|Scarab F1 Offenhauser|
When the Scarab Formula 1 car debuted at Monaco in 1960, an American Grand Prix victory was long overdue. The last and only success dated back to 1921 when Jimmy Murphy won the French Grand Prix in a Duesenberg. Since then open-wheel racing moved into different directions on the two continents. Lance Reventlow's Scarab project was the first serious American Grand Prix effort since the introduction of the Formula 1 class.
The young heir to the Woolworth fortune, Reventlow had made quite an impact during the 1958 season. Built by a 'dream-team' of engineers in California, his V8-engined Scarab sports cars outclassed many established manufacturers like Ferrari and Maserati in the American championship. The next objective were the world championship races in Europe. An Offenhauser built three-litre engine was tried to comply with the regulations but it was not powerful enough to match Europe's finest.
With no other American engine available that would fit the bill, Reventlow abandoned the sports car program after a single season. He spent the next year and a large chunk of his vast resources on creating an all-American Formula 1 car. The program was up against it from the outset; single-seater racing was on the brink of the mid-engined revolution and none of the engineers involved had any experience designing or developing a Formula 1 car. Reventlow's desire to rely exclusively on American built components complicated the project even further.
The responsibility of developing the chassis was placed on 23-year old Marshall Whitfield, even though he had never designed a car before. He penned a wholly conventional steel spaceframe chassis. Suspension was by double wishbones and coil springs on all four corners. Much time and money was wasted on the development of a proprietary drum-brake system. Reventlow eventually caved and ordered the far superior but British Girling disc-brakes. Chunky Halibrand wheels and Goodyear tyres completed the package.
Offenhauser's Leo Goossen worked on a bespoke four-cylinder engine for the Formula 1 car. The all-aluminium engine followed the familiar Offenhauser pattern with one major exception; the desmodromic valve-train. The design for the sophisticated system was 'inspired' by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, which had been on display in the Henry Ford Museum. The desmodromic or positively actuated layout featured valves that were opened and closed by the camshafts. With no need for valve-springs, it allowed for much higher engine speeds.
America's first Formula 1 engine displaced just under the maximum of 2.5 litre. It was designed to be on par with the likes of Ferrari and BRM, who both claimed to produce 280 bhp. The desmodromic system worked flawlessly but it struggled to get to 220 bhp no matter how hard they revved the engine. The original plans had called for an infinite-ratio automatic transmission. Despite making a sizeable dent in the resources it never materialised. Eventually the team had to settle on a Corvette-sourced four-speed manual.
The all-American package was clothed in a very conventional aluminium body. Two cars were built and finished in the white and blue American racing colours also used for the Scarab sports cars. This included beautiful detailing by Los Angeles based artist 'Von Dutch'. Upon completion, they were shipped to Europe for Monaco Grand Prix. Ironically, the Scarab team was assigned the same garage as Cooper. Their small, mid-engined machines very much represented the future, making the Scarabs look outdated before they even turned a wheel.
Once on track, it only became worse for Lance Reventlow and fellow driver and engineer Chuck Daigh. The Scarabs were hopelessly off the pace and a last minute switch to Dunlop rubber made little difference. Stirling Moss was asked to drive the car to make sure the drivers were not to blame; they weren't. The American cars were a full eight seconds off the pace and slower even than the diminutive Formula Juniors that raced in one of the support events. Needless to say both cars failed to qualify for the race.
The tight and twisty Monaco street circuit was probably the track least suited to the Scarab on the calendar, so all hope was not lost. Next up was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort where the cars indeed performed better. Daigh was particularly impressive and managed to set the 15th fastest time in qualifying. After some of the rivals questioned the Scarab's times, an upset Reventlow withdrew his team. In doing so, he robbed Daigh of his maiden Grand Prix start.
Daigh did make his debut during the next round at the very challenging Spa circuit. He started from the last position on the grid and struggled on in the race until he lost all oil. Reventlow also participated but his race was cut short when a piston punched a hole in the block after only two laps. The young heir had lost all confidence and had Richie Ginther flown in for the final European round at Reims. Further engine failures in practice depleted the spares' inventory and neither Daigh or Ginther were able to start.
There was one more Grand Prix on the schedule; the American Grand Prix at Riverside. This was almost literally in Scarab team's backyard and Daigh convinced Reventlow to let him enter the car. Before the race he extensively lightened the car and reworked the engine to make it more reliable. To his credit the changes certainly had an effect and he qualified 16th out of 23 starters. In the race he suffered from vapour lock problems but nevertheless finished 10th. He was the best placed of the few front-engined cars still in the field.
A drop of the displacement limit to 1.5 litre for 1961 meant that the Scarab Formula 1 car was now also officially obsolete. Daigh used his car with a three litre engine in some Intercontinental races until he wrote it off in a big shunt at Silverstone. Reventlow retained his own car and fitted with a V8 engine it starred in a short movie by Bruce Kessler called the 'The Sound of Speed'. A third, spare chassis was also built but never completed.
For many years the failure of the Scarab Formula 1 car was primarily blamed on the archaic chassis layout and Reventlow's obsession with using American components. Much later Daigh found that there was another contributing factor. While rebuilding the engine out of his old car, he found that the drawings called for a valve lash of 0.002 in and that the engines had actually been built with a 0.012 in lash. When he set the engine up correctly, he immediately got up to 265 bhp. That additional 45 bhp could have made the Scarabs a lot more competitive on the faster circuits like Spa and Reims.
After the humiliating foray in Formula 1, Reventlow all but lost interest in motor racing. His men only built two more cars; a single seater and a sports car, both mid-engined. Many years later and with a slightly larger engine, American historic racer Don Orosco did score some successes with the ex-Reventlow Formula 1 car in Europe. The dream of an American Grand Prix car lived on and the likes of Dan Gurney and Roger Penske eventually managed to be competitive with 'American' cars in F1, but only briefly. More recent attempts have been far less successful.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on May 12, 2010
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