A golden age for American road racing dawned in the second half of the 1950s. The V8 engined 'backyard specials' were quickly replaced by purpose built sports cars, which were predominantly sourced from Europe. The 1958 season was expected to be particularly competitive as revised regulations left all big-engined racing cars obsolete for major international races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Many of these cars were not ready for retirement and found their way into the hands of American racing drivers. Going against the grain, the young heir to the Woolworth fortune Lance Reventlow decided to build his own car instead. Together with his friend Bruce Kessler he had toured various European factories in 1957 and concluded that he had seen nothing that could not be done in the United States. He was just 21 years of age at the time.
To ensure his new machine would be up to the challenge, Reventlow had his chief mechanic Warren Olson hire the best designers and builders. Among them were former Kurtis fabricators Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes, and engine wizards Jim Travers and Frank Coon, who would later form Traco. Reventlow also called in the help of legendary racer and designer Ken Miles to draft up the chassis. The final piece of the puzzle was Chuck Daigh, who was hired as both as a driver and a drivetrain specialist. Reventlow Automobiles Incorporated was led by Olson and set up shop in North Hollywood, California. Within months after assembling the engineering 'dream team' the first sports racer rolled out of the shop. Reventlow dubbed it the 'Scarab' after a dung beetle that was considered sacred in Ancient Egypt.
Reventlow had one big advantage over the Europe sourced competition; he could build a car specifically for American 'stop-go' tracks, which were quite different than their much faster European counterparts. Accordingly he asked for a car that was compact, light and above all able to put its power down very well. Inspired by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, Miles penned a design for a spaceframe with enough room for Olson and his men to make their own interpretations. The suspension was equally advanced through double wishbones at the front and DeDion axle at the rear. Making an all American racing car meant that Reventlow had to make a compromise and use drum brakes instead of the superior British discs. The only 'inconsistency' was the Morris sourced rack-and-pinion steering box.
The very American Corvette V8 formed the basis for the Scarab's powerplant. Although by the time Travers and Coon were done with the engine, it was a different beast altogether. The first order of business was to increase displacement from the original 4.6 litre (283cid) to 5.5 litre (339cid) by boring and stroking the V8. The enlarged engine was equipped with Hilborn Fuel Injection and the intake manifold sported eight very stylish intake trumpets. With all modifications in place, the V8 was good for anywhere between 360 and 385 bhp, most of which was available from very low revs. The engine was mated to a Borg-Warner four-speed gearbox, which had an aluminium casing. An aluminium body styled by 19-year old Art Center School student Chuck Pelly, rounded off the package. The completed machine weighed in at a very competitive 860 kg or 1900 pounds.
Reventlow debuted the 'Scarab Mk I' early in 1958, but he was not immediately successful. The first noteworthy result was a third behind two Briggs Cunningham entered Listers at a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race on the Virginia International Raceway. The Scarab's first victory came much closer to home in Santa Barbara in June of 1958. While Reventlow raced the prototype, two more cars were assembled at the shop. Referred to as Mk IIs, they featured slightly larger tubes for the frame, wider track and right hand drive. The latter was not done for the obvious reason, but for driver comfort as the Borg-Warner gearbox protruded much further into the left hand side of the cockpit. Chuck Daigh drove one of the Mk IIs alongside Reventlow in the Mk I and together they dominated the remainder of the season. The highlight of the year was a closely fought victory during the prestigious Times Grand Prix at Riverside. Daigh beat the 440 bhp Ferrari 412 S piloted by future world champion Phil Hill after swapping the lead many times. A fitting finale of the season were two victories for Reventlow during the Nassau Speed Week.
With America conquered, Reventlow looked at taking on the Europeans on their own turf. The much tighter World Championship regulations called for a maximum displacement of just three litre. With his options limited to American engines, Reventlow commissioned the construction of a three litre version of the four-cylinder Offenhauser Indy engine. It was installed in the second Mk II, but replaced by a conventional V8 after just one race as the heavily vibrating 'four' was no match on power for the six and twelve cylinder engines used by the competition. At the end of the season both Mk IIs were put up for sale and raced with great success for several seasons in the hands of the likes of Augie Pabst and Carroll Shelby. Harry Heuer was still able to win the SCCA B-Modified championship in 1961 against the 'superior' mid-engined European racers. The Scarabs remained competitive well into the 1963 season. Reventlow had his personal Scarab converted into a road car and embarked on an even more ambitious Formula 1 project.
The Scarab name was used for three more racing cars, including the ill-fated Offenhauser engined Formula 1 cars and a mid-engined sports car. None of these were particularly successful and certainly did not live up to the expectations set by the first Scarab racing car. In the early 1960s Reventlow left the motor racing scene as quickly as he had entered it just a few years earlier. He nevertheless left a big mark and today the Scarabs are considered to be among the finest front-engined sports cars produced. They are really only rivaled by the Chaparral 1, which was also built by Troutman & Barnes. Fortunately all three front-engined Scarabs have survived and are put through their paces quite regularly. Reventlow himself was not so lucky as he was killed in a plane crash in Colorado in 1972.