Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Little Red Car: Gene Voigt's Crosley Special

Ohio's Gene Voigt was like many aspiring sports car owners of the 1950s: he didn't have a lot of money, he didn't have a lot of racing experience, but he had a dream and determination.
He was also lucky enough to have space - the barn at his parents' house in Holgate, Ohio had already been set up as a workshop for his father's old plumbing and heating business.  It was the perfect place to build a sports car.
James Broadwell's famous Jabro racer was a source of inspiration.  Broadwell had made a name for himself with a homebuilt, fiberglass-bodied, Crosley-powered Hmod that got plenty of press, including a 1958 Mechanix Illustrated cover feature about the '$1-A-Pound Sports Car.'  Broadwell's car was a sleek,  ultra-lightweight stunner, featuring a chassis constructed of TV antenna mast tubing!  The car was so popular that Broadwell began selling kits so hobbyists could build their own versions.  By the time Jabro production ended in the early sixties, Broadwell offered the Jabro Mark I, II and III, each with body and chassis variations designed for street or race use.
Voigt didn't simply order a Jabro kit, however.  Instead, he designed his own 'birdcage' frame from scratch, and like Broadwell, Voigt cannibalized a Crosley Hotshot for the engine, tranny and rear.   He used a special split front axle with coil springs just like the Jabro's front axle.  Instruments were from a 1940s Nash.  His nephew, Bill Camp, was there as Voigt tested the car.

"I vividly remember him taking me for rides circling the barn when the car was no more than a birdcage of tubing. I had to balance on an old wooden Coke case because it had no seats... or floor... Uncle Gene sat on an unfastened Crane pump crate. Behind the barn, not much more than the width of the car away, was a steep banked creek. He always got a big kick out of scaring me by going so fast that I thought we were going to go flying into the creek as we came around the barn."

Construction took a break when Voigt and his wife moved to Ft. Pierce, Florida.  Once settled in, they shipped the car south and Voigt fabricated fiberglass sections for the front and rear.  He laid the front section without a mold, leaving the finish lumpy; he learned his lesson, and the rear section was built with a mold.  He used aluminum for the center section, setting himself up for problems with paint adhesion later.  "He was having a bit of a time getting the aluminum center section to take paint to his liking," Camp remembers.

Voigt moved back to Ohio in the early sixties, relocating to the town of Defiance where he finally finished the car with the help of his friend Jim Ehlinger.   Friends and family nicknamed Voigt's special 'the Little Red Car' due to its Pepsi-Cola red coloring.  "A lot is made of the car being red... well, it wasn't always," Camp says.  "Originally the front and rear fiberglass sections were painted 'robin's egg' blue...  The eventual color was 'Pepsi Cola Red' but Gene was not happy with that color out of the can. After several experiments, the final color had bright orange mixed in."
Whether or not Voigt had ever planned to race the car is unclear, but by the time it was finished in the early sixties it would have been obsolete as a serious race car.  Voigt registered the car for the street use and he and Ehlinger apparently used it for events with a sports car club in Defiance.  There are no entries for Eugene Voigt on the Racing Sports Network, indicating that he did not compete in SCCA races, but the car did run in a gymkhana in the late '60s.

Voigt put the car in storage after he last drove the car in 1969 or '70. In the mid-seventies he was preparing to put the car back on the street when disaster struck.   Bill Camp: "At that point the car had been in storage in the back of Gene's garage for some time. The car had been stored standing on end to save space, with the front and rear body sections removed, and all fluids drained. Gene had decided to get it running again, and had gotten the body work back on. At that point Gene's teenage son decided he wanted to show off with the car... he put gas in it and went for a joy ride... with no oil, trans fluid, etc. 'Now that engine's probably good for nothing but a boat anchor,' [Gene said.]  I tried to buy the car from Gene, but he refused to sell it to me because [he said] it would be too much of a distraction from school."  In 1979 Voigt sold the car at a garage sale and it dropped out of sight....
I started keeping an eye out for Crosley-powered racing specials shortly after I discovered Crosleys, so I've been watching sales listings for ex-racecars, old kitcars and 'mystery' cars for over 15 years. I've seen many interesting cars come up for sale in that time and I still remember when a derelict special-bodied Crosley sports car that was almost - but not quite - like a Jabro, showed up for sale about ten years ago. I was totally intrigued, but the car was back east, so I had to confine my curiosity to careful examination of the photos of what appeared to be a very interesting little car.  It sold quickly.

It wasn't long before I saw the same car again, this time on one of the first sites I ever found for info on vintage sports cars: Tam's Old Race Car Site.  Tam McPartland got the racing bug early (13) and the camera bug at about the same time.  McPartland spent 1961-62 breathing race fumes at California tracks as he snapped pictures of exotic iron on the track or in the pits.  Lucky for me and other fans of vintage race machinery, McPartland decided to put his race photos online.  This was one of the earliest sites to feature this type of info and I spent a TON of time looking at it back then.  So did a lot of other race fans, so the site began to collect photos from other photographers and notes about old race cars.  McPartland added a section on 'Mystery Cars' where readers could post pictures of cars, asking if other readers could identify them.   I spotted the Jabro-like Crosley special shortly after new owner Rich Campbell posted it as a 'Mystery Car' in August 2004.
Campbell's listing featured pictures of the car as he had bought it, and he offered what he knew: he'd bought the car from a guy in Pennsylvania who had gotten it from the estate of a New Jersey race driver named Ray Heppenstall.  Heppenstall was well known in Crosley circles - he campaigned a well-prepared Crosley Hotshot in vintage racing and was an expert Crosley engine-builder.  Heppenstall had bought the car in 2001 from an Ohio couple who had told him they bought it at a garage sale.  Eugene Voigt's name had been lost to history.
Luckily,  for Campbell, McPartland's readers put Voigt back in the history books.  A newspaper reporter named Rick Yocum not only recognized the car, but still had a photo that he had taken of the car being run in a gymkhana in 1968!  He filled in much of the missing history and with Yocum's help, Campbell got in touch with Voigt and Ehlinger.  Soon, the Voigt Special had its own extensive listing at SportsRacer.net covering the car's entire history; nearly 50 years after the car's construction was begun in Voigt's parents' barn, Campbell had the whole story.

Almost.

Last week I came across a mention of a Crosley racing special in an online thread about vintage road racing cars.  In that thread Bill Camp mentioned that his Uncle Gene had built a Crosley special and posted the picture at the top of this post.  I got in touch with him and asked if I could use the photo and if he could fill in any more details.  He sent me the stories I've used here and OK'd the use of the photo. 

Bill's picture of his uncle in the Voigt Special captures the magic of the era - a time when an Ohio pipefitter could build himself a real race car in his barn - a car not all that different from the cars that were picking up trophies at sports car meets all over the country.  No, Gene Voigt didn't take home any big-money purses - or probably even any class wins - but that really didn't matter.   You can see it in his smile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Always keep your eyes peeled at garage sales. Not being on the competition side of collecting, I never knew of the Hotshot, the kits, or the build-your-owns, but the very day I read this post came across a relevant bit in an old Consumer Reports, giving a window of thoughts about these cars in the day. "Acceptable: As noted, in order of cost. Crosley Hotshot Roadster, $935. This is a two-passenger open car, an imitation of European supersport or competition models, equipped with a folding top, and differing from the standard Crosley in rear suspension and a longer wheelbase." Given CU's middle-of-the road, so to speak, readership, the editors wisely advised, "Acceptable, but not recommended for general use." The next entry, in the May, 1950 ratings of "miscellaneous" cars, comments on the Crosley sedan, noting that the engine block has now been changed from "brazed steel" to cast iron. "Acceptable." Watch those garage sales!