Vintage Motorsport, Mar. 2002

Vintage Motorsport, March/April 2002

With American ingenuity and a British engine and Chassis, here was a race car doomed to oblivion because its driver was too good.

We call it “road racing,” because it began on roads – country pastures and over bridges and around intersections that led back to town. . .

then right down the main street between ranks of men, women and children, protected by nothing more than their own naiveté. From today’s point of view – risky business. And perhaps inevitably, this fledgling form of sports car racing that sprang up after World War II ended almost as abruptly as it started, with the death of a pre-teen spectator during a race at Watkins Glen.

The writing was on the wall – venues like The Glen, Bridgehampton, Elkhart Lake and Pebble Beach had to build tracks that were safe for spectators. Any sport as exciting, attractive and dangerous as sports car racing must evolve or be outlawed. The unruly child called road racing was supported by “sportsmen” (read: stinking rich) and self-consciously gentlemanly enthusiasts, so there was the wherewithal to buy land and build tracks.

And these gentry considered road racing far superior to the mongrel racing the took place on dirt or between snaggle-toothed American sedans. By contrast, things “continental” were to be emulated, and road racing was self-consciously so. In those days, virtually any European race car showed itself superior both in pedigree and lap times to American hardware – until intensely American and innovative men like John Fitch appeared.

Raised in Indianapolis, thus no stranger to warring automobiles, Fitch spent the months immediately before World War II in England. Indeed, he attended the very last race at famed Brooklands, before Adolf Hitler stepped off into Poland in 1939. Already, sports car racing had bitten Fitch deep.

Of course, there was business to attend to now. Fitch flew a p-51 Mustang in the war and was one of the few to shoot down an Me-262, the first operational Jet fighter. He caught one climbing out after take-off – they were otherwise untouchable. In turn, he was later shot down and finished the war as a POW.

By 1949, he was in White Plains, New York, and racing an MGTC. A year later, he and well-known magazine illustrator Coby Whitmore were teamed in Whitmore’s fast, new Jaguar XK-120 at Sebring. But as he considered the XK, John Fitch was dissatisfied; he saw in it vastly more than Coventry had supplied. Why not make it lighter, lower, simpler? Call it the “hot-rod gene” (that’s what it was in ungentlemanly California), or more accurately, the emerging American “special” mentality. (The latter had precedents in the snotty sports car racing of the prewar East Coast.) Whatever you call it, Fitch was determined to wrest the good stuff from Whitmore’s XK-120, and leave the remainder on the garage floor.

The result is the car you see on these pages, one of the very finest early American pure road racers – and it would have been even more famous had John Fitch been a less impressive driver and raced it a few more years. As it was, he was hired away after its first season. The Fitch-Whitmore Le Mans Special – its full title – is the Whitmore XK-120 reduced to its racing essentials. The chassis beneath is stock XK-120. The engine was the 3.4-liter Jag plus a more radical cam. The suspension was nearly stock as well, with the front torsion bars reset due to the Fitch-Whitmore’s reduced weight and the rear leaf springs recontoured to lower the chassis. Even the dashboard, steering column, and flat-as-a-board XK seats were retained.

But no, no, you say . . . this is no XK-120 – lookadduh pitchuhs!

Indeed not. Engineered by Fitch and styled by Whitmore, the bodywork is hand-beaten aluminum, fashioned in Fitch’s White Plains shop – Sports & Utility Motors – by Andy Salada, considered at that time one of the best metal men in the business. And if you assume that this is a wham-bam junker in the Ol’ Yaller tradition . . . assume again. Salada’s work is exquisite, every compound curve perfectly formed and ripple free. The character lines along the length of the hood are beautifully executed, and every one of the louvers (the ones on top of the hood were added after the car’s debut) are hand-formed – no louver-presses need apply. The aluminum egg-crate grille and windshield frame are perfect castings, and even the chrome-moly stalks, fabricated to mount the new body on the XK frame, are works of art.

The result is a feather-light aluminum racer that weights just 2100 lbs., roughly 800 lbs. less than an XK pushed into the garage. And Fitch, ever the meticulous technician, hypothesized that for every five pounds of weight saved, he would derive a good part of one extra horsepower. The resulting combination, he estimated when it was new, was equivalent to an XK-120 with about 220hp. That was a big number in May, 1951, when the car first appeared at Bridgehampton unpainted.

To make certain the car was dynamically balanced, Fitch fitted Rudge-Whitworth Borrani-made spoke wheels that increased the car’s track by a useful two inches. Beautiful, large, Alfin finned brakes were added which, given the car’s open-wheel configuration, exhibit no fade to this day. The cycle fenders were fixed rather than hub-mounted, and behind the cast grille on either side of the nose are headlights. Whitmore, the car’s owner, fully intended to send the car to Le Mans. Cycle fenders, in place of a full envelope body, would’ve cost considerable top speed on the 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight, however. So the unique Fitch-Whitmore car never left the country and was likely best suited to the lower average speeds of ‘50s’ American road racing.

The Fitch-Whitmore Special’s first race at Bridgehampton was an unqualified success. Fitch drove it to fourth overall and first in class, beating a large field of XK-120’s and a Ford-Allard. It had excellent acceleration and braking – ideal for point-and-squirt racing – and its handling was superb. At the time, Fitch said it was extremely controllable, and its bias ply-tire behavior was perfectly suited to the free-sliding style of the day. Additionally, in photos, it corners very flat, especially in comparison with the gyrations of stock XKs.

But the Fitch-Whitmore had a problem – its driver was too good. By June of 1951, Fitch was hired away by the immortal Briggs Cunningham, a legendary judge of talent, to dirve a Cunningham C2 at Le Mans. And although Fitch drove for Cunningham the following year, he raced the F-W Special once again at Bridgehampton, finishing third.

The Fitch-Whitmore was sold in 1952 and by 1955 had a big American V8 in the engine compartment. With all that wight up front, its successful days were done. It has since passed through the illustrious hands of Jim Haynes and Joel Finn, before finding its present owner, Randolph Lenz. Restored to its original configuration with a 3.4-liter Jaguar under the hood, it is lovingly cared for these days by Automotive Restorations of Stratford, Connecticut, and remains one of the breakthrough examples of early-American road-racing innovation.