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  Shadow AVS MkI Chevrolet

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Country of origin:United States
Produced in:1970
Numbers built:at least 2
Designed by:Trevor Harris
Successor:Shadow Mk II Chevrolet
Author:Wouter Melissen
Last updated:November 19, 2007
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Click here to download printer friendly versionThe Canadian American Challenge (Can-Am) has gone into history as the no-regulation series that invited designers and drivers to really push the limits of physics. This resulted in some of the most powerful and strangest racing cars ever constructed. Towards the end of the 1966 - 1974 era, the governing body was forced to introduce restrictions. The last season that really bristled with innovation was 1970 with the introduction of the Chaparral 2J 'Sucker Car', the quadruple engined Hoare Mac's-it Special and the Shadow MkI. The latter could very well be the most unusual machine to ever turn a wheel in anger.

The story of the Shadow MkI started in 1968 when Don Nichols moved to California and founded Advanced Vehicle Systems (AVS). The former military intelligence officer had already worked in motorsport as a supplier of parts and tires and race promoter in Japan, but always on the background. Nichols' company was later renamed Shadow, no doubt a reflection of the owner's character and previous occupation. That year he met freelance designer Trevor Harris, who had mastered the skill to think outside of the box. His wildest idea was to install a big-block V8 engine in a chassis as low and compact as a go-kart. Nichols was quite taken by the idea and commissioned Harris to draw up the designs for a 'full size' version.

With this design Harris tried to create racing car with as little drag as possible, by dramatically decreasing the frontal area. Not surprisingly the ultra-compact design did create many packaging problems. The most conventional part of the car was aluminium monocoque, which was anodized black for additional strength. Suspension was by very short, double wishbones all-round. There was no room for conventional springs and dampers, so Harris fitted three tiny (valve) springs at each corner together with friction dampers, inspired by a 1930s Maserati racer. The 10 inch front and 12 inch rear wheels were shod with custom made Firestone tyres, designed to withstand well over the theoratical top speed of 250 mph. The initial plan was to use an air-brake, but when moveable aerodynamic devices were banned, the small racer had to rely on machined down Ford Mustang vented disc brakes.

For packaging reasons, a Toyota quad-cam V8 was considered, but that idea was discarded in favour of the much easier to obtain and maintain Chevrolet big block. The engine was mated to a Hewland five speed gearbox, with altered gears to allow for a higher top speed. There was only room in the cockpit for two horizontally mounted pedals, so a hand-clutch was fitted. This was only used to take off as the gearbox was modified to survive clutchless shifts due to an ingenious lubrication system. A later development included an automatic clutch operated by a button on the gear-lever. The exceptionally low chassis was tightly wrapped in a fiberglass body. At the front there were the first signs of ground-effects as the underside was shaped like a wing. The car was so low that Nichols considered it a two-dimensional car, which is supposedly why he called it 'Shadow'.

During 1969 the first car was readied to undergo testing. True to its low-drag design brief, the all black machine was free of the wings and aerofoils that had become commonplace in the years before. It caused quite stir when it appeared on the cover of Road & Track in August of 1969. The initial tests clearly made painstakingly clear that the design worked a lot better on paper than in reality. There were problems with overheating brakes and engine, and also cornering proved tricky with the car's 25/75 weight distribution. To better cool the brakes, cooling fans from the Chevrolet Corvair were fitted to the front wheels. The cooling and cornering problems were addressed together by fitting a large rear wing, which also housed the radiators.

The many modifications delayed the project considerably and the Shadow AVS MkI did not make its debut until June of 1970 during the Mosport season opener. Despite the unusual driving position with his feet at a 45-degree angle, driver George Follmer impressed friend and foe during practice. On the long straight, the Shadow's 190mph top speed beat the second fastest car by 20 miles. The poor brakes and handling of the tiny machine saw Follmer loose ground in the corners and he eventually qualified in sixth position. During the race, the Shadow's other weakness played up as Follmer had to switch off the engine after just 25 of 80 laps with overheating problems.

With a fresh engine, the Shadow team was ready to take on the competition again for the next round of the season at St. Jovite. Unfortunately the high mounted radiators had been banned, so Harris installed them inside the a hollow wing. These last moment adjustments only increased the cooling problems. Having lost some of his top-speed advantage, Follmer did well to qualify the car tenth on the grid. Unfortunately, the hot running engine only survived thirteen laps, causing another early retirement. After the race, the car was heavily damaged in a traffic accident. Disappointed with the Shadow's performance, both Follmer and Harris jumped ship after the St. Jovite race.

Left without a car, designer and driver and facing legal charges from investors and supplier, it would have been understandable had Nicholls bailed out. Instead he perservered and in record time completed a new car, which was ready in time for the fifth round of the season. It was similar to the original car and differed only in detail. The radiators were now mounted between the rear wing and the bodywork and it was painted black instead of red. Former rally driver Vic Elford was drafted to race the car and he immediately placed it seventh on the grid at Mid-Ohio. Sadly mechanical problems saw the the Shadow retire early again. Nicholls decided to withdraw to concentrate on developing Shadow's 1971 contender with the help from designer Peter Bryant. The MkII Shadow was still far from conventional.

While the bold Shadow MkI was not a success on the track, Harris knowingly and unknowingly incorporated many advanced features. The brake cooling fans, clutchless shifts and ground effects have all since become commonplace. Harris' ideas were later more successfully employed by the Tyrrell P34 six wheeler. Shadow gradually worked itself up as a leading Can-Am team, eventually winning the 1974 title with Follmer. The team also branched out into Formula 1 where the black cars were also relatively successful. Elford's Shadow has survived and has been restored to full running order and debuted in vintage racing in 2006. The remains of Follmer's damaged machine were rebuilt by Nicholls to the car's first configuration in the 1980s. This was done for German collector Peter Kaus and he displayed the unusual machine for many years in his Rosso Bianco museum.

Both surviving cars are featured above. Shown in action is the ex-Elford example, which has found a very brave owner. He explained to us that he needs to be absolutely relaxed when he gets into the car; if he gets cramped legs it would be impossible to get out. The Follmer car is pictured at the 2006 Bonham's Quail sale where it sold for $95,000 despite being a non-runner. A final word from Nicholls on why he built the unusual Shadow MkI: "If I want to be ordinary, I could have bought a McLaren."

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  Article Image gallery (24) Specifications User Comments (5)