Heroes

by Robert Cumberford

This appeared in the December 1995 issue of Automobile.

One compensation for lost youth is that, if you live long enough, you might be fortunate enough to meet some of your personal heroes. Yes, designers have heroes, too, just like regular people. I have been particularly lucky in meeting many of mine, because circumstances allowed me to start encountering some of them when I was quite young. I was still a teenager when I shook the hand of Battista "Pinin" Farina, as I was when I went to work for Harley Earl at General Motors. I was even younger when I met Laurence Pomeroy, the great British engineer/writer whose books on Grand Prix cars are worth their weight in precious metal these days.

Pomeroy introduced me to Mike Hawthorn, Britain's first World Champion racing driver, at Sebring in 1954. "Oh, Mike. I'd like you to meet my young American friend," he said, leading me up to a seated figure perched on the back bumper of a rental Ford. As we got closer, we saw that the white-haired Hawthorn was rather occupied, drinking from one Coke bottle as he relieved himself into another. "Right. Just a moment. Here, hold this," he said, as he thrust one of the bottles at me. A true gentleman, our Mike. It was the cold one.

Over the years I've met a dozen Indy 500 winners, heroes all, from Ralph DePalma (who came to our L.A. high school with his nephew Pete DePaolo to preach safe driving) to Rick Mears, and almost as many Formula 1 champions. I have talked with Jimmy Doolittle and Douglas Bader, had dinners with Marcello Gandini and Giorgetto Giugiaro, lunches with Franco Scaglione and Nuccio Bertone, and talks with other greats, near-greats, and will-be-greats in the worlds of design and vehicular derring-do. Memorable events, all of them. But none more so than meeting Dottore-Ingegnere Stelio Frati this past summer.


Robert Cumberford and Stelio Frati

Frati is a designer, of course, an airplane designer from Italy, a country that makes very few airplanes of any kind, but one with an extraordinarily rich aeronautical heritage all the same. To put Frati into an automotive perspective, he is an engineering genius whose airplanes embody vastly superior handling characteristics in the way Colin Chapman's Lotus cars did, along with the charisma of Ferraris. They're wonderfully light, too, but unlike Chapman's cars, Frati's airplanes don't break in extreme service. That would be reason enough for me to admire him greatly, but not to make him a personal hero. He is that because his airplanes are beautiful. He is a superb aesthetic designer, on a par with his countrymen Bertone and Farina.

Frati was at the Experimental Aircraft Association Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to help celebrate the fortieth anniversary of his Falco F.8L, an all-wood two-seat sport airplane the performance of which-for a given amount of power-has hardly been surpassed in the ensuing four decades. Frati speaks no English, although he understands it quite well. Like many northern Italians, he does speak French, giving us a way to communicate. He is a small, quiet man, a little shy, and extremely modest about his accomplishments.

They are considerable, because it is no small task to design, build, and certify an airplane, and he has twenty-seven of them now. Jumping through all the technical and bureaucratic hoops erected by various governments to assure that objects passing over our heads won't fall on us is a daunting task for big companies working with dozens of engineers. Frati, working with just one other engineer and two draftsmen, recently certified four distinct versions of his F.22 airframe in less than four years.

It was evident that Signor Frati was much bemused by the sight of eighteen or twenty of his complex and exacting Falcos sitting on the ramp at Oshkosh. When he was first approached by laid-back Virginian and former Marine Alfred Scott with the idea of letting American enthusiasts build Falcos in their basements and garages, he dismissed the idea out of hand. "Impossible," he told his longtime assistant, Carla Bielli. "The Falco is too complicated." So Signora Bielli did what she apparently often does: She ignored Frati's protests, said, "Why not?" to Scott, and persuaded Frati to sign the contract that Scott quickly sent back.

I've known about the Falco for all of its forty years. Designed for GT racing, it seemed such a perfect sculptural object in 1955 that anyone who likes airplanes even a little has to love it a lot; it is at once delicate and immensely strong. Made entirely of thin laminates and shaped bits of wood ("God's own composite," the late Frank Costin, creator of voluptuous early Lotus sports car bodies and the wood-chassis Marcos cars, called it), the Falcos at Oshkosh looked to have been carved from Carrara marble, so perfect were their shiny white surfaces.

Those individually built airplanes say a great deal about Americans. It doesn't matter how hard a task may be: If they are doing it because they want to, they'll do it right. Europeans may appreciate good things, but they don't often possess the means to do things our middle-class people consider perfectly normal, like building an airplane at home. We may worry about taxes, the deficit, and our economic futures, but we are rich by world standards and so can afford to tackle projects that would indeed be impossible for Europeans, if only on financial grounds.

Industrially, all developed countries are about on par. Consider a couple of bad productions cars, the Chevrolet Vega and the Fiat Strada. They were both unreliable junk when they left their respective factories and deteriorated at similar rates from there. Individually, there are big differences: Think about the Kurtis or A.J. Watson Indy cars that ran the Race for Two Worlds at Monza in the Fifties, compared with the Ferraris and Maseratis that ran against them. The American cars were of such perfect craftsmanship that Europeans could hardly believe they were meant to be driven. The Ferraris' engines were of course well finished, as always, but the bodywork was lumpy, bumpy, and badly painted. As always.

Even though his own workers are no slouches, I am reasonably certain that the good Dott.-Ing. Frati has never seen any of his designs as well executed as those made by American craftsmen. A General Avia F.22 is probably better than a Beechcraft for workmanship, but mechanical objects created by people working for themselves in this country, whether homebuilt airplanes or street rods or customized trucks on lowriders, are the finest machines I have ever seen in craft and finish. I can-and often do-quarrel with the design objectives, but I admire inordinately the driven perfectionisn that leads to flawless execution. And when that perfectionism is directed toward a design as worthy as the Frati Falco, I am delighted.

And I am grateful for the person who made it all possible: the creator. Without the intelligence and imagination of a good designer, a craftsman's skill is wasted. Willie Nelson's heroes have always been cowboys. Most of mine are designers.