by Ron Will
I think in the back of every car designer’s mind there is this desire to build a car entirely of their own design with no constraints from a studio chief, engineering package, or market survey to guide them. That itch for me was what got me into car design in the first place. As a kid I built Soap Box Racers, then as a young teen went on to design and build contest models for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. A win in the Guild helped me land that dream job at GM. Even after working in the fabulous Corvette studio for years, the itch was still there.
I started to scratch that itch, innocently enough, by entering a Revell model motorcycle contest. I won the custom division with my 1/8 scale three-wheel design. This was back in 1973-74 when there were long gas lines and cars were only getting 12-15 mpg. I thought my sleek cycle car design would probably get double or even triple that in mileage. So the lure of possibly starting my own little car company became bigger than staying at GM Styling.
At that same time, I was working on the XP-898 experimental foam chassis car that Chevrolet Engineering was experimenting with. The concept was simple—basically build a top and bottom car sandwich chassis/body design like a surfboard and fill it with rigid foam. The Chevy prototype worked great and even had great crash protection. My light bulb went on, and I saw this as the method that a small manufacturer (me) could use to build cars without the multi-million dollar tooling costs. Chevrolet’s VP John Delorean’s light bulb also went on and he saw this same idea as a concept he could use for the car he was secretly planning. (Be sure to read a prior post on the XP-898, “Chevrolet XP-898: Inspiration for two unique designs.”)
I had also been working at the GM Tech Center’s Harrison Wind Tunnel on Chevy designs to lower their drag coefficients. So my next step was to do the same with my three wheel design. It was shaped like a wing, so I was a little afraid that it might try to fly at higher speeds. Also, I needed to find a place to locate a radiator. The first Honda Gold Wing water cooled 4-cylinder touring bike had just been introduced, so that was my engine of choice. I built a much larger 3/8 scale model this time. The guys running the tunnel were excited to run something different and ran it after hours. They even modified the tunnel base to accept a three wheel design. The results were all positive. It didn’t lift, the radiator would cool in the back of the fender, and our Cd was .31—not great, but not bad either.
At this point I made my big life change. After 10 years at GM design, I quit to follow my dream. I got married to Pat, someone who could put up with all of my car nonsense. I bought a duplex with a three-car garage in Costa Mesa, California and even convinced my brother and his wife to come out and help me. With the great help of my brother Lee, we applied almost every step that I had learned in the design process at GM to the three wheeler, that we now called The Phantom. This name must have stuck in my head for years, because later I saw a photo of me at about age 8 with a car I built with buggy wheels that looked like it came from a Little Rascals movie. On the side was painted a lightning bolt and the name Phantom Flash.
Using the 3/8 scale wind tunnel model as a guide, we scaled up full size drawings and made a full size three-dimensional buck to check entry, exit, vision, wheel turn and jounce, engine access, and basic appearance. Next came the buck for the full size clay model. For all these processes we used the identical rail and upright measuring systems used at GM for keeping accuracy from side to side. Costa Mesa was the perfect spot to do this project. There were race car builders, fiberglass shops, upholstery shops and classic car restoration businesses all within a few minutes of our three-car garage shop. It was easy to find people to help us make molds from the clay and cast our first body. This being a prototype, all the foam had to be fit into the body, shaped and then fiber-glassed to form the sandwich body design.
The fabrication included a widened VW suspension with disc brakes added and a 2-inch-thick sandwich steel firewall that separated the passenger compartment from engine, fuel, battery etc. This strong but lightweight wall also served as the roll bar. The steering wheel and instruments lifted up with the canopy top when it is raised. A heavy duty flex cable connected the steering wheel to the rack and pinion steering gear. Another unique feature was the covered headlights. The headlights were fixed in the body pointing straight up. The underside of the lids are mirrors, so when raised to 45 degrees they will project the beam forward. I also wanted skirts on the front wheels, but I also wanted as wide a track as possible. So, I put a Teflon strip inside the skirt bottom and hinges on the top. When the wheels turn, the tire lifts the skirt allowing the tire to turn outside the body width.
A great help came from Rich Straman, a fellow student from IIT (Institute of Design in Chicago). He graciously painted the Phantom Porsche Silver (twice) from his classic car restoration business in Newport Beach.
We first just made the body and painted it with no windows or engine—just a one piece body. This is what we took to the Chicago auto show. In Stage Two we opened the top and put in windows and interior. You could sit in it, but no engine yet. We showed this at the LA Auto show. Finally in Stage Three we put the engine in and all the mechanicals to make it a running vehicle. It still needs a Stage Four to make it more finished in many areas. The new heavy duty disc brakes were part of that. There is a Phantom II in Ann Arbor Michigan. I sold the original mold on eBay when I left New Jersey. Someone made a body and is putting it over a tube frame Chassis.
The paint was barely dry when we were asked to participate in a government test of various three-wheel car designs. They wanted to know if these new lightweight efficient vehicles would be safe to drive on the road. The dynamic driving tests were held at the Edwards Air Force Base in California on the space shuttle landing strip. Against a dozen other cars, we came out on top, with excellent handling, and stability, generating more cornering G-forces than many four-wheel cars.
After showing the car at both Los Angeles and Chicago auto shows, we started to get publicity in a few magazines. This led to a call from an ad agency that wanted to put the Phantom in a Texaco commercial with Bob Hope. The tag line of the commercial was that, “Someday your high-mileage car will be made of lightweight plastics made from oil.” The car was to break out of a giant oil drum, then drive across the desert and next to Bob Hope where the driver would turn out to be a beautiful girl in a silver space suit-like outfit. The catch was, they were worried the girl would drive over Bob Hope, so they wanted me to drive up to Bob. For this I would have to don a blond wig and silver space suit. When the car stopped, we switched places and the beautiful model would open the door. That was my 15 minutes of fame, suited up in drag.
The Jet Fighter design was started after the Phantom, but we realized that we had bitten off more than we could chew. It goes back to the original simple tube frame construction that we should have done in the first place. Had we done that, we might have actually had a little car company. We made a full-size space buck of this model and had a 1/8 scale model. But at this point we were all out of money and I had to find a real job. Subaru.
The Government testing was done by Paul Van Valkenberg. Paul worked for Chevrolet on their racing enterprises, and has written several books on race car suspension and handling. He wanted to test all the possible variations of three-wheel cars, but there were no front drive three-wheelers, so he made one out of a Honda Civic by replacing the back wheels with one in the middle. A real odd duck to see it driving around.
A group of execs left Subaru to try and start another car company based in China. They wanted to do the same thing: import a new car to the U.S. I got the job of designing the car, made up proposals, and got 50,000 shares of the new company for my effort. So what happened? GM bought the Chinese company and took over production. We were left out in the cold.
Today the Phantom is in my Arizona garage waiting for me to finish the restoration necessary to get it back into running condition. Perhaps this time it will be painted a Cadillac Pearl Red.
People who see it today can’t believe that it is almost 40 years old.
Thanks Ron, for graciously supplying photos and the history of this very significant car.
Stage One photos, 1976