1938 Phantom Corsair: a classic high-performance supercar ahead of its time

Article by Christian Andrei, on December 7, 2015

The Phantom Corsair is considered one of the classics. When it was launched, its design was truly unconventional and very futuristic. In fact, its target market even had a hard time trying to comprehend its liberal features.

Phantom Corsair was the brainchild of Rust Heinz, who dreamed of creating America’s first supercar. In 1936, Heinz moved to California as a high-spirited entrepreneur who was part of a growing food empire. He was then able to persuade his aunt to finance the development of the car despite opposition from the Heinz family.

After all, the Phantom Corsair was intended to be produced in limited numbers and to be sold at nearly $15,000 each – a very high price tag at the time. A scale model of the car was then made in clay, featuring an aerodynamic shape that was so different from any vehicle at the time.

Heinz then brought the scale model to Chistian Bohman and Marice Schwartz of Pasadena California in order to bring to life a running full size car. As soon as they had the scale model, Bohman & Schwartz commenced work on the car by making use of these elements: a custom chassis from the AJ. Bayer Company; and a donor Cord 812 drive train with a V8 engine (power upgraded from 125 bhp to 190 bhp) and a complex front-wheel drive sub-frame.

Once the base was formed, Bohman & Schwartz worked on the car's body, creating it from aluminum and supporting it with a steel tube lattice framework. Bohman & Schwartz made sure that the body was wide at the wheel wells in order to accommodate the Phantom Corsair's fully enveloped wheels.

Its front end featured characteristic vents and sculpted lights blending into the main shape. It also featured chrome front and rear triple-blade bumpers. Moreover, the Phantom Corsair had side windows extending higher into the roof and low split windscreen.

However, there were some drawbacks on the design like the small front louvers that offered only limited front cooling, causing the Lycoming 4.7-liter engine to overheat repeatedly. With 190 bhp at its disposal, the aerodynamically shape Phantom Corsair was reportedly able to reach a top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h).

The cabin of the Phantom Corsair could accommodate four people in the front and two in the rear. Its futuristic sense was further evoked by a host of aeronautical instrumentation on the dashboard and a switch panel mounted on the roof.

Likewise, the Phantom Corsair didn't feature the typical door handles. Instead, ingress and egress was made possible by push-button automatic doors. Other elements of the Phantom Corsair included ‘thermostatic’ temperature control, a thick layer of cork/rubber insulation for the cockpit, green-tinted safety glass and hydraulic bumpers.

It cost over $24,000 to build the Phantom Corsair. After it was built, it was then time to let the public know about this new vehicle. To do that, a full page ad in Esquire magazine was commissioned. The Corsair was also displayed at the World’s Fair and was dubbed as ‘The Car of Tomorrow.’

It also played as ‘The Flying Wombat’ in 1938 film "The Young in Heart" by David O. Selznick. Also, the Corsair was featured in a Popular Science film series in 1938. Unfortunately, no one dared to place an order for the Phantom Corsair. Heinz made the car as his personal service vehicle until he died at the young age of 25.

The Heinz family then stored the car until 1942. The Phantom Corsair was then driven by a relative until it was sold and painted gold. In the 1950s, Herb Shriner commissioned Albrecht Goertz to rework the front end of the Phantom Corsair to increase its engine cooling capability.

This rework also led to the raising of the front window to increase visibility and the revision of the roof to include two targa top-style panels to allow more light to seep into the cabin. Then, the Phantom Corsair was purchased by Bill Harrah at an auction and made it part of his collection.

Harrah, however, undid the modifications and restored the Phantom Corsair to its original form. Now, the Phantom Corsair can be seen at the National Automobile Museum -- known formerly as The Harrah Collection -- in Reno, Nevada.

Aside from sitting in the museum, the Phantom Corsair was also showed to the public at events like the 2006 Goodwood Festival, 2007 Pebble Beach Concours and 2009 Amelia Island Concours.

Topics: classic car

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