Classic Cars: Pegaso

Built in Spain in the Fifties, the Pegaso was both mythical beast and rare bird, says Brian Sewell

As a car, the Pegaso is almost as unfamiliar and mythical as the winged horse that sprang from the blood of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. Its antecedents were Pegaso trucks, made by the Spanish state to suit a whim of General Franco in 1945, and its successors are the Iveco vans that still pour on to our roads. But for seven years, from 1951 to 1958, the marque made the most rare and exotic of all high-performance sports cars in the post-war years, bewildering the mechanical complexity of its steering and suspension; the many capacities and power outputs of its sophisticated engines; its several coachbuilders and body styles; its rumoured performance, cost and number.

There were, perhaps, 96 in all, or 100, or even 125. The playthings of the very rich most probably survive, but I have never seen one, unless I have mistaken it for a Ferrari - not an improbability, for most Pegaso bodies were made by Carrozzeria Touring, the Milanese company that put bodies on many a Ferrari chassis in the young days of that firm.

No sane man should write about a car of which he has not the least experience, but I was 20 when the Pegaso was announced, my enthusiasm for cars a match for the curse of Caravaggio, and I recall with absolute clarity the astonishment and awe with which it was received. British cars in 1951 were still haunted by their past, overweight and underpowered, their engines long in stroke and narrow of bore, low-revving and low-geared. Those with sporting aspirations were still pitched at drivers with flat caps and elbows patched with leather, the super sports car a concept that we had not grasped. Yet here was Spain, the Iberian peninsula, the most industrially backward area of western Europe, retarded by its devastating civil war and by its isolation from the Second World War, its Fascist dictator making it a political outcast, its currency too worthless to exchange, on the point of producing the most outrageously forward-looking sports car.

How could we not be astonished and amazed by an engine of only 2.5 litres capable of 165bhp at 6,500rpm, with a rev limit at 9,000rpm? Such power was more than that of a 4.5- litre Bentley, and at such revolutions, there was not one single British car that wouldn't melt its crankshaft or throw its con-rods through its cylinder block.

The Pegaso, for a year or two, the world's fastest car, was the first road car powered by a V-8 engine with four camshafts - a design anticipated only by monoposto racing cars, and not followed by Ferrari until 1968. Once described as "a staggering noise machine", it was designed by Wilfredo Ricart, a Spaniard who had worked for Porsche and been technical director of Alfa-Romeo for four years before the war. Perhaps inspired by the fact that Pegaso had absorbed what was left of Hispano-Suiza in Barcelona, Ricart saw his sports car project as a means of trumping Enzo Ferrari, with whom he had clashed when both were working for Alfa.

It was to be rare, annual production of no more than 200 or so, but Ricart also saw his V-8 as a design that must lie at the heart of a popular car, and it was thus conceived as the mating of two engines of four cylinders, each independent in every detail other than the block and camshaft. It was thoroughly modern in being of oversquare design, the diameter of the cylinder bores greater than their stroke, allowing far higher revolutions than any long-stroke engine.

In 1953, it was enlarged to 2.8 litres, the power output raised to 185bhp at 6,300rpm, or, with a supercharger, to 230rpm at 6,000rpm. Bored out again, to 3.2 litres and with two superchargers, the Pegaso claimed 360bhp. With a five-speed gearbox (crash, no synchromesh) incorporated in the rear axle, it could reach 150mph.

Or could it? Most reports put its maximum at 125mph, no more than the Jaguar XK 120 at a fraction of the price - but even the price asked throughout its seven years is now uncertain, for it seems never to have had a London agent, and the only figure ever recorded (in 1952) was £7,800 (against £2,000 for an Aston-Martin and £1,100 for a Jaguar).

For so much money and with so much power and so many revs, how could it have recorded a maximum of only 125mph and a 0-60mph figure of more than 10 seconds? What was wrong with it? Nevertheless, this, the Z102B, is the classic Pegaso. In 1955, the Z103 replaced it, the engine quieter, with pushrods instead of overhead cam-shafts, but also much larger, in 4.0-, 4.5- and 4.7-litre capacities. Production was but a handful, perhaps only four, for the Mercedes-Benz 300SL of 1954 really could reach 150mph, and the export market for the Pegaso was dead.

The Pegaso was the creature of a time when import restrictions and currency-exchange controls prevented bullfighters and others of such macho ilk from buying foreign cars that matched their self-images. It was handmade, and no part of its engine or suspension was bought from other manufacturers. It was pure-blooded, not a hybrid - there is no pool of spare parts on which to draw for maintenance, and every replacement element must be as hand-turned as the original. As with its forebear, the Hispano-Suiza, Pegaso depended on specialist coachbuilders to clothe each chassis with a worthy body.

Two were built by the factory as examples; 25 coupés and 12 spyders or cabriolets were commissioned in 1953 from Jacques Saoutchik, the most daring, dashing and vulgar of Parisian coachbuilders - but he was on the point of bankruptcy and may not have completed them when his firm collapsed in 1955. The rest were built by Touring. All were close-coupled two seater saloons or open spyders.

Should the sane man buy one? Unless very rich or in command of the right kind of factory (the only man I ever knew to have been happy with a Triumph Stag was a working director of Rolls-Royce), certainly not. But there speaks a man who has never heard, seen or driven a Pegaso.

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