Rare Bird: The Swallow Doretti

test

Written by The Staff of Motorsport Marketing

From the March 2010 issue

Posted in Features


Story and Photos by Dan Scanlan

Imagine the year 1956: Dwight D. Eisenhower is president; Congress has just said “yea” to the Highway Act and put our interstate system into motion; “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Don’t Be Cruel” are rockin’ the radio; and gasoline is 20 cents a gallon.

Now picture Robert E. Lee High School in balmy Jacksonville, Florida. On a typical school day, its dirt parking lot houses American metal like a 1951 Chevy and a “real fast” Chrysler coupe—as well as one small, white 1954 Swallow Doretti.

A what?

It’s understandable if you don’t recognize the name. Only about 275 of these Italian-named roadsters were made between 1954 and 1955, representing the last gasp of a company that started out making motorcycle sidecars.

There’s a bit of AC Ace in the stylish face, some MGA in the tail, and a Triumph under its bonnet. The cozy cockpit was trimmed in leather with proper Jaeger gauges.

Jacksonville native Tommy Entenza was the big man on campus who drove the car. Why get an anemic British roadster when classmates had American iron? Entenza said you could look in the parking lot and “not even see the Doretti because it was so small,” but it was still a great machine.

“It was 90 horsepower, but it would do 100 mph. It was fast,” he says, adding that his classmates loved it.

“They thought it was the neatest—and of course it was—little car that made a nice little sound,” he adds. “And I could scoot all over Jacksonville in it, so a lot of people saw it.”

Entenza eventually sold the Doretti, but one other Jacksonville native—who went on to found the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance—remembers it well. Amelia Chairman Bill Warner worked for Al Sager Motors, where the car was sold.

“When I saw it, I wasn’t sure quite what it was,” he recalls. “It looked like an AC but it wasn’t. I learned at that time that it was a Swallow Doretti, an English car with an Italian kind of name.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Fifty-three years after the sale, another Doretti has refueled the fire of Entenza’s first love. “When Tommy Entenza got [his current Doretti], I was thrilled for him,” adds Warner.

The Egg Hatches

The sporty little Doretti was born out of Swallow Coachbuilding, formed by Sir William Lyons to construct sidecars, coachbuilt Austin Sevens and ultimately his own rakish SS. By the mid-1930s, the company changed its name to SS—the brand that would eventually become Jaguar—while spinning off the sidecar business in 1945 to Helliwell Group.

Helliwell moved their operations to Walsall Airport in Birmingham. Three years later, they were swallowed up by the Tube Investments Group.

As sidecar sales declined, the company wanted to create its own sports car to battle with Britain’s then-growing crop of roadsters from Triumph, MG, Austin and others. So Frank Rainbow designed a two-seat roadster that would bear the Doretti name. The premier model was built in nine months and shepherded to New York in 1953—first on an ocean liner by Rainbow, then by plane to Los Angeles.

The Doretti design was based on a strong tubular chassis frame with three-inch-diameter chrome-moly steel tubes on the sides. Thanks to a relationship with Standard Triumph, the TR2 donated its 1991cc, 90-horsepower Triumph TR2 engine, four-speed gearbox and rear axle. The Doretti’s engine sits low and back under the bonnet, which is highlighted with a teardrop-shaped bulge needed to clear the cam cover.

The aluminum body—6 inches longer than the TR2 and 3 inches wider—is a tight design. It sports a hint of 1951 Ferrari 340 America in the polished five-bar grille that sits upright between two prominent Lucas headlights. Petite turn signals sit like lollipops atop polished spears that cover the join between fender and nose. A straight-ribbed bumper with small overriders balances the front end.

A bit of Austin-Healey 100 is visible in the way the front wings rise aft of the headlight rings, but the front overhang is very small. Meanwhile, the front wheel arches frame 165SR15 Michelins that are fitted to black steel wheels. These units are brightened with a trim ring plus a hub cap sporting the Doretti green-and-white checkered flag motif.

A chrome spear accents the gently rounded flanks as the beltline dips slightly—just aft of the beautifully engineered windshield frame. Rainbow’s design really shines here. The rear fenders form an elegantly rounded hip before dropping into a sharp tail that recalls an MGA or Austin-Healey; diminutive lamps top off the look.

The chrome gas filler cap forms a nice accent at the top of the tail’s design. The tightly drawn rear bumper is accented aft of both rear wheel wells with polished chip protector wings, and they add a touch of American flash without being gaudy.

Under the front-hinged bonnet of Entenza’s current Doretti, a standard TR2 engine with twin side-draft carburetors sits beside a build plate. It proclaims that this is a 2-litre car with engine No. TS4288E, chassis No. 1208 and body No. 5208.

This example’s interior is simple and sporty, although one must first step over polished steel sill plates engraved with information that couldn’t have come from any other car: “A SWALLOW PRODUCTTHE AIRPORTWALSALLENGLAND.”

The dashboard carries a standard Triumph auxiliary gauge (oil and amps on the left, fuel and temp on the right) and a switch pod in the middle. There’s a 6000 rpm tach on the far left and an optimistic 120 mph speedometer on the right of Entenza’s right-hand-drive model.

A padded red leather dash top appears to be secured to the cowl with polished metal staples, as do the padded door tops. Red leather seats with pleated inserts and black piping flank a stubby four-speed with a small black knob and tiny parking brake lever. The steering wheel is classic TR2: three lightweight steel spokes, a black hub with a horn button, and a turn signal switch on top.

Storage room is tight—padded pockets adorn the door panels, while the trunk offers a wee bit of room outside of its spare tire and tool kit. The top stows flat under a split tonneau held down with Tennay snaps.

Range and Habitat

Entenza stores his car in a humidity- and temperature-controlled garage fitted with a lift. The Doretti shares space with a pair of Mercedes-Benz 560SLs and Sir Gilbert, an imposing white 1964 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.

Inside the house lies another prize possession: a spiral notebook with its “The Crusader” name replaced by “doretti scrapbook” in blocky print. The high school teen’s car diary contains articles from period car magazines abounding with information on his first dream car. One features Ol’ Yeller creator Max Balchowsky’s Buick V8-powered Swallow “Buretti,” described as “extremely dependable and durable” and having a top speed of 105 mph. Another shows a white Doretti, sitting primly with the top up, at a car show.

Dorettis sold for approximately $2800 when they were new—about $400 more than Entenza’s family paid for his first, “slightly used” white Doretti at Al Sager Motors in 1956. “We went over to see him and, lo and behold, here was the little Swallow Doretti, owned by a young couple who could no longer afford it,” Entenza says. “Al Sager, instead of selling us a Triumph or Jaguar or some other British sports car, said ‘Hey, why don’t you help these people out and buy this car?’”

Al Sager was in the “mansion business,” Bill Warner explains. In the Yiddish-accented words of Mr. Kitzel, Artie Auerbach’s character on the Fred Allen radio show, “Vatever you mansion, that’s what we got.” Warner continues, “Mr. Sager had Doretti, Lancia, Borgward—whatever he could make a buck at, that’s what he was handling.”

With a Doretti in his possession, Entenza filled up his notebook. His drawing of the car is stuck to a page with yellowed cellophane tape. The book also has photos, some taken in front of his old home on Fitch Street, one with a skinny kid in an even skinnier tie.

“I was writing about and finding articles about the Doretti, building this notebook over a relatively short period of time with photographs I took of it with a little Kodak Brownie camera,” he remembers. The Doretti allowed Entenza to get to his after-school job at the family florist.

Like so many other young drivers of the time, Entenza also hooked up with the Sports Car Club of America and went to play at an old airfield in Lake City, about two hours away. “I was by far the youngest member, and that’s when the fun began,” he recalls.

The club laid out a course for time trials, and he raced against the clock—most of the time. “On occasion, three or four of us would get on the course at the same time when no one was looking,” he says with a chuckle. “It was an absolute blast to scoot around that sports car course. They were bringing Jaguar XK120s, another Doretti, interestingly enough—red with wire wheels. There were TR2s and a small Porsche.”

Entenza admits he didn’t have the skills to get the most out of his car, but he could “stay right on the tail of a TR2.” Since the Doretti is similar to a Triumph under its skin, that’s not a bad accomplishment.

“It was so different than the sports car I was used to, my friend’s MG TD,” he adds. “That was a car designed in the ’30s, and here was a car designed definitely in the ’50s. It just had a beautiful look, and it was swift and nimble. As they say, your first love stays with you.”

Entenza admits he always had a love for—or maybe a love-hate relationship with—British cars. “They’ve got a cantankerousness about them, but they are interesting,” he says. “I just knew it was a cute little car and I wasn’t technically astute, so I didn’t worry about the fact that it had a nice little aluminum body, a tubular frame and independent suspension.”

Leaving the Nest

That first Doretti left his care in 1956, replaced by a high school graduation gift: a Corvette that could accelerate to 100 mph in 30 seconds. Entenza was suddenly king of the hill at the Lake City course.

After completing college and serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Entenza took in a Jaguar Mark V Drophead Coupe fitted with a Rolls-Royce engine. Among the other cars that passed through his hands were a 1961 Corvair Coupe, more Corvettes, some Benzes, a group of Rollers including comedian Red Skelton’s 1961 Phantom V limo, a rebodied 1947 Bentley, and even a Plexiglas-roofed 1967 Lincoln parade car.

No one knows for sure what happened to Entenza’s first Doretti, although rumor has it that it’s in good shape among the survivors. However, he always remembered it. “I would find myself every once in a while pulling the scrapbook out, looking through it, remembering the excitement, fun and enjoyment,” he says. “I would look for what really is a rare happening in the marketplace: a Doretti.”

About three years ago, he saw a photo of Doretti, chassis No. 1208, in a magazine. He contacted the New York owner listed in the photo caption, and eventually they agreed on a $70,000 selling price.

“I think it’s worth a hell of a lot more than that,” he says, “but it’s the best one in the world.” It didn’t start out that way, though. Entenza has photographs of what No. 1208 looked like before its late-1990s restoration in Idaho by Lynn Martin: a rusted shape bereft of an interior and doors, its left-side headlight showing old accident damage.

Post-restoration studio shots were taken just before Entenza bought the Doretti. He awaited delivery of the car, already possessing an invitation to show it at the 2009 Amelia Island Concours. Unfortunately, disaster struck during shipping.

“She smashed in on the front—heartbreak city: grille, bumper, the headlamp areas, but not into the engine itself,” he explains. “It did not hurt the frame, thank goodness.”

The repairs took three months to complete, and the car looked great as it rolled onto the grounds at Amelia. Entenza says lots of attendees swore it was Italian based on its name and looks. Warner, who has a restored Group 44 Inc. Triumph TR6 and TR8 in his collection, adds that it was great to have a rare local car at the concours. “It was pretty when I saw it originally—and unusually rare,” he says.

The work continued after the big show, with the car eventually receiving the correct bumpers and bolts plus a reformed grille and new headlights. Some body filler from past repairs was also removed. “It looked lovely, but it wasn’t like it came from the factory,” he says. It looked like a real, honest driver.

Migration Patterns

A cross-town drive back to Entenza’s childhood home in the classy Avondale neighborhood of Jacksonville included trips across two interstates and a large bridge. The Doretti moved smartly up the bridge’s steep incline, causing minivan drivers to stare or extend a thumbs-up. The ride was firm—the car bounced a bit over bumps—but not rough.

Being a few pounds heavier than a TR2, the Doretti’s performance was a tad weaker than the car that donated its oily bits. The Swallow is said to top out at about 100 mph, while the Triumph can reach 105. When asked whether his example could hit the published top speed, Entenza was coy: “We’ll never know,” he said with a grin. He admits he doesn’t play as hard in this car as he did in his first love.

The 90-horsepower engine sang merrily at around 2500 rpm in top gear. The car tackled modern interstate traffic well, though it was a bit slower than some of the machines surrounding it. It also felt a little small, especially next to the pickups and 18-wheelers.

The bonnet vibrated a little, so Entenza avoided potholes and manhole covers before moving into tree-lined streets flanked with brick and stucco homes. A sweeping Laguna Seca-like corkscrew allowed him to push it a bit; body roll was the only sign of its age as the cross plies hung on with a bit of understeer squeak. “This is exciting,” Entenza quipped from behind the wheel.

The drive inevitably surfaced thoughts of his first Doretti. “It’s easy now to go back and relive those memories, but they are, in fact, memories,” Entenza said. “She was so precious. I burned a valve in the first one, and that’s always in the back of my mind.”

Parked back in his driveway, Entenza admitted he still loves the Swallow Doretti despite owning a wide variety of vehicles since his first. “From any angle, it makes a beautiful presentation. I have never looked at any Doretti from any angle that I didn’t really enjoy and appreciate Frank Rainbow’s original design,” he mused.

Swallow did try to succeed the Doretti with a car called the Sabre, but only two were made before Jaguar told the company to stop creating competition for the XK120. Experts estimate that only 178 Dorettis still exist, making it truly a rare bird.

Behind the Wheel

Despite the large doors, minor gymnastics are needed to get under the big Triumph steering wheel found in Tommy Entenza’s 1954 Swallow Doretti. The wheel lands in the driver’s lap.

Decent legroom is available once inside, though a tall driver will feel tall in the saddle. The top of the windscreen is level with the forehead, and the door is so close to the driver’s seat that it feels natural to hang an arm out the window.

The driver’s footwell is beset by a few drawbacks. The brake and clutch pedal are small, while the gas pedal is an odd roller on bearings at the end of a “J”-shaped lever. There’s no place for the driver to rest his left foot.

The TR2 engine fires quickly when warm, while the non-synchro first gear slots cleanly. The clutch action is firmly sprung, but it’s quick on take-up as the 2-liter four revs sweetly. This engine’s forte is mid-range punch, and it was quite torquey around 2500 rpm as we accelerated through second and third. The gearbox throws are fairly short and precise, and throttle response is quick as the exhaust emits a pleasing, blatty snarl.

The unassisted rack-and-pinion steering requires some elbow at low speeds, but the wheel’s spokes flex with minimal play as the car accelerates. Body roll also improves once the Doretti hits its stride.

At neighborhood speeds, the brakes have a nice pedal feel and bite. With the top down at highway speeds, the windscreen provides good wind control. In all, we’d call the Doretti a refined version of one of our favorite British classics.

Join Free
Join our community to easily find more articles.

Reader comments:

wspohn
wspohn Dork
Nov. 18, 2017 1:29 p.m.

I used to own one of these. When I tore it down, I was surprised to see that Swallow had anticipated all of the bugs in the early TR-2 design and had fixed them before Triumph did (little things like rear shocks and front lower A arm mounts tearing off the frames etc.....)

Kind of wish I still owned it sometimes....

willjordan
willjordan New Reader
Nov. 20, 2017 11:36 p.m.

WOW!!!

fiesta54
fiesta54 Reader
Nov. 30, 2017 8:31 p.m.

I have one set up to vintage race in my shop right now.  Probably taking it to Amelia next year.

dculberson
dculberson PowerDork
Nov. 30, 2017 8:34 p.m.

Only ever made 275, 60+ years ago, and two of them are accounted for here. (Ok, one in the past, but still..) wow!

fiesta54
fiesta54 Reader
Nov. 30, 2017 9:53 p.m.

In reply to dculberson :

I was just thinking the same thing.  Came here to say I know of one and couldn't believe someone beat me to it.

Gary
Gary SuperDork
Dec. 1, 2017 7:53 p.m.

Heh, heh, heh ... she said swallow

You'll need to log in to post.

The Latest

A Ford Cortina with a Big Secret

4 hours ago in Articles

It's a weapons-grade screamer.

Restoration Impossible: Linking the Transmission to the Engine

6 hours ago in Project Cars

What do you do when you can't find the right clutch alignment tool?

21 Gearhead Gifts for Your Wishlist

10 hours ago in Articles

Not sure what to get that special someone this year?

Pro Driver Jordan Taylor Jumps Behind the Wheel of "Le Monstre"

1 day ago in Articles

Taylor experiences the 1950 Cadillac-powered Le Mans racer.

My Racing Rules

5 days ago in Articles

Like most of us, Classic Motorsports Publisher Tim Suddard is obsessed with cars and racing.

Classic Motorsports Car Catcher: Peter Brock's Ultimate Datsun 510

1 week ago in News

Classic looks and 300 horsepower built by a legend.

Our Preferred Partners

Mlassic Motorsports Magazine

Subscribe Today

Also get your instant access to the digital edition of Classic Motorsports Magazine!

Learn More
eztnvWMI9bScLrYaodfRIMvJnCq6Bu8P