What do you think of when you hear the last name “Heinz?” Most of us probably think of catsup. The more politically minded may recall Teresa Heinz, wealthy heiress and wife of current US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is known for expressing her opinions rather bluntly. However, the name is also associated with the 1938 Phantom Corsair, one of the most distinctive cars ever built.
The Phantom Corsair was the brainchild of Rust Heinz, son of the famous condiments entrepreneur HJ Heinz. A student at Yale in the late 1930s, the family wanted him to pursue a conventional career in architecture. His passions lay in auto design, however. So he moved to the West Coast and partnered with famed coachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz to build a new car based on the Cord 810 chassis. The team removed the original sub-frame and merged it with an X-shaped layout developed by AJ Bayer’s firm. Heinz contributed the overall design of the auto, including its unique teardrop shape.
The final result was a marvel by 1930s standards that’s still impressive today. The body was made of hand-shaped aluminum panels stretched over a tubular frame. The profile began with a heavily louvered nose and swept backward in a sleek pattern that ended with an invisible rear fender. The headlamps were compact, as was the front windshield and the side windows. The wheels were fully skirted, adding to its one-of-a-kind appearance and enhanced aerodynamics. The doors had no handles; the driver gained entry through pushbutton controls hidden alongside a rear window. Notably absent were running boards, which were all the rage at the time.
Interior features were equally innovative. The front seat stretched five feet across, large enough to accommodate four adults, one of whom would sit to the left of the driver. The windshield was made from three-layer safety glass. The back seat was tiny by comparison, intended to hold two passengers but in reality fitting only one of normal size. Heinz had food and drink containers added to the rear of the compartment. A special console over the steering wheel gave an alert if the radio or headlights were left on or if a door was ajar.
Heinz planned to sell replicas of his cutting-edge vehicle for $14,700.00, or about $250,000.00 in today’s money. Tragically, he died after a 1939 car crash, and his dream passed on with him. Today the Corsair has been restored to its original glory and sits in the Harrah National Automotive Museum in Reno, NV, a reminder of a past time in which people dreamt of the future.
- Teresa Heinz