Oakland, We Have a Problem.

Getting off the ground… it’s not always easy.

Image: Desert Motors

Like many of his contemporaries during the 1950s, Milt Brown, a young car-mad engineer living in California, admired the European high-end sportscars he frequently encountered in this affluent region of America, those that hailed from Italy and England in particular being the object of his interest and desire. At times, Brown harboured thoughts of creating a sportscar himself but past efforts by others had demonstrated that this was no easy feat to pull off succesfully.

A few domestic entrepreneurs had tried their hand at creating an American Gran Turismo but the likes of Cunningham and Nash-Healey, for example, were hampered by respectively a very high price-tag and insufficient performance. The exotic European imports mostly did not suffer from lack of speed but, except perhaps for Jaguar’s XKE, they were only available to those with very fat bank accounts. Moreover, obtaining adequate service and maintenance for these frequently fickle exotics could be a problem as well.

Brown was certainly not the first, and would also not be the last to have a go at securing a seat at the table of the sportscar gentry, but the story of his entry, the Apollo GT, is nevertheless an interesting one.

In the late fifties Brown moved to England, having found employment with the Emeryson Formula One team to work on designing their racecars. The tiny British team never achieved any results of note and was gone forever after having competed in just three seasons. His work for Emeryson, however, did allow Brown to come into contact with several influential people in the international car business and one encounter in particular at the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix would light the fuse of what would become the Apollo project: the man Milt Brown met in Monaco was Frank Reisner, founder of Turin-based Carrozzeria Intermeccanica.

Although the name of his company sounded very much Italian, the surname of its founder betrayed that its origins were not. Ferenc Alfred Reisner was a Hungarian from a wealthy family that had emigrated to Canada in 1949 when the Stalinisation of his country took hold under the Soviet guided Rákosi regime.

A lifelong sportscar aficionado, Reisner visited Italy several times to tour the factories of Ferrari, Maserati, Bertone and Pininfarina. He loved it all so much he decided to move to Italy in the late fifties together with his wife Paola, settling in Turin where, in 1959, Reisner established Carrozzeria Intermeccanica.

Intermeccanica started out producing tuning kits for Renault, Simca, Peugeot and DKW. Soon after the company commenced designing and manufacturing special bodied cars such as the IMP which was an aluminium bodied Steyr-Puch 500 (a Fiat 500 built under licence in Austria) aimed at competition racing.

On the other side of the pond, Milt Brown founded International Motor Cars (IMC) based in Oakland in 1962 together with Art Center graduate Ron Plescia and Ned Davis. Brown had stayed in touch with Reisner since their first meeting in Monaco and, as Intermeccanica’s quote for fabricating and trimming car bodies was usefully lower than what the established names such as Pininfarina, Bertone or Ghia routinely charged, the decision was an easy one for IMC in the process of creating their new car.

Cost considerations(1) also dictated that for the engine, suspension, transmission and steering of Brown’s American GT, existing and proven components were to be bought in. Specifically, the donor was the ‘senior compact’ Buick Special introduced in 1961. The complete front and rear suspension assemblies of the Special were adopted (albeit with a stiffer anti-roll bar at the front) and the all-aluminium 215 cubic-inch (3.5 litre) V8, massaged somewhat to produce around 200 hp, would provide the motive force. Brown himself designed the chassis, with a wheelbase of 97 inches (246 cm) upon which all these elements were to be mounted.

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To Ron Plescia fell the task of styling the body of the car, with Brown’s preferences as a guide. What he produced was quite impressive for a first effort, with the definite Italianate flavour Brown wanted but, as there were no quarter windows and just a tiny rear window, rear visibility needed to be improved, and the simple oval grille with a central dividing bar lacked character. Intermeccanica, who had constructed this initial prototype, also pointed out that there were a few aspects of the body design that needed to be amended to facilitate production.

Reisner suggested that IMC enlist a professional stylist to further refine the basic design and Brown agreed. None other than Franco Scaglione was approached and, while retaining the original design, polished its appearance to a rather attractive looking vehicle,  all for, according to Reisner, a relatively insignificant bill of 300,000 Lira, which was around US $500 at the time.

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The original prototype had in the meantime caught the attention of the American motoring press and appeared on a few magazine covers, generating some welcome publicity for the as of yet unknown new carmaker. IMC now ordered the first Scaglione restyled bodies, complete with fitted interiors, of the Apollo GT to be built at Intermeccanica. These were subsequently shipped to Oakland, California where the chassis and drivetrain were fitted, as well as various trim pieces, and the cars readied for sale.

Adding to the obvious similarity to the products of a certain Italian sports car manufacturer with a prancing horse in its logo were the fact that the headlights and taillights(2) of the Apollo were purchased from the same supplier. IMC would complete on average two Apollos per week.

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Inside, the Italian theme continued with an array of Jaeger instruments mounted in a leather-covered dashboard and a steering wheel that seemed quite Nardi-like but was actually a very similar looking item made in England.

Weighing in at approximately 2,500 lbs and powered by the 200 Hp aluminium Buick V8 mated to a Borg Warner T10 four-speed manual gearbox with Chevrolet Corvette ratios, the Apollo offered impressive performance for the day: 0 to 60mph was claimed to be dispatched in 7.5 seconds and the top speed was close to 150mph. The relatively light engine also ensured a favorable weight distribution and good, predictable handling. The price of the Apollo was set at US $6,000 which, unfortunately, would prove to be a level too modest to generate a profit(3).

On 8th March 1963, the Apollo GT was officially unveiled at Phill Hall Buick on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The car attracted many interested parties, several of which were from the entertainment industry, the activities of which were centered in this area(4). Bolstered by the commercial potential of the new sportscar, Hall ordered 25 Apollos from a delighted IMC.

However, the enthusiastic Buick dealer had made a serious faux pas in the eyes of General Motors by advertising the car as the ‘Apollo Buick’ without consulting them. GM would have nothing to do with it and threatened to revoke Hall’s Buick dealership licence unless he immediately stopped selling the Apollo altogether. Hall chose to remain a Buick dealer, thereby creating a big problem for IMC as Intermeccanica was already in the process of producing the ordered bodies.

With its vital official Buick dealership sales link severed, the Apollo proved to be a tough sell for IMC, despite positive reports from the automotive press corps. In its road test, for example, Road & Track magazine had this to say: “Workmanship is of the highest quality, panels fit well, doors close with authority and the interiors are comparable to cars costing twice that of the Apollo.” IMC built 76 coupes and 11 convertible Apollos during its short life. As even the cars sold did not generate any meaningful profit at the US $6,000 price, there was not enough money to pay Intermeccanica, let alone to finish the cars in Oakland, both IMC and Carrozzeria Intermeccanica faced bankruptcy if a solution was not found.

What would turn out to be temporary saviour was found in 1964 in Fred Ricketts, owner of Dallas based Vanguard Industries, a company that sold aftermarket air-conditioning units for cars. Ricketts paid Intermeccanica and the ordered bodies were duly finished, and Vanguard ordered fifteen more. Renamed “Vetta Ventura” but otherwise identical to the Apollo, approximately 30 cars were completed and sold until Vanguard itself had to declare bankruptcy in 1965, putting IMC and Intermeccanica back at square one.

Sadly, no new investors could be found and all rights for the Apollo were purchased by Californian lawyer Robert Stevens who founded a new company: Apollo International. Renamed Apollo once again, and with Intermeccanica providing the bodies and interiors as before, Stevens managed to sell a handful of cars – estimates vary between seven and fourteen – before his legal business ran foul of the law and Apollo International had to be shut down.

Apollo wouldn’t survive, but Intermeccanica did. Images: Andrew Newton and hymanltd.com

The Apollo venture had reached the end of the road(5). Like several others before and after, it it had potential, looked the part and was of sound construction, but was hampered by a not sufficiently well thought out business profit model, as well as resistance from established forces. Had GM not made such a fuss over Hall’s Apollo Buick, who knows what might have been with around 3,000 Buick outlets across the country at the time?

(1) Good spare parts availability at reasonable prices was also an important contributing factor in this decision.

(2) The taillights look like those of the Alfa Romeo Duetto Spider, but are not- they are the same ones used on Ferrari California models.

(3) Years later, GM Design chief Bill Mitchell told Brown he could have easily sold the car for $10,000 and he was probably correct.

(4) Film fans may remember the Apollo GT making an appearance as the ‘Thorndyke Special’ in the 1968 Disney movie ‘The Love Bug’.

(5) After the demise of the Apollo, Intermeccanica manufactured the bodies for the Griffith GT, and later built the Intermeccanica Omega, Italia and Torino, which were in concept as well as appearance all quite similar to the Apollo and, in the case of the Italia and Torino, more succesful with around 500 sold. Intermeccanica, now with Frank Reisner’s son Henry at the helm, is still active in Vancouver, Canada: http://www.intermeccanica.com.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “Oakland, We Have a Problem.”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. What a delightful car you brought us in today’s article. Once again a car I knew, but I was mostly unaware of the history behind it. Thank you for this schoolday.

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another hidden treasure unearthed, thank you. My goodness, that was $500 well spent: the resulting car is beautiful. Here are a couple more photos of the coupé version:


    Even nicer than an E-Type?

    1. No, not really. The wing line starts dropping right after the “B” pillar, which looks wrong. Pininfarina would have done it better.

    2. Unfortunately, it does retain a bit of a home spun air about it, but the difference is still quite stunning. I think the convertible is even more accomplished:

      Strong Ferrari overtones, obviously. Would Mr. Scaglione merit a DTW special (or has that already happened)?

    3. I think they invented the Ferraruar. As it’s so reminiscent of 2 other cars, its details look wrong to me, as they aren’t its own.

  3. Scaglione later on invested a considerable part of his savings into Intermeccanica, which was lost when the company went bankrupt – making for a sad ending to what may be the most tragic career of any car design luminary.

  4. Thanks Bruno, another car I didn´t know and I´ve just discovered in DTW.
    To me it isn´t unappealing, but the belt line is a bit high and the long nose- short body shape a bit exaggerated.
    By the way, the engine is an all-aluminium, Buick 215 ci V8…what does this remind me of?

  5. The convertible is certainly improved with that vent in the front wing. Did any of the coupés have it too?

  6. Surprised to see a mention of Emeryson racing cars – they being so obscure that even Wikipedia has very little to say about them. It would appear that the three of them – father and two sons – had a relationship that would make a decent soap-opera.
    Surprisingly, a guy named Ken Miles got involved in building Emerysons at the beginning of the 50s before moving to the USA in search of a better life….

  7. Brrrruno, thank you for explaining the sketchy history of the Apollo.

    I first hear about the Apollo when visiting a local man to see his early ’30s Packard roadster. Parked nearby in his large garage was a red Apollo coupe. This was around 1970, and little was known about the cars & the company. He was storing the car until he could determine if the Buick V8 was correct for the car, or even if it might have been a kit car, as he pointed out his car was a mix of SAE and Metric hardware.

    I have to agree with a couple of the comments above; As Mervyn Scott points out, the belt line changes from a straight line on the door, to an immediate slant downward without using a gentle curve. It’s as if a section was removed from the front edge of the rear 1/4 panel. Jonathan Wadman’s comment about the vent in the front fender breaking up that flat side, certainly makes that area better looking. While my memory is not great, I don’t think the coupe I saw had a vent.

  8. Here are more pictures of the convertible.

    ———–

    Buick themselves eventually used the model name “Apollo” from 1973-1975 for their version of the Chevrolet Nova. Coincidence?

  9. Yes, I have to concede Mervyn’s point, which is much more apparent in a side-view photo:

    There really should have been some lead-in curvature on the base of the rear side window. As it is, it looks like the tail of the car is sagging. That’s a disappointing error on Scaglione’s part.

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