be the thermoformed bodywork, made from Marbon’s marvel plastic “Cycolac”, and Deaver’s design did not disappoint, simultaneously appearing both classically curvaceous and futuristically streamlined. The bodywork was moulded in two halves and bonded along a central seam, which was then covered with a strip of Cycolac trim.

 

The CRV (Cycolac Research Vehicle) Centaur would be unveiled at the Society of Automotive Engineers Convention in Detroit in January ’65, with press releases announcing that the easy-to-assemble kit car would be available for just $3,500, and capable of around 150 mph. It proved such a success that Marbon quickly commissioned Centaur to construct a second prototype, this time to be powered by an air-cooled flat-six Chevrolet Corvair engine generating 180 bhp and raced in the SCCA Championship. The CRV-II was unveiled five months later, this time utilising the Cycolac to create a monocoque tub – a genuine test of its rigidity – upon which the suspension was mounted. The car immediately proved successful in the hands of driver/engineer Trant Jarman, who won the SCCA Central Division Championship in the D-Modified class (though in actuality only one race, at Indianapolis, was eligible!), and apparently proved the strength of the Cycolac beyond question in a collision with an E-Type. Also raced by Centaur co-founder Forbes Howard, the car would latterly be fitted with a roof before disappearing into private ownership. It is yet to resurface, but is believed to reside somewhere in Japan.

 

Needless to say, Marbon were very pleased with the returns on their investment, and plans were laid to produce road-going versions, to which end CRV-III was constructed and promptly destroyed in order fulfil mandatory crash-testing. The road-going coupes CRV-IV and V were completed in early 1966, once again using Corvair power, and with an unmistakably space-age look about them, but now using fibreglass for the chassis. Both cars were deployed to Europe for promotional purposes, doing the rounds of factories and design houses, number IV vanishing into the ether in the years since, number V being written-off by an employee of OSI design in Italy. The company felt so bad about the accident that they offered to create a replacement for Marbon, which became known as the OSI CRV, and continued to perform publicity duties until being sold to a Marbon employee in the Netherlands who used it in competition. It’s racing career at an end the car spent some thirty-odd years in a barn, but is happily now under restoration.

 

The success of the Marbon cars attracted the interest of the AMT Corporation, whose Custom & Speed Shop in Phoenix, headed by Gene Winfield, had been developing concept cars with the likes of George Barris in order to promote their kits. Having purchased the rights to build the CRV along with Marbon’s stock of Cycolac bodies and fibreglass chassis, the car was renamed the ‘Piranha’, Winfield was placed in charge of the project and plans were laid to produce up to fifty cars a year. Naturally a racing programme was planned in order to promote the new cars, firstly on the dragstrip, then in a return to SCCA events.

 

Twenty-four-year-old Fred Smith was tasked with designing the Piranha ‘Funny Car’ chassis, with assistance from driver Walt Stevens, whilst mechanic Joe Anahory took care of the nitro-powered 392 Chrysler Hemi engine, and Winfield designed the distinctive Cycolac shell. With a chromoly frame weighing just 68 pounds and the use wherever possible of lightweight aluminium and magnesium components, the finished car weighed-in at just 1,550 pounds, which combined with around 1,400 horsepower made it a formidable proposition. With a wheelbase of only 120 inches there were concerns that the car would become airborne, but thanks to the clever use of ducting the air in under the nose, and out ahead of the cockpit, frontal downforce was never an issue. Trouble was the Piranha had issues with its competitors, too slow for Top Fuel races, and unlike anything on the Funny Car circuit, the unclassifiable car generated almost as much controversy as it did publicity. But as Stevens and Anahory toured dragstrips across the country, taking on and beating practically all who challenged them, they soon became fan favourites and the car a regular press feature, whilst the heavily promoted model kit became a big hit.

 

With the ’67 ‘Summer of Love’ in full swing, Dick Carbijal hit the SCCA circuit in the turbocharged racing Piranha, and Winfield completed work on the U.N.C.L.E. special, a kit of which was also released, whilst detail changes to the CRV cars were finalised prior to the commencement of the production run. Things appeared to be going to well, but before the year was out AMT had pulled the plug, and the Piranha was dead in the water.

If AMT’s publicity ambitions for the project had quickly been realised, they soon discovered that it was insufficient ammunition in the battle against falling model sales. Most dispiriting was the realisation that the production costs per hand built unit were in the neighbourhood of $4,000 higher than their target selling price, meaning that their only option would be to sell the cars in kit form. The final nail in the coffin however, would be the announcement from GM that production of the Corvair would cease in 1969, which promised an expensive redesign and the negotiation of a new supply contract. Just four road cars were completed before AMT sold their stock of parts back to Marbon.

 

The U.N.C.L.E. special meanwhile had proved a disaster, reputedly trundling around the backlot leaving a trail of parts and oil in its wake. Aside from the malfunctioning electrical gadgets, and cockpit temperatures akin to a greenhouse, the high sills made it thoroughly impractical to climb into or out of with any grace or speed, especially in the case of poor mini-skirted Stephanie Powers. The car was soon retired, as unfortunately was the show itself. As ownership of the chassis reverted to Marbon, the bodywork and spyware were removed by Winfield and refitted to an AMT chassis, which was subsequently sold and then disappeared, finally being traced and restored by Hollywood FX specialist Robert Short. The Marbon chassis is now in the process of restoration to road-going spec.

 

The AMT racer meanwhile continued to be used in hillclimbs and road races by new owner Dick Carbijal until the close of the decade, when after having been sold and converted for road use it sat forgotten in a haulage yard for some twenty years, before being rescued and beautifully restored to its original spec by enthusiast Frank Zucchi in the nineties. Post-restoration the asking price was some $120,000 but thankfully that hasn’t kept it away from the historic racing circuit. The Funny Car, also recently restored, now resides in Don Garlit’s drag racing museum in Ocala, Florida.

 

Marbon’s body shells would go on to grace a number of VW-based kits into the seventies, after they joined forces with Allied Industries, the run ending with the hideous ‘Seagull’. The body moulds were sadly destroyed when Allied relocated. Dann Deaver remained in the Cycolac car business with Centaur, who had become a research and development arm for Borg Warner, designing the Jeep XJ-002 concept car in 1969/70 and the mysterious Can Am I. Both projects were in collaboration with the Bolide Motor Car Corporation, whose President was none other than Jack Griffith of TVR fame.

 

As I’ve said before, there’s something about the design of most fibreglass cars that gives them the air of a backyard special, but that simply wasn’t the case with Deaver’s early CRV cars, nor with the AMT racers. Only about twelve cars were completed by Centaur and AMT, and the remaining examples are understandably now highly sought after, even the badly damaged CRV-V currently being under restoration. As for the probably the most prized of them all, it’s unknown whether CRV-I still exists – it was last seen in 1973, being raced by actor James Brolin using VW power in place of the old Sunbeam unit. So James, if you’re reading this – and I like to think you do – where’s the car?!
For more information on the CRV and AMT Piranha please visit Nick Whitlow’s excellent site.

 

First published on Discoveryuk.com

About the Author: