Rust Heinz was a Yale graduate in naval architecture and heir to the famous ketchup brand’s fortune. He longed to design cars. Even with his wealthy birthright, he lacked sufficient funds to build a prototype dream car, but a sympathetic aunt kicked in the funds. Heinz drove his 1936 Cord to famed Pasadena coachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz, handed them its keys and a sketch. They stripped the Cord down to its wheels to transform it into the Phantom Corsair, in all its sleek, sinister-looking glory.
With a 289 cubic inch Lycoming V-8 and front wheel drive, the Phantom was state of the art in terms of drivetrains. Its extra wide interior seated four, with a passenger seated on the driver’s left. A complete bar offered libations for its back seat passengers.
Released in 1938, The Young in Heart movie featured designer Heinz’s impossibly sleek car as a new advance in motoring. Called the “Flying Wombat,” with a marketing slogan that stated, “The car that thinks for you,” the mysterious black coupe nearly upstages the movie’s actors. The filmmakers faked a showroom filled with Phantoms posing as Wombats, where a dealer tells a customer, “If I were to say the Wombat is the last word in mechanical perfection I would be withholding the full truth. The Wombat is above mechanical perfection.” A ribbon speedometer stretching completely across the car’s extremely wide dashboard was substituted for the Phantom’s more pedestrian gauges, but otherwise the Wombat was left as Heinz designed it. Heinz saw the Corsair as a safety car, describing it as “ lined with rubber in all areas where riders injury might occur to riders during accidents.”
Building the Phantom Corsair cost Heinz today’s equivalent of $370,000. He was ambitious to sell production copies and had a brochure printed up with the car sporting a temporary desert sand beige paint job, courtesy of a Hollywood studio. Sadly, while riding in an open car in July, 1939, Heinz’s hat blew off. Walking back along the road to retrieve it, he was struck by another car and killed at twenty-five, ending production plans for his mighty Phantom Corsair. Today it can be seen on permanent display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.
Written by Jim Cherry