Bill Frick may be best known as the mechanical genius behind the Fordillac and, later, the Studillac, but his automotive dreams were grander than dropping Cadillac engines in someone else’s cars. Partnering with Italian coachbuilder Alfredo Vignale, Frick produced three Bill Frick Specials in the late 1950s, of which one is known to survive today. On June 5, this 1957 Bill Frick Special GT Coupe will cross the auction block in Connecticut as part of Bonhams Greenwich Concours d’Elegance sale.
Born in Berlin, Germany, in the closing years of the First World War, Bill Frick made his way to the United States in the mid-1930s. From his early days, Frick earned a living by making cars go faster, and more often than not this trick involved swapping an engine from one manufacturer into the chassis of another. His first engine swap involved dropping a 1924 Dodge four-cylinder into a Model A Ford, but the looming shadow of the Second World War would soon divert Frick’s attention from automobiles to airplanes.
In the buildup to the war, Frick worked for a company producing airplane parts, but soon progressed to assembling aircraft, flight testing them, and later, servicing aircraft in the remote corners of the globe. When the war ended, Frick returned to the United States and set up a shop in Rockville Center, New York, where his company specialized in performance-oriented engine conversions, building race cars on the side. Frick was a racer himself, and so was his business partner, Phil Walters, who raced under the pseudonym Ted Tappett.
The shop’s tow vehicle was a 1949 Ford infused with overhead valve Cadillac V-8 power, a car that Frick referred to as the Fordillac. When the team was denied entry into an SCCA event with its a race-prepared stock car, Walters hit on the idea of entering the stock-appearing Fordillac, which SCCA officials approved for competition. Though not designed or built as a race car, “Ted Tappett” managed a surprising podium finish, drawing the attention of Briggs Cunningham in the process.
Cunningham approached the team to find out more about the Fordillac, ordering one on the spot and starting a relationship that would soon see Frick preparing cars for Cunningham’s 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans effort. Though history records the two Cunningham Cadillacs (the “Clumsy Pup” Coupe de Ville and the slab-sided Le Monstre) finishing 10th and 11th that year, few know that Cunningham’s real intent was to run a Fordillac at Le Mans instead. His plan was ended after Walters gave 1949 race winner Luigi Chinetti a ride in a Fordillac, prompting Chinetti to complain to Le Mans officials about these “hot rodded” American cars.
Following the 1950 Le Mans race, Cunningham bought out Frick-Tappet Motors and moved the operation to Florida, where he began work on a car capable of winning Le Mans. Though Frick followed the operation south, he’d only agree to spend part of his time working for the B.S. Cunningham Company in West Palm Beach, Florida. One-third of the year was still spent in New York, where Bill Frick Motors continued to produce Cadillac-engined Fords and Studebakers (Studillacs).
When Studebaker changed the styling of its cars for the 1955 model year, demand for Studillacs went away almost overnight. Sensing that there was still a demand for a stylish grand touring automobile built around a Studebaker chassis and a Cadillac engine, Frick turned to Alfredo Vignale, who had produced bodies for most of Cunningham’s automobile production.
Frick and Vignale settled on a coupe design (sketched by Giovanni Michelotti) for a demonstrator model, and Frick supplied the Italian coachbuilder with a 331-cu.in overhead-valve Cadillac V-8 powered Studebaker chassis. Vignale’s artisans then hand-crafted an aluminum body, beating panels by hand over sandbags instead of a more traditional wooden buck. The process was labor-intensive and definitely not scalable, but that wasn’t a concern to Frick, who realized that price alone would limit the market for his Specials.
The demonstrator coupe was returned as something of a work in process, requiring Frick and his team to finish wiring the car and perform required mechanical adjustments. The design was stunning enough to prompt a customer order, though buyer George Clark specified that his Special be constructed as a convertible. Vignale complied, and once again the car was returned from Vignale in a less-than finished state.
By the time the company received its second order, for a coupe with a roll-back cloth roof, Frick believed he was more prepared. After making the usual modifications to the Studebaker chassis (stiffening the frame to reduce flex and upgrading the suspension with firmer shocks; higher spring rates; a larger anti-roll bar; and track bars to reduce wheel hop), Frick installed the Cadillac engine. This time, he also supplied Vignale with wiring, instruments, windshield wipers, door locks, and window regulators, expecting to receive a delivery-ready automobile for customer John Blodgett, Jr., by return shipment.
Instead, the car returned was incomplete, missing most of the components supplied to Vignale by Frick. Despite charging roughly $10,000 for the two Bill Frick Specials sold, the fledgling automaker began to realize that with the time and money spent on completing each build, the company was actually losing money on every car sold. The coupe delivered to Blodgett, the car seen here, would be the very last Bill Frick Special ever completed.
Vignale had saved the best for last, and compared to the demonstrator, the Blodgett coupe was a far more polished automobile. As John Matras wrote in Special Interest Autos #143, both used a two-tone livery with a black roof, but the Blodgett coupe wore trim rings around the headlamps and placed its front turn signals just above the bumper instead of higher on the fenders. Giving the car a sense of speed, both A and C pillars on the Blodgett coupe were raked rearward, and the car’s trunk sloped sharply toward the rear bumper, highlighting the coupe’s subtle tailfins. The demonstrator carried the Bill Frick Special script on the front fenders with the Vignale badge on the rear quarters, but the production coupe reversed this.
While the demonstrator and convertible Frick Specials were aluminum-bodied, the Blodgett car was crafted of steel, a fact unbeknownst to Frick until interviewed for the SIA article in 1994. Though steel panels would have added weight to the car, this likely would have been transparent to Blodgett, who had little to benchmark the car against. Besides, with a split bench seat described by Matras as a “leather-covered sofa” and a rear seat that served up “lounge car comfort” once occupants went through the gymnastics necessary to climb into the space, the Frick Special was more adept at devouring highway miles at high speed than strafing the apex of corners on a road course.
Blodgett, the head of several successful timber companies, received his coupe in 1957 and retained possession until the mid-1960s. During his time with the car the transmission was changed from the four-speed Pont-a-Mousson that Blodgett had specified to a more durable T10 pulled from a donor Pontiac. The engine’s internals were (slightly) upgraded, too, with Lincoln pistons installed in an effort to boost compression and with it, performance. Once tired of his unique Italian-American hybrid coupe, Blodgett passed the car down to his secretary, who drove the Frick Special until 1970 before selling it to Emmet Boitz.
Boitz reportedly used the coupe as a weekend driver, changing its primary color from blue to silver during the three years he kept the car. Its next owner was Earl Benz, who kept the car out of sight for much of the 15 or so years he owned it, using it sparingly and never showing it in public. Sold to a California used car dealer, the car hopped dealer lots for period and eventually wound up painted red before being acquired by the consignor in November of 1989.
The original demonstrator Bill Frick Special was sold with Bill Frick Motors in 1959, and has since disappeared. As of 1994, the convertible was off the radar, too, though it reportedly remained with the Clark family throughout its life. That makes this red coupe the sole known survivor, and a five-owner car that has survived the decades remarkably well. Given its unique place in automotive history, Bonhams predicts a selling price between $180,000 and $220,000 when the last Bill Frick Special crosses the auction stage in June.
For complete details on the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance Auction, visit Bonhams.com.