The Carrera Panamericana was a famous sedan and sports car racing event held in Mexico. It was devised to help promote Mexico’s newly finished portion of the Pan Americana roadway, a network of 19,000 miles of roads that connect nearly all of the Pacific Coastal countries of the Americas from top to bottom.
The race was similar in fashion to Italy’s Mille Miglia and Targa Florio, with touring sedans and sports cars racing as fast as they could over open roads. The 2,178-mile event covered nine stages over five days and was held annually from 1950 to 1954. With 27 deaths and numerous injuries, it was considered to be one of auto racing’s deadliest events.
Due in part to the 1955 disaster at LeMans, and the notoriety of the race’s own carnage, the Mexican government canceled the series after 1954, also saying that the goal of bringing awareness to the new highway system had been achieved.
Automakers and European racing teams became more increasingly involved as the series progressed, but in the early years the race was a giant free-for-all of amateurs. The first race called for stock five-seater sedans and was won by Hershel McGriff in an Olds 88. His lighter sedan easily outran the heavier Lincolns and Cadillacs. Later divisions spilt classes into large and small sedans, the latter won by C.D. Evans in 1953 with a six-cylinder Chevy.
The race was revived in 1988 and again in 2006 and 2007, with amendments to the rules for safety and imposed top speed limits. The sleek Studebaker Starlite coupes have been found favorable among modern racers.
In truth, the Carrera Panamericana was more of an endurance race than anything else. Slow and steady could win the race over faster machines, especially if they were durable enough to withstand the extreme elevation changes and grueling distances.
Don Marostica, of Fort Collins, Colorado, saw these racers in a magazine and was inspired to build his own tribute car. He’s an avid collector with a stable of cool machinery, but this, well, this was something different. He ran across his ’53 Bel Air locally as a barren roller project. A guy had done some of the metal work and had the rest of it scattered among 20 or so boxes of parts. With the Chevy also came an incredible Cadillac engine that had been performance-built for a rock-crawler buggy that had crashed beyond repair. The price was an exceptional bargain, so Don brought it home.
He had plans for a low-slung street rod until he spied those Panamericana photos. At that point he knew his Bel Air was destined for something special. He brought it to the talented Ron Jones of the Ron Jones Garage in Loveland, Colorado, who transformed the hardtop into a fine tribute car built to cruise long distances in comfort and style. His shop spent countless hours on the build, dialing in the metal work and even replacing a quarter panel. They added a ’54 grille and brought the car up to a high level of finish.
The shop also updated the chassis for back-road touring with a Heidts independent front suspension and a 12-bolt on the stock leaf springs out back. True to vintage form, it runs disc and drum brakes and painted steelies on tall Coker blackwalls.
The 472c.i. Cadillac engine was shoehorned into the engine bay and dressed in a Caddy aircleaner, custom valve covers, and one-off headers. It was paired with a 700R4 and pushes the Chevy down the road quite nicely. It also sports electronic power steering for precision corner carving.
After digging through the 20 or so boxes of parts it was soon apparent that most of the chrome was missing. Don had to buy a donor car out of Nebraska, only this one cost three times as much as the first. It was justified, however, as every piece of chrome was intact and suitable for Ogden Chrome to refurbish. “I’ve done Tri-fives from the ground up,” Don says. “People don’t realize how many more chrome pieces are actually on a ’53 Bel Air than those.”
The car was jokingly called the Tijuana Iguana at the first shop by the guy’s jovial employees. Don thought it was befitting with the new build direction, and it was professionally lettered onto the roof by Jack Honse. Honse went on to emblazon the entire car as a vintage racer, with trick little accents like Italian flags on the doors (which is the reverse scheme of the Mexican flag) in homage to Don’s heritage, and the number 77, which was the brand symbol of Don’s grandfather’s cattle ranch. A Mexican flag is on the hood and the 472 Cadillac insignias let everyone know what’s lurking under the hood.
The interior is now fit for long hours of driving. AutoWeave in Denver stitched up the leather surrounds on the stock seats for the Mexican blanket inserts. Don special-ordered those from Woolrich in a more durable wool material versus the usual cotton varieties that wear out faster. The dash was filled with a Dakota Digital gauge cluster and topped with a one-off steering wheel from Pinkee’s Rod Shop. A Lokar shifter sprouts from the floor.
Don says he hasn’t seen many cars done in this style, but with the class rules open to any five-seat sedan and a basically stock-ish appearance, it would be an easy one to have fun with. Everyone loves rolling along the open road, and long-distance touring is a great way to make lasting memories with your car. We think he’s on to something cool.