Connecticut is still a state in which there are many two-lane country roads that challenge driving enthusiasts. And this is just one of my thoughts I had on my way to pay a visit to one of the great driving legends in racing, John Cooper Fitch.
When I arrived at his historic 1767 home, located not far from the Historic Lime Rock Park Race Track, and sat in his parlor, we began our conversation with reflections of his earliest memories. The journey began with his stepfather, who worked for the Stutz Motorcar Company, and where he developed a love of the automobile. He was so fascinated by racing that after two years at Lehigh University he decided to go to England to witness the last race at Brooklands before the war.
It was at this time he joined the Army Air Corps, and flew a number of aircraft, from the A-20 Havoc to the P-51 Mustang. But his love of cars never withered, and after opening up an MG dealer in White Plains New York, and with the memories of Brooklands, he started racing at Bridgehampton Raceway with an MG TC. This lead to a racing career that spanned a decade with such illustrious makes as Cunningham, Jaguar, Allard, Porsche, and Sunbeam. His talent was recognized by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Racing Team. He was there during the 1955 running of the 24 Heuers du Mans, when his co-driver, Pierre Levegh crashed, killing Levegh along with 80 spectators, causing Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from racing for more than 25 years.
Although he was tapped by Ed Cole to become a team that helped the Corvette win at Sebring, and compete at LeMans, it was the crash that affected him deeply. He became a proficient inventor, and developed safety systems for both race tracks, and highways. The Fitch Inertial Barrier System went on to become the staple on most interstates, along with the Fitch Compression Barrier, and the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail system. But most people know John Cooper Fitch by his involvement with the Chevy Corvair.
In an attempt to duplicate the success of Porsche, John Fitch produced performance enhancements to the air cooled wonder, and called it the Fitch Sprint. He successfully increased the engine horsepower from 100 to 155, reworked the rear suspension, and introduced styling enhancements like functional wire mesh screen to protect the optional Lucas Flame Thrower headlamps.
Filed under the subheading of “Cars That Could Have Been” is the 2,000-pound two-seat Fitch Phoenix, with an Italian body produced by Intermeccanica. The car had a 175 horsepower flat six, and performance was as good (if not better) than the just introduced Porsche 911. Only the prototype was produced in 1966, and Fitch still owns it. The Phoenix was doomed to failure because of some new legislation passed by Congress that put up roadblock for small-scale automobile production.
It was a distinct pleasure to meet with Mr. Fitch, and to see the Fitch Phoenix prototype. It is too bad that the Corvair was doomed just before this remarkable car could flourish, and become the true competitor to the Porsche Dynasty we have today.