Sbarro GT40 and ride in F1 McLaren

On Sunday, July 7, 2002 I visited the innovative and wacky Swiss car designer and builder, Franco Sbarro, at Grandson next to Lake Neuchatel, about 100 km north of Geneva.

Franco is now 63 years old and since the late 1960s he has designed and built 167 vehicles many of them totally way out. At Grandson he has a large factory, a small workshop where he started his business and a large and beautiful mansion up a slope, overlooking the lake where he displays several of his cars. Beautiful setting!

In the 1ate 1960s he became the European Lola distributor and in 1969 built a road going T70.

At Pontalier, across the border in France, he has his museum. He also has an automotive design school with about 30 students per year. He does design and styling work for Citroen, Peugeot, Renault, Alfa-Romeo, Lancia and some others. With regard to Lancia there is some unusual Sbarro feature coming for 2005.

Surprisingly, few of Franco's cars have gone into production, remaining as prototypes on display. After all this time he is now keen to have some his creations built on an under licence basis and that's why I went to snoop around. With a mountain of moulds in the back yard I felt like a kid let loose in a candy store!

Franco has built two GT40 replicas, one conventional and the other with an unusual rear end design. (See pic).

Franco also built a massive dragster powered by a 27 litre Spitfire engine he bought from the Swiss Air Force. Six seats are right at the back of this wacky creation. In his delightful French accent Franco said, 'When I open ze throttle, it does a wheelie and they ze passengers zey get a little nervous!' You bet! (See pic).

Believe it or not Franco designed a motor cycle with no wheel centres at all - only fresh air! The front wheel is controlled by a gripper steering device which runs on bearings and houses the brake system. The rear wheel is controlled by a similar gripper and the chain runs round the perimeter. Unfortunately I did not see the bikes as Franco had sold the project to Honda. Perhaps a sign of things to come.
(See pic).

In May last year I phoned Gordon Murray, McLaren Technical Director, to conduct a telephone interview with him about his memories of Kyalami. His main involvement with Kyalami was as Chief Designer for Brabham. This was for my book on the history of the circuit.

At the end of the interview Gordon asked me if I could find him either a GSM Dart or GSM Flamingo. Surprised I asked why as McLaren F1 designer (the three seater sports car) and the new Mercedes-Benz 300SLR-McLaren, two of the world's most sophisticated sports cars, would he want and old 1960s South African sports car. He said that as a student at the Durban Technical College ( about 1 000 miles from Cape Town along the east coast) he had always admired the GSM Darts and Flamingos and now wanted one for his collection. I tracked down a yellow 1964 Flamingo which I sent to Gordon.

The Darts and Flamingos have an interesting history. In 1956, Bob van Niekerk and Willie Meissner met up at the University of Stellenbosch (30 miles form Cape Town) where they were studying mechanical engineering. They spoke of building a South African sports car and Willie set sail for England, the capital of specialist sports car manufacture, to see what he could learn.

Not long after, Willie wrote to Bob about this wonderful new material, fibreglass. Bob also set sail for the UK and the two rented an apartment in Earls Court in London. They attended a course on fibreglass application. They then met up with fellow South African, Verster de Wit, who was working with the Rootes Group in Coventry as a stylist. The deal was that Bob and Willie would start on a quarter scale model in the apartment and Verster would come down at week ends to check out the styling. After 13 alterations Verster gave the green light and thereafter became involved with the design of the Sunbeam Alpine.

Near the apartment was the famous (infamous!!) Overseas Visitors Club (OVC) where the Colonials would hang out, ie Australians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders. During one booze up session Bob and Willie met up with fellow countryman, Ron Hickman, who eventually went on to design the Lotus Elan and Black & Decker Workmate. The trio then staggered to the apartment where Ron was asked to pass comment on the new model. He liked what he saw and gave the thumbs up. At the time Ron was a stylist for Ford of Great of Britain and was working on a British Ford sports car project destined mainly for the American market. Eventually the Ford marketing men came to the conclusion that the Austin-Healeys, MGs and Triumphs were so far ahead in the race that they canned the idea. The proposed Ford sports car actually had a Targa type top, years before Porsche.

A full size buck (plug) was then made for the Dart in South London and this Bob took back with him, as personal luggage, on the boat to Cape Town. The Glassport Motor Company (Pty) Ltd (GSM) was formed with Bob, Willie and Verster as equal partners. Work commenced on the prototype Dart which was powered by an 1172 cc Ford side valve engine. .Gearbox was Ford three speed and much else was from the Ford parts bin.

On January 1, 1958 Bob and Willie entered two Darts in a Cape Town race (don't forget it's summer then down the bottom end of Africa!) and walked away from the rest of the field. I was a junior crash marshal at that race.

Production commenced but Bob felt that the car had marketing potential in the UK. Leaving Willie behind to look after the Cape Town shop Bob returned to the UK with a body/chassis kit. There he was introduced to one John Scott who owned a Ford dealership in West Malling in Kent, Winsor Garage (not Windsor - reminds me of the joke about the American tourist who after a guided tour of Windsor Castle said he couldn't understand why they built it so close to Heathrow Airport! HeHe!)

Bob clearly needed an investor and John Scott said he was interested and then gave Bob a seemingly impossible challenge. Bob had arrived in Southampton on a Thursday and he was to build the car and enter it in a race at Brands Hatch the following Saturday and win. If he succeeded he would build him a new factory. Bob bought a 105E OHV engine and all the parts required and working round the clock, with help from John Passini of Willment, he built the car in nine days and was ready for race day. He found himself in the middle of the grid on a strange circuit and worked himself up to second pace behind an Austin-Healey Sprite. On the last lap the Healey rolled and Bob took the chequered flag.

John Scott was true to his word and a new factory was built close to the Ford garage. As name Dart was registered in the UK the car was re-named the Delta.

Winsor Motors had a dynamometer which Eric Broadley used. One day Eric arrived with a 105E engine for testing and Bob noticed that he was rigging up a 15ft long throttle cable. Why so long asked Bob, to which Eric replied that he was going to do an experiment that might not work. The little engine was revved to 6000 rpm,, then to 7000 and at 8100 it blew up big time, with Eric far from the firing line! Broadley survived to design and build the Lola MK 6, which history will tell us, politics aside, was the forerunner to the GT40

Bob then campaigned his Dart all over the UK and Europe. He set up a lap record on the Brands Hatch short circuit which stood for seven years. On the Jabbeke Highway in Belgium the car was timed at 133 mph. In a Six Hour race at Clermont- Ferrand in France Bob came 14th out of 56 entrants, driving alone. In a three hour race at Silverstone Bob committed and unpardonable sin. He was so far in the lead that when he pulled into the pits he lit a cigarette and drove round the circuit puffing away! Flags were waving and the marshals were going bananas but ol Bob just went on puffing away at high speed. He must be the only man in the history of the sport to have smoked at the wheel.

It was at this race that Colin Chapman said he couldn't understand why the Dart was quicker than his Lotus Sevens. Bob said that the Lotus had a blunt stubby nose and the Dart a pointed streamlined nose. Little was known at the time about streamlining not even by the clever and innovative Chapman.

A Delta was sent to the 1960 New York Motor Show where in a Gallup Poll it was voted the second most interesting car after the Jaguar E-Type. Sadly after 76 Deltas were built, some of which went to the US and Canada, Scott's auditors ruled that the company wasn't making money and a brave venture came to an end.

Bob returned to South Africa and work commenced on the coupe version of the Dart, the Flamingo. In the meantime the Dart had built up an impressive race record back home and the new coupe was a logical progression.

In 1963 the expanding GSM company required additional capital and sold a 51% equity to a large finance group.

In October, 1964 in yet another trip to the UK, Bob and the president of the finance company took over a white Flamingo coupe on a marketing drive for GSM. I was working for the Stirling Moss Paint-a-Car company at the time and arranged for Stirling to test drive the Flamingo early one Saturday morning. We duly arrived at 46 Shepherd St, behind the Hilton Hotel, off Park Lane and Stirling appeared in pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers and set off to thrash the Flamingo round Hyde Park. With bated breath we waited and upon his return he said that the car was good looking and had great road holding but as a car from the 'Colonies' how would it stand up against AC, Diva, Elva, Ginetta, Lotus, Marcos, TVR, etc. Good question! Stirling Moss (now Sir Stirling) has lived in that same house since 1958 I think. That has to be some sort of record given the number of times the rest of us have moved house!

Sadly in 1965 the hard nosed finance boys couldn't see a future in a South African sports car and as in England the shutters came down. End of GSM.

A total of 150 Flamingos and 116 Darts was built and today these cars have become much sought after collector's items.

A sad Bob turned his back on cars and went into speed boat and hull design specialising in catamarans. Since then and until today, aged 75, Bob has designed some amazing boats.

BIG NEWS! Recently Jimmy Price contacted Bob and suggested a new 1963 Dart. This car is now being developed by Hi-Tech Automotive and I don't think old Bob can quite get over the fact his beloved Dart is ABOUT TO BE RE-BORN 47 YEARS LATER!

On the Monday after my visit to Franco Sbarro I called on Gordon Murray at McLaren HQ in Woking, Surrey, to see if the Flamingo arrived safely and to discuss one or two outstanding parts. I noticed a silver McLaren F1 parked in front of the building. Gordon said that he normally commutes to work in a Smart but that he brought the McLaren specially for me and that he would like to invite me to lunch to his favourite Italian restaurant in nearby Chobham.

The F1 is something else and clearly from another planet. It's a strange feeling sitting offset and slightly behind the driver in central position. When we pulled into the car park Gordon said with a grin that this Italian restaurant is probably the only one in the world with McLaren posters on the wall! How's that Rory!

After a fantastic lunch we set off for Woking on a damp road. At about 30 mph Gordon said hold tight. That is the fastest I've ever gone from 30 mph to XYZ mph (classified info). Way in the distance was a green Ford Transit van and all I could see was this van reversing towards us at an incredible speed! Anyway, that is what it felt like.

Back at the factory Gordon pushed a Confidentiality Agreement in front of me and said if I signed it he would show me the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR-McLaren prototypes. These amazing cars just have to be the ultimate in high tech auto engineering. Some of the circuit boards boggled my simple old mind. Officially launched at Frankfurt in September the road launch took place in Cape Town in November/December. Seven cars were brought out for 170 motoring journos from all over the world to test drive. Believe it or not some idiot in a VW Golf went through a red light in central Cape Town and went smack into one the 300SLRs. Wasn't his lucky day! The cars will be built by McLaren in a beautiful new factory next to a lake and it'll be the first time that a Mercedes-Benz product will be built outside one of its own factories.

There was yet another treat in store. Gordon gave me an autographed copy of the book on the build of the F1, entitled,'Driving Ambition'. This 272 page coffee table book is one of the finest car books I've ever seen and holds pole position in my book shelf.

On the flight back to Cape Town I couldn't wipe the grin off my face - Sbarro on Sunday, Murray on Monday - two very special days in my life! Imagine these two wacky guys in partnership. What would we see, a ten wheeled dragster with centre seat and no wheel centres heading for Mars at 1000 mph!

The pics are as follows in the next postings:

Sbarro GT40 with unusual rear end; Dragster; Motor Cycle; GSM Dart; Gordon Murray;s GSM Flamingo; F1 in car park; Gordon Murray in F1; F1 steering wheel shot; F1 me in car.

This post has been kinda long but I hope you've enjoyed a bit of history!

Protect and value motoring history!.
I know Henry Ford said, 'History is bunk'. Not sure that I agree!
Andre 40


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Andre, what a fascinating post! What fun to spend time with two such colorful members of the car universe. I couldn't help smiling while reading about the Flamingo--imagine a car company introducing a new model in this day and age and calling it that.

Lynn Larsen

Lynn Larsen
Andre, thank you so much for letting those of us who are frustrated engineers, designers, drivers, what have you, who can only wish we were involved in the automotive world as a profession, to live vicariously through the wonderful snippets of your life that you share with us. They are well and truly the next best thing to being there.

Hooo boy, me an computers! Back to the College of Knowledge!

Members would start new threads with specific titles and then post pics that would follow in succession under the same title but as separate posts. This is what I tried and got the message the title was already is use. I then did separate pic posts and obviously got it all wrong.

Please advise! Last time 'iraceone' (Dan) you were the Good Samaritan.

Under the circumstances please read the following pics together with this thread:

Sbarro dragster
Sbarro motor cycle
McLaren F1 in car park
Gordon Murray in McLaren F1
McLaren F1 cockpit shot
Gordon Murray's 1964 GSM Flamingo
GSM Dart

Ignore the first post under this same title dated 12.22 PM. It is a repeat of the Sbarro dragster.

Get it right first time!
Andre 40

Just reply to your original post instead of selecting Create New Topic, and the replies will follow in-line in the same thread...
Intending to pour a fair bit of cold water on these interesting comments about Monsieur Sbarro, and being fully willing to stand by and substantiate my following comments, according to GT40 historian Ronnie Spain as well as court records from Switzerland, Sbarro's work in the GT40 arena has been something less than honest and legitimate, as he has: (1) built four GT40s on tubs of his own construction and then claimed that these were original cars with authentic FAV chassis numbers (1033, 1040, 1048 and 1078); (2) taken in an original GT40 for restoration (1048) but returned to its owner one of the Sbarro GT40 replicas posing as the original car (Sbarro subsequently sold the original, an interesting move given that he did not have title to it); (3) claimed in writing that he never sold an original car (1040) when in fact he did sell it and acknowledged in that transaction that it was the original 1040; (4) been sued at least twice by owners of original GT40s and/or the phony Sbarro GT40s that were claimed to be originals; Sbarro lost at least two cases. While Sbarro may be an excellent automotive engineer and designer, his business ethics leave much to be desired, and that's being very generous. DISCLAIMER: I own original GT40 #1040 and hence am a victim of Sbarro's shady practices. Feel free to contact me directly if anyone wants more info.

Jim Rosenthal

Hi Andre,
Glad you enjoyed your visit with Mr Sbarro. He has had some interesting ideas, but he seems to have a rather elastic idea of what property is and several people have ended up on the short end of deals with him. No question he has creative ability, or employs those who do, but some of his creativity seems to extend to appropriating that which belongs to other folks. Did you check to make sure all your valuables were there when you left? /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/grin.gif
Hi Cobraowner (Don) and Jim Rosenthal,

Thank you for the info.

The new GT40 company has every book on the GT40 including Ronnie Spain's well know version. As I've only ever paged through them I missed the Sbarro GT40 and legal issues.

I became aware of Franco Sbarro when he built a road going Lola T70 in 1969. Since then the rest and the world and I would wait with bated breath to see what he would be introducing at successive Geneva Motor Shows.

Thanks again.
Andre 40
There is no question that Sbarro has world-class talent and skills as an automotive designer and engineer, which makes his shenanigans with his cloned GT40s all the more puzzling. Skittishness about becoming embroiled in potential legal wranglings has led the Shelby American Automobile Club (SAAC) to stear clear of explicit text in its Registry about the Sbarro cars, although the entries for GT40 nos. 1033, 1040, 1048 and 1078 do have a vague mention of "...a car using the same chassis number but not an original chassis is believed to have been constructed" (paraphrasing). I would guess that publishers of other GT40 books would have similar concerns. Ronnie Spain of course has many pages of documentation on this issue, and I have copies of some of the Swiss court proceedings.
Interesting, the Sbarro thing, I met a Chap in France by the name of Van den Doorn (i think spelling is correct)
he was a victim of Sbarro's dealings, I think he gave Sbarro an original car for restoration and got back a copy with the old chassis plate, Sbarro then sold the original car. Through the legal process Van den Doorn took a settlement of money and one (or some) panteras and kept the clone GT40. I believe he has recently offered this car for sale at auction. He offered me some of his spares -at Sbarro prices-!
By 1980, Sbarro was only reasonably well known. Apart from around 12 Lola T-70 replicas (with the blessing of Eric Broadley), most of his cars were one-off replicas (Bugatti Royale, BMW 328 etc) which cost a fortune to design/develop/build. He is much better known for what he has produced since 1980 - but at that time he needed the cash to develop a number of projects. He surely must have known he'd be found out, but I guess desperate times brought desperate measures - and some honest people got well and truly burned.

Following the Van Den Doorn v Sbarro lawsuit, I heard that J-P Van Den Doorn, who had asked Sbarro to restore his original GT40 (P1048), was awarded the Sbarro GT40 replica which Sbarro had passed off as the original, two Lola replicas (including a Chevy powered T-70) and a large chunk of cash (not sure how much) in compensation.

As Roy said, Sbarro had previously sold the real P1048 (with another Ford chassis tag) in 1980. The owner asked Ronnie Spain to check things out and this car is now recognised as the original, although the Van Den Doorn car still carries the original P1048 tag. Confused? /ubbthreads/images/graemlins/crazy.gif

Hi Roy and Bob,

The plot thickens. I had no idea and am sad to hear all this.

Roy, soon I'll post the GT40 pics I took of the Goodwood Revival Meeting. There's a good one of Chris Melia, Brain Magee and you.

What do you think, does Goodwood beat Mk 1Vs heaven?

Best wishes,
Andre 40
Hi MK-1V J6, Steve Toner, Snakeeyes and Lynn,

Thanks for your kind words.

I mention that I know some well known racing characters in my posts. Don't want to sound like a big deal.

Grew up in a suburb of Cape Town, father school teacher. No money in family, totally middle class! Was lucky to get a job with Porsche in their export/sales dept in 1962. Opened up a much bigger world for a yokel from the southern tip of Africa.

Joined Stirling Moss's Paint-a-Car System in London in 1964. More opportunities to meet well-known racing people. As I have always enjoyed meeting and networking with people from distant lands I've valued and kept in touch with these people.

As I've been a freelance journalist since 1965 in London I've enjoyed interviewing and writing about many of the people I was fortunate to have met.

Often when I bash away at the keyboard I wonder do the forum members really want to hear about all these stories from the past. Experience tells me that whenever I write retro articles for local and UK magazines they are well received.

With the explosion in recent years of classic racing worldwide and retro cars like the new Mini, the Jagaur S-type, the PT Cruiser, the new Beetle and now the Ford GT it would appear that the older generation want's to buy back its youth!

Nostalgia is improving!
Andre 40

PS Thanks Steve for the advice on posting pics. Dumb! Should have figured it out myself. Not only does the older generation want to buy back its youth it wishes it can buy back computer experience from six year olds!