Chaparral's Jim Hall — Inventor of the Modern Race Car

September 19, 2022

At the start of the 60s, race cars from F1 to sports cars still looked like their 50s predecessors with front engines and curvaceous bodies -- with a only a small contingent starting to use mid-engines. By the decade's end, the cars looked radically different with the onset of the aerodynamics revolution. Cars had front and rear wings, radiators in the midsection, underfloors, and monocoque tubs. 

We have Jim Hall to thank for that radical evolution. He was a true revolutionary who pioneered aerodynamic downforce, ground effects, semi-automatic transmissions, and torsional rigidity. 

Hall is the most influential automobile designer of the second half of the 20th century. Time to see how this legendary 87-year-old Texan introduced concepts that redefined the form of the race car to what we are still using to this day.

Jim Hall driving a Lotus F1 car in 1963.

Driving for Carroll Shelby

Jim Hall was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1935 and got into amateur sports car racing in California where he was attending CalTech for a mechanical engineering degree. When a job offer at GM working on the Corvette evaporated due to a recession, he joined his brother Dick in Dallas working for Carroll Shelby Sports Cars.

Since Hall had some racing experience, Shelby -- ever the salesman -- entered Hall in local sports car events. He was a very skilled driver behind the wheel of the top machinery of the time so he frequently won. Shelby would tout that if “a rookie” could win in it, then the car must be good.

Hall started getting noticed and entered his own Lotus-Climax at the 1960 U.S. Grand Prix at Riverside. (Hall's father was a successful oilman, so he had the means.) The young driver was holding the fifth position, in a dated car, until it had a mechanical failure. Hall raced an additional 12 Formula One races, with his final season in 1963 driving for the British Racing Partnership team. He managed respectable fifth and sixth finishes that year. 

The Birth of Chaparral

Two California car builders, Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, approached Jim Hall to back a new sports car design, which he did by ordering two of the cars. He named the car the Chaparral, but the car was not of his design.

In 1962, Hall and his partner Hap Sharp decided to start building their own race cars in Midland, Texas. They asked Troutman and Barnes for permission to use the name, and they obliged the request. The revolutionary Chaparral Cars was born.

Chaparral Cars were designed to compete in the U.S. Road Racing Championship and other sports car series. Hall benefited from his strong ties to General Motors who provided a great deal of technical support behind the scenes. Under Hall and Sharp, Chaparral developed ten models, beginning with 2A and ending with the groundbreaking 2J. 

Chaparral 2A fiberglass monocoque, 1963.

First Composite Monocoque

Right out of the gate, Chaparral came out with a blockbuster, the 2A. With new advances in materials driven by the aerospace industry, Hall and Sharp constructed the first race car with a composite chassis -- setting the course for today’s carbon fiber tubs. 

The 2A’s monocoque was built from GRP, or glass reinforced plastic, aka “fiberglass.” Hall understood the astounding properties of this revolutionary material before anyone else. The fiberglass was not only significantly lighter than the standard steel chassis, but it was also stronger, which provided torsional rigidity that improved traction and power delivery. Furthermore, the 2A featured innovative aerodynamic approaches that would be developed in later Chaparrals.

Jim Hall

The 2A debuted at the Los Angeles Time Grand Prix in October 1963. With Hall behind the wheel, he immediately took the pole position in front of an all-star field of drivers that included Jim Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Dan Gurney, and A.J. Foyt, to name a few. In the race, Jim Hall’s new creation was in the lead for much of the race until an electrical fire sidelined him. However, the promise of his first car was unmistakable. 

During the subsequent 1964 and 1965 seasons, the Chaparral 2A dominated the domestic scene. In 1965, the company won 16 times out of 22 starts. The biggest win was the 1965 12 Hours of Sebring where the 2A, in a driving rainstorm, outpaced the Ford and Ferrari factory teams to take the victory. 

First Semi-Automatic Transmission

Next up was the 2C (“2B” was skipped to not confuse it with a GM model) that, for some time, went completely undetected by the competition. Hall designed and built a gearbox that did not require the driver to depress the clutch, just move the selector to the proper position and go. 

This innovation freed the driver from repetitive motion and allowed him to use his left foot for other actions. This concept is the forebear of how modern race cars are driven, including nearly every race car that utilizes a paddle shifter.

Phil Hill driving a Chaparral 2E at 1966 Canadian GP.

First Winged Race Car

What Chaparral is best known for are its audacious winged cars. Until Jim Hall came along, cars were designed to be slippery, but the benefits of aerodynamic downforce had not been used. Hall realized the upside of increased grip far outweighed any additional drag it created. 

The Chaparral 2C was the first to have a wing, and for added measure, it was moveable. The 2C’s wing was smaller and sat low on the back end. Do you remember how the driver’s left foot was free? It now had a new job: moving the rear wing angle. On the straights, the driver would put it in the flat position, and in corners, it would flip up, hence it was nicknamed the “flipper.”

The Chaparral 2E had the iconic elevated wing which created a sensation. The huge airfoil was hoisted above the car on a pair of three-feet long struts. Again, it was moveable so the driver would feather the pedal to flatten it out on the straights. When the pedal was released, it returned to an angled position to apply downward pressure directly to the rear suspension to increase cornering adhesion. 

The wing was the eyecatcher, but the 2E had other less visible features. The radiators were moved from the front to a mid-mounted position. This allowed air to be channeled through the front end to create front-end downforce. When the aforementioned pedal was depressed, these channels were also closed off for more straight line efficiency. Phil Hill described it this way, ”With the wing you could out-brake everybody, you could out-corner everybody, [and] you could drive under them. It really did feel like it had freak road holding.”

The 2E was the fastest car on the grid by a good measure, but it was unfortunately unreliable. Of the five races it started in 1966, it grabbed only a single victory at Laguna Seca. However, it was the beginning of the aero revolution that would transform car design and performance.

Chaparral 2J in 1970 was not easy on the eyes but was effective.

First Ground Effects

Unfortunately, the innovations generated a backlash. Other cars tried to hastily mimic Chaparral’s concepts. Wings were banned after numerous failures led to terrible high-speed crashes. Rather than a problem, it was an opportunity.

Jim Hall devised a way to generate the same downforce sans external airfoils with a new concept called ground effects. By creating low air pressure under the car, the atmosphere will push the car to the ground (although we prefer to think about it as sucking it to the ground).

The radical Chaparral 2J was built for the 1970 Can-Am season and from the outside looked odd. One journalist said it looked like the crate it was shipped in. 

The 2J had two 17-inch fans powered by a 2-stroke auxiliary engine. Around the bottom was a skirt that “sealed” the car to the track and the suspension was designed to keep the car at a constant distance from the track regardless of the speed or cornering load. The suction generated a whopping 1.5 g of downforce, which was constant regardless of the car’s speed. 

The 2J was a monster in the Can-Am series that year. It qualified two seconds per lap faster at each race and secured every pole position -- all the while making a screaming sound that turned it into an instant fan favorite. The downside was that it was unreliable so the 2J secured just a single victory in its only year of racing. The governing body promptly banned ground effects after the 1970 season.

Al Unser, with Jim Hall in the cowboy hat, at 1978 California 500.

The End of Chaparral

Chaparral folded after the 1970 season due to Jim Hall’s disgust with the continuous efforts of his competition and governing bodies to ban his advancements. He was way ahead of his time and the rest of the paddock couldn’t cope with it. “If I can come up with a better mousetrap that is within the regulations, I ought to be allowed to use it,” Hall declared in October 1970.

In a 1968 race at Las Vegas, Hall had an accident that badly injured his knees. He was unable to walk for six months and the damage had a lasting impact on his driving ability. With the sanctioning body headwinds and his impaired ability to drive, Hall closed down Chaparral after the 1970 season. It was an eight-year period filled with continuous innovations out of a tiny shop in Texas.

After Chaparral, Hall become an Indycar team owner in partnership with Carl Haas in 1978. In their first season, the team was an immediate success being the only team to ever win the Triple Crown of the Indianapolis 500, Pocono 500, and California 500 with Al Unser Sr. driving. He remained a fixture in the paddock until shutting down the team in 1996.

In terms of race car design, there is the time before Hall and the time after him. He made an indelible contribution to advancing how race cars worked by ushering in the power of aerodynamics. While his name is revered inside certain circles, he has not been honored and celebrated nearly as much as he deserves.

No Chaparrals were ever sold and the entire collection of survivors can currently be seen in a permanent exhibition in the Chaparral Gallery at the Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas.

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