‘He was a great practical joker,’ recalls Diana Flajole about her late father. ‘When I was small he encouraged my older brother and a neighbour’s kid to build a big Martian spacecraft out of papier-maché, complete with flashing lights and aliens climbing down the sides, then conceal it in the woods behind our house. This was in the early ’50s, when space travel was a hot subject.
‘So, it got to be evening and he suggested that us younger kids should go and see if we could find any fish in the stream that ran through the woods. Of course, we came across the “spaceship” and were terrified. My little sister was so scared, she fell in the stream and had to be pulled out…’
Hearing Diana reminisce about her dad, the car designer William Flajole – pronounced Flay-jole – you have the impression that Bill Flajole was a fun sort of person to be around. A good-looking man who always had an eye for the ladies, with his trademark moustache he looked a little like Clark Gable; and in later years that’s how he would sometimes sign photos of himself, if the recipient was a female admirer. This extrovert quality was entirely in keeping with his personal legacy, the car he designed and built: the Flajole Forerunner.
The Forerunner was Bill’s own vision of how car design might evolve. It had fiberglass bodywork with a tinted Plexiglas roof that slid back into the teardrop rear end, highback seats and slim tubular bumpers. Originally it was painted a rich dark green colour, with ivory coves and wheels. The dark green colour was appropriate, because the Forerunner was intended to represent the sports car of the future – and it was based on a sports car of the moment, the Jaguar XK120.
Yes, beneath that substantial fiberglass bodywork lies Jaguar running gear. The Forerunner was built upon a nearly new XK120M (‘M’ being the US equivalent of our hotter ‘SE’ spec), which Bill Flajole bought in late 1953. His son, also called Bill, was a teenager at the time and recalls the day vividly:
‘I went out with Dad to the Falvey Motor Co on Woodward Avenue, Detroit, to pick it up,’ says Bill Jr, down the line from his home in California. ‘On the way back, Dad took on a Cadillac-Allard and whupped it! In fact, we indulged in a few impromptu street-races just to make sure the car performed as it should.’
The Jaguar was Bill Sr’s second XK120, and it was his ownership of the first, a 1951 model, that inspired him to build the Forerunner: ‘Dad had been commissioned to design a car for the baseball player Ted Williams,’ explains Bill Jr. ‘But he was constrained by his sponsor’s wishes and decided he wanted to make a car free of those limitations. So in 1953 he started sketching out the Forerunner in his spare time, using that 1951 Jaguar as a basis. I distinctly remember its body propped up against the wall in Dad’s studio, while its chassis was being used as a frame for a wood and clay mock-up of the Forerunner body.
‘By 1954 the body still wasn’t quite ready, so Dad decided we should take his new XK120 racing, to prove its performance. The SCCA was holding a meeting at Chanute Air Force Base, so he hurriedly put together a “team” consisting of me and a few of his employees and hired a professional driver called Duncan Macrae. Despite being up against exotics like a couple of Ferrari 212s, a 250 and a Porsche Spyder, the XK did pretty well and finished first in class and second overall behind one of the 212s. The drive back to Detroit was a merry one – until everyone realised they had to go back to work next day.’
As the black-and-white photos show, the Forerunner was built in the William Flajole Associates’ studio on Wyoming Avenue. Bill Jr remembers that the full-size clay styling model was covered with Plaster-of-Paris, into which steel tubes were inserted as handles, which was then removed when set and sectioned for use as female moulds. A 1955 issue of Plastics Technology reported: ‘The body embodies intricate compound curves and perforated planes [probably the bonnet louvres] not previously attempted on a fibreglass-reinforced plastic body.’
By far the most unusual feature of the Forerunner was its sliding roof. Made from quarter-inch thick Plexiglas, it could easily be pushed back into the rear body from the driver’s seat. Press reports talk of the roof being electrically operated but it seems this idea had to be dropped: ‘Dad was working to a deadline for Motor Trend, who wanted to put the Forerunner on their cover, so he didn’t get time to motorise it,’ explains Bill Jr. Having a clear roof meant the rear-view mirror could be mounted externally, which neatly got around the problem of otherwise zero rear visibility through the solid tail.
While the dashboard and its instruments remained recognizably Jaguar, the seats were genuinely innovative, having high backs with integral head restraints to minimise whiplash in the event of an accident. Bill Jr thinks they may have been sourced from an old aircraft and retrimmed; he remembers the headrests as being white but the lower panels being covered with a yellow-green vinyl – ‘an awful kind of Chartreuse colour, possibly all that was available’.
Externally the Forerunner was just as novel. William Flajole was not the first car designer to use scalloped wings but he was certainly ahead of Chevrolet’s 1956 Corvette, and his Forerunner’s thin tubular bumpers were a deliberate riposte to mainstream Detroit’s massive chromed girders. The flattened oval front grille, with its inset headlights, bore a passing resemblance to the ‘bathtub’ Nash Airflyte models – hardly surprising, since Flajole was a consultant for Nash-Kelvinator.
From seeing it in pictures you imagine the Forerunner to be massive, thanks to its long snout and hefty rear carapace. Knowing that the body is made of fiberglass, not usually the lightest of materials, you also expect it will be horrendous to drive. Neither presumption is true.
In fact, it drives just like an XK120. Better, perhaps. The body is probably heavier than the one that left Browns Lane but, since it’s on an XK120M-spec chassis and drivetrain, it’s riding on stiffer front torsion bars and rear springs; and with the spare wheel mounted right at the rear, and the Jaguar straight six mounted well back in the chassis, the weight distribution is quite good too. The net result is that, while you’re half-expecting the Forerunner to handle like a boat, it actually feels pretty sharp, without the anticipated terminal understeer. The XK engine is a huge asset, too: its 180bhp gives the Forerunner punchy acceleration and a suitably exotic crisp snarl as a soundtrack.
OK, the Moss gearbox is sticky – hardly a revelation – and the brakes on this little-used car were suffering from a severe pull to one side, but potentially it’s a quick machine. You could have enormous fun entering it for prestigious events like, say, the California Mille, and giving the Alfas and Ferraris a serious fright in-between spells of camping it up like Hollywood moguls. Having a fat cigar clamped between your chops is almost obligatory when you drive the Forerunner.
Air conditioning would be a useful addition, mind you. The Plexiglas roof may have a Rohm and Haas 30% tint to block out ultraviolet rays – thank you, Plastics Technology – but it doesn’t prevent the Forerunner’s cabin from turning into a mobile sauna when the roof is closed. The high-back seats are remarkably comfortable, however, which only goes to show that aircraft seat design hasn’t improved much over the last 55 years.
Flajole’s son and daughter both have strong recollections of riding in the Flajole when it was new. Bill Jr even got behind the wheel: ‘My Dad let me drive it, not altogether legally but just around the neighborhood on the back roads. In fact it was hard to insure, being a one-off design, so even my Dad didn’t go far in it.’
Diana Flajole was eight years old at the time, and remembers Sunday-morning trips out to the drugstore to pick up the newspapers. ‘It drew so much attention that a 15-minute drive could stretch into a couple of hours as Dad talked about it with interested passers-by. He loved showing it off, but of course, being a child,
I was just bored…’
Bill Jr reckons it was the insurance problem that eventually led to the Forerunner being laid up on blocks in the family garage, where it remained, steadily gathering a thick layer of dust, until being sold off in 1973. Diana thinks it fetched just 00. It passed through the hands of Jeff and Sara Tamayo, who are credited with restoring the car to its present condition before donating it to the Blackhawk Museum, from which it was acquired by Sidney Craig in 1998.
Last year it was bought by classic car dealer Mark Hyman, who currently has it in his St Louis, Missouri, showroom. As related in the panel on the previous page, Bill Flajole turned his hand to mobile home and camper van projects when the car design work dried up in the 1960s. He was not in the least mechanically minded, says his daughter – ‘It became a family joke that Dad’s car was the one most likely to break down’ – and in later years he did not even own a car, but Diana says his passion for automotive design never left him. ‘Whenever we visited him and rented a car, he’d run his hands over the dashboard and check out the gadgets – he’d examine it like a designer.’
It seems Bill had no doubt which was his own most successful design. In an interview about the Forerunner for Collectible Automobile, he said simply: ‘It was my best job. It really was a beautiful car.’ Looking at the picture below, you have to admit he had a point.
Thanks to Diana Flajole Hawkinson; Willliam Flajole, Jr; and Mark Hyman of Hyman Ltd Classic Cars (www.hymanltd.com).