EXPRESS by zhouwenjuan



                      V si n
                     William Flajole always wanted to build his own car –
                     and in 1955 he succeeded with the extrovert Flajole
                            Forerunner. Octane took it for a drive
                                    Words and photography: Mark Dixon

     NOVEMBER 2010
‘He was a great practical joker,’ recalls Diana Flajole
about her late father. ‘When I was small he encouraged my older
brother and a neighbour’s kid to build a big Martian spacecraft out
of papier-mâché, complete with flashing lights and aliens climbing
down the sides, then conceal it in the woods behind our house. This
was in the early ’50s, when space travel was a hot subject.
   ‘So, it got to be evening and he suggested that us younger kids
should go and see if we could find any fish in the stream that ran
through the woods. Of course, we came across the “spaceship” and
were terrified. My little sister was so scared, she fell in the stream
and had to be pulled out…’
   Hearing Diana reminisce about her dad, the car designer William
Flajole – pronounced Flay-jole – you have the impression that Bill
Flajole was a fun sort of person to be around. A good-looking man
who always had an eye for the ladies, with his trademark moustache
he looked a little like Clark Gable; and in later years that’s how he
would sometimes sign photos of himself, if the recipient was
a female admirer. This extrovert quality was entirely in keeping with
his personal legacy, the car he designed and built: the
Flajole Forerunner.

                                                                         november 2010   87
flajole forerunner

                                   The Forerunner was Bill’s own vision of how car design might
                                evolve. It had glassfibre bodywork with a tinted Plexiglas roof that     ‘From seeing it in pictures,
                                slid back into the teardrop rear end, highback seats and slim tubular    you imagine the Forerunner to be
                                bumpers. Originally it was painted a rich dark green colour, with
                                ivory coves and wheels. The dark green colour was appropriate,
                                                                                                         massive, and you also expect it
                                because the Forerunner was intended to represent the sports car          will be horrendous to drive.
                                of the future – and it was based on a sports car of the moment, the      Neither presumption is true’
                                Jaguar XK120.
                                   Yes, beneath that substantial glassfibre bodywork lies Jaguar
                                running gear. The Forerunner was built upon a nearly new XK120M             ‘By 1954 the body still wasn’t quite ready, so Dad decided we
                                (‘M’ being the US equivalent of our hotter ‘SE’ spec), which Bill        should take his new XK120 racing, to prove its performance. The
                                Flajole bought in late 1953. His son, also called Bill, was a teenager   SCCA was holding a meeting at Chanute Air Force Base, so he
                                at the time and recalls the day vividly:                                 hurriedly put together a “team” consisting of me and a few of his
                                   ‘I went out with Dad to the Falvey Motor Co on Woodward Avenue,       employees and hired a professional driver called Duncan Macrae.
                                Detroit, to pick it up,’ says Bill Jr, down the line from his home in    Despite being up against exotics like a couple of Ferrari 212s, a 250
                                California. ‘On the way back, Dad took on a Cadillac-Allard and          and a Porsche Spyder, the XK did pretty well and finished first in
                                whupped it! In fact, we indulged in a few impromptu street-races         class and second overall behind one of the 212s. The drive back to
                                just to make sure the car performed as it should.’                       Detroit was a merry one – until everyone realised they had to go
                                   The Jaguar was Bill Sr’s second XK120, and it was his ownership       back to work next day.’
                                of the first, a 1951 model, that inspired him to build the Forerunner:      As the black-and-white photos show, the Forerunner was built in
                                ‘Dad had been commissioned to design a car for the baseball player       the William Flajole Associates’ studio on Wyoming Avenue. Bill Jr
                                Ted Williams,’ explains Bill Jr. ‘But he was constrained by his          remembers that the full-size clay styling model was covered with
                     Below      sponsor’s wishes and decided he wanted to make a car free of those       Plaster-of-Paris, into which steel tubes were inserted as handles,
   Rear three-quarters view     limitations. So in 1953 he started sketching out the Forerunner in       which was then removed when set and sectioned for use as female
   may be the Forerunner’s      his spare time, using that 1951 Jaguar as a basis. I distinctly          moulds. A 1955 issue of Plastics Technology reported: ‘The body
   least successful aspect –
     but you have to admire
                                remember its body propped up against the wall in Dad’s studio,           embodies intricate compound curves and perforated planes
       William Flajole’s bold   while its chassis was being used as a frame for a wood and clay          [probably the bonnet louvres] not previously attempted on a
              use of curves.    mock-up of the Forerunner body.                                          fibreglass-reinforced plastic body.’

     NOVEMBER 2010
   By far the most unusual feature of the Forerunner was its sliding
roof. Made from quarter-inch thick Plexiglas, it could easily be
pushed back into the rear body from the driver’s seat. Press reports
talk of the roof being electrically operated but it seems this idea had
to be dropped: ‘Dad was working to a deadline for Motor Trend, who
wanted to put the Forerunner on their cover, so he didn’t get time to
motorise it,’ explains Bill Jr. Having a clear roof meant the rear-view
mirror could be mounted externally, which neatly got around the
problem of otherwise zero rear visibility through the solid tail.
   While the dashboard and its instruments remained recognisably
Jaguar, the seats were genuinely innovative, having high backs
with integral head restraints to minimise whiplash in the event
of an accident. Bill Jr thinks they may have been sourced from an
old aircraft and retrimmed; he remembers the headrests as
being white but the lower panels being covered with a yellow-
green vinyl – ‘an awful kind of Chartreuse colour, possibly all that
was available’.
   Externally the Forerunner was just as novel. William Flajole
was not the first car designer to use scalloped wings but he was
certainly ahead of Chevrolet’s 1956 Corvette, and his
Forerunner’s thin tubular bumpers were a deliberate riposte to
mainstream Detroit’s massive chromed girders. The flattened oval
front grille, with its inset headlights, bore a passing resemblance to
the ‘bathtub’ Nash Airflyte models – hardly surprising, since Flajole
was a consultant for Nash-Kelvinator.
   From seeing it in pictures you imagine the Forerunner to be
massive, thanks to its long snout and hefty rear carapace. Knowing
that the body is made of glassfibre, not usually the lightest of
materials, you also expect it will be horrendous to drive. Neither
presumption is true.
   In fact, it drives just like an XK120. Better, perhaps. The body is
probably heavier than the one that left Browns Lane but, since it’s
on an XK120M-spec chassis and drivetrain, it’s riding on stiffer front
torsion bars and rear springs; and with the spare wheel mounted
right at the rear, and the Jaguar straight six mounted well back in
the chassis, the weight distribution is quite good too. The net result
is that, while you’re half-expecting the Forerunner to handle like a
boat, it actually feels pretty sharp, without the anticipated terminal
understeer. The XK engine is a huge asset, too: its 180bhp gives
the Forerunner punchy acceleration and a suitably exotic crisp
snarl as a soundtrack.
   OK, the Moss gearbox is sticky – hardly a revelation – and the
brakes on this little-used car were suffering from a severe pull to
one side, but potentially it’s a quick machine. You could have
enormous fun entering it for prestigious events like, say, the            the neighbourhood on the back roads. In fact it was hard to insure,        Top, and clockwise
California Mille, and giving the Alfas and Ferraris a serious fright      being a one-off design, so even my Dad didn’t go far in it.’               from middle left
                                                                                                                                                     William Flajole with the
in-between spells of camping it up like Hollywood moguls. Having a            Diana Flajole was eight years old at the time, and remembers
                                                                                                                                                     just-finished Forerunner
fat cigar clamped between your chops is almost obligatory when            Sunday-morning trips out to the drugstore to pick up the                   in the alley behind his
you drive the Forerunner.                                                 newspapers. ‘It drew so much attention that a 15-minute drive could        Detroit studio; stages in its
   Air conditioning would be a useful addition, mind you. The             stretch into a couple of hours as Dad talked about it with interested      build, from clay mock-up
                                                                                                                                                     on long-suffering 1951 XK;
Plexiglas roof may have a Rohm and Haas 30% tint to block out             passers-by. He loved showing it off, but of course, being a child,
                                                                                                                                                     Forerunner snapped from
ultraviolet rays – thank you, Plastics Technology – but it doesn’t        I was just bored…’                                                         the roof of the Flajole
prevent the Forerunner’s cabin from turning into a mobile sauna               Bill Jr reckons it was the insurance problem that eventually led to    house by Bill junior.
when the roof is closed. The high-back seats are remarkably               the Forerunner being laid up on blocks in the family garage, where
comfortable, however, which only goes to show that aircraft seat          it remained, steadily gathering a thick layer of dust, until being sold
design hasn’t improved much over the last 55 years.                       off in 1973. Diana thinks it fetched just $2500. It passed through the
   Flajole’s son and daughter both have strong recollections of           hands of Jeff and Sara Tamayo, who are credited with restoring the
riding in the Flajole when it was new. Bill Jr even got behind the        car to its present condition before donating it to the Blackhawk
wheel: ‘My Dad let me drive it, not altogether legally but just around    Museum, from which it was acquired by Sidney Craig in 1998.

                                                 FROM HOLLYWOOD MODELS                    opening his own design consultancy        ’61 and sold under the Nash, Hudson,
                                                 TO THE HOUSEWIFE’S CHOICE                in 1939. Post-war he expanded the         Austin and Metropolitan names.
                                                 William J Flajole sketched his first      business into all aspects of industrial      William Flajole Associates had
                                                 designs as a schoolboy – his local       design, working on everything from        some influential clients – one project
                                                 newspaper in Bay City, Michigan, ran     kitchens to boats. But cars were his      was a custom-bodied Cadillac for the
                                                 a story on how the precocious            first love, and a chance meeting with      Shah of Iran. But, in the late 1950s,
                                                 teenager had styled clothes for          one of Nash-Kelvinator’s executives       the automotive design work dried up
                                                 Hollywood starlets of the time. But it   led to his most celebrated design, the    and Flajole focused on designing
                                                 was his sketches of cars, entered for    Nash Metropolitan.                        mobile homes instead. He retired in
                                                 a competition sponsored by Chrysler,        The Metropolitan stemmed from          1978 and moved to Indiana, where in
                                                 that won the 15-year-old Flajole a job   Flajole’s conviction that the expanding   the 1990s he was ‘discovered’ by the
                                                 with the Detroit car-maker.              American suburbs needed a compact         Metropolitan Owners’ Club of North
                                                    Flajole started at Chrysler in 1933   ‘shopping car’, one that was easy for     America. He then became a regular
                                                 and over the next few years worked at    housewives to drive. Built by Austin in   guest at club events until his death
                                                 GM, Murray Body and Ford, before         Longbridge, it was made from 1953 to      on 5 May 1999, at the age of 84.

                                                                                                                                                            NOVEMBER 2010       89
flajole forerunner

     Last year it was bought by classic car dealer Mark Hyman, who
     currently has it in his St Louis, Missouri, showroom.
        As related in the panel on the previous page, Bill Flajole turned
     his hand to mobile home and camper van projects when the car
     design work dried up in the 1960s. He was not in the least
     mechanically minded, says his daughter – ‘It became a family
     joke that Dad’s car was the one most likely to break down’ – and
     in later years he did not even own a car, but Diana says his passion
     for automotive design never left him. ‘Whenever we visited him
     and rented a car, he’d run his hands over the dashboard and
     check out the gadgets – he’d examine it like a designer.’
        It seems Bill had no doubt which was his own most successful
     design. In an interview about the Forerunner for Collectible
     Automobile, he said simply: ‘It was my best job. It really was a
     beautiful car.’ Looking at the picture below, you have to admit he
     had a point.                                                                STOP

     Thanks to Diana Flajole Hawkinson; Willliam Flajole, Jr; and Mark Hyman
     of Hyman Ltd Classic Cars (
                                                           Purple-and-white colour
                                                             scheme is not original,
                                                            but Forerunner almost
                                                           carries it off. Dashboard
                                                               and engine are from
                                                                   XK120 donor car.

                                                                                 1955 Flajole Forerunner
                        e n g i n e ‘M’ spec 3442cc Jaguar straight six, DOHC, t win SU 1.75in carburet tors P o w e r 180bhp @ 5300rpm T o r q u e 203lb f t @ 4000rpm
                         T r a n s m i s s i o n Four-speed manual, rear- wheel drive s u s P e n s i o n Front: independent by torsion bars, anti - roll bar, telescopic dampers.
                                                  Rear: live axle, semi - elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers B r a k e s d rums all round w e i g h T n/a
                                                              P e r f o r m a n c e Not tested: XK120M top speed c120mph, 0 - 60mph c8.5sec

     NOVEMBER 2010

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