With few exceptions, the American performance car of the sixties was a pretty straightforward beast: a traditional, proven suspension and platform layout, big V8 up front, fat tires and all of it dressed in an imposing body often painted in some of the more vivid colours of the spectrum, with decals and striping to emphasise the point. Simple, effective and to most eyes handsome as well as desirable: why do it any different way?
There were of course alternatives of European origin such as MG, Alfa Romeo and Porsche, but those appealed to a different kind of customer – often one who had experience with them while serving abroad in the military after WW2.
Industrial designer Henry Covington was born in North Carolina but lived and worked in the Tampa area of Florida. A very tall man with horn-rimmed glasses, Covington looked nothing like Colin Chapman but his adage, “Streamlining and light weight are the answers to drag, the enemy of speed” might have come straight out of the mouth of the man that made Lotus.
Using the aerodynamic principles of Dr. Augustus Raspet (a noted aerodynamicist from Mississippi State University) as a guideline, Covington designed a highly futuristic fiberglass bodied coupé with an aircraft-like canopy in order to demonstrate that it did not need to take brute power to go fast. Glenn Gums, a friend of Covington and a fiberglass expert, helped to engineer and build the prototype which was finished in 1960.
They made the initial mould for the body by applying plaster of Paris to the frame and coating it with automotive primer to get a smooth surface. Then the mould was coated with a release agent to separate the mould from the fibrous material used to cast the body shell. After that the mould was covered with layers of resin and glass cloth to form a female mould from which the whole process was repeated to produce the definitive body – there were seventeen separate moulds in total that comprised the body, including an underside belly pan almost the size of the vehicle.
Henry chose El Tiburon (Spanish for shark) as the name for his aerodynamic creation, since that animal is hydrodynamically almost perfect. Standing just 42.5 inches tall, 73 inches wide and 159.5 inches long, El Tiburon looked like a concept car that had somehow escaped from its revolving platform onto the public road. Entry and exit was via an aircraft-like canopy; inside there was room for two.
The car was designed from the start to use the Renault 4cv chassis and engine (82,5 inch wheelbase) but was also adaptable to utilise Renault Dauphine or Porsche 356 hardware. The trusty VW Beetle was an option as well but in that case its chassis would have to be shortened by 12.5 inches. A very unusual feature of El Tiburon were the headlights: these were stored inside the car and when required could be slotted into two ready-made apertures on each side of the nose.
When testing his first prototype, with the 17 hp 4cv engine in the back, El Tiburon reached a top speed of 78 Mph. Later, Covington fitted a tuned Dauphine engine of 45 hp which allowed for a maximum velocity of 122 mph. Or at least that was how fast Covington dared to go as the front end started to vibrate quite severely at that speed. It was strengthened on the later production cars as a result.
Unsurprisingly, El Tiburon did not exactly go unnoticed during its several outings with Covington at the wheel. It was not long before national publicity in magazines such as Road & Track, Hot Rod, Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated ensued. Quoting a magazine tester: “In traffic, you’re so low you can see daylight under ordinary sedans. Coming up behind a 10-ton cross-country trailer or bus you feel like you’re looking down the Holland Tunnel. The Shark is some car.”
In early 1962 El Tiburon was fully developed, tested and ready to be ordered; six El Tiburons had already been completed. Sadly Henry Covington suddenly passed away at just 38 years of age in may of that year which was a devastating blow to the project. His friend and co-developer Glenn Gums attempted to keep the venture alive, changing the bodystyle from a coupé to a roadster in the process, but just five more El Tiburons were produced, the last one in 1965.
El Tiburon was probably too extreme and impractical in its concept to become a seller in any significant volume, but had its creator and promotor not died just as it was ready there is a good chance more than just eleven would have found owners. This article serves as a small tribute to enterprising souls like Henry Covington that dared to march to a different drumbeat.