There are some ultrarare classic cars which end up being surrounded by an almost myth-like aura. We know they exist, but somehow we’re still not totally convinced. But in the case of the Momo Mirage, the fairytale wasn’t just an optical illusion, as its creators did in fact endeavour to make this stunning vision come true. On the odd occasion, we even get to experience it with our own two eyes, when one comes out to play at select high-end classic car events.
I’m sure many of us have at some point allowed ourselves to dream about building our own interpretation of the perfect car. It’s one thing to dream though, and a totally different matter to actually do it! This is however exactly what real estate mogul, Peter Kalikow, and New York Jaguar Agent, Alfredo Momo, set out to do in the late sixties and early seventies.
Mr. Kalikow was a dedicated car enthusiast with a real passion for the more exclusive European GTs and sports cars of the time. His interest lead him to Mr. Momo, who besides owning the Jaguar Garage in New York, was also the former team manager for Briggs Cunningham, and who had a myriad of connections within the automotive industry in both USA, Italy and the UK. A friendship grew between the two, and in 1967 Mr. Kalikow asked Mr. Momo’s advice regarding the Aston Martin DBS which he was considering purchasing. However, Mr. Momo had his doubts about both the handling characteristics and the build quality of the DBS. A test-drive confirmed Mr. Momo’s presumptions, so Mr. Kalikow refrained from purchasing the British GT. The story goes that instead, discussions started between the two friends upon which qualities the perfect GT should encompass.
One thing lead to another, and before long Mr. Momo and Mr. Kalikow were touring Italy together. The objective was to find suitable partners for their very ambitious project, and visits were paid to the likes of Adolfo and Marcello Orsi of Maserati, Sergio Pininfarina and several others. Their goals were bold to say the least! They wanted to build a four-seater GT comprising both the spirit and performance of Ferrari, but also the comfort and luxury of Rolls-Royce. Their ultimate GT was to see the light of day using Mr. Kalikow’s funding and Mr. Momo’s more exotic sounding name along with of course his many contacts.
Initial sketches for the design had apparently already been worked on in New York by Gene Garfinkle of Raymond Loewy’s design studio. While in Italy, an agreement was eventually made with Pietro Frua to help Mr. Garfinkle finalize the design and not least to fabricate the body for the coupé. In the meantime, Giuloio Alfieri had been given permission by his employer, Maserati, to design the chassis for the Momo Mirage. Their British contacts came in handy as well, as an advanced double wishbone front suspension was sourced straight from the Jaguar MK. II, and furthermore, Girling disc brakes were mounted on all four corners. Mr. Alfieri constructed their own independent rear suspension based on the same general design as the front. Once the chassis design and development was finalized, connections with Vittorio Stanguellini lead to them agreeing to actually build the complete chassis. Last but not least, connections back in the USA resulted to the ultimate Italian-Anglo-American hybrid, as an agreement was made with Bill Mitchell from General Motors to supply the 350 cu. in. Chevrolet ZQ3 engines from the all-new Chevrolet Corvette C3. Initial plans to ‘sex up’ the strong but simple American V8 with a Lucas fuel injection system were quickly abandoned again when it proved too problematic and challenging to set up right. So they returned initially to a stock 350 with a single Rochester Quadrajet carburetor supplying power either through a 5-speed ZF manual gearbox or a 3-speed GM-sourced Hydramatic automatic gearbox.
By the summer of 1971 the first Momo Mirage was fully assembled and ready for launch. It was delivered in dark red metallic and featured the single carbureted ZQ3 engine and a 3-speed automatic gearbox. After some internal testing was completed, Road & Track were permitted a test drive. After Pete Coltrin was let loose in the prototype, his article was published in the September 1971 issue of the magazine in which he praised the big coupé highly. Finally, in December 1971 the Momo Mirage was shipped to the USA where it officially debuted at the following 1972 New York Auto Show. The sales brochure described the new GT as: “An international thoroughbred, designed to combine the unique qualities of innovation, superior craftsmanship, high performance and ultimate comfort in a luxury four passenger coupe.” Big words – yet it was positively received by both the public and the press prompting Mr. Kalikow and Mr. Momo to proceed and order parts for the first batch of 25 cars to be produced.
The second Momo Mirage was finished not long after, varying only by being fitted with the manual ZF gearbox and more importantly by the single Rochester carburetor of the standard ZQ3 engine being swapped for a feistier set of four double-barrel Weber carburetors, giving the big Mirage both the image and not least the performance which it deserved. This second car was delivered in silver metallic.
However, through no fault of Mr. Kalikow or Mr. Momo, this is where things suddenly took a turn for the worse. All of Italy found itself in quite some social unrest, leading to many suppliers being forced to up their prices significantly. At the same time the US Dollar started plummeting. The combined result meant that their cost price of each car suddenly skyrocketed! In order to compete against the already well-established competition from the likes of Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, they had set a target sales price of US $ 12,900 for the Momo Mirage. Yet, with this turn of events, they would have to pay Carrozzeria Frua and Stanguellini in the region of US $ 20,000 for each car – and this was even before General Motors had been paid for the engine. Despite having already invested approximately US $ 500,000 in the dream project, Mr. Kalikow decided to cut his losses as he screamed “STOP!”
It is to this day somewhat unclear as to just how many Momo Mirage were built – not helped by Mr. Kalikow being somewhat secretive about the whole thing. But the two first cars in respectively dark red and silver were most definitely completed. Furthermore, it is believed that either three or perhaps four other bodies were built and in varying stages of assembly before they pulled the plug. Mr. Kalikow already being in possession of the two complete cars, also had one of these semi-assembled cars shipped to New York, meaning he kept a total of three. A fourth car – again believed to be only partially finished – was reported to be purchased by General Motors. A fifth apparently stayed with Stanguellini, was subsequently sold off but then believed to have later perished in a fire. But was there a sixth? Your guess is as good as mine…
Then – whether the total count was five or six – the Mirage went into hiding until most had forgotten the car had ever existed. Right up until 2005, when the dark red prototype resurfaced from Mr. Kalikow’s garage for none other than Mick Walsh to drive it through the streets of New York, with his article being published in Classic & Sports Car in April 2005. Perhaps this relit a spark with Mr. Kalikow, as he then set about restoring the second Momo Mirage, which was subsequently displayed in its original silver metallic at the prestigious Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the bank of Lake Como in 2009. The Mirage was very well received, which in turn probably motivated Mr. Kalikow to embark on an even bigger mission. He wanted to finish the third car! A team was assembled in Italy to build a new body for his third chassis, but Mr. Kalikow insisted that everything had to be manufactured as it would have been back in the early 1970s to ensure total authenticity. This car was finished in dark blue and made its debut at the famous Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2012.
Today it is clearer than ever, that Mr. Kalikow and Mr. Momo did indeed succeed in constructing a remarkable car – and not least a proper Gran Touring coupé to compete with the best of them. Of course, we will never know whether the Momo Mirage could in fact have beaten the opposition, had global financial troubles not conspired against them. Now, I suppose it doesn’t really matter anymore. But it does sadden me somewhat that we didn’t get a production run of 25 cars or more. However, we should still all thank Mr. Kalikow for his efforts and aspirations – and not least for sharing our enthusiasm for great cars – as it did at least result in three stunningly beautiful European-American hybrids of the very highest caliber.