The history of American motoring, which for decades looked to Europe as its role model, was significantly influenced by Lance Reventlow. In 1958, at the young age of 22, Reventlow, the son of one of the wealthiest women in the world and heiress to the Woolworth retail estate, Barbara Hutton, decided to create a sports car of his own in strictly American blue and white colours to rival Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Porsche.
First out of the blocks for the new manufacturer was a very attractive and aerodynamically efficient car powered by a tuned Chevrolet V8 engine which started out at 301 cubic inches (4,930 cc) but was soon enlarged to 339 cubic inches (5,550 cc).
Its name was Scarab and its performance, thanks in part to the custom developed De Dion rear suspension, was good enough to win the 1958 Grand Prix Riverside 200 Miles for sports cars, surpassing the likes of the Ferrari 375 Plus driven by Dan Gurney and the 412 driven by Phil Hill, as well as the Jaguar D-Type of Bill Krause and the Aston Martin DBR1 of Roy Salvadori. Chuck Daigh, the Scarab works driver, emerged victorious in the race, while Reventlow had to retire due to a fuel leak.
This would have been a fascinating story if it had not been halted by a change in the regulations of the sport races, which limited displacements to 3,000cc. However, this experience sparked Carroll Shelby’s interest in endurance racing cars. Shelby was a racing driver and competed with Scarab cars before winning Le Mans in 1959 with Aston Martin. After he gave up driving, it was Shelby who developed the idea of using powerful American engines for sports cars, which led to the creation of the Cobra and eventually paved the way for Ford’s official entry into the field.
No longer eligible to compete with Scarab cars in European races (Reventlow had adapted one of his Scarabs, which he drove personally, for road use), the young American turned his attention to Formula 1 and created a single-seater that debuted in 1960. It was powered by a 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine with two overhead camshafts and desmodromic valves, which showed promising potential. However, this innovation clashed with the significant change that Formula 1 was undergoing following John Cooper’s game-changing idea to position the engine at the rear. The Scarab F1 was a beautifully designed car with a front-mounted engine, but in Grand Prix races, this proved to be a handicap.
This led to a challenging season for Reventlow and his teammate Chuck Daigh, compounded further by engine reliability problems. Nonetheless, this was the first significant presence of an American manufacturer in Formula 1, which is worth considering, given that America has only recently discovered the charm and appeal of the top motor racing series, despite its sole presence being Haas.
Reventlow ended his adventure early, and his memory was cruelly erased by an untimely death: he was only 36 years old when he died in a plane crash, leaving behind a brief yet intense and extremely interesting story as his legacy.