Design Review: Phantom Corsair (1938)

A unique two-door, six-seater coupe designed as the car of the future

After covering some of the best automobiles of the 1930s like the Buick Y-Job (1938), the GM Futurliner (1939), and the Stout Scarab (1932-1935), it would be unfair to not include the Phantom Corsair - a one-off prototype with stunning looks and a very interesting story behind it.

The Phantom Corsair was the brainchild of Pittsburgh native Rust Heinz, grandson of the entrepreneur H.J. Heinz (yes, that Heinz). But, unlike the rest of the family, Rust didn’t get involved in the family's food business. Baked beans, it seems, weren't for him. Instead, he enrolled to study Naval Architecture, before dropping out of college in order to pursue his dream in automotive design.

Heinz created the first sketches of the Corsair in 1936, when he was just 21 years old. With the financial help of his aunt, he moved to California and bought a Cord 810 - one of the most technologically advanced vehicles of the time - in order to use its underpinnings as the basis for his creation which, he hoped, would depict the car of the future.

Maurice Schwartz, co-owner of the Pasadena-based Bohman & Schwartz coachbuilding company, helped the young talent transfer his ideas from paper to reality, starting with clay models tested in a wind tunnel, and then building the full-sized prototype. A.J. Bayer Company assisted with the custom chassis, retaining the engine, front and rear axles of the donor car.

The Cord-sourced 4.7-litre V8 engine was tuned to produce 142kW (190hp). Power was transmitted to the front axle through a four-speed gearbox. This allowed the 2000kg sedan to reach an advertised - and theoretical - top speed of 196km/h (even though it was never actually tested), which would have made it one of the fastest cars of its era. Furthermore, independent suspension on all four wheels with hydraulic adjustable shock absorbers made it a comfortable high-speed cruiser.

The unique design of the Phantom Corsair looked out of this world in 1938 and still looks haunting even today. Starting with the proportions, while the Cord’s wheelbase was retained, the all-new hand-built aluminium body featured a very long bonnet with a pronounced front overhang and imposing width. The prototype measured 6020mm long, 1943mm wide, and with a height of 1448mm, resulting in quite a road presence.

The front end was characterised by a streamlined nose with a very original grille design, high-positioned protruding slim headlights, additional lower lights, and a triangular-shaped chrome bumper. That long and swooping bonnet led to a short, inclined double windshield, with tiny window openings.

The profile didn’t feature separate fenders or running boards that were typical of 1930s automobiles. Instead, it featured a clean design with covered front and rear wheels, beautiful and smoothly curved surfaces, teardrop-shaped side windows, button-operated doors, and a sexy tail that dropped away sharply.

At the back, the curve of the roofline continued down to the chrome bumper. The double-window rear windshield above the rear plate was tiny, further emphasising the width of the car, while small circular lights were integrated into the curves between the teardrop-shaped tail and the fenders.

Inside the luxurious and comfortable cabin, there was room for six passengers in an unusual 4-2 layout, thanks to the increased width of the bodywork - the front bench seat could fit four adults with the driver sitting second from the left. When opening the doors, a part of the roof opened automatically, allowing easier ingress and egress. The equipment included air conditioning, altimeter, compass and a two-speaker radio for entertainment.

Even though automotive safety was an unknown word back in the '30s, Rust Heinz implemented thick soft-touch rubber material on the dashboard, the roof, and the door inserts. This reduced the risk of injury in an event of a collision while offering high levels of soundproofing. All glass was bullet-proof and tinted green against glare and reflections. The only issue was the poor visibility because of the small windows that created many blind spots for the driver.

So, what happened next?

After the prototype was completed in 1937, Heinz used it as a daily driver and planned to produce it in limited numbers with a price tag of US$12,500 - around US$230,000 in today’s money. The Corsair was advertised in the July 1937 issue of Esquire magazine, rendered in bright red. It also featured in the Hollywood film The Young in Heart (1938) where it was nicknamed the 'Flying Wombat'.

Unfortunately, Heinz's automotive dream ended in 1939, the 25-year-old killed in a car accident. He was sitting in the passenger seat of his own Buick convertible with his friend behind the wheel while returning from a dance. Although there was some interest from prospective buyers, following Heinz’s tragic death, the project was shelved and the Phantom Corsair remained a one-off. The family eventually sold the car which saw several owners during the 1940s.

In 1951, comedian Herb Shriner bought the car and commissioned Count Albrecht Goertz to redesign it and make it more practical. The German industrial designer (who would later become famous for designing the BMW 507) enlarged the double windshield, covered the grille, added removable roof panels, dual-tone paint, and a redesigned front bumper with two large air intakes, solving the serious problem of the overheating engine.

In the 1970s, the car was bought by William F. Harrah, owner of gaming, hotel and casino corporations who added it to his impressive collection of sought-after classics. He restored the Phantom Corsair and brought it back to an almost original condition. Today, the Phantom Corsair is exhibited at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.


The Phantom Corsair is one of the most futuristic-looking vehicles of the previous century. Thanks to its streamlined silhouette and dramatic proportions, it still stands out today, some 80 years after its creation.

Besides looking cool, it was also one of the first cars that combined style, comfort, luxury, safety, and performance. Its designer, Rust Heinz must have been really proud driving his one-off creation out on the street. Despite never reaching production as Heinz had hoped before his tragic death, the Phantom Corsair nevertheless left its mark on the automotive world.

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