The desire for many a petrolhead to build his (or her) own car has been around ever since Karl Benz did exactly that with his 1886 Patent-Motorwagen, the world’s first automobile. And while many admirable creations have since been completed with varying degrees of success, arguably few are as accomplished in looks as this pretty Wagener special. In fact, its lines are so captivating that it could pass for a one-off by a Milanese coachbuilder rather than the fruits of one man’s efforts in an Epping workshop 50 years ago.
A few years back there was joke going around online about the definition of heaven… a place where the cooks are French, the police are British, the lovers are Italian, and everything is organised by the Germans. Conversely, hell is where the cooks are British, the police are French, the lovers German and the world is run by Italians!
It’s always good for a laugh over a few beers, but I’d argue that a cut-down version could apply when it comes to building your dream car: one, say, styled and powered by the Italians, with the British taking care of the chassis and the Germans screwing it all together? And that’s kind of what one Capetonian did back in 1970 to create his ‘dream car’.
The late Phillip Wagener (who I’m assuming from the name had German heritage) was a trained millwright who served out his apprenticeship on the railways in the 1940s and who later set up his own engineering business in the industrial area of Epping, in Cape Town. He was, by all accounts, also an out-and-out motorhead who built up an MG-lookalike sportster by cutting up and modifying a humble Hillman before re-bodying a Riley 9 in his youth. A full restoration of a Peugeot 203 followed, and all that kept him busy in the 1950s and ’60s. But by early 1970, he decided he wanted to design and build his own car after evidently (according to an article about his creation that was published in TECHNICAR two years later) pulling out of a deal to buy a BMW 2002tii as it was too expensive.
Instead, he decided to kick-start his dream and focused his attention on acquiring the remains of a Lotus Elan that had succumbed to fire, which he would name after himself. For sale for R650 which – according to that same article – he later realised was too much, the Lotus was effectively just a rolling chassis, the engine and gearbox having been sold off separately. No surprise really; back then a Lotus twin-cam engine was a desirable piece of kit – especially to owners of Mk1 Cortinas!
Evidently Phillip wasn’t too fussed about that because the Lotus’s chassis was the most attractive bit, as he mentioned to TECHNICAR: “I had planned to build the entire car but realised that this chassis would save a great deal of time and trouble and I knew that the end result would be satisfactory. There is no car with roadholding like a Lotus…”
The Wagener’s history file has a 3D sketch by Phillip showing the style he had in mind from the outset and how the proposed metal might be married to the remains of Colin Chapman’s creation. But, before that happened, the Elan’s famous fabricated ‘backbone’ chassis had to be lengthened by six inches to accommodate Phillip’s choice of power unit: an Alfa Giulia Ti’s 1600cc twin-cam engine and five-speed gearbox, with the latter being wider at the rear than the four-speed unit that the donor Elan had.
The chassis was further adapted to create a suitable floorpan for the Wagener, with 16-gauge steel triangular sections as sills left and right, and sheets of fabricated aluminium of the same gauge for the actual floors. Rather intriguingly, these came from the cabinet of a scrapped main frame computer that his wife acquired for the princely sum of R25. Phillip would later use drilled aluminium from the same computer’s cooling components as the base for his bespoke seats… all of which gives some idea of just how colossal computer hardware was back then!
But before clothing the body, Phillip – who was a lofty 6ft 4in in stature – took a practical approach to determining the car’s dimensions, as he recalled in an interview with Fine Cars magazine back in 1988: he sat on a cushion on his lounge floor and got into a comfortable driving position before asking his wife (armed with a dressmaker’s tape measure, nogal!) to measure the distance from his bottom to the top of his head and then to the end of his feet. After that, he set about applying those metrics to his design to finalise the rather Italian-looking shape he had in mind.
Like most custom one-offs, the lines of the car hung off the shape of the front and rear windscreens, which needed to come from a production car to avoid the enormous cost of moulding something suitable. He elected to use a front screen from an Opel Kadett, while a Renault 16 was relieved of its tailgate glass for the rear item (not that you’d know looking at the car, so integrated is the result). The side glass in the car is bespoke, with the wind-up windows in the doors moulded to Phillip’s design and the fixed items behind the B-pillars crafted from Perspex.
The body itself was fabricated in a Superleggera-like fashion, with 18-gauge aluminium sheets over an 18-gauge ¾-inch square tube substructure. And the panels were shaped between a pair of rollers he crafted for the job – with the results butt-welded together after he completed an argon welding course to acquire the necessary skills. Mindful of the need to minimise weight to ensure the handling of the Lotus chassis wasn’t compromised, he opted to bond a layer of fibreglass matting to the underside of the bonnet and boot lids to strengthen these items.
To finish the car off he selected bits from existing cars, with the rear lights coming from a Hillman and the flip-up front units from a Ford Capri. Intriguingly these – in the interests of avoiding the notoriously unreliable vacuum arrangement on the Elan – are operated by a handbrake lever attached to a cable.
There’s a lot of borrowed brightware too, with the external door handles coming from a Peugeot 403 (and the window mechanisms inside the doors from a later 404), while the rear bumper will ring a bell with Alfa 1750 GTV owners. Inside, the headlining was adapted from an Austin 1100 but the seats and vinyl-covered dashboard (also made from aluminium salvaged from the computer) containing an array of period Smiths instruments were to his own design.
There was some further parts bin raiding under the bonnet, with a remote air cleaner off a Dodge V8 and an electric motor off an aircraft driving the cooling fan, which sits against a Triumph Herald radiator – as is the case in an Elan. Most of those modifications were done to reduce the bonnet line over the Alfa engine, which is relatively tall thanks to the twin-cam cylinder head.
Phillip first sketched his design in June 1970 and the build took just 18 months, with the car finished in the same lustrous crimson hue he’d favoured for his 203. When he later retired to Nature’s Valley, the Wagener went along and remained in use until his passing in 2010. After that it was bought by a collector in Cape Town from whose estate well-known classic car enthusiast and historic racer, Dave Alexander, acquired the coupé.
As many local historic racers will know, Dave is quite a Lotus aficionado, with two Elans in his garage, along with an Elise and a Six replica – which he campaigns at Simola Hillclimb. Then there’s his other track favourite, an Eleven, and a Type 47, which is under restoration. He’s also keen on specials, so when he heard that there was one based on Lotus bits potentially for sale in Cape Town, his intrigue got the better of him and he paid the then (now late) owner’s son a visit to inspect the car. “I immediately noticed the Elan-style knock-on wheels and when I put my head underneath the car, I could see the central chassis and swing arm rear end – it was all pure Lotus,” recalls Dave.
The Wagener came Dave’s way recently and his only tinkering on it to date has been to adjust the driving position by moving the driver’s seat forward to suit his frame rather than its creator’s. That exercise necessitated dismantling the seat base to narrow it and the work was a chance to experience the precision of Phillip Wagener’s skills first hand. “Generally, when you get a car and start pulling it apart you think, oh bugger, this guy’s bodged this or bodged that or whatever it is, but everything I’ve pulled apart is just beautifully constructed,” adds Dave.
Seeing the Wagener up close is a chance to appreciate just how good that railways apprenticeship must have been and how much of a natural aptitude Phillip clearly had for working with metal. Particularly when it came to clothing his creation, as it’s the Maserati Ghibli-like lines of this coupé that are so compelling when you first lay eyes on it.
There’s a delicious delicacy in the styling that comes thanks to the subtlety of its curves and the crisp detailing to its edges, particularly around the front and rear – along with the distinct waistline. That’s all testimony to the quality of the construction; the panel gaps are beautifully consistent, and great care was taken to extend that precision to details such as the window frames, which were custom-made from scratch and finished to fit flush with the bodywork. The car also appears entirely symmetrical, which is admirable given that there’s no mention of forming the panels over a wooden buck in the traditional coach-building manner.
On the road the Wagener has the handling, and indeed performance, to match its exotic looks. That’s no surprise really, given that it’s based on a largely unaltered chassis from an Elan (a car that’s almost a benchmark on the handling front), but the Wagener’s longer wheelbase does soften the Elan’s usual exceptionally crisp manners. The added weight of metal versus fibreglass on the Wagener probably has a hand in that although – again according to TECHNICAR – that’s only 90lbs, which is impressive considering the car’s added length and the switch in construction material. Where it differs noticeably from the Elan, however, is in the charisma generated by the Alfa engine, which offers better mid-range torque and less throaty backchat than the more highly-strung Lotus unit.
Power-wise its similar (118bhp), but that’s after Phillip rebuilt the all-aluminium four-pot to Sprint specification at the time. Its performance is also enhanced with a bespoke free-flow exhaust system to Dave’s design, which ends in a pair of centrally located tailpipes at the back. Like so many other details on the car, that adds to the Wagener’s thoroughbred feel. A thoroughbred that looks convincing enough to be mistaken for something out of a studio at Pininfarina or Bertone in the early 1970s. Only with the handling of a British icon and the build quality of something German.