Ron Cherry: Nevada County man restores vintage racer (Video) | TheUnion.com

Ron Cherry: Nevada County man restores vintage racer (Video)

Ron Cherry
Special to The Union

If you are interested in vintage sports car racing, a '52 Aardvark would be a great car to consider.

With its very light weight (less than 1,000 pounds), peppy 745 cc engine producing 42 HP and great handling, it is fun to drive and performs well on the track. However, don't go checking out the classifieds in the latest Hemmings Motor News for an Aardvark. There was only one made and Don Racine, the owner, is having far too much fun racing it to sell it.

Coors beer heir Johnny Porter and sportsman Dean Banks built the Aardvark in 1952 as an entry-level racing sports car, possibly just to get into the pits at sports car races.

He used the running gear, frame and suspension from a Panhard Junior roadster (the body of which has been compared to an overturned bathtub) and built a custom aluminum body with a fiberglass nose that was formed around a paper-mache mold.

He did beef up the frame, while also lightening it. The suspension had upper and lower leaf springs in front and torsion bars in the rear with lever shocks, which he lowered for better handling.

With its Panhard opposing two-cylinder, air-cooled engine and front-wheel drive and 4-speed transmission mounted in front of the front wheels, it made for an unusual car.

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While French-built Panhards are not well-known to many Americans, they were first built in the later 19th century and cars with their running gear were well-known at LeMans, winning the Index of Performance several years.

The Index of Performance is based on a number of factors, including weight, average speed and fuel efficiency. It is like a French version of a golf handicap, allowing smaller cars to win a prize in the race.

Johnny decided to move up to a Porsche RSK and sold his Aardvark in 1959 with the claim that, "A little Aardvark never hurt anyone."

When Don Racine wanted to get into vintage sports car racing in the 1970s, his first choice would have been a Mini Cooper. After all, as the owner of Mini Mania, the largest supplier of aftermarket, original and rebuilt Mini parts in the U.S., he had a special affinity for these little fireballs.

But the Sports Car Club of America did not consider them old enough, so he chose a Deutsch Bonnet, a Panhard-based race car. Both the Panhards and the Minis are front-wheel drives with small, dependable engines.

When he saw the ad for the Aardvark, he wanted it. It had been sitting for years and needed some TLC.

Although the body was in decent condition (which was fortunate, since it was a one-off), the engine was in sad condition. He pulled the body off the frame and rebuilt everything.

He redid the engine, transmission and all the suspension. Parts were difficult to find since Panhards of that era were not that common, even in France. With great perseverance, he had it together for the 1985 racing season and put it on the track. He has been running it there ever since.

"It's always fun to race," he said. "It's easy to drive, anyplace I can."

For a fun video, click on this story at http://www.TheUnion.com and watch from the cockpit as Don runs a race at Monterey in 2012. He said that it was one of his favorite races. Even though he has finished first many times in races, in this one he started from last place and ended up fifth.

You feel like you're there as he maneuvers around his competitors, including a couple of Porsches, a pair of Mercedes Benzes and a Jag. The Aardvark responds well to "trailing throttle oversteer."

The idea is that as you back off the throttle on a curve, the rear end rotates out as the rear tires lose their grip. With front-wheel drive, if the driver times it right when he punches the accelerator, the Aardvark is coming out of the curve in the right direction and at good speed.

Obviously, Don knows how to do this, since his small-engined Aardvark has had many firsts in the races. And he plans to enter many more. As Johnny said and Don now says, "A little Aardvark never hurt anyone."

Ron Cherry's latest book, "It's Bad Business," the second in the Morg Mahoney detective series, is available for Kindle at Amazon. For more about his writing, go to http://www.rlcherry.com.

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