Southern California vs. Europe: Lance Reventlow and the Legendary Scarab

Before racing cars became increasingly complex in the mid-Sixties, it was possible for a small team of talented, imaginative Americans to design and build their own race cars capable of challenging established European brands like Ferrari and Jaguar.

One notable example was Briggs Cunningham, who fielded a successful international racing effort from a small factory in West Palm Beach, Florida. His cars, including the racers he built to compete at Le Mans, are part of the foundation of today’s Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute in Naples, Florida.

While Cunningham’s story is the most well-known, there’s another car at Revs that represents a different wealthy American sportsman’s attempt to beat the best that Europe could offer. It’s the 1958 Scarab sports racer, one of eight cars built by Lance Reventlow — an heir to the Woolworth fortune. Reventlow’s mother, Barbara Hutton, was the granddaughter of F.W. Woolworth. If you’re too young to remember what a five-and-dime store was (or when a nickel or a dime actually bought something), just imagine if Jeff Bezos had opened a chain of brick-and-mortar stores — and tossed in a lunch counter and sold canaries for the variety. That was Woolworth.

Photo: Peter Harholdt

His father, Count Kurt von Haugwitz-Hardenberg-Reventlow, was a Danish nobleman. On his 21st birthday, The New York Times reported, Lance Reventlow inherited $25 million, as well as his choice of American, British, or Danish citizenship. “I thought it over for a full 20 seconds,” he said, and signed with the Yankees.

A lucky choice it was for American race fans. According to the November 1963 issue of Road & Track, Reventlow was on a European tour that included a stop at the Lister-Jaguar race shop, when he turned to his buddy, Bruce Kessler, and said, “Hell, I could build a better car than that.”

If may sound like the boast of a rich egotist, but Reventlow had the necessary resources, ambition and acumen to back it up. Upon his return from Europe, he set about making good on his claim.

Kessler recalled that although Reventlow came across as a “regular guy, … he was probably smarter than everyone else in the room, but he didn’t act like it.” In a wise first move, Reventlow, barely past 21, surrounded himself with talent.

Photo: Peter Harholdt

Warren Olson, a sports car specialist in Los Angeles, was chosen to build the car. Olson assembled a team that included the legendary pairing of Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, whose Troutman-Barnes special had been driven by another team member, Chuck Daigh. Ken Miles, the British-born American racer and designer, was also enlisted.

With all those great minds contributing ideas, it was no wonder the car they produced was a winner. One innovation by Troutman was an adjustable de Dion rear suspension. The small-block Chevy V-8, rapidly gaining favor among hot-rodders, powered the car, and that’s the engine now in the Revs car, chassis No. 003. It was bored out to 339 cubic inches, and produced 365 horsepower. That engine benefited from some serious massaging by another famous team, Jim Travers and Frank Coon, who later formed TRACO Engineering (TRAvers  & COon), the famous engine builders behind such legends as the Roger Penske 1968 Trans-Am Camaro driven by Mark Donohue.

In short, the Scarabs represented the best and the brightest of American high-performance car builders, boosted as it was by the proximity of the aerospace industry in Southern California and a whole bunch of mechanically savvy World War II veterans.

Photo: Peter Harholdt

So maybe it should not come as a surprise that in 1958, the Scarab consistently outran Ferraris and other European thoroughbreds on American sports-car tracks. Daigh drove it on its most glorious weekend, at the 1958 Riverside Grand Prix. He beat Phil Hill’s Ferrari by two seconds for the pole, and won the race, with Gurney second in another Ferrari. The Scarab went on to win the SCCA national title that year.

The last racer Reventlow built was a rear-engined sports car. But he gave up racing soon after, and sold it to another rich sportsman, Texan oilman John Mecom Jr. With A.J. Foyt driving, it won two races during Speed Weeks in the Bahamas in 1963, and Walt Hansgen won the Bridgehampton 500 on Long Island in 1964.

But the original idea was to take on Europe’s best on their home turf. Unfortunately, in 1958, the rules for Europe were changed to limit engines to 183 cubic inches. In the Chevy’s place, the team chose the Offenhauser Indy-car engine. The Offy, designed to run on alcohol instead of gas, was great for the sustained open-throttle running of Indy-car racing, but not so great for road racing. Daigh said it weighed 100 pounds more than the Chevy V-8 and had 100 less horsepower. Or, as Kessler recalled, “I never did much in that car. We could never get that engine to run that well on gas.”

Photo: Peter Harholdt

In his 1991 book “Scarab: Race Log of the All-American Specials, 1957-1965,” Preston Lerner credited the success of Reventlow’s cars to “the exquisite craftsmanship with which they were built. Simplicity, reliability, predictability, perfectability — those were the hallmarks of their long and proud career.” When you see the car at Revs Institute, you’ll be able to inspect it close up to appreciate that craftsmanship.

Elsewhere in that book is another tribute, perhaps more telling. After a disastrously unsuccessful weekend at the Monaco Grand Prix with an Offy-powered Formula One version of a Scarab, the manager of the Monte Carlo garage that housed the team said,  “I have had many racing teams in my garage, but never have I seen such clean and well-organized mechanics, nor such well-prepared cars.”

Photo: Peter Harholdt

What stands out the most about the Scarab at the Revs is its body, which evokes the best of the Ferraris of that era. In a 2015 interview with John Lamm, Chuck Pelly, who was only 19 at the time, described how he helped design the body on the Scarab. The aluminum panels were gradually shaped over wooden forms by California Metal Shaping and Emil Deidt. “The car evolved in a very natural state,” Pelly said, “which is honoring aluminum and not pushing it too far.”

“To me, it was a lesson in honesty that I will never forget, to honor materials and honor shapes and what you think is aerodynamics.”

Kessler reflected on the unique opportunity that Reventlow’s team had in the late 1950s. “I don’t think we could have done it at any other time,” he said. “After that, it became much more serious. Jim Hall followed with ground effects and automatic transmissions.”

Photo: Peter Harholdt

Kessler raced internationally before an accident in 1959 ended his career, then became a film and television director. He was the best man at Reventlow’s wedding in 1964 to Cheryl Holdridge. After that, Reventlow became less active in racing, spending time in Aspen, Colorado, pursuing another passion, skiing. In July 1972, he was returning from a trip to the resort when the small plane he was in crashed in the Rockies. Reventlow and the three other people on board were killed.

The best way to summarize Reventlow’s legacy in racing? Perhaps this: Nothing about it was ever nickel-and-dime.