Winged Wonder - 1966 Chaparral 2E

Chaparral was an American race car manufacturer founded in 1962 by Formula 1 driver Hap Sharp in a partnershipTexas oil magnate and highly talented race car driver Jim Hall. Together they would build some of the most advanced designs of the 1960’s, paving the way for an entirely new generation of advanced aerodynamic designs.

The Chaparral story started properly in 1963 with their first model, the 2. This was a mid-engined Can Am sportscar featuring the innovative use of an exotic fiberglass chassis. It proved dominant in the series, taking several wins. Most importantly it won the 12 Hours of Sebring in the pouring rain in 1965.

The 2 model evolved quickly due to Jim Hall’s immeasurable talent as a classically trained engineer. His convenient access to Chevrolet’s development department lead to the more traditional aluminium 2C. Hall called this new heavily vibrating chassis the EBJ (Eye Ball Jiggler). The traditional chassis was offset by a revolutionary feature that Hall himself had developed.

 

With the 2C Chaparral introduced moveable aerodynamics.

With the 2C Chaparral introduced moveable aerodynamics.

The 2C featured a driver-controlled movable rear spoiler that acted as an air brake. On the straights the spoiler would lay as flat as possible to reduce drag, but as soon as the driver had to brake, he pushed an extra pedal with his left foot to make the wing pop up. 

The extra pedal was made possible by the use of a semi-automatic 3-speed “clutchless” transmission in the car. Without a clutch pedal to worry about, the driver was free to control the movable spoiler. He would keep the wing up throughout the corner for added downforce, and drop it down again when faced with a straight.

As the 2C was nearing the end of its competition life, Hall looked to take its concepts to the next level. The result was the 1966 2E. It was based on the aluminium EBJ chassis of the 2C, but featured a radically different aerodynamic profile.

 

On the 2E, the small airbrake of the 2C had mutated into a giant high-mounted rear spoiler with the profile of an upside-down aircraft wing. Jim Hall had correctly theorized that turning an aerofoil the wrong way up would reverse the lift airplanes used to fly into something he called downforce. To make the most of this magical new phenomenon, the wing’s mountings were bolted directly to the rear suspension uprights, thereby loading the rear tires more directly.

 

The intricate flow-through ducting systems on the 2E gave the car a unique look. 

The intricate flow-through ducting systems on the 2E gave the car a unique look. 

Hall then placed the radiators in the sides of the car to remove the heat coming from a traditional front mounted example. This also allowed him to create a different front profile for the car with ducting inside that channeled the air up over the nose. Downforce was provided by forcing the air along shaped panels located inside the ducting.

The solution provided much needed front end grip, keeping the car from heavily understeering due to the massive rear downforce level. To better cool the engine Hall made a V-shaped ridge just in front of the windshield, directing the air into two enormous boxy flow-through intakes on either side containing the radiators.

 

The 2E's outlandish looks made it a fan favorite.

The 2E's outlandish looks made it a fan favorite.

The active element of the new aerodynamic properties was also extended compared to the 2C. Coupled to the large adjustable rear wing, the front ducting was also controllable by the driver. When Jim Hall had his foot off the pedal, the car would be in full downforce setting with the rear wing fully angled and the front ducting open, providing maximum downforce. 

But whenever there was a straight, Hall would depress the pedal and hold it there. The rear wing would lay flat, and the front ducting would close up to streamline the car. As soon as the track got bendy again, Hall would release the pedal and the car would revert to its full downforce configuration.

The level of detail and intricacy of Hall’s aerodynamic design was like something out of space in 1966. It was both visually spectacular and theoretically impressive, but what mattered most was its effectiveness on the track. 

Even in the early days of Can Am, almost all of Chaparral’s competitors like McLaren and Lola had switched to V8-engines in excess of 6 liters with enormous power figures. Hall however stuck to his guns with a much smaller 4 carburetor 5.3L Chevrolet V8 producing a modest 450 horsepower. He believed the 2E’s superior aerodynamics would more than make up for the massive power deficit.

Phil Hill leading the race, Riverside Raceway 1966.

Phil Hill leading the race, Riverside Raceway 1966.

In terms of sheer speed, Hall was proven to be right. In spite of all their power, the 2E’s competitors could not hold a candle to the bewinged rocketship. However, the car did suffer from a number of teething problems.

Reliability was the biggest problem of the car, aside from missing the first race because Chaparral was too busy running its 2D coupe in European endurance racing. These issues meant the 2E would manage to score only one win at Laguna Seca. The car was later developed into the more refined 2G and the coupe-bodied endurance racer 2F. 

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The Chaparral 2E was a groundbreaking design by a true engineering pioneer. It was the first racing car built to utilize the dark art of downforce. Although it had some persistent reliability issues, it set the template for the future of motorsport. Every single design that followed adhered to the principles established by Jim Hall and his amazingly fast rattling aluminum tub.

And for that, we should be thankful.