Gear Head Tuesday – Raffi Minasian & Pegaso

Gear Head

Logo_Pegaso

Pegaso-2

Pegaso (“Pegasus”) was a Spanish manufacturer of sports cars. The parent company, Enasa, was created in 1946 and was based in the old Hispano-Suiza factory The company was led by the renowned automotive engineer Wifredo Ricart. The sports cars were a sideline: Enasa’s main business was trucks, omnibuses, tractors, and military vehicles. In 1990, Iveco acquired Enasa and the Pegaso name disappeared in 1994. The last Pegaso sports car was built in 1991.

As a young man, Raffi Minasian, now an auto designer and teacher of Automotive Styling wondered what a later-day Pegaso sports car might look like and set out to design and build such a Pegaso. Raffi was encouraged to become a stylist by none other than Raymond Loewy. (Raffi related his “Twin H Brothers” story for us HERE. He is also a habitué at Bring-a-Trailer.) With Raffi’s permission, we are reproducing here the story of how he designed and built his interpretation of what a Pegaso might be. The original two-part story was published at My Car Quest.

History is littered with stories of independent car builders and their desires to build a car of their own. Few seldom make it past the drawing board; fewer still make it to a full sized car. It takes a certain blend of foolishness and determination to build a car from scratch. But if you can persevere, you get a car; a unique and lasting artifact of your youthful foolishness, a reminder of what it means to never give up on a dream.

I grew up in Southern California. I was a nerdy kid, pouring through car magazines, building models, and dreaming of cars. Living only a few miles from Shelby’s factory, Paxton Superchargers, and So Cal hot rods, it was the perfect place for a car crazy kid.

In 1978, most of my friends were hopping up Mustangs and Camaros. If you had some money you spent it on hot rodding your car (traction bars and Supershop goodies) or going to the beach to meet girls. Quirky car nuts like me took a chance on something exotic like an Alfa or Fiat. There were no cell phones, ipods, X boxes, or cable TV distracting you from the main goal in life…fixing cars and driving them. Well, OK also to meet girls.

Pegaso-rendering-1979
Raffi’s Pegaso design – 1979 rendering

By the time I was 17, I had purchased and re-sold a few cars with the goal of saving enough money to buy a Maserati or Ferrari. But another plan haunted me, to design and build my own car. I found a few copies of “Car Styling” magazine demonstrating how to use plaster, and our local library had books on fiberglass molding techniques.

It all seemed hauntingly simple; you get a donor car, strip the metal and then drop your newly formed body over the top and voila …new car, just like building the plastic AMT and Monogram models lining my bookshelves. I started drawing and planning, then built crude models. Dad, a fellow car nut, encouraged me to plan as much as I could on paper before spending any money.

Pegaso- plaster-painted-front
Raffi’s Pegaso design in plaster mock-up, painted.

In February 1979 I met Bill Miller, the owner of the 1953 Pegaso “Thrill” and former owner of the Bill Miller Special as featured in a recent FF article. One day Bill and I started sharing ideas for building a new car. I showed Bill some drawings and we decided to start a full sized build. Neither of us really new where to start but Bill had some experience with racing cars and had run a machine shop so he knew his way around casting and fabrication. Between the two of us we had a running start on some of the technical aspects, but the design was something different.

Pegaso-Raffi_Bill_1979

Bill and I liked the look of classic 60’s sports cars so we decided on a car with a familiar but fresh “look”. Retro before retro was “in”. The theme became “what if Pegaso had built a car to compete with the very first super cars – the Ferrari Daytona and Lamborghini Miura.”

Pegaso-body-construction-to-frame
Mock up under construction

What followed were several stages of development until deciding on a fiberglass, mid-engine layout with fastback styling. Bill and I were fans of the Muira, Pantera, and Italian coachbuilt cars so we worked in this genre. The first thing we did was layout a body centerline and five main section planes made from half inch bent metal wire.

Once we had the basic layout of the body we covered it in chicken wire and began laying plaster. After a few days we discovered that plaster and chicken wire was a mistake.

It never stopped warping. Concurrently we purchased a Porsche 914 from a junkyard and pealed away all the body panels and much of the inner structure. We adapted brakes, wheels and tires, and installed a Buick aluminum V8 with four Weber carburetors.

Pegaso-engine-done-1983
Buick aluminum V-8 installed in Porsche 914 chassis; Weber carbs fitted to the engine.

This drivable platform and wire form body seduced us into thinking we were months away from a completed car. It was summer of 1979 and I had just been accepted to study at UCLA. “What a great car to drive to campus” I dreamily thought. Little did I know I would earn a bachelors degree sooner than completing this car.

Returning to the study of the warping chicken wire body, Bill and I took a closer look at other car design books. We needed a solid buck to form the body. We built a skeleton from plywood and Celutex, which was bendable but rigid enough to make the basic form of the body.

We increased the number of section planes until we had a solid ‘car-shaped’ loaf of car-shaped bread made up of wood and Celutex slices.

Pegaso -front-of-body
The body taking shape.

We then skim coated the contours in plaster, like icing a cake. This method worked far better than the chicken wire, however, when summer had passed and the rains began, cracks appeared in our plaster form. At first we filled the little ones in and moved on. But newer and larger ones returned like demons in the night. We filled and filled, sanded and reshaped, but the moisture was insatiable. Desperate for relief, we advance to a fiberglass splash mold.

By early spring, Dick Kilgroe (a local boat repair and manufacturer) joined the project. Dick worked with us creating the splash mold and main body molds, agreeing to teach as we went along. We used low cost construction methods, coating the plaster with mold release and hand laminating sections of fiberglass while matting in cardboard tubes (paper towel, Christmas wrapper tubes, and toilet paper role tubes) cut in half as splash-mold reinforcements.

Once done, we inverted the shell master and laminated a new body shell. The new shell was more stable than the fickle plaster so we fine tuned the surface and cut the body into three sections. We added doors, headlight doors, trunk, and removable t-top seams.

Once all the body panels were completed, we built the “strike faces”. Every body part needed edge details, hinges, latches, and complex inner support structure. Because all the parts opened up, all of it had to be finished like the outside body surface.

In a production automobile, the most complex component is the door. We researched production doors and tried our best to use an existing inner structure. In the end, like so much of this car, we had to build it ourselves. We did use some GM parts.

Pegaso_side-detail_2004
Side detail of the finished car.

The outside door handles were taken from Ford sedans, the inner door latch came from GM, but cast our own handles. In all, the door mechanism took more than three months to complete and assemble and then reassemble for paint and interior trim, at least three times in order to get it right.

The side glass was contoured to our plaster molds and the rear window was made from three layers of clear plastic (for sound insulation). The windshield, donated by an Audi Fox, was perhaps the easiest item to build into the body. With exception of the tail light assemblies (taken from 1979 BMW 320i), side view mirrors (GM), Toyota Supra headlight buckets and mechanism, and an aftermarket radio antenna, every part on the exterior surface was hand made.

All interior pieces were carved in plaster and fiberglass molds were made to create the structure for the leather wrapping. The dash and center console panels were made of steam bent plywood and laminated with a thin layer of burled walnut, then clear coated with protective lacquer. The seats were originally to be donated by Recaro for promotional purposes as part of the build.

They sent us a working set of seat frames but it was too late. We mistakenly built the inner bucket frames too small. There was no aftermarket adjustable seat that would fit.

The only choice was to use the thin fiberglass construction seat frames from the 914 and create our own seat cushions. Using fiberglass and plaster (by now we were masters at these materials) we constructed individual pressurized seat cushion molds and injected two-part foam to make cushions. The steering column (used from a ‘78 Buick), Nardi Steering wheel, dash buttons, and misc. original style Pegaso instruments were the only parts in the interior that were not hand made or substantially modified for our needs.

Pegaso-dash-framing

Above & below: the instrument panel taking shape.

Pegaso-dash-construction

As work progressed, we advanced to another layer of delusional myopia; other people might want to buy one. I had visited with Arntz, Clenet, and Vector to see how they were building cars. It seemed there was potential for a car like this in the market. I didn’t think we needed to go as far as Vector in the technology department, but I also didn’t want to build a kit car.

Pegaso-rear-side-done_1983

With the right engineering and practical applications I was confident we could produce a car in limited numbers. I proposed to my father that with the right financial support we could produce the car for roughly $40K and sell for $65K.

The plan required investment capitol of $30K to complete the prototype. My father asked me which I was going to be on the breakfast plate, the pig or the chicken. Uncertain as to his analogy, I paused. Dad replied, “the pig is committed to breakfast, the chicken is participating”.

I said good-bye to my Ferrari dream money and never laid eggs again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Pegaso on its way to the Petersen Museum

Pegaso-at-Petersen
Raffi’s completed Pegaso on display at the Petersen Museum

We proposed to complete the car in time for the Los Angeles Auto Expo in 1982, where we would display the car, hand out brochures and (once again in a flurry of delusion) take orders. But it was clear that making a hand built automobile with the use of stripped Porsche 914s and Buick engine parts had some problems. So we began a whole new layout using a hand made chassis powered by the tried and true 350 V8 and the newest in engine boosting…twin turbos.

Plans for a twin cam aluminum engine with all wheel drive were one of the many ideas Bill and I tossed about as what might have been part of the Pegaso technology at the time. But it was far too expensive for us to attempt to make our own drive train. Somewhere in my archives are drawings for this engine and the unique layout that Bill and I imagined if funds were not an issue.

Around the time I presented the plan to my father, we also began to shop renderings and photos of the car in progress to various aftermarket companies and potential investors. Some donated parts, others donated services like machining, painting, and plating. To start construction of the frame, we hired a full time assistant and all-around mechanic, Bob Bojorquez.

Bob was a manager at one of the local Standard Brands paint stores. He sold us enough fiberglass resin to make Noahs Ark so he figured out we were up to something. One visit to our makeshift shop and he was in. Bob kept Bill and me evened out on issues where we disagreed on design and finish. After years of starts and stops Bill and I had become frustrated. Bob’s sense of humor was one of the best things to revive the spirit of the project.

The engine itself was not unique so we hand made valve covers complete with Pegaso script, utilized a twin turbo set up that was developed for marine engines, and modified it to accept twin side draft Webers. Because of the unique configuration and limited engine room.

We had little space remaining for standard headers. Once again it was time to hand make those items. Bill and I figured it would take two years to build the car. That might have been, if we didn’t have to do everything two to three times to get it right.

Pegaso_front-side_2004

When you are restoring a car, it comes with some assembly history. With a good manual and nice photos to start with, a restoration project can be organized very well. But a whole car with nothing to guide you leaves you with time intensive trial and error as your only real guide.

Among the many different parts and features that we experimented with was an on board air compressor system that used engine vacuum to generate pressurized air which filled the side rails of the frame as air tanks. This compressed air would supply pressure to the front and rear pistons used to open and close the body sections. This elaborate rigging of tubes, valves, switching contacts, and 8 pistons was engineered completely by Bill.

While it finally performed a wonderful display of high tech access, it was unreliable and had no manual override.

Pegaso-interior-left

Pegaso_interior-dash_2004

Other novel features included motorized adjustable clutch, brake and gas pedals to accommodate longer legged drivers, removable T-top sections, twin gas tanks, pop up headlights (mechanism borrowed from a Toyota Supra), and our own cast and polished wheels.

Preparing for the final days of assembly we engaged Joe Leweck to prepare and paint the car. Much of our efforts in building and testing the various body panels would come back to haunt us as we assembled the car for the final showing. There were many repaint sessions and touch ups as we moved closer to the finish line.

Nearly five years after our first encounter and that disastrous chicken wire frame, Bill, Bob, and I winched the finished prototype onto a car carrier for delivery to the 1983 Los Angeles Auto Expo.

The journey to craft this car was one of late nights, long summer days, and shoestring budgets. Anyone who knew me at that time (my future wife included) knew this car was my #1 priority. For four long years, virtually every life event was squeezed around my build schedule.

That the prototype exists at all and remains in my collection today is remarkable since I completed it when I was 21 years old.

Pegaso-front-open

More than a quarter century has passed since the unveiling in Los Angeles. Over the years I have revised and continually improved the car in an effort to update and refine it for safe road use. The challenge remains to maintain the integrity of the original design while pursuing the goal of a safe driving vehicle.

Among the many items that were left undone included a fuse box, production based electrical system, a working key starting ignition, reasonable access to the engine manually if the air system was down, and a host of other details. Much of the continued work was done in the late 80’s by good friend Dick Donnelly who revised and updating much of the aspects that had been “the best we could do” at the time.

In the late 90’s (when I lived in PA) I shipped the car to Treasured Motorcar Services in Maryland and we removed the old JFZ racing brakes and replaced them with a new system.

We also removed the front spare tire and replaced it with a single FuelSafe gas tank, doing away with the old twin tank design from the somewhat questionable location flanking the engine.

Although the original plan to build a series of 500 limited production cars was never achieved, we took orders at the auto show for 14 cars. Three production versions of the prototype were started before we determined it was simply too much effort to make the dream become production. Though we researched safety and highway laws for limited production cars, we needed to revise our plans in order to truly build a car for sale to the public.

In our last effort to revise the production based build plan, we lengthened the front of the car (from firewall to front wheel center) and dropped body shells on top of the then state of the art Corvette, but the look was never as nice as the tight mid engine package with the front and rear drop off styling that we felt made the car so aggressive.

As time passed Bill and I realized there was no real way for us to build these cars and make any money. While it had been fun to see what we could do with the resources, exercising dreams on a large scale can get to be expensive both personally and financially. Although it was a once in a lifetime project I had realized it was time to get serious if I wanted to have a career in car design.

That year I enrolled at the Art Center College of Design and received the formal training to become a professional car designer.

For me the Pegaso will always be a complex personal journey. I had no idea it would become a lifelong project, but it continues to inspire me the more I work on it. Although the car has seen limited use in the past twenty years (most of the miles covered with a dealer plate or on a rented race track for tests and shakedown), I simply enjoy seeing it parked in my garage.

In the years since, I have worked with hot rod shops, restoration teams, custom car shops, model car companies, and manufactured thousands of parts for the automotive aftermarket and restoration business.

Although I learned a vast amount of fabrication and engineering from the Pegaso, I would never do it again. Today the amount of aftermarket parts that are superbly engineered and refined for home built cars boggles the mind. A complete Cobra based chassis can be purchased and delivered to your home for less than $25k.

Complete 400hp crate motors are available for under $5k, and four custom wheels can be CNC cut to the highest level of finish and mounted in DOT approved hoops for the price of ONE questionable hand casted wheel.

To do this type of project today would be a wonderful coordination and specification exercise bringing together professionally engineered parts and pieces toward a completed running chassis and then focusing on the best part of all, sculpting a beautiful and well proportioned body.

While it was a yearning of my youth to build something completely and fully realized as an automobile, it seems daunting today with a family, a design practice, and other professional priorities. There is something about the eternal optimism of youth, the trumping effect of enthusiasm over reality, and the lack of real world understanding that drove me to complete this project.

Although it has been channeled into other ventures, lately there have been a few drawings and plans that seem to be pinned to my garage wall.

I find myself chatting with Cobra replica people and spending way too much time reading engine specs. But then cars do that to you. They get under your skin and make you do things that have little to do with reason and balance.

Just like when I was 16 and fell for that haunting voice pushing me further into the creative stream… “I wonder what it will look like going down the road?”

Pegaso-right front wheel

Slide show of the building of the Pegaso:

gear

Later, Raffi acquired the 1953 Pegaso “Thrill” from Bill Miller:

53 Pegaso

Pegaso-Z102-Thrill-RF

Pegaso-Z102-Thrill- Interior

Here’s Raffi’s description of driving this V-8 brute:
“When I would drive it, the smoke coming out of the twin pipes would spiral from the air flow coming through the flying sail panels and leave a light trail of spiraling smoke behind me.”

gear

Via “B-Squared” we have this action photo of a Jaguar. “Almost certainly due to the Lucas Electrical system”

Jaguar-fire

To which Raffi replied:
“This reminds me of the Travelers Guide to Jaguar Motoring:

When venturing greater distances, it’s important to be mindful of your most recently passed service station or maintenance venue. A simple jotting down of the mile from the odometer will indicate your likely return walking time in the event of a breakdown. Be sure to always carry spare cash for such roadside repairs and retain a fire extinguisher at close proximity to subdue any flames that might inconvenience your motoring progress.

gear

Still under development: Tesla’s autopilot feature:

Tesla autopilot

… And now, in closing:

Construction cones or slalom course

6 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Eric Butler 10/09/2019 — 00:11

    Sleek, low, beautiful.

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Loved this comment, “It takes a certain blend of foolishness and determination to build a car from scratch.”

    Also liked the acknowledgement that the market for automotive parts and sub-assemblies is very robust.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for posting this. I appreciate the nice comments on the car and the process that unfolded to build it. Great to see an interest in the car after all these years.

    Liked by 1 person

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