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Inspiration comes to men in many forms, stimulating and alerting the senses, be they sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch. For Sterling Edwards, the chance sighting of an automobile, while en route to the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, captured his imagination and focused his aesthetic eye and fertile, yet practical, mind.
The weather had turned warm, bringing with it the dreaded rain so ruinous to competition ski conditions. At the time, Edwards was staying at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, waiting out the weather in a small bar-grill at the back of the hotel. In the corner of the room was a door to the outside, with stairs leading down to the street. Edwards stepped outside for a breath of air. Parked at the foot of the steps was a little Cisitalia Mile Miglia roadster, topless and exposed to the rain. He stood transfixed, caught by the extreme yet simple beauty of the Italian sports car with its "cute, little streamlined design, well-proportioned with kicked-up rear fenders."
Prior to that moment, Edwards had only read about the revolutionary new Italian body forms being created by the design studios of Pinin Farina, Touring, Bertone, Zagato and others. Before returning to his native California, he saw any number of similar Italian coachbuilt automobiles, their sloping hoods and raised fenders so unlike the large and bulbous bodies of the American vogue. Edwards became most enthusiastic about the little Cisitalia roadster; at that moment, a seed was planted in his mind that would eventually grow into a sports car of his own design.
The story of Sterling Edwards is probably little known beyond west coast sports car racing circles. Yet without any formal training in either race driving or automobile design, Edwards brought together the best engineering talents in California to create one of the winningest sports cars of the early postwar period. More than a home built "special," Edwards' first road racer combined styling themes and suspension technology well in advance of its day. It shone to its best advantage in the hands of its patron, whose driving talents went beyond those of a mere amateur And the subsequent sports car to which Edwards lent his name was one of the Fifties' most elegant designs, a fresh and frankly American interpretation of the best in Italian automotive styling.
Sterling Edwards was well prepared to pursue his tightly focused interests thanks to a fortuitous combination of wealth, enthusiasm and imagination Heir to the family business of wire rope and cable in San Francisco, he explored a gamut of interests in his youth, including skiing golf and flying He received his private pilots license in 1935 at the age seventeen and bought his first aircraft, a stagger winged Beech biplane just one year later.
Concerned about the private pilot's dependence on the reliability of single engine airplanes Edwards began laying out plans for a twin engine aircraft patterned after the Lockheed Model 10 Electra that Amelia Earhart flew on her final fateful expedition. Edwards' innovative airframe was not his only contribution to the project he was also dubious of the quality of automotive engines that were being carried over into aircraft applications. Demanding the best engineering available he set out to design an all-new engine. It featured state of the art roller bearing crank and camshafts with needle bearings employed on the connecting rods and rockers. The built up crankshaft employed a serrated union, to which Edwards held the patent. The Federal Aviation Authority kept close tabs on the progress of the twin-engined plane throughout its development, leading ultimately to a successful test flight by Mike Casserly, maintenance test pilot for United Airlines in San Francisco. Following this maiden flight, Edwards logged a number of hours in the aircraft himself.
Edwards spent the war years as one of thirty "first pilots" for Lockheed, testing each aircraft as it came off the assembly line. He logged flight time in Hudson, Loadstar and Ventura series and obtained sufficient hours to qualify as a pilot for multiple engine based aircraft before graduating to the "hottest bird in the sky," the P-38 Lightning. on dimensions that Edwards had
He recalls that Lockheed was producing thirteen to fourteen planes a day, of which four or five were P-38's. Each aircraft had to be test-flown prior to delivery to the war zones." He remembers the P-38 as an honest airplane, with no torque whatsoever, owing to the counter-rotating props, "driven by engines that ran in opposite directions. "The Allison engines were not all that good, didn't develop the power expected, and kept breaking pistons due to the oil used fouling up as they took the power from 1100 hp to 1300 hp and finally to 1450 hp." At age twentyfive, Edwards was promoted to the engineering department as one of five pilots whose mission was to explore the development limits of the P-38. Edwards relates that "when a motor went out, you wanted to get the plane down as soon as possible; none of this flying her home on one engine."
Edwards returned to mother earth after the war and, following his pivotal trip to the 1948 Olympics, wanted to involve himself with another project. He pondered the idea of building his own car. With the image of the Cisitalia alive in his mind, he contemplated an enlarged, American translation of the Italian original. Edwards was then living in Beverly Hills, close to numerous speed shops, engine component manufacturers and race car constructors, all attempting to pick up where they had left off before the interruption of the war. Thanks to the tremendous growth in aircraft manufacture during the war years, many of these shops were able to acquire mechanics and fabricators trained to the exacting~standards of the aircraft industry.
Edwards probed about, talking up his ideas with the "establishment" in race car circles. His discussions crystallized in the concept of a dual-purpose sports car, suitable for both road and track. At the time, the local experts were oriented toward oval track and hot rod racing, dating back to the prewar dry lake competitions. They had yet to recognize the "sporty car set" as serious racers.
Prior to the war, Edwards had owned a MG TB and his experience with cars included hopping up a Model T as a youth in the mid-Thirties. While racing had never really interested him before, he became a frequent spectator at the Gilmore and Carrell speedways.
The key to transforming his imaginary design into reality was independent engineer-designer Norman Timbs, who created working drawings of the car based on dimensions that Edwards had derived from European sports cars. One foreign innovation that particularly impressed him was the increasing use of four-wheel independent suspension, a feature as yet unavailable on any American production car.
Once Timbs and Edwards agreed upon the car's basic dimensions, their design was followed "to the bolt." Edwards employed the talents of Indy car builder Emil Deidt and his race car shop, Deidt and Lesovsky. The chassis was based upon a modified ladder frame, using four inch chrome-molybendum tubing for all main members. Once the project was under way, Phil Remington, who had worked with both Traco and Deidt and Lesovsky, joined the team and became the chief contractor on the project, bringing the rolling chassis together
The search for components compatible with Edwards' design target brought forth an unlikely source: the Studebaker Champion. Its front A-arm units were ideal because of their light weight and compact size. Timbs' design for the rear suspension was surprisingly similar to the then-fledgling Volkswagen Beetle, with trailing arms and torsion bars locating the half-shafts.
Studebaker drum brakes were fitted initially, with experimental discs used later on. A Ford three-speed close-ratio gearbox was mated to one of Eddie Meyer's famous V-8/60 Ford cast iron blocks. This 2450cc unit, which Meyers' had successfully adapted to midget as well as hydroplane boat racing, was given a slightly less radical cam, more suitable for the car's dual-purpose role. Meyer's twin carburetor intake manifold and high-compression heads were used along with lightweight high-compression pistons to produce a total of 120 bhp.
Development of the body shell progressed separately with the construction of a quarter-scale model which was reworked by Timbs and Edwards until its dimensions fell between those of a typical American car and the delicate Cisitalia. Next, a full-size wooden buck was built up by Bill Zimmerman. The talented Emil Deidt fabricated the aluminum body sections, including a removable hard top. Detailing of the interior included a full cluster of Nash instruments, while leather upholstery by Runyan featured safety padding encircling the cockpit in the best Indy tradition.
This ambitious project was completed in early 1950, and the result was an original and sophisticated design, thanks to the money and talent lavished upon it. And it was good-looking too, displaying advanced, if not futuristic, styling that did justice to its Italian progenitor. With the detachable hard top and full windscreen in place, Edwards could drive the car on the road at his leisure. For competition, the hardtop was removed and replaced by a metal tonneau that covered the rear seats, and twin racing screens replaced the windshield. Lean, agile and powerful, the car was ready for its first road race at Palm Springs on April 16, 1950.
Edwards was a member of the group that had helped plan this inaugural postwar west coast road race over the deserted Army Air Corps field and adjoining roads. His competition in the 40-lap event included an Allard, a Jaguar XK-120 and numerous blown and otherwise modified MG's. Edwards and his sleek roadster, carrying number 26, traded off positions in the early laps with the Allard and the Jaguar on the 1.65-mile L-shaped circuit. At the end of the 66-mile race, Edwards was first across the finish line, more than a lap ahead of the second-place finisher. So began the postwar road racing scene in California and with it the race career of Sterling Edwards and his all-American automobile.
The California racing calendar for the remainder of 1950 included three events after Palm Springs: Buchanan Field, near San Francisco, on May21; Santa Ana, near Los Angeles, on June 25th; and Pebble Beach, near Monterey, on November 5th. The Edwards sports car, known as the R-26 for its race number, took overall wins at all three tracks. It was a stunning performance for the maiden season of a scratch-built racer, and said as much for the degree of Edwards driving talents as it did for the ingenuity of the car's design.
Postwar road racing in the east and midwest developed rapidly, benefiting from the experience gathered prior to the war, when the Automobile Racing Club of America conducted over-the-road competition in the late Thirties. By early 1951, the California road racing scene had turned serious with a full schedule of events from March to September. This activity, however, lagged behind the organization and entry quality of the east coast events by a year or more, but was quickly showing signs of catching up, leading to strong rivalry between east and west in 1952-1954. Out west, the Allard J-2's quickly exchanged their Ford flathead engines for Cadillac ohv installations which, in the hands of drivers like Bill Pollack, became (temporarily) the combination to beat. But west coast racers never knew what hit them when, at the second annual Palm Springs races held on April 1,1951, the new king of the road made its appearance: a Ferrari 166 barchetta, owned by Jim Kimberly and driven by Marshal Lewis, stroked home to an easy victory. The event was a real eye-opener. forcing the locals to reevaluate the competitiveness of their "specials."
Looking for more power, Edwards adapted the R-26's V 8/60 to carry an Ardun overhead valve version resulting in an estimated increase in up to 130-135 bhp Motor Trend called the Ardun equipped V 8 a "fine example of what car design, planning and workmanship can accomplish without imported components." Edwards first outing with this further modified R-26 took place at the 1951 Palm Springs race where he showed early promise by passing the Lewis driven Ferrari, only to be sidelined by overheating problems
Later that summer Edwards decided to build a new sports racing car combining the power of the just released Chrysler Firepower Hemi V 8 with a light weight bodyshell constructed from an entirely new material, fiberglass. Having moved to the bay area he chose to build the new car in South San Francisco in a facility adjacent to his wire rope company
Hiring Phil Remington full time Edwards again configured the project around over the counter components. The new car used a stock Henry J chassis which Edwards selected for its short 100 inch wheelbase, simple rail frame and easy availability through his connection with members of Kaiser's senior management. Its driveline comprised a De Soto heavy-duty gearbox connected by a three-foot driveshaft to a Ford rear axle. Steering was provided by the production Henry J's Gemmer worm and roller box. This chassis employed twin-piston disc brakes adapted by Edwards from aircraft components. Later additions included magnesium wheels with oversized tires for maximum bite and cornering power. Rear axle location was provided by the Ford axle's "banjo" radius arms. Trim items included Henry J bumpers, Ford push button door handles, Ford taillights and Stuart-Warner instruments.
Edwards' use of fiberglass as a body material was particularly novel; the Kaiser Darrin would not be completed until 1952, nor the Corvette until mid 1953. Body forms for the glass work were made up by laying plaster over the original R-26 wooden buck, thus creating a plaster plug. No molds were made since the car was regarded as a one-off effort with no intention of series production. According to Edwards, the new car - which became known as the R-62 was a "test bed to evaluate the properties of fiberglass for the eventual design and construction of the Edwards-America sports car. The conception of the R-66 was entirely different than its predecessor. Unlike the R-26, its production chassis and fiberglass body shell resulted in a major cost savings.
The early Fifties saw a tremendous growth in domestic engine development, with Oldsmobile, Chrysler and Cadillac igniting the big-bore, "beat them with cubic inches" war. Edwards remembers that his goal at the time was to "get the biggest horsepower into a chassis that would hold it." Boasting 330 cubic inches (5.4 liters), the Chrysler Firepower Hemi produced 180 bhp in production form, but with the addition of four Zenith carburetors and a log-type manifold similar to that used on the Cunningham sports cars, output climbed to a hefty 280-300 bhp.
Edwards' first competition with the new car was at the April 20, 1952 Pebble Beach road races. While the Hemi's power gave the R-62 great acceleration, severe chassis flex caused body panels to distort and produced sudden changes in wheel load and adhesion along with rear axle windup. Worse, the chassis flexing allowed the R-62's doors to fly open without warning, causing some embarisment. The car finally succumbed to the Pebble Beach fray when its thirsty engine ran out of gas.
After bracing the chassis with crossmembers and two heavy "X" members, Edwards felt that the R-62 came out to be one hell of a good chassis and a going machine." Yet the remainder of the 1952 season saw only mediocre results: a 3rd in class at Golden Gate Park (falling oil pressure), a dnf at Torrey Pines after leading for six laps, and a 5th overall at Stockton. It was clearly a season of transition in the sport, as the race-ready Ferrari, O.S.C.A., Porsche and Jaguar competition cars became available in the fall of that year. Edwards conceded that the Europeans were moving ahead with the sport and he made the decision to buy race cars rather than build them, taking delivery of a flaming red Jaguar C-Type.
The R-26, now clad in cycle fenders, and the P-62 were still raced by close friends Barry Wagner and Hamil Reidy, both of whom met with moderate success. Edwards' first outing with his new C-Type was at Torrey Pines on December 12, 1952, where he finished a respectable third overall behind Phil Hill in another C-Type and Hill's brother-in-law Don Parkinson in a very fast Jaguar special. Hamil Reidy followed in fifth place with the R-62 The 1953 Pebble Beach race brought mixed results, with Edwards' red Jag being wrecked in practice when Phil Remington took the car out for a couple of practice laps and lost it at the fast left-hand dog leg just past the start/finish straight. Edwards purchased another C-Type on the spot, this one painted white. On race day, four C-Types were on the grid, all driven by respected drivers Edwards' new Jaguar was the only one to go the distance, finishing fifth behind the Ferraris of Hill and Spear, Pollack's Cad-Allard and the very fast Mercury special of Chuck Manning. The following month at Golden Gate Park, Edwards, holding third, retired with a blown head gasket.
By now Edwards had begun to take notice of the Ferrari race cars, with their great speed and reliability. Following the Pebble Beach races, he placed an order with Ferrari importer Luigi Chinetti for a 4.1-liter 341MM Vignale spyder to be delivered in Modena. Edwards was about to marry Marian Miller, and planned a honeymoon trip through northern Italy, roughly tracing the route of the Mille Miglia (the further adventures of this special Ferrari are traced in the following story).
Back in the U.S., Edwards completed the 1954 SCCA National season at the wheel of his new Ferrari with the third highest point total in Class C, Modified without leaving the west coast. Only Jim Kimberly and Bill Spear topped Edwards, both driving the more powerful 4.5-liter Ferrari 375's.
For the 1955-56 seasons, Edwards acquired the prototype Ferrari 750 Monza (0428 MD). This four cylinder spyder had belonged to Fon de Portago an featured a four-speed gearbox, although later models received five-speeds. Marian Edwards had known de Portago, and it was through her efforts that her husband was able to acquire the Monza that de Portago had driven in the final Mexican Road Race in 1954. Bad gasoline led to a burnt piston, and the car failed to finish the race. Chinetti's shop repaired it in time for Edwards to run at Sebring in 1955 with co-driver Chuck Daigh. A leaky cylinder head 0-ring caused the Monza's engine to overheat. Edwards and Daigh nursed the car along for six hours, but were finally forced to retire.
Returning to the west coast with the Monza, Edwards drove to second place behind Phil Hill's Monza at Pebble Beach later that same year. He completed the 1955 season with firsts at Bakersfield and Concord, and a third at Salinas. He preferred the Monza to the 340 MM, noting that the Monza chassis "stuck where you put it and was agile and quick."
At the ill fated 1956 Pebble Beach races, where seasoned driver Ernie McAfee was killed as his 121 LM fishtailed into the trees on the downhill approach to turn six, Edwards finished fifth overall. But he had stroked his Ferrari through the concluding laps, his heart no longer in the race. Sterling Edwards had envisioned and formulated the idea of races and concours at Pebble Beach and McAfee's tragic death hit him square on the chin, leaving him feeling almost responsible for it. The accident took its toll on his racing spirit, and soon after he chose to stop racing, conceding that the sport had become too competitive.
In the meantime, despite the R-62's shortcomings, Edwards and Remington pursued their vision of a series of sports cars powered by large-displacement V-8's with short-wheelbase chassis and elegant fiberglass bodies. A further reworking of the original R-26 wooden buck led to a tighter, more refined line for the new car. By moving the plaster around the wooden buck, wheelbases of varying lengths could be accommodated. The initial design called for a 107-inch chassis, although the first car was built on the 100-inch Henry J platform.
The prototype chassis became known as 194-1(194 represented an accounting number) and would be called the "Edwards-America" to reinforce its national origin. The first Edwards-America was to be a convertible, built on pure speculation. It was powered by Oldsmobile's 324-cubic-inch Rocket V-8-which had been introduced in 1949 and had made quite a name for itself on the NASCAR circuit from 1949 to 1951 - and it utilized Olds' Hydra-Matic transmission, as well. Once again, costs were controlled with ready-made components: Ford windshield and side windows, Studebaker headlight rims, Ford grille bars and Dodge convertible top components. Each America would have its own parts list, with a description of over-the-counter components used in its construction.
Building an all-fiberglass skin presented new challenges in each section of the body since Edwards envisioned the America as a well-finished luxury automobile, not merely a rough-hewn sports car. Articulating the grille opening and parts that went under the bumpers proved as demanding as building multi-piece doors. To construct the latter, a boxed, built up door section was bonded by its integral flange to the thin outer skin with C-clamps while resin was applied. Edwards has since admitted that they had no idea of how well the assembly would hold up after years of banging and slamming.
This prototype appeared publicly in the fall of 1953 and was warmly received. In its December issue, Road and Track listed the America in the company of such robust sports cars as a Siata V-8 and a Maserati ASGS. The following month's issue featured a more in-depth appraisal: "Appearance wise, the Edwards compares to the very best of Italian imports. Certainly anyone not familiar with its origin would assume it to be an Italian custom creation." The article predicted that production would soon be under way at the South San Francisco plant.
With the first car successfully completed, limited production had indeed begun. Starting with the second car, Edwards adopted a 1950-52 Ford/Mercury station wagon chassis because of its heavy-duty boxed rails and stronger crossmembers. Although originally configured with a 118-inch wheelbase, the chassis was cut down to 107 inches for the America, the extra space being added to the body behind the rear wheel well. Already rugged, this chassis was further stiffened with 1/4-inch plates on either side of the frame, along with new four-inch crossmembers and steel plate covering the frame rails and the center X member. The firewall was also constructed of steel to carry the loads of the suspended pedals and provide additional rigidity to the cowl area. All of the Edwards-Americas, whether coupe or convertible, were originally constructed as open cars with the top assembly attached to the steel substructure behind the rear seats. The second Edwards-America, built as a hardtop coupe, utilized the folding top's tubular steel bows and arms to create a fixed substructure for the solid fiberglass root panel.
A 205-bhp Lincoln V-S replaced the Olds Rocket in this second car, although GM's Hydramatic transmission was retained. Leather upholstery and headliner, electric windows, Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels and whitewall tires provided the owner with a hand-built European-style luxury car at the modest price of $6769 F.O.B. South San Francisco. Painted a two-tone green and white, the car was taken on a cross-country promotional tour with Edwards' friends, George and Clarissa Dyer. En route, the Dyers stopped in Detroit to give William Clay Ford a chance to view the Lincoln powered car more than a year before the introduction of the Thunderbird. Returning to San Francisco on a southern route, the Dyers picked up the first official order for an Edwards-America from a customer in La Jolla.
With the second Edwards-America completed, the "Roadster Boys" Chuck Tatum and Joe Conlon, the fabricators who worked with Remington, used the same jigs for body components and placed them directly on the chassis. Scaling down bumpers and other trim items to insure a tight and custom fit required many hours of patient, hands-on refinement to make each car correct. Doing it right the first time became the goal of this small and dedicated work force, who were not above consulting an outside specialist when necessary. At one point in production, for example, a cabinet finisher with fiberglass experience was called in to assist with proper use of the jigs to align the door pillars and the cowl, permitting the doors to close properly.
Chassis number three was the second and final convertible constructed. Its Cadillac ohv power plant was the personal choice of its buyer, Archibald D. McLaren of La Jolla. Chassis number four reverted to coupe form, again with a Lincoln engine It was specially configured for its new owner, Robert Watt Miller of San Francisco, whose large stature dictated that Jaguar seats be install for greater comfort and easier access.
Chassis number five also a coupe was constructed as Edwards' personal car using a Cadillac V 8. He continues to drive this car today.
By the end of 1954 production ceased on the Edwards-America project with five completed cars and one half finished body and chassis. There were a number of factors that precipitated the car's demise, but expense was foremost among them. The America may well have been ahead of its time in predicting the emergence of American interpretations of European sports cars such as the Thunderbird and Covette; but those cars, which had a style all their own, cost thousands less. The 1953 Corvette was priced at $3800, while the Thunderbird cost $2700. Even with a final list price of nearly $8000, the Edwards sports car project showed no signs of paying for itself and Edwards was forced to cancel the project.
Today, a number of the cars have resurfaced and are undergoing restoration by their owners. Bob Whitmer, Edwards close friend and former employee during the construction of the cars, maintains all of the molds with the exception front lower valance panel. Recently he produced a door for the first chassis which has been under a professional restoration. Whitmer maintains that the only exception to originality in this restoration been the adoption of updated wiring.
Plastic body materials have come so far since the Fifties that one might wonder how well the Edwards bodies would have held up. Yet even with the heavy weave cloth used in their body construction the cars have suffered little from stress and fatigue. Edwards son Hammond has been restoring his father's car and so far his attention has been mainly given to its mechanical aspects. Hammond observed that the body required little work since there were only minor surface cracks around the windshield area. One hood hinge had to be refabricated, as did the area around the outside rear-view mirror.
It must be a fulfilling experience for Sterling Edwards to see the rejuvenation of these Grand Tourirq cars he produced some thirty years ago. In a few months, four chassis will have been restored to "new" condition. In this era of sameness in automotive styling, it is refreshing to discover a design that though thirty years old will never go out of style. Edwards automobiles though few in number are modern classics, here to remind us of a less regulated and complicated time when one man could fulfill his own dreams.
(source: by Robert Devlin. Courtesy of Robert Devlin and Automobile Quarterly)
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