Motorsport fever around the globe has produced some special national championships, and none more so than in Argentina.
One of South America’s most spectacular race series was the short-lived Sport Prototipo Argentino, which from 1969-’73 produced some of the wildest-looking racers.
With bulbous rooflines to meet the odd height regulations, dramatic streamlined bodies with audacious extensions and precarious aerodynamic wings, these front-engined, V8-powered machines looked more like full-scale slot-cars.
Then there were the names of Chevun, Liebre, Poto, Numa and Baufer, which made the series’ entry list sound like an online gaming scoreboard.
But this dramatic series involved visionary designers including Oreste Berta, who was later invited to the Nürburgring 1000km with his team’s LR prototype, and Heriberto Pronello, a talented aerodynamics specialist.
At home, these new prototypes were cover stars of Parabrisas Corsa magazine, but outside the Argentine Republic the cars and their aces were little reported in Europe, other than in stories about rising star Carlos Reutemann.
So the surprise entry of a sensational Huayra Pronello Ford coupé at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed in July led to fascinated enthusiasts Googling the Sport Prototipo series, with many voting the restored 200mph prototype their standout car of the event.
The genesis of this scratch-built GT and the Sport Prototipo series was the launch of the IKA (Industrias Kaiser Argentina) Torino, a cult coupé that became the Mustang of the southern hemisphere.
Very quickly, the straight-six Torino went racing in the popular Turismo Carretera (TC) series.
The regulations allowed extensive modifications – including to the bodywork – and, keen to fuel more interest in the model, constructor IKA launched a works team and enlisted both Oreste and Pronello.
The open regulations meant specifications and performance developed rapidly, way beyond the original production-car spirit of the series, and after several fatal accidents, IKA withdrew its factory involvement.
Popular pressure led to organisers reverting the TC regulations to more production-based rules, but, to accommodate the more extreme creations, in 1969 the Argentine Automobile Club launched a totally new championship entitled Sport Prototipo Argentino.
IKA remained involved, but now unofficially through Pronello, who was determined to develop his bold designs.
These had begun in 1965 with his Torino-based ‘Liebre’ racers that had proved dominant for TC champions Eduardo Copello and Gastón Perkins.
For his new car, Pronello designed a beefy spaceframe to take a 4-litre, 320bhp Ford V8 mated to a four-speed, non-synchromesh ZF ’box.
With disc brakes and all-independent suspension, the GT was a long way from the production Torino.
The most exciting feature was the streamlined glassfibre body, which had been honed after wind-tunnel testing with a fifth-scale model.
Several aerodynamic aids were tried, including a Chaparral-style high wing and a removable Kamm-tail extension.
Due to the sealed moulding of the rear body, this section had to be secured from inside the cockpit using a special tool.
Distinctive features included a wraparound aircraft-style windscreen, gullwing doors and a roofline of at least 1100mm high to meet the regulations.
A large ram-air box covered the protruding quad Weber carbs, which sat above Pronello’s shapely wing line.
The original design was lower and, in later years, the top would be cut off when the rules were relaxed to include barchettas and help boost entries.
This windcheating racer was christened Huayra – pronounced ‘wai-rah’ – an ancient name given to the Andean god associated with hurricanes.
Horacio Pagani would also adopt it for his 238mph hypercar, 40 years later.
Delays at the secret workshop in Córdoba led to the Huayra making its debut late in the inaugural 1969 Sport Prototipo season at the team’s local track, the Autódromo Oscar Cabalén, renamed after the Argentinian ace who was killed in 1967 while testing a Ford prototype.
The beautifully prepared blue coupés attracted a big crowd for the fourth round of the new series.
Out of the box, drivers Carlos Reutemann and Carlos Pasqualini were both very quick.
Although rival Luis Rubén di Palma eventually claimed pole in practice, the Huayra teammates set equal times to join his Berta Tornado on the front row, a record they would maintain for every Sport Prototipo event they entered that year.
‘Picho’ Pasqualini led the opening race from the start, much to the delight of Ford fans, but after 10 laps he pulled off with braking problems while ‘Lole’ Reutemann later retired from third.
Back at the workshop base in Villa Nueva, the small team worked all hours to resolve the Huayra’s gremlins for the next race on the 4.6km oval in Rafaela.
Around Argentina’s fastest track, Pronello’s aerodynamic work really scored as the Huayra roared into the banked turns.
Nothing that day could match Reutemann and Pasqualini in practice, with the trap confirming speeds of around 300kph (188mph).
Fearing the side windows might pop out at speed, the team taped them down securely for the race.
Reutemann beat his teammate by just 0.7 secs to take pole but, unhappy with the handling, Lole asked to switch cars – a decision he would later regret.
From the start, the Huayra pair headed by Reutemann pulled out a huge advantage, but at half distance in the first race the frustrated leader lost power and retired.
Pasqualini took control and from then dominated both 40-lap races, with Juan Bordeu’s Baufer-Dodge the only rival unlapped at the finish.
“I remember that we were diving into the curves at almost 300kph, but the Huayra gripped very well,” recalled Picho.
“The car felt perfectly balanced, turning in and braking impeccably.
“Without a doubt, that day was the most important victory of my career.”
Just as the equipe felt confident about the season ahead, the news came that Ford had decided to build and sell engines to other Sport Prototipo teams.
For the rest of the new series the Huayra was consistently fastest in practice, but cursed with mechanical problems when the engine was pushed to the limit while fighting for the lead.
The heavily modified Ford Y-block had been downsized to a 4-litre unit, with four downdraught 48/48 IDF Webers producing 430bhp.
Had Pronello’s team retained exclusive use of the Ford V8, the history of just a single Huayra victory recorded could have been very different.
The Sport Prototipo series was a bold idea, but few privateer teams could afford the budget to develop such radical sports-racers, and grids during its five years rarely reached 20.
Argentina’s socialist politics meant that imports were also restricted and, with fewer entrants, the AAC cancelled the series in 1973.
Like many Argentinian motorsport fans, Ricardo Zeziola was fascinated by the Sport Prototipo series and particularly the designs of Heriberto Pronello.
In 1996, Ricardo began restoring a Halcón-Ford Turismo Carretera racer and, after a three-year rebuild, the project won best restoration at the 1999 Autoclásica, Argentina’s premier classic car show.
The Halcón created a flood of nostalgia and other cars started to reappear, but it was another five years before Ricardo discovered the renowned Huayra.
Both Sports Prototipo coupés were thought to be long lost, but then came news of one car found derelict in Córdoba.
He immediately contacted the then-70-year-old Pronello, who was just as enthusiastic about the rediscovered survivor.
Over the five-year restoration, Pronello became closely involved again with chassis 002 and the meticulously rebuilt Huayra went on to win restoration of the year at the 2010 Autoclásica.
Post-rebuild highlights included presenting the car to Reutemann, by then a respected governor for Santa Fe, not far from Rafaela.
At the reunion, the 12-time F1 race winner contorted into the driving seat, which was always a tight squeeze even back in 1969.
Starting up the raucous 430bhp V8 brought a wide smile to the famous driver’s face.
In 2022, the Huayra returned to Autoclásica for a special tribute to Reutemann, who died in 2021, where restorer Ricardo, in discussion with Formula One engineer Sergio Rinland, had the dream idea of entering the prototype for the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Sadly, Pronello couldn’t join the Huayra on its first trip outside Argentina, but the ocean-blue coupé pulled big crowds all weekend.
Running in the wet was a novelty for Ricardo and his son.
Just days before the Festival, the Huayra headed up to Northamptonshire to undertake a fascinating aerodynamic experiment at the Catesby Innovation Centre.
In 2017, after lying abandoned for 50 years, its 2740m-long, 8m-wide former Great Central railway underpass was converted into a wind tunnel.
Instigated by Sergio, a former Brabham and Sauber F1 designer, the trial included engineering students from Oxford Brookes University and ex-Ferrari aerodynamicist Willem Toet.
As a student in the ’60s, Sergio was aware of Pronello’s original wind-tunnel tests and was keen to investigate the Huayra’s innovative ground-effect ideas.
Early in the morning, students carefully attached pressure sensors to the immaculate glassfibre body and, with test equipment crammed into the tight cockpit, the Huayra roared up the historic tunnel’s 1:176 gradient.
Several body configurations were tested, including a long-tail extension.
Sergio is full of enthusiasm for the facility: “It’s a great place to confirm the aerodynamic characteristics of a historic car in a fun and inexpensive way.
“With radiator, gearbox and engine running at proper temperatures, and a smooth surface with no outdoor environmental variables, we collected some fascinating data with phenomenal repeatability.”
Appropriately, the Huayra’s name had been suggested to designer Pronello by an artist friend after seeing his scale model being tested in the wind tunnel at a school of aeronautical engineering run by the Argentine Air Force in Córdoba.
“It’s a stunning car,” enthuses Willem.
“The upper shape is slippery and the flat floor with a diffuser gave it quite an edge.
“It has an expansion ratio that puts it staggeringly close to the maximum downforce.”
From the recorded pressure points distributed around the Huayra’s bodywork, the Catesby test confirmed the effectiveness of Pronello’s ideas.
Keen to make the most of the car’s UK visit, Ricardo also accepted an invitation to the Argentine Embassy.
Sitting on a red carpet, the V8 racer let rip for a special lunchtime demonstration, its roar sounding out around Belgravia’s streets, much to the surprise of residents.
But the highlight of the London gathering was an emotional link-up with the Huayra’s 84-year-old designer for a Q&A.
After the cancellation of the Sports Prototipo series, Heriberto Pronello moved away from motorsport into military engineering and industrial robotics.
But in 2009, the maverick designer teamed up with Leonardo Monti for a return to competition when he was enlisted to co-design another Liebre racer to compete in the 2010 Dakar Argentina-Chile rally.
Four decades after his legendary GT racers, the dramatic, lightweight 3-litre off-roader had Pronello’s unmistakable, signature profile.
Frustratingly, this exciting national project, driven by locals Fernando and Carlos Veronesi, ran short of funding and retired early.
Images: John Bradshaw/Emmanouel Tzevelekakis
Thanks to: Ricardo Zeziola; Gabriel de Meurville; Catesby Innovation Centre
Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here