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Split apart, stolen, and misidentified, Fageol’s Supersonic/Pataray led a tortured existence

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photo courtesy the owner.

For the short period of time that the Fageol Supersonic existed as the Fageol Supersonic, it wowed the world. All ray gun spaceship cool and unlike anything else on the road, it could do no wrong. Built by master craftsmen, it lapped Indy at incredible speeds and attracted media attention like a Hollywood starlet in the days before Motoramas and car magazines. And then, it disappeared, torn apart and rebuilt and split into two, its history obscured and obfuscated, and only now is its full story coming to light as its successor, the Pataray, is getting prepared for public display once again.

“I sat in it and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, this is it,'” said Ray Fageol, scion of the twin-engine bus-building family. “It has the right engine, all the suspension, all in the right chassis.”

If anybody, Ray would know. Though in his eighties, he sounds like a man decades younger with the lifetime experience of a man decades older. He still runs his own business in San Diego, still makes deliveries when called on, and can still rattle off his memories of the Supersonic and the Pataray like they happened yesterday.

“I was at the races with Dad in Detroit when this guy approached us and asked if we wanted to buy this car he had,” Ray said, recalling the day in 1948 when the story began for him.

The guy was Joel Thorne, a millionaire playboy who had raced in the Indianapolis 500 before the war, whose George Robson-driven car won the 1946 Indy 500, and who had paid Frank Kurtis to build him a three-wheeled car called the Californian that later went on to become the Davis Divan. In the late Thirties, while Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were building larger and more streamlined cars to capture the world land-speed record for Germany and while George Eyston and John Cobb were swapping the record back and forth, Thorne tasked Art Sparks – the engineer who built his Indy cars – with building a twin Miller-engined race car capable of running faster than the Germans or the Brits. Sparks, in turn, had Emil Diedt hammer out an aluminum body for the racer.


Photos courtesy Kustomrama.

The car was sleek, streamlined, and after nearly a decade of construction, incomplete. As the legend goes, Thorne had overspent his allowance and needed to free up some cash to spend on women, so he offered it to Ray’s father for $2,500, unbeknownst to Sparks.

Ray’s father, Lou Fageol, had the money. His father and his uncles started Fageol Motors and, later, Twin Coach, building trucks and buses out of San Francisco and Kent, Ohio. After the war, buoyed by military production, Twin Coach entered a period of expansion, establishing new manufacturing facilities, introducing new or newly redesigned buses, and even going so far as to power those new products with its own overhead-camshaft six-cylinder engine that could be powered by either gasoline or propane.

Lou Fageol also liked to spend his money on racing. Though he started in powerboats, by the late Thirties he decided to race at Indy. “Dad got wind of Ford wanting to scrap its Miller-Fords, so he bought six of them,” Ray Fageol said. His wife, Caryl, barred him from driving, so Lou Fageol simply hired other drivers, including Mel Hansen, who drove one of the six Miller-Fords in the 1941 race but retired just a dozen or so laps in. After the war, Lou Fageol returned to Indy, first with the twin-Offenhauser four-wheel-drive Fageol Twin Coach Special in 1946 (DNF, lap 16, crash), then with an aluminum bus engine-powered special in 1948 (DNF, lap 161, broken tie rod).

Other than its aluminum construction, the engine in the latter was exactly the same as the six-cylinder engines that Lou Fageol had designed for the Twin Coach buses. “We built around 10 or 12 total, built special for racing, including some that were turbocharged and some that were 18-valve engines,” said Ray Fageol. “He put the one in the Indy car so he could take customers into the bus plant and say that this is the same engine that ran at Indy.”

The publicity – especially that garnered from a 2,500-mile tire endurance test for Firestone in the same car at Indy not long after the 1948 race – cemented the engine’s reputation for reliability, but Lou Fageol saw Thorne’s offer of the streamliner as an opportunity to keep the publicity train going, so he wrote a check to Thorne on the spot and had Thorne deliver the streamliner to the Fageol shops in Kent.

Lou Fageol either didn’t receive or found no need for the chassis that Thorne had under the streamliner. Instead, according to Ray Fageol, he called up Benson Ford and requested a Lincoln chassis, which had a 125-inch wheelbase to match that of the streamliner. In place of the Lincoln’s V-12 engine, Fageol had the Twin Coach mechanics install a 275hp 404-cu.in. aluminum Fageol racing engine, mated to the Lincoln’s overdrive transmission. Because the Fageol engine had much more bottom-end torque than the V-12, Ray Fageol said, his father decided to call up a friend at Packard to order one of that company’s rear axles with a 4.06:1 ratio, which he then had mounted to the Lincoln’s springs. Lou Fageol then spent some time modifying the suspension, adding torsilastic springs up front and a cross-link system designed to keep the chassis from leaning out in turns.

The body of the streamliner also got a working over. Gone was the monoposto cockpit, replaced with a two-seat cabin complete with a wraparound windshield, roof that hydraulically retracted into the fastback, a seat cribbed from a Fageol bus, and a speedometer lifted from one of the Miller-Fords. In the interest of aerodynamics, the body had flush headlamps and no doors.

Dubbed the Supersonic, it debuted at Indy in 1949. According to Ray, his father actually intended it to race – “It wasn’t just an exhibition car,” he said – but for some reason it got bumped from the 33-car lineup. As a consolation, Wilbur Shaw drove it on a few exhibition laps, during which it reached 125 MPH on the straights. Theoretically, it could have hit 150 MPH flat out – not anywhere near the land-speed record of the day, but remarkable enough for a single-engine streetable car.

Though it never competed, the Supersonic continued to serve as a publicity vehicle for the company. When Fageol started to push its new propane-powered buses in 1950, Lou Fageol had the Supersonic converted to propane and then sent it out on a nationwide tour to tout the benefits of the fuel.

Not long after, presumably impressed by the car’s ability to draw crowds, Hudson officials looking to create a sort of concept car called up Lou Fageol. “They asked him to build them a Supersonic body for their two-door Hornet, except the timeframe was so tight it just couldn’t be done, so Dad just lifted the body off the chassis and modified it to fit the Hudson,” Ray said. Everything underneath – chassis, drivetrain, suspension – came from Hudson, as did the doors and rear quarters. The flush headlamps moved to the fenders and the bladed bumpers got some tweaks to fit the new body. It apparently then made its way to Hudson’s headquarters in Detroit, according to Harry F. Kraus’s “Fun at Work, Hudson Style:”

The car was driven to Detroit and was supposed to have been delivered to the styling group on the third floor of Hudson’s engineering building in the dark of night. Naturally, the plan went wrong. Some wiring got pinched in the steering linkage and the resulting short circuit burned out most of the electrical harness. We all learned the hard way in those days.

Under the hood there was all the usual wiring to be replaced, as well as, as I recollect, a Hudson Twin-H engine… I understand, by rumor only, that this car was once a Hudson convertible and had the body removed and the chassis stretched. Only a few areas of the sheet metal could be recognized as Hudson.

Lou Fageol turned his attention to his dual-engined Porsche afterward. The Supersonic chassis, stripped of its streamliner body but still sporting its aluminum engine, remained in Ohio, where Lou Fageol had it sent off to the family farm in Ravenna. There it sat until 1952, when Ray – then a student at Kent State University – got permission from his father to build another car from the chassis. “I hot-footed it out there with a can of gas, fired it up, and drove it back to the development shop at the engine plant (in Kent),” Ray said.

There he enlisted the help of Frankie Stooler and Dave Rankin, who he described as masters in shaping aluminum and steel, respectively. “Between those two, they could build anything,” Ray said. At Ray’s direction, the two removed the tail section from the crashed 1946 Indy special and added it to the back of the new body they patched together from Oldsmobile 88 quarter panels, Chevrolet front fenders and grille, a drop tank cut in half for a hood, and plenty of steel in between. With a wraparound windshield and a blue-and-yellow paint two-tone paint scheme, along with the interior from the Supersonic – down to the Miller-Ford speedometer, Ray christened it the Pataray, a combination of his and his wife’s first names.

“We had fun with it,” Ray said. He licensed it for the street in Ohio, showed it at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and even saw it appear on the cover of the May 1953 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, dubbed the Fageol Special (sans Tom McCahill road test inside that issue, unfortunately).

However, when he and Pat moved to the West Coast a few years later, “I needed it like a hole in the head,” he said. “I was married, we had a little boy, and I was working to keep our heads above water, so it wasn’t too practical.” He gifted the Pataray to Rankin, who in turn sold it off. The last Ray had heard of it for a long time, the Pataray existed in a museum in Florida.

Then, decades later, both the Hudson-ified car and the Pataray showed up. The former in the hands of Robert DeMars, who later put it on display in the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California; the latter in the hands of Speed shop owner and car show promoter Don Tognotti. After showing it – still in its blue-and-yellow paint scheme – at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1995, Tognotti then consigned it with a collector car dealer in San Diego.

Ray, who by then had settled in San Diego, got wind of the Pataray in his own backyard and showed up at the dealership to check it out. Because he showed up after hours on a Sunday, he only got a glimpse of it through the showroom windows behind other cars for sale. He resolved to return the next day, but when he did, he found that somebody had stolen it from the showroom between his two visits.

The theft of the car was likely the least of Tognotti’s worries. His businesses were ailing, his debts were mounting, and his wife, Paula, suffered from a chronic disease. His insurance company paid for the theft. Shortly before Christmas in 2000, he killed his wife and himself.

For the last 20-plus years, almost nobody had seen or heard of the Pataray’s whereabouts. Its disappearance – not to mention the incomplete and sometimes inaccurate references to the Supersonic, the Fageol-bodied Hudson, and Pataray in contemporary sources – allowed a good amount of confusion to flourish among auto historians (including your author). Nobody quite knew how the two cars’ histories were intertwined, or if they just happened to be two separate products of a well-off industrial family’s desire to build fast cars.

Two complicating factors didn’t help set the story straight, either. First, according to Ray, DeMars took to calling the Fageol-built Hudson the Supersonic and began collecting the parts necessary – a Lincoln frame, a Packard rear axle – to return it back to its Supersonic guise; he even tried purchasing one of the few remaining aluminum Fageol six-cylinders from Ray himself. Second, in an effort to keep amateur investigators from looking for the Pataray, that car’s thief reportedly spread rumors that Tognotti hadn’t actually killed himself and that a shadowy criminal organization had instead pulled the trigger.

The latter turned out to be utterly bogus, according to the Pataray’s current owner, who wishes to remain anonymous for now. Instead, the thief kept the car under cover, eventually moving it to a storage facility in Palm Springs, California.

Meanwhile, the car’s current owner, who said he collects special-bodied cars and saw the Pataray as his holy grail, began a search for the car. He hired a private investigator, reached out to Ray to get the car’s story, then made a deal with the Tognotti family to purchase any rights they had to the car, “not even knowing whether they still wanted to pursue it.” Four or five years passed with no leads. The break in his pursuit of the car, however, came when he placed an ad in Hemmings Motor News looking for the Pataray and offering a $5,000 reward for any information that led to it.

Somebody who saw the car in the storage facility happened to see the ad and called the private investigator who, in turn, showed up at the storage facility, where he discovered that the thief was already many months behind on his storage fees. “The thief had told the storage facility people that it was a prop from the Batman movies that never got used,” the current owner said. “When the private investigator showed up, he pulled out the issue of Mechanix Illustrated and told them the truth.”

The current owner then worked with a lawyer to not only pay off the back storage fees but also to find the insurance company that bought out Tognotti’s insurance account in order to obtain title to the car.

Since then, he’s had Ray look the car over to confirm that it is indeed Ray’s old roadster. Other than a McCulloch supercharger and some suspension modifications to fit the supercharger, likely installed by Tognotti, Ray said it’s all there, down to the bus seat and Miller-Ford speedometer.

While the current owner said he would jump at the chance to pair the Pataray chassis with the Fageol-bodied Hudson to restore the Supersonic to its 1949 state, he said the latter – which DeMars has since sold – isn’t likely to come up for sale again anytime soon.

“In a sense, it is the missing Supersonic,” he said. “Though to me, (the Pataray is) still a seriously cool car in its own right. My interest right now is to let people know that this car still exists – that this is the Fageol Supersonic with a second body.”

Showing it is in the cards too, he said, though he has yet to determine whether it’ll require any restoration or reconditioning beyond removing the supercharger before he does.

He’ll also certainly have to take Ray Fageol for a spin in it. “It bothers the hell out of me that he hasn’t fired it up,” Ray said. “I didn’t get to drive it when I saw it.”

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