John Fitch was an incredible man- it's that simple. He was a WWII pilot, highly accomplished racer, first manager of Chevrolet's Corvette racing team, and designed and sold some stunning Corvair variants. When he was 87, he even tried to break some speed records at Bonneville in a 50 year-old Mercedes-Benz Gullwing. On top of all that, the man was a safety pioneer as well, inventing the Fitch Barrier, those yellow barrels full of sand we've all seen on highways and along tracks.
If you've been looking for a Jalop-life idol, you could do far worse.
Fitch was born in 1917, and had a stepdad who was an executive for the Stutz Motor Company. This provided his introduction to cars and racing. When WWII broke out, Fitch became a pilot, and could boast shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet, which was usually considered too fast to effectively shoot down. Fitch caught one on takeoff, a lucky break. His luck ran out later in the war, when he was shot down and spent the remainder of the war as a POW.
After the war, Fitch opened an MG dealership and started racing MG-TCs, of which he said "My first racecar was an MG TC. It was horrible. Solid axle up front, solid axle at the rear, and a very loose body. But it did look good."
Later, he was given a wrecked Allard to race, which required a bit of adjustment:
I was given an Allard early on as a racecar, but it was wrecked. We didn't have any frame-pulling machines then, so I chained the damaged corner to a tree and gently pulled that corner back into place. That's how we did things then.
A mere seven years after being a POW in Germany, Fitch was the first (and I believe still only) American to be part of the Mercedes-Benz racing team- he was the first American to professionally race in Europe post-WWII as well.
After racking up class wins in the Mille Miglia and other races, Fitch returned from Europe in 1956 to head the Chevrolet Corvette racing team. Despite the early ‘Vette's less-than-stellar racing reputation, he set a land speed record for production cars, and then some class and team wins at Sebring.
Fitch also designed and modified cars, focusing special attention on the Corvair. He wanted to turn the already Porsche-like Corvair into something even more Porsche-y, and made special versions of Corvairs called the Corvair Sprint that bumped HP from 100 to 155 and added handling improvements, capped with a great-looking fastback/flying buttress body modification.
The real jewel here was the Fitch Phoenix, a striking looking Corvair-based two-seater that never made it past the prototype stage. That's a shame, because it's about as close to an American 911 as you could imagine. That would have been an amazing rivalry to follow.
Any 95 year old man who loves to go as fast as John Cooper Fitch must also love not dying, and as such Fitch came up with a number of safety innovations. The most known are the Fitch Barriers mentioned earlier, but he also came up with displaceable guardrail designs and protective driver's capsules for racing cars.
John Fitch was a remarkable man and driver, and he'll be missed.