Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Apollo GT - Italian Craftsmanship Powered By Buick

by Mike - 

I recently wrote about the Apollo GT here and the positive response was a pleasant surprise to me.

Apollo GT Prototype In Italy

I asked Robert Northrup, president of the Apollo Owners Registry, to share more information with My Car Quest. He agreed and also supplied all of the pictures.

Born in the Bay Area
The Apollo GT combines Italian craftsmanship and the mechanical excellence of Buick!
by Robert Northrup

While the Apollo GT was one of the best marriages of Italian style with American muscle, many enthusiasts are unaware of this Ferrari contender, built by hand in Italy and assembled in Oakland, California during 1963-65.

Fiberglass Model - November 19, 1961

Prototype Construction

Its saga began in 1960, when a trio of Northern California twenty-somethings saw that imported sports cars had a major deficiency: while they were admired by enthusiasts for their exotic styling and high performance, foreign cars had also developed a nasty reputation for unreliability. Indeed it was a brave man who’d drive his Jag or Alfa in five o’clock traffic. And never on a cross-country trip.

So, Milt Brown, Ron Plescia, and Ned Davis combined their resources to create a fast, powerful gran turismo in the tradition and style of Ferrari and Maserati, but with the room, reliability, and serviceability of a Buick. The result: The Apollo GT.

Two Coupes At Concorso Italiano

Brown had designed race cars for Emeryson while living in England, so he had no trouble laying out a simple-but-strong ladder frame onto which he grafted the suspension of the highly successful (and European sized) Buick Special. For motivation, he installed that car’s lightweight aluminum V8, tuned to produce up to 225-horsepower and backed by the Borg Warner T-10 four-speed gearbox with Corvette ratios.

Meanwhile, Art Center graduate Ron Plescia penned a flowing design of Italian influence for the body. And little Carrozzeria Intermeccanica of Turin, Italy agreed to produce the bodies in steel and called in famed stylist Franco Scaglione to tweak the design and prepare it for production.

When the Apollo GT debuted at Phil Hall Buick in Hollywood in the spring of 1963, the public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Yes, Brown, Plescia and Davis were going to build real GTs.

Apollo GT Spider

Production was just two cars per month and the trio priced the car at nearly $7,000, right between Jaguar and Ferrari and a niche where the Apollo was the only competitor.

Initial reaction from the press was extremely positive: “Workmanship is of the highest quality,” declared Hot Rod. “Panels fit well, doors close with authority, and the interiors are comparable to cars costing twice that of the Apollo.”

Buick Engine

Denise McCluggage, writing for Science and Mechanics (and a racing driver to boot) was pleasantly surprised to find “…the Apollo handles as well or better than a 2+2 Ferrari, an Aston Martin DB4, or a Sting Ray Corvette.” High praise indeed!

Scaglione was again called in during the summer of 1963 to design a convertible version and his efforts created a true masterpiece of automotive design. And in an effort to increase performance, later cars (beginning with car number 12) featured the Buick 300 cu. in. V8, good for over 250 horses. To control the new power, front disc brakes were added. These later versions could smoke contemporary 250 Ferraris.

Apollo GT Spider Interior

Lack of the operating capital eventually forced the company to close its doors. A total of 88 Apollos (76 coupes, 11 convertibles, and one 2+2) were built during a two year run. “It was a winner because we could never make enough to satisfy the demand,” laments Milt Brown. It’s just that they didn’t have the money with which to do it.

A sad ending, perhaps, but not the last word. When filming the original Love Bug movie in 1969, Disney used an Apollo as the “Thorndyke Special.” And a decade later, the Apollo was given milestone status by the Milestone Car Society. Even so, the Apollo has only recently been “discovered” by collectors, and the car is once again receiving the recognition it deserves.

Apollo GT Spider With The Top Up

Today, with over 50 cars identified with owners, every Apollo is highly coveted. And according to Milt Brown, there’s even an Apollo under construction with contemporary mechanicals including independent rear suspension.

So the saga continues…

Click on the images for a larger view.

Prototype Sketch By Plescia

The Apollo GT is also a chapter in my book, European Style with American Muscle.

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