The Intermeccanica Story

You could say that there were no two more diverse individuals than Frank Reisner and Alejandro DeTomaso. And yet there were certain parallels in their lives that led to them both producing American-engined cars in Italy. Pantera%20sm.jpgDe Tomaso was born of the landed gentry, on an estate in Argentina that was owned by his grandmother. His father was politically influential and was elected Prime minister. He died very young at only 38. As a young lad, Alejandro was bounced on the knee of the Presidente, Juan Peron. But then as a college student, DeTomaso fell afoul of El Presidente, and had to flee to Uruguay with the Peronista goons close on his heels. He married a wealthy American heiress, Isabelle Haskell, and spent the next few decades in Italy building semi-exotic cars. We say "semi" because though they had exotic styling and Italian coachwork, they had off-the-shelf, low-cost engines like Ford V8s.

Then there was Frank Reisner. Born in Hungary in 1932, he fled with his parents to Canada just before WWII.82%20Italia%20Coupe%201971%20sm.jpg He became an engineer and worked in the paint industry. In 1957, he married his wife Paula, and since she was equally crazy about cars they started a car company. This is markedly similar to DeTomaso, who met his wife while she was buying parts at the Maserati parts counter. And where, thought the Reisners, would be a better place to begin a car company than Italy, specifically Turin. Reisner had some experience in the automobile field already, having designed racing chassis for Giannini Automobili SpA in Rome before settling in Turin. Reisner did not start out building cars, but manufacturing parts. This, in contrast to DeTomaso who started right out with cars, though some would argue that he built OSCAs with OSCA's money and called them De Tomasos. This may actually have led to his expeditious departure from the OSCA firm. The first Intermeccanica products were, innocently enough, speed equipment kits and free-flowing exhaustFormula%20Jr%20sm.jpg systems for various automobiles. In 1960, things got more interesting when they began to market a Formula Junior racing car, one of the first mid-engined types, with a highly-modified Peugeot motor. These cars were in competition with the DeTomasos in Modena, as well as MBM, a company started by Peter Monteverdi, yet another man who would later introduce an American engined GT car.

 

 

 

 

That same year, the Reisners developed a prototype of an aluminum two-seater coupe called the IMP (short for IMP%20sm.jpgIntermeccanica-Puch), with a top speed of 160 km/h. It was based on the small rear-engined Steyr-Daimler-Puch 500cc car. The IMP was approved by the Austrian company and 21 were produced in various forms. A racing version of the IMP won the 500cc class at the Nurburgring. Then came the American connection. An American enthusiast from Oakland, named Milt Brown, came up with a sports car design based on the aluminum block V8 made by Buick, the same engine that Carroll Shelby had been trying to get for his sports car. Milt Brown's car was called the Apollo GT, and was developed under the aegis of Brown's firm, International Motor Cars. The body was designed by the Italian Franco Scaglione from sketches made by Ron Plescia. The San Francisco area firm produced 90 coupes and 11 convertibles between 1961 and 1965. They were well built cars, and considered to14%20Apoloo%20Coupe%20sm.jpg be deluxe, since they featured leather upholstery and came equipped with, among other things, Borrani wire wheels. There was even a 2-plus-2 version, but then the factory had a fire and production ceased. Milt Brown might have been a little ahead of the curve, coming out with an American-powered Italian sports car before the Americans really appreciated Italian design. And, like DeTomaso, Frank Reisner was continually innovating. In 1965, he introduced the Veltro prototype, which was based on the British Ford 106E. He also built a one-off Mustang Station Wagon veltro%20sm.jpgfor a U.S. advertising executive. Another U.S. project that year was a joint-venture with Jack Griffith of Long Island, New York, which was planned as a big (at least by Intermeccanica standards) production of an all-steel automobile called the Omega. Unfortunately, just as production began, Griffith's company folded and one of its customers, Steve Wilder, who was a journalist from the East Coast, took over and production was continued by Holman & Moody in North Carolina, where 33 of these Omegas were sold.omega%20sm.jpg Why would Holman & Moody, a firm famous for building stock car racers, take on such a project? One can only assume they were jealous of Shelby's deal with Ford and wanted to show that they, too, could produce cars in quantity. Although the deal with Griffith failed, an Intermeccanica distributor was identified in the U.S. and the production of the Torino01%20sm.jpgFord-V8-engined Italia, based on Ford mechanicals, was started. This car was initially called the Torino, until Ford pointed out that they already owned the name. Over 500 Italias were built by 1970, which makes them more numerous than the DeTomaso Mangusta.De%20Tomaso%20Mangusta%20sm.jpg Then came a short lived association with race car driver John Fitch. Fitch was an American war hero who was shot down over Germany in a P-51, and survived internment in a German prison camp. For him they built a Corvair powered one-off car called Fitch%20Phoenix%20sm.jpgthe Fitch Phoenix. The Phoenix came to no good end, however, because GM had soured on the Corvair and was never that co-operative with others wanting to use their engines.

 

 

The following year, Reisner again visited the high performance wagon realm with a sexy macho wagon calledMurena%20GT%20sm.jpg the Murena GT. Only eleven were made of this car, which was a luxury automobile powered by a 429 cu. in. Ford drive train. It can be argued that Intermeccanica's decline began to be played out just as DeTomaso, ever the adroit politician, assumed a much more influential position on the world sports car stage. Bitter%20CD%20sm.jpgIn 1969, at the New York Automobile show, there were no less than three Intermeccanica-developed cars displayed at various stands. This provided ample demonstration of how far the firm had come since its humble beginnings. Sales of the previously mentioned Italia finally began in Europe in 1970, and really took off in Germany, where Erich Bitter was doing the distribution. In addition, a modified Italia prototype, called Italia IMX, was constructed and displayed at the Turin Auto show. The succeeding year a one-off Corvette-based 2-door sedan called the Centaur was made for a U.S. customer and a cooperative effort was begun with Opel (GM Europe), which subsequently gave birth to the Indra. The Chevrolet-351-engined Indra employed Opel mechanicals and generated a phenomenal amount of interest at the Geneva Auto55%20Indra%20Coupe%20sm.jpg show.

 

Production got under way in 1971, and by 1974, 125 of them were produced in various forms. It appeared that things were going very well when suddenly GM pulled the plug on the mechanicals and the engines, which of course meant the end of Indra sales. To add to the confusion, Erich Bitter had produced the Bitter CD. It was based on the Opel Diplomat and looked remarkably like the Indra. The design of the Opel CD show car was attributed to Charles 'Chuck' Jordan. Presumably, Bitter and Jordan were instrumental in blocking Reisner from continued access to the GM drive trains. Bitter later introduced his own car line in the US, which was a dismal failure.

Squire%20sm.jpg Always a survivor, Reisner then moved into the replica field after seeing how successful Excalibur was with their copy of a 1930's era Mercedes Benz SSK. And circa 1972, Intermeccanica was making the Squire SS-100, a Jaguar SS replica, for a U.S. company called Squire.

By 1975, it was becoming too expensive for a company such as Intermeccanica to operate in Italy. Somehow Frank Reisner found out that the city of San Bernardino, outside of Los Angeles, was funding new industry in the area. So Reisner and his family made plans to move there from Italy to construct the Indras. Two Indra prototypes had been developed, this time sporting Ford engines, and they were shipped there along with all the firm's belongings, including complete cars, jigs, dies, and other things required for production. Unfortunately the promised funding was diverted and except for a sole Indra, everything else was impounded at the U.S. port of entry. Between the moving costs and paying off all debts in Italy Frank was left with only $500 and one car. And shortly thereafter, the remaining Indra had to be sold off to raise some money.

But as we have already said, Frank Reisner was a survivor. Still riding the 'replicar' wave, he developed a replica of the Porsche Speedster. The fact that so many genuine Speedsters, very costly at the time, could be seen on the streets of California greatly influenced his decision to go retro. The tooling and prototype were created in Los Angeles, after a long period of time carefully measuring the curves and dimension of a rentedspeedster02%20sm.jpg Speedster. It is significant to note that ever since he first saw it at an auto show in 1949, Frank had always admired the beautiful Porsche 356 body and the wonderful sounds a Porsche four-cylinder engine makes.

In order to produce the Speedsters, Reisner formed a partnership with Tony Baumgartner in Santa Ana, California. This company, called Automobili Intermeccanica, produced about 600 of these fiberglass-bodied and VW-based beauties before Frank sold off his share to Tony and the whole project was sold to Classic Motor Carriages in Florida. At that point everything was back to good times again.

Then Reisner made a misstep. He thought neoclassics were still strong, and around 1979 he tooled up for the construction of a massive neoclassic sedan with a 129-inch wheelbase (built on the Checker taxi cab chassis. But then the California economy took one of its most famous swan dives and the market for such a vehicle collapsed. A more successful project in 1980 was the design for a soft-top conversion kit for the Ford Mustang, which Reisner sold through Ford dealers, Ford having inexplicably ended production of Mustang convertibles some years earlier.

roadster%20RS%20sm.jpgReisner began thinking about Canada, his adopted country, and moved there in 1982. it was there that he revisited a Porsche body style with the Roadster RS, a replica of the 1959 Porsche Convertible 'D' (D for Drautz), based again on a VW Beetle pan. Later, the RS was further refined with the addition of fender flares, a modified front, a hardtop, a new steel tubular chassis and the use of the mechanicals of the 6-cylinder Porsche 911. Another venture was a military replica, the Kubelwagen Typ 82. Kubelwagen%20sm.jpgThe Kubelwagen (meaning "bucket wagon") was a copy of the WWII German troop carrier that filled the same purpose as the Jeep in the American Army.

Frank Reisner died in 2000, leaving behind a long and rich legacy of experimentation, creative automotive design and a variety of memorable automobiles. Henry Reisner, Frank's eldest son, learned the trade from his father and has been successful in keeping the firm going.

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