Peter Brock. Photo by Curt Scott.
Given his remarkable achievements in the automotive and racing world, Peter Brock is a man who should need little introduction to anyone passionate about automobiles. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Hemmings Motor News Concours d’Elegance, and we recently had an opportunity to ask him a few questions in advance of his appearance at the Gideon Putnam Resort on Saturday, September 26.
Kurt Ernst: You were, at the time, the youngest designer ever hired by General Motors. How intimidating was it to walk into GM’s Design Center at age 19?
Peter Brock: It was hardly intimidating at all. The thing to remember is that everyone who worked there was a car guy, and as designers we all had something in common. Everyone was willing to share information, and we all worked together as a team. At that age it was exhilarating, not intimidating.
The 1959 Stingray Racer. Photo courtesy GM Media.
KE: How much influence did you have with the styling of the 1963 Corvette? Did Chevrolet abandon the shape of the second-generation Corvette too soon?
PB: In November of 1957, under the direction of Bill Mitchell, I sketched a car that would go on to become the Stingray Corvette. Per the corporate ban on motorsports, such a car couldn’t be shown to GM’s directors. Even after it had been “discovered” GM would not allow it to carry the Chevrolet nameplate or called a Corvette. Mitchell ran the car with his own money and received great public acclaim for the design. That convinced GM management to allow the Corvette to continue. If it had not been for Mitchell there would be no Corvettes today! The project was developed in secret, and none of us knew if Bill Mitchell had other teams working on the same thing, but when all the designs were in, Mitchell liked my sketch the best and this was developed into the Sting Ray.
The Stingray Racer concept was well received by the public, and it clearly influenced the shape of the second-generation Corvette, which was refined into the production version by designers Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine (who later left GM to head up design at Porsche).
The later Manta Ray concept was a favorite of Bill Mitchell’s, and it went on to shape the third generation Corvette. It’s safe to say that Mitchell wanted the third generation Corvette to hit the market as soon as possible, even if it wasn’t a major step forward for the car’s engineering. When it came to styling, Mitchell was a wild man, but he was stymied by government regulations and cost.
KE: Plans for Carroll Shelby’s G.T. 350R Mustang originally called for an independent rear suspension, later abandoned for cost reasons. Do you think this would have made a significant difference in the car’s performance, and do you think that costs could have been contained to a reasonable level?
PB: The independent rear suspension that Ford’s engineer Klaus Arning designed for the Shelby G.T. 350R Mustang wasn’t that expensive to produce, but it was labor intensive to retrofit on a car that had been designed to use a live axle. Time was another factor in the decision – we didn’t have enough of it. Then, the G.T. 350R proved competitive with its original setup, and in racing when something ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.
Peter working on the front valence of the “updated” Shelby G.T. 350 in 2014.
KE: How did your recent bodywork changes improve the aerodynamics of the Shelby G.T. 350?
PB: The bodywork revisions for the “reimagined” Shelby G.T. 350s that I worked on last year, with project director Jim Marietta and some of the other original Venice crew, made a significant difference in performance, at least according to test driver Mike Eisenberg. The reshaped front valence is what the car should have used all along but we simply didn’t have time to tool it for production. I also designed a flexible rubber airdam to further improve the car’s aero. It comes within about a half-inch of the ground, but it’s sturdy enough to withstand damage if you hit a bump or run over track curbing. We are still doing development testing, but it looks promising.
KE: Your Kamm tail design for the Daytona coupe was revolutionary, and it’s safe to say you received some pushback on this until the design proved itself. What inspired you to embrace the work of German auto designer Wunibald Kamm?
PB: When I was working on the Stingray Racer concept, I came across some mimeographed pages in the GM library that showed designs from Kamm’s design institute, FKFS. This concept was developed in the late 1930s! An engineer named Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld had sketched his automobile outlines comparing a traditional three-box shape of the era to one with a flattened roofline and chopped-off rear which proved more aerodynamically efficient. Reinhard had learned these lessons firsthand, as a young motorcycle racer. He found that by changing the position of his body, he was able to reduce drag and ultimately achieve a higher top speed, and this helped him to capture the 1927 German championship against well-funded factory teams. Later he used those theories to rebody an SSKL Mercedes and win a major race with it at Avus.
The Daytona was my interpretation of von Koenig-Fachsenfeld’s designs, but similar work was being carried out in Italy simultaneously, at Alfa Romeo for example.
KE: Your success in tuning Datsun roadsters, 510s and 240Zs is legendary, but Brock Racing Enterprises also worked with Toyota until they shifted allegiance to Shelby. What kept Toyota from responding to the commercial (and racing) success of the Datsun 240Z?
PB: It didn’t take Toyota long to realize it had made a mistake with the 2000 GT. Inside, it was too small for the American market, and it was far too expensive to manufacture. The Datsun Z, on the other hand, was designed with American buyers in mind, and it was priced correctly for the market.
Toyota had already signed a deal with us to prepare the 2000 GTs, but they were romanced away by Carroll Shelby. I suppose we could have gone after them in court, but those were different times. As for why Toyota failed to go after the market captured by the Datsun Z, I think their failure with the Shelby-prepared 2000 GTs against the BRE 240Z’s was still too fresh in their mind.
KE: In 1972, you put BRE on hold to pursue an opportunity with Ultralite Products, a company you later grew into the largest hang gliding company in the world. Looking back, do you regret (temporarily) leaving the auto industry?
PB: I have no regrets at all. We’d lost the contract with Nissan when their race-savvy president Mr. Katayama retired. I didn’t have anything else pending on the automotive front, so the time was right for a change. It turned out to be one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.
Hang gliding in the U.S. got started at El Segundo, where an engineering project for the massive powerplant at the end of the LAX runway had left behind a massive man-made sand dune. Guys used to fly these homemade gliders built from bamboo, duct tape and Visqueen, so we really got in at the birth of the industry. Within a few years our products had advanced to the point where we won the World’s Cross Country soaring championships in six out of seven years. Instead of skimming the sand dunes we were flying at 15,000 feet and covering distances of 300 miles! We’d literally reinvented the airplane but made it foot-launched.
Things got complicated when our liability and legal costs began to eat away at profit margins, but by then our products had gotten to be so advanced that some were banned in competition. We’d designed and built a foot-launched, three axis controlled sailplane, that simply out-performed our old weight shift gliders. Modern variations of that design are still produced and sold in Europe today.
Superformance Daytona Coupe.
KE: You revisited the Daytona Coupe design working with Hi-Tech and Superformance in South Africa. How involved were you in the design and construction of these continuation cars?
PB: At first, I was reluctant to get involved at all. Hi-Tech president Jim Price called me two or three times, and each time I told him, “no thanks, I don’t want to build kit cars.” Finally, he sent me two tickets to South Africa, so I could witness his operation firsthand. It was immediately clear that he was building complete limited production automobiles of the highest quality, so I agreed to re-design the body of the continuation coupes for him. We shaped the body in foam, then I stayed on to supervise the tooling. In the years since, he’s built about 200 or so of these Brock Coupes.
KE: Your career has spanned a remarkable number of disciplines. What was your most satisfying professional role?
PB: Everything I’ve ever done has been satisfying to one degree or another, and I’m thankful that I’ve had a chance to revisit projects, like the Shelby G.T. 350R and the Daytona, where compromises were made in the name of cost or expediency. The recognition of my work on the Daytona Coupe received at this year’s Goodwood Revival was certainly memorable; I only wish that everyone originally involved in the project could have been there to share the experience with me.
KE: What projects come next for Peter Brock?
PB: Right now the Aerovault trailer is our primary focus. It’s designed for the serious gentleman racer or concours entrant as a premium, lightweight, low drag hauler that exceeds all others in terms of efficiency. Longer term, I’d love to design another high-performance front-engine coupe; the lure is still there.