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How America’s most beautiful roadster conquered the mountain

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The Martin Special was named ‘America’s most beautiful roadster’ and ‘Goodguys hot rod of the year’ in 2018. As you’d expect, it’s quick in a straight line. But it needn’t shy away from the twisties either, as we noticed at last year’s Bernina Gran Turismo. We sat down and talked to owner/designer David Martin.

Imagine how out of place it looks. Up ahead looms the Bernina summit, with the pass situated at 2326 metres (7631 feet) above sea level. We are 5.7 kilometres (3.56 miles) away from the finish, at the top of the pass. But that means 450 metres (1312 feet) of altitude to overcome, and 50 curves to tackle.

David Martin at Bernina Gran Turismo, 2022. Photo ISAW

In a field including a Porsche 550 Spyder and a Lotus 59B Formula 2 single-seater, it’s not the most obvious choice. But when you hear it, and when you see it gently lighting up its tyres at the start line, you can’t help but fall in love with it. You can’t see it of course. Oh wait, you can. Have a look at this small clip.

ISAW motor week

The Martin Special was one of the most spectacular entrants ever for the Bernina Gran Turismo, the main program of the International St Moritz Automobile Week (ISAW). The hill climb is now in its ninth year, and is becoming one of the finest ‘off-Broadway’ classic racing events. It does not play in the same league as Goodwood, but the convivial atmosphere among the participants is something the big events simply cannot offer.

Martin Special during Km Lancé, Int St Moritz Automobile Week. Photo Lienhard Racing/Solitude GmbH

Junkyard motor

Back to the hot rod. David Martin was just 13 when he bought his first Ford Model A “for the pricely sum of 25 bucks,” he chuckles. “My parents refused to buy me a car, but they encouraged me to mend things. This happened at the tail end of the hot rod movement in Southern California, around 1956 – 1958. The formula was easy: any pre-1934 Ford was ideal for a hot rod transformation. You’d go to a junkyard and pull out a powerful motor for 200 dollars. I put one in the Model A. With part hydraulic brakes, it wouldn’t really qualify as safe, but it got me going in the hot rod scene.”

“As I went to college and studied architecture, I gave up on the hot rod for some time. My mind turned to the Baja, in fact. I raced with my brother in the Unlimited class and we were getting quite good at the long-distance driving.”

David Martin at Bernina Gran Turismo, 2022. Photo ISAW

By then, David had sold his first Model A. But early in the eighties, he couldn’t resist having a go with another one. “It came with a Flathead engine that lasted just two weeks. I changed it for a Chevy 350 V8, an incredible engine. Sometimes, we’d supercharge it.”

Master fabricator

The next step came in 1995, when David teamed up with Scott Bonowski. “He is a master fabricator.” Looking at it, it’s the attention to detail and the beautiful finishing that strike you in the Martin Special. The action pictures here fail to show you the beauty of the louvres in the bonnet for instance, or the sensual twists of the exhaust pipes. “The idea of the detail is important. This is about the beauty of architecture.” In 2018, it was named ‘America’s Most Beautiful Roadster’ at the Grand National Roadster Show. It won ‘Goodguys hot rod of the year’ as well.

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David Martin at Bernina Gran Turismo, 2022. Photo ISAW

Maybe we should supercharge it the next time

David Martin

The Martin Special wasn’t just beautifully built, it was fast too. It hit an average of 101.5057 mph (162.41 kph) at the 90-mile-long Silver State Classic Challenge in Nevada. After that, attention tuned to make the hot rod handle in the turns as well. “It had a solid axle at the rear, which we switched for a triangulated, four-beam solution. At the front, we were inspired by old Bugatti techniques with the pivot in the middle of the axle.” The shock absorbers needed retuning as well.

David Martin at Bernina Gran Turismo, 2022. Photo ISAW

Downtuned… a little

For Bernina, the engine was downtuned a little. “I asked to back it off to around 495 hp and 500 foot pounds of torque.” It comes with a five-speed manual and with a limited-slip diff to ease power delivery in the corners. David Martin first entered the Martin Special on the airstrip near St Moritz for the Kilometre Lancé, run in diabolical rain. Fortunately, for the hill climb the next weekend, the weather improved. Apparently, four runs on the mountain left David with just one question: “What do you think, should we supercharge it next time?”

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