The Monterey Historic Automobile Races are the premier vintage car races in the United States. They draw more than 450 rare and exotic entries cumulatively valued at more than the gross domestic product of some third world nations. Yet the biggest attraction last summer wasn’t a race car; it was a race car transporter that less than two years earlier had looked like the rusted-out, shot-up, long-forgotten relic of a third-world civil war.
In August 2008, after an insanely labor-intensive restoration worthy of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the transporter – built on a Fiat truck chassis and customized by an Italian coachbuilder – trundled through the teeming paddock at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Riding on the open, double-decker bed were not one, not two, but three of the Scarab race cars that it had been designed to ferry around Europe in 1960. A hot tub full of naked umbrella girls couldn’t have made a much bigger impression on the crowd that flocked around it.
“People went nuts!” recalls Cris Vandagriff, owner of the Historic Motor Sports Association. “We finally had to ask them to move the transporter so race cars could get on and off the track.”
In an era when just about every important historic race car already seems to have been discovered, race car transporters are emerging as the Next Big Thing in high-end vintage motorsports. Recent years have brought elaborate restorations of the haulers used by the Écurie Écosse and Tyrrell teams, for example, and there are several mouth-watering vintage Ferrari rigs making the rounds. But for American fans, at least, the Scarab transporter is the most significant vehicle of its kind on the planet, and it features an intriguing backstory that begins with the first American Formula 1 car, continues with America’s most successful GT racing cars, and ends with an epic family feud.
Two years ago, vintage racer Don Orosco – probably the world’s foremost Scarab collector – bought the derelict transporter and invested 8000 man-hours in its restoration.
“This is probably the only truck that’s ever been restored to Pebble Beach standards,” he says. “What made it such a daunting task was that it’s thirty-eight feet long. That’s like simultaneously restoring three Packards that are rusted hulks. Now, it looks like a forty-third-scale children’s toy – except it’s the real thing. I have about $600,000 in it. But in terms of its impact on the Scarab collection, its value is incalculable.”
The Scarabs were the creation of playboy racer Lance Reventlow, an ambitious dilettante who was Barbara Hutton’s son, heir to the Woolworth fortune, Cary Grant’s stepson, James Dean’s buddy, and Jill Saint John’s husband (briefly). In 1957, he hired a group of supremely talented West Coast race car craftsmen to scratch-build a trio of sports-racing cars powered by small-block Chevys. After dominating the American sports car scene, Reventlow and company fashioned the first – and last, as it turned out – genuinely all-American Formula 1 cars.
To haul the Scarabs from race to race in 1960, Reventlow commissioned a transporter from Bartoletti along the lines of the Fiat-based hauler they’d been building for Ferrari and Maserati. With a diesel flat-twelve, the rig motored down the road “fairly well,” according to chief mechanic Phil Remington, and number-one driver Chuck Daigh once gave his teammates a terrifying thrill ride around Spa – with two F1 cars loaded on the truck.
The Scarab team returned to the States after its calamitous 1960 season, but its Bartoletti transporter remained in England and embarked on a remarkably convoluted itinerary. Team manager Warren Olson says the rig was next used by Team Lotus. Then, supposedly, it was prepared for, but never delivered to, Lucky Casner’s Camoradi racing team. The transporter resurfaced in 1964 in Ford princess blue carrying Cobra Daytona coupes around Europe. Later, painted guardsman blue, it passed into the hands of Alan Mann Racing, which used it to ferry Cobras and GT40s to Le Mans and beyond.
When the Ford Le Mans program ended, the rig did a stint on the British drag-racing circuit, carting slingshot dragsters for John Woolfe Racing. Next, English privateer David Piper acquired the transporter and painted it in his signature green. Piper rented the Bartoletti – which he described as “an exact twin to the Ferrari transporter” – as a prop for the movie Le Mans. According to legend, it was painted first in Gulf blue to serve as the Porsche 917 car carrier, then repainted red for a scene as the Ferrari 512 transporter. This livery was perfect for its final European owner, Sir Anthony Bamford, who used it to haul 250GTOs to vintage races.
In the early 1980s, Bamford offered one of his GTOs to American Michael Shoen. Shoen couldn’t afford the car, but being a big-time Cobra collector (and, later, the author of the definitive history, The Cobra-Ferrari Wars 1963-1965), he gladly paid $10,000 for the Bartoletti transporter. During the late ’80s, members of the Shoen family – owners of the U-Haul empire – were embroiled in a bitter battle for control of the company. Michael Shoen’s faction won a $462 million award, though not U-Haul itself, and the transporter wound up as a casualty of war. Like an immensely valuable hostage, it was sequestered in the middle of a large, otherwise unoccupied storage yard surrounded by cyclone fencing. And there it sat for nearly two decades, broiling in the Arizona sun. All attempts to buy it were rebuffed.
Fast-forward to 2006. At a banquet during the Goodwood Revival, a tipsy Dick Skipworth – the man who had restored the Écurie Écosse transporter – boasted to an equally well-lubricated Orosco that he planned to make a run at the ex-Scarab rig “before the bloody Yanks figure out what it is.” Orosco’s patriotic impulse kicked in. As soon as he got home to California, he hunted down the transporter. And five days later, he bought it for $80,000.
At the time, Orosco – a commercial real-estate developer – had four full-time restoration experts in his shop in Monterey. In recent years, they’d restored three cars that won the hot-rod class at Pebble Beach. But their jaws dropped and their hearts sank when the Bartoletti showed up on a lowboy. “I thought, ‘Holy smokes! What was Don thinking?’ ” recalls Olle Eriksson, his chief fabricator. Adds Jesse Cruz, who runs his paint and body shop: “I thought Don had finally lost his mind.”
Mechanically, the transporter was in reasonably good shape. (At some point, the flat-twelve Fiat had been replaced by a Leyland turbo-diesel six-cylinder.) But during its solitary confinement in Mesa, doors had fallen off and windows had been shot out. Virtually all the sheetmetal was rusting, and almost none of the original trim survived. The interior, meanwhile, had been largely gutted, and the wood flooring was rotting. Confronted with all of these issues, Orosco reluctantly decided to embark on a frame-off restoration.
To knock the rust off – literally – Orosco farmed out the transporter to a company that specialized in bus repair, then brought it back to Monterey for what turned out to be a fiendishly difficult restoration. By haunting the Internet and enlisting the aid of Italian bus specialists, he was able to find lots of new-old-stock parts. But rummaging through the sad remains of the Bartoletti archives in Italy convinced him that all of the big stuff would have to be fabricated from scratch. “I found out that every bus was different,” he says. “Every front bumper was different. They were all skinned differently. Everything was custom.”
Because his in-house staff – Eriksson, Cruz, chief mechanic Brad Hand, and assistant painter Enrique Guillen – was busy on other projects, Orosco hired Brian Plumleigh and Mike Limasa to work full time on the transporter. Other craftsmen were brought in as necessary – to fashion a new grille and front bumper, to install new wood flooring, to reupholster the interior, to stamp new badges, and so on. Painting the leviathan took twelve gallons of blue paint applied over what Cruz describes as “four days of hell.” As the Pebble Beach deadline approached, no fewer than twelve guys slaved over the transporter. “That last month,” Eriksson says, “I probably had 120 hours of overtime. I basically lived here.”
The clued-in crowd at the Monterey Historics predictably went gaga over the finished product. (The reaction at Pebble Beach was more restrained.) The restored transporter was a revelation, but what made it look even more impressive were Orosco’s three Scarabs – an authentic Formula 1 car and re-creations of a second F1 car and the first sports-racing car – that had been laboriously loaded via collapsible ramps and electric-powered winches.
In some respects, it seems absurd to have lavished so much time, energy, and money on what was designed, after all, to be nothing more than a work truck. But the Bartoletti transporter is more than a museum piece or an ego trip. It’s also a time machine. And as you ride in the plush, aircraft-style seats in the spacious cab, you feel as though you’re not merely trundling along the access roads at Laguna Seca but climbing the Alps en route to Le Mans or speeding along the M1 on your way home from Silverstone. And it’s not hard to imagine hanging on for dear life as Chuck Daigh bends the precariously swaying transporter through the sweeper at Burnenville during a hot lap of Spa back in the glory days of Scarab.
Porsche‘s Benz-built bus
By Rusty Blackwell
Don Orosco’s Scarab transporter isn’t the only vintage racing hauler that’s back in service. The late Bob Snodgrass’s extensive, Florida-based Brumos Porsche collection includes a 1968 Mercedes-Benz Type 317 that was initially built as a city bus but was quickly converted by Porsche to carry its new 908 racing cars. Although it remained with the same race team – that of the Porsche factory – for its entire career, the transporter has worn several different liveries through the years, including those of Gulf, Martini, and Rothmans. From 1968 until 1989, it shuttled Porsche racing cars to nine overall Le Mans victories and eleven world sports car championships. In 2001, Gerry Sutterfield restored the transporter to its red ’68 paint scheme. Today, the Benz’s original six-cylinder diesel engine and five-speed manual transmission are occasionally enlisted to move as many as four vintage Porsche racing cars from event to event.