How Pete Brock beat the odds (and Carroll Shelby) with a Hino
It was 1967, and Pete Brock was having a bad year. The man who would go on to achieve complete dominance of the SCCA’s CP class in 1970 and 1971, winning both National Championships plus the 2.5-liter Trans-Am titles in 1971 and 1972, had no idea how bright the future would be. All he knew at the moment was that his entire promised Toyota 2000 GT race program had been (allegedly) stolen by Carroll Shelby. Oh, and he’d unwittingly created an international incident in Japan when his advanced GT race car had been rejected for the 1967 Japanese Grand Prix. It couldn’t get any worse — except it did, once he realized that he’d been defrauded of an entire year’s income by an executive.
Brock is the owner of Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, BRE’s Datsun 510 sedans, 2000 roadsters, and 240Zs owned SCCA club racing and Trans-Am. He eventually abandoned it all to innovate and produce his own world-championship-winning UP hang gliders. You might say, however, that it all started with a very unlikely arrangement of circumstances in 1967 that saw Brock hit rock bottom, with nowhere to go but up.
In the mid-1960s, Brock’s boss Shelby managed Ford’s myriad racing pursuits. Guided by disparate realms of design, practical application, experience at Shelby’s, and German pre-WWII books on aerodynamic testing, Brock’s arc rose. Designing race cars would soon be his next, and best, move.
Brock had come to Shelby after arriving at General Motors as its youngest designer in the late 1950s and penning the iconic Sting Ray Corvette. He loved design but wanted to race. His goal was to drive for Shelby’s burgeoning Cobra program in 1962, but Shelby had other ideas. Brock was tasked instead with advertising design, marketing tools, and (incidentally!) creation of the Daytona Cobra Coupe. When Shelby snagged the Mustang GT program, Brock designed the body and graphics that distinguished Shelby’s Mustang GT350 from more pedestrian examples.
Still, Brock just wanted to race.
Across the Pacific, Japanese truck manufacturer Hino had just launched its Contessa 900 sedan and hoped to enter the American market. Meanwhile, U.S.-expat Bob Dunham was in Japan teaching English, acting in Japanese films, and looking for a hook-up to help Hino compete in the burgeoning California club racing scene against British Cortinas and Coopers.
The 900 was Hino’s licensed version of the Renault 4CV—with a Hino-derived 900-cc water-cooled four-cylinder wheezer in the rear. Says Brock, “Nissan and Toyota were here already, but failing miserably with their long-stroke engines with high piston speeds. On our freeways, they’d overheat and blow up. Japanese culture was such that Hino’s engineers wanted to race but weren’t hot rodders who could modify a cylinder head, take .0050 off the top, port and polish it—you know, build it up.”
Looking for someone to hot rod a Hino, Dunham found Brock.
“Dunham wanted to show the Japanese the potential in racing, so he brought a 900 for me to modify,” Brock says. “We agreed I’d prepare it, then at season’s end I’d get the car and he’d return to Japan and make plans for a two-car team.”
A plan takes shape
During the mid-1960s, California club racing was dominated not by the SCCA, but by an outlaw-ish group called the “Cal Club.” Brock explains: “It was a visionary group wanting to go pro, which was the antithesis of the SCCA’s principles. The Cal Club was the first to establish a class for small sedans, becoming the origin of the SCCA’s Trans-Am series later on. I ran the Hino against Mini Coopers, Cortinas, VWs, and stuff. We raced all the So-Cal tracks up to mid-California.” Hino took notice.
“I was still working for Shelby and got a telegram asking me to come to Japan because Hino was interested in talking about a new car,” says Brock. He was in the middle of the DeTomaso P70 project for Shelby, however: “I had too much going on, but said I’d go after the holidays.”
Arrangements were made by Hino to rent the new Fuji Speedway for two days to test the new Contessa 1300 coupe.
Brock’s introduction to Japan was inauspicious. “It was in the middle of a typhoon—raining like you can’t believe.” Still, testing commenced.
Brock was slated to evaluate the coupe, a Michelotti design Hino hoped to market in the U.S. Two smart-looking and well-built coupes waited while the deluge slammed down.
“We go through this formalized ritual of testing and it’s raining so bad the windshield wipers can’t wash the water off of the windscreen,” laughs Brock. “I’m driving around trying to figure out which way the course is and there’s sheets of water stabbing across the track. I’d do some runs and go back and sit with engineers taking notes.”
After testing, Brock headed back to California. Then crickets. Months went by without a word. Finally, Brock received a notice that Hino wanted him to run a race car program in the U.S. With that, BRE was born.
After he set up shop by LAX, Brock built two cars using standard hot rod techniques. “Dual port manifolds for Webers, headers, stroker cranks, trick rods—all the good stuff,” he explains. “The suspension was swing axles in back, which were deadly, and up front standard European stuff with conventional shocks. We changed some of the mounting points, ran better shocks, better springs, and dropped the ride height. The radiator was in the back, sucking air in. I turned that around, so fans blew out engine heat—they worked well.”
By 1966, Cal Club activities had grown substantially. Its Riverside Times Mirror Grand Prix offered lots of press—and a larger purse than winning a Formula 1 race. The event attracted all the big drivers and teams, “like (Sterling) Moss and (Phil) Hill,” Brock says. “And with trick cars, it was a big, big race.”
As its opening event before Sunday’s Grand Prix, Cal Club created the Mission Bell 100 for run-what-you-brung hooligan sedans in the under 2-liter category. An 80,000-plus strong contingent of spectators were slack-jawed when Brock’s Contessas finished one and two.
“No one had heard of Hino, and suddenly they’re elevated to international status because of this race,” says Brock.
Word immediately reached Japan. Newspapers announced the win on their front pages, and Hino was ecstatic. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Brock says. “They wanted me to run their racing program for two years and do whatever I wanted. I dreamed of designing a really neat GT car for Le Mans and they wrote the cost into the budget—and that was it.”
Brock designed the groundbreaking, gorgeous Samurai GT for Le Mans. The Samurai looked like a spaceship, blending a LeGrand Mk IV tube chassis with the first-ever driver-adjustable rear wing Brock called a “ring airfoil” (comparable to later Formula 1 aerodynamics). He made a quarter-scale model before Troutman and Barnes banged out the beautiful aluminum panels. The end result weighed a tad over 1100 pounds. The Samurai was beyond anything anyone had ever seen. However, big changes loomed on the horizon for Hino.
Change on the horizon for Hino
Toyota was making a play for Hino. It needed more production capacity, and Hino had facilities. The merger was also an opportune way to eliminate competition while gaining truck and bus production. Soon, Hino’s small Briska pickup became the Toyota Hilux.
Toyota was now interested in BRE and the Samurai. Representatives visited Brock to negotiate incorporating his efforts with Toyota. Brock was loyal to Hino, but with the company’s blessing, Brock acquiesced and Toyota purchased the Samurai.
Preparation of the Samurai for the 1967 Japanese Grand Prix time closed in, and all Brock had was assurances from Toyota that payment would indeed arrive. “I was still loyal to Hino but if payment wasn’t made, I decided I’d ship the car as a Hino,” says Brock. With no time left, that’s exactly what he did.
“When I arrive in Japan,” recalls Brock, “there are a bunch of people from Toyota, and they’re real unhappy I’m there with this car.” Brock had stirred further discussion by picking actor Toshiro Mifune, from the 1966 movie Grand Prix, as team captain.
Brock headed to Fuji Speedway, not realizing that Toyota actually owned the track. They commanded tech inspectors not to allow the car onto the track because its presence spiked Hino’s stock value—precisely when Toyota was gobbling up stock to take over Hino. Adding to its embarrassment, Toyota did not have anything even remotely comparable to race against the Samurai.
Mainstream press had the story on the front pages. The U.S. embassy noticed. Representatives came to the circuit wanting to know why this American and his race car were raising Hino’s stock values.
“They told me I caused an international incident,” laughs Brock.
Eventually, track officials announced the car was too low to race, but that they would allow exhibition runs. And the money for the Samurai? Toyota’s U.S. representative said he paid Brock so Toyota’s management thought Brock got his money. He didn’t.
Still, with big plans for their beautiful 2000 GT and its twin-cam engine, Toyota was impressed enough to sign Brock to run their U.S. racing development program.
Shelby gets wind
Around the same time, Ford quit racing, leaving Shelby with a huge operation that had been devoted mainly to the Blue Oval. Shelby was advised to seek a Toyota dealership because the Japanese firm was almost as eager to race as the domestics were to get out of sports-car racing. As he signed papers for his dealership in El Segundo, California, Shelby inquired whether Toyota had considered racing. Representatives told him about the contract with BRE.
“Shelby was at the peak of his career,” Brock says. “He tells them, ‘I’m sure I can handle that much better than Brock,’ and even offers to do it for three times the money I was doing it for. Well, Shelby gets the program anyway. Unaware, I’ve hocked myself to the eyeballs with a new dyno and shop.”
And still, there was no money from Toyota.
“I found out over a year later that Toyota’s representative charged with the entire program took the money, telling the factory he paid me,” Brock says. “The feds got involved and started tracking the guy and put together a good case—but right before they grabbed him, he fled to Japan.”
Unaware of all this, BRE continued trying to do business with Toyota, and found it wasn’t too popular with Toyota’s Board of Directors.
Incredibly, in the midst of all of this, Brock designed and built the beautiful JP6 GT endurance racer powered by the 2000 GT’s twin-cam. Then he discovered that his 2000 GTs had been shipped to Shelby. A heated Brock says, “I wanted to race against Shelby and blow his ass off.” But how?
Dealing with Datsun
Brock looked up Datsun, which was racing its 2000 roadsters in SCCA DP-class with little success. Datsun’s U.S. representatives told him their cars were not good for racing.
“I said you can build a winning car from anything if you’re good at it—but they declined,” says Brock. Undaunted, Brock pitched Datsun’s PR department. He was shown the door.
Bent but not broken, he called a good friend in Japan from his Hino days and explained that he was getting nowhere with Datsun. His friend thought he could help. A few days later he told Brock, “They’re sending you two cars and enough money to run the whole season.” Stunned, Brock learned his friend had gone to school with the CEO of Nissan Corp. Friends in high places and all that…
BRE dove into modifying the little 2000s in secret. When they arrived at the track with these slick roadsters, the U.S. Datsun representatives came unglued.
“When they found out I had gone over their heads directly to Japan, they were hot,” laughs Brock. On the track, the cars were rocket ships. They immediately won races and eventually captured the Pacific Coast Championship.
“Datsun calls me, wanting to meet with the same representatives who originally blew me off,” says Brock. “Now, however, they’re quite conciliatory.”
In attendance was Mr. Yutaka Katayama, father of the 240Z and president of Nissan USA. He and Brock clicked. When the meeting finished, Brock had the keys to Datsun’s racing program from a most gracious and enthusiastic company.
In spite of over a half-million dollars thrown Shelby’s way, no Toyota 2000 GTs ever qualified for national competition. Perhaps embarrassed by losing face in America, Toyota quit racing for 10 years. Meanwhile, BRE 240Zs won SCCA’s CP class in 1970 and 1971, and BRE Datsun 510 sedans were National Champions in 2.5-liter Trans-Am racing in 1971 and 1972. It was an overnight success story — but one that was born in those dark days of 1967.