Outside of Milt Brown with his 1962-1965 Apollo GT, very few individuals have ever succeeded in designing and producing their own car. Many have tried and most have failed. The stories of such indomitable personalities as Preston Tucker, Malcolm Bricklin, and John DeLorean are just a part of a recurring cycle.
Briggs Cunningham, Sidney Allard, Bill Devin, and Milt Brown are all among the tableau of designers and sportsmen-cum-automakers who had the inspiration and the will to dare the odds. Brown is one of the few whose automotive creation survived the proverbial test of time, to become a collectible car, and in 1979, a recognized Milestone car.
Back in the early 1960s, Brown, an enthusiastic Northern Californian, armed with an eye for design and an inborn mechanical ability, set about building an American equivalent to Ferrari, Aston-Martin, and Maserati — a true Gran Turismo
His timing was right, just on the heels of the Cunningham, Devin SS, and Nash-Healey. And he was quick to recognize the failings of these cars: heavy V-8 and inline six-cylinder engines and bulky passenger-car suspensions.
An engineer first, Brown set about designing a platform that would alleviate some of the performance and handling problems that had stalled his predecessors' cars. He took advantage of Buick's all-new 215-cubic-inch V-8, an engine that would deliver the power necessary for a sports car yet be compact and light enough (just 318 pounds) to allow the exceptional handling characteristics he sought.
Brown knew that a lighter-weight engine would produce a more agile car. He also had the technology at his disposal to build a chassis rigid enough to furnish the ride and handling characteristics he wanted. And best of all, he didn't have to design a single suspension component. It was all there for the taking.
With the introduction of the Buick Special in the fall of 1960, Brown found all the componentry he needed for the Apollo's driveline and suspension. He engineered his own ladder-type frame with a 97-inch wheelbase, built from sturdy four-inch square tubing with .125-inch walls.
A standard Buick Special front cross member was welded to that frame, making it possible to then install the entire front suspension — including the steering — as furnished by Buick.
The Buick Special rear axle assembly was also used and located by four rubber-bushed links. The two lower links ran forward from the axle housing to the frame side rails, while the upper pair splayed outward from the differential to the frame rails. It was an extremely efficient design, with the upper arms — because of their triangulation — taking both longitudinal and lateral axle loads.
Coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers (heavy duty Monroes) were used all around, and a one-inch-diameter anti-roll bar (50 percent stiffer than the Buick Special's) was installed in the front.
Brown modified some of the Buick components to better accommodate the Apollo's specific needs, including a longer pitman arm to speed up the slow Buick steering, softer front springs to take into account the car's lighter overall weight, increased caster angle, and lightened wheel spindles and steering arms.
The balance of the Apollo's running gear was made up of other General Motors' components: Corvette steering "U" joint and tachometer drive and the Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed transmission. The rear brake drums were also Chevy parts, as were the Apollo's front spring pads, which came from the Corvair.
The Buick Special was tapped again to supply the radiator. By sourcing all of the necessary driveline and suspension parts through GM, Brown had a sports car platform that was both feasible and practical to produce. What he needed next was a body to place atop it.
The original 1962-1965 Apollo GT body was designed by engineer Milt Brown and his long-time friend, Ron Plescia. The two had met in their senior year in high school.
"We were a couple of pretty unconventional guys," recalls Brown. "I drove an MG TD and Ron tooled around in a Crosley Hot Shot. The Crosley had an aluminum body that looked like a squashed tin can," says Plescia, "but it gave us a great idea. Build a new body for it!"
Brown recalls that they had figured to build the new Crosley body in about a week's time. "It ended up taking us months," he says, "but we learned a lot from the Crosley, things that would help us design the Apollo years later."
In college, Brown continued to tinker with cars, in the process building America's first Formula Junior racing car. When he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, he headed for Europe in search of a job as a designer. He landed one at Emeryson Race Cars as a designer/draftsman.
While Brown may have daydreamed about building his own sports car, it wasn't until he met a Canadian coachbuilder named Frank Reisner, at the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix, that Brown realized it could actually be done.
"I asked Reisner what he did, and he said he built bodies for cars. I didn't quite understand until he pulled out a picture of the Intermeccanica Imp, and explained that his company in Turin, Italy, built hand-made bodies and complete cars."
Brown's mind was already abuzz with a plan when Reisner told him that he had figured out a way to build bodies for less money than Brown could imagine. What had started out as a casual conversation led Brown to visit Intermeccanica after the race.
The rest, as they say, is history. The two formulated a plan to have bodies and interiors built in Turin, by Carrozzeria Intermeccanica, and then have them shipped to an assembly plant in the United States, where they would be mated with an American-built chassis and driveline.
Brown quit his job and returned to Oakland, California. Once home, he looked up an old friend, Newton Davis, who agreed to put up the money to start Apollo. Plescia, who had graduated from the Art Center School in Los Angeles, came on board as chief designer, and the whole company started out of Davis's Oakland garage.
What sounds more like the plotline for a "Let's go build us a car" movie script resulted instead in the Apollo GT coupe, one of the most trenchant sports car designs of the 1960s.
Recalls Brown: "The E-Type Jaguar had just come out, about six months before we started on the Apollo, and we wanted to have that same kind of look, with the long hoodline and low profile. That's what we had as an image when we started to design the car."
Though partially inspired by the new E-Type Jaguar, Ron Plescia says that it was the incredibly sleek sports cars of Enzo Ferrari that really influenced his final design for the 1962-1965 Apollo GT. "Ferrari had really gotten a hold of me emotionally. Everything I drew for a long time had that sharp Monza look about it."
Certainly, there was no way not to see traces of the Ferrari 250GT Spyder California and Jaguar XKE
in the Apollo, but there were other influences outside of Brown's and Plescia's, which were to shape the final design of the Apollo.
In order to make bodies easy to build, coachbuilder Frank Reisner had laid down some ground rules that the Apollo design had to follow. Brown says that Reisner asked him to avoid very sharp radiuses, creases, and compound curves. " 'Keep everything gentle and flowing,' he said. That influenced us quite a bit."
The original Apollo design was an aluminum-bodied fastback without rear quarter windows. That's how the prototype appeared when it debuted in the October 1, 1962, issue of Automotive News
. Before going into production, however, Reisner commissioned famed Italian designer Franco Scaglione, creator of the Alfa Romeo BAT
and Sprint Speciale
, to do a final rendering of the Apollo.
Working from Plescia's original designs, Scaglione added a larger backlight, rear quarter windows, and a new, bolder grille — all for the better. He was later called upon by Brown and Reisner to design the Apollo convertible in 1963.
Though originally planned to be an aluminum-bodied car, Reisner found that he could produce the bodies for less if they were made from steel. "As it turned out," says Brown, "we needed less sub-structure for the steel bodies than for the aluminum, and the car ended up weighing 200 pounds less."
Each Apollo body was hand-formed in sections over wooden bucks and then welded together. The completed bodies were mounted to the frame, and the body/chassis unit was painted, the interior upholstered, and then shipped to Oakland, California, to be mated with the driveline and suspension.
In August 1962, the first production Apollo 3500 GT coupe was delivered and introduced at Spencer Buick, in San Francisco. Following the San Francisco debut, Brown took the car to Hollywood and had a premiere showing at Phil Hall Buick on Sunset Boulevard. When Hall saw the Apollo, he gave Brown an order for the entire first year's production of 25 cars.
It looked like instant prosperity. It wasn't. Hall made, what one could call in retrospect, an error in judgment. He advertised the car as "The 1963 Apollo Buick." General Motors was not at all pleased with the advertisement, and offered Hall a simple, straightforward ultimatum: Stop selling Apollos or stop selling Buicks!
With orders for three cars in just the first week, Brown had pushed up production in Italy. Suddenly there were bodies arriving for cars that weren't sold and Brown had something his company wasn't structured for: inventory.
It was then that George Finley entered the picture. Finley had been a dealer representative for Lincoln-Mercury, and he decided to take an Apollo and set up a national dealer network. "He was a natural-born car salesman," recalls Brown. "We had managed to sell only six cars in six months. George sold 33 cars and signed up seven dealers in one year!"
Ironically, the better things became with orders for the 1962-1965 Apollo GT, the worse they got for the company. Neither creator Milt Brown nor his backer, Newt Davis, had ever done a cost analysis on the production and marketing of the Apollo.
At around $6,000, they weren't charging enough for the cars, and in fact, with research and development costs for the new convertible and 2+2 models factored in, the company was actually losing money on every car it sold. GM's former chief stylist, Bill Mitchell, later told Brown that he could have sold the Apollo for $10,000 and gotten it.
Hindsight? Perhaps not. The price for the coupe finally reached $9,000, but by then Apollo was so far in the hole that it would have taken more than $100,000 to get the company out of the red.
"When we were building two cars per month, we were making a profit," says Brown, "so we went to four cars per month, and then eight. That was our big, fatal mistake. We had begun to order more cars than we could afford to build. Suddenly we had 15 bodies in the factory and not enough operating capital to finish them, We were going broke with a car, that for all intents, was a success!"
When Brown couldn't pay the bills, the bank came in and closed Apollo down. Coachbuilder Frank Reisner hadn't been paid either, and he, too, was now in big financial trouble. He showed up on Brown's doorstep one morning and said that something had to be done or Intermeccanica was going to go out of business.
With both men facing the same probable outcome, they decided to seek out a new financial partner. It turned out to be Vanguard, a Dallas firm that had expressed an interest in buying the company. The deal allowed Brown to complete the cars he had in inventory, pay Reisner, and have another 15 bodies built in Italy. The new models were to be marketed by Vanguard under the name Vetta Ventura.
Unfortunately, the newly financed company lasted only three months, going into bankruptcy in 1965. Brown left and Davis went looking for another investor. There were none, and Davis sold the company's assets to a Los Angeles attorney, Robert Stevens.
Stevens saw promise in the car and bankrolled a new company, Apollo International, in Pasadena, California. It lasted less than a year, and accounted for roughly another 14 cars, mostly convertibles.
When Apollo International closed its doors, that was the end of the road. The Apollo was gone, once and for all — and Brown was out of the car business. Davis had gotten his investment back by selling the company's assets, and Reisner had moved on to building such memorable Italian sports cars as the Griffith GT
, and Indra
Although Apollo was a dismal failure as a company, the 1962-1965 Apollo GT itself was an undisputed success. Despite its uneventful and brief sales history, the automotive press heaped praise upon the Apollo time and time again.
Road & Track
, Hot Rod
, and Car and Driver
all found the Apollo GT coupe a consummate sports car, particularly for its styling and craftsmanship.
In November 1963 Road & Track
wrote: "Our experience in the Apollo has been both brief and pleasant. The car is quite comfortable (even for extra tall occupants) and well finished. In general, the Apollo is a very appealing automobile, put together with loving care under the supervision of [Milt] Brown and [Newt] Davis in this country, and Frank Reisner, head of Intermeccanica, in Italy. The whole conception is basically sound and the company directors have proven to R&T
that they are interested in producing a quality automobile and have the interest of the customer at heart."
In July 1964, Hot Rod
said that "Workmanship is of the highest quality — panels fit well, doors close with authority and the interiors are comparable to cars costing twice that of the Apollo."
Race driver and automotive columnist Denise McCluggage, writing in Science and Mechanics
magazine, lofted the Apollo to its highest praise when she said it was comparable to the Ferrari 2+2, Corvette Sting Ray
, and Aston Martin DB-4
. It was without question the right car at the right time, lacking only those two all-essential ingredients, marketing
In all, a total of 88 cars were produced — 76 coupes, 11 convertibles, and the prototype 2+2 coupe. In retrospect, the Apollo could be classed as something of a successful failure.
Having been recognized as an American Milestone Car and a valuable collectible automobile, the Apollo has proven that success in the automotive world is not always measured by financial statements alone.