Alex Tremulis and Carroll Shelby both had an unbridled passion for automotive performance. So it's not surprising that the two would continually cross paths in each of their individual quests to become the fastest in their respective fields - Tremulis on the salt flats at Bonneville and Shelby on the race tracks (and streets) around the world.
The following letters, accounts and photos come directly from Alex Tremulis' archives and show rare glimpses behind the scenes on two different but inter-related facets to the Gyroanut story. The first part illustrates how the Gyronaut was initially to be powered by one of Carroll Shelby's race engines. The second part, shows Tremulis' efforts to create a rear spoiler for his wife Chrissie's 1965 Ford Mustang and how it may have influenced the design of one of the most iconic muscle cars of all time: Carroll Shelby's Mustang GT350's and GT500's. The Gyronaut reigned king as the World's Fastest Motorcycle throughout much of the production runs of the Shelby Mustangs...
Part 1: The Shelby Cobra-Powered Gyronaut
On September 8, 1963, several Shelby Cobras were entered in the USRRC Road America 500 race in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The result was an oustanding day for Shelby where his Cobras came in first and second in the GT class, and second, fourth and sixth overall.
A quick note from Tremulis who already saw that in order for the little Cobra to make full use of its potential, it was going to have to be seriously streamlined. Peter Brock's stunning Cobra "Daytona" Coupe was a full 20mph faster than its roadster counterpart, enabling it to finally beat its Ferrari competition the following year.
Just a few months following the first meeting between Tremulis and Leppan at the 1963 Speed Week, Ford had already agreed to send Tremulis his requested powerplant for the Gyronaut. It would naturally have to come from Carroll Shelby as his engines had already proven to be both reliable and unbeatable.
Between Frank Zimmerman and Don Frey, Ford had already placed their "go-to" guys for the project. A high-horsepowered Christmas present from Santa was in the works. These were the days when a man's word and a handshake were the only things required to begin a major project.
A short while later, Tremulis sketched out the basics for the Gyronaut layout. Care was taken to ensure his best-guess for the possible placement of the stabilizing gyroscopes in both the front and rear of the motorcycle.
In typical Tremulis humor, the exhaust was to be routed out "der lauden boomer" ports just behind the engine bay.
Gaining support for the gyros, however, was not going to be easy. Two companies, Lear and Sperry, were both approached, but neither was yet convinced that getting a speed record with the risks involved was going to be a worthy project.
By early 1964, Tremulis' Gyronaut rendering proudly carried Carroll Shelby's Cobra logo emblazoned on its side.
The project had the blessings from Tremulis' old boss at Ford, Henry Ford II. At Ford, Tremulis had headed up the Advanced Styling Studio and was responsible for many of Ford's most notable concepts cars from the 1950's and '60's. The "999" reference on the Gyronaut was to honor Henry Ford's original race car that wore number 999 as it set a world land speed record of 91.4mph in 1904.
By March of 1964, the Gyronaut's engine was on the dyno and was being readied for shipment from California to Detroit. The rest of the Gyronaut was taking shape as well. Issues with the gyro sponsorship was still not resolved and was starting to be of serious concern. Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats takes place in August, and the design of the frame and body can't be completed without knowing exactly which components are going to go where.
April 1964: The Shelby-prepped engine, Ford transmission and differential have all been delivered to the Gyronaut team. At this point, the only thing on the critical path was support from the gyroscope manufacturers. That support never came, so by June 1964 it was clear the gyroscopes would have to be dropped and so would the Shelby engine. After restrategizing, the team decided to run first with the ultra-dependable twin Triumph setup that Bob Leppan and Jim Bruflodt knew so well. This effort became the "Gyronaut X-1" to break the absolute motorcycle record of 230mph. They decided to use the Shelby engine and gyros for the "Gyronaut X-2" at a run for over 400mph, and then, ultimately, use a jet engine for the Gyronaut "X-3 Sonic Boom" to break the sound barrier at over 760mph.
Only the twin-engined Triumph-powered Gyronaut X-1 was completed, becoming the World's Fastest Motorcycle in 1966. What became of the Shelby engine? After sitting in the shop at Logghe Stamping, it presumably was used in another race car. It's fate is still unknown. Efforts to track its history through Shelby American have so far been unsuccessful.
Part 2: The First Rear Spoiler for the 1965 Shelby GT350?
The second half of the Shelby-Gyronaut connection revolves around Tremulis' attempts to create a more stable Mustang in high speed situations. The fastback design had a tendency to have its front end become very light at high speeds. Tremulis had reasoned that a spoiler placed on the rear deck would create the necessary downforce to hold the Mustang's front end down and provide stability during racing on tracks where higher speeds could be attained. The following photos document his efforts to both create the spoiler for the 1965 Mustang, but also his first hand account of presenting the concept to Carroll Shelby and then finally proving out his high-speed spoiler on the Bonneville Slat Flats.
Mid-1965? The first spoiler being shaped in clay. Fiberglass molds would then be taken directly from the clay in order to make a "negative" of the desired part. Then a "positive" fiberglass part could be molded from the plug, making an identical duplicate of the clay piece, now in fiberglass.
The man sculpting the spoiler looks to be Vince Gardner, who had also worked with Tremulis at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg in the 1930's. Gardner would also go on to build the Gyronaut's fiberglass body as well!
In the following photos, the red Mustang is an unknown owner's car. The white Mustang 2+2 was owned by Alex Tremulis' wife, Chrissie. It would be her car that would eventually be the test mule for the high speed runs.
Chrissie Tremulis with her pristine-looking Mustang 2+2. She had no idea what was in store for her new ride.
The spinner hubcaps seem to be the only non-stock exterior addition at this point.
Below, both cars would eventually get the spoiler treatment, but it's clear that the red car was first. Chrissie's car appears to be stock at this point. A closer look at the front end also shows a reworking of the front grill and a hood scoop that appears yet to be integrated into the hood of the car.
The following photos have the appearance of a marketing effort directed at the new spoiler(s). The white Mustang in the background looks to be Chrissie's car, still appearing stock. The man in the photos is Jim Gaylord, a long-time friend of Alex Tremulis. Jim Gaylord's father had invented the bobby pin which allowed his sons to pursue their dreams without worrying about financing. Gaylord would go on to build his own car, the incredible 1956 Gaylord Gladiator, of which 3 were built. In the 1970's Tremulis would become Gaylord's marketing man in charge of advertising Gaylord's "Compu-Spark" electronic ignition modules. So it is possible that the red car was owned by Gaylord and the spoiler was intended to be co-marketed by the two entrepreneurs. More research is definitely warranted.
Gaylord and Tremulis during the same photo shoot, with Tremulis appearing to illustrate how the airflow over the spoiler creates downforce at high speeds. The hood scoop looks to be removed for these photos.
In a strikingly similar photo, Jim Gaylord (left) inside the Tucker styling studio in 1949 getting an education from Alex Tremulis. Gaylord's passion for automobile design and enthusiasm made a lasting impression on Tremulis and the two kept in touch ever since. Gaylord approached Tremulis to design his Gladiator in the mid-'50's, however at the time Tremulis was deep into advanced car concepts at Ford and wasn't permitted to freelance. Tremulis put Gaylord in touch with fellow designer Brooks Stevens for the job. Tremulis would be instrumental in getting the Gladiator inducted into the Milestone Car Society twenty years later.
The red spoilered Mustang doesn't seem to appear in any more photographs, but Chrissie Tremulis' beloved Mustang certainly does. Below are probably the first photos of the spoiler on her car. In addition to the new spoiler, her car is sporting new rally stripes, one down the center in front, and two down the deck in the rear. The stripes were most probably added to highlight the profile and contour of the spoiler on the white paint, something Tremulis was very familiar with in his then three decades of automotive design.
Clearly illustrating the molded-in deck caps and the keyed entry, these photos appear again to be aimed at a brochure to highlight the new body pieces.
Chrissie's bespoilered pony car makes an appearance at Walt Arfons' place where the Wingfoot Express II is being readied for a trial run at an airstrip in Ohio. By September 1965, the Wingfoot Express was at Bonneville undergoing its final land speed record attempts.
In a special arrangement with Goodyear, Tremulis helped with the design of Arfons' record car in exchange for private salt time at Bonneville for the Gyronaut runs.
Above and left, Chrissie's car alongside Bob and Bill Summers' Goldenrod streamliner during what looks like a preliminary trial run. Except for the spoiler and the stripes, the 2+2 still appears stock.
The final runs for the Goldenrod were made in November 1965, but these photos appear to pre-date their final record-setting run.
In 1974, Alex Tremulis recounted his reasons for building the spoiler and the meeting he had with Carroll Shelby. The following excerp comes directly from his memoirs where he told of his adventures and mis-adventures:
In trying to solve the suspension problems of the Gyronaut X-I, it was necessary to make a number of trips to the shops and experts in the Los Angeles area. Tremulis was driving a 1965 Mustang that belonged to his wife, Chrissie, who was driving his Thunderbird at her job in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tremulis was experimenting with a spoiler, a horizontal air foil at the rear of the car, which he hoped would serve to hold down the tail at high speed. He had run it at 125mph on the salt and it handled beautifully, but that's not fast enough for the real test.
While he was in the Los Angeles area he decided to show the spoiler-equipped Mustang to Carroll Shelby, designer of the famed Shelby American, a really fine racing car. Shelby and Tremulis disagreed over the effect the spoiler would have on the Mustang. Shelby felt it might tend to push the tail down and confound the already bad habit of Mustangs to get airborne in the front at about 130mph. Tremulis theorized his spoiler would create a new, high velocity vortex that would tend to suck air underneath the car and hold the nose down. It was a theory at this point and to test it required greater speed.
First, he got some big tires to step his gear ratio up from 3 1/2 to 3. Then he went to see Joe Granatelli, one of the big forces in developing fast cars. He asked Granatelli to supercharge the Mustang. Granatelli suggested as a friend: "Look, Alex, you're 52. Why go out there on the salt flats and kill yourself?" But he agreed to supercharge the Mustang and did. Three days later, Tremulis is back at Bonneville.
"Wow, the Mustang had zap! I take it out on the 10-mile circle and it can move. I do the last five miles coming in at 145mph and it handled like a dream. I begin thinking about a speed run for it."
In the meantime, Tremulis uses the Mustang as an observing chase car as Leppan puts the Gyronaut X-I through experimental runs. He easily glides along the salt at 145mph in this Mustang that is still a streetable car. The Gyronaut is having problems, now mostly transmission difficulties in trying to harness two Triumph engines, but also continued breaking of chains. Leppan has had runs of 227mph and on this particular day it appeared that maybe everything is ready for a run that will put it over 230mph, but Leppan has spent about all the time in a hot fire suit he can stand for the time being and decides to call it a day, try again tomorrow.
"I'm down at the 10-mile markers and I wanted to salvage something out of the day, so I called into the timers and tell them to get ready, I'm coming through for a shot at the class B record. I've had runs of 152 and 154mph and I'm confident that this 271 hp Mustang, now supercharged to 420 hp will do it. If I hadn't been such an amateur, it would have, too."
What happened was he started too fast, poured too much coal to it, revved the engine to 6,800 rpm on the tachometer. At 155 mph the aerodynamic drag hit its maximum for the body design. The engine was now turning 7500 in 3rd gear and Tremulis wasn't into his speed trap yet. Smoke trails poured out of the exhausts, tbe temperature gauge climbed.
"By this time there are two jet trails of smoke pouring out and I throw everything into neutral and coast to a stop. I've punched two holes in pistons." He was pushed back into the pits, Chrissie's Mustang, all super-charged and spoiled, is now also burned out.
Chrissie's car now has the hood scoop, Shelby/Crager rims, and presumably the larger rubber. And, no doubt, the Granatelli supercharger is now under the hood.
So, according to Tremulis' account, this would have followed his meeting with Shelby about the spoiler. It would appear that Tremulis did some shopping at Shelby's plant.
Back at the hotel in Wendover with the new Shelby accessories. Chrissie's car is looking every bit the high-performance racer that it has gradually become. The Gyronaut's support van is parked beside it.
Alex Tremulis looking proud of his new creation. No sign of trouble under the hood at this point.
Looking like he's getting ready to make a run down the salt, that's Tremulis sitting in the driver's seat. This probably is not at the 10 mile markers as it looks like the burm alongside Highway 80 is on the right. Note the radios that the men beside the car are holding, possibly waiting for the timers' "GO".
In any case, after stable runs in the mid-150's, the Mustang's spoiler concept was finally proven to be of use at high speeds.
November 1965: Tremulis' Mustang sitting next to the German NSU team's streamliner. The Mustang is either back to its skinny tires or hasn't yet received the Shelby/Crager rims. Of course, it's also possible that there were two sets of wheels, one for racing and one for driving.
The height of the little streamliner is deceptively low: Most of the car sits just above the axle height of the Mustang.
Bob Leppan standing beside Chrissie's salt-encrusted chase car. The car still appears driveable at this point.
Where this car is today is unknown, but the Bonneville salt combined with Detroit's harsh winter probably didn't bode well for its survival...
In 2010, a 1965 GT350, number 5S319, was first publicly displayed (and auctioned off) with a factory prototype rear spoiler. At the time, its unique spoiler was marketed as potentially being the first spoiler ever placed on an American production car. One thing is for sure: The Mustang was a very popular car to personalize with various add-ons from all sorts of manufacturers - both high quality and some of dubious quality. It seems three other 1966 GT350's ended up with similar rear spoilers and then all of the '67 to 70's had rear spoilers as well.
More research is certainly warranted to determine which spoiler was, in fact, the very first and if Tremulis' had any influence whatsoever on the Shelby Mustang prototype that incorporated the first factory-installed rear spoiler. Or was it just another attempt to provide customization at the very start of the pony car wars? Has there been any new information that's been found in the historical record that sheds new light on these designs?
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