My Chaparral Experience
by Ed Welburn
The 1960s was a period of great experimentation and innovation in art, architecture, aerospace, aircraft, and automobiles, in particular auto racing. Every form of motor sports showed incredible innovation, from NASCAR to Drag Racing, Formula 1, Indy Car, and Sports Cars. CanAm racing was incredible. There were no limits and one of the most innovative race cars was the Chevrolet Chaparral. They were the product of a very secretive collaboration between Chevrolet and Chaparral Cars, a company owned and managed by the very creative engineer and race car designer, Jim Hall.
At every race the competition and fans alike were surprised by Chaparral’s latest innovations in aerodynamics, materials, and race car design. Plus, they looked cool. As a teenager, I was constantly inspired by the innovation of Chaparral and I became a huge fan. We all had Hot Wheels, Cox slot cars, or Monogram model car kits of the Chaparral. Jim Hall’s designs had an influence on me which was so powerful that when I applied for a job at GM Design, the most significant sketches in my portfolio were sketches inspired by the Chaparral 2H. The 2H was not a successful race car, but from a design perspective it was significant. Who will ever forget the Shell Oil advertisement with a plan view photo of the incredible, space age Chaparral 2H.
Years later when we were developing the Oldsmobile Aerotech high speed record car, those records, set in 1987 were set at a Firestone test facility’s 7.7 mile oval in Fort Stockton, Texas. Not an easy place to get to. You fly to Dallas, take a smaller plane to Midland, Texas, and then drive two hours to Fort Stockton. While the team was completing final prep of the record car, I was sitting on the pit wall with a guy who had delivered racing fuel. His name: Franz Weiz. Through our conversation I learned that he had been a mechanic with Chaparral Cars for decades and invited me to visit their shops in Midland on my way back to Detroit. This became my first visit to the home of my all-time favorite car. As I walked through the shops I was shaking with excitement, so much so that I dropped and broke my camera before I took a single shot. Franz took me on a tour of all of the buildings at the Chaparral Cars compound and the place was amazing. It had been decades since Chaparrals raced in competition. The fabrication shops and dyno cells were still, but the facility was alive with the spirit of Chaparral with all of the trophies on display and every one of those magnificent cars were there, ready to go. I then took my rental car out on the test track, the legendary Rattlesnake Raceway. What a thrill.
I didn’t meet Jim Hall until a few years later at the Amelia Island Concours event. At that event there was a special gathering of Chaparral’s, all five Corvette Grand Sports, and GM’s Mako Shark, Manta Ray, and the ’59 Sting Ray Racer—Wow! My introduction to Jim was brief, but months later we met again at a special event at GM’s opening of its new Heritage Center. The morning following that event he and I met in my office at GM Design. The very same office where, over 40 years earlier Jim was introduced to General Motors through a meeting orchestrated by Bill Mitchell, VP of Design at that time. It was a very special occasion.
Since then, my friendship with Jim has grown. I attended the opening of the Chaparral wing of the Petroleum Institute Museum in Midland, Texas. The museum is amazing, with great lighting, materials, and the great Chaparrals. All of them. It’s a museum which everyone should visit. A couple of years later during the Pebble Beach weekend, Jim and I sat at the same table at the Rolex dinner. The next day Jim took me for three Hot laps at Laguna Seca in Chaparral 2E. I was the very first person to be a passenger in that car.
In the summer of 2011 Jim invited me down to Midland to drive the Chaparral 2H, a very important car to car designers. That weekend I drove the car of my dreams and had a great weekend, staying at the home of Jim and his wife Sandy. The stories that they told were great, but they are stories which should only be told by them.
So when our Advanced Design team at GM, under the leadership of Clay Dean and Frank Saucedo wanted to create an extremely advanced virtual concept for Grand Turismo, we all thought that a 2030 Chaparral concept would be perfect. Jim Hall, who is always very protective of the Chaparral name, jumped at the chance and the Chaparral 2X GT Concept was born. Jim’s motivation was that this concept would be a perfect vehicle to connect young people with a career in engineering and design. During this projects development Clay Dean and Frank had multiple reviews with Jim.
Today, Jim and I talk often, and I’m working with him on something special. No, it’s not a new Chaparral, but something that I think you will all enjoy. In the process I have learned that there are far more fascinating secrets within the porcelain white skins of Chaparral.
We don’t often have the opportunity to meet, let alone work with someone who you admire and draw so much inspiration from. I met Jim because of his great cars, but have discovered an even greater man and friend.
About the 2H
The 2H was a radial design. Not only did it have a very slippery profile, it was a bit more narrow to reduce frontal area. It also had a very unusual suspension system. During the cars development, Jim had his huge wreck in 1968 at Stardust in the 2G and was not able to do the testing in the car which was needed. Hall hired John Surtees to do the development work and drive the car in the next season. The car was originally a closed coupe, with a profile which had no interruption. Which is why the car had the side windows and deep windscreen. Surtees hated the car and demanded that a hole be cut in the roof and the seat raised. Hall and Surtees battled for months and the car suffered. It was a difficult chapter in Hall’s career, especially since the car had so much potential. Can you imagine if the car showed up to race in its original configuration? It looked much like the Pininfarina Modula and Bertone’s concept which were introduced a year after 2H.
Anyway, I loved driving the car. I would never had believed that a 1,800 lb vehicle, with that much power, and no traction control, could be that easy to drive. The incredible power of the 494 cu. in. Big block is unbelievable.—Ed Welburn