Saturday, February 23, 2013

On The Ford GT, Jackie Icxx, and Le Mans

 
By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

If it's true that he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it, let me forget the era of the Ford GT.

One of the great racing achievements in history first rose to promenience in the hands of my fathers' friend Ken Miles. After wins at Daytona and Sebring, he was about to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans when Ford team asked him to slow and allow the 2nd and 3rd place Fords into the picture at the checkered flag.

The officials then ruled that the 2nd place car had driven some 26 feet farther by virtue of starting farther behind Miles, thus inverting the finishing order and robbing Miles of what would have been his greatest victory just weeks before his death.

A lot of people dream of a Porsche 917 as driven by Steve McQueen in the movie about Le Mans, I dream of the car that conquered Le Mans for real. Yet it seems as impossible for me to have one as it must have seemed to Jacky Ickx when he dreamed of victory when he was taking on the new Porsche 917 with a tired, years out of date Ford GT.

So it gets hard for me to see so many dilapitated versions of the various Ford GT kitcars that have been on the market over the years rotting away in locations where I can't get to them. I suppose I could undertake a mission to bring one from Mississippi or Kentucky, but I'd really rather connect on one of the occasional backyard idols that come up for sale here in Southern California.

Far easier to look at it and decide if I want it, as well as to get it home. The problem there is this incredible misconception that the sellers all seem to be laboring under in this part of the country. While the incomplete and/or not running kitcar is treated as the old wreck it is in other parts of the country, for some reason the owners in Southern California have the idea it's somehow valuable, as though it was perhaps a REAL Ford GT.

Thus do I twist in the wind as someone offers an engineless shell, in need of much work and parts, for $6,000. Are you sure about all those zeros behind that '6'?

Ah, the number 6, how ironic.

Once I had the car restored and wearing the Gulf Western colors much like the movie, I'd want it wearing the number 6 in honor of Jacky Ickx. It might be tempting to go with the number 1 in honor of Dan Gurney, another of Dad's acquaintances, who along with A.J. Foyt won Le Mans with a Ford GT in 1967 and first created the tradition of spraying the champagne in the winners circle. Perhaps I need two of these old kitcars. But I can forget a new kit.

I'd be happy to build one, but that might cost $15-20k for a kit to get started, then there's either a donor car or parts obtained separately. These days one can build a a replica of the Ford GT that would clobber the original, but would spend over $100k to do so. Ah, what a dream machine that would be.

This all came about as a result of a rather ungentlemanly moment by Enzo Ferrari. With the then troubled Scuderia in negotiations for a Ford buyout, Fiat suddenly stepped forward with an alternative to selling to. . .AMERICANS! Openly Ferrari then vented his scorn in a manner that might suggest a certain hand gesture.

Henry Ford II responded by initiating a racing effort to beat Ferrari in the prototype endurance racing he loved best. After two years of domination, Ford felt the point had been made and pulled the plug. That had been enough to start a Ford GT craze in the United States. The actual Ford factory street car was rather pricey for the average buyer, but a body and interior replacement for the Volkswagen Beetle came into vogue, with a variety of choices for the home builder.

A Gestalt went to work with this from the beginning, somehow the finished car seemed to add up to a lot more than the fiberglas shell and Volkswagen parts. These kits continue today, but with the Beetle long gone from the automotive world, a far more substantial investment is required to get started, to build a far more fabulous car.

But so what if the old Ford GT kits seem shabby in comparison? You'd rather do without altogether? My first car cost me $100 when I found it sitting in a parking lot where it had refused to start when the owner got off work. I may have preferred a '69 Camaro at the time, but those were going to cost as much at that time as they had new, one miracle of resale value there. Definitely out of my summer after high school price range.

I had the rusty old wreck running and passing smog shortly, probably a much greater memory for the work I had to put into it. So by 1968 the Ford GT had been abandoned by the factory, seemingly headed for oblivion. After winning the Formula 2 championship the year before, Jacky Ickx was to drive one of the leftover cars for an independent team at Le Mans, but suffered a broken foot that kept him out of the race.

What a shock when his car, with a replacement driver, ran away from the field. The ongoing domination by the American car was so disconcerting the European officials that they tried to ban the car in mid race, even attempting to get the car off the track.

This was no longer an American effort, however; the English team with Belgian and Mexican drivers went on to win for the 3rd straight year for Ford. Ickx must have felt it just wasn't to be, just as I find myself thinking I'll never have any form of a Ford GT short of winning the lottery. If I wanted a Bradley from the same era, also built on the Volkswagen platform, I find those for as little as $500 for a relatively nice looking project car.

In the State of Washington there's a fine looking Ford GT project car at that price. If it's a Ford GT replica in the same condition, start adding the zeros if it's in Southern California. I find the messy but near complete car in a far off place for $1,000 or less routinely. In California, with a tree growing through the bottom and out the window, the sky seems to be the limit.

Considering it would take many thousands more to make a running car, then even more to make it NICE, why do these people think anyone will pay so much for a glorified Volkswagen. I've seen the ads for $15,000 and the car that looks like it's been picked over at Pick Your Part that is posted again and again, obviously no takers at that ridiculous price. A decent turn key car is unlikely to bring that. A Volkswagen based Ford GT replica, in near showroom condition, doesn't bring the sort of money these people are obviously imagining. But the seller persists. As did Jacky Ickx.

Coming back to Le Mans with the John Wyer team number 6 in 1969, there seemed little hope against the Porsches. Ickx even went so far as to protest what he considered the dangerous practice of sending the drivers running across the track to their cars to start the the race by walking slowly and pulling away last, seconds before the death of John Woolfe caused the end of the footrace in future races. But as the race wore on Ickx was battling up front.

He just couldn't take a solid hold of the lead, the Porsche seemed as though it would be too tough to beat in the aging chassis that had won the year before. But coming out of the final turn, Ickx made a slingshot pass to put the Ford GT out front, again taking the checkered flag for the 4th straight year to close out the era. The following year the Wyer team would switch to racing the Porsche 917. These would be the cars, wearing the same Gulf Western colors as Ickx had won Le Mans with, that would be filmed during the race as the basis for Steve McQueens 'Le Mans.'

But the victory was mere movie fantasy, the Gulf Western blue and orange Wyer team had a bad race even though another Porsche effort won the race. Ickx would return in 1975 for the Wyer teams' final Le Mans effort with their Mirage cars. This would be the first of three straight wins, though the next two would be in Porsches for a new team.

In 1977 his own car broke and he took over another car for his team, pushing the car into the lead then way out front only to see the engine falter, the car limping at a very low speed for the final minutes of the race with too large of a lead to be overtaken. After a 1979 Canadian American Challenge Cup Championship in the United States, the racing career of Jacky Ickx was nearly done. Unable to secure a fulltime or even competitive grand prix drive since 1974 in spite of 8 wins and twice finishing second in the championship, he was relegated increasingly to the minor racing series.

He did however have the opportunity to collect back to back Le Mans wins in 1981-82, running his total to 6. This led to Ickx being named an honorary citizen of the City of Le Mans. So who could ever forget? I'll never be able to relieve the improbable 1969 victory of Jacky Ickx that way. When Ford offered their 40th anniversary showroom Ford GT's there was no shortage of bidders to push the price of the 200+mph cars well over the MSRP. For some reason the Cortez Silver car drew the highest bids.

Were I someone who could throw money around so recklessly I'd have been seeking the world's ugliest race car paint job, the reissue of the Gulf Western blue and orange. Any of those cars are selling around twice the new price these days, thanks to being a finely tuned precision machine, unlike the Volkswagen versions. But if I'm going to ever have one, it'll have to be a reclamation job from the bottom of the food chain.

Somewhere, I'd like to think, is a leftover hulk with my name on it. One that is NOT owned by some goof who thinks he sees EVERYONE coming and can take them for the long dollars.

Last week I got to go to Edelbrock Automotive to see two legendary REAL racecars. One was George Follmers 1969 Trans Am Mustang which was wrecked at the final race at Riverside then left in a field near the Bud Moore racing shop for 20 years before it was finally restored.

The other was a 1967 Camaro that was dug out of a snow drift in the dead of winter by a collector who would have settled for just any 1967 Camaro but who was knowledgeable of what that number 13 on the door meant; this was the long lost Smokey Yunick Camaro that was disqualified from more races than it ever ran.

For those who don't know, Yunick himself is legendary for not letting a silly thing like the RULES prevent him from building his car HIS way. Vic Edelbrock now owns both. How can I give up after seeing that? So it might not even seem worth it to anyone else, but afterall, I'll never get to race Le Mans for real.

The Volkswagen Beetle suspension may never handle like the original, there might not be enough power to take it to the 180mph of the original on the Mulsanne Straight, let alone over 200mph like the 40th anniversary car. It might never even LOOK like it could be any of the stuff that dreams are made of. but for me a big part of the dream is making it happen, I think more about putting that Gulf Western paint job on it than actually driving it. But driving it would be fun.

But please, if you MUST go on asking some 15 times what any reasonable person would be asking for that wreck, couldn't you at least WASH IT????

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