Swiss Challenge

Entrepreneur Franco Sbarro turned to Porsche to underpin his dream car.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 1
April 18, 2024

Since the end of the 1960s, practically no Geneva Salon was complete without a dramatic launch of a spectacular new car—or several—from the Neuchâtel, Switzerland-based shop of Franco Sbarro. Be it styling, mechanics, or concept, Sbarro’s creations are sure to astonish with their imagination and impetuosity. Sbarro likes a good challenge, which is why you see a Porsche-fused Swiss-made machine known as a Sbarro Challenge on these pages.

Sbarro built it, he said, because he read a foreign review of the 1984 Geneva Salon that said there was “nothing new in Geneva.” During the month and a half after that, he worked day and night designing a car that no one could say resembled anything existing. That included his previous designs, which were usually modified production cars or imitations thereof.

Who is Franco Sbarro?

The man himself is as subdued as his cars are audacious. Sbarro speaks quietly about his ideas and inventions. But his creations betray a vivid imagination.

Francesco Zefferino Sbarro was born on February 27th, 1939, in the Apulian town of Presicce, in the province of Lecce at the very tip of the heel of Italy. Though of farming stock, he studied practical techniques in the province’s eponymous capital. Already obsessed with automobiles, in 1957, Sbarro headed north to exploit his fabrication skills and interest. He found a berth as

Photo: Swiss Challenge 2

Seemingly transporting a model of the Challenge, Franco Sbarro was an Italian who made good in Switzerland.

a machinist at a Borgward dealer in Neuchâtel before progressing as a technician to a BMW agency. His boss was the father of the man who was to become Lamborghini’s largest shareholder: Georges-Henry Rossetti.

“I then had an offer to join Scuderia Filipinetti,” Sbarro told Richard Heseltine, “based at Georges Filipinetti’s Chateau de Grandson. This was more in line with what I wanted to do. I was the chief mechanic or, to put it another way, the only mechanic! I did everything from fabrication to driving the race transporter. All I learned with the team was valuable experience for when I went into business for myself. While I was there, I built a couple of VW-based sports cars during the off-season, which Filipinetti helped sponsor, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to be my own boss. I loved motor racing. We had some success with Ferraris, GT40s, Cobras, Corvettes, and so on. But I wanted to create cars of my own.”

Sbarro built his first automobiles in a workshop in the courtyard of Filipinetti’s stately manor house at Grandson, ten miles from the French border on the southwest tip of Lake Neuchâtel. His debut design was a two-seater coupe prototype with a tubular frame, a 5.0-liter Ford engine, and glass-fiber bodywork. Making his break, in 1967, he bought a three-story former cigarette factory in Les Tuileries near Grandson, Switzerland, where, with four employees, he began his activity as a car manufacturer.

Next, he established a relationship with Lola and converted a dozen T70 race cars into road-going machines. He was then commissioned to build replicas of classic models. In 1974, he was asked to make a copy of a BMW 328. Launched at Geneva that year, it became a money-spinner. Sbarro made 138 of the roadsters using BMW 2002 components plus 15 more exotic designs with wide bodies and turbochargers. However, he grew bored with these projects, which led to the creation of the Challenge.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 3

A front view of the 1985 Sbarro Challenge dramatized its lowness, its “one-box” design.

“I stopped making the 328s while there was still demand,” said Sbarro. “For me, the interest has always been in coming up with an idea and working things through. By the time a car is finished, I am already thinking about the next one! I don’t mind people associating me with replicas, but I am more interested in original design.”

Challenge I: Mercedes Power

With his Challenge sports car, Sbarro broke free from the requirements of demanding clients of the past. This was his creation, his idea. He underpinned the seminal 1985 version with his own chassis, using racing-style suspensions front and rear from a frame that was further stiffened by elements of the drivetrain. Mounted just forward of the rear wheels, the engine drove to a Borg-Warner transfer case from a Jeep Cherokee that distributed torque to all four wheels. Differentials at both ends provided a 45 percent locking quotient. Sbarro kept the American off-roader’s ultra-low gear.

“The buyers of our cars don’t just use them on the Autobahn,” Sbarro explained. “They can have 6,000 rpm up to 80 mph, which together with four-wheel drive gives exceptional acceleration.”

Honoring a fellow Swiss entrepreneur, Sbarro fitted his creation with the ultra-wide 16-inch JJD wheels created by Jaroslav “Jerry” Juhan, each of which carried two narrow tires. The Czech émigré reckoned that this gave better grip in all weathers and eliminated the need for a spare wheel because a blowout would affect only one of a wheel’s tires.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 4

A big binnacle housed the Challenger I’s instruments, warning lamps, and minor controls. Its gear selector seemed to require only short movements.

Integrated with a four-speed automatic transmission, Challenge I’s power source was a 5.0-liter Mercedes-Benz V8 fed by two IHI turbochargers. Reaching half an atmosphere of boost at 2,500 rpm, the twin turbos raised the V8’s power from 231 to 350 hp. The Audi Quattro’s complete cooling system was adopted with the radiator behind the engine. Thus powered, covered by a fabric simulation of the final design, the 1,100-pound chassis of the first Sbarro Challenge took to the roads around Grandson for its shakedown in the autumn of 1984.

Next came exacting work in the glass-fiber medium with which Sbarro and his team were now highly competent. The Challenge’s unique design demanded fresh interpretations everywhere. Especially “challenging” was the tail section, where fine horizontal ribbing not only concealed running lamps but also served to cool the V8. Split ducts in the body’s flanks delivered cooling air. Moreover, a Plexiglas panel was needed for a camera to provide rear vision to two screens in the cockpit. The system not only had zoom and focus functions but could also screen VHS videos—in lands where that was permissible.

To add to the complexity, two roof sections rose to provide added stability plus braking. An electro-pneumatic system could raise one 16.5 × 47-inch panel to a 20-degree angle and the other to 16 degrees. They reacted automatically to the application of the brakes. A 16-degree angle was enough to increase rear downforce by more than 800 pounds at 125 mph for a car weighing 3,100 pounds. The panels could also be switched on when required to enhance stability, as in wet weather.

Silentbloc attachments united body and chassis with foam-rubber cushioning. Encompassing the curved side windows, the Challenge’s swing-up doors needed and received good hinges. Its subtly curved windscreen was 44 inches wide and 49 inches “high.” It was so steeply inclined that it could be mounted in tracks that allowed it to slide forward electrically almost 16 inches, enough to provide a welcome sunroof effect. Above the occupants, they could cause a tinted Plexiglas shade to slide nearly a yard forward, leaving only the forward vision unobscured. Stored out of view, the screen wiper was a rotary design.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 5

Geneva in 1986 was the venue for the appearance of the Porsche-powered 2+2 Challenge II. Accompanying it was the Baby Challenge, which got a Honda engine.

Tubular structures in the nose of the Challenge served to give the necessary crash-energy absorption. Lifting the long lid showed space for a normal-size spare and the fuel tank. Plexiglas covers protected deeply sunken headlamps. The driver used electric controls to adjust the pedal-array distance, steering-wheel distance and height. Seats were also adjustable, using the System Recaro to inject air into cushions to give the desired softness and support.

In such an exotic car, advanced in so many respects, observers were surprised to note that it had digital instruments. These were housed in a binnacle viewable through the steering wheel. Below them were controls and rows of warning lamps. Atop a deep divider between the seats was the automatic transmission controller with its short travel. The white Challenger was handsomely complemented by a Connolly-leather caramel interior highlighted by burled walnut.

At the 1985 Salon in Geneva, Sbarro was coy about the price of such an exotic extravagance. He waved off the assumption that it had to be owned by an Arabian sheik. “There are many Sbarros in Japan, in the United States,” he said. About prices, he added, “I don’t know them myself. By this, I mean that I know, of course, at what price they were invoiced, but I don’t know how much came back to me. For me to know that, I would have to have oversight of all the components and all the working hours. Ipso facto, my prices would rise by 15 percent. We would have to pay someone to take care of all that accounting.”

Sbarro did say, however, that for a Challenge as equipped at Geneva, the price would be around $125,000 ($360,000 in current dollars after adjusting for inflation). For the series of ten cars that he was planning he thought it would be nearer $100,000 ($290,000 in current dollars).

Photo: Swiss Challenge 6

Some of the Porsche pipework is visible under the rear deck of the Sbarro Challenge II.

Challenge II & III: Porsche Power

At the 1986 Geneva Salon, Sbarro unveiled his strategy. Though the car displayed looked externally identical to its predecessor, it had two seats squeezed in to make it a 2+2. Sbarro told the press his aim was to make ten such cars, which he called the Challenge II. His scheme was to power them in a different manner to make room for the extra seating.

Changing his loyalty from one Stuttgart company to another, Sbarro turned to Porsche for a powerplant. In went a 930-generation 911 Turbo’s 3.3-liter turbocharged flat-six and its 300 hp at 5,500 rpm. But Sbarro wanted to preserve the abbreviated tail of his creation that endowed it with considerable character. He came up with a typically ingenious solution.

Sbarro shifted the engine-transaxle assembly a couple of feet forward from its usual position, thus clearing it away from the tail area. The half-shafts from the transaxle extended outward to the pivots of two fabricated cases that contained sprockets to chains that drove the rear wheels. Swinging from bearings in the car’s frame, the cases also acted as the principal radius arms that suspended the rear wheels. The flat-six nestled comfortably between the trailing arms.

Impressing with its livery, which transitioned from a metallic gray in front to crimson at the rear, the Challenge II had an all-red interior and essentially Porsche instrumentation, compatible as it was with the power train. The interior was all red with a Porsche-sourced steering wheel. Changes in the roof to give rear-seat headroom eliminated one of the hinged spoilers, the remaining one controlled electrically from the cockpit.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 7

Porsche instrumentation served in the Sbarro Challenge II, as did separate adjustment panels for the seats.

Challenge II was the third car built by Sbarro in the genre, which continued to draw crowds at motor shows. The fourth was a pearl-white Challenge II that featured on the Sbarro stand at Geneva in 1987, together with an all-new Challenge III. This third iteration of the Challenge was created to deal with the severe constraints on car features that kept the Challenge II from being approved for use in Switzerland and Germany. The idea was to build the Challenge III on the chassis of an approved vehicle: the Type 930 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet.

Adapting the Challenge concept to this more compact platform required exceptional skill. Instead of the 1985-1986 Challenge I and II’s 107-inch wheelbase, the new version’s spacing was 89.4 inches. The front track went from 61.0 to 56.4 inches, and the rear track from 65.0 to 58.7 inches; these changes ruled out the original car’s ultra-wide wheels and tires.

Making the Challenge’s wheelbase shorter by roughly 18 inches was a test for Franco Sbarro and his team, one to which they rose gallantly. Length was lost behind the doors, retaining but shortening the air-inlet scoops. The doors were slightly shorter, and their windows extended to their forward edges. The nose was shorter, and the tail extended to house the Porsche powerplant, which was now back in its usual outboard position.

Overall, the resulting Challenge III was a smoother, sleeker sports machine that lost little of its pathbreaking charisma. It was altogether a more fully realized automobile. And it was practically all Porsche. This had several benefits. The original instrument panel and minor controls could be left in position to be surrounded by more lavish accouterments. The view under the front deck was the same as the donor Porsche, with its spare wheel and tire, fuel tank, and some space for luggage.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 8

The Spanish-registered Sbarro Challenge II fully maintains the wonderfully distinctive tail design of the original; four pipes from the Porsche Turbo flat-six are dramatic.

The Porsche-based Challenge rolled on super-wide Pirelli P7 tires, 225/50VR15 on 10-inch-wide aluminum rims at the front, and 285/50VR15 on 12-inch-wide rims at the rear. Although not accepted in Germany or Switzerland, the show car had Blaupunkt’s rear-facing video camera and cockpit monitor.

The change to a glass-fiber body on the 930 Cabriolet meant less contribution to frame stiffness by the lower sheet metal, so Sbarro had to strengthen the platform along the door sills. With additional features, the Challenge III weighed 2,980 pounds, some 300 pounds more than its donor Porsche and some 100 pounds less than the Challenge II. Smooth lines and less frontal area, thanks to its height 10 inches lower than the Porsche—although it added 8.0 inches of width—contributed to Challenge III’s top speed of 175 mph against the 930 Turbo’s 160. Zero to 60 mph acceleration was in the six-second bracket using the car’s manual gearbox.

Soon after 1987’s Geneva Salon, German journalist Wolfgang Scholz had a chance to test-drive the Challenge III show car—a black car with black and white interior accents. It was liveried according to the taste of its owner, a Swiss discotheque proprietor.

“Grumbling softly,” Scholz wrote, “the black wedge glides through the sleepy little town on the banks of the Swiss Lac de Neuchâtel. A UFO seems to have landed amidst the old townhouses. But scarcely any Swiss turns around. The residents of Grandson are used to it. Local dream car designer Franco Sbarro always tests his new creations like this.

Photo: Swiss Challenge 9

The Challenge III’s tail was lengthened to accommodate its Porsche engine. Otherwise, the daring concept transferred well to the Porsche 911 Cabriolet platform.

“The high side sills make getting in and out an acrobatic affair,” Scholz continued. “Then there is the unusual seating position and the very heavily tinted windows. Though occupants are comfortable in the standard Porsche seats, tall people almost touch the glass dome behind the backrests. The side windows extend exceptionally low. This allows traffic to be observed to some extent, although the Plexiglas, bent almost at right angles, distorts the view somewhat. If you’re looking for more contact with the environment, you have to open the doors because the windows are fixed.

“The Challenge III drives just like the complete Porsche 911 convertible concealed under its glass-fiber body,” added Scholz. “It pulls along easily on narrow country roads with tight curves. Partly rain-soaked ground accounts for typical 911 behavior. From neutral handling, the black wedge pushes moderately over the front wheels. But beware if the driver steps on the gas pedal too boldly. With little notice, the tail of the vehicle thrusts outward. The steering helps—it’s light and pretty direct.

“Porsche’s chassis tuning remains unchanged,” Scholz concluded. “Though the Challenge looks sporty, it’s not uncomfortable. Short bumps show little harshness. After a period of getting used to it, this dream car can even be driven in narrow streets and reverse-parked if necessary.”

Fate of the Challenge

Though the most practical of the Challenge series, the III was destined not to be emulated in its original form. One more Challenge II was completed in 1991 on a 930 Turbo chassis stretched to a 96.2-inch wheelbase, the result of a concentrated two-year effort by two of Sbarro’s team. It was the seventh and last of the line. The cars were dispersed as far as Japan, America, Singapore, Spain, and France, with at least one at home in Switzerland.

When queried about the Challenge in the 21st century, Franco Sbarro was dismissive. “It was a great concept,” he avowed, “but the Challenge didn’t turn out how I had imagined it.” Having lost money on the seven he completed, he vowed not to continue their production.

Although the Franco Sbarro saga has many high points, the Challenge is one of the highest. It brought Sbarro and Switzerland worldwide publicity and established him as an expert in the creation of the adventurous, the outlandish, and the enjoyable in the way of vehicles. It convincingly met its challenge. Today, Sbarro is still in the design business, but he hasn’t displayed a concept vehicle at the Geneva show since 2018.

Also from Issue 309

  • Dieter Inzenhofer 911T
  • 993 Carrera RS
  • 992 Carrera S Cabriolet Drive
  • Paint-to-Sample 992 Carrera T
  • Market Update: 356
  • Porsche Active Ride Suspension Tech

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