The 1950s were a rich and fruitful time in automotive history. World championship Grand Prix and sports car racing was back in full swing after the post-war recovery period, and manufacturers were again throwing large sums of money into the development of new machines and technology. Exotic, twin-cam engines were now becoming the norm and cars were becoming lighter and faster than ever. Sports car racing, in particular, had a strong influence on road car design and cars like the Mercedes Benz 300SL, Jaguar XK, and Aston Martin DB MkIII had been heavily influenced by their Le Mans-racing counterparts. Some of the most desirable sports racing cars were born of this era – the Ferrari Testa Rossa, Aston Martin DBR1, Maserati A6GCS and Jaguar C and D Types. Today, these cars are worth tens of millions of dollars, though they continue to inspire generations of car enthusiasts with their beauty and performance.
In the mid-1990s, a California-based graphic artist, car restorer, and enthusiast named Ron Lawless was so inspired by the great Le Mans racers of the 50s that he decided to build one of his own. He had long felt a particular fondness for Maserati’s impossibly gorgeous Fantuzzi-bodied A6GCS spyder, but given their rarity and value, a recreation was the only way he’d get close to the experience. There was at least one tribute available in kit form, but it lacked the delicacy and purity of the original, and Ron simply wasn’t content to settle for someone else’s loose interpretation of his dream car.
With that, he decided to build a car from the ground up. He sourced a fiberglass recreation of an A6GCS body from Maserati parts supplier MIE of Washington. The body was said to have been made using a genuine A6GCS as a template, and it beautifully captures the purity and compact proportions of the original. Adapting an existing chassis would no doubt cause too many compromises, so a custom one was fabricated by Specialty Cars of Artesia, California to mate perfectly with the body. The robust chassis is built out of square-tube steel, accommodating a narrowed Ford 9” rear end and Mustang II independent front suspension. A tubular steel skeleton was fabricated and affixed to the chassis, which served to support the body, much in the same manner as the Fantuzzi-bodied original. A Datsun 240Z donor car was sourced for its 2.4 liter engine and 4-speed manual gearbox. It was upgraded with a trio of Weber DCOE carburetors, dressed with an alloy valve cover and fitted with a custom fabricated side-exit exhaust. The classic inline-six layout stays on-script while delivering ample power in a reliable, easily serviced package.
Ron Lawless went to great lengths to ensure his creation captured the essence of the 1950s, adorning the body with numerous carefully chosen details. Lights, bumpers, Monza filler cap, and other body fittings were selected from other cars and at swap meets. Other items handcrafted by Ron include the egg-crate grille, DBR2-style fender vents, and Testa Rossa-style deck lid hold-downs. Perhaps the most important detail adorns the nose: a handmade emblem which carries the name “DML Special.” The name comes from Ron’s wife’s initials, whose nickname was “Damilla.” Remarkably, Ron was able to title and register the car in California as the 1953 Damilla Special.
Today, the DML Damilla Special presents in very good condition, having acquired a moderate patina through the years in Ron Lawless’ collection. The high-quality body is finished in a fetching Aston-like shade of light metallic green that beautifully highlights its curves. The paint is in generally good order, though a few touchups and minor flaws can be found. The interior is similarly well-kept and thoughtfully detailed. The seats and steering wheel were carefully chosen for their looks – sourced from an Austin Healey and Aston Martin DB2, respectively. Ron designed and built the bespoke chrome gate and lockout device for the four-speed shift lever. He sourced the clock and oil gauge from a 1934 Chrysler, and the rest from Classic Instruments which he then customized with new needles and “DML Special” script on the faces. For both the body and interior, the collection of parts and custom pieces come together in a cohesive and convincing package.
Living up to its evocative looks, the Damilla is great fun to drive. On the road, it is quite fast and remarkably well-sorted with a fantastic six-cylinder growl from the side exhausts. Thanks to the reliable Datsun power and simple underpinnings, it would no doubt be a fabulous car for rallies and events such as the California Melee. Far from an assemblage of found parts, the Damilla is a truly unique collage of carefully selected and custom-built components assembled into a beautiful automobile that harkens back to the glory days of Le Mans, all while maintaining a unique character of its own.