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Jack Griffith, the man who dared take on Shelby’s Cobra, dead at age 90

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Jack Griffith at Amelia Island, circa 2010. Photo by Jim Cowen, courtesy Automodello.

If fortune favors the bold, Andrew “Jack” Griffith must have been among the luckiest men in America. After serving his country in World War II, Griffith returned home to New York’s Long Island to resume a life forever linked to automobiles, ultimately giving the world the Shelby Cobra-challenging Griffith 200 (followed by the Griffith 400 and Griffith 600), the Toyota Sunchaser, and the AMC Sundancer. With Bill Warner, he co-founded the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 1996 and remained an active participant in the annual celebration of the automobile. On Sunday, January 8, Griffith died peacefully, age 90.

As author (and former company test driver) Mike Mooney relates in The Griffith Years, Jack’s first postwar job was selling cars at a Kaiser Frazer dealership in Glen Cove, Long Island. In his spare time, he began studying sound engineering via correspondence courses, progressing to the point where he found recording work in New York City. Forced to choose between cars and music, Griffith opted for the latter, branching out to start a used car lot with another Kaiser Frazer salesman. The partnership didn’t last long, and once again Griffith turned to audio work, this time with Oyster Bay radio station WKBS.

Cars remained first and foremost on his mind, and when Buffalo startup Playboy Motor Car Corporation announced it was taking on new dealerships, Griffith was eager to apply. When promised inventory never materialized, Griffith returned to selling Kaiser Frazers, at least temporarily. His first taste of success came in 1949, when he found himself in a position to purchase a Packard franchise in Rockville Center, Long Island.

This venture lasted until 1953, when Griffith sold the business and partnered with John White to form White-Griffith Motors De Soto and Plymouth in Hicksville. Four years later, White had moved on to other things, replaced by investor Lou Benny. The automobile brands changed as well, and the business evolved into White-Griffith Ford in 1957.

Griffith had a long-term passion for sports cars and racing, perhaps fueled by his 1947 purchase of a new MG TC. At one point a Jaguar franchise was added to Griffith’s dealership lineup, and when Carroll Shelby announced the Cobra in 1962, White-Griffith Ford was one of the car’s early retailers. Jack even campaigned a factory-prepared 289 Cobra in SCCA competition, but soon realized a career as a racing driver was not in the cards.

Through the SCCA, Griffith met Dick Monnich, a distributor for the low-volume British sports car brand TVR. In the fiberglass-bodied TVR Grantura III, Griffith saw potential, but not enough power. Borrowing a page from Carroll Shelby’s own playbook, Griffith and Monnich shoehorned a Ford 289 V-8 into the TVR, with the help of a dealership mechanic and some design work from a young New Jersey engineer named Mark Donohue, who also served as a (brave) test driver.

With the prototype assembled, Griffith traveled to Michigan to meet with Ford executives. Perhaps impressed by the presence of a functional concept, the automaker agreed to supply engines. TVR, in turn, agreed to supply Grantura body shells riding on a strengthened frame, beefed up to handle the output of the Ford V-8. The new Cobra-killer would be called the Griffith 200, and after signing up a small dealer network, Griffith set up a factory in Syosset to build the Anglo-American hybrids.

1965 Griffith 200

Don Antilla’s 1965 Griffith 200. Photo by Matt Litwin.

Roughly 400 pounds lighter than a 289 Cobra, Griffith 200s were exceptionally fast, but soon developed a reputation for unforgiving handling. A short 85-inch wheelbase (compared to 90-inches on the Cobra) complicated matters, as did brakes that were designed for a lighter and slower car. Flaws aside, nearly 200 examples were produced before TVR switched to the Grantura IV, prompting the launch of the Griffith 400.

Timing couldn’t have been worse. A dockworker strike on East coast delayed shipment of rolling chassis, and financial troubles at TVR complicated matters further. Just 59 examples were produced between 1964 and 1967, but by the end of the 400’s run it became clear a new supplier of bodies, and perhaps engines, was needed.

Turning to Carrozzeria Intermeccanica, Griffith set about building a new car, the Griffith 600, designed by Bob Cumberford, engineered by Mark Donohue and powered by a Chrysler V-8. This time, production was even shorter-lived, with just 10 examples constructed before Griffith ran out of funds. For a time, anyway, Jack Griffith was out of the automobile construction business.

That changed in the late 1970s, when Griffith partnered with his son, Jack Jr., to create The Griffith Company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. With automakers no longer building convertibles, this new venture created semi-convertible and targa variants of the Toyota Celica (known as the Sunchaser) and the AMC Eagle and Concord (known as the Sundancer).

In 1992, a reborn TVR licensed the Griffith name, honoring Jack’s efforts to promote the brand. Four years later, Griffith partnered with Bill Warner to create the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, an event that has grown in size, scope and majesty to become one of North America’s premier concours events. In Bill’s words, Jack “…was an integral part of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance since its inception.”

Sadly, Jack didn’t live to see the brand that bears his name rise from the ashes. In 2016, Mooney announced the rebirth of the Griffith Motorcar Company, along with his intent to produce the Griffith G-2, a low-volume automobile based upon the original 400 series. A Ford V-8-powered prototype is expected to be shown at GOGT-17 (Gathering of Griffiths & TVRs, 2017), to be held at Mid-Ohio in June 2017. If all goes as planned (and we’ll have more on this in an upcoming Hemmings Daily), the new Griffith model will be produced in the United States using top-shelf parts, and will challenge Shelby Cobra replicas on the vintage racing circuit.

Prior to Jack’s death, Griffith owner and friend of Hemmings Don Antilla wrote to Mooney, saying, “It’s disheartening to think that we soon may lose another icon of the days when innovators such as Jack could stir up Detroit with a hot rod that could clean the clock of anything coming down the Corporate production lines.”

We couldn’t think of a better way to remember Jack Griffith.