Split Personality - 1983 Adams VSE Escort Chevrolet
Starting in the late 1960’s, the incredible Canadian American Challenge swept the world away with its unbridled mechanical insanity. Through FIA Group 7’s refreshing “everything goes” policy, the designers active in Can Am entered into a crazed frenzy to one-up each other with increasingly outlandish machines. Utilizing the series’ free thinking spirit, Jim Hall’s radical Chaparral cars invented the principle of downforce and propelled the world of motorsport into a new age.
Unfortunately, like any good party, Can Am wasn’t meant to last. Massively powerful cars from McLaren and later Porsche dominated the championship to a dangerous degree, but this was not the arrow which would kill the beast. The threat came from much further overseas. In response to the 1973 Yom Kippur war between Israel and a force of 8 Arab countries lead by Egypt and Syria, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Producing Countries imposed an oil embargo. Any country affiliated with Israel was affected by it, including the largest consumer of petroleum in the world: the United States of America. The gigantic fuel shortages and economic downturn the Arab Oil Embargo caused had a dramatic effect on regular Joe’s in their comfy Chevy’s, and were completely catastrophic for the world of motorsport.
For Can Am the experience was apocalyptic. McLaren had already left in 1972, and Porsche was gone after 1973 as well. Costs had risen through the roof, and public support and interest were quickly evaporating. Despite the dire circumstances the series managed to continue for one more year, which was in good tradition dominated by one manufacturer: Shadow.
Even though the oil crisis had shaken the motoring world to its core, the Can Am name still retained most of its magic. Because of this the resurgent Sports Car Club of America revived the series as early as 1977. The new cars cannibalized the corpse of the recently cancelled Formula 5000 series, a single-seater class for Chevrolet V8-powered machines. The SCCA simply mandated covered wheels and full bodywork, and Can Am was back in business.
As the resurrected series carried on, the renegade nature that made it so famous started to return. After yet another energy crisis caused by the Iranian Revolution, the 1980’s started with a recovering economy and stabilizing gas prices. In other words, people were spending money again. As a result interest and public support for motor racing experienced an upsurge, meaning more money was freed for the development of unique Can Am designs.
One such designer experiencing a renaissance was Herbert “Herb” Adams. Adams had joined General Motors in 1957, and was put in charge of a engineering special projects group Pontiac in the mid 1960’s. There he had been responsible for the creation of the original 1969 Pontiac Trans Am. Up until 1973 he remained in charge of all things Trans Am, including the racing cars.
After completing the legendary Trans Am SD455, Adams left GM. He was frustrated by the conservative attitude The General was adopting caused by the energy crisis, and the fierce political battle he fought to get the SD455 into production.
After some experiments racing unusual GM-models in NASCAR and SCCA GT, Adams started his own engineering company; Very Special Engineering. Under this banner he released tuned street legal racing versions of the Firebird (Fire Am) and its cousin the Camaro (Cheverra), which quickly became legends in the musclecar community.
Although the sales of his tuned street cars were going rather well, Herb Adams was less than satisfied. He wanted to do some more radical experimenting. During his time at Pontiac he had even created a rear-engined Firebird, just to see what it would do. This ambitious attitude lead him to take the revived Can Am series as his new technological playground. He received enthusiastic support from speed freaks Escort, a manufacturer of radar detectors
Ever since the introduction of the innovative Lotus 79 Formula One car, ground-effect had become the next great engineering obsession. Ground effect worked by allowing incoming air to accelerate through venturi tunnels in the floor of a car. As the air accelerated it created a low pressure area under the car, which would suck it down onto the tarmac. This put more load into the tires, which would grip much harder.
Therefore, the amount of downforce this system could create depended on how big the venturi tunnels could be made. In traditional monocoque designs they were limited by silly things like the driver, the engine and the transmission. As a result most designers resorted to using two smaller tunnels, allowing them to bypass the monocoque. This only partially solved the problem, as the suspension and driveshafts were now in the way.
Herb Adams was not like most designers. His solution to the tunnel problem was as simple as it was completely insane. Rather than move the tunnels around the engine and driver, he moved the engine and driver around the tunnel. By placing the car’s key components on either side of the chassis, he created the room for a giant venturi tunnel down the middle.
The big tunnel promised vast amounts of downforce, which Adams was convinced would offset any balance issues with the asymmetric design. Like all virtually contemporary Can Am machines, the “Pontoon Car“ used a 5.0L Chevrolet V8 fitted with Lucas fuel-injection. The 550 horsepower small-block was mounted at a slight angle, leading to one cylinder bank hanging slightly outside the bodywork. The power was handled by a Muncie 4-speed manual transmission.
As it turned out, Herb Adams was absolutely right about the car’s potential. In fact, the alien machine produced so much downforce it was tearing itself apart. During testing the venturi tunnel collapsed under the immense strain, and had to be extensively strengthened. This made the car significantly overweight, meaning it would have to work even harder to keep up with the pack.
Another issue was the car’s nervous and unpredictable handling. In spite of the massive levels of downforce, the car was tremendously unstable. Ground effect was still a relatively mystical force to control, and the Escort couldn’t generate it consistently down the length of the tunnel.
Consequently the car’s center of pressure could shift instantly from front to back, making it either oversteer or understeer from corner to corner. The irregular downforce could even cause the car to rock violently back and forth, shaking the driver around in a nauseating frenzy. This phenomenon had occured in early Formula One ground effect cars as well, and was known as porpoising. The term referred to a large marine mammal related to dolphins, which was known for moving along by quickly diving in and out of the water.
The storm of aerodynamic forces and balance shifts wreaked havoc on the Escort’s unfortunate drivers. First to pilot the car was the impossibly experienced Milt Minter (USA). Minter had driven virtually everything there was to be driven since 1960, but nothing could prepare him for Adams’ highly erratic design.
The extreme forces Minter had to endure were exacerbated by the weird offset seating position. Any movement by the car was amplified because the driver was sitting very far from the center of the car, creating a pendulum effect. Minter also complained about an appalling lack of visibility, making it very hard to judge his lines through right hand corners.
At its first race at Mosport, the Escort immediately tore itself apart again, and began shedding pieces of bodywork. Since this posed a danger to the other competitors, Minter was given the black flag and pulled from the race. At Lime Rock Park the engine failed, overheating due to its awkward position in the chassis.
Herb Adams worked hard to try and improve the car, but Milt Minter had had enough. In his place the younger Walt Bohren (USA) was drafted in, an experienced IMSA GT racer. In Bohren’s hands the car proved to be more successful, finishing 8th at Road America and 10th at Sears Point. These decent performances were more down to luck than raw speed however, as the car still filed to reach higher than 15th place in qualifying. After yet another round of bitter disappointments, the remarkable Pontoon Car was retired and scrapped.
The Adams VSE Escort was one of the most fanatically creative racing designs in modern history. Dreamt up by a disgruntled GM-designer, the car abandoned any and all common sense in the pursuit of ultimate ground effect downforce. Sadly the design had a bit of a violent split personality.
On the one hand it produced more downforce than its creator could ever have imagined, but it tore itself to pieces doing it. The extra-terrestrial machine was universally hated by its drivers, who were thrown around by rampant surges of downforce front and rear, and couldn’t even see where they were going half the time. Despite his admirable out of the box thinking, Herb Adams failed to deliver a competitive racecar. In response he returned to what he knew best: racing Pontiac Trans Am’s.