Hurling out of Road Atlanta’s esses, my heart is crossed with steering lock, my left ear is buzzed with exhaust blat, and the horn-button growler is baring teeth to bite my chest. The Cozzi-Jaguar Special strains at its leash as it sweeps through turn 5, scratching Dunlop claws into asphalt warmed by the noon sun. When I leg the throttle to leap out of the bend, the engine takes that opportunity to show who’s boss. Instead of more roar, I get a sneeze and a stumble. Air and fuel demand a meeting to settle grievances. A gentler nudge of the gas is what the tall six needs to shoulder the load and hustle my red racer along the back straight.
Even though the mixture isn’t dialed in and the brake bias is off, there is widespread elation when the Cozzi-Jaguar attacks the track after decades of dust and deprivation. Constructor Dan Cozzi is delighted that his mid-1950s creation eluded the crusher. The car’s current co-owners, David Hinton and Larry Ligas, smile because their fervent prayers–please, Lord, don’t let him wad up our treasure!–are answered.
Cozzi grew up in a pleasant San Francisco neighborhood and enjoyed an engineering career that included stints on one Formula 1 and two Formula 3 teams. He’s now retired in Tuscany. The luck of his draw was his mechanical genius and supportive elders. Instead of convincing him that car enthusiasm was a silly stage that would pass, Cozzi’s bank-manager father and his neighbor Bill Nielsen nudged his zeal onto fruitful paths.
The Cozzi-Nielsen friendship began when a wide-eyed boy on a bicycle spotted a chopped 1929 Ford roadster powered by a snarling flathead V-8. Instead of shooing the kid away, Nielsen invited Cozzi for a ride to the gas station. When he returned home with plans to build his own hot rod, Cozzi’s father said no before he consented to an alternative scheme–tearing down and building up a junkyard V-8 to learn what makes cars tick.
When Nielsen’s interests shifted from hot rods to sports cars, Cozzi came along for the ride. After helping soup up Nielsen’s 1948 MG TC in 1952, Cozzi bought a one-year-newer model of the same car with savings he’d earned sweeping floors at a local race shop and pumping gas.
Cozzi’s itch to build a quicker car than he could afford to buy was scratched by long consultations with his learned neighbor. Since speed was the priority, Nielsen recommended sourcing parts from a Jaguar XK120, a car he had owned.
It was a noble idea. The XK120 rooted Jaguar in every enthusiast’s soul. When it was unveiled in 1948, this 150-hp Jag laid claim to world’s-fastest-production-car status. Overhead-valve V-8s hadn’t yet arrived in America, Ferraris were barely a glimmer in Enzo’s eye, and Porsches wouldn’t crack the triple-digit-horsepower barrier for years. The ’49 XK120’s overhead camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers, twin carburetors, and aluminum cylinder head were racing features rejiggered for street use. A Jag roadster stripped of its windshield ran 132 mph on a Belgian highway, convincing skeptical media that the XK120 name was an honest reflection of the car’s top speed.
The Cozzi-Nielsen concept was a thoroughbred hot rod with Jaguar running gear carried by a tubular frame. It would be a two-seat roadster without the frills. Properly constructed, such a car would not only rule the San Francisco streets, it might also be suitable for road racing.
A decade before Cozzi got the sports car itch, an avid bunch of Boston enthusiasts met to plan road racing’s postwar renaissance. Their 1944 huddle launched the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). The West Coast version, called the California Sports Car Club (Cal Club), was established in 1947. By 1950, amateur street races, hill-climbs, and airport events had spread up and down both coasts.
Road racers were initially divided into four categories. The production class included MGs, the Porsche 356, the XK120, and other models competing in stock trim. The modified category (called sports cars by the SCCA until 1959) was the catchall for stripped-down and tuned-up production models, American-engined hybrids, limited-edition Ferraris and Maseratis, and home-built specials. Any car that didn’t fit production or modified specifications raced in an unrestricted category. The Formula 3 class was for open-wheel single-seaters powered by tiny engines.
Casual enthusiasts competed with production models that could be driven to the track, raced, and–assuming all four wheels re-mained intact–driven home. Serious racers were more inclined to roll their own. The low cost of potent V-8s prompted the construction of hundreds of specials geared for competition in the modified (West Coast) and sports car (East Coast) categories. Hot-rodder Ak Miller built them to compete here and abroad. Max Balchowsky concocted nine Old Yallers powered by various domestic V-8s. In 1962, Roger Penske beat Dan Gurney and Jim Hall with his Zerex Special, a wrecked Cooper F1 racing car rejuvenated with new bodywork and an Indy-car engine.
Cozzi never dreamed of taking on the big guys; his challenge was convincing his dad that a teenager–with a little help–could build a car. The elder Cozzi treated his son’s proposal like a bank loan application, asking the tough where, when, who, how, and at what price questions. The answers were ready: Nielsen would continue his advisory role. The family’s basement–equipped with power tools and workbenches–would serve as the construction shop. Cozzi would take a one-term break from his engineering studies to complete the rolling chassis. Body fabrication and painting would be farmed out to pros. There was a cost accounting, but Cozzi doesn’t recall the amount he submitted to his father.
After due consideration, the project was approved in 1954 with two restrictions: Cozzi had to resume college after ninety days, and he wouldn’t dare ask to drive in races.
Shortly thereafter, a wrecked 1953 Jaguar XK120M (blessed with a Special Equipment 180-hp engine) arrived in the family’s driveway. The bones were quickly picked clean and Cozzi began a twelve-hours-per-day regimen of cutting, welding, and fabricating.
Like all ambitious projects, there were hitches and hallelujahs. A tidy ladder frame was built using 3.5-inch-diameter steel tubing. Chassis construction was finished on time, but the first body builder didn’t pan out and the second one took three times longer than anticipated. The donor car’s rear axle was bent, there was a glitch in the lubrication system, and the brakes initially felt spongy.
Sometime in between Nielsen’s body-section drawings, panels power-hammered to shape in one day, and the final aluminum massage by master body sculptor Jack Hagemann, the fairy princess blessed the Cozzi Special with the beauty of line, form, and proportion that is always sought but rarely achieved.
After a coat of paint, Cozzi’s car proved so dependable on weekend drives around San Francisco that he began considering a friend’s suggestion to enter nearby road races. Nadeau Bourgeault, a local shoe with a sensitive touch, was tapped to drive.
The first event in the Cozzi Special’s short competition career was a March 1957 race at Stockton, California, for 2.0-liter-and-up modifieds piloted by senior drivers. Bourgeault scored a respectable eighth overall and third in Class C (3.0- to 5.0-liter engines). Cozzi must have felt like a young Enzo Ferrari. Ironically, during a job interview with Il Commendatore a decade later, Ferrari, amazed by Cozzi’s teenage car-building exercise, exclaimed, “When I was eighteen, I didn’t know anything!”
Cozzi implemented a few tweaks for the next race: shorter steering arms, a smaller front antiroll bar, and tougher brake linings. Chassis dynamometer testing revealed that the four-SU-carbureted engine produced 138 hp.
The adjustments paid dividends. Bour-geault led the first five laps around the Cotati, California, airfield course, finished sixth overall, and beat all Class C comers. Carroll Shelby won overall in a Maserati 300S.
Like a football legend retiring prematurely, the Cozzi Special was returned to street duty so that Cozzi could complete his studies at Heald College. His first engineering job at Lockheed Aircraft followed an interview with a recruiter and fellow Jaguar enthusiast who remembered reading his name in Road & Track.
The Cozzi Special was sold for $2500, about half its construction cost. Two years ago, at my prompting, Cozzi realized that an Internet search might flush his creation from hiding. Shaking the vintage-racing grapevine revealed a former owner in Palm Springs and reports of the car competing at the 1980 Monterey Historics but no other useful leads.
We learned that the best way to hide treasure from the Internet is to bury it with someone named Smith. After months of sleuthing, Cozzi and I discovered that Dave Smith of Salinas, California, had owned the car for nearly thirty years, that it was dusty but intact, and that he was not inclined to sell. However, two parties seeking the same prize have a way of motivating even the most reluctant seller.
The winning bid came from Hinton and Ligas, Florida vintage racers and Jaguar experts. Their Predator Performance crew had the Cozzi Special running within hours of its arrival in Largo, Florida. Their recovery and nut-by-bolt restoration were fortuitous on two counts: they appreciate the car’s historical significance, and they have the expertise and resources to resurrect Cozzi’s creation as a thing of polished and powder-coated beauty. The Cozzi Special returned to grace at Road Atlanta in the thick of Historic Sportscar Racing’s Walter Mitty Challenge, an event founded in 1978 by the Atlanta Jaguar Society.
The most expeditious path into the cockpit is a contortion over the side and under the steering wheel. The barely padded, tubular-framed seats that Hagemann pirated from an airplane are surprisingly comfortable. The engine rouses to its rumbly life and rich, 1800-rpm idle at the flick of an ignition toggle and the punch of a starter button. The clutch, brake, and gas pedals all swing through long, easy take-up arcs, while the spindly shift lever is the perfect role model for notchy (resolutely H-shaped) action.
The fresh Dunlops that Predator has fitted to the wire wheels are narrower than the Firestone racing rubber Cozzi used, but they still exhibit impressive stick. I’d say the stiff frame, the 96-inch wheelbase, and the suspension hardware engineered by Jaguar constitute a fruitful marriage. The steering is heavy but quick enough to keep up.
When one driving shoe became wedged between the brake and the firewall, I yanked it off to press the right two pedals sock-footed. An experimental jab of the single-circuit brakes revealed impressive stopping power, no dive, and a tendency for the rear wheels to lock slightly before the fronts.
Buzzing the tach to 4600 rpm down Road Atlanta’s long back straight yielded 92 mph, about three-quarters of the Cozzi Special’s speed potential. Extracting the rest will require tuning and additional hot laps. I’d happily remove a shoe to step up to that task.