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Racing To The Bookstore: The Road To Modena, By Peter Brock

Racing To The Bookstore: The Road To Modena, By Peter Brock
Review By: Tom Stahler - All Images Credit: The Road To Moderna

Peter Brock is a genuine Renaissance man.

If you don’t know the name, but have even a remote interest in cars, you have undoubtedly been touched by this man’s work in your lifetime. From the stroke of his pen has come some of the most iconic car designs including the 1963 Split-window Corvette Coupe (at age 19) and the Shelby Daytona Coupe. Before George Lucas would make American Graffiti to fund his Star Wars franchise, Peter Brock starred in a movie short,“1:42:08,” the young-someday dominant director produced while still in USC film school. Pete invented the Hang Glider. He was an award-winning journalist and photographer. In racing’s storied history, his Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) Datsuns took several early 1970’s SCCA Pro Championships in the hands of legendary driver, John Morton.

In reviewing his long storied career — he is now 82 years old — he has blessed his fans with a number of books, telling the stories about the thought, events and process that went into the design of these cars. His latest, The Road to Modena, Origins and History of the Shelby - DeTomaso P70 Can-Am Sports Racer (132 Pages, Softcover, BRE, $45) is a visual and intellectual feast. It is what we have come to expect from Brock.

Peter Brock with the Clay Model of the "Shelby Can-Am," a series that lasted a short time, but many of the cars are still actively racing.

For all of Peter Brock’s successes, this book, however, is a tragedy of sorts. Not for its content, but for the story of what could have been. A failed project.  Not because of Brock’s abilities as a designer and builder, but due to the ginormous egos of Carroll Shelby and Alejandro de Tomaso — and the physical and mental miles that separated them. The Shelby - DeTomaso P70 Sports Racer could have been the next evolution of winning car in European Group 7 competition and the mighty United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). After a triumphant victory by Dave MacDonald in the Shelby King Cobra over Texan-bred car builder Jim Hall in the evocative Chaparral, the P70, in the hands of MacDonald, would have been the next major step.

Peter's design for the P70 included an adjustable rear spoiler.

Brock would spend several months in Modena, Italy working with artisan fabricators to design and body the car — in hopes of de Tomaso developing a 7-litre aluminum block for the power plant. In the book, Brock is very candid in his observations on both Shelby and de Tomaso as both wily, conniving players: 

“In all my time working with, for and around Carroll Shelby I’d come to admire and sometimes cringe at his uncanny ability to convince others, especially wealthy enthusiasts and top Ford executives, that whatever he was planning would be the “next big thing” and more importantly that whatever that project might be, couldn’t possibly succeed without that entities’ direct involvement, which of course included vast quantities of their money.”

“After being around de Tomaso for a while I realized that he also operated with a similar modus operandi, but with a certain combination of Italo-Argentine-Latin polish that seemed even more disarming and effective He’d seen Shelby coming and the concept of the P70 was exactly  what Carroll wanted to hear.  The only persons capable of conning a slick con-artist, like Shelby, were a few even more wily operators and i saw it happen with de Tomaso.”

Upon arriving in Modena, Shelby and Brock were shown the P70 Chassis, designed and built by de Tomaso

Peter Brock was a key member of Carroll Shelby’s Original Venice crew. The Cobras were beginning to beat the Corvettes domestically and winning FIA Championships internationally; and the fabled GT40 was in the works to begin taking on Ferrari at the 24 with Holman-Moody — and would soon be a Shelby project. In sports car racing, the Group 7 series was the USRRC — the Sports Car Club of America’s first foray into professional racing. 

Peter would make the famed “napkin drawings of what would become the “Daytona Coupe.” In a conversation with Ritchie Ginther, an American driver who raced Ferrari Prototypes in 1963, Brock learned that Ginther had discovered, by accident, one of the most used aerodynamic mods: the spoiler. Ginther was having problems with exhaust coming into the cockpit, due to FIA-mandated taller windscreens. He had his crew fabricate a four-inch “fence” between the two rear fenders of the Ferrari. When he did his next laps, he not only eliminated the exhaust fumes, but went two seconds quicker. Brock would adapt the spoiler idea to the cars he was designing — which included adjustability.  However he got substantial resistance from legendary fabricator Phil Remmington who saw no practical use for the wedge. This was until it was applied on the longer faster tracks in Europe — proving a winning formula.

Dave MacDonald in the King Cobra wins the 1963 LA Times Grand Prix.

For the prestigious L.A. Times Grand Prix at Riverside in 1963, Shelby had entered a King Cobra — a Cooper Monaco bodied with a  Ford 289 V8 — in the hands of Dave MacDonald and proved that they could beat Jim Hall’s Chaparrals and the Lolas in the field. At Kent in early 1964, MacDonald and Hall Lapped the field in a dice that ended with Hall breaking and MacDonald cruising to victory. MacDonald then picked up the affable Texan from the side of the track and drove him back as the two showered each other with respect.

With a very full 1964 schedule, which included three USRRC wins, a 10th in NASCAR’s Daytona 500, MacDonald flew back and forth to Indy where as a rookie, he qualified on the fifth row. Sadly the promising Californian would be killed during the early laps of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 along with veteran Eddie Sachs, as he lost control of the unstable, Mickey Thompson entered, Sears-Allstate Special.

Dan Gurney chats with MacDonald next to the Sears Allstate Special in the pits at Indy in 1964

Despite this setback, Shelby and de Tomaso looked to the future of the USRRC and Can-Am series and felt the P70 would be a natural progression of dominance.  Shelby ordered six of the cars, once developed under the tutelage of de Tomaso. As Brock continued his work, where he learned “the art of fabrication” in the dank and primitive Modena-based Carrozzeria Fantuzzzi shop. The book describes the timbre and emotion of working with these artisans — and sharp contrast to what he had experienced at GM, Shelby and Turin design houses Ghia, Bertone and Pininfarina. He called it amongst the best experiences of his life.

Peter Brock adjusts designs, hard at work in Modena.

Shelby was on a rather tight schedule to deliver the car — and despite development of a state of the art chassis — de Tomaso made zero progress on the 7-litre motor. Shelby immediately pulled the plug, cut bait on the balloon payment and sent for Brock to come home. De Tomaso would use the finished body for promotional purposes and for the basis of other cars — but the car itself disappeared into history — in the back of de Tomaso’s shop for 40 years.

The Finished P70 won several awards at the Quail and Amelia Island.

The somewhat happy ending is the discovery and restoration of this “what could have been car” and it’s awards at the Quail and Amelia Island. While many of us have come to know Peter Brock and his many successes in the fables of racing, The Road to Modena proves one of the great experiences, that never really emerged.  That could also be said for the Independent Rear Suspension he designed for the racing Ford GT350s that got shelved way back in 1965 — but re-emerged in beautiful Fox-Bodied creations for new generations.

The Road to Modena is an entertaining fly on the wall look at the intense development of race cars in the 1960s, the deal-making of Carroll Shelby, and another brilliant look into the mind of Peter Brock. Inspiring stuff.

TAGS: Peter Brock, Carroll Shelby, Renaissance Man, The Road To Modena, P70, De Tomaso, Can-Am, Tom Stahler


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