Richard Heseltine from here to obscurity Bill Frick Special. Entering the world of the car-building business is a perilous journey, especially when you involve Italian coachworks, as Bill Frick discovered… Words: Richard Heseltine. Colour images: Bonhams.
There was no plan, as such, only instinct. Bill Frick was a hot-rodding pioneer and ace fabricator. The German-born New Yorker was also a handy driver on quarter-mile dirt oval tracks. Before the Second World War, he earned a degree of fame locally for inserting large engines into unsuspecting small cars, and picked up from where he left off at the end of hostilities. Together with business partner Phil Walters, a fellow racer who competed as ‘Ted Tappet’, he began stuffing 331cu in Cadillac V8s into ‘Shoebox’ Fords.
According to some sources, they performed as many as 200 such conversions between 1949 and ’1951. One of these ‘Fordillacs’ attracted the attention of wealthy Floridian Briggs Cunningham, who bought one with a view to fielding it in the ’1949 Le Mans 24 Hours. His bid was thwarted by multiple winner, Luigi Chinetti, who complained to the organisers that it hadn’t been homologated, so therefore shouldn’t be allowed to compete. Unbowed, Cunningham instead entered a pair of Cadillacs – one with a hideous open body – which were prepared in part by Frick. He also helped construct the first Cunningham sports car, while also moving on from Fords to building Cadillac-engined Studebakers in series. Not only that, by 1953 Bill Frick Motors had also became US concessionaire for the British Kieft marque, while also importing new and used Lancias and Ferraris.
1957 Bill Frick Special GT Coupe
It was at this juncture that Frick reasoned that a ‘Studillac’ with more outline might attract a moneyed clientele. That appeared to be where the business plan began and ended. In 1955, a bare chassis was dispatched to Alfredo Vignale in Turin, Frick having already made his acquaintance courtesy of Cunningham who had commissioned the coachbuilder to clothe his eponymous sports car in volume (all things being relative). Styled by Vignale’s regular collaborator, Giovanni Michelotti, the handsome Bill Frick Special coupe was bodied in aluminium but fit and finish reputedly left a lot to be desired.
Nevertheless, a second car was commissioned, this time with steel panel-work, which featured a slightly dumpier body style complete with roll-back sunroof and vestigial tail fins. The car took Vignale six months to fashion and arrived stateside minus various components which had been supplied by Frick. Vignale had thus far charged around $10,000 for the construction of both cars. Given that the list price was $9000, he didn’t even break even. It didn’t help that he had to rectify flaws in the build, either. Nevertheless, he was already committed to building a third car, this time a convertible. Once this was completed, he called time on being a manufacturer in his own right. Of the three cars made, the whereabouts of the prototype remains unknown. The second car is now with its sixth owner and in fine fettle. The lone convertible, meanwhile, has since received a ‘resto-mod’ makeover, complete with 427cu in Corvette LS7 V8, six-speed ’box and MGB tail-lights… But then this was a custom car in all but name. Somehow we suspect Mr Frick would have approved.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1957 Bill Frick Special GT Coupe
Chassis no. FCC1003
Engine no. 1003
ENGINE: 331ci OHV V8 Dual four-Barrel Carburetors
POWER: 270bhp at 4,800rpm
GEARBOX: 4-Speed Manual Transmission
SUSPENSION: Independent Front Suspension Live Rear Axle
BRAKES: 4-Wheel Hydraulic Drum Brakes
Richard Heseltine’s weird and wonderful American cars from the past. Turned metal dash. Coupe had handsome lines. Roll-back sunroof was high tech for the time.
Bill Frick was considered an automotive genius of the 50s and 60s. He created a name for himself engine-swapping in the early 1930s, but his career really took flight once he entered the world of racing. Frick found himself fielding a long list of requests from amateur drivers, to modify and prep their cars. Frick’s outstanding reputation led him to NASCAR. After a very successful racing partnership with renowned driver Phil Walters (also known as Ted Tappet,) the two opened their own shop on Sunrise Highway in Rockville Centre, New York, known as Frick-Tappet Motors.
Around the same time that Frick opened his shop, Cadillac introduced their new V8 engine. Frick quickly saw the potential in the engine, as it was the first short-stroke, overhead valve, high compression production V8. The new powerplant had 331ci and a compression ratio of 7.5 to 1, which generated a powerful 160hp in stock configuration. Despite the powerful new engine, the Cadillac’s excessive weight kept it from being a performer; Frick sought to change this by swapping the engine into the much lighter 1949 Ford, creating the first “Fordillac”. Briggs Cunningham was one of the first and lucky few to attain a Fordillac – he had become intrigued with the vehicle after witnessing one of its impressive performances at an SCCA hill climb event in Connecticut, and had to have one. Cunningham became a regular at Frick-Tappet Motors and would hire Frick to work on his cars in preparation for the upcoming 24-hour race at Le Mans. Cunningham was so impressed with the work and performance results, he purchased Frick-Tappet Motors, moving the business to Florida where he would set out to win Le Mans and other prestigious races in one of their creations. The Frick prepared cars performed extremely well; after the team produced impressive back-to-back 1-2 finishes at both Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, Bill Frick received the first ever “Sports Car Mechanic of the Year” award.
Frick only stayed in Florida a short time before returning to New York to open Bill Frick Motors, where he began to work on his next creation – The Studillac. Frick was enamored with the 1953 Studebaker design, but very unimpressed with its 120hp engine. By 1953 Cadillac’s engine was producing 210hp in stock configuration. Applying his tried and true formula, Bill went ahead and began modifying the Studebaker to accept the Cadillac engine – creating the Studillac. The Studillac consisted of much more than just an engine swap; Frick would modify the steering box, floorboard tunnel, transmission cross member, driveshaft, brakes, and the electrical system. The Studillac would reach estimated speeds in the mid 100s, and do 0-60 in 7 seconds, making it one of the fastest cars around. The Studillac was an instant hit. The shop was flooded with orders and began producing the performance sensation on a full time basis. The Studillac became an exclusive and sought after performance machine that was even featured in the James Bond novel, Diamonds are Forever, by Ian Fleming.
In 1955 Studebaker redesigned the Starlight coupe/Starliner hardtop – Frick stated “They changed the styling of the car, especially the nose. It was really ugly and nobody wanted one anymore”. As demand for the Studillac virtually disappeared with the arrival of the new Studebaker, Frick turned to the famed Italian coachbuilder, Vignale. Frick went ahead and took one of his famed Studillac chassis, and made additional improvements by adding crossmembers, better shock absorbers, higher rate springs, a stiffer anti-roll bar, and track bars. He then sent it off to Vignale, and what he got in return was The Bill Frick Special – a custom Vignale bodied, Michelotti designed masterpiece. In July 1955 the prototype was tested by Road & Track where it was called “America’s answer to Europe”. After a test drive on Sunrise Highway, the author of the article stated “he tooled away from the other stuff like it was anchored” and “turned a few corners like he was on rails”. The car was also featured on the cover of Sports Car Illustrated in May of 1956.
THE MOTORCAR OFFERED
Bonhams is very pleased to offer the one and only 1957 Bill Frick Special GT Coupe. In total, only three Bill Frick Specials were ever produced, and each was unique. There was a “demonstrator” (or prototype), a convertible model, and the single production coupe being offered here.
The $9,000 plus Special was ordered new by Mr. John Blodgett Jr., an extremely wealthy lumber baron from Grand Rapids Michigan. Mr. Blodgett wanted to enjoy open air motoring but preferred the looks and handling characteristics of a coupe, and thus so he ordered his special with a roll-back cloth roof. Photos of the car at the Vignale factory show that it was delivered in a beautiful medium blue metallic with a black painted top, sitting on large whitewalls. The interior was trimmed in grey Connolly leather with contrasting blue piping. Against Frick’s advice, Mr. Blodgett ordered the car with a French Pont-a-Mousson four speed transmission, but later the Frick recommended General Motors T-10 floor mounted four speed was installed.
Blodgett would own the car into the mid 60s, at which point he gifted it to his secretary. She and her husband would own the special for a few years before selling it to its third owner in 1970, Mr. Emmett Boitz of Manmouth, Oregon. During his ownership, Mr. Boitz re-painted the car silver over the tired original blue paint. After 3 years of lovingly caring for the car, Mr. Boitz passed the special to its fourth owner, Mr. Earl Benz of Oregon. Mr. Benz very rarely used the car, and kept it tucked away until the late 1980s when it was painted red and purchased by a West Coast dealer who sold the car to its present owner in 1989.
Throughout his 27 years of ownership, the consignor has diligently maintained and preserved this beautiful piece of automotive history. The special’s body is in excellent condition structurally and very presentable cosmetically. With the exception of the two repaints, the steel body (very rare for a Vignale) appears to be all original. The original medium metallic blue can still be found in numerous locations when trim is removed. The glass is also thought to be all original, the Italian made side windows all possess the code – 22-10-55 – which is believed to represent the date of manufacture. The windshield and rear window are held in place by a unique and unusual channel lock which has also been seen on Touring Hudson Italias. The Michelotti design provides a fantastic treat to all those fortunate enough to lay eyes on it. With the exception of the carpet, the interior is thought to be all original and shows a beautiful layer of patina throughout. Everything functions as it should, including the sliding roof. With just above 40,000 believed original miles, mechanically the car is in fantastic shape. The Cadillac Eldorado OHV V8 containing larger Lincoln pistons runs great and has been maintained to an extremely high standard over the years. It should be noted that the ignition has been upgraded to electronic and the generator was removed, being replaced with an alternator.
Accompanying the car is its original jack with correct bag and an extensive history file that details its whereabouts from new. The consignor has spent many years researching and compiling historic information on the car, including numerous period publications featuring the car and correspondence with Bill Frick and previous owners. A wonderfully organized binder full of receipts is also present which documents the care that the special has received.
This beautiful Michelotti-designed, hand built, Vignale-bodied, Cadillac-powered, Bill Frick-engineered one-off coupe presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire a true piece of motoring history. The Bill Frick Special would make a phenomenal addition to any collection, a real stand-out talking point. In its current condition – with its outstanding performance, it would make a fantastic GT car on a number of rallies or it could very easily be restored and welcomed to the world’s most prestigious concours events.