Spain’s Ferrari Chaser Wifredo Ricart was aiming for the exotic elite with the Pegaso Z-102B. The result was flawed, but fabulous Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Manuel Portugal.
FAIR SPANISH LADY 142 Richard Heseltine gets to grips with a forgotten ’50s GT, the Pegaso Z-102B
Aqueue is forming, this being the only petrol pump for miles around. But this is Portugal, so nobody has honked their horn as yet: everyone is far too polite for that. Nevertheless, selfassurance has given way to fluster. The car’s custodian flashes a smile of solidarity, before offering advice from the passenger seat. So, it’s a reverse-pattern, non-synchro gearbox with a dogleg first. Of course. Clutch in, move the lever across and into… Try again… And again. Heaven’s above, how hard can it be to engage first gear? After much effing and jeffing, there’s a pronounced ker-kluk and we’re away, by means of an awkward bunny-hop. Only four more gears to go. This is going to be a long day.
The unvarnished truth is that the 1953 Pegaso Z-102B is challenging to drive. Little about this remarkable machine is in the realm of the normal. It is idiosyncratic, often infuriating, but never less than compelling. It helps that this resolutely Spanish GT has such a dazzling outline. That, and an engine note akin to an early ’50s Grand Prix car with only token nods to silencing. Throw in a delightfully airy cabin, exquisite detailing, and one hell of a back-story, and there is much to love, despite its foibles.
That the car was created at all is remarkable given the political climate in which it was conceived and the lack of a support industry for the manufacture of such a machine. There was little in the way of bought-in content, after all. Bragging rights were at stake, and this was intended as a halo product not only for a firm that had been making commercial vehicles for less than a decade, but also for Spain itself. An awful lot rested on it taking on the established boutique brands – and besting them.
Following the Civil War, Spain’s standing as a pariah state ensured that it couldn’t replenish its stock of lorries, many of which dated back to before the conflict. Spain had little in the way of form when it came to building vehicles – any vehicles – in volume, its most famous export being Hispano-Suiza. The state-controlled Empresa Nacional de Autocamiones SA (ENASA), which literally translated means ‘NationalTruck Manufacturing Company’, was thus formed, and initially operated out of the redundant Barcelona-based Hispano works, which had closed in 1944. Progress was slow, with just 38 lorries being made in 1946 under the Pegaso nameplate. By the end of the decade that had risen to three a week, but the firm found greater traction at the start of the 1950s, its lorries and buses selling beyond Spain’s borders while gaining a reputation for advanced engineering and commendable build quality.
Nevertheless, the leap from making motorised beasts of burden to fashioning ultra-exclusive GTcars wasn’t an obvious one.
Or at least it wasn’t unless your name was Don Wifredo Ricart. This brilliant engineer was born in May 1897 and, at the age of just 21, he was managing a firm that made small industrial and machine engines. He subsequently bought the company and in 1922 set about creating a brace of voiturettes with his own design of 16-valve, twin-cam, four-cylinder engines before following through and becoming a manufacturer of exotic road cars with backing from textile magnate Felipe Batlló. The Ricart-España marque came into being in 1928, but soon tanked, with Ricart turning his attention to designing diesel engines thereafter.
In 1936, Franco invaded the Spanish mainland from Morocco and the CivilWar erupted. That October, Wifredo departed for Italy to join Alfa Romeo, where he rapidly moved through the ranks before being seconded to Alfa Corse. It was at this juncture that he butted heads with team principal Enzo Ferrari. When director Ugo Gobbato sided with Ricart, Il Commendatore had a hissy fit and departed to make cars in his own image. Nevertheless, Ferrari never missed an opportunity to slate his nemesis – not least in his memoirs, where he poured particular scorn on Ricart’s choice of footwear (apparently, his shoes had thick crêpe soles).
Despite the small matter of a global conflict, Ricart conceived several fascinating motorsport- rooted studies in 1939-’1940, including the Tipo 162 3-litre V16 Grand Prix engine, complete with two-stage supercharging, and also the mid-engined, 1.5-litre, flat-12-powered Tipo 512 single-seater. In 1943, he departed Milan for the hills around Lago d’Oro, where he mapped out the design for the 6C-2000 Gazella. This daring saloon never made it into production after WW2, in part due to the Portello works having been razed.
The Barcelonan returned home in 1945 to spearhead ENASA’s commercial vehicle projects. Inevitably, for a man steeped in competition, he soon began petitioning Franco for something a bit more ambitious. Ricart reasoned that an exotic sports car would garner prestige for Spain on the world stage, while also spurring apprentices to reach for the stars. The General was receptive. Basis for this brave new world was a pressed-steel platform chassis that incorporated the floorpan, bulkhead, dashboard, box-section sills and wheelarches. Power came from a 90º, dry-sump, all-aluminium V8 with steel cylinder liners and hemispherical combustion chambers. Displacement was initially 2.5 litres, but this was subsequently raised to 2.8 and later 3.2 litres. Suspension was inspired by the stillborn Alfa Romeo Tipo 512, the front end comprising wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars, the rear de Dion tube being located laterally by a central ball that slotted into a guide on the final-drive casing.
Pegaso was the sensation of the 1951 Paris Salon, even if the rather sober ‘factory’ outline didn’t quite mirror the racy underpinnings. Initially priced at an eye-watering $7500, this soon ballooned to $15,000, which reflected the laborious nature of the build. That and the fact that virtually every part was fashioned in-house, from return springs to the licence-made ZF limited-slip differential. The only proprietary parts were the Lockheed brake components, Bosch ignition, Weber carburettors, Nardi steering wheel and Borrani wires. Even the Pirelli tyres were moulded locally.
In November 1951, The Autocar assessed a Z-102, taking a 2.5-litre example to an 18.2 secs quarter-mile time, while Motor Sport managed the 0-60mph sprint in just 7 secs. Road & Track, meanwhile, criticised the car’s apparent lack of low-end torque, but writer Robert C Goldich added: ‘The cornering on rough surfaces was close to unbelievable and was, I think, the car’s most outstanding feature.’
No two Pegasos were ever exactly alike, with deviances in everything from carburetion and final-drive ratio to induction layouts, and that’s before you factor in the many body styles. In addition to Pegaso’s own coachwork, the Z-102 was a blank canvas for coachbuilders such as Serra of Barcelona, Saoutchik of Paris and, perhaps most famously, Touring of Milan, as here. Throw in assorted showstoppers, not least Touring’s remarkable Thrill, plus competition tools such as the bizarre Bisiluro would-be Le Mans racers, and Pegaso was rarely out of the headlines, but that didn’t equate to profitability. During 1955, demand for ENASA commercial vehicles was such that car production was pared right back, although Ricart continued to perfect the Z-103 model, which was powered by a pushrod V8 with a centre camshaft. He was still talking up a storm about the company making up to 2000 units per year, but the last-ever Pegaso road car was delivered in 1958.
Which brings us to today. ‘Our’ Z-102B was originally a gift from Franco to Portuguese president Francisco Craveiro Lopes, the roundels a legacy of later competition outings consisting mostly of hillclimbs. While it’s mechanically perfect, the body is deliciously patinated with enough road rash to upset the concours brigade. The Touring outline is beautifully proportioned, and smaller than you might imagine: photographs really don’t lend a sense of scale.
Having stooped to enter the cabin, the driver’s seat offers more support than appearances would have you believe. There’s plenty of headroom, while all-round visibility is excellent thanks to the expansive glasshouse and spindly pillars. Nothing is a reach away, although the pedals are slightly offset. The large, wood-rim wheel is set near vertically, the palm-sized gearknob with its reverse-pattern shift diagram only a handspan or so away. Ahead, set in the body-coloured steel dash, sits a cluster of gauges bearing the legend ‘ENASA’. The speedo reads to 220kph, the rev counter to 8000rpm, with no redline. There’s little in the way of extraneous tinsel here, but you cannot help but be captivated by everything from the font used to denote instrument calibrations to the door pulls. It’s utterly delightful.
Pump the throttle to prime the carbs, press the starter button and the Pegaso erupts without coughing or sputtering. This car is regularly exercised on tours and rallies, and it shows. Many period road tests talk of the Z-102B being relatively quiet, but here the sound of the 2.8-litre four-cam V8 at idle is that of a pure competition tool, and the throttle response, once warm, is instantaneous. At least it is once you’ve found a gear. The ’box is unusual in that it is all-indirect, with motorcycle-style dog engagement instead of synchromesh. Apparently, journalists in the 1950s would be taken for a blast with a test driver at the wheel, and they would bang in the changes without touching the light (ish) clutch. This seems entirely alien, and not something you really want to try in someone else’s 65-year-old classic. As it stands, the gearchange feels horribly vague.
The same is true of the worm-and-sector steering, which has just 1.6 turns from lock to lock. It’s impossibly heavy when manoeuvring, and feels like an American land yacht at speed, with an oceanic dead-spot that doesn’t inspire confidence. Seemingly endless joints and pivots separate the steering box on the bulkhead from the front wheels: perhaps one of these is a little worn, but the Museu do Caramulo technicians who maintain the car insist that isn’t the case. On the plus side, the ride quality is amazingly good for a car of its vintage and, once you’ve overcome initial hesitancy with the steering, the roadholding is excellent. The big drum brakes scrub off speed efficiently, too. Best of all, though, is the war cry of that V8 under load. It’s a jewel of an engine that produces an estimated 180bhp.
There is so much to savour here despite its more exasperating characteristics. The Z-102B looks beyond exotic, rides better than many cars of 20 years its junior, and has exclusivity on its side (only 84 were made). With greater familiarity, it would no doubt prove more rewarding to drive, too. As it stands, you cannot help but admire the audacity of its creation. In 1951, The Autocar labelled it ‘A rare motoring sensation’ – and nothing has changed since.
Thanks to: Adelino Dinis and Tiago Patrício Gouveia (www.museu-caramulo.net)