Peter E. Bryant (1938-2009) was born in England, and at a young age he caught the racing bug. Wanting to make himself more marketable he took a class in welding. Bryant obtained his first job in the automobile racing industry in 1957, as an engineering intern with Lotus Cars. Over the next few years, he would continue his career with various Formula One and Formula Two teams. In 1964, he immigrated to the United States after a visit the previous year as the chief mechanic for John Surtees’s Ferrari 250P sports car crew. While in California for a race at Riverside Bryant had fallen in love with California.
He worked with Mickey Thompson on his 1964 Indianapolis 500 cars and Carroll Shelby on his Cobra, GT40, and GT350 projects. It was while working for Mickey Thompson that Bryant first thought of using titanium where he tried using the super-light metal without any major success. In 1966, Bryant began his work with Can-Am race cars when he joined the Dana Chevrolet team as race engineer. The next year, he moved on to the Lola team owned by Carl Haas but by 1969 Haas had decide to downsize to a one car team leaving Bryant with out a job.
Convinced that you could not win with a customer car and without any prospects with another Can-Am team Bryant began to think of building his own car but where would he find the required funding? Through driver Skip Scott Bryant was introduced to Ernie Kanzler who owned a marine firm called Autocoast, Kanzler was, says Bryant, “a man on the move. I liked him instantly”. At the same time the Titanium Corporation was anxious to showcase its product, and Bryant who had never designed a whole car wanted to used thier lightweight metal for his car’s body.
For 1970 Can-Am would ban high wings, so Bryant planned ahead and made his whole car a wing raked underneath to provide a degree of suction – long before the Lotus 78. That meant hard springs, so he looked around for a driver who liked crossing his arms. On the advice of JW Racing’s David Yorke he approached Jackie Oliver, who as well as a rising F1 career had just won Le Mans. Oliver had never heard of this guy. “It was a total gamble,” he says. “He sent my wife and I tickets for California and I got on the plane. When I met him I liked him – a funny guy, very extrovert. And the car was fun to drive.” In design the Ti22 (titanium’s atomic symbol and number) was straightforward; in aluminum it would hardly have raised an eyebrow. What you couldn’t see was the sheet metal bulkheads – the first full monocoque sports car built without tubes. The usual Chevy V8 sat in the back, while suspension arms looked conventional, though also made from the wonder material. Bryant himself modeled the body shape, without benefit of wind tunnels. Instead he relied, like everyone else, on gluing wool tufts and filming the car. With completely new construction techniques to learn and only a tiny team, the build was hard. “We had so much trouble,” says Bryant, “and endless all-night sessions…” He wasn’t making it easy: titanium has to be welded in argon gas so it doesn’t shatter, it springs when you bend it, and it’s so hard it can wear out a drill in two holes. The appeal? It’s lighter than steel but stronger than aluminum. And this precious metal was free – the distributor gave Bryant the raw material. “It should have cost half a million,” says Peter. “It cost us $16,000.”
Despite the assembly problems, the chassis was amazingly light, and three times stiffer than its rivals. At this time Bryant was running the team, designing, building, and digging for sponsors, but as a race mechanic he was used to late nights. A 16-hour day was his norm, and somehow he carried his team along. “Racing’s a disease,” he says, eyes still full of passion. “If you catch it, it doesn’t go away. But beer helps the symptoms.” Deadlines came and went, and so did the early-season races, so excitement was high when the ‘new era’ machine was revealed at Laguna Seca in October 1969. The car weighed 120lb less than its rivals, and people were so intrigued by the new material that they paid little attention to the Ti22’s aerodynamics. But this was the beginning of the razor-edge sports cars; that chisel-nose scoured the track to flip as much air as possible over the body, while the side fences kept it where it mattered. Only Bruce McLaren was cute enough to ask what they were for… “Bruce was real nice to us, often helped us out,” says Peter. “He said he’d rather race us on the track than in the garage.” Oliver recalls the feel of the Ti22: “It was unsophisticated; a huge wing and a huge engine – later on we had 800bhp and 800lb ft of torque. You could feel enormous downforce, like F1 cars 10 years later.”
Colin Chapman, on a Can-Am briefing trip, got a clue as to why Bryant used this intractable stuff when he came to call. Bryant invited him to pick up a roll bar. He chuckles at the memory. “He almost fell over because it was so much lighter than he expected!” Despite fuel pick-up problems and a broken throttle, the car looked promising and Oliver was happy to commit to driving it at Riverside. This time it carried a high wing so Bryant could do a direct comparison, but in the race a down-on-power engine knocked them back, even though Oliver qualified alongside Chris Amon’s new Ferrari.
Bruce and Denny, of course, were on the row in front… What they did learn was that the car really handled – and that a team with an English driver, led by a cockney ex-pat, was now being fêted as the leading American Can-Am team. It made Bryant laugh, because, as he describes it, “it was really just three blokes and one chap!” A suspension breakage knocked them out at Riverside, while more engine problems held Oliver back at the season-closer at Texas Speedway. But there was also a Japanese round at Fuji, where Oliver made fastest lap and was leading – when again the engine broke. For Bryant and his tiny team it was a sniff of glory followed by a slap in the face. It told Bryant he needed two things: a dedicated engine man and a major sponsor. Kanzler provided seed capital, but Bryant wanted to upscale, with a new chassis. They had built the first car and run three races on $150,000, but they needed more. Oliver recalls the shoestrings.
“You were aware money was tight, that the team ran on philanthropic backing, that it was just a bunch of guys. But most teams were like that then. Autocoast was no different.” With new premises and an engine man pinched from Chaparral there were now several more blokes, but the same chap driving. Bryant planned a new car for 1970 while also revising the old one – and desperately chasing sponsorship. They found a special crank which took their 7-litre engine out to eight litres (Can-Am was the ‘no rules’ formula), replaced the wing with lip spoilers and used ride-height measurements to balance the downforce. Now it matched the McLaren test times. But while touting for backing, Bryant reckons he blew his best-ever chance. Paul Newman asked for a drive and Peter refused. Newman would drive the Ti22, but a year later when the moment had passed. However, by the time Mosport in Canada arrived Bryant finally had a sponsor – a hangover cure called ‘Morning Afta’, promising $10,000 per round. After a brilliant race with Dan Gurney’s McLaren, Oliver only lost the win thanks to a back-marker. Prize money for second tided the team over until that first sponsor check arrived, but ironically the deal would end up giving Bryant a headache… So did what happened at Ste Jovite in June.
The check bounced – and so did the car. Ste Jovite circuit, near Montréal, winds between low hills, a place where gradients meant that grunt really counted but so bumpy that downforce was grinding the chassis on the floor. Jackie Oliver again: “At terminal velocity – maybe 180mph – you could hear the engine pushing against the drag and where the straight went into a fast corner you could feel the car digging in and hear the front spoiler chattering on the ground.”
Ste Jovite’s back straight rose to a crest where the brave guys hit 165mph, and as the track dropped away beneath them those chisel noses were going light. It was worse if you were tagging another car. Once air gets underneath a sports car… Qualifying third behind those McLarens, Oliver harried them off the grid – but didn’t come round again. Textbook reverse flip and Immelman roll. He said later he had time to protect his hands and close his eyes before the ground arrived. Jackie was hardly damaged, but the car was totaled. Mk2 was still a heap of metal plates, and the coffers were empty. Bryant was ready to grab any option, and when Ecurie Vickie, a private team with some promising sponsors, offered to amalgamate, he jumped. It took the business worries off his shoulders – for a time. They’d missed six races before Mk2 was running – longer, wider, with a fully stressed engine to cut weight. By the time Laguna Seca came, competition was even tougher: BRM and March were also after Can-Am’s hearty prizes, but Jim Hall looked like hoovering them up with the 2J sucker car. In the event Laguna and Riverside played the same story: Ti22 very quick (plus a lap record), but Oliver loses to Hulme after epic battle laps the field – twice.
The next car was bubbling in Bryant’s mind when the earthquake came. Ecurie Vickie’s principals voted him out of the team he’d created. He had no comeback – he did not even own the car. Instead of having a new Ti22, Bryant was adrift. He never knew the reason.