Forgotten Classic: 1966 Fitch Phoenix – The American Porsche 911 Wanna’ Be

The Phoenix was a very ambitious undertaking by former race car driver and Corvair tuner and John Fitch to build a genuine American Porsche 911 competitor, in a series of 500 GT cars based on Corvair underpinnings. Only this prototype seen here was ever built, which Fitch kept the rest of his life and was sold for $253,000 by his estate back in 2014.

The main reason given for abandoning the project was the impending safety regulations as a result of the 1966 Highway Safety Act. As it turned out, the court battles by the Big Three challenging them weren’t resolved until 1968, by which time the Corvair was heading out of production. I’m not sure that’s the whole story, as it was also quite expensive, priced at $8,700 ($70k adjusted), significantly more than a Porsche 911S, which undoubtedly was significantly faster, better handling and all-round more fully-developed car than the Fitch.

Fitch, like quite a few other American sports car drivers, took a liking to the Corvair right from the get-go, but was of course confronted with its limitations as a genuine sports car. The slow steering, vague long-throw shifter, and of course the twitchy handling. Fitch decided there was a market for components to improve the Corvair, and created a pretty good little business.

He also offered a complete package, the Fitch Sprint, which included all of his suspension, steering and other performance upgrades along with cosmetic elements like vinyl roof, racing stripes and other do-dads.

With the gen2 Corvair in 1965, he stepped up his game a bit more, with a tunnelback roof extension.

The Phoenix was Fitch’s concept of what a luxury grand touring machine ought to be, and was a dramatic departure from production cars of its day. The body styling was the result of a three-year collaboration between Fitch and illustrator Coby Whitmore, his good friend and neighbor. Together they constructed a full-scale mockup which they spent countless hours developing and refining.

Obviously, the most controversial elements are the bulging covers for the two side-mount spare tires. This was done because the Phoenix had larger rear tires than fronts, and by moving the cockpit back so far, there was room for them there, which allowed for a larger trunk under the low sloping hood.

Since the bulges were not very well received, the plan was to also offer the option to delete them, with a single spare in the trunk. Presumably a filler panel would take their place.

The Phoenix, like so many other cars styled by a non-professional designer/studio, shows some good elements but a number of shortcomings too, and not just the spare tire humps. From some angles, it looks pretty good.

From others, not so. I had to look at this shot carefully to convince myself that that rear tire sticking way out was not because the Corvair’s rear axle was dislocated.

Not only does this inward sweep of the rear fenders look a bit bizarre at the wheel, but it also means that whoever is driving behind the Fitch would get the full effect of its rear tires in rain, mud, snow or gravel. Maybe their worries about the upcoming safety regulations were with good cause.

The final design was executed in steel by Frank Reisner’s Intermechanicca Group in Turin, Italy and wedded to a highly modified Corvair drive train and running gear. Building on a base of readily available mechanical parts was essential to ensure that spares would be available and to simplify servicing.

The interior shows a rather strong Italian influence. Why the seat backs are so low I do not know. There is a blurb in the spec sheet about the seats being custom-positioned to each customer.

There’s no question that these toggle switches would not have met the safety standards.

“Phoenix No. 001 of a series of 500”.

Supposedly, the Phoenix’ 164 c.i. Corvair boxer six yielded 170 (gross) hp at a low 5200 rpm. The Corvair engine was originally designed to be a low-rev economy engine, and even with tuning and multiple carbs, it still wasn’t a revver, like the Porsche 911s engine, which peaked closer to 7000 rpm.

The specs (and Bonham’s ad) say that the Phoenix used Weber 36DCLD carbs to make that 170 hp, but these look to be the stock 140 hp Rochesters. Hmm.  Maybe they never got that sorted out.

This spec sheet also refers to a slightly cheaper ($8,300) Phoenix II that omitted the disc brakes and the Weber carbs.

I applaud John Fitch for the gumption to create this, despite some flaws and shortcomings.The Corvair was commonly called “a poor man’s Porsche” which was a bit of a stretch. But in Fitch’s eyes, it had the potential to be just that, and he gave it his best shot.