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Mike Fisher’s 1959 Bocar XP5 at last year’s Bahamas Speed Week Festival. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
Mike Fisher’s 1959 Bocar XP5 at last year’s Bahamas Speed Week Festival. (Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

Classic cars: 1959 Bocar XP5

1950s American sports racers were crude, often naïve, but never subtle Add to ...

The hairy, high-powered V-8-engined sports racing cars created in the 1950s by a handful of American backyard car-builders to take on Europe’s fabled marques “weren’t for amateurs, or those who expected to live long and die in bed.”

And one look at the specs for Mike Fisher’s 1959 Bocar XP5, which I came across at last year’s Bahamas Speed Week Revival, explains why.

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It’s a brutal and brutally simple car, with a short wheelbase, tubular space frame chassis, with Porsche 356 front/Oldsmobile live axle rear suspension, a Rochester fuel-injected 350-cubic-inch, 515-hp Chevy V-8 up front, a four-speed gearbox and huge Buick aluminum drum brakes. All wrapped in voluptuous – but of uncertain aerodynamic qualities – fibreglass bodywork and weighing 1,920 lbs. In 1960, Fisher’s car hit 175 mph on Daytona Beach powered by a 283-cubic-inch engine, with its current powerplant it would be frighteningly faster.

This year’s Bahamas Speed Week Revival, which just ended, again attracted a field of exotic racers and classics from around the world to reprise the original Nassau Speed Weeks of the 1950s and early 1960s, in which American racers, in cars such as the Bocar, took on Europe’s best. Fisher’s Bocar will be on hand again to visually and audibly – its big-bore exhaust bellow is awesome – treat spectators to a taste of what racing was like in the event’s original era.

The concept on which American-built sports racers were based was a simple one, says former Car and Driver alumni Rich Taylor in his 1970s book The American Sports-Racer, and involved borrowing or copying a European chassis and installing one of the hot-new American V-8s then becoming available. “The cars were often crude, often naïve. And they were never subtle. But, by God, they worked.”

European-style sports-car racing followed American servicemen home from the Second World War with MGs, Triumphs and their like forming the foundation at the club level. But in the glamorous unlimited classes, the prices of pur sang Aston Martins, Ferraris and Maseratis kept most American racers in the paddock.

Until, that is, they figured out the “formula” described by Rich above. Before long, lining up on the grids beside the foreign makes was American iron forged from good old Yankee ingenuity and powered by engines they could buy bits for at any corner car parts store. And $1,500 home-brews such as the 1932 Ford-based “Old Yeller,” then more sophisticated Cunninghams, Scarabs, Echidnas, Cheetahs, Bocars and Cobras, were soon giving the exotics a run for the prize money.

Among these early enthusiast builders was Denver’s Bob Carnes, a former fighter pilot and mechanical engineer who operated a garage and went racing for the first time in 1953 at the wheel of a Glockler Porsche Spyder and then a Jaguar XK120. His first home-grown effort was a Cadillac V-8-engined Jag, known as the “Jagillac.” By 1957, he began developing no less than “the fastest and safest sports car in the world” for racing or street use.

Bocar XP1 – Bocar a contraction of Bob Carnes – had Jag and Lincoln suspension and a Chevy 283, and finished 5th in its first outing in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. A couple of other experimental models followed before the arrival of XP4, of which only a handful were built, but which served as the template for the XP5 of 1959.

An ad for the car notes “Corvette Power – Fierce Acceleration – Docile Obedience” and describes it as a versatile “sports car racer, hillclimber and grocery getter.” A frame could be purchased for $995, the body for $598 and a complete car from $3,800. Only about nine XP5s were built, before the one-off XP6 arrived with a supercharged ’Vette engine. A few XP7s and finally two or three Stilettos followed, before the project was wound up in 1961, after only 30 or so Bocars in total had been produced.

Fisher and his wife Dawn, who live in Michigan, acquired the Bocar, the sixth XP5 built, in 2002 after seeing it in the paddock at Elkhart Lake displaying a for sale sign. “I thought it was a little kit car,” he says before finding out it was actually “a very special car. One of those built in the 50s to beat up on the Ferraris and Maseratis, and driven by young Americans trying to make a name for themselves.”

He says highlights of its history include that 175-mph run on Daytona Beach, followed by a second-place finish in the first televised race at the then-brand-new Daytona circuit. It then went on to race and sometimes win at Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, Sebring and other East Coast tracks, and ran twice at Pikes Peak. Famed American driver Augie Pabst ran the car at Sebring and in the Bahamas Speed Week of 1960 and said it was “blazingly fast in a straight line, but strangely unconnected in the turns.”

Likely a little difficult to stop, too, as one of its features is a water cooling system for those big Buick drums. Water, stored in a small outboard motor fuel tank mounted in the footwell, is pumped by a Volkswagen windshield washer unit to nozzles that spray all four drums when the brake pedal is applied.

The Bocar has been a show winner in recent years, used in long-distance classic rallies and is raced about four times a year. “So it’s been around. We’re having a great time with it,” says Fisher.

The Nassau Speed Week Governor’s Trophy went to Stirling Moss, who averaged 147 km/h in his Aston Martin DB2, beating a Maserati, a Ferrari and an all-American Scarab Chevrolet. Moss returns as event patron this year.

*****

Back in 1959
Jacques Plant becomes the first goalie to wear a protective mask in a year that saw the St. Lawrence Seaway opened and the Avro Arrow fighter cancelled.
The original Mini, sold under the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor names, was launched to become a swinging 60s British icon, with 5.4 million produced before production ended in 2000.
Disney released its 16th animated move Sleeping Beauty, the Marx brothers made their last appearance in The Incredible Jewel Robbery and the Barbie doll was introduced.

 

 

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