While the early years of Porsche cars attracted some flamboyant characters, none outmatched Cleveland, Ohio resident Lou Fageol in sheer spectacular sensation. Though not long on the scene, Fageol built some of the most radical Porsche racers ever conceived which, in the words of an observer in the 1950s, “intimidated the SCCA guys.” The comet that was Lou Fageol well deserves our remembrance.
Fageol’s father, Frank, was a co-founder of the Fageol Motors Company. Among Frank’s work was a twin-engined bus that he sold under the Twin Coach Company name. Like his dad, Lou also liked twin-mill layouts.
In 1946, Lou entered a race car at Indianapolis that was a remarkable interpretation of the Twin Coach twin-engined philosophy. He obtained two Ford-powered front-drive cars designed and built by Harry Miller for entry at Indy in 1935. Building a new frame, Fageol’s engineers installed the transaxle and suspension assemblies from both cars, fitting one unit at the front and the other at the rear to achieve four-wheel drive. Though it looked bulbous, albeit with a racy tail fin, Fageol’s Twin Coach Special performed extremely well.
Driven by Paul Russo in his third time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Twin Coach Special qualified in the middle of the front row for the 1946 race at 128.183 mph, handling with apparent ease. Running comfortably in fourth place in the early going, Russo crashed in the third turn on the 17th lap as a result of an unavoidable accident unrelated to the car’s design.
Although the radical machine never raced again, its concept was dear to the heart of Lou Fageol. It took him a few years to return to four-wheeled speed because he had revived his pre-war career as a driver of racing boats—in spades. Starting with his own boats, he moved up to more powerful craft and competed for the Gold Cup and Harmsworth Trophy in unlimited hydroplanes. Aptly described as “thunderboats”, these used Allison or Rolls-Royce V-12 engine to compete in successive heats on ovals set out on water.
Lou’s first great success was winning the international Harmsworth Trophy race in 1950, during which he set the first-ever speed in a heat of better than 100 mph.
“Leadfoot Louie we called him,” said an observer. “He was almost as good as he thought he was, which was very good. He was cold as ice and always knew what he was doing or about to do. To the end of our days I don’t think any of us will forget Lou going way down under the bridge at Seattle and then winding up on the way back, headed dead for the starting line. Heaven help anyone who got in his way.”
A Twin-Engined 1952 356
In 1952, Lou Fageol bought an auto dealership in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Porsches soon caught his fancy. Looking the cars over, he saw an opportunity to replicate his 1946 Indy racer. They already had an engine in the rear, he though. Why not add another one in the front? His first effort made use of a 1952 356 Coupe in which he installed a complete Porsche engine and transmission in the front, ahead of the front wheels. The front transaxle’s ring gear and pinion were modified to give four forward speeds.
Fageol himself drove the 356-based car in its racing debut on an airport circuit at Cumberland, Maryland on July 19, 1953. It was an odd-looking racing machine with white-wall tires, full bumpers, an adapted Packard grille and a spare wheel on its rear deck, evicted from its usual place under the front trunk lid. Not a finisher, it next competed in the Seattle Seafair races on Paine Air Force Base on August 8th. It again failed to finish but was nevertheless awarded first in Class D for 3.0-liter cars. On the 1.6-mile airport course at Stout Field near Indianapolis, Fageol was closer to home. He didn’t, however, finish the main event at Stout on September 26th.
Stout Field was the last race outing for the modified Porsche 356, which had served as a breadboard study for the car that fully manifested the Fageol formula for sports-car speed.
Built by Fageol’s craftsmen in 1953, the Fageol-Porsche Twin Engine Competition Sports Car was a completely new machine powered by two Porsche 1500 Super engines, giving a total of 144 hp at 5,500 rpm. A special tubular frame, short 90-inch wheelbase and bodywork in Duralumin alloy helped keep its weight low at just 1,650 pounds.
The Fageol-Porsche’s body was as outré as anything ever built on four wheels, especially for racing. Its nose flaunted a bold central cone and prominent fender peaks that initially had air inlets around their headlamps. These were later covered, with air entering around a central chromed sphere. Although at first conventional, the rear fenders were later cut away behind the wheels to give a free flow of air rearward. As simple as they could be, the doors were hinged at the bottom to flop downwards. A low windscreen and tidy coupe top, hinged at the rear to lift up for easy access, completed a flamboyant low-drag ensemble.
As in the 356 coupe, the rear-mounted 1500 Super engine was in its usual outboard position while its sister was ahead of the front wheels. This did indeed give a high moment of inertia around a vertical axis, which Fageol considered beneficial to fast cornering. It also placed both transaxles near the center of the chassis where it was relatively easy to command the clutches and gear selectors of both powertrains from a single lever and pedal. The throttle was common to both engines, too. The sole instrument was a huge 6,000-rpm tachometer with separate needles for the two engines.
“The synchronization or final-drive connection is through the front and rear tires’ interconnection on the roadway,” said Fageol. “In other words the front engine drives the front wheels, the rear engine drives the rear wheels; however it is not possible for one to run ahead of or behind the other as they are really connected together through the contact of front and rear tires with the ground. Because of this actual rubber interconnection, there is absolutely no feeling of difference between driving a twin-engine car and driving a single-engine job.”
The 16-inch wheels of the Porsche 356 were traded for wider-rim 15-inch wheels to take racing tires. At the rear these gave a track of 51.3 inches, slightly wider than the standard 49.2 inches. Swing axles provided suspension at the front and transverse torsion bars were used at the rear. Added to the ends of the swing axles were Jeep front hubs with Rzeppa constant-velocity universal joints. This substantially increased the Fageol-Porsche’s front track to 57.3 inches.
“Steering is accomplished through the standard Porsche steering box in exactly the same manner as that used for single-engine Porsche cars,” Fageol explained. “There is a solid tie-bar between the front wheels. A conventional drag link is attached to the left steering knuckle, direct from the steering box itself. Shock absorbers are double-acting airplane type.”
Unorthodox as it was in so many ways, Fageol’s creation had the impact of a car from Mars when it touched down at Albany, Georgia’s Turner Air Force Base for the First International Sowega Sports Car Races on October 25, 1953. Lending veracity to the “International” epithet was the presence of two 550 Spyders, fielded by Porsche on their way to the Carrera Panamericana. This was Porsche’s first factory entry in North America, part-sponsored by Fletcher Aviation, for drivers Karl Kling and Huschke von Hanstein. Fageol’s extraordinary creation amazed the visiting Germans.
“At Albany the car was inspected and driven by numerous Porsche officials,” Fageol related. “Among them was Baron von Hanstein, head of the Porsche racing division, who expressed amazement at the car’s handling ease and performance with stock engines.” At this early stage both power units were standard 1500 Supers, the same engines that powered the Porsche Spyders at Albany in tuned form.
While both factory 550s retired in the Sowega events, the Fageol-Porsche did remarkably well in the hands of its creator. In the 75-mile King George Cup it placed eighth overall and second in Class D Modified for 3.0-liter cars behind the Ferrari of Bill Lloyd. Over the 250 miles of the Strategic Air Power contest it placed third in class and 11th overall. This spoke well for the standard of engineering and pre-race testing by Fageol’s team.
Competition heated up in the 1954 season with the arrival of 4.5-liter Ferraris and Allard JR Cadillacs fielded by the Strategic Air Command’s own team. When the cars gathered at Tampa, Florida to race on MacDill Air Force Base the Fageol-Porsche was outrun by more powerful machinery. In a 50-mile race a dozen cars finished ahead of it and in the main 200-miler Fageol retired.
Realizing that his unique drive system deserved more horsepower, Fageol regrouped. Having acquired the Progressive Engine Products Company, maker of PEPCO Roots-type superchargers, he fitted one of their blowers to each of his engines.
“We are currently experimenting with the supercharging of these engines,” Fageol said early in 1954, “which tests indicate can be raised to about 100 hp each.” Mounted above the transaxles and belt-driven from the rear of the engine, the PEPCOs pumped through long ducts to the inlet ports. Fuel was supplied at the inlets to the compressors.
Lou stepped into the cockpit of the newly supercharged Fageol-Porsche at Cumberland, Maryland for the SCCA Regional airport races on May 16, 1954.
“It was extremely fast in a straight line,” said an observer, “but didn’t corner well at all. It was leading or near the front for most of the race but something broke and Fageol dropped out.”
Two weeks later the twin-engined racer was ready to compete in Columbus, Indiana where it put on its best performance yet. In the 75-mile race it placed third behind two Ferraris and was also third in Class C Modified, to which it had been moved up to because of its superchargers. On June 13th at Westover, Massachusetts the Fageol-Porsche was seen as the likely challenger to Jim Kimberly’s 4.5-liter Ferrari but spun off early and later retired.
Fageol contested three more races in his special in 1954. On September 18th at Watkins Glen, New York he competed in the town’s Grand Prix on local roads, finishing 10th. He took part in an SCCA Regional race meeting at Akron, Ohio on October 10th and joined the big “East versus West” battle over 123 miles at the March Air Force Base in California on November 7th. He retired at one-fifth distance.
The next step in the evolution of the Fageol-Porsche arose through a chance conversation at a powerboat race. Charlie Strang, chief engineer of Kiekhaefer, the maker of Mercury outboard motors, mentioned to Fageol that he was preparing a boat for an upcoming race that would use one of his outboard engines to drive a centrifugal supercharger supplying the boat’s Chrysler V-8.
“By running the outboard engine—and hence the blower—at full speed while the Chrysler is throttled down for the turns,” Strang told Fageol, “plenty of boost pressure is immediately available for accelerating out of the turns with none of the usual centrifugal-blower lag.
“Fageol was intrigued by the idea,” Strang continued. “He called me to tell me about the twin-Porsche sports car he had built to compete with the 4.1- and 4.5-liter Ferraris. He said that his car was not fully competitive and wondered if we could provide him with a couple of smaller versions of the separately driven blowers that I had told him about. I said sure!
“Because the twin-Porsche car had no radiators for the air-cooled Porsche engines,” added Strang, “we needed air-cooled engines to drive the centrifugal blowers. So we used a couple of hefty Kiekhaefer-manufactured two-man chainsaw engines, which we modified for more power and then coupled to centrifugal blowers that we bought somewhere. We shipped the two ‘engine cum blower’ packages to Fageol, who installed them in the car.
“Lou called some time later,” Strang related, “to say he had tested the car and was sure it would be more than competitive although, as he put it, ‘It gets a little light at the speed it can now reach.’” Those who saw and heard the Fageol-Porsche in this, its final iteration, said it sounded like a B-17 Flying Fortress making a low-level attack. Adding the cylinder capacity of the two-stroke chainsaw engines moved the car up to the SCCA’s Class B Modified.
Fageol’s crew trailered the four-engined Fageol-Porsche all the way to Fort Pierce, Florida for the first SCCA National of 1955 on February 27th. It was worth it, for the unique racer left several of the big Ferraris behind it in a 51-mile preliminary race. Fageol finished fifth overall and first in Class B. A class win resulted in the main event of 150 miles where Fageol finished eighth overall.
Another long haul took the Cuyahoga, Ohio team to California’s Monterey to compete on the Pebble Beach road course on April 17. This was a demanding tree-lined circuit quite unlike the airport tracks that hosted most of the radical car’s racing. It exacted its toll during practice. Lurching into a spin, the unique machine flipped over, collecting an oncoming Morgan in the process.
“Rescuers found Fageol hanging upside-down in the overturned car,” read one report, “calmly smoking a cigarette.”
“Fageol,” said another account, “estimated that nearly $50,000 had gone into development of the demolished car.” Its career was over.
The Legend of Leadfoot Louie
After a night in the hospital due to his Fageol-Porsche wreck, Lou returned to the world of powerboat racing. In fact he had declared retirement at the age of 47 after winning the Gold Cup in 1954. For 1955’s Gold Cup at Seattle on August 5th, however, Fageol returned to the cockpit. At 165 mph, during a preliminary trial, his boat turned a complete 360-degree loop, hurling Fageol out.
In this, Unlimited boat racing’s first “blow-over” accident, Fageol suffered four broken ribs, four fractured vertebrae, a punctured lung and damage to his heart. This time he was hospitalized for 23 days. His son Ray averred that these injuries contributed to Lou Fageol’s death in 1961 at only 53 years of age.
In the most astonishing manner Porsche figured strongly in the Lou Fageol story. He put his 1500 Super engines and their transaxles to the severest trial they ever experienced, fielding the Fageol-Porsche with the help of a technical team that was equal to this unprecedented challenge. Porsche, meanwhile, had not been ready to raise its game to the heady engine classes in which Fageol competed. Its time would come.