Woven in the Fabric of EnthusiasmThu, 10 Feb 2011
Editor's note: This article was first published in the April 30, 2000, issue of AutoWeek.
Single chauffeur/single passenger two-door steel/aluminum/canvas/crocodile-embossed hide custom tourer
92 hp @ the shaft, 207 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
323.50-cid Chrysler L-head inline-eight
Four-speed, clutch-free semiautomatic
0-60 mph: 10 seconds
EPA combined mpg: 8+ mpg
Base price, None. Built for owner's use
Or you could buy:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang II ($1,100,000+)
It has been 79 years since Count Louis Zborowski, a Polish nobleman, created the glorious Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs of which only one survives. Efforts to evoke its spirit have, until now, failed abominably in the hands of such as Alain Crespin and Ruprecht Excelsior. But now a brilliant American designer, drawing on his profound understanding of history automotif and his eerie connection to the giants of the past, has wrought Lapin Agile. Chitty Lives!
The single pre-production prototype, given to AutoWeek for test under the veil of secrecy, is amazingly avant garde in its technology. Retro pods cum taillights! Edwardian silver salver in the cockpit between driver and passenger! Twenty-inch wheels mounting 7.00 x 20 inch tires! Chrysler straight eight engine making 92 shaft horsepower but delivering more than eight miles to the gallon! Steering by chauffeur! Crafted steel and aluminum coachwork, convertible via interchangeable canvas covers to three different colors depending on driver or passenger mood!
Anatoly Arutunoff is a saturated car person. He owns a racetrack. He owns a car museum. He owns so many cars he has had to incorporate as a fleet. But no matter what he bought, what he drove, what he owned, something was always missing. Missing, that is, until he created Lapin Agile, which, loosely translated, means the Rabbit that Wouldn't Hold Still. With Lapin, Arutunoff has wrought, in his word, "Luminosity."
For example, the cabin: Hoping to produce interior tranquility, the decorators Arutunoff employed, directed by wife Karen, a feng shui adept, fitted the cockpit in crocodile-embossed wallaby hide on the theory that crocodiles are among the most leisurely of reptiles. The silver-plated gallery tray holds exactly two crystal glasses meant to be filled with a nice Amontillado. As with Chitty, Lapin's coachwork is straightforward but try as we might we were unable to pry from Arutunoff's lips the name of the designer. Still, we can speculate. Is it coincidence that the car has a Chrysler engine and that Chrysler chief designer John Herlitz was seen in a convenience store near the Lapin works? We think not.
"The Lapin has come exactly as its time arrived," auto analyst Jim Hall told our test team. "It is deliberately underpowered for a world poised on the brink of massive minimalism. It is retrorocketish without borrowing anything whatsoever from anybody whomsoever. It picks up the theme of the Hot Wheels color changers, while at the same time rejecting emphatically any Tommy aesthetic at all. It is a triumph! Well, a Lapin anyway."
All well and good, but how does it drive? We asked a nonagenarian veteran of the Interserie to give us perspective. Hannu Salkonnen has driven everything from the steam Grande Larousse of the pre-teens to natural-gas-powered 917 turbos. His opinion of Lapin? "Awesomely unimpressive."
It was a far greater compliment than it seems. Salkonnen is only too familiar with herky-jerky racing cars of shrewish temperaments. His bias, he confessed, lay in favor of cars whose personalities were so refined they made no demands on their drivers.
"It has the soul of a bucket of herbal tea," he opined. "Crab grass herbal tea."
And so we took to the winding, twisting up and down highways of southeastern Michigan for our own evaluation. The clever body panels in navy, coral and khaki struck us first. As our test progressed, we tried them all and found the coral the most soothing as well as the most conducive to vigorous driving. We particularly liked the coral circles in the luggage area that proved to be alternate, matching wheel covers. We were also appreciative of the leather covers for the folded down windscreens.
We loved the chauffeur-assisted steering. As obstacle-filled as the road might have been, it was as simple to operate as a knave through clutter.
Still, however marvelous the Lapin Agile, it presents us with a problem. We know how to compare most cars we drive: In which market segment do they fit and how do they measure up? But where should we segment the Lapin? It comes closest, we believe, to a 1912 Lake Lucerne steam launch, but achieving that comparison defies practicality. It is close, in terms of its technology, to a very early wood-burning space vessel. But how to test that? In the progression of mobility devices, it seems to want to associate itself with both the very early thresher and the Chrysler turbine car; but somehow we cannot bridge the gap for purposes of measurement.
And so we are left with only one view, one perch from which to judge Lapin, one perspective, one basis for understanding.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At the same time, we need to make one thing absolutely clear. That's a Ch in Chitty.
By Maurice Garapedian