Think of the most beautiful kit cars of all times. Not the replicas, the originals. Kits designed to stand on their own merits, not the strengths (real or imagined) of the classics from which they were copied. The exotic Cimbria comes immediately to mind, as does the sexy Sterling with its lift-up top. More recently the Fiero-based Scorpion and the radical Attack from Slovakia have set a high bar for styling efforts. One of the hottest-looking kits of all time was manufactured by no less than three companies, built for almost 10 years, and yet there are only a handful of completed cars to show for it. That car was the Piranha.
In the early '60s, a small Michigan-based company, Centaur Engineering, got into the automotive prototype business. The idea was to design neat cars, then convince someone else to actually build them. Their first effort was the CRV, a small sports car intended to be built from plastic! Not fiberglass, but Cycolac, a type of ABS plastic used in thousands of industrial and commercial applications (think telephones and beer coolers). Cycolac is a nifty plastic, being both strong and long-lasting, and the company that made Cycolac, the Marbon Chemical Division of Borg-Warner, liked the design so much they bought Centaur and their little sports car, the CRV (which stood for Cycolac Research Vehicle).
Marbon had no plans to build the CRV in volume production. They wanted to showcase the possibilities of using Cycolac in automotive applications for the benefit of high-volume manufacturers in Detroit and abroad. The estimated cost of tooling for Cycolac body production was a tenth of the cost of fiberglass, and way below that of those produced via steel presses. The two body panels (top and bottom) were vacuum-formed like hot tubs are today. And Marbon was not the only company working on this idea; the limited-production Cord 8/10 was built of Royalite, a plastic made by a competitor, the U.S. Rubber Co. of the same name.
A total of five CRV prototypes were built. The first, CRV-1, had a Sunbeam Imp four-cylinder engine and a chrome-moly space frame chassis. Subsequent CRVs had Corvair engines and a molded fiberglass chassis sandwiched between two Cycolac outer shells, and metal subframes were used where the running gear mounted to the chassis. The body, designed by Dann Deaver, Centaur's director of design and development, was a graceful roadster design with covered headlights in the front fenders. The two body halves attached to each other clamshell-style with a flange that ran around the middle of the car, which was then covered with a strip of molding. Even the trim parts were made of chrome-plated Cycolac.
The body on the Corvair-powered CRV-II was cleaned up from the first prototype. Gone were large air inlets behind the cockpit area to feed the Sunbeam engine. It was also set up as a road racing car, to get more publicity and try the new chassis concept in a more stressful environment. It worked, with Centaur engineer Trant Jarman winning an SCCA divisional class championship in 1965. The third prototype was destroyed in crash tests. The fourth and fifth prototypes were lovely coupes and very close to production designs. The doors were two-piece, with the door window panels opening upwards (gullwing style) and conventional doors in the sides as well. The window panels could be removed for ventilation, as there was no provision for wind-up glass.
Amt Builds A Model CarAMT Corp. was a major player in the model car biz. They had recently started their AMT Speed and Custom division to build full-size dream cars for the movie and car show industries. It was run by famed auto stylist Gene Winfield, who later built cars for Blade Runner, The Last Starfighter, and dozens of other movies. Many of their creations ended up in model form as well. AMT decided the CRV might be a worthwhile project for their Speed and Custom guys. The idea was to rename it the Piranha and license the project from Marbon who would supply the Cycolac-molded bodies with the fiberglass chassis, having a steel subframe and honeycomb aluminum reinforcements.
The AMT version had an 89-inch wheelbase, an inch shorter than the first CRV prototypes. Weight was a svelte 1,400 lbs and the height was only 41 inches. Ideally they hoped to sell 50 of the Corvair-based sports cars per year. They were to have new 140 hp or 180 hp (turbocharged) Corvair engines, fabricated tubular A-arm suspension, and Girling disc brakes at all corners. Winfield recalls the spindles were off a Sunbeam Tiger, with Chrysler bearings and Koni coilover shocks. A great deal of research was done into making the Piranha a viable street and track machine.
However, the cost of tooling up proved to be quite high, and coupled with a weak economy and falling profits, it caused AMT to rethink the project. The decision was then made to offer the Piranha in kit form. The kit would include everything to complete the car (including a new 140hp Corvair engine and transaxle) for $3,677. A "Starter Kit" was to sell for $1,879.96, less running gear, and a hardtop was optional.
In order to publicize the venture, Winfield built up a special version of the Piranha to star in the popular television spy series, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." It was based on a chassis owned by Marbon, but the special body was customized by Winfield with a longer tail and elongated top. Loaded down with missile launchers and enough spyware to make James Bond's Aston turn its tail and run, the Piranha looked set for stardom.
However, it was not popular with the actors since getting in and out of the gullwing doors was awkward when they were in a hurry to escape a hail of imaginary bullets (laser-guided robot bats, whatever). The car was only used in a few episodes, including in the spin-off series "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," where agent Stephanie Powers wrestled with navigating the vehicle's wide sills in a miniskirt. When the car was returned to AMT, Winfield removed the U.N.C.L.E. body and replaced it with a standard Piranha body before sending the chassis back to Marbon. He then installed the U.N.C.L.E. body on an AMT chassis and sold it.
Other publicity ventures include a Piranha dragster, using only the Cycolac body perched on a conventional dragster chassis. Powered by a 1,400hp Chrysler Hemi, it cranked through the quarter-mile in 8.88 seconds at 182.64 mph. The Piranha dragster competed in match and exhibition races with some success, but it was more a publicity exercise than a serious racing effort.
Another road racing car was also built and driven by experienced racer Dick Carbajal in SCCA events. It was similar to the first race car (CRV-II). It was very quick, and Winfield recalls trying the standard four carburetors and twin three-barrel Webers (standard Porsche 911 equipment) before settling on a single four-barrel carb on a fabricated intake manifold. He says the car would pull the front wheels off the ground coming off of a corner! This car was featured in some of AMT's promotional material.
A tantalizing aside is a mysterious photo in an old photography magazine of a mildly modified CRV with a caption reading "Stylized by OSI." OSI was an Italian body manufacturer (formerly associated with Ghia) that built short runs of sports cars, as well as one-off show cars, in the mid- to late 1960s. Perhaps they built this version, which has headlights sunken into the front fender line, a hood air outlet, and chrome trim around the windshield and side windows. The first CRV prototype had been widely shown in European auto shows.
Try as they might, Winfield says only seven cars were completed. AMT scuttled the program in 1969 and the Piranha disappeared from the scene. The price of financing even short-run production was simply too high for AMT to make a profit. Winfield says AMT returned the chassis, bodies, and complete cars on hand to Marbon. The only cars that did not go back were the U.N.C.L.E car, the dragster, and the Carbajal road racer. However, AMT built a number of scale models of the Piranha series, including the U.N.C.L.E. and drag race versions.
In the early 1970s the familiar Piranha shape returned via a kit car sold by Sportsland Unlimited (a division of Allied Fiberglass) in Lincoln, Nebraska. The car was named the CRV, and the body was Cycolac, leading to the assumption that Marbon was still supplying bodies. However, the special chassis was gone, replaced by an uncut VW Beetle floorpan. A bare body shell retailed for $500, while a deluxe kit (with bumpers, windshield, roll bar, and seats) was another $395. An optional convertible top added $100, and a hardtop with gullwing doors was $150.
In 1974 Allied offered the same basic body (renamed the Seagull) but with a fiberglass body. It differed in many details from a CRV, with no doors or front trunk and larger, uncovered headlight openings. The lower roll panels were modified with an angled indentation that did nothing for the styling, ditto for the more upright windshield and bulge over the engine area (most likely these changes were made to avoid legal issues). The Seagull continued to be offered by two more companies, Aerospace Engineering and XL-100, Inc., which were probably also divisions of Allied. By the late '70s the Seagull was extinct, and Marbon later built a Cyclolac-bodied sports car prototype called the Formacar, but this failed to make it into production as well.
Cars built by Centaur, Marbon, and AMT are very rare and highly prized. The only example on public display is the "Man From U.N.C.L.E." car, which periodically appears at conventions and trade shows. Few of the Centaur CRV prototypes are accounted for-some may have been destroyed when their research days were over. Best estimates are that 15 complete CRV/Piranhas were made by Centaur and AMT combined. It is also possible that some cars were assembled from parts left over from the project, and these would be in addition to this figure. Centaur was later shut down and its assets sold at auction, and it is rumored that some Piranhas may have been sold at that time.
Some Centaur Piranha street cars have survived, sold after the project was cancelled. The "Man From U.N.C.L.E." Piranha has been restored, and the dragster and Carbajal road race car are still around. Seagull fiberglass bodies surface from time to time, and some believe the CRV/Piranha is one of the best-looking cars (not just kit cars) of the 1960s and, with Corvair-running gear, they should be maintainable and plenty quick.
Thanks to Piranha fan Nick Whitlow for inside information and photos of these remarkable cars, which you can further explore on his killer Web site: www.chadwick-whitlowenterprises.com/piranha. Also a tip of the hat to Gene Winfield, who continues to make stunning customs and rods in his shop, Rod & Custom Construction, in Mojave, California, for supplying information.