Profile: Lance Reventlow

Nationality American
Date of Birth February 24th 1936
Date of Death July 24th 1972
Teams Scarab, Rob Walker Racing (1960)
Races Entered 4
Races Started 1
Best Result DNF (Belgium 1960)

Trying to join the ranks of Formula 1 without money is akin to tackling white-water rapids clutching nothing more than an errant piece of flotsam and hoping to make it through to the other side.

Even then, all the money in the world won’t carry a driver to glory if the machinery it funded is comprehensively outdated by the rest of the field. For all his wealth, Lance Reventlow’s time in F1 was bruising – to the point where he stopped driving in the championship having had enough.

Reventlow, born to Danish nobleman Count Kurt Reventlow and Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth fortune, presumably emerged from the womb with a silver spoon in his mouth. Although financially set for life the moment he was born, Reventlow spent his childhood afflicted by a number of illnesses – particularly, asthma and other respiratory troubles.

And despite his family’s wealth, Reventlow was regarded as a “poor little rich boy”, who was often collateral in his mother’s relationships; Hutton later married actor Cary Grant, Prince Igor Troubetzkoy and Dominican diplomat-cum-racing driver Porfirio Rubirosa.

But during her marriage to Troubetzkoy, who also dabbled in racing, Reventlow got his first taste of racing during the 1948 Targa Florio, which the Franco-Russian prince was competing in. Once the racing bug had truly lodged its teeth in the young American, Reventlow set about embarking on his own racing career – which he could certainly afford to finance himself.

Starting off with Formula 2 and sportscar machinery in the mid-1950s, Reventlow started out in a Mercedes 300SL, briefly switching to a Cooper Mk9 1100, before then switching back to sportscars with a Maserati 200SI. Having gone over to Europe to purchase his new Italian steed, Reventlow met Juan Manuel Fangio and asked him to tutor his racing abilities. Then, after crashing said Maserati in testing at Snetterton – so much for Fangio’s expertise – Reventlow returned to the US and decided he’d start building his own race cars. The Scarab name became Reventlow’s personal joke at the perceived machismo of naming cars.

“The Scarab name was kind of a joke that nobody got at the time,” Reventlow recalled in 1972. “Everyone was calling their cars after super-totemistic male figures – you know, the Panther, the Lion, the Cheetah, all of these things. And all a scarab is is a shit beetle. It was kind of a joke around the pits.”

Scarab, under the Reventlow Automobiles, Inc. umbrella, was set up in 1957. Reventlow then began to trawl the hot-rod scene to fill his new workshop in California, ready to task them with building something ready to tackle the US sportscar scene. Phil Remington was named chief engineer while two former Kurtis-Kraft employees, Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, were drafted in to help build the first ever Scarab. Reventlow also contacted famed SCCA racer and engineer Ken Miles to supply the first drawings, which his team would build ready for competition.

Inside, the new car had a 4.6-litre Chevrolet V8 to supply the power, built by engine gurus Jim Travers and Frank Coon – but Reventlow’s fleeting plans to also use the car to race against the Ferraris and Maseratis in European sportscar competition were nixed as the FIA reduced the maximum allotted engine displacement to three litres.

Scarab_1958_sportscar2

Though Reventlow also drove, he hired Chuck Daigh to be the primary driver (and to double up as chief mechanic) in the team. Together, they clinched the 1958 SCCA National Championship in the B/Modified class – sharing the car to win the season-ending Nassau Trophy in the Bahamas. But arguably, Daigh’s victory at Riverside that year was the cherry on the cake; battling Ferrari’s Phil Hill for dominance, Daigh did not relent until Hill’s engine expired in the final stages of the race. Buoyed, Reventlow elected to take the fight to the European manufacturers on home turf – and set about starting a Formula 1 project for 1959.

But despite the sportscar successes, Reventlow and Scarab underestimated the task. The sportscar design had been produced and built in four months for a snip, and the F1 project became far more cost-intensive. First, Reventlow tapped up Offenhauser’s Leo Goossen to pen an inline-four 2.5-litre F1 engine for the final two years of the formula before it switched to 1.5-litre powerplants. Next, Remington and his team were asked to put together a chassis to contain it.

But although Goossen’s engine leaned heavily on the Offenhauser designs used in USAC, his insistence on using desmodromic valves proved troublesome – and so, the engine development dragged on for so long that 1959 came and went. By then, Cooper had already put the engine in the back and revolutionised F1, while Scarab continued to labour with its own design for 1960. Eventually, two cars were ready for Reventlow and Daigh, who both headed to Monaco ready for their first F1 outings having skipped the Argentina season opener.

Immediately, the metallic baby-blue machine drew the intrigue of a certain Stirling Moss. He and Reventlow talked for some time, and Moss was eventually convinced to try it out before the race weekend officially began – clocking in a 1m45.0; still not enough for the grid, but a respectable lap time nonetheless having been set on rock-solid Goodyear tyres. Some years later, Moss remembered that “for a front-engined car built in America, it was pretty damn good. But to come to Europe and expect to beat the rear-engined ones, it just wasn’t on”. It proved so in the proper sessions, where Reventlow and Daigh were way off the pace; Daigh was two seconds from Moss’ unofficial times, and Reventlow was a further 1.5s off his team-mate. With just 16 spaces available on the Monaco grid, the Scarabs were nowhere near the cut-off.

Ditching the Goodyears for Dunlops, Reventlow took his team to Zandvoort a week later, where the duo’s pace was far more competitive. Daigh was just 3.5s away from polesitter Moss, driving a Lotus-Climax, while Reventlow was once more a healthy chunk off his team-mate. But a dispute over starting money – namely, that Reventlow hadn’t been paid any – meant that the team threw in the towel and elected not to race.

At last, Reventlow and Daigh took to the starting grid at Spa – and Reventlow’s F1 career lasted all of one lap as his troublesome Scarab engine popped its clogs following a single tour of the 14km circuit – a piston breaking through the engine block.

By now, Reventlow had begun to doubt his own credibility as an F1 driver. With Ferrari’s Richie Ginther not pencilled in to drive at Reims, he was drafted in to partner Daigh – but the conrod went in Ginther’s car in qualifying and, without enough spare parts, Scarab decided to pack up and go back to America.

Reventlow was set to call time on Scarab’s F1 foray, but Daigh persuaded him to bring a car to the season finale at Riverside – a circuit almost on Scarab’s own doorstep. Nursing the engine throughout the race, Daigh took it to a 10th-placed finish having kept the car at low revs on Riverside’s long straights. But after that, Reventlow called time on F1 amid his own waning interests in racing.

Slow and rejectful it may have been, there's no denying the Scarab was drop dead gorgeous.

Slow and rejectful it may have been, there’s no denying the Scarab was drop dead gorgeous.

After Scarab’s tortured time in F1, Reventlow decided to put together a rear-engined variant of the F1 car for a new USAC series. A 3.5-litre Buick engine was readied for service, with the team aiming for a 1962 debut – but the FIA’s new Intercontinental Formula rules meant that the new Scarab was good only for Formula Libre races.

Reventlow figured that the team’s final car, before he closed down the team having worked out a deal to write off its losses for five years at the start, should be another sportscar. Retaining the same Travers-and-Coon-maintained Buick, he also picked out some of the Chapman-strut suspension from the F1 car and wrapped it up in a Charley Pelly-designed shell. Having managed to somehow get permission to drive the car on the road, Reventlow tested the car out in the open before embarking on his final races.

Finishing second in a race at Santa Barbara, Reventlow took the car to Reno just to watch it die, as the gearbox crunched its way to an early retirement. His final race was at Nassau, and was running fifth before he had to retire once more – selling the car off to John Mecom, who ran the car with A.J. Foyt driving in 1963.

After ending his racing career, Reventlow began a career in real estate, also teaching skiing in a resort in Aspen. While there in 1972, he was on board a Cessna 206 scouting the mountains for fresh real-estate opportunities, when his plane stalled after the inexperienced pilot behind the controls flew into a blind canyon. The plane plunged downwards and into the canyon, crashing and killing Reventlow and the pilot.

Reventlow’s F1 career was short, and although he built up a successful racing team in the US, the fortunes of Scarab were minimal across the Atlantic. In 1972, Daigh recalled that he was “a loner because of his background – a poor little rich boy.”

“He didn’t like people to know who he was, because then they wouldn’t accept him for himself. So he used different names when we registered at motels. He never took advantage of the fact that he was the owner of the cars we drove. In fact, I remember one race when my car broke down and he gave me his to finish the race”.

Sources: Automobile Quarterly Vol. 21 No. 3, Julian Bronson, The Day (Connecticut), Ottawa Tribune