Dan Gurney was one of motorsport's greatest innovators and free-thinking spirits, as well as a world-class driver who survived and excelled in one of racing's most deadly eras. He passed away at age 86 over the weekend
Perhaps he will always be most famous for winning the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix (pictured above) in the exquisite Eagle-Weslake, a car of his own creation. But his engineering acumen, his quest for innovative solutions, his can-do attitude and his constant drive should not overshadow his magnificent ability behind the wheel.
Gurney wasn't just one of the greatest drivers America has ever produced; he is one of the greatest drivers of all time. Jim Clark famously described Gurney as the only rival he feared, and that is an endorsement that transcends most trophies.
Who hasn't heard of the name EMPI? Born as European Motor Products Inc and subsequently renamed, EMPI is undoubtedly the best known of all VW specialists of days gone by. We bring you the story behind the legend.
But what is the Aircooled connection? Well he drove the famous Empi Inch Pincher, and the feature below makes for interesting reading
There has never been a Volkswagen specialist as famous as EMPI. In fact, everyone who owns a Beetle knows the name, but very few people know the whole story. So, how did it all begin? The EMPI story started in 1954 when Joe Vittone opened a Volkswagen dealership with his friend and business partner, Holt Haughey. The agency was known as Economotors and was based in Riverside. It was one of the first VW dealerships in California and soon became one of the most successful, selling the full range of Volkswagen and spare parts.
However, Vittone soon realized there was a problem as far as the design of the Volkswagen cylinder head was concerned. The valve guides wore out very quickly and there were no Volkswagen-approved repair parts available. Indeed, Volkswagen's advice to dealers was to throw away the cylinder heads and fit new ones.
Joe Vittone decided to make his own valve guides so that old or worn cylinder heads could be repaired rather than being thrown away. These valve guides became very popular and saved Volkswagen owners many thousands of dollars. This new product grew to be very profitable for Economotors and so Vittone decided to start a new company to sell them. The name he chose was European Motor Parts Inc (EMPI).
In the 1950s, many of the Detroit manufacturers, starting with Chevrolet, began selling high performance versions of their regular production cars. This growth of the automotive performance market made Joe Vittone think that perhaps there was a market for high-performance parts for Volkswagen as people were always complaining that they were too slow.
In 1956 EMPI started to sell Okrasa conversions for the old 30bhp engine, so that the American Volkswagen owner could now enjoy better performance from their Beetles. To begin with, some owners believed that there was no need to have more power, for Vittone says that "Up until the day Volkswagen introduced the 34bhp engine, some owners sincerely believed that 30bhp was all the power any Volkswagen would ever need". However, other owners did want more power and came to EMPI to buy their Okrasa parts.
In 1958, Vittone also began to sell the Austrian Denzel products which were available in Europe. Wolfgang Denzel's high-performance engine conversions were well engineered, and came with aluminium con-rods and superb dual-port cylinder heads. Although they were more expensive than the Okrasa parts, the Denzel conversions were of much higher quality.
In the same year, EMPI helped to make the Beetle a better car to drive by selling a front anti-roll bar. EMPI catalogues called this the most important modification you could make to your Beetle although by now just about every other motor manufacturer had fitted their cars with anti-roll bars. EMPI told the Volkswagen owner that his car would handle like a sports car and not lean into corners, nor would it be affected by cross-winds. Many owners did not believed the claims, but realized it was true when Volkswagen made an anti-roll bar stock fitment on the Beetle in 1959.
After designing the anti-roll bar, Joe Vittone offered a rear stabilizer that stopped the back wheels tucking under during hard cornering. This was a characteristic of cars with swing axle suspension and severely limited the handling potential of all early Porsches and VWs. This stabilizer bar, or camber compensator as it was known, proved to be very popular and over 100,000 were eventually sold throughout the world.
Vittone decided to change the name of EMPI from European Motor Products Incorporated to Engineered Motor Products Incorporated, as he felt that it suggested a greater emphasis on product development and quality. When he visited Europe, Joe Vittone met Graham Hill, the world champion racing driver. Hill owned a company called Speedwell, which manufactured a large range of parts for European cars. Many of these parts interested Joe Vittone and Speedwell was granted the manufacturing rights to many EMPI parts, including the camber compensator. In return, Speedwell started to develop some parts especially for Volkswagens which EMPI then sold in America.
In 1963, Joe and his son Darrell flew to England to visit Speedwell's headquarters at Chesham near London. They bought a Volkswagen Beetle and left it behind so that Speedwell could develop a new dual-Stromberg carburettor kit. Vittone also met Tony Rudd, head of BRM (for whom Graham Hill had been driving in Grand Prix events), and talked about the possibility of making the famous BRM magnesium wheel. They also visited Chris Shorrock, who made the Shorrocks supercharger conversions. These superchargers were later sold by EMPI which bought them from Sidney Allard, who held the world distribution rights for Shorrocks conversions.
A lot of the product development for EMPI was carried out by Dean Lowry, while driving the Inch Pincher race car. Inch Pincher began life as Darrell's daily driver in the early '60s and was a red '56 oval-window sedan with a set of chrome wheels, sports exhaust system and a stock 30bhp motor. At the time, his father was interested in the idea of competing in the Grand Prix of Volkswagens to be held down in Nassau. Joe Vittone was a friend of Dan Gurney, the famous racing driver, and asked him if he would like to drive the car, the idea beeing to promote EMPI's range of suspension parts. Dan Gurney agreed to the plan and work began on preparing the car.
The regulations for the race said that cars could only be slightly modified so the car was rebuilt with EMPI's anti-roll bar and camber compensator while the 30bhp engine was rebuilt with a sports exhaust system. Gurney spent a lot of time testing the car at Riverside Raceway and this pre-event development resulted in a win for Gurney, despite being called into the pits after a few fast laps and asked to remove the non-standard rev counter!
The following year, Vittone asked Gurney to drive once again and the car was rebuilt ready for another visit to Nassau. This time the rules allowed some mild engine modifications and Dean Lowry, who was by then working at EMPI, ported and polished the cylinder heads, modified the valve springs and carefully rebuilt the engine. The car was much quicker than anything else and crossed the line first but was disqualified for running illegal valve springs.
Joe Vittone was very upset about the decision and decided to stop racing. The car became Darrell's daily driver once again, but not for long, as Dean Lowry was keen for EMPI to become involved with drag racing. He built a 1700cc engine, fitted it to Darrell's car and took it to the drag strip. By September 1964, the Beetle had run as quick as 14.90secs/91.5mph in the quarter-mile (with Darrell Vittone driving). At the NHRA Winternationals in February 1965, the car, now called Inch Pincher because of its lack of cubic inches, was quickest in its class with a 14.79, but several transmission breakages stopped it from setting a record. It was then that the Inch Pincher was changed from a street' n'strip car to an all-out drag racer.
The car used Denzel heads with two Solex 40P11 carburettors. This allowed the car to run 13-sec quarter-miles. The next major change happened when Darrell was called into the army and the car passed into the care of Dean Lowry once again. The Denzel-equipped 30bhp engine was changed for a 1900cc engine with Okrasa heads and dual 48IDA Webers. It ran like this until late 1967 when a pair of Volkswagen dual-port heads were fitted. Dean Lowry even ran Inch Pincher at the Riverside 1/2-mile drags in April 1966. With an elapsed time of 22.04secs, the terminal speed proved to be some 115mph, much to the disbelief of the timing crew.
Always someone who liked to try new ideas, in 1966, Lowry fitted one of Chris Shorrocks' superchargers to the 1600cc engine in the car which produced a remarkable 220bhp on EMPI's dynamometer. With this combination, the car recorded a best time of 12.7secs/106mph at Carlsbad Raceway. Incidentally, the supercharged engine was removed from Inch Pincher in 1967 and fitted to the ill-fated Jouster glassfibre-bodied Beetle. The Jouster was very light, weighing only 500lbs with a four-speed Porsche transmission, but was never a success. The car handled badly - a Type 2 steering wheel was fitted to give the driver more leverage on the steering! - and crashed at Orange County in 1968 when the rear suspension broke as it crossed the finish line. Fortunately the driver, Lee Leighton, was unhurt.
EMPI soon established an enviable reputation for selling high-quality performance parts for the Volkswagen. However, when you look at an EMPI catalogue you can see that most of the parts offered by the company were chrome dress-up items. However, many of the performance parts, such as the BRM wheels, 88mm slipper-skirt piston and cylinders, the large range of carburettor kits and the high-ratio rocker arms, were undeniably of very good quality.
Joe Vittone was a very wise man for he knew that in order to sell parts, they would have to be marketed properly. Racing was part of it, but the production of catalogues, posters and clothing further served to promote the EMPI name throughout the world and all of it was designed and produced in-house. A man called Heinz Jung was responsible for most of the catalogue photography and his classic "Sorry 'bout that!" decal became a familiar sight affixed to the back window of EMPI-equipped VWs. Because he owned a Volkswagen agency and the EMPI company, Joe Vittone was in a unique position. In 1966, Economotors offered complete new cars fitted with a range of EMPI parts but which were still covered by a full Volkswagen warranty. The cars were known as the EMPI GTVs and could be bought in one of four levels of specification. The MkI was a 1300 Beetle with the addition of a complete set of dress-up parts, E-Z-R gear shift, front anti-roll bar, camber compensator, sports exhaust system and a set of chrome wheels. GTV badges on the quarter panels completed the package. The MkI kit cost $437.20 on top of the price of a stock 1300 Bug. The MkII added a number of other parts to the MkI's specification, including a rear parcel shelf complete with extra speakers, a lock on the engine lid and two reversing lights. The cost of this conversion kit was $568.85. The MkIII added some extra instruments, more dress-up parts and, best of all, a set of BRM magnesium wheels. The cost of this conversion was just $755.05. Finally, the MkIV package included all of the above parts, plus a new ram-induction carburettor kit, brake servo, reclining seats and a set of Boge sports shock absorbers. The complete GTV MkIV kit retailed for $1238.75.
Inch Pincher was rebuilt for the 1967 season, when rule changes allowed cars in the NHRA H/Gas class to run a lot lighter. The original VW torsion bar front suspension was replaced with a straight axle set-up, while the floorpan was extensively lightened with aluminium. The heavy steel body panels were replaced with lightweight glassfibre parts and the original oval rear window was cut out and a later large rear window fitted to save weight. All glass was replaced with lightweight Plexiglass. The car was resprayed in red Metalflake with flames and the Inch Pincher name was finally painted on the door. After the rebuild the car weighed just 1200lb, a saving of 500lb!
Dean Lowry left EMPI in 1968 to form Deano Dyno-Soars Inc, with his brother Ken. Inch Pincher was driven again by Darrell Vittone, who raced with a lot of success. The car was rebuilt once more with a 'flower-power' vinyl roof and new glassfibre panels. The front wings were now the later, upright headlamp style, while the rear decklid was replaced with an EMPI one, complete with 'eyebrow' air scoops. The car was raced like this until 1970 with a 1952cc (88mm bore x 80mm stroke) engine and Porsche transmission. The Inch Pincher was very successful in the I/Gas class and set many track and event records across America.
Those with a leaning towards the obscure might like to note that at least three sets of wheels were used on Inch Pincher, starting with a set of chrome Porsche steel wheels. These were then replaced by a set of Rader steel and aluminium rims. When BRM magnesium wheels were first released in 1966, the Inch Pincher was one of the earliest cars to be fitted with a set.
At the end of 1970, Vittone decided to build a new car. He used the chassis and engine of the original car but fitted a new bodyshell, the original 'schell being sold to someone in Mexico City (where is it today?). The new body was a chop-top '59 sedan that was modified at the Economotors bodyshop, which operated in conjunction with Joe Vittone's VW agency, where it was chopped by just under four inches to remain 100% class legal. It featured a Plexiglass roof while the doors, decklids and wings were all replaced with lightweight EMPI 'glass panels. The finishing touch was a set of polished BRM wheels.
The new car ran for the first time early in 1971 and soon after at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals, was painted in primer with simple EMPI logos on each door. Called Inch Pincher Too, the car ran on the national record of 12.11secs/111.5mph first time out. At the Winternationals, the car ran a quickest of the meeting 11.98secs/111.1mph.
The 1366lb Beetle used an 88mm bore x 82mm stroke motor with an SPG roller crank assembly, dual 48IDA Webers, EMPI 851 camshaft, 1.4:1 ratio rocker arms and 39mm x 35.5mm valves in modified VW dual-port heads. This was later changed to an 89mm x 82mm engine with an Engle F-32 cam and 42mm x 37.5mm heads by Fumio Fukaya who worked at EMPI. The exhaust system was a 15/8in header system with a chromed 28in stinger. The 2-litre engine produced around 170bhp. The car used a Porsche 356 transmission with a ZF limited-slip differential but this was always giving trouble as it was not strong enough to handle the power.
The car was finally sprayed in a crazy mixture of Candy reds, oranges and blues: the asymmetrical design was applied by a painter called Molly who was a well-known artist at the time. The car was beautifully finished with an anodized aluminium interior, polished wheels and a lot of gold cadmium plating on both the engine and transmission. Inside the car, even the roll bar was chrome-plated! The car's best time for the quarter-mile was 11.5secs/115mph set at Orange County Raceway.
The EMPI company grew to be very big across America, with 28 official distributors and 489 agents spread across the country. Many of the agents also owned Volkswagen dealerships and Volkswagen of America was not very happy with the idea at all. It tried to stop many of these agencies selling EMPI parts, and even threatened to cut its deliveries of new cars when there was already a shortage of new Volkswagens.
In 1971, Joe Vittone realized that he had too much work and not enough time to look after both Economotors and EMPI so he sold EMPI to a company called Filter Dynamics, which made oil and air filters and marketed them under the Lee Eliminators name. Joe Vittone was paid in stocks and shares which sadly proved to be worthless, so he ended up with virtually nothing from the sale of EMPI.
During the 1960s, EMPI was selling between $5- and $6-million-worth of parts a year which is an incredible figure for a company that only sold parts for Volkswagens. Inch Pincher Too was made part of the deal when EMPI was sold. It was then driven by Jim Carlson before eventually being sold to an unknown buyer. Nobody, not even Darrell Vittone, has any idea of where the car is today or if it still exists.
After Inch Pincher Too, there was an Inch Pincher III, a replica of the original car, which was run by EMPI's east coast agents, and also a replica of Inch Pincher Too called the NED Bug II and driven by Denny Grove and Skip Hamm. Although these cars were successful, they never captured the spirit of the original Inch Pincher.
While Joe Vittone continued to run Economotors, in 1972 his son Darrell left EMPI to set up his own business, the Race Shop, with partners Dave Andrews and Fumio Fukaya, and together they campaigned a couple of race cars. In 1974, EMPI closed because Filter Dynamics, which was a very large company, did not have the experience to run a successful specialized Volkswagen business. The name was then sold again to another company, Mr Bug, and is still in use today. Incidentally, there is another EMPI Inc registered in the USA - its a company which makes products to improve bladder control!
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- Twin Port
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