WESTPORT, Connecticut—Westport had its very first Concours d’Caffeine last weekend, continuing a trend that is sweeping the nation. Instead of fancy judged events, these coffee-and-cars things are informal, non-judgmental, and free—all the good stuff.
I often see great cars while strolling with my coffee, but this one was exceptional for its access to one-of-a-kind cars. Did you know that Westport resident Paul Newman was obsessed with stuffing big American powerplants into Volvo station wagons? I knew he was a wagon guy, because I once saw him back one into a dumpster behind my office, but Newman’s Volvos had lots of go power. The concept is particularly relevant now, as Volvo just announced its own Polestar S60-- a very blue 345-horsepower tuner special for $60,000.
The car at the show was the last in Newman's series, a 1998 V90 with a 5.7-liter LS2 Corvette motor sourced from a 2004 Z06. The Volvo was built to Newman’s specs by Newman/Brockman Racing in 2007 and 2008, right near the end of his life (at 83). It’s very cool to think that this particular car guy was thinking about going fast even then.
Before the V90, Newman’s auto-biography included, back in 1969, the ultimate sleeper VW Beetle—a red 1963 convertible stuffed with a 300-horsepower Ford 351 and Hewland five-speed transaxle. Keep in mind that Beetles are rear-engined, with lawnmower motors. The book Winning, about Newman’s automotive exploits, notes dryly, “The re-engineering required to make it all work was considerable.” Newman himself said, “That Volks was really wacky.” Newman eventually donated the car to a California trade school, and in 2011 it was for sale, with an asking price of $250,000.
There were three Volvo wagons. The first was a 1988 740 GLE that proudly hosted a turbocharged 3.8-liter engine from a Buick Grand National—tweaked to around 400 horsepower. That one was reportedly fairly crude, so Newman moved on to a supercharged 5.0-liter Ford V-8-powered 960, built by Ross Converse Engineering between 1996 and 1997. Newman recruited his friend and fellow Connecticut resident David Letterman to buy an identical one (there was a third, too) and they were duly outfitted with Edelbrock aluminum heads and a Kenne Bell supercharger.
Letterman said Newman told him, "'From 20 to 100 you can chew anybody’s ass.' And I’m thinking to myself, what circumstances would Paul find himself in driving around in a Volvo station wagon where he feels like he’s gotta chew somebody’s ass?”
Letterman got his 400-horsepower Volvo, and says he loved it, despite having the supercharger flame out on the Merritt Parkway. “I loved it because Paul Newman and I were the only ones to have cars like this,” he said, adding that the car was capable of 170 mph. There's a nice story about building one of these beasts here. And check out this video to see a Mustang GT-powered 1988 Volvo in action:
Newman's third car was the Westport show car, nicknamed the “Volvette.” Newman Racing’s Bill Lloyd says, “We found the motor from a company that bought wrecked cars and rebuilt the engines. It took us forever to get that thing to go, because of all the electronics. It was a nightmare.”
By the time the Volvette was running, Newman was terminally ill. He never got behind the wheel, but he did get driven for a lap at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park—his last time around a track where he’d been a shining star.
I talked to Newman a few times, but not about his hot Volvos. The subject was his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, and Newman’s Own charity enterprise—both of which were brilliantly successful. And Newman’s infamous “salad dressing trial” was held in the courtroom next to where I was (triumphantly) fighting off a libel case. Guess which event the national media covered?
Speaking of famous Westporters and American engines in European cars, also on display at the show was a rare 1953 Cunningham C3 Cabriolet, with an Italian Vignale body and a 220-horsepower Chrysler “FirePower” Hemi V-8. Briggs Cunningham, who commissioned the cars that bore his name, was a “sportsman” with virtually unlimited money to indulge his love of racing (and yachting, too). He competed at LeMans in Cadillacs (including one nicknamed “Le Monstre”) and his daughter married a Congressman, but that’s another story.
I marveled at the detail on the show car, one of just nine Cabriolets built. Italian bodies were cheap then, so you could just send your American chassis across the pond and it would come back with an exquisite custom-made body to your bespoke order. Even with that, Cunningham couldn’t really make a business out of it—the basic C3 was $9,000 in early 1950s dollars. A new Chevy Bel Air in 1950 was $1,741.
In front of the Cunningham were three cars associated with the late great John Fitch, a legendary race driver (with Stirling Moss and people like that), safety advocate (he pioneered the “Fitch Barrier” and automotive entrepreneur. Fitch (a great friend of Briggs Cunningham) loved the Corvair, and in the 1960s he sold a bunch of souped-up versions as the “Fitch Sprint.” And he also used a Corvette chassis for the Fitch Phoenix, a stillborn project designed to turn this very American car into a Euro-styled boulevard cruiser. Alas, safety rules doomed the project, and the car on display was Fitch’s own daily driver.
A lot of history for a small car show in its first-ever event! Here's a video from the scene: