Bushido Curse - 1967 BRE Hino Samurai

Sharpening a blunted sword

In the early 1960s, Japan had slowly warmed up to the idea of motor racing. The emerging Japanese auto industry had steadily found its strength in small, dependable and practical vehicles, but had never really embraced the concept of driving solely for the fun of it. One such burgeoning Japanese manufacturer was Hino Industry Corporation.

Hino had started out with the manufacture of large commercial diesel engines and trucks, which turned out to be a very successful endeavor. Unfortunately Japan’s capitulation at the end of the Second World War put an embargo on Hino’s commercial diesel activities, which meant the company had to look elsewhere. As such the decision was made to enter the passenger car market by building licensed versions of the Renault 4CV.

A Dutch advertisement for the glorious Hino Contessa 1300.

A Dutch advertisement for the glorious Hino Contessa 1300.

The 4CV copies were steadily adapted and evolved into Hino’s first truly in-house design, 1964’s PD-generation Contessa. With their road car program now steadily gaining traction in Japan, Hino looked for a way to promote the brand further. A motorsport program quickly became the obvious choice. Motor racing in Japan had recently exploded in popularity after the First Japan Grand Prix for GT-machines held at Suzuka Circuit in 1963.

Hino was eager to jump on the bandwagon, but obviously had no prior experience with the sport at all. This left them no other choice than to team up with someone who did. Their search lead them to a small design firm called Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE).

The outfit was run by none other than Pete Brock, the famous American race car designer responsible for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 and the 1965 FIA GT Championship winning Shelby Daytona Coupe.

Pete Brock was a prolific designer in his day.

Pete Brock was a prolific designer in his day.

Purely by chance, Brock had built a racing version of the Renault-based PC-generation Hino Contessa back in the US for a club racing Japanese friend. The humble project then attracted the attention of Hino’s top management.

An agreement between the two was reached, and Brock received the more powerful Contessa 1300 not much later. It was with this car that Brock proved that Japan was on the rise by winning the Mission Bell 100 support race at the Riverside Times/Mirror Grand Prix.

The win thoroughly put Hino on the map and made Pete Brock an absolute hero in Japan. Spurred on by the success, Hino commissioned a specialized 1300cc GT-racer to take on the 1967 Japanese Grand Prix and even the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car would have to be worlds apart from the mildly modified touring sedans Brock had used before, which made him eager to take up the challenge.

Like the Renaults they were derived from, Hino’s passenger cars used an antiquated rear-engined layout. In an ordinary family car this was already old-fashioned, but for racing it posed a gigantic hazard. To combat the issue, BRE’s first order of business was shifting the engine forward and creating a steel tubular frame with the engine firmly in the middle.

With the balance problem ostensibly solved, Brock was free to focus on the rest of the car. He made sure the design would receive all the features he originally had in mind for an updated version of the Shelby Daytona.

The most obvious of these was the large “Ring Airfoil“ wing. To the average 1960’s observer the massive hoop made the car look like something straight out of The Thunderbirds, but the idea was far from science fiction.

BRE's "Ring Airfoil" looked out of this world, and had the tech to match.

BRE's "Ring Airfoil" looked out of this world, and had the tech to match.

The big hoop at the back was actually an innovative early form of the spoiler that would take over the racing world. The elegantly integrated design was expertly crafted and even allowed the wing’s angle of attack to be adjusted by the driver via a ratcheting mechanism operating a small strut underneath. Formula 1’s awkward, stilted adaptation of BRE’s idea would later prove it was far ahead of its time.

The sleek and gorgeous hand made, low drag aluminium body ensured the Samurai made the most of its rather small 1.3L GR100 4-cylinder Contessa powerplant. Nevertheless the twin Mikuni-Solex carbureted unit still belted out a healthy 110 horsepower, then an amazing figure for such a small engine.

The power was handled through a bespoke 5-speed manual transmission. As a result of BRE’s clever engineering and packaging, the finished car only weighed a lively 530 kg (1170 lbs). Considering these figures, the car looked to be a worthy competitor in the JAF 1300 class.

With his spectacular design completed, Pete Brock sent the Samurai to Fuji Speedway for its race debut at Fifth Japan Grand Prix. The stewards took a long time inspecting the car, and reached a devastating conclusion. In an equally hilarious and ridiculous decision, they declared the car’s ride height to be too low and banned the Samurai from competing.

The car never left the paddock at Fuji.

The car never left the paddock at Fuji.

With his spectacular design completed, Pete Brock sent the Samurai to Fuji Speedway for its race debut at Fifth Japan Grand Prix. The stewards took a long time inspecting the car, and reached a devastating conclusion.

In an equally hilarious and ridiculous decision, they declared the car’s ride height to be too low, lacking the necessary ground clearance. As a result, the JAF banned the Samurai from competing.

Despite the failed venture, BRE’s lovechild got its fair share of attention not long after being denied its racing career. The November 1967 edition of the world famous Road & Track magazine featured a cover story on the phenomenal machine, which again helped Pete Brock’s business. An offer for a mid-engined 2L Toyota prototype followed soon after.

The cover of Road & Track magazine, November 1967.

The cover of Road & Track magazine, November 1967.

As Pete Brock started work at Toyota, the Samurai found a new home in American SCCA club racing. The car was campaigned by Terry Hall in Class C Sports Racing, but unfamiliarity with its mechanicals lead to setup issues and poor reliability.

After the twin cam threw a rod through its block, Hall sold the Samurai to his former Porsche class competitor Ron Bianchi. By this time the car's side windows had also been removed, and the nosecone had suffered slight impact damage.

Operating on a limited budget and with the same sort of knowledge of the exotic machine, Bianchi quickly ran into the same issues. A club racer in the truest sense of the word, he didn't even have a crew, instead outsourcing work to random mechanics.

He was recommended a mechanic who claimed to be able to sort the car out. The man combined parts from three stripped twin cam engines to fashion a working powerplant, leaving Bianchi with the blown engine the chassis came with, and a rogue pushrod unit. Promises of sorting out the braking and handling came to nothing however, sending Ron back to square one.

Trying another mechanic didn't help much, as the car still refused to stop, and proved very hard to handle. Following a rebuild and newly fabricated camshafts, the engine failed again, leading Ron Bianchi to consider an offer from a machine shop to fit a Fiat engine. This deal would have served to promote the Italian brand, but Bianchi didn't feel it could produce a good working relationship.

The cavalcade of mechanical mishaps lead him to consider forming his own team. The first member, John Hamilton, was enlisted after he helped rectify an overheating issue on the engine dyno. Hamilton turned out to have been a motorcycle racing champion and Mercedes-Benz motorsport development engineer.

The second member was a young man working at a Jaguar dealer, fresh off the boat from England. Paul Albertson turned out to have letters of recommendation from several well-known international racing drivers, and had been part of Cosworth's race engine department. Joining him was another Paul, surname White. His expertise was tires, completing Bianchi's team.

Together, the men tried breathing new life into the Samurai project. It proved to be an uphill battle. One race the brakes failed, then the next time out an oil line sprung a leak, killing the engine, then a new throttle cable snagged, over-revving the engine and grenading it yet again.

Once a brand newl,magnesium rear upright snapped, then a tire went down, the car lost fifth gear, and another engine failed. All the while the handling remained unpredictable, with the car prone to sudden snap-off oversteer.

A call to an old friend specialized in cam construction finally solved the engine issues, with Paul Albertson finally being able to safely extract the desired power. With the engine sorted, and John Hamilton having resolved the braking woes, Bianchi moved to address the handling problems.

To this end, he contacted Red LeGrande. It was his shop which had actually fabricated the Samurai's chassis for Pete Brock. Ron discussed matters with Red, and decided to completely remodel the rear suspension. Paul White adjusted the tire compounds and pressures accordingly.

With every member of the team having done their part, the car finally started reliably clocking in competitive times. Next time out, the car comfortably won its class. Over the next four years, the Samurai would never finish lower than fifth.

When Ron Bianchi decided to retire from racing, the Hino had racked up around 25 race wins, 12 second places and two club championships. Its job done, the car settled in for a long sleep in storage.

The Samurai waiting in the paddock, waiting to win another race.

The Samurai waiting in the paddock, waiting to win another race.

As the car sat idle, Ron Bianchi started receiving calls from its creator. Pete Brock had learned of Ron's ownership of the Samurai, and wanted to buy it back. After several attempts he was successful, with Bianchi agreeing to a price. Brock didn't hold on to the car for long however, as he passed it on to wealthy Japanese collector Satoshi Ezawa.

Adding the Hino to his renowned Hino Collection wasn't quite enough for Ezawa-san though. Having learned of Bianchi's adventures with the Samurai, he wanted to know in minute detail just how Ron has turned the aborted project into a proven race winner. His curiosity even lead him to visit Ron Bianchi in person.

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Comments (1)

  • I never think of Japan when it comes to obscure racing teams. This one... this one’s interesting

      8 months ago