1938 Phantom Corsair

Rustic beginnings for freakish Phantom

Riley Riley

It’s incredible to think the Heinz Phantom Corsair is a rickety 85 years old.

To look at it you’d be forgiven for thinking 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 in which it 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 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.

To put this in perspective, Rust had already designed a delivery vehicle called the Comet for the Heinz company which was intended for promotional work.

1936 Heinz Comet
1936 Heinz Comet delivery van (note the number).


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. There was room for only two in the back due in part to the provision of drink cabinets.


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 ‘pre-selector’ style manual transmission.

A precursor of the automatic, this type of transmission was popular in the 1930s as it avoided the need for a ‘crash’ style gearbox.

The driver could “pre-select” the next gear, with the transmission remaining in the current gear until they pressed the “gear change pedal”.

It meant you didn’t need to master the coordination of clutch and shift lever to achieve a smooth shift in non-synchromesh transmissions.

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 gull-wing doors opened at the touch of a button and 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 huge 14 metre turning circle, thanks to the enclosed wheels.

The tweaked 4.7-litre V8 produced 140kW at 4200 rpm and 368Nm of torque at 3000 rpm, with 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 had also made arrangements to display the car at the 1939 New York World Fair.

But before Heinz could see his dream come true, he was killed in a freak car accident on July 24, 1939.

He was just 25 years old.

Heinz died after he let friend Phil Brainard drive his open-topped Buick home from a dance.

Brainard’s hat flew off and after returning to retrieve the trilby, the car was T-boned as it pulled back on to the road.

Six people were injured and Heinz died the following morning from the head injuries he received.

After his death the Phantom 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 car has been restored to its original form and can now be found in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

Interestingly, the Phantom is one of 15 rare driveable vehicles featured in the 2011 video game L.A. Noire.

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