Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

| 29 Mar 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

Just as Terry Malloy famously protested to his brother in On the Waterfront, the one-off Siata 208 CS coupé also “coulda been a contender”.

In the same year the Sam Spiegel movie classic made its debut, a lean, lightweight Italian coupé arrived on the Long Beach dockside with high hopes of class glory in the legendary 1954 Carrera Panamericana, but for unknown reasons this dramatic 2-litre V8 sensation never made it across the border.

Just sitting behind the broad, four-spoke wheel and bold Jaeger dials in the Siata’s low, bare-bones cockpit, it’s easy to conjure a Mexican road-race fantasy through the car’s narrow, pillarbox windscreen.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata 208 CS coupé looks at home in Goodwood Motor Circuit’s old-school pitlane

Pitched against the factory teams from Borgward, Osca and Porsche, American entrant Ernie McAfee could have chased them all up the twisty mountain roads and along the flat desert highways, the compact Fiat V8 engine singing to 6000rpm as he worked the five-speed gearbox – but the one-off aluminium coupé never got the chance.

Seven decades after its arrival in California, a test run at Goodwood quickly confirms the potential of the last V8 Siata built in the Turin works.

With an extensively drilled chassis and a light body, this 1600lb, 140bhp sensation feels sharp and balanced.

The tuned, Otto Vu-based engine loves to rev and pulls eagerly to 6000rpm through the close-ratio transmission as the crisp exhaust rasp fills the cockpit.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata’s two-tone paint is best admired from above

The worm-and-wheel steering is perfectly weighted, with inspired feel to place the car neatly through the Sussex circuit’s fast turns, while the all-independent, Dubonnet-style suspension provides superb balance.

Combined with impressive drum brakes, it’s easy to appreciate why the V8 Siatas were so enthusiastically reviewed by American road testers, who voted it the best-handling sports car of its day.

With no silencers, the Fiat 8V unit’s raucous bark belies its junior capacity, and with such eager performance it is easy to forget Goodwood’s noise restrictions

As speeds rise, the Siata’s impressive poise encourages ever-quicker pace and, sitting so low, it feels much more modern than its 70 years suggest – more Lotus in spirit than its Italian rivals.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata 208 CS coupé’s spartan cockpit features a four-spoke steering wheel

Contorting out of the low cockpit through the open flyweight doors, a small worn transfer with bold ‘Ernie McAfee’ type and a red Italian barchetta is apparent on the side window.

The talented, Kansas-born specialist became the main importer of Siatas to the US West Coast and even counted a young Steve McQueen as a customer.

From his teenage years as a record-breaking hot-rodder in self-built streamliners on the dry lakes during the late 1930s, McAfee became a popular and respected figure around southern California.

After he beat playboy Tommy Lee in a desert match race in 1949, the impressed millionaire enlisted McAfee to maintain his exotic collection, and a drive in Lee’s Grand Prix Alfa across the desert converted him to Italian machinery.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The riveted fuel tank is located behind the Siata’s vented seats

McAfee’s workshop soon became a magnet for enthusiasts, including some of California’s richest.

These were headed by property tycoon Tony Parravano and later oil man Bill Doheny, who backed the purchase of 25 Siatas to set up a dealership.

The contract was signed at the 1952 New York motor show, with the deal celebrated by the marque’s founding Ambrosini family into the early hours at the legendary El Morocco nightclub.

To promote the little-known brand, McAfee started racing the first 208S roadster to be shipped to the West Coast.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata 208 CS coupé’s slim windows and low roofline create a striking side profile

Having finished fifth when co-driving a Ferrari 340 coupé in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana, McAfee began planning a sortie for 1953 with a Siata.

After it couldn’t be built in time, the entry for the special coupé was switched to 1954, but why the ‘Mexico’ Siata didn’t fulfil its planned tilt at the Carrera has never been confirmed.

Some histories claim it was shipped too late for the 2000-mile challenge, starting on 19 November, yet a month before the event, on 16-17 October, McAfee had already competed in the one-off at the Palm Springs Road Races where, sharing with Bill Thomas, it finished seventh overall in the over-1500cc class.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

A few laps at Goodwood suggest that the Siata 208 CS coupé would’ve impressed at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, had it made it across the border

Painted in a dramatic white-and-blue scheme with stencil-style ‘165’ numbers, the Siata attracted enthusiastic attention when it arrived in the paddock.

McAfee was out again two weeks later in the Orange Empire Sports Car Races at March Air Reserve Base near Moreno Valley, where the car failed to finish.

Historic photos show the twin-exhaust system had already been modified to a shorter side exit sprouting out of the wing vents.

Terminating ahead of the rear wheels and without silencers, it must have been heard all around the Fourth Air Force base.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

This was the final V8-powered Siata built in the company’s Turin works

Other reports suggest McAfee scratched the Siata from the Carrera due to engine problems with a ‘loose piston’ – the Dante Giacosa design was prone to centre-bearing lubrication problems at high revs – but more likely is the news that Fiat had announced the end of 8V engine supply to Siata, which meant there was little point in promoting the 208 in America.

With every car handmade in the Turin works, production numbers totalled just 50 – including 35 Spiders – of which McAfee’s 208 CS Mexico coupé, chassis BS537, was the last.

McAfee had already moved his business from Cahuenga Boulevard into central Los Angeles and a new showroom at 8363 Sunset Boulevard, where, having become an official Ferrari agent, he now had new priorities.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

Jaeger dials are positioned ahead of the driver in the Siata 208 CS coupé

Possibly encouraged by Luigi Chinetti, McAfee switched to co-driving the Carrera event with the Dominican playboy and diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa in his newly acquired Ferrari 500 Mondial.

Having recently divorced Barbara Hutton with a huge settlement, and encouraged by his Spanish buddy Alfonso de Portago, Rubirosa had decided to enter the gruelling Mexican road race.

Possibly spooked by gruesome stories of the challenge’s dangers, Rubirosa’s new Mondial was out on day one with overheating just 10 miles from the start.

Back in McAfee’s Sunset showroom, the Siata coupé was pushed to the back of the store while he focused on his Ferrari business, including a spectacular ex-works 121LM, another new acquisition funded by patron Doheny, which he planned to enter into the 1955 Carrera.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

‘The V8 Siatas were enthusiastically reviewed, American road testers voting it the best-handling sports car of its day’

Painted blue with distinctive white scallops and an engine uprated to 4.4 litres, the 121LM was very quick, and McAfee rapidly became a frontrunner at airfield events.

Acknowledging the backing of Doheny’s oil company, Union 76, his race cars carried a succession of numbers, with ‘76’ on a Moretti 750, ‘176’ for the Osca MT4 and finally ‘76’ in stylish script adorning the Ferrari 121LM.

To support the team, McAfee acquired a bus for conversion into a race transporter.

Painted blue with opening sides and a rooftop seating platform, the new rig was christened the ‘Omaha Special’.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata rocked up at the 1954 Palm Springs Road Races sporting the white-and-blue colour scheme

Everything was going like a dream for the popular McAfee, with the powerful 121LM taking outright wins in early 1956.

At Santa Barbara he beat Masten Gregory’s Maserati 300S after a dramatic, race-long dice, the pair separated by just 0.05 secs at the chequer.

On top of the track glory and his thriving business, McAfee had recently become a father following the birth of his daughter, Robin.

In April the McAfee team headed up Highway 101 to Monterey for the Pebble Beach races, on the treacherous road course which many felt had been outgrown by the hottest Ferraris.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

Borrani wire wheels fill the Siata 208 CS coupé’s wheelarches

“I think we all realised these cars were getting too big, too quick and too unpredictable for such an unforgiving tree-lined course,” said Phil Hill.

“On the Sunday morning I was talking with Ernie’s wife, Jean, and found we were both worried about the race to come.”

That pre-race trepidation about the Del Monte Trophy feature event tragically proved prescient when, on lap 33, Ernie missed a gear after passing the Monza of his namesake Jack McAfee into Turn 6.

With locked brakes leaving 120ft skidmarks, the Ferrari slammed broadside into a pine tree and the heavy driver’s-side impact killed Ernie instantly.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata’s Fiat 8V 2-litre engine with distinctive, high-set manifolds

Hill finished the race in second place behind Carroll Shelby, but was numb with shock.

“It was a terrible afternoon and I felt a kind of guilt for having been complicit in the racing,” said Hill, who had previously dated Jean and went on to help her sort out Ernie’s business while the couple’s six-month-old baby Robin grew up without knowing her father.

Doheny was equally distraught at the loss of his friend, and he locked away both the crashed Ferrari and the Siata coupé.

Story has it the millionaire oil magnate occasionally took the sleek 208 CS out for a run down Sunset Boulevard, but in 1958, following an approach from Wes Belt, Doheny finally agreed to sell.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata 208 CS coupé’s gorgeous rear evokes the later Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato

After racing the Siata several times at Palm Springs, Belt started planning a performance upgrade with a fuel-injected 283cu in Chevy small-block engine transplant and various body modifications.

Belt enlisted his artist friend Bill Moore, who started sketching out ideas for a stretched nose, a new grille and small fins.

The Siata then moved to Bob Carroll’s workshop, where the famed Indy race-car fabricator started work on the car with Quin Epperly.

Thankfully, however, the modifications were never completed.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The creator of the sleek body is a mystery, but likely Siata’s own in-house artisans

Stripped of its paint, the bare-aluminium Siata coupé sat at the back of Carroll’s bodyshop on Melrose, but its lithe, dramatic-looking profile continued to attract attention, particularly among local ArtCenter students on afternoon walks.

Carroll, frustrated with the nosy young visitors, eventually taped a handwritten sign on the top of the windscreen warning: ‘Knuckle Sound Testers. This car is constructed of 22-gauge aluminum. Keep hands off or be charged for damage.’

The engineless Siata eventually returned to Belt’s backyard, where collector-car auctioneer and racer Rick Cole discovered it in 1982.

Fascinated by the stripped coupé, Cole contacted Anton ‘Tony’ Krivanek of Vintage Racing Services.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata’s twin pipes emit a rich bark

Krivanek’s knowledge of Italian cars included an acute interest in the rare 8V Siatas, and he rushed over and instantly recognised McAfee’s unique Mexico coupé.

Encouraged by this confirmation, Cole did a deal to save it, and over the next two years Krivanek restored the Siata and carefully undid the planned modifications of Belt and Moore.

Through contacts and multiple ‘wanted’ ads in magazines, Krivanek managed to track down the original engine and five-speed gearbox.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The original Ernie McAfee transfer on this Siata

During the restoration, Krivanek discovered the car was built around the box-section-type chassis used on the beautiful 208 Spiders rather than the tubular specification of the Farina- and Balbo-built coupés, of which just nine were made.

McAfee had initially planned to run the special-order coupé in the 1953 Carrera, but Siata founder Giorgio Ambrosini and his son Renato felt time was too tight.

As a result, McAfee decided to run a 208 Spider with its engine sleeved down to 1600cc for the smaller sports car class.

Hop Up magazine, after it had witnessed the fanatical lightening carried out by McAfee, christened it the ‘Holey Terror’.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

This Siata classic car is a rare survivor

The obsession with lightness included slimming down essential tools and even drilling the ignition key.

McAfee went on a strict diet and decided to drive solo, just as Fangio did in the Lancia D24.

This wasn’t out of concern for passenger safety, but to further cut weight.

The Spider was quick and after the first leg was running fifth, but on the next section, from Oaxaca to Mexico City, after he’d passed the leading Porsche, the red roadster charged off the road on a blind dog-leg and centre-punched a concrete kilometre stone.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

Siata 208 CS coupés rarely race on circuits nowadays

Jean Behra in his Gordini had also lost it at the same spot, but in contrast the Siata looked unscathed, although the heavy impact had cracked the steering box and bent a front chassis crossmember.

Road & Track reporter Dean Batchelor stopped to check that McAfee was okay and discovered the unsurprisingly shaken driver among the local crowd.

After a welcome cigarette, Batchelor gave him a lift back to Oaxaca to collect the trailer.

“We’re coming back next year,” joked McAfee, “but I might have to drill a few more holes.”

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

You sit low in the Siata 208 CS coupé’s pared-back cabin

After removing the coupé’s body, Krivanek discovered extensive drilling all over the Spider-type chassis and, knowing the legend of the ‘Holey Terror’, he began to think the Mexico had been built around the 1953 entry, which had long since disappeared.

Research was more of a challenge back in the internet-free 1980s, but it was Belgian historian Tony Adriaensens who eventually confirmed in his remarkable OttoVu books that these two Siatas were separate cars.

The ‘Holey Terror’ Spider was already back racing regularly in California before the coupé was delivered in 1954.

The builder of the unique bodywork remains a mystery.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata’s five-speed gearbox helps make the most of the raucous Fiat engine

Giovanni Michelotti is believed to have styled the Spider for Bertone, so it’s possible he was involved with refining the Mexico coupé, but there is no record of Balbo building it.

Most Siata experts, including Adriaensens, conclude the one-off was built in-house at Siata’s workshops on Via Leonardo da Vinci in Turin, to McAfee’s instructions.

Owner Cole, encouraged by Krivanek, was keen to return the Mexico to the track, and in 1984 Steve Earle invited it to the Monterey Historic Automobile Races.

In an authentic field of pre-1955 sports cars, Cole diced with Lancia Aurelias, Arnolt-Bristols, Alfa 1900s and Jaguar XK120s to finish an impressive fourth.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

The Siata 208 CS coupé feels sharp and balanced

The sight and sound of the sleek white-and-blue Siata gunning over the brow and down Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew, the 2-litre V8’s twin exhausts crackling on overrun, impressed fans, who would gather in the paddock all weekend around the mystery coupé.

Three decades after it first arrived in California, the interest would have amused McAfee.

Had he survived the Pebble Beach crash, I can just imagine the 65-year-old hero helping Krivanek fine-tune the dual four-barrel Webers for Cole’s Laguna debut in 1984.

Cole entered the coupé in the Monterey Historic Races several times and in 1991, after a further rebuild by Phil Reilly’s team, it crossed the Atlantic for the Mille Miglia.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

‘The sight and sound of the sleek white-and-blue Siata impressed fans, who would gather in the paddock around the mystery coupé’

Later owner William Bauce generously auctioned the Siata with Christie’s, with all funds going to The Scripps Research Institute.

After its return to Europe, outings have included the Tour Auto, for which it was fitted with a grille inspired by the 208 roadster design.

The car’s latest custodian is a German enthusiast who tasked Hamburg specialist Steinke Sportwagenservice to carry out the latest rebuild, before showing it at the 2023 Concours of Elegance, its debut display in the UK, where its lithe lines and crisp exhaust note wowed more fans.

Classic & Sports Car – Siata 208 CS coupé: Ernie’s soul survivor

This Siata dazzled at 2023’s Concours of Elegance

Today you never see Siatas race; the lucky owners prefer the Pebble Beach Concours to show off their mint survivors.

McAfee’s old workshop on Cahuenga Boulevard has long gone under the 101 Freeway, his plaque on the old Pebble Beach road course has vanished and specialist Krivanek passed in 2020, but the survival of cars such as the fantastic 208 CS Mexico coupé are a lasting testament to their talents and passion.

Long may the chipped McAfee garage transfers on the Perspex side windows remain in his memory.

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to: Fiskens; Tony Adriaensens; Goodwood Motor Ciruit

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