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The accepted wisdom says it was American GIs returning from Europe after World War II who, having been exposed to the nimble breed of sporting vehicles there, were the impetus behind an import boom and, ultimately, the creation of the home-bred American sports car.
But this tale is largely apocryphal. There were few sports cars zipping around during the war since owners kept them hidden or didn’t have rationed gasoline to run them. American forces stationed in Europe in the immediate postwar years might have encountered some of the most famed European models as they came into being in the late 1940s—the Jaguar XK120, the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500, the Ferrari 166—but the incipient American hot-rod culture was producing its own share of homemade sporting vehicles at the same time.
According to automotive historian Geoff Hacker (a specialist whose research was instrumental in writing this article), there were more than 50 American-made sports cars available in the years between the end of the war and the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette in 1953. But perhaps none are as important or intriguing as the cars made by Sterling Edwards, even if he made only about a half-dozen over as many years.
“Sterling Edwards was quite a figure in his day. And just a real great car enthusiast,” says David Gooding, whose auction house, Gooding & Company, sold the first Edwards production prototype model back in 2010. “And so he built his own car, using the best people, like Phil Remington, Lujie Lesovsky, and Emil Diedt. The car was so well received when it was initially built.”
Edwards was the scion of a San Francisco wire-rope empire—galvanized steel cable used in elevators and drilling—and put his inheritance to use in adventurous pursuits such as flying, skiing, and racing. While on vacation in Saint Moritz to watch the 1948 Winter Olympics, he spotted a Cisitalia 202—an icon of postwar automotive design added in 1972 to the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)—and decided he should build his own road-racing car.
Which is exactly what he did, penning the design himself, having it built at Diedt & Lesovsky’s pioneering race-car and hot-rod shop and employing top-notch engineers like Remington and Norman Timbs to create sophisticated underpinnings. These included a chrome-moly steel tube chassis, an independent suspension designed to minimize brake dive, four-wheel disc brakes, an aluminum body, and—in keeping with California hot-rod culture—a sleeved Ford flathead V-8 with dual carbs and high-compression overhead-valve heads. Called the R-26, this lovely prototype was intended to be driven to the track, raced, and then driven home, so it had creature comforts such as leather upholstery, a removable hardtop and windshield, and an integrated metal tonneau that covered the rear seats when not in use.
This worked out well for Edwards, whose efforts were roughly contemporary with—and even a little ahead of—the more celebrated racing and sports-car-building projects undertaken by Briggs Cunningham on the East Coast. The R-26 appeared on the cover of Road & Track in December 1949, just the sixth issue of that publication. Edwards drove it to win the California Sports Car Club’s first Palm Springs Road Race in April 1950, and then he helped establish the Pebble Beach races, winning the first race there in November. He claimed the Del Monte Trophy for victory in a class that included several supercharged MG-TCs, a Frazer Nash/BMW 328, and an MG powered by a flathead Ford V-8. (Phil Hill won the main event in a Jaguar XK120.) Edwards’s one-off convertible also claimed Best of Show honors in the first Pebble Beach Concours, conducted in conjunction with the races. Returning to Pebble in 1951, he and the R-26 finished second in a handicap race (the starting grid was in inverse order to engine displacement), right behind Hill’s Alfa Romeo and just ahead of Ritchie Ginther’s Ford-powered MG-TC, a pair of Allard-Cadillacs, and Jim Kimberly’s Ferrari 166M. He was keeping good company there.
Edwards followed this up in 1952 with a more potent, fiberglass-bodied prototype (one of the world’s first fiberglass-bodied sports racers), which allowed him to increase the weight of the underpinnings without sacrificing performance. For that car, which he called the R-62, he used a Kaiser Henry J chassis and a Chrysler Hemi V-8.
The fiberglass R-62 was less successful in racing, but it became the template for Edwards’s short run of sporting road cars, the Edwards America. The original plan was to build the car on the West Coast for the emergent enthusiast market, equip it with a fiberglass body (either this convertible or a coupe design), the proven suspension and braking setup from the R-26, and niceties such as a padded leather dash, an AM radio, and power windows, and sell it for just under $5000—significantly more money than a contemporary Jaguar XK120 or Porsche 356 (each around $4000) but offering more power and luxury along with an American nameplate. The first America prototype (shown in these photos) utilized a 185-hp Oldsmobile Rocket V-8, but the subsequent production Americas were fitted with thrusty 200-plus-hp V-8s from Lincoln and Cadillac.
It also included a stunning body with clean yet elegant design cues clearly influenced by Cisitalia (and maybe a bit of Bentley in that kicky rear fender) but expanded in scale by about a third for the broader American roadways, broader Americans, and cheap American gasoline. It was a lovely and thrilling four-seat adaptation of the breed, enough to entice Road & Track, which gushed over it in a January 1954 feature—a year before Car and Driver got started under the name Sports Cars Illustrated.
Sadly, Edwards’s costs skyrocketed, as often happens in the production of handmade vehicles. Even using off-the-shelf parts from big manufacturers—Nash gauges, Mercury taillamps, a chopped Mercury chassis, an automatic transmission from General Motors, and the previously mentioned V-8 engines—Edwards wasn’t able to hold the price to its promised level. Five Americas were produced and sold, with the last of them costing nearly $8000 (about $70,000 today). And, although it was gorgeous and a decent performer, reliability didn’t match what was on offer even from finicky European marques.
“One thing that I would say some of these orphan brands—most orphan brands—suffer from, is that often there are flaws or kinks that aren’t worked out, ones that would ordinarily get worked out when cars are produced en masse and consumed en masse,” Gooding says. “I find that low-production cars are not usually finished to a very high standard. There’s some sort of compromise made. And oftentimes they don’t have the time and the budget for testing. Everything looks great on paper, looks great on the show stand, but then you drive down the road and you realize, ‘Hmm, this is a problem that needs to be rectified.’ ”
The Edwards was clearly an important and influential progenitor of vehicles that followed—especially vehicles that combined European design and American muscle such as the Shelby Cobra, the Facel Vega, the De Tomaso Pantera, the Apollo GT, the Jensen Interceptor, and the Iso Grifo. It was also a key exemplar of the fervent, if often grandiloquent, American entrepreneurial automotive spirit that we celebrate in this series of features called the Orphan Chronicles. But, as so many other examples illustrate, it is very difficult to bring a car to market.
Today, Sterling Edwards’s misfortune may be the car collectors’ gain. When Gooding sold this original prototype Edwards America convertible back in 2010, it went for only $110,000, which seems a pittance for so much car and history. A coupe that resided in the Petersen Automotive Museum collection through 2013 was sold that year for $66,000 and subsequently refurbished and offered in 2014 for $149,000, which still looks like really small money for a singular example from a very limited run. For all their pitfalls, purchasing an orphan can be affordable and iconoclastic.
“People often say, ‘Everything’s so expensive.’ But there’s value in the market, and cars like these illustrate that,” Gooding says. “A lot of people like to own brand names, and cars which they can and which everybody else can understand. [The Edwards] takes somebody who is really an auto aficionado.”
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