Shadow: Dare To Be Different

For over a decade from the very late 1960s, a man with a varied and mysterious past took the fight to far bigger and more established companies in both Can-Am, Formula One, and Formula 5000.

While success was limited, the elusive backstory of Don Nichols (1924-2017) and the unorthodox approach to design warrants elaboration.

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Don didn’t live the hallmark movie upbringing that ultimately brought him into motorsport. From losing his mother in a tornado as an infant to enrolling in the military at high school age, Don found himself leaping out of a plane in Normandy on D-Day as part of the 101st Airborne Division.

The military lifestyle suited Don. He rose through the ranks, becoming a captain following his service in Korea. But after that, things became a little more vague, but infer from it what you will.

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Don’s next vocation was military intelligence during the Cold War. Being a man of few words still subject to the Secrets Act meant he gave little away in interviews, but we can surmise with some certainty that Don was a spy.

It was after this that Don started becoming ingrained in the motorsport industry. He became a fixer, facilitating and brokering parts sales through a growing network of contacts. This prowess and dedication garnered him a strong reputation. Some notable achievements included being heavily involved in Fuji Speedway’s development and introducing Mooneyes products to Japan.

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The wealth that accompanied the success gave rise to another opportunity. Behind the scenes, his company, Advanced Vehicle Systems (AVS), took advantage of the liberal rules in the Can-Am series to bring something groundbreaking into the fold. The Shadow drew its name and inspiration from a 1950s radio program called The Shadow, which opened with the tagline: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” It was entirely befitting of the man who knew many people, but many people knew little about it.

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The 2024 Goodwood Members’ Meeting held in May provided a taste of the incredible creations that rolled out of the doors at AVS. But it was my follow-up at Era Motorsport, who supported the cars during their stay in the UK, that I gained some real insight.

There isn’t enough space to talk about all of the cars that rolled out of the Southern California workshop, so we’ll be taking a closer look at four that are significant in their own rights.

Mk1 Prototype

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The solid black paintwork of the Shadow Mk1 Prototype is the most reserved part of the car. To the untrained eye, it resembles something out of Wacky Races, with the car earning the nickname ‘Knee-High’ for obvious reasons. Designer Trevor Harris sought to interpret the Can-Am rules in a way not done before, and started by reducing the frontal area dramatically (by 1/3rd) compared to other cars on the grid. This necessitated many more changes, the first being how to get hold of tyres that would fit.

Don’s relationship with Firestone provided the diminutive tyres; 10×11 inches wide on the front and 12×16 inches wide at the rear. The brake discs within the front wheels were turned down from a larger vehicle, while the wheel aero discs started life as magnesium engine cooling fans in Chevrolet’s Corvair.

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To help slow the car down, an ingenious airbrake system was designed. Activated by a steering wheel mounted button, two smaller panels rose on air rams ahead of the front wheels, and a larger perforated panel rose at the rear.

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Movable panels to help divert air to the rear-mounted radiators were also fitted.

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The periscope tube-style intake was an effort to reduce drag, at the expense of a slight power loss.

The relaxed ruleset that gave Harris such creative freedom was heavily revised and altered ahead of the 1970 Can-Am season in which the Mk1 was due to enter. Moving aerodynamic devices were prohibited, which necessitated some dramatic revisions. The Mk1 Prototype was done before it had even gotten started.


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This provides a convenient segway to another of the cars, the equally outrageous Mk1.

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Gone was the long sleek body shape. The extender rear, which previously held the cooling package is no more, with a huge rear wing standing high in its place. An unorthodox solution for the radiators was to mount them on the wing. This was only allowed for one race due to a technicality, with further revisions having the radiators inside the wing aerofoil itself, with the leading edge cut open to allow flow through.

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As with the prototype, little consideration was given to leg room, with the driver originally needing to splay their feet out to control the throttle with the right foot and braking with the left. A hand control operated the clutch, but this has since been updated, with the hood blister allowing the throttle and brake to sit on the right and the clutch on the left.

The periscope was also gone, reverting to the more traditional ‘row of trees’ for the intake, finally letting the 427ci Chevrolet V8 motor breathe. The two tapered tubes next to the engine intakes feed cold air to the rear brakes.

Firestone no longer makes the rear tyres, so in their place is a dual setup, running modern Formula car rubber. The fronts are the same as those used on the Tyrell 6-wheeler, given they’re very similar in size.

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Success would elude AVS for a while yet, with this car only entering three races, DNF’ing the first two due to overheating issues and barely finishing the third. During this period, Shadow was on the verge of bankruptcy, with law enforcement knocking on the doors one day to seize the cars. Overnight, Don and the team hastily assembled some sham race cars from spare parts, before setting off for the border to race earlier than planned.


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Through sheer luck and tenacity, Don negotiated a deal to have Universal Oil Products sponsor Shadow from the 1971 season. Money meant more development, or rather experimentation. The Mk2 only had limited success; it was just too different from the conventional (and successful) competition.

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A drastic change was required in the form of the Mk3, nicknamed ‘The Conventional One,’ at least by Shadow standards. A modified Mk2 chassis provided the base, with around 50 dramatic changes.

Most notably, 15-inch wheels allow the fitment of conventional tyres.

For an unknown reason, the front brakes remained inboard despite having wheel clearance. A shaft connected the brakes to the front wheels, which needed replacing almost every outing.

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The radiators were placed ahead of the rear wheels to mitigate any overheating issues with the engine and gearbox oil coolers aft of the motor.

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While this car retained the iconic intake trumpets, the later seasons saw AVS adopt turbocharging so it could keep up with Porsche, McLaren, and the rest of the Can-Am grid.

The Mk3 showed glimmers of competitiveness, qualifying in the top five for all but one of the eight races it entered.

Was the unlucky streak for AVS lifted? No. A slew of DNFs yet again, so back to the drawing board.


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Skipping ahead to the 1974 season, the fuel crisis was in full swing. A rule revision mandated a minimum 3.0mpg fuel consumption rate, something done by limiting the maximum tank capacity. This time around, the redesign yielded a genuinely competitive car.

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The 13-inch/15-inch staggered wheels permitted a drastically reduced frontal area compared to the Mk3.

The fuel restrictions meant reverting to a naturally aspirated 8.1L (494ci) Chevrolet V8 engine, which thanks to refinement of the mechanical injection and rotating assembly resulted in outputting close to 800 horsepower towards the end of the season.

Because Shadow had been running cars in Formula 1 concurrently, much of the suspension design had been brought over, with minor adjustments for bodywork dimensions.

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Having thousands of miles of testing and development paid dividends. Jackie Oliver drove the DN4 to outright victory in the first four races, beating the competition from McLaren, Porsche, and Ferrari, and ultimately winning the championship.

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This would prove to be the peak of the Shadow’s success. Can-Am was no more, with the focus shifting to Formula 5000, which Shadow entered cars into alongside Formula 1. The single-seaters failed to draw in spectators, which resulted in an attempt to later reprise Can-Am by clothing F1 cars in full bodywork under the Can-Am II banner.

Success is lauded long after the moment passes, but creativity and ingenuity seldom attract the same admiration. Don and the Shadow team never reached the highest echelons of success. Pushing boundaries was prioritised, bringing something that, had they had more testing time, could have resulted in a different story being told.

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That unwavering determination is something I fear we will never see the likes of again, given how restricted modern motorsport rulesets are.

We often refer to decades past as the ‘good old days.’ In this case, they were just that.

Thanks to Era Motorsport for being so hospitible and owner Jim Bartel for bringing the cars to the UK.

Chaydon Ford
Instagram: chaycore

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Absolutely great article. Well researched and well written with great photos. Did not know about Don being in the intelligence community. Wow. The Shadow is one of the coolest cars ever made hands down. Great car to research. You can take any component on this car and spend a good 45-60 minutes learning. The early steering wheel was actually mounted horizontally like a bus steering wheel due to space / packaging. The shadow is an excellent deep dive into packaging.

Jim Meterer (spelling) was actually involved with this project and went onto found Racing Beat. A lot of stuff on this car that was trick and experimental (like the exhaust exit location) were actually changed in favor of more traditional layouts -- another lesson about what actually works in racing cars and what doesn't. No computer analysis was used and the main focus of the project was reducing frontal area as much as possible.

A guy I raced with actually tested the Shadow and when I asked him about it he simply said it was, "really fast." When I asked him if it was the fastest thing he had ever drive he said no. That would be the Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo. So happy to see something like this featured on Speed Hunters.


It's actually a known fact that Don Nichols was involved in espionage (given the team's name "Shadow" and the accompanying logo of a sillhouette of a spy), but what I didn't know is that he was partially responsible for introducing Mooneyes to Japan, and also heavily involved with developing Fuji Speedway. That's interesting history.


It's widely assumed and hes inferred it on a few occasions, but never outright admitted it. The logo and name came from the radio show he was a huge fan of, that were entirely appropriate and further added confirmation about it. I was shocked to learn about the Fuji and Mooneyes connection too, crazy how it came about


Yeah me neither this was very informative and well written. This author and Mario have been making great content lately. If Speed Hunters produced more content like this I think it would be a nice way to round out the content.

So crazy about the CIA connection. Makes me wonder what hand the agencies have had in transportation. I just watched a video the other day that the CIA actually are the reason modern art took off. They literally dumped millions to make it more popular.

I think this is what is happening with the EV market and Elons government funding but that’s a separate convo. Really good article about this shadow. Tremendously fast car!


This is what makes Speedhunters great! Yesterday was an article about a Stance Event in Germany and today I'm being educated about Can AM cars from the late 60s and early 70s. Keep up the good work.


The pedal placement of the Mk I is something else. I wonder how long it took drivers to get used to it.


A pro driver should get used to things like that fairly quickly. A few laps I’d think.


Amazing how modern these look. You could sell any of these at a dealership today and most people wouldn't realize they aren't 2024 models.
Not a fan of the Hoosier "tire-like-products" but hey, not everyone is interested in pushing ten tenths and I understand that. For everyday driving the Hoosiers are probably good enough

10 is actually impossible to explain to people how stupid you are. Hoosier R7 and A7s are probably one of the best tires anyone who is hardcore can buy. Lmfao.

"NASCAR Euro Series switches to Hoosier Racing Tire on seven-year deal starting 2021"
"Porsche makes Hoosier official sponsor of Cup series"

Every single national champion in SCCA Solo2 runs on A7s. You're a fking idiot street dork who has no idea what he's doing with cars. Tells people windshields aren't aerodynamic when they are...christ wonder you've crashed 3 times. You have no clue what you're talking about with any of this stuff.

Your stupidity is simply miraculous. Honestly. It's exhausting how much garbage spews out of your mouth. You don't know a fking thing about pushing 10/10ths and if you think you do let hit willow springs for some cash.


Evidence of Frank's stupidity. I present exhibit 1 to the audience.


Evidence of Frank's stupidity. Exhibit 2.


Exhibit is again referring to the R/A7 tire.

People can be Tools Too

Hey, guess what this record breaking car runs on? It starts with an H and ends with intelligent facts.

Oh yup. It's running on Hoosiers guys. Who would have thought. Gee whiz. Gotta be a rocket surgeon to figure this stuff out.

People can be tools too

Zoom in. Easy to see the lettering on the side of the tire wall. Anyone with racing experience knows how good these tires are for competition. The article went on to explain they are making the switch to A7.

A050 is a slower tire than an A7 or A6 which had a softer side wall. These are facts that are easily provable by looking up race results. The idea a Hoosier is a garbage tire as mentioned by Frank is absolutely insanity.




Wow look at this. Derp derp derp.


Guys - let's all just take a step back and remember that this is a car site, for car enthusiasts. It grows tiresome to constantly have to delete comments. Let's please try keep it on topic? I know a lot of you guys have been visitors of the site for a number of years and the comments section is a great way to engage with the article writer/photographer, but all I ask is just do better. If there's a comment that you believe is not appropriate, flag it and we'll do our best to remove it.

Remember, people of all ages read the articles and comments.


Yeah...people of all ages do read this stuff so we should be informing them with proper information so they can stay safe while going fast and exploring the limitations of their driving ability and vehicles. I get paid to do this for a living. My life is getting on planes to work with people from 11 years old all the way to 80. I come on this sight trying to give some good information and these imbeciles---literally imbeciles--start arguing with me.

Frank has been banned from almost every single platform that exists in 2024. Look up his history on google. Do a little search. Absolutely no one in these comment sections but me is defending their points of view with evidence. None. It's pathetic. But this is what the entire industry has become. No one actually subjects their machines to performance based competition.

I have these conversations ad naseum with engineers at major events which I work.

Frank is literally saying one of the most tried and tested competition tires is crap because he drove it on a public road at road car speeds and had a puncture or God knows what while racing series where drivers go 160-180mph sustained are switching to these tires. Do you guys see how stupid that is? Do you think if a pratt and whitney engine failed 90% of the time boeing would still have a company? This is comming f99ing sense and you guys can't get it. We are properly retarded in 2024. Stupid stupid stupid the average man is.

Oh look. Heres another vehicle hitting record times at Tsukuba. You guys featured this car. Zoom in on the tires. This is why I talk the way I do. When you get this stuff wrong people get killed. You're talking about kids. I coach kids in this sport. I have kids. Frank doesn't. He's a miserable man and probably an atheist by all accounts. False information with cars kills people. That's why I don't play games. You guys are keyboard jockeys. I have to talk to the parents of a child if something goes wrong. We are not the same.


I see all the comments, so I am aware. But don't rise to it. I dont contest that you have experience, but this simply isn't the place.

All that will happen is comments will get deleted as soon as they're put up, if it isn't directly relevant. Personal attacks are simply not tolerated; keep it lighthearted, otherwise consider a different platform to air your frustrations.


Personal attacks are not tolerated but 'Angel' is over in the To Hell: Stance article calling people "phag" and saying crap like "Come race instead of flapping your cawk holster. You have my email but you’re ovulating. Pull your tampon out and roll up." ... he even attacked someone by name in his first comment.
How do you flag a comment?


Sounds good. I think that's a shame we care more about users egos than properly educating the next generation but I suppose this is the perspective benefit you get as a parent. Correcting someone about tires is not a personal attack. It is a matter of what is right and wrong. The same way correcting someone doing the Heimlich maneuever isn't a personal attack. There's things we have to acknowledge as correct and incorrect.

Hoosiers are one of the best tires anyone can put on a vehicle. End of discussion. A6 and A7s provide some of the hardest grip a road car will ever experience but there are setup parameters, driving experience, and circumstantial understanding / engineering that has to be optimized before they can be taken advantage of.

I think what I have seen is that this site and the people who follow it / contribute to it are not really up to any level that I was raised in or have grown accustom to. It's very gimmicky, aimed at very entry level enthusiasts and really has no interest or desire in becoming more aware of vehicles. It's basically family guy or the simpsons for car guys. Cheers.


I don't know if this is the as-raced livery or not, but from a design standpoint, it's AMAZING. The dollar signs on the front air brakes are the chef's kiss!

Wayne Petersen

Thanks to Jim Bartel & Crew for Keeping Automotive Racing History Alive!