The Deco Dream – Rust Heinz’s Phantom Corsair

When it comes to cars, there’s nothing as cool as something ahead of its time. It never ceases to amaze what a healthy dose of truly innovative thinking can accomplish, especially when everything else in the same period is moving much, much slower in comparison, struggling to adapt to the times instead of thinking ahead. However, its only fair to point out that the 1930’s were a particular fertile period in terms of new ideas for automotive design. Art Deco was in full swing, going well beyond the merely decorative realm and influencing every aspect of form and function in everything from advertising to car design. Speed was imperative and streamline was the word of the day. It was during this special time that Mercedes Benz came out with the absolutely stunning and surreal T80, a masterpiece created to break records…but on the other side of the Atlantic, one American was focusing not just on going fast, but also on providing the most luxurious experience on 4 wheels one could possibly have. The astonishing Phantom Corsair was about to be born.


Rust Heinz (that’s right, from the ketchup family) had a very solid idea of the car he wanted to create. However, there was the tiny detail of Rust not having one ounce of experience when it came to anything even remotely related to the automotive world. Throwing caution to the wind – Ah, the joys of belonging to a family of millionaires… –  he gave up on his naval architecture degree at Yale University to open a brand new design studio. Thankfully an aunt was nice enough to step in with the financial support (under much protest from the rest of the “Ketchup family”) and so, the conditions were set for the creation of the very first (and only) Phantom Corsair.

This car would have an estimated price of 15.000 dollars. Sure, it may not seem like a lot today, but 15 grand in the late 30’s was a huge amount of money! Let’s recall that  just a few years before, the Ford Model A would set you back something like 500 dollars and even the extraordinary Cadillac V16 Imperial Sedan (like the one Al Capone had) was almost 3 times cheaper. As a result of this monetary extravagance, no orders were ever received for the Corsair.

The first scale model of Rust’s creation was taken to coachbuilders Chistian Bohman and Marice Schwartz in Pasadena, California. When it was ready, the body was attached to a custom built chassis by the AJ Bayer Company, using the same basic mechanics as the Cord (an extraordinary creation on its own). The aerodynamic body envisioned by Rust became one of the most extraordinary designs of the era (scratch that, of all times)! Every aluminum panel in the car was hand built and carefully crafted, the headlights were especially created for this model and so were the telescopic supports for the exclusive chrome fenders.

dsc01240Built on a Cord chassis and using a 190bhp V8, the Corsair could move its 2 tons at over 115 miles per hour. The interior was designed to be the epitome of luxury, comfortably accommodating up to 6 passengers (4+2 – 4 in the front seat, including one passenger to the left of the driver, and 2 in the back) that could enjoy such privileges as climate control and a special dashboard, designed to minimize injuries in case of impact. To enter the vehicle there were no door handles, the access was possible by buttons linked with the car’s electric system. The driver had at his disposal a central console above the windshield that, other than the most mundane functions, could also inform him of when the doors weren’t properly closed, or when the radio or lights were left on. However, it’s important to point out that not everything about this car was style and innovation, there were some issues, especially mechanically, the most relevant of which was the overheating, caused by the small air intakes at the front (designed in such way to blend in naturally with the aerodynamic shape of Rust’s creation).

The development of the Phantom corsair was a huge financial effort. It’s estimated that between 24 and 25.000 dollars were spent to create this one of a kind Art Deco masterpiece. So obviously, some media exposure was welcome to help with sales (unfortunately, as we already know, it didn’t).  The car was featured on the cover of “Motor Age” magazine, ads for it were printed on the famous “Esquire” magazine, it was even promoted on the 1939 World Fair and featured prominently in the film The Young in Heart alongside Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were it was called the “Flying Wombat”.

Sadly, shortly after the only Phantom Corsair was built, Rust Heinz died after a car crash, he was only 25 years old. The car stayed in the Heinz family until 1942, being driven by its members. Somewhere along the line, the Phantom was painted gold and ended up being sold to comedian Herb Shriner who ordered a series of modifications to the vehicle in the 1950’s under the supervision of Albrecht Goertz, designer of the BMW 507. Goertz modified the front of the Corsair in order to improve air intake for the engine, redesigned the windshield to increase visibility and included two Targa like panels on the roof. Shriner kept the car until 1970.

Phantom Corsair (rear)

Luckily this unique piece of automotive history was sold to hotel and casino tycoon William Harrah who just happened to be a great car enthusiast. Harrah had the means and vision restore the Corsair back to (most of) Rust’s specifications. Today, the car is part of the Harrah collection at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. It occasionally appears in public like at the 2006 Goodwood Festival, 2007 Pebble Beach Concours and 2009 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

The Phantom Corsair is without a doubt one of the great icons of automotive design in the Art Deco era. What I really love about it is the fact that it’s one man’s vision, one man’s dream, a physical manifestation of an idea far ahead of its time. It’s impossible to look at the Phantom and not wonder about Heinz’s future in the car industry if he hadn’t met his untimely demise. If this was just the preamble of his work, his very first try…what other extraordinary things would he have created?


Images Credits:

Mario the Multipla


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “The Deco Dream – Rust Heinz’s Phantom Corsair

  1. Pingback: Automotive Views

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s