It’s incredible to think this car is more than 80 years to old.

To look at you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s one of the many concept vehicles exhibited at motoring shows over the past few years.

But look a little closer and you will see those curves and skinny white-walls belong to another era.

Built in 1938, the stunning Phantom Corsair was a car ahead of its time, arguably the most futuristic vehicle to emerge from this period.

Some readers may remember the Phantom from the film Young In Heart where the car starred as the Flying Wombat.

The story behind the birth of this reclusive piece of motoring history is just as dramatic as the car itself.

A unique, one-off design, the two-door six-seat coupe was to have gone into limited production before the untimely death of its young designer, Rust Heinz.

Heinz was born in 1914, the second son of H. J. Heinz, the food millionaire.

A university dropout, he built and raced power boats as a teenager, but like all boys he loved cars and dreamed of one day building his own.

That dream might have become reality but reading between the lines, Heinz senior wanted his son to settle down and refused to fund the project.

Undeterred, the young Heinz, who was studying naval architecture at Yale, dropped out and moved to California.

There he took up residence with an aunt in Pasadena where he opened an industrial design studio.

It was this aunt who gave him the money he needed and he enlisted the services of coach builders Bohman & Schwartz to turn his project into reality.

Obviously influenced by aircraft design, the aerodynamic body was a complete departure from contemporary styling, as it had no running boards, mudguards or door handles.

It also featured an odd 4+2 seating arrangement, with four people able to fit across the wide front seat and another two in the narrow back.

The driver sat second from left.


Constructed at a reported cost of $24,000, it was built on a modified Cord 810 chassis, the most advanced available at the time.

Like the Cord it was front-wheel drive, with a tweaked Lycoming V8 and four-speed automatic transmission.

The car’s lower frame was made of chrome molybdenum steel and the upper frame was constructed of electrically welded aviation steel tubing.

Body panels were made of hand-beaten aluminium.

The doors opened at the touch of a button with pop up Gullwing style roof sections.

The interior was padded with cork and rubber for safety, sound proofing and insulation.

The design was that of Heinz, developed with clay and wooden models.

Bohman & Schwartz helped fill in the gaps.

In a concession to engine cooling the front bonnet is louvred, but the wheels are fully enclosed by the streamlined body that features tiny windows, shock absorbing bumpers and unique headlights.

Inside the padded dash is a blaze of 13 dials, a lift from the Cord, with some extras thrown in including a door-ajar warning.

The Phantom measured just over 6 metres in length, with a wheelbase of 3175mm and weighed in at a whopping 2070kg.

It ran on 16-inch wheels and had a 14m turning circle, thanks to the enclosed wheels.

The tweaked 4.7-litre V8 is said to have produced 140kW at 4200rpm and 368Nm of torque at 3000rpm, and it had a top speed of 185km/h.

Before the car was even finished Heinz had brochures printed with a list price of $14,700 (a small fortune in those days).

He also made arrangements to display the car at the 1939 New York World Fair.

But before Heinz could see his dream come true he died from injuries received in a freak car crash on July 22, 1939.

He was just 25 years old.

After his death the car was given as a gift to mentor and family friend Lou Maxon.

It has passed through many hands over the years, including TV star Herb Shriner, who owned it from 1951-1970.

Shriner had it customised, but the Phantom has been restored to its original form and can now be found in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.


Checkout: Pontiac was a ‘glass’ act

Checkout: How a car helped elect the President

Phantom survives but Rust bit the dust


Chris Riley has been a journalist for 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments