Simon Clay, courtesy of Bonhams
In recent years, front-engine Formula One car competition at historic and vintage level has seen the full flowering of a fabulous and brave American motor racing project that has been recalled with great pride and nostalgic pleasure by generations of road-racing enthusiasts. Where front-running success in such historic races had for long years been the preserve of Italian Maserati 250Fs, then Ferrari Dino 246s and the British BRM Type 25s, the almost all-American Scarab-Offenhausers have in recent years rewritten the form book on both sides of the Atlantic, driven most notably and successfully by respected marque exponents Don Orosco and Julian Bronson.  

SCM Analysis


Years Produced:1960
Number Produced:Three
Original List Price:N/A
SCM Valuation:$1 million
Chassis Number Location:N/A
Engine Number Location:N/A
Alternatives:1955–60 BRM P-25, 1959 Aston Martin DBR4, 1958 Lotus 16
Investment Grade:B

This car, Lot 330, sold for $1,038,735, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale on September 12, 2015.

Collectibility isn’t just for winners. Racing cars are artifacts — physical objects that, as well as being fun to play with, can be touchstones and relics that represent important stories that are worth remembering.

Those stories aren’t always about success.

The Scarab Formula One adventure approached Greek tragedy in its scope, including hubris, nemesis and eventual humiliating failure for the participants, and it was centered on three cars — this one is the only one that still runs.

You can’t begin to understand the car or its value without understanding at least the basic story, so I’m going to try to sketch it out here. If you would like to understand the full story, I recommend Preston Lerner’s excellent book Scarab, from which much of my account is taken.

In the beginning …

The story itself is about Formula One in 1960, but we’re going to have to step a ways back to get perspective on how it came down.

The first thing to know is that Formula One was hugely important in Europe as the post-war recovery took hold: Crowds were huge and enthusiastic, drivers were heroes, and national identities were carried by the various marques competing.

After a chaotic start, things settled down in 1954, when the FIA set a 2.5-liter non-supercharged engine rule for the sport. Lancia, Maserati and Ferrari competed for Italy, Mercedes-Benz for Germany, and a variety of specialist manufacturers carried the British flag, notably Connaught, Cooper, Lotus, BRM, Vanwall and Aston Martin.

Competition was intense, and technical innovation was constant through the 2.5-liter formula. Maserati was dominant early with its 250F using a tubular chassis and a De Dion rear suspension, but Mercedes entered the fray with its space-frame, fully independent suspended W196 and immediately took over.

Having made its point, Mercedes exited racing at the end of 1955, but by then Lancia was as fast (if not as reliable), Maserati had refined the 250F, and Vanwall and BRM were figuring out how to make competitive GP racers. In 1955 the British introduced the disc brake to the series, and it quickly evolved into an essential part of winning. Chassis and suspension design as well as engine configuration were under intense pressure as the 1950s progressed, and the English finally won the championship in 1958 with the Vanwalls.

1958 was also a watershed year for Formula One in that Cooper’s mid-engine racers finally started to win, and by 1959 the writing was on the wall about the future of Formula One design: Although front-engine designs won some races, the championship went to Cooper.

1960 was a year of transition: Grand Prix racing had been named “the cruel sport” for a reason, and during the previous seasons the butcher’s bill had been terrible. In an attempt to slow things down and make racing safer, FIA reduced engine size to 1.5 liters beginning with the 1961 season.

Technical innovation was still rampant for the 1960 season. Lotus introduced its mid-engine Lotus 18 and BRM converted its front-engine P-25 into the mid-engine P-48, while Ferrari stayed with its front-engine Dino 246 — but the ultimate change was waiting in the wings. The 1961 Formula One cars would be utterly unlike anything that came before.

Enter the Scarabs

It’s time to talk about Scarabs. Lance Reventlow was born to wealth and privilege in Southern California in 1936 and grew up with the American Exceptionalist attitudes that were common as the United States shouldered the world’s problems and won World War II.

As Reventlow came of age, he became enamored with automobile racing and arranged to spend the 1957 season racing in Europe. By all accounts he wasn’t very good at it, and he didn’t get the respect he thought he deserved.

He came away not liking Europeans very much, and by the end of the season, he decided to build his own sports racer in the U.S.

Reventlow Automobiles Inc. was formed in the late summer of 1957 and immediately set out to create the great American sports racing car with an emphasis on American design, parts and construction. Reventlow had an almost jingoistic faith in U.S. superiority and insisted that everything in the car be from the United States.

Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, along with Ken Miles as designer, were hired to produce the actual car, which was along conventional lines for the time: tubular frame, independent front and De Dion rear suspension with enormous finned drum brakes and, most importantly, a Chevrolet V8 engine. The car debuted in the spring of 1958 and was an immediate success, easily winning everywhere it was entered in 1958 and 1959.

The immediate and sweeping success of the Scarab sports racer engendered a “swaggering self-confidence” about their abilities, and in the late summer of 1958 and still in his early 20s, Reventlow decided to challenge the Europeans on their own turf and show them a thing or two.

RAI was going to build an American Formula One car. That the project turned out to be a catastrophe is an understatement.

From success to disaster

With a level of confidence approaching hubris, RAI set about building a car from scratch. They chose a front-engine layout because they were more comfortable with it, and an engineer with no automotive experience at all was brought in to design the chassis and suspension.

Leo Goossen was hired to design an all-new 2.5-liter racing engine using a desmodromic valve train concept that nobody but Mercedes had ever made work right, and he was given almost no time to develop it. The all-American edict meant that disc brakes were out (England’s Girling was the only source), so something had to be invented. These were just the beginning of the problems, but the Scarab sports car success made Reventlow and company think they were invincible.

Beginning a project of this scale in late 1958 made having something ready for the 1959 season impossible, so 1960 was the goal. This meant that RAI was going to debut a completely new and untested car with an obsolete design concept in the seventh and final year of the most intensely competitive series of world auto racing. They did not do well.

Glorious failures

RAI arrived at Monaco for the start of the 1960 season with beautiful, wonderfully crafted cars, high hopes, and a few concessions (Girling disc brakes and Dunlop tires), but success was not waiting. Their best qualifying lap would have barely made the starting grid in 1957, so no Scarab qualified and they couldn’t run.

They failed to qualify at a few more races before making the starting grid at Spa, where they were backmarkers until they broke. After Spa, they went home in defeat. As a last effort they entered the U.S. Grand Prix at Riverside in the fall. On home turf Chuck Daigh managed to finish 10th, which was several laps down but it was at least a finish — the only one ever for a Scarab Formula One.

In 1961 they put a Chevy V8 in one of the cars and made a movie called “The Sound of Speed,” and they put an Offy engine in another to race in the English Intercontinental series (with no success).

Reventlow gave up racing and the three chassis ended up in museums, bearing mute testimony to a glorious failure.

Decades later, back on the track

Twenty-five years later, an enthusiast named Don Orosco managed to buy two of the cars and decided to make one of them into a vintage racer. He fitted a 3.6-liter Offenhauser engine and made substantial “fixes” to the various components in order to make it into an enjoyable and reliable racing car, after which he actively campaigned it in both Europe and the U.S., where it has been a welcome — if not particularly competitive — entrant.

So why would someone want it? Well, it’s flat gorgeous, it is a Scarab, it is the sole running artifact from one of the great cautionary tales in racing history, its significance to American racing is huge, and it is a usable vintage racing car. As such, it is both collectible and fun, and I would say it was fairly bought and sold. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)

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