Live fast die young, seems to have been Piranha’s destiny right from the word go. In its short lifespan from plastic advertising to kit car, it also managed the roles of moviestar, race car and even drag racer.
It was in the early sixties that the advantages of various plastic materials made their presence in the automotive industry – it was both cheaper to produce and also opened up new possibilities when it came to shaping either small or large parts. Marbon Chemical in Arizona, who produced plastic parts for the automobile industry, decided that it would be a great idea to try to construct a complete car themselves. Their objective was simply to showcase the many qualities of plastic and fibreglass in car production. They decided to use the Marbon material “Cycolac”, and proceeded to employ the young designer Dann Deaver who was to come up with a shape for their new car, which was both suitable for the casting process while looking sporty and modern.
As an added bonus, Deaver was a co-owner of the race car firm Centaur Engineering, and thus came with expertise in chassis construction. With that expertise and Marbon’s resources, work was initiated on the prototype CRV (Cycolac Research Vehicle): An open two-seater sportscar built around a Centaur spaceframe chassis with a 4-cylinder mid-mounted engine.
The prototype was presented at the big annual SAE-exhibition in 1965, where the CRV immediately made quite an impact with the public. Marbon had clearly displayed and proven the advantages of plastic materials when it came to both design and production, but the skeptical none-believers still had their doubts about the durability of the material when put into daily use. Marbon thus decided to initiate the next phase: To produce a more powerful version which was to be campaigned in motorsport to show Cycolac’s strength and durability.
CRV-2 also took the concept one step further in that it wasn’t given a spaceframe chassis. Instead, the chassis was built in fibreglass, with only the suspension mounted on metal subframes both front and rear. An air-cooled 6-cylinder boxer engine, borrowed from the Chevrolet Corvair, increased the power output suitably.
The CRV-2 performed well in the races it took part in and even won its class in the SCCA-series in 1965. It even survived a collision with a competing Jaguar, proving that the material was indeed usable for road cars too.
Yet another prototype was constructed: the CRV-3. As its sole purpose in life was collision testing, it wasn’t completed as a finished and fully trimmed car. Not surprisingly, the results of the tests were rather disappointing. The combination of a fibreglass chassis and plastic body didn’t add up to much protection from the impact – the car practically collapsed. Furthermore, the standard steering column they had used – again from a Chevrolet Corvair – would have speared the person sitting behind the wheel during any collision. It was all too obvious that a better solution was required.
By 1966, Marbon decided that this new and stronger construction should be a proper road car. They ditched the roadster design and opted for a closed coupé instead: The CRV-4. Again, to capture the imagination of the public it needed to look the part, to which a pair of gullwing doors inspired by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL were incorporated into the design. For the engine, they stuck with the air-cooled boxer from the Corvair, which breathed through two grilles borrowed from the Porsche 356.
They built a second coupé (not surprisingly) dubbed the CRV-5, and both the 4 and the 5 toured as advertisement at various exhibitions around Europe and Japan.
It had never been Marbon’s intention to become an automobile manufacturer – they merely wanted to promote the use of plastic in car production in order to strengthen their original and core market. Their intention was now to pass actual production of the CRV to another company, and thereafter simply continue as a supplier of parts for the production. This is where AMT enters the story. They were a successful manufacturer of model cars produced in plastic, and they were searching for an alternate method of marketing their products. AMT bought the rights for the CRV and planned to build 50 cars a year next to participating in motorsport both on circuits and in drag racing. For this they found the CRV nametag much too tame, so the concept was renamed the Piranha.
In 1967 AMT finished the first Piranha dragster, which became a huge success. It was one of the first “funny car” drag racers with the engine behind the driver, which achieved speeds in excess of the magical 200 mph. The more ordinary circuit racer was also finished in 1967 and did its part with Dick Carbijal behind the wheel.
Among the road cars which AMT assembled, one ended up with a lead role in the TV series “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”. It featured in several episodes, making it the most famous of all Piranhas.
Sadly, AMT’s ambitious plans for the road-going Piranha never really materialised, and they ended up only finishing four road cars. The cars simply proved too expensive to produce. Handbuilding them was really the only way to handle such low volume production, and to further complicate matters, they also found it problematic maintaining a source of Corvair parts with those low production numbers. The relationship between Marbon and AMT collapsed, which eventually led to the four unsold Piranhas and various spare parts being delivered back to Marbon. With time, those finished cars found their way to private owners. Finally, Marbon managed to set up a working relationship with a kitcar company which would sell CRV/Piranha parts to use on the versatile VW platform.
At this stage, you would have thought that everyone involved would understand that car production is not an easy or straight forward matter. It requires money and determination by the bucketload. Surely Marbon would never again attempt something like this? Well, you would be wrong. Based on the experience they had achieved with the CRV, they launched themselves into a new project: Formacar. With an all new design, one prototype was constructed. For a while it looked like American Motors might actually commit and take over the complete project for mass production. But problems with the fibreglass chassis killed off the collaboration and the Formacar project was shut down.
And then it all went awfully quiet…
If this has spawned your interest and you’re desperate for more on the CRV/Piranha, I can recommend this website which has compiled all you could ever want to know about the project. It was also the main source for this article.