Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see some very unique and special cars, either in museums or at the Goodwood Events. One of the vehicles to hold our attention the most, that has been displayed twice at the Festival of Speed in the Cartier Style et Luxe, originally in 2006 and then in 2012 for the 20th anniversary, was the absolutely fabulous 1938 Phantom Corsair.
Designed by Rust Heinz, Grandson of HJ Heinz, founder of the ’57 varieties’ food empire and Maurice Schwartz from the Bohman and Schwartz coach building company of Pasadena. The car was totally futuristic but had many features which were later taken up by the major manufacturers, although the Phantom never went beyond the concept car stage and remained a one-off prototype. When not being seen at car shows around the world the Phantom is kept in the Harrah Collection now the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nadava.
Rust Heinz had got involved with designing and racing speedboats while studying Naval Architecture at University, but he dropped out with plans to build his dream car. Bank-rolled by a wealthy Aunt, after the disapproval of his project by the family, he designed the body with a series of clay models and it is even rumoured that he did some wind tunnel testing. The result was a steel and aluminium body only 1.4m tall but 6m long giving it an aerodynamic shape that had fully skirted wheels, flush wings and no door handles. It was built on a Cord 810 chassis with a 4.7 litre Lycoming engine, one of the most advanced available at the time, with front wheel drive, an automatic gearbox and independent suspension. The prototype was capable of a top speed of 115mph.
The Phantom was a six seater vehicle, with 4 people in the front, one to the drivers left and two behind with large drinks cabinets taking up most of the rear space! The flush electric push button door operation was very futuristic and the dozen or so instruments on the dashboard included a compass and altimeter. The design also included a radio and air-conditioning.
Heinz tried hard to promote the car, producing a glossy brochure and using his Hollywood and Media contacts. With no orders coming in the car appeared in a 1938 film ‘Young at Heart’ starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr, it was rather inelegantly renamed the ‘Flying Wombat’ and the film used a series of mirrors so the one car was made to look like a showroom full of them.
In July 1939 Heinz died after a car crash and his plans to put the Phantom Corsair into small-scale production at a cost of $14,700 each – three times that of a Cadillac – died with him. The family allowed it to be displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair as planned, in their sons honour.
The Heinz family suffered many tragedies and it has been said that the car was cursed. I do happen to know that on one occasion when it appeared at Goodwood it was said to have mysteriously moved on it’s own over night!
The car went on to have many owners over the years and in 1951 it ended up with comedian and early TV game show host Herb Shriner, who had the car customised partly to try and solve overheating problems. Strangely, he too ended up dying in a car crash. It was then owned by Nevada casino owner Bill Harrah who restored the car to it’s original conditions and put it in his car collection in Reno.
So there we have it a fabulous car with an intriguing story. It’s popularity is worldwide and for a one-off prototype, models are available and it has turned up in racing computer games and as Hot-Wheels toys. It’s certainly in list of favourite cars we’ve seen.