In his last-ever column, Tom tells us about his fateful dragster fascination
The drag-racing phenomenon never really caught on in Europe. It was a California thing that expanded after the war and is still popular today. Just looking at some of these vehicles standing still sends shivers up my spine – how on earth can anyone want to risk their life in such a bizarre automotive competition? But among those that do there is little hesitation, because the winners become cult heroes for exposing themselves to such odds of plain survival.
Over time the constructors of these cars have come up with every possible technical solution. The first post-war attempts saw surplus WW2 aeronautical auxiliary fuel tanks fitted with an engine and four exposed wheels. These lakesters were then drag-raced on the Utah salt flats.
The extreme came many years later – those long tubular chassis with vertical exhaust stacks and what looked like bicycle wheels in front, giving the impression that they couldn’t possibly hope to have any influence over direction.
When I came to work for Ghia in the summer of 1958 there were many unorthodox cars being designed by the Torino Carrozzerias. Bertone had its BAT prototypes and Luigi Segre at Ghia was greatly influenced by the design centres in Detroit, having done prototype work for all of them. One of my first designs at Ghia was the Selene with the driver in front of the front wheels, six passengers facing each other between the wheels and the engine in the rear. This car went on to influence the design of a Moscow taxi using the same layout with shorter overhangs, four passengers and the engine in the rear. About fifty of these experimental taxis were built and used in the Russian capital for many years.
What to do next? Segre was searching for some shocking new idea for the 1960 Torino Auto Salon. By chance, I’d left a sketch on my table and Segre came by and asked me what it was; what on earth did I have in my mind? I explained that it was a streamlined dragster. He said we should create a two-seater sports car using this idea, but that proved impractical. However, he loved bizarre ideas and the next day said that it would be built exactly like it was in my sketch.
The Torino Auto Salon in those days was a mecca for automotive designers. All the big styling executives converged on the city to see the latest styling trends. It wasn’t unusual for a designer like Giovanni Michelotti to have created up to 35 new prototypes for one show. Looking back I was fortunate to have had this opportunity to come to Torino during its height of design influence and creativity. First the Selene, now the Ghia dragster – and all of the sudden ‘The Americano’, as I had become known, became the first foreigner to design cars in Italy. The IXG dragster was a curious subject of conversation, though it never had the success of the Selene.
But for me this unusual show car changed the course of my career. After the 1960 Torino show the IXG remained in a corner of the Ghia workshops until one day – ten years later – Alessandro de Tomaso asked who had designed it. The answer led to his personal telephone call to me and the job as head designer at Ghia.
The IXG dragster, Ghia’s whimsical indulgence that led to a fateful career turning point for Tom