Ben Gregory's sports car
Story and photographs by Tom Strongman
Bob Chinnery’s first impression of Ben F. Gregory and his hand-built sports car was memorable, if not exactly pleasant.
Chinnery, of Independence, first met Gregory in the mid-1950s while at a machine shop on Southwest Boulevard. As Chinnery worked on a lathe, an older man sauntered to the back of the shop and said, “Is that your Jaguar sitting out front? If you’d like, I’ll give you a ride in a real sports car.” The man was Ben F. Gregory.
Chinnery, a well-known local drag racer, was very proud of his Jaguar XK-120, and he had never heard of Ben Gregory. His curiosity got the best of him, however, and he walked outside to discover the Gregory, a tidy aluminum roadster with a Porsche engine driving the front wheels.
Chinnery got the ride of his life. Gregory made a U-turn, drove over a curb and immediately charged up a huge cinder bank alongside some railroad tracks. They skittered along the bank before coming back down to the street. Next, Gregory drove to Loose Park and crashed through potholes at 45 miles per hour with his hands off the wheel.
The wild ride so unnerved Chinnery that he volunteered to walk back to the shop. After that episode, Chinnery and Gregory eventually came to know each other because they were both interested in flying and automobiles.
Ben Gregory was quite the engineer. According to The Golden Age of the American Racing Car by Griff Borgeson, Gregory built about 10 front-wheel-drive automobiles between 1918 and 1922. His interest in front-wheel drive paralleled that of Frenchman J.A. Gregoire, who invented the Tracta constant-velocity joint for the Citroen Traction Avant. About that time, Ben Gregory barnstormed local tracks and raced a car powered by a Hispano-Suiza airplane engine. These cars, according to a June 1956 article in Road & Track magazine, preceded the famous front-drive Miller racers by about a year. In 1921 he exhibited a touring car at the Kansas City Auto Show.
The Gregory sports car has a tube frame and a hand-formed body. The four-cylinder, air-cooled Porsche engine is mounted at the very front of the car, with the transaxle toward the center of the vehicle. The Road & Track article said the 1,925-pound car could hit 95 or 100 mph with the 70 horsepower engine. Gregory’s sports car featured center-point, vertical-pivot steering with large wheel bearings that housed Rzeppa constant-velocity joints, according to the magazine’s article. Gregory hoped to build 20 cars, which would have sold for $5,000.
In the 1950s, Gregory also developed the prototype M422 Mighty Mite, a tiny four-wheel-drive vehicle for the Marines. American Motors built 5,000 based on his prototype vehicle.
When Ben died in 1974, his wife gave this Gregory to his friend John Burnham in Brighton, Colo. Burnham raced it for a time. Years later, the car came back to Independence.
For Chinnery, the Gregory story came full circle two years ago when he discovered the Gregory sports car in a collection that was being liquidated. He bought the car because it triggered the memory of that first ride with Ben Gregory. Chinnery has a small collection of motorcycles and race cars.
For now, the Gregory is completely original. It runs roughly and needs restoration, but the basic car is remarkably intact. Chinnery is busy building an airplane, but in time, he said, he will restore the Gregory to new condition. That will be his nod to Ben Gregory’s inventiveness and the memory of one wild ride down Southwest Boulevard.
|Ben Gregory behind the wheel of his car in the 1960s.|