Chevy Enthusiast via Hooniverse: John Cooper Fitch and his Fitch Specials.

This week, I decided to introduce you to my columns in Chevy Enthusiast Magazine, titled Weird and Wonderful Bowties. Yesterday, we discovered about the Chevy Engineered V6 Chevette that had no chance for production. Next up is my interview with a racing legend, and a true Chevy Enthusiast, John Cooper Fitch.

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 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.

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  1. bzr Avatar

    I saw the Fitch Phoenix at the Greenwich Concours last summer.
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    What a strange, wonderful car. Looks like a glorious Italian roadster, seen through the filter of Wacky Races. And thank God for John Fitch kicking around in CT, too – seen him a few times at the Rolex Vintage Festival. A genuine living legend.

  2. soo΄pәr-bādd75 Avatar

    The Phoenix is almost good looking. What's with the strangely positioned humps on the fenders?

    1. UDman Avatar

      Those are for the spare tires. Fitch used 2 different sizes front and rear, so there were 2 spare tire compartments. With today's tire technology, they would become redundant.
      The reason why Fitch included 2 spares all stems from the LeMans accident, and his tireless work in pursuit of safety. His reasoning behind this is the fact that he didn't want two different sized tires on the same axle. I guess we just don't care about that today…..

      1. muthalovin Avatar

        That is so interesting. I saw those humps, and thought power-bulges. I like this a lot.

        1. UDman Avatar

          Think about it for a moment: If those compartments for the spare tires were eliminated, the wheelbase could be that much shorter, and it could have been the same length as a Miata, or an MR2.

      2. Charles_Barrett Avatar

        Thanks for responding to the fender-bump question…! I was wondering the same thing (I saw no seams, so I didn't see how they could be storage. BZR's photo from Greenwich makes the seams more apparent.

  3. engineerd Avatar

    Stories like this make you wonder what could have been. If Fitch had been successful, would the Big 3 be in their same position? Fresh competition can bring new ideas and new energy to an industry, something the auto industry could use.

    1. AteUpWithMotor Avatar

      The Big Three would have ignored him, as they always do. Even if he were wildly successful, Detroit's "Not Invented Here" mentality is powerful.

  4. CptSevere Avatar

    All I can say is "Thanks, Nader."

  5. longrooffan Avatar

    I am fairly certain John Fitch did his magic on Corvettes also. I spotted one at the Amelia Island Concours D'Elegance in 2008.

  6. Pete Koehler Avatar
    Pete Koehler

    You are correct that the reason for the Fitch Phoenix not being brought to production was the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. Actually, as John Fitch told me back in 1979 it was the possibilty of new regulations that caused him to back away from series production. The law was announced but the actual rules and regulations were being worked out by Congress for some time afterwards. John was ready to go with the Phoenix, but he couldn't be sure his creation would be "legal" once the final set of specifications were revealed. So it was not "doomed to failure". John just decided not to chance the investment of his financial backers for the project as well as the prospective buyers who were ready with deposits to secure their very own Phoenix. He took the high road and pulled the plug on the project. It was the prudent thing to do at the time. But I wish there was more than one Phoenix for us to savor.

  7. Damion Mccoin Avatar

    Amazing! Italy is eliminated. Crying in streets of Venice.

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