Stepping out of the shadows — The story of Don Nichols

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(December 24, 2020) I was half way through the November issue of Classic and Sports Car magazine when the October issue showed up in one of those U.S. Postal Service envelopes. You know the one. It has a large clear window on the front, and a statement on the back that starts with the words, “We Care.” The envelope was chewed up along the edges, the clear polybag in which it is usually delivered was missing, but the rest looked just fine. This presented a problem: Should I finish the November issue, or stop midstream and start in on the October issue?

It was while I was leafing through the October issue (You didn’t think I could resist a new toy, did you?) that I ran across Mick Walsh’s review of Pete Lyon’s book on Don Nichols and his race cars entitled, Shadow: The Magnificent Machines of a Man of Mystery. I was in the midst of reading the book (“devouring” might be a more accurate term), and interested in what Walsh had to say as I could find no real faults with it. I didn’t get very far — the second paragraph of the review, to be exact — when I came to a dead-stop. The sentence that halted my progress began: “Any title written by the 80-year-old is required reading…”

Pete Lyons is 80 years old? Sure, I’ve been reading him since his days reporting for AutoWeek while I was still in high school, and followed when he went over to Formula magazine, the precursor to Racer, but still it’s hard to believe, despite the math adding up. That’s because Pete Lyons has an ability to transcend time with words and phrasing both concise and elegant, and with a youthfulness that belies his age.

Lyons has always been a writer able to weave engrossing tales with words, syntax and images that made the rest of us know that, if we wanted to consider ourselves writers, there was a long ladder yet to climb. As a racing fan, if you want to know the personalities or the politics, you read Nigel Roebuck. If you are interested in the technology, any number of scribblers and outlets fill that need. However, if you want to know what it was like to be there, then your only choice is Pete Lyons. It’s no wonder that the secretive Don Nichols would agree to open his Monterey, California, warehouse and life to Lyons’ gently persuasive nature.

To his credit, Lyons doesn’t conduct an interrogation that delves deeply into Nichols’ time in the Army or his stint with military intelligence. Instead, like a novelist, Lyons lets the man tell his story as far as he wishes, and leaves the reader to ponder words both said and unsaid. It’s an effective tool, especially when supported by the memories and tales of those who worked in and around Shadow Cars. Fans of the original, Trevor Harris-designed Shadow Mk. 1, for example, will learn more about the car, its failings, its alleged top speed advantage, and the intrigue surrounding the diminutive racer’s competition life than has been compiled elsewhere. They also will learn a bit about Harris and his history, giving a broader context to the story.

The introductory chapters chronicle Nichol’s charmed but tragic early life. A not-yet three-year-old Nichols survives being thrown into the woods by a tornado that ripped through the taxi in which he and his mother were riding, and in which she died. The charmed, charismatic yet quiet loner joins the military, and jumps from the D Day landing to Korea, and then on to a stint in Military Intelligence that deposits him in Japan where he later becomes a serial entrepreneur.

The tall, slender Nichols not only befriends Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (Izo Yamura in the 1966 racing classic Grand Prix), but is deeply involved in the design and construction of Fuji Speedway before moving on to other racing-related projects. By the time the 40-something Nichols leaves Japan for California — a cloud of intrigue and the faint whiff of betrayal hanging in the air as he does — he is financially set, but teetering on the brink of boredom. That’s when he crossed paths with the aforementioned Trevor Harris, and latches onto his design for a knee-high Can-Am car originally meant to be powered by a turbocharged Corvair flat-six engine. And with that, the Shadow Cars story begins.

The twists and turns and decisions — both good and bad — that followed fill the rest of the 468 pages of this hefty, large-format book. Particularly chilling is the thread that revolves around the Formula 1 team’s travails at South Africa’s Kyalami race track. In 1973, the team debuted its drop-dead gorgeous DN1 there, though its on-track appearance was delayed by five days while the plane bringing the cars over from England was forced to land elsewhere with serious engine trouble.

Despite this, the team settled in with the untested racer, and finished sixth, albeit two laps down, in the hands of 39-year-old F1 debutant and former insurance salesman George Follmer. The 1972 Can-Am and Trans-Am champ followed that up at the next championship event, where he took the fragile DN1 to the podium with his third-place finish. Teammate Jackie Oliver would match this feat with his third place in the confusing Canadian Grand Prix, finishing two places behind McLaren’s Peter Revson.

American Revson would join the Shadow squad in 1974, scheduled to drive in both F1 and the Can-Am. Revson, who had a typically opaque offer to join Ferrari and another from Graham Hill’s fledgling team, also had spoken with Dan Gurney about spearheading All American Racers’ return to F1 with a grand prix version of its new Formula 5000 car. However, the smooth-talking Nichols, backed by funding from Universal Oil Products convinced Revson that his was the perfect platform from which to build an organization that could propel both to the front ranks.

Despite promising speed, two DNFs in the first two races followed before the team embarked for South Africa. It was there at Kyalami that Revson died in pre-race testing when a titanium front suspension outer ball joint failed in the ironically named fast right-hand Barbecue Bend. After walk-ons by Brian Redman and Bertil Roos, Tom Pryce joined the team for just over two years before dying in a freak accident at — you guessed it — Kyalami in 1977.

These and other stories, including Shadows exploits in Can-Am, F5000 and an abortive attempt to entice Ronnie Petersen to run a Shadow at the Indy 500, are covered with such tact and clear-eyed honesty by Lyons that you’ll find yourself reading and re-reading chapters to soak it all in, especially as Shadow’s race efforts are covered by series, not in a global chronology. It soon becomes apparent there was a lot going on concurrently, and this eventually became too much for the organization to bear, especially once UOP’s funding was pulled.

I could go on, but suffice it to say this is a fantastic book. Large, heavy and filled with period photographs (many taken by Lyons himself), it provides a wonderful insight into the man and the machines behind one of America’s best known but least understood racing teams. If you know about Shadow, think you know about Shadow, or even wondered in passing about Shadow, this is the book that you need to add to your library.

And if that isn’t enough to sway you, there is this: Shadow: The Magnificent Machines of a Man of Mystery, recently won the Royal Automobile Club’s Specialist Motoring Book of the Year award for 2020. Need I say more? Well, perhaps one more thing. Though the book is available directly from Evro Publishing, or through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, you also can get an autographed copy direct from

ISBN-13: 9781910505496
Publisher: Evro Publishing Ltd.
Publication date: 11/17/2020
Pages: 468