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The coachbuilt hot rod: Fina Sport convertible prototype emerges from restoration

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Bonhams, except where noted.

Were anybody to compile it, the list of American auto enthusiasts who had the resources and the rationale to approach an Italian coachbuilding house in the Fifties and ask for a series-built sports-car body — not a very long list, mind you — should include New York car dealer Perry Fina. All the proof required for his inclusion will cross the block in Monterey next month when the one-off Fina Sport convertible comes up for sale.

It should come as no surprise that well-connected Americans at that time would want to offer their own spin on sports and sporting cars. After all, European sports cars had been all the rage since the end of World War II and American carmakers had only responded with high-performance dream cars, limited-production offerings like the Corvette, or personal-luxury cars like the Thunderbird.

Against that backdrop plenty of shadetree sports-car fans built their own fiberglass-bodied sports cars and a handful of others, from Brooks Stevens to Sterling Edwards to Earl Muntz, all took a swing at producing sporting cars entirely in America. Briggs Cunningham similarly tossed his hat into the ring, but farmed out body production to Vignale in Torino, Italy.

Fina undoubtedly knew Cunningham and followed the latter’s adventures in auto manufacturing. As a New York importer of European cars, most notably Allards, Fina’s client list likely resembled a who’s who of New York motoring society; as a sports-car racer himself — he campaigned a Nardi-Denese 6C Corsa-Barchetta at Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, and Palm Beach — he likely competed directly against Cunningham; and Fina even brokered a Cunningham C-3 in 1953 or 1954. Critically, Fina frequently employed Bill Frick of Rockville Center, New York, a frequent Cunningham collaborator, to perform engine swaps; Frick likely was behind the installation of a Cadillac V-8 in the aforementioned Nardi.

Fina Sport coupe. Image courtesy Alden Jewell.

So in about 1953 or 1954, Fina began laying plans to build his own luxury sports car. Rather than base it on a custom-built chassis as Cunningham did, Fina figured Ford’s 115-inch-wheelbase chassis would prove suitable and simple enough to repair anywhere in the United States. Likely with Frick whispering in his ear, Fina decided to use Cadillac 331-cu.in. V-8s rather than Ford’s flatheads or Y-blocks. And just as Cunningham did before him, Fina approached Vignale to build the bodies.

He introduced the first Fina Sport, a coupe with a curious split and upturned center bumper section in place of a grille, at the 1954 World Motor Sports Show at Madison Square Garden. Though he intended to go into production with what he called “the most beautiful sports family car in America,” he didn’t exactly make the prospect of buying a Fina Sport all that thrilling: Customers could order it with a stock 210-horsepower engine, a hotted-up 300-horsepower version, or maybe a Lincoln or Chrysler V-8; however they ordered it, customers would have to wait up to six months; and in the end, they’d pay $9,800, or maybe $14,000, Fina quoted both prices, each of which was a small fortune at a time when the Fords that Fina based the car on cost no more than $2,500.

The convertible version followed in 1956, still bodied by Vignale but featuring a front-end design that bears a resemblance to the Packard Panther and a number of design cues taken from an Aston Martin DB 2/4 that Vignale bodied not long prior. Notable features included Marchal headlamps, Borrani wire wheels, and a continental spare mounted in a two-piece decklid similar to those featured on Chrysler’s Flight Sweep I and II concept cars.

Aside from a series of photos taken when new — in which the convertible featured a two-tone paint scheme and wore New York dealer plates — little is known about its history. It sold new to a Chicago restaurant entrepreneur and remained in the Chicago area until early 2011 when the third owner sold it as a project in need of restoration to its current owner, collector Tedd Zamjahn of Greendale, Wisconsin, who commissioned a full restoration. Zamjahn then debuted the Fina at this year’s Elegance at Hershey, where it took the Most Impressive Limited Production Car award.

According to David Reed, who has probably researched the Fina more than anybody else, only two Fina Sports — the coupe and the convertible — are confirmed to exist, though a third may exist in Texas, and rumors swirl of one or two more in Europe. The coupe, currently in Pennsylvania, remains unrestored.

Consigned to the Bonhams Quail Lodge auction, the Fina Sport convertible (chassis number 7543) will cross the block August 24. No pre-auction estimate has been released for the car. For more information, visit Bonhams.com.