Discovering The Griffith 200: A Horribly Amazing Car
Photography by Ted Gushue
Rob Dietz is the kinda guy who gets his hands on all sorts of ludicrous stuff. As the founder of Dietz Motorcraft, one of LA’s leading collection maintenance and brokerage services, there’s literally no end to the weird and wonderful machines that roll across his garage floor. The other day he called me up with a car I’d literally never heard of before, the Griffith 200. After doing a bit of research and another phone call, it became clear that not only was this an incredibly rare make and model, this was one of earliest prototype versions. I hope you enjoy learning about it as much as I did.
Ted Gushue: Rob, tell me about this bizarre, fascinating, crazy, dangerous little red car.
Rob Dietz: Let me start at the beginning of how Griffith came to be. Jack Griffith was an acquaintance of Carroll Shelby’s. Carroll and Jack got along well, but Jack had set out to make a car that was faster than his Cobra. Jack approached Dick Monnich who was the importer for TVR in Long Island. He said, “Dick, can TVR supply us with some rolling chassis?” Just like AC was for Carroll. Dick said, “Let me find out.” Contacts TVR, TVR says, “Sure, we don’t care, we’ll give you some rolling chassis, that’s fine.” Fast-forward, Dick gets a few rolling chassis TVRs Grantura brought in for Jack and one for himself to try it out since he was an SCCA racer, and they decide, well we’re going to use the exact same formula that Shelby did, we’re going to stuff a Ford V-8 into a small British, lightweight sports car. They went with Roger Teck’s (who was Jack competition mechanic) suggestion of stuffing a Ford smallblock into it rather than Jack’s idea of installing a Buick 215 cid engine.
The first car that they made was Car 000, it was a pre-production car. It was a, “Can we even do this? Will the engine fit? Will it even work? Does it even make sense?” type of car. After they realized that they could actually fit the engine in there, and logistically it would work, the next thing they did was they made Car 001E. 001E was 001-experimental, which was, “Okay, well it fits. Now, how do we make it work?” It was, again, a somewhat cobbled together car. As funny as it is they found that with the early cars they were having problems keeping the engine cool enough, given the confines of the engine bay and inadequate radiator. 001E and forward for the first early cars, about 20 or so, to give you an example of how cobbled together they were, they considered cutting vents into the sides of the engine bay. So they did that and wondered how to make it look a bit nicer. So they said, “Well, look at that counter top over there. There’s some nice trim on it. Let’s just use that.” The side grille was formed from the aluminum edging that was used at the time on Formica kitchen counter tops and the spacers were made from aluminum tubing, so they called them “Refrigerator Cars” since the trim came from the kitchen.
After 001E was made, 002 was made. And 002 is a particularly special car because it’s the last pre-production car and it was Dick Monnich’s personal car. They took everything that they’d learned together and said “Well, let’s see if it all works from what we learned from 000 and 001E, and see if there’s actually a car that works here.”
So 002 was that car. Dick drove it around, wanting to make sure that it was good enough to bring to market. They did everything that they figured out on the 001E and prior to make it make sense.
003 was the first production car. This is for the Griffith Series 200. They made 192 Griffith Series 200s. They made 59 Series 400s and, I believe, 10 Series 600s.
In the production cars you could get a 220 or 225hp 289 standard, or 289 high performance which was the high performance Ford block. These became the most sought after of the production cars because it had the most power. But they only made 192 Series 200. It wasn’t like there was tons of them floating around. In fact, they made more 427 Cobras than they made Griffiths in entirety.
So another little special feature on 002 is that it’s the only car that has a Ford 260 in it. The backstory on the 260 is that in Nov. 1963, Jack Griffith, Dick Monnich and George Clark went to Dearborn to meet with FoMoCo brass on introducing a “Griffith Sprint,” a 289 HiPo engined ’64 Falcon Sprint with serious mods, and the 000 car. Lee Iacocca escorted the three of them into a sub-ground level location to show them the soon-to-be-released Mustang and gave Jack a thumbs-down on the Sprint but thumbs-up on the TVR based Griffith Series 200. Jack was told that the Sprint would be in direct competition with the newborn pony car. So the 260 that’s in his car is from the Falcon and the failed attempts at him trying to pitch Ford this kind of Mustang that didn’t exist at the time. So this is the only 260 powered Griffith in existence. All the other ones are 289. And so this just adds to the depth of the story as far as how the 002 came to be. By the way Mike Mooney, the now owner of the Griffith Motorcar company, and author of the book “The Griffith Years” was incredible help in figuring out this puzzle as well as Steve Ferron who are also Griff experts.
Ted: What’s it like to drive?
Rob: Well, take a Cobra, and make the tires skinnier, keep the power, and put it in a fiberglass shell that’s very lightweight. They were about 1400 pounds without the drive train in it. They were closer to around the 1900 mark with the drive train in it. As you can imagine your right foot decides where the nose is pointing and just how much of the sidewalk you want to see. It’s super torquey.
The engine mount is antiquated technology, and you don’t get the most feedback as far as the steering or the chassis is concerned. It’s two tubes that run up the center of the car, and everything’s hung off of that. So it’s not necessarily the most communicable chassis, it is just absolutely astounding how it actually gets around.
I would say, having driven Cobras, and having driven Griffiths, I would say the Griffith almost feels more special than a Cobra, as weird as that is, because it just feels even more raw and more put together by somebody who still just had a dream of doing something, rather than a professional. By that time, as far as Shelby was concerned, he was a pretty proficient guy. He had been involved in racing for a long time. He knew how to put a car together. The Shelby was a bit of a kit car at that point, yes, but Carroll still put that car together fairly well, and understood how to really get it around. Jack didn’t really understand that quite as well as Shelby did.
TG: So what you’re saying is, is that because this guy sucked at building cars, it’s actually more fun?
RD: Absolutely! [Laughs] Isn’t that the way it always is though? You know, the thing that’s just extraordinary about it is that it even exists at all. It’s rawer. It’s not as refined. It’s not that a Cobra is luxurious either – that’s extremely raw too. The TVR chassis is just so basic. The cabin is very claustrophobic, the side windows are less than a foot long. There’s no ventilation that comes into the car. Virtually none. So it gets very hot inside the car. You sit, essentially, on the rear axle. The car rotates under you. It feels like you’re sitting on the rear axle. The gas tank is right behind your back.
It’s just such a visceral experience. The mounts for the engine are essentially solid mounts, so as the car idles, you feel every cylinder fire when you’re sitting there. When you get on it, you feel that motor underneath of you. Shifts are very succinct. It’s the same toploader trans that most people have come to know and love. So it’s a very satisfying kind of clunk into each gear. There’s no ambiguity in the box.
They’re very visceral cars. And having driven more than one Griffith, they all have their own personality to them, and are all astoundingly quick. 1900 pound, even the 260 probably puts out something closer to probably the 200 range. So it goes down the road pretty well for 1900 pounds.
It’s a car for guys who got bored with the Cobras, that’s the way I always looked at it.