1965 Apollo GT. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
The Apollo GT brought together an American engine and running gear, Italian/American styling and a body built in Italy by a transplanted Canadian engineer/entrepreneur.
It was the brain-child of a California engineer named Milt Brown in the early 1960s. In spite of the financial failure of such American sports cars as the Nash-Healey and the Cunningham, Brown was convinced that he could produce a world class, home-grown GT.
Brown’s vision moved closer to reality through a chance meeting with a Canadian named Frank Reisner at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. Brown discovered that Reisner built car bodies in Italy.
Hungarian born Reisner grew up in Canada and graduated in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan. A paint company job led him into contact with the automobile industry and he soon evolved a secret desire to build his own car.
During a vacation trip to Europe in 1959 Reisner realized that Italy’s deep infrastructure of skilled artisans and stylists was the place he could achieve his dream. He and his wife Paula stayed and formed a company called Intermeccanica based in Turin. It initially developed hop-up kits for small cars, but was soon constructing whole cars using readily available chassis’ and engines.
As Brown’s idea was evolving Buick introduced its 1961 Special “senior compact” model. Its components intrigued him, particularly the aluminum 3.5-litre (215 cu in.) General Motors V8 engine. He wanted his car to be as light as possible and this engine weighed only about 150 kg (330 lb) without flywheel or clutch.
In addition to the engine Brown also used the Buick’s steering and its front and rear coil spring suspension, including its solid rear axle. Transmissions were a three- or four-speed manual or two-speed automatic. The components were tied together by a Brown-designed, square-tube, ladder-type frame on a 2,489 mm (98 in.) wheelbase.
The Apollo’s body was styled by Ron Plescia, a friend of Brown’s and a graduate of the famed Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. Newton Davis, another Brown friend, provided the all important funding for the project.
Plescia’s design was influenced by the recently introduced Jaguar E-Type and several Ferrari models. Not surprisingly the Apollo coupe emerged as a sleek, long-hood, short-deck fastback, the one unusual feature being the lack of rear quarter windows.
With the mechanical elements coming together Brown contracted with Intermeccanica to construct bodies for the Apollo. Aluminum was considered but Reisner assured him that he could make steel bodies that would be lighter than aluminum.
Before Intermeccanica began forming the bodies over wooden frames, called bucks, Reisner had Italian stylist Franco Scaglione review the design. Scaglione’s improvements included adding rear quarter windows and enlarging the rear window.
Intermeccanica mounted the finished and painted bodies on the chassis, trimmed the interior and shipped them to California where Davis’s International Motor Cars, Inc. fitted the powertrain, suspension and other components. The first car was completed in 1962.
Events seemed to be unfolding well for Davis until he got a nasty surprise. With its high Buick content he had hoped to sell the Apollo through Buick dealers. When General Motors objected, the young company was left with no distribution network.
This was eventually overcome, but because Brown had priced the cars below cost he soon faced bankruptcy. Financial relief came from a Texas company called Vanguard Motors Corp. who marketed the cars under the name Vetta Ventura. This failed after a few months, and 19 Vetta Venturas, and the operation returned to California. The new company, Apollo International, produced 14 more Apollos, almost all convertibles, before giving up in 1965. A total of 88 Apollos, including 11 convertibles, had been built.
The irony is that the Apollo seemed to be a very good car. Its engine, drivetrain and other components were rugged and thoroughly proved. The Intermeccanica bodies were well built and the cars were flawlessly finished.
Road & Track magazine (11/63) tested a four-speed Apollo GT and found it to be “…quiet, comfortable and well finished.” They summarized the Apollo as “… a very appealing automobile put together with loving care.”
They also found the performance to be quite adequate: zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 8.4 seconds, and a top speed of 167 km/h (104 mph).
In spite of being a good product, the Apollo, like so many others, failed due to inadequate financing. The remaining Apollos are a legacy to Brown, Davis and Reisner.
Brown and Davis went on to other things, and Reisner, now deceased, continued building quality specialty cars, including the Italia and Griffith GT. He eventually relocated Intermeccanica International to Vancouver, British Columbia where it is now operated by Frank’s son Henry. It produces replicas of 1959 Porsches and Second World War Volkswagen based, Jeep-type Kubelwagens.