America's Race Car Builders: BEACH CARS

begra-rt-01.JPG (228147 bytes) ROAD & TRACK OCTOBER 1966 pages 83-86 

 Story & photos by Alice Bixler 

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FLORIDA, FABULOUS LAND of sunlight, sparkling surf and shining sand, is justly renowned for its beaches. Most famous of all is the gaudy strand of Miami Beach. The next best known perhaps is Daytona Beach whose hardpacked sands saw land speed records made and broken. Following in fame is West Palm Beach, playground of the wealthy set. And someplace. a bit down in the line-up but gaining in notability, is Gene Beach. Actually, Gene is a different type of Florida Beach. He doesn't wait for time or tide, and neither do the race cars he builds.

Primarily, Gene Beach builds the winningest Formula Vees around. At the Grand Prix of Volkswagens during last year's Nassau Speed Weeks, Gene's two silvery blue factory team cars, driven by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren, placed first and second. In third place was another Beach, this one driven by Tony Belcher. All in all, five of the first six cars were built by Beach. To add emphasis, another Beach won the Vee event at the American Road Race of Champions at Daytona the previous weekend.

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Saab-engined Begra, built in long-distance partnership with Henry Grady as it appeared in the 1961 Sebring race.
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The first all-Beach H-modified car, Built for Roy Schechter, it used a BMW 700 engine and had a total weight of only 670 lb.
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The first of a long line of Begras, shown here with co-builder Henry Grady, was based on Fiat 600 parts. 
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Sebring 1965 marked the first appearance of the handsome GT coupe that was the forerunner of the latest line of Beach cars.
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Gene Beach and chief assistant Wayne Purdy at the dynamometer where VW engines are set up for the Beach F-Vee cars.
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The most famous of the Beaches have been the Formula Vee cars. Here Chris Amon heads for victory in the 1965 GP of VWs at Nassau.

Almost everyone knows something about Beach. the car, but few know anything at all about Beach, the man. But then the cars speak for themselves and Gene rarely speaks at all. He's medium height and medium build and may stand out in the pit population only because he didn't get around to shaving that day, He tends to take things seriously, He smiles fleetingly and frowns frequently. He can be as unapproachable as Greta Garbo, as vague as spring weather and as noncommittal as a Republican candidate in a Democratic county.

In truth. he's not nearly as gruff as he first appears. Part of his stand-off nature results from a natural reticence. When he has nothing to say. he says nothing. When he does talk, he speaks quietly. almost apologetically. He is also slightly deaf and this too contributes to his shy manner.
A trace of nervousness shows itself in his cigar smoking and in the unconscious gesture of tweaking ,a strand of hair at the back of his head while his thoughts are roaming.

He speaks softly and carries a black felt pen. He is a habitual doodler. Even while awaiting food in a restaurant, he sketches bits of automobiles on the paper napkins. He would rather sketch an idea than explain it,

His highly successful Beach Vees came into being via the doodle route, The Formula Vee story actually started some years back with the late Hubert Brundage, an old guard race enthusiast who maintained that there were "a lot of frustrated race drivers in Volkswagens". Brundage, the Southeastern VW distributor, went to the trouble of having the Italian firm of Nardi design and build a single seater race car of VW components. The car eventually went to Col. George Smith and Bill Duckworth of Orlando. Fla., who copied it and produced it as :he Formcar. That was the beginning of Vee racing. Essentially, the idea succeeded where Formula Junior had failed and is still growing while F-Jr is mostly an expensive memory. As Formula Vee caught on, it spurred the imaginations of other car constructors, Autodynamics and Gene Beach were the neat to follow Formcar into the Vee business:

The "baby bootie" shape of the first Vees was repugnant to Gene's design-sensitive senses. It bugged him so that' he got busy with his pen. The doodles took shape. Gene got enthused. Vees must follow certain specifications according to height, width. length and so on. Gene erased the bulky look that offended his eye. smoothed out the bulges and finally constructed a car whose body style stood out from the other Vees like Sophia Loren at a lady wrestlers' convention.

But because looks don't win races and the engines were all basically :he same, Gene went to work improving the car's handling. It took a lot of work to overcome typical Vee problems like brake drag, suspension settings, and correcting wheel chatter. The major change was in the suspension. Gene decided that negative camber was doing more harm than good. He used a coil spring /tube shock unit to limit the lift on the rear end and reduced the negative camber to 1 as compared with the previous 3 or 4.

A year's tinkering with the Beach Vee produced a fourth place finisher at the Nassau Vee race in 1963. True; it wasn't exactly Instant Success, but the following year the SE Divisional Vee championship was won with a Beach driven by Sheldon Dobkin and the 1964 Nassau Vee race was ultimately awarded to the Beach of Bruce McLaren when the first two finishers were disqualified after post-race scrutineering once the legalities of all concerned had been determined, Beaches won the first three spots.

Up to this point, car building had been just a hobby for Gene Beach. In the fall of 1964, however, the Porsche distributor of the Southeast called Gene's shop and asked to buy a Vee kit. He requested that it be crated for overseas delivery. He didn't say why and Gene didn't ask. A little while later, he was asked to submit a proposal for selling Vee kits in quantity and the mystery was unraveled-the Porsche factory was going to encourage Formula Vee racing on the Continent.

Ultimately, they placed orders with several of the better-known Vee builders and began acting as buyers, distributors, and promoters of the Vee venture in Europe.

The move forced Gene to become a full-fledged manufacturer. He set up shop, organized Competition Components Inc., hired help, and went into production, turning out a kit a day. Gene estimates that he has constructed more than 150 Beach Vees since August of 1962 when the first drawing pad doodle became a reality. More than 75 have been sold in Germany and more are slated for sale in England and Mexico this year.

Gene altered the design of his Vee slightly in '65 to give the rear end a racier look. Future Beach Vees will adhere closely to the present trim appearance. "I don't want to change the Vee very much unless they change the rule on the steel tube frame," says Gene. who bristles a little at the rule because he believes that "skins on cars should be structural - not superfluous shells."

Gene's earliest contact with speed and competition occurred in his high school days when he raced outboard motor boats around the Gulf near Clearwater. Then racing was abandoned while Gene went off to the University of Florida to study architecture. World War 11 intervened and he signed up. Whether in search of more excitement or merely variety, Gene served in the field artillery, the tank destroyer command and the Air Force-all in the space of four years. In 1946 he returned to college, received his degree in architecture and went to work. first as a draftsman and later as an architect in Clearwater.

Sports car racing came into his life in 1956 and Gene began competing in an MG TD. Next he drove a Doretti and then moved into a Crosley-powered special.

"I never saw an auto I could afford that could satisfy me." he explains. So the architect became a car designer. There's a similarity to the professions. he believes. "If you get to be an architect. you have to go through a spread on structural design and the same thing applies to cars."

Gene teamed with Henry Grady, who owns a parts house. and the first of the Begras was born in 1959. The idea was to build the "ultimate H Modified." The name came from a combination of Beach and Grady - the pair deciding Begra sounded more melodious than Grabe. They bought a new Fiat 600. financed it and dismantled it. From its plundered parts, they built the Begra - via long distance. Henry worked on the engine at his garage in Miami while Gene created the body and put together the other necessary parts at his place in Clearwater, some 260 miles away. The first Begra was known as "the car that was built by phone."

In its first race, the new special started 15th and finished 3rd with Gene at the wheel. The car proved to be competitive in other races, too. Then. on Jan. 13, 1961. they learned that they could enter a car in Sebring and have a go at the Index of Performance. They began building their entry on Jan. 14. "And we built and built and built-right up to 8:30 A.M. on race day," Henry relates. The Saab engine was removed and replaced a total of seven times. The day before the race, the clutch steadfastly refused to release and the little monster wouldn't run for more than two consecutive laps. The crew was deep in gloom and ready to quit.

"Well, we've come this far . . ." Gene murmured and the tired group dragged back to do battle with the recalcitrant car. On race day. Henry watched the blue Begra skim past the pits on its fifth lap. "You know," he said cautiously, "it just might make it."

It didn't. But it did run steadily for five hours, which was four hours and 52 minutes longer than its builders had dared hope.

"Then the engine stopped running," relates Gene, who was driving at the time, "and it wasn't repairable. As a matter of fact, it was in little, bitty pieces." Eventually, Henry and Gene differed in their approaches to car building and dissolved the long-distance relationship. Gene built four more No-Name cars after that which were still referred to as Begras. They had to be called something. From there on, all his creations have been called Beaches.

The first all-Beach H Modified was built for Roy Schechter of Miami who was the BMW distributor at the time. Gene put together a pretty little 670-lb car powered by a BMW 700 engine. The car did well and was campaigned quite successfully by its second owner in following seasons.

Gene has built several more HMs - powered by a variety of engines as he has no particular allegiance. "l don't think we'll ever make any money out of HMs," he shrugs, but he continues to build them. After a steady diet of Vees, it helps to relieve the monotony. In addition to the more than 150 Beach Vees, there have been about 20 other machines of his manufacture.

Last year, Gene embarked on one more automotive project - a GT coupe. He'd had the idea for some time and the final design proved to be an eyebrow-lifter. The little fastback was clean-lined, functional looking and its appearance promised performance. The coupe was completed in six weeks and tested the hard way-at the Sebring 12-hr. The car was equipped with a Cosworth Ford twin cam 1600 engine, the back fenders were modified to allow the use of bigger tires and the axles were changed. Then off it went to the races.

As a result of changing U-joints from outboard to inboard, the car sheared an axle shaft early in the race and limped back to the pits. The crew labored over it and sent it out again in mid-afternoon. Then, bottoming badly on the bump after the esses, the coupe broke a hub carrier and retired for good. Gene gathered up the bits and pieces and took it back to Clearwater, buying it back from the party who had purchased it from him.

At the time the car was built, he had planned to put it into production, "But I didn't see any point in turning it loose if it wasn't right." lie disassembled it, intending to correct its flaws and rebuild it to shining perfection. But the Vee business was booming, Gene was kept busy and the handsome body shell still collects dust in a forgotten corner behind a bunch of Vee frames.

Gene still hopes to rebuild the car someday, just as he hopes to build a dozen others. "I'd like to build machines for Formula B or C, but I don't think too many people would buy them," he says. Construction of a big, booming modified is another vision that occupies him from time to time, but building winning Vees is time-consuming-and profitable. So other automotive ideas must wait their turn.

Gene gives a lot of credit to Wayne Purdy for the success of Beach cars. Wayne, who has been Gene's friend and mechanic since Crosley days, dyno-tunes the factory prepared race cars and also assists in developing and improving things on the mechanical side.

It is to Gene's everlasting credit that he has avoided naming his cars anything but Beach (and perhaps an occasional number if he remembers). With manufacturers tacking such designations as Malibu, Catalina and Riviera on their models and with such an adaptable last name as his, it must have been a terrible temptation to tag the cars with such titles as the Daytona Beach, the Miami Beach, ad infinitum (the world is full of beaches). Not that his cars go entirely without names.... Occasionally a few soundly trounced soreheads refer to the hard-to-catch Beach buggies as Sons of Beaches-or something like that.