In the 1950s, an American racer took on the might of European sports cars with a homegrown design. Now Octane drives the Devin C
Words: Glen Waddington. Photography: Evan Klein.
Name a car with a rear-mounted flat-six and lots of racing success. Now try again. The Devin C? No?
The ‘world’s most advanced sports car’ boasted the brochure. That’s quite a claim, but you can certainly draw comparison with other sports cars of the era. Porsche? Well, the similarities end with the configuration and rearward placement of the Devin C’s Chevrolet Corvair motor. But a certain Colin Chapman made his name largely around cladding his own chassis with glassfibre bodywork and powering it with off-the-shelf engine and transmission, and he did pretty well for a while. That’s the story here, too.
Devin’s light shone brightly if briefly in the 1950s and 1960s, during which time around 125 cars were built, many having left Devin’s California works in kit form. So they’re rare-groove. And perhaps the definitive type is the Devin C, built from 1959 until the company’s demise in 1965. At last summer’s Quail, A Motorsports Gathering during Monterey Car Week, eight of the 25 Devin Cs constructed were gathered. It’s where I’d met Brian Miller, co-chair of the Devin Registry. And it’s his fantastic car – the third of three Devin C prototypes built – that you see in these pictures.
Appropriately, the scene for this photo shoot is the Del Monte Forest, a few minutes along the 17 Mile Drive from the location of the Pebble Beach Concours – and it was here, on a tight two-mile route by the Pacific dunes and between the Cypress trees, that early Devins would have competed against many a European sports car in the Pebble Beach Road Races, events without which there’d be no Laguna Seca Raceway today.
With whalespotters lining the headland and the ocean crashing away in the background, there’s time to look over the car. It’s a pretty little thing, inevitably bringing to mind the Shelby Cobra. Indeed, misguided sources claim it inspired Shelby’s work – the AC Ace pre-dates even the very earliest Devin by a year. Perhaps those sources mean the idea of a small US-made sports car built in the European idiom, which is far more credible.
Bill Devin’s earliest work was certainly innovative. ‘He was an engineer by trade, who liked to race,’ says Miller. ‘He had friends in the carmaking industry and thought he could do better.’ In 1951 Devin developed a lightweight glassfibre body for a Crosley Hotshot and raced it, to promote his Crosley sales operation. He won 21 of his first 22 races!
In 1953 Devin finished third at Palm Springs in the ex-Phil Hill Ferrari 212 he’d bought from Luigi Chinetti, and he’d planned to take part in the Le Mans 24 Hours, but discovered on his arrival in Maranello that his new car was still being built. He owned and raced several Ferraris, including a 250 MM, and like many racers of the day sold his car at the end of each season. Part of one deal included a Deutsch-Bonnet Le Mans in part exchange. That deal proved pivotal.
In 1954 Devin bought the stock of a Panhard dealer in California. He then developed a ladder-frame chassis to accept the Panhard engine and transmission and produced custom glassfibre bodies based on moulds he took from the Deutsch-Bonnet. Meanwhile, he turned his attention to his Panhard crankcases, developing a custom manifold for Weber carburettors and, more ingeniously, adapting Manx-Norton overhead-cam cylinder heads and barrels, with toothed belts to drive the camshafts. Around a dozen Devin-Panhards were built that year, establishing Devin Enterprises as a carmaker.
His next step was initiated by Belfast-based textile engineers Noel Hillis and Malcolm MacGregor in 1957. They were racing enthusiasts, who had developed their own chassis. Could Devin Enterprises clad it with a glassfibre body? In the event, a deal was struck whereby Devin, instead of merely selling Hillis and MacGregor a body, took their chassis design for his own car and designed a new body for it. The Devin Super-Sport – or SS – arrived in 1958, with a Chevrolet smallblock V8, and 28 examples were constructed over a two-year period, the first 18 on a Belfast-built chassis, the latter ten on a new one of Bill Devin’s design and manufacture.
Next came the Devin D, forerunner to Brian Miller’s car. The most numerous of the Devins, it was built from 1958 to 1965 on a ladder chassis, powered by VW or Porsche flat-four engines, and ran on Beetle front suspension, with trailing arms and coil-overs at the back. Styling took its lead from the SS, with perhaps a hint of Porsche 550 Spyder. And the D led to the C.
‘C stands for Corvair,’ says Miller. ‘It has the Chevy Corvair engine and transaxle out back, plus Corvair rear suspension and brakes. Front suspension is either Porsche or VW; this one – chassis DC1-3 – is VW and it has the steering box from a 356. It’s the third of three prototypes, which started life as Devin D models configured for Porsche drivetrains and were re-engineered to accommodate Chevrolet’s air-cooled flat-six. The Corvair rear suspension and brakes were also modified. Several areas of the chassis are unique to the three prototypes as Bill Devin made some changes between them and the series-production Devin C. This one had a custom-made windscreen, though it now has a polycarbonate racing screen.’
In a move that echoed Colin Chapman’s in the 1970s, Bill Devin used the C as a basis for a more luxurious coupé – the Devin GT – for display at the 1964 New York Auto Show. In fact, two should have appeared on the stand, but it was a step too far for the tiny carmaker. Only one was finished in time. It was well-received and Imported Cars of Greenwich, Connecticut, ordered 60 of them. Except Devin didn’t have the funds in place. The financier who’d helped to produce the single show car disappeared with it, and the remaining Devin GT Coupé was finished after Devin’s death and displayed at The Quail in 2009.
As Miller says: ‘Unlike Carrol Shelby, Bill Devin didn’t have the sales personality or a factory hook-up.’ A factory-built Devin C cost more than a Chevrolet Corvette. Devin himself died in 2000, aged 85, though along with Daytona stock-car engine builder Tom Schrum, he had raced, bought, restored and sold back several Devins during the 1980s. ‘They were even less well-remembered back then,’ smiles Miller.
The earliest 2.4-litre Devin Cs produced 80bhp, though Chevrolet gradually upgraded its flat-six, raising power to 90bhp and on to 102bhp. Then came the 2.7-litre engine, in standard form producing 110bhp. One Devin C was fitted with the turbocharged Corvair Corsa engine.
Shortly after Bill Devin had introduced the C to the press, the Granatelli Brothers borrowed his sole demonstrator, fitted a Paxton centrifugal supercharger and headed for the Bonneville Speed Trials. Bad weather meant they failed to set a record but an unofficial top speed of over 165mph is good going. That car then set record-breaking runs at several Southern California drag strips until it was turned away by track owners – no-one wanted to go up against the Devin!
Even with the Paxton blower removed, racing driver Pete Woods qualified alongside Jim Hall, Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss, Roger Penske, Bruce McLaren and other big-name champs for the 1961 LA Times-Mirror Grand Prix at Riverside. As for that turbocharged example, Woods collected the Devin C from its stand at the 1962 New York Auto Show and drove it to Colorado, where the new engine was installed. He then competed in it on the Pikes Peak Hill Climb – 5000ft up a 12-mile course of twisting dirt and gravel – and finished in 16min 12sec, beating several Porsches. Then he drove it home to LA.
Perhaps not surprisingly, DC1-3 has its own race history. Having first been built as a Devin D in 1959/60 before spending time as a prototype, development mule and demonstrator, it was delivered ‘new’ during 1962 to Leo Martin Motors in Weatherford, Texas, then campaigned on road and track by several owners, including the motoring photojournalist Harold W Pace. ‘It won more than 50 trophies during its motor sport career,’ says Miller, proudly.
It subsequently became one of the cars that was recommissioned by Tom Schrum and Bill Devin and, from the early 1990s, continued its winning streak in slalom and autocross events with Schrum behind the wheel. ‘Schrum bought the car from Pace in 1991 and I know it had a blown motor at the time,’ says Miller. ‘Pace had raced the car in Texas, as well as the owner George Barry before him. They were members of the Green Valley Racing Association in Texas.’
Bill Devin drove parade laps in DC1-3 at Phoenix International Raceway during the 1999 Vintage Auto Racing Association salute to Devin cars, and it was last shown by Schrum and Bill Devin at that year’s Devin C reunion in Lake Tahoe. Schrum continued to race DC1-3 until 2007, when illness forced him to sell. It then sat in a collection in Maui, Hawaii, until 2015, when Brian Miller bought it and started bringing it back to life.
‘When Tom had the car on the dyno in the ’90s it produced over 200bhp,’ says Miller. ‘I had the car on the dyno last year and it came back 175. Not bad for an engine that was last apart over two decades ago. With thorough valve adjustment and rolling-road carb tuning, I’m sure we could get it close to 200bhp again.’
Of course, that engine is not the early 2.4-litre but a later 2.7, prepared with extreme care and precision by Tom Schrum. ‘Sadly I never met Tom,’ Miller continues. ‘He passed away before I knew about him. That said, everyone in the Devin C and Corvair community speaks about him with the utmost respect. At least three of the eight Devin Cs on display at The Quail had their engines built by him, and another car had a Schrum engine that had been completed by its owner. When people in Corvair circles speak of him it is with a reverence you seldom witness around car people. It’s almost as if he was a wizard with these engines and even the old guys don’t know how he did it. I’ve owned several Porsches and it’s not uncommon to experience a flat-six that will rev to seven-thou’ and beyond... but a 1960s pushrod design of 2.7 litres doing the same is quite impressive. I appreciate his dedication and skill each time I take the Devin out for a spirited drive.’
And now it’s Octane’s turn to do the same. Swing open the tiny door – very AC Ace – and drop into the slim racing bucket. Ahead of you, the painted dash sweeps up in an arc over a set of bespoke Stewart-Warner gauges. Switchgear is recognisably VW/Porsche, though the gearlever and its white knob look as if they’ve been pilfered from a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL.
Out back, that flat-six erupts with a busy thrum, sounding so much sexier than a German flat-four (even the Porsche’s), if less boisterous than a (later) 911’s. Throttle response is crisp, it barks as you gun it, and the gearlever clacks into first with an unsprung yet accurate ease that reminds you of a VW shift, even though this one’s from the Corvair.
The character of the old racing roads that snake around the coastline here has changed; there are many more houses these days, and a fair bit of sightseeing traffic, though the Devin at least has chance to demonstrate its easygoing nature, despite the relatively high state of tune of its 2.7-litre flat-six. The ride is comfortable too, sprung softly enough to cushion the bumps, though not so soft that it will wallow. In this respect it feels much closer to a Lotus than an Ace and, while the nose feels light, the C doesn’t bob about with quite the insistence of a 356.
We turn away from the sea into the forest, the road is narrow yet straight, and suddenly the scene feels how you’d imagine it did back in its racing heyday. It quickly becomes apparent that even 175bhp is plenty of power in a little roadster that weighs little more than 600kg. Going up through the gears, discovering a shift that’s as accurate under pressure as it was when manoeuvring, you find acceleration that’s rapid enough to induce a broad grin, and the low-cut screen makes it feel even quicker than it is.
The course gets twisty, revealing a drum-brake set-up that’s more than up to the task, and linear steering that acts with great transparency, so you always know what’s going on. And it just darts from corner to corner, the rear-mounted engine making for fabulous alacrity yet never threatening to take over entirely. While late- braking into a sharper-than-expected bend raises the hairs on your neck exactly as you’d expect, in fact the car reacts benignly, simply shedding the speed, transferring the weight onto the nose without swinging you backwards into the trees. Of which there are lots.
Windblown, laughing and slightly hysterical, I pull up the car at Pebble Beach Lodge and hand the keys back to Brian Miller. The loader is waiting to take the Devin back to his home in Arizona, which seems like its natural playground: all that space to play.
While Bill Devin never shook the world with quite the seismic resonance of Carroll Shelby, the evidence here suggests that he deserves to be remembered rather better. Anybody who owns one of the 125 cars he created is very lucky indeed.
1962 Devin C
Engine 2687cc air-cooled flat-six, OHV, dual Weber carburettors Power c175bhp Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Recirculating ball Suspension Front: trailing links, transverse torsion bar, telescopic dampers. Rear: trailing arms, swing axles, coil springs, telescopic dampers Brakes Drums Weight 626kg Top speed 120mph (est) 0-60mph 6sec (est)
Thanks to Intercity Lines enclosed auto transport, www.intercitylines.com.