The Fastest Rider on Earth.

Many years ago, I rode a beaten-up 1995 Yamaha V-Max, I didn’t have the guts to go full throttle, but even though the front wheel insisted on not touching the pavement in first and second gear, and by the time when I shifted to third, the speedo was showing me 160 km/h. For me, that was it, that was my “need for speed” on a motorcycle. When I jumped off the bike, my hands were shaken and my heart was racing like crazy.

That is why it is kinda complicated for me to wrap my head around the idea of closing the quarter mile on a drag strip in less than 5 secs, and well above 400 km/h… in two wheels. That is absolutely insane, but it is true. Let me tell you about it.

From September 8 through 11, 2022, the iconic Santa Pod Raceway in Northamptonshire, England, hosted the FIM Euro Finals drag racing. Any weekend at the drag strip is exciting, but when you see the world “finals” on the title of the event, be prepared for a whole lot more.

The Euro Finals is a mega event, featuring more than 250 race teams from all over Europe and a bunch of different attractions to entertain all the gear heads. But this weekend was even more special, the people who were there had the privilege to witness a new world record.

On Saturday, the 10th, the legendary French rider Eric “Rocketman” Teboul set a new personal record when he achieved a staggering quarter-mile time of 5.066 seconds, racing at 263.52 mph (424.09 km/h), riding his rocket-powered motorcycle. It was an incredible achievement, but for him, it wasn’t enough. He knew he could go faster.

On the next day, Teboul was back again at the starting line, with one goal in mind, to bring his time below 5 secs. The crowd that packed the stands waited in absolute silence while the Rocketman was getting ready for launching. When the green light flashed, he went down the strip like a missile on two wheels.

When Eric Teboul crossed the finish line, a new world record had been created. He became the world’s fastest motorcycle rider on the quarter mile, clocking 4.976 seconds, at an unreal speed of 290.51 miles per hour (464.81 km/h).

Eric promised his fans he would retire after this weekend but we all know how hard it is for a daredevil to hang his helmet. But one thing is for sure, if he is really quitting the drag strip, he is doing it like a king.

Usually, people involved with drag racing have mixed feelings about a vehicle that is not powered by something with pistons going up and down inside an engine block. Jet cars are a good example since they are mostly for “showing” rather than “going”, but Teboul’s bike is a totally different kind of beast. While jet cars are powered by aircraft engines, that bike is powered by a rocket engine, burning a mix of hydrogen peroxide fuel.

In the background you can see the “Rocketman”, taking care of his fans.

The best ideas are the simple ones and that is the case with this bike. Eric’s machine is gorgeous, with a frame made of chrome-moly tubes, partially covered with fiberglass, intentionally showing the rocket engine.

While jet engines have to suck air, compress it, mix with fuel, and then burn it to produce thrust, rocket engines burn a mix of fuel and oxidizer inside the combustion chamber, generating thrust when the hot gases leave the chamber through a nozzle (or nozzles). The power a rocket engine produces is instantaneous, making it a perfect choice for the drag strip. There is no connection between the engine and the wheels.

It is such a shame that the gear heads in North America don’t know much about the Hot Rod and drag racing scene in Europe. I must confess that it was only when I started to follow the blog Butterflies to Dragsters, that I got more informed about it.

Do yourself a favor and check it out, it is an amazing British photo blog about, you guessed it, butterflies and dragsters. Check out some cool pics about the Euro Finals 2022:

Motor Show

It’s summertime in North America and for the gearheads all over Canada and USA, that means race season, car meetings, and air shows.

Classic car meeting at the “Spanish Square”, happens every Saturday afternoon. (Curitiba)

But down south things are a little different, take my home country, Brazil, for example; in some cities close to the equator, it is summertime year-round, but if go deeper south, wintertime can get chilly, but not enough to stop the car related activities.

This meeting happens every Sunday morning at “Largo da Ordem”, located in the historic downtown Curitiba.

The racing season never stops, and the classic car meetings also run through the whole year. In my hometown, there are a few weekly meetings and the weather must be really cold and damp for the organization to call it off.

We also have some unique annual events like “Aguas de Lindóia”, the biggest classic car show in South America. Between 2008 and 2015, I had the privilege to work as a parts advisor for two of the most prestigious restoration/speed shops in the country. The job required traveling around the country to attend such events.

2012 Curitiba Motor Show

The Hot Rod paradise.

Of all the events I attended during that time, the most exciting was the “Motor Show”, which was born in my hometown, Curitiba. It was created with one main idea, instead of the traditional display of static cars, this event should be dynamic, with the cars taking the pavement of the local race track.

The average 1980s/90s cars can be an interesting platform for gearheads with a limited budget.

The event was also designed to bring together many different groups of enthusiasts, classic cars, Hot Rods, modern cars, bikes, drift, low riders, you name it, but the strongest one was always the Hot Rod community.

It became a meter of pride to drive your machine to the event and some rodders came as far as Cordoba, in Argentina, which is 2000 km away.

The highlight of the event is the Hot Rod Parade when the cars takeover the race track for a few laps. There is a pace car in front of the bunch in order to keep things safe, but some smartasses purposefully delay hitting the track, creating a gap where they can drop the hammer.

The first Motor Show happened on August 11th and 12th, 2012, that year I was working for Powertech and the boss decided to bring a few of his hot rods, like this 1936 Ford convertible, powered by a 302 small block Ford. I had the pleasure to drive the car for a couple of laps around the track.

This 1929 Ford Rat Rod was also from Powertech and yes, that is me at the wheel.

Yes, the parade is a lot of fun, but do you know what is even better?

Drag racing!!!! The organizers put together a “1/8 mile challenge” for all hot rods and muscle cars.

The guy in the orange 69 is my ex-boss. He jumped ahead of his opponent at the start but his car was no match for this red 68, powered by a 400hp stroker 347.

The guy wearing cheap sunglasses, in the picture above, is me. I was helping to push this 1934 Ford coupe to the starting line. The car is powered by a blown 340 small block Mopar. Not my car, not my team, but hey, that’s what friends are for.

Making the hot rodders even more at home, “rockabilly” bands played during the day and especially at night, through the weekend.

2013 Edition

For the next year, 2013, I was working for a different company, Studio Phoenix. That year we brought to the event a 1969 Mustang (picture above)

A 1972 Firebird.

And a couple of Harleys.

The weekend was cold and dump, but even though the show attracted 15,000 fans each day.

Once again the drag strip was waiting for the hot rods, for the “1/8 mile Challenge”, but another tournament was organized, with professional racers, called “The King of the Track”.

2014 Edition

For 2014 I was back to Powertech and we brought some of the boss’s favorite toys. The 69 Mustang, a GT40 replica, a barn find 1937 Harley Davidson, and the Hemi-powered top fuel.

The team made this old lady road worthy again in two weeks for the show. It has the left foot clutch and the shifter is operated by the left hand. It is a bitch to ride, I never went further than the second gear.

A friend of mine brought his 1937 Ford rat rod, powered by a V8 Flathead, with Ardum heads. On Saturday afternoon I was hanging with him, drinking a few cold ones (the car’s trunk was packed with beer) when it was announced that the track was open for the parade. He screamed, “Let’s go“. Well, he was visibly wasted but what the hell, we jumped inside the Ford, and off we went. He was going flat out on the straight and when the turn came, he downshifted, slammed the brakes, and obviously, lost control of the car. The Ford slid on the wet pavement but miraculously he brought it back. Have we hit the sandbox sideways we would have flipped his hot rod a couple of times.

2014 was my last Motor Show, in 2015, my wife and I moved to Canada.

In 2021 the Curitiba Race Track hosted the event for the last time. The facility was sold to real state development, a common fate to many race tracks around the world. The video above is a teaser about this last event.

The Motor Show is still going strong, experimenting with different formats and moving from one city to another, but I don’t know if it has the same feeling as the original ones. For me, it became a very good memory, from a time when going to work was actually fun.

If I close my eyes I can still hear the thunder of the V8s and the smell of burnt rubber. Good times indeed.

Note of the editor: None of the pictures above is mine, I stole them from:

Dragster Brasil.com.br – a bunch of gearheads journalists but the one I remember the most is Filipe Sturion, taking pictures of everything and everybody.

Fabiano Guma – One of the most popular gearhead photografer in town.

Antigo & cia blogspot

Portal Maxicar

Uriel Marques

The First Paris-Dakar Rally

“Do Not Go Where The Path May Lead, Go Instead Where There Is No Path And Leave A Trail” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Riding a motorcycle in a desert rally can be tricky, the car racers have the luxury of carrying a navigator along, still, the bikers have to do it all by themselves.

Thierry Sabine

In 1977, the French motorcycle racer Thierry Sabine got lost in the Lybian desert, during the  Abidjan-Nice Rally, a region known by the locals as the Ténéré desert. In a desperate attempt to find the route, Sabine lost control of his Yamaha and fell, smashing his compass. After running out of gas, he found himself with no food and just a little water left. After a while, he abandoned his machine and started to walk under the unforgiving sun. The rescue party found him, on the verge of death, after 3 days and 2 nights lost in the desert.

The vehicles, aligned in front of the Eiffel Tower, on December 26, 1978.

For us, the average people, it is hard to understand the minds of the hard-core sports competitors and how they use adversity as an engine to move forward. For Sabine, that near-death experience only increased his fascination for the desert. It inspired him to create a new challenge, aimed at all those who share his love for the majestic beauty of Northern Africa. A new rally that would become the most legendary of them all.

The Frenchman envisioned a competition starting in Paris and stretching for more than 10,000 Km, crossing 6 different countries, France, Algeria, Niger, Mali, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), and finishing in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

The route would present more than 3,000 km of gruesome off-road challenges: rivers, mud, bushes, rocks, and, of course, the magnificent Sahara desert, in other words, paradise on earth for the adventure seekers.

Thierry Sabine didn’t waste any time making his dream come true, and on Boxing Day, 1978, nothing less than 80 cars, 90 motorcycles, and 12 trucks gathered in front of the Eiffel Tower, for the very first Paris-Dakar Rally. The competition was created with one main goal, to give the amateurs racers equal opportunity to win, but the big corporate guys showed up strong for this first event.

Yamaha was the dominant brand among the bikers, 38 out of the 90 registered motorcycles were the mighty XT 500. One of the biggest Yamaha importers in France, Sonauto, entered a team with 4 riders, fully baked by the factory. The Yamaha-Sonauto Race Team was assisted by all the good stuff money can buy: technicians, lots of spare parts, a Unimog truck, and a Range Rover as support vehicles, and even a Piper Aztec aircraft for any sort of emergency.

Christine Martin, was one of the riders that chose the new Honda XL 250S.

Honda was determined to rain on Yamaha’s parade, and the weapon of choice was the newly released XL 250S, a bike that would become a worldwide success. The company offered massive discounts for entrants who decided to buy the XL and also complimentary support throughout the rally, with technicians, engineers, Unimogs, and even a DC3, a bigger airplane than Yamaha’s. In total, 29 XLs left Paris towards Dakar.

A few other factory-sponsored teams like BMW and Moto Guzzi could be found, but Honda and Yamaha were the strongest. All the other riders were amateurs, with little or no sponsorship at all.

Citroen Dyane, driven by C. Sandron and P. Alberto. Powered by an air-cooled 600cc boxer twin engine.

The amateur spirit, that Sabine wanted so much, was more intense among the car teams. The strongest competitors were Toyota and Range Rover, but a wide array of cars could be seen at the starting line, especially the French brands. A good example is the Citroen Dyane above, driven by C. Sandron and P. Alberto. The little car is powered by an air-cooled, twin cylinder, 600cc engine, although it was the “largest” displacement among the 2CV family, the little Dyane produced a meager 32 HP, with a top speed of 120km/h. The team was racing on a very tight budget but that didn’t prevent them from finishing the rally.

It is quite difficult to find either information or pictures of the trucks that participated in the first Paris-Dakar, but the one car that shows up in every Google search is the Thomson-Oasis red and white Peugeot 404, driven by Mark Andre and Philippe Puyfouhoux. This UTE became very popular around the world, thanks to its roughness and the “bulletproof” powertrain; qualities that are not commonly associated with French cars.

The car you see in the picture above is another proof of the indomitable amateur spirit that permeates the Paris-Dakar: Philippe Hayat, a journalist, Jean-Pierre Domblides, a school teacher, and Daniel Nolan, a technician from Renault Gordini, decided to face the challenge driving a 1927 Renault KZ 11 CV. Obviously, they were not looking for the glories of victory but simply for the intoxicating taste of the adventure.

Among the competitors, there were Seven women: all of them were motorcycles riders: Martine de Cortanze, Pascale Geurie, Martine Rénier, Marido, Christine Martin-Lefort, Marie Ertaud, and Corinne Koppenhague.

 A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.” – Thierry Sabine.

On December 26, 1978, the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Monsieur Dehais, waived the green flag on the first Dakar Rally. One hundred seventy-two vehicles tore out of the Place du Trocadero.

 The rally was divided into 8 stages, starting in Paris and crossing France down south, towards Africa. At the end of this part, the competitors embarked on a ship, crossing the Mediterranean sea and landing in Algiers. During their journey through Africa, they would face 3,000 km of “specials”, the name Sabine gave to portions of extreme hardcore “off rodding”.

Each day the competitors must have to cover an average of 550 miles, stopping at a base camp for a decent meal and a well-deserved rest. In many cases, the technicians had to work through the night repairing the machines for the next day. For the amateurs, life was a bit harder; with no support crew, drivers and riders served as mechanics as well.

During the third stage, some journalists left the city of Assamaka ahead of the riders, the idea was to position themselves along the stretch to take pictures of the passing competitor. Thanks to their inexperience, they took a wrong turn at a fork of the road, and to make the matter even worse, the first group of riders coming after them just followed the tracks on the sand, completely missing the original path. Thierry Sabine quickly dispatched the support helicopter to intercept the bunch before they got too deep into the desert.

The first casualty

Patrice Dodin

At the very beginning of Stage four, the French rider Patrice Dodin was approaching the starting line with his helmet unbuckled. He tried to fasten it while riding but lost control of his Yamaha and fell. His helmet rolled off and he struck his head on a rock. Since he was still at the base camp, the doctors immediately attended to him, and later on, he was airlifted to Paris but died a few days later in hospital.

Close to the end

Gilles Comte, waiting for help. He would finish the rally in second place.

After the end of the 5th stage, the competitors had a well-deserved day off, with plenty of time to rest and to properly fix their machines. Sabine knew too well this day off was necessary because the last 3 stages (more than 3000 km) of the race would be a real nightmare.

The 7th stage, the path from Bamako to Nioro, was a dreadful challenge for everyone, with holes big enough to swallow a Citroen 2CV and soft sand that could make the whole front wheel of the bikes disappear. Only one rider completed the stage on time: Philippe Vassard on a Honda XL-250S. Sabine decided to use his power and bent the rules by extending the length of the stage, giving more time for other competitors to finish the route.

Every day competitors were dropping off the race, victims of mechanical breakdowns, injuries, and extreme fatigue. The desert was eating engines and transmissions for breakfast and bones for lunch.

The first “King of Dakar

Cyril Neveu

With only one day left before reaching Dakar, Cyril Neveu was leading the rally when the engine of his Yamaha XT500 blew up. The mechanics were able to replace the unit overnight, securing Neveu’s leading for the next day, and sure enough, he was the first rider to cross the finish line. He won the rally without scoring a single “special” course. In the end, the overall qualifying was the most important factor.

Gilles Comte finished in second overall, confirming the superiority of the Yamaha XT500. (picture above)

Phillipe Vassard, was the third rider to cross the finish line, saving Honda from shame. His bike was the only XL 250S among the top 5.

The Range Rover driven by Alain Génestier, Joseph Terbiaut, and Jean Lemordant, was the first among cars and fourth overall.

Closing the top 5 positions, the brothers Claude and Bernard Marreau, driving a heavily modified Renault 4.

The “First Lady” of the 1979 Paris-Dakar was Marine de Cortanze, she finished 19th overall, riding a Honda XL 250S.

In the end, only 74 vehicles survived the onslaught. They gathered at the shores of Lake Rose, the official “finishing line” of the race, 30 km from Dakar. At that point the competitors forgot the fatigue and together, they celebrated the end of the most challenging rally ever.

Among all those modern, purpose-built machines, there was the valiant 1927 Renault. The team finished 71st overall.

Thierry Sabine’s original idea was a huge success, the Paris-Dakar Rally became an annual event, attracting all sorts of adventure seekers. Even celebrities who had nothing to do with motorsports like Mark Thatcher, the playboy son of then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mark and his team, the co-driver Anne Charlotte, and the mechanic got lost in the Sahara desert for six days, during the 1982 edition of the Paris-Dakar, until the Algerian army found them, 50 km off the route.

The rally also cast a spell on some famous racing drivers, like the 6 times Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx. He gave Mercedes-Benz its first Paris-Dakar victory in 1983, at the wheel of a 280GE. (picture above).

A deadly competition

On January 14, 1986, Thierry Sabine was flying in a helicopter, during a rescue mission near the city of Timbuktu. He was looking for stranded competitors around that stretch of the desert when the pilot lost control of the aircraft and crashed against the dunes. Sabine lost his life as a victim of the accident. The two pilots and another crew member also died in the crash. The creator of the Paris-Dakar became part of a long and sorrowful list of victims related to the competition.

Any kind of motorsport activity can be dangerous and the competitors are well aware of this, but the Paris-Dakar rally stands on another level entirely. Since its first edition, 76 people have died due to being involved with the rally in one way or another.

So far, a total of 31 competitors perished while racing, 22 were motorcycle riders, 6 car drivers, and 1 truck driver. Two other competitors died victims of local rebel conflict. 45 casualties are considered “noncompetitors”, like journalists, support crew, and spectators.

The competition became extremely controversial and even the Catholic church publicly condemned the race. In 2007, a Vatican newspaper called the rally a bloody, irresponsible, violent, and cynical attempt to impose questionable Western tastes on the developing world. Well, well, look who’s talking.

The most popular rally in the world

The political instability in western Africa made it very difficult for the organizers to keep the original route. Every time a bloody revolution started in one of those countries, the rally had to take a different path. Even though the popularity of the Paris-Dakar kept growing and in 1988, it reached 603 participants.

That was the time when the official factory teams dominated the competition. Among bikes, Yamaha, Honda, and BMW fought fiercely for supremacy, and in the car field, the battle was between Citroen/Peugeot, Mitsubishi, and Porsche. The picture above shows the official Porsche-Rothmans team at a base camp, in 1986. Porsche obliterated the competitors that year with its new all-wheel drive, turbo-powered 959 model, a car that was originally designed to compete in the WRC. Porsche finished with an amazing one-two victory, René Metge/Dominique Lemoyne in first and Jacky Ickx/Claude Brasseur in second. The team had to overcome a serious issue when all three support trucks suffered mechanical breakdowns and were forced to retire from the competition. As an emergency solution, they packed the third ( and the slowest) 959 with the most essential spare parts end sent it to follow the other two cars. The “support” 959, even overloaded with parts, finished the rally in 6th overall.

The official Nissan X Trail, during tests, before the 2002 Dakar edition.

The 2001 edition was the last time the traditional route “Paris-Dakar” was used, from 2002 forward, the organizers would try different European cities as starting points and different routes as well. The name of the competition changed to “Dakar”, even if the city no longer had ties with the rally.

Dakar goes to South America

In 2008, the political instability in Africa forced the organization to cancel the Rally that year. As a replacement event, the first edition of the Dakar Series was held in Hungary and Romania.

For the next year, the organizer decided to abandon the African continent and the rally was transferred to South America. Countries like Argentina, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia have similar terrains to those found in Africa, with a much more stable political scenario. The debut rally in South America was held in Argentina and Volkswagen Tiguan (picture above) was declared the overall winner, claiming a 1-2 finish. That was the first time first a diesel-powered car won the event.

Saudi Arabia

Sam Sunderland, the winner of the motorcycle class in the 2022 Dakar.

South America held the Dakar rally for 10 years but after some countries failed to reach an agreement with ASO (the company that organizes the rally) for the 2020 event, the competition found a new home, in Saudi Arabia. As I write the final lines of this post, the plans for the Dakar rally 2023 are already set. From December 31st to January 15, the competitors will be crossing the country, starting from the beaches of the Red Sea and finishing at the sands of the Arabian Gulf in Dammam.

The real “King of Dakar”

Stéphane Peterhansel, the winner of the 1992 Paris-CapeTown Rally. He became one of the most successful bikers in the history of the rally,

In 1992, for the first time, the rally didn’t finish in Dakar, instead, the new route took the competitor all the way to Cape Town, in South Africa. The picture above shows the winner of the motorcycle class that year, Stéphane Peterhansel.

Peterhansel became the most successful competitor in the history of the rally. The Frenchman has won the competition six times riding motorcycles and eight times at the wheel of a car. He is still very much active, the picture above shows him in 2022 when he was forced to retire from the competition when he hit a rock and destroyed the rear suspension of his Audi e-Tron.

The modern Dakar

Not only the location has significantly changed after more than of Dakar rally, and some new classes were added, like the “Quad” and the “classic” (pictured above), but one thing has remained true, the amateur spirit of the competition. Certainly, the official factory teams will always outshine the independents, but the organization limits the big guys to a 1/4 of the total number of participants.

A VW Beetle, competing in the “Vintage” class. Dakar 2021.

That is how the Dakar was born, relying on the independent adventurers, the kind of people more interested in overcoming the challenges of the desert than in the spotlights of the victory.

If you want to see the amateur competitors in action, take a look at the video above. It shows the highlights of the Classic Dakar 2022.

Rock & Roll Car Show

As part of the Canada Day long weekend, the city of Stouffville, Ontario (50 km from downtown Toronto) promoted the “Rock’n Roll Car Show” with an emphasis on muscle cars and American iron in general.

The event took place at the “Village of Stouffville”, a picturesque historic downtown area, filled with boutique shops, and nice restaurants. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the place was bustling with people, eager to see a wonderful gathering of classic cars. As the name of the event suggests, the DJ kept playing a very good collection of “oldies but goldies”.

One thing we must learn once and for all: car shows here in Canada are short, this one was from 9 am to 2 pm. We got there at 1 o’clock and some of the cars were already gone.

The cars participating in the show were top-notch, but for those who spent a lifetime going to such events, at some point we realize we have seen it all. At this time, I tried something different, instead of taking the traditional pictures of the whole car, I shot the details that I see I interesting, trying to make the pictures a bit more “artistic”.

I might not have achieved what I was looking for but it was worth the effort.

1957 Ranchero
The one which started it all.
That tail light is a work of art.
Is it the perfect muscle car?
The magic of the big block
Blue sky and…
…the thunder.
In the 1980s, Center Line wheels like this were the rule.
Fins.
Supercharged
Gorgeous
Le Mans
Understatement.
Kiss my SS
Some British Iron.
And German, as well.
My favorite year.
1949 Mercury truck
1967 Mustang Fastback
No presentation needed
Convertible Fairlane
Hot Rod
Olds
The Elephant .

It is easy to understand the mystique around the Muscle Car, it is a simple idea that worked perfectly: install a big, high-performance V8 engine into a median-size car and make it affordable for the average car guy.

Of course, all the “bad-ass attitude” of those cars was exploited to the exhaustion in the movies and songs, helping to perpetuate the legend. Now with the help of the internet, all the fascination won’t fade away any time soon.

Vintage Car Racing in Canada

Since the Coronavirus is somehow in our rear view mirror, we like to tell that “life is back to normal”, even if we know it is a lie. Recession, climate change, and the danger of nuclear armageddon are just a few reminders that life is far from normal.

Moss Corner, or turn 5, at Mosport International Raceway near Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Cars approaching from the right, under the bridge at turn 4.
The turn is named after racing legend Stirling Moss, who first suggested the double-apex design to make it trickier than the original hairpin configuration. – Picture and info thanks to Richard Wintle.

Undoubtedly, some aspects of life are going back to how they were before, especially for the gearheads. It is summertime and that means the racing season is at full throttle. The legendary Mosport Raceway is busy again, so my wife Estela and I finally got to visit this iconic racing venue.

We went to see the last day of the 2022 VARAC Grand Prix, on Sunday, Jun 19. The Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada is the biggest club of its kind in Eastern Canada. The club holds an annual gathering of vintage racing enthusiasts from across Canada and the US, as well as honoring a different manufacturer each year. For 2022 MG was the chosen one.

It was a glorious sunny day, a bit windy though. However, the sound of engines and the smell of burned high octane gas made me feel at home once again. Below are some pictures we took.

Some of the group 7/8 leaving the race track.
A Bimmer going back to the pits, after the Class 7 race.
A few Formula Vintage cars, ready for action. This category has F-Vee, F-Ford, and F4 cars racing against each other.
A 1967 Lotus Cortina.
MG was the featured marque this year, and there were enough cars to fill an entire grid with them.
A very wicked 914.
Volvo is Estela’s favorite brand, she was happy to see a couple at the pits, even if we missed them on the track.
Any car looks better in “race trim”. The statement holds true for this 1970 Volvo A142.
A few examples of the Formula Vee cars powered by the 1200cc air-cooled VW engine. The black and green #12 car belongs to the Demaras Racing Team. You can check their website: https://demaras.com/
No classic car racing event is complete without a 65/66 “Shelby” Mustang.

This race track has a huge heritage, it was inaugurated in 1961 and in 1967 the circuit hosted the first Canadian F1 Grand Prix. Mosport would alternate hosting of the GP with Mont-Tremblant until 1971 when it became the official track for the F-One circus. Mosport would continue to host the race until 1977, after which F1 left permanently for Montreal.

We fell in love with the circuit; it is one of the few “old school” race tracks around the world that hasn’t been altered from its original course. The facility has all the amenities to please the race fans, the grounds are surrounded by nature and always kept clean; if we owned an RV, we could live there. Mosport is truly a world-class circuit.

In 2012, the race track was renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, when the company became a business partner, but race fans still call it “Mosport“.

The First Jet Powered Car

The space-age, which started at the end of the 1940s and went all the way through the 1960s, was such a wonderful time. Humanity was fascinated with the possibility of “boldly going where no one has gone before“.

Various fields of society have been inspired by space travel, including literature, films, fashion, and so on, but was the industry that took this concept to the farthest.

The need for speed made piston engines obsolete in the aeronautical field and the transition to jet engines made it possible for aircraft to fly faster, higher, and smoother. It was just a matter of time for some engineers to develop the idea of a jet-powered car.

The advantages of the gas turbine over the conventional piston engine are clear: it is a simpler machine, with fewer movable parts, and offers a better power-to-weight ratio. Turbines can also burn pretty much any kind of fuel since it works primarily with compressed air.

Before we move forward, let’s have a little “crash course” on gas turbine engines:

Just like a conventional piston engine, starting a gas-turbine motor it is necessary an external source of power, it can be an electrical motor or pressurized air. The starter will make the shaft spin, “sucking” air through the intake and sending it to the combustion chamber, under pressure. The pressurized air will, naturally, increase temperate, then the fuel will start spraying, creating a flammable mixture inside the chamber (again, just like a conventional engine). In the next step, the spark plugs will ignite the mixture and on its way out, the hot exhaust gas will pass through the blades of the last section of the turbine, forcing it to spin and consequently, creating torque and thrust.

Gloster Meteor

Lured by the so-called advantages of the gas turbine engine, a few automakers around the world started to develop cars powered by this new technology.

The New York-based Carney Associates had designed a compact gas turbine engine for automotive use in early 1946, but it never saw production.

The Jet T1

The British automaker Rover had the honor to build the very first, fully-functional jet car. The company teamed up with the engineer Frank Whittle, one of the creators of the Gloster Meteor, the first Allied fighter jet to see combat during the second world war. Together they created the Rover Jet T1, based on the already existing model P4.

The T1 roadster was presented to the public in March 1950, but only as a prototype. The car was equipped with a centrifugal gas turbine, designed explicitly for automotive purposes, and placed in the mid-engine position. Since the jet engine produces enough power and torque throughout the whole range of RPM, (similar to an electric motor) the T1 wasn’t equipped with a gearbox. The centrifugal jet engine has a peculiar design, where the cold section sits on top of the hot section, making it more compact to fit in an automobile. It also has two separate shafts, the first one would spin at 50,000 pm and the second one at 26,000 rpm, producing 250 HP, enough to push the bulky roadster to a top speed of 150 mph (240 km), breaking the speed record for a jet car in 1952.

Rover was a traditional and austere British automaker and convincing its customers to replace their piston-powered car with completely new and futuristic technology never was an easy task, but the company was committed to seeing the jet car succeed.

In 1956, the new prototype T3 (picture above) was unveiled to the public. The elegant two doors coupe was equipped with some interesting refinements: disc brakes on all four corners, front and rear independent suspension, and all-wheel drive. The performance was close to the predecessor T1 since they were powered by the same jet engine, but the engine was relocated to the rear of the car.

Rover T4

By 1961, Rover revealed the T4, the last prototype of the series. The four doors sedan became the most viable jet-powered vehicle created by the company. The car was equipped with a 140 HP gas turbine, and just like any other sedan, the engine was mounted in the front.

It was able to go from 0 to 60mph (100 kph) in 8 seconds and after so many years of development, Rover came up with a jet engine capable of 20 miles per gallon when burning gasoline, but it could also burn diesel and kerosene as well.

The T4 was comfortable, roomy, and had a modern design, it was the closest Rover ever came to releasing a jet-powered car to the public, but the project never took off.

Thankfully, not everything was lost, the T4 was developed in parallel with the P6, which was, basically, a T4 with a piston engine. The car was a fairly successful product that marked the company’s transition from hand-built cars to more technologically advanced products.

Competition

Even after so many years of development, the Rover jet car failed to hit the assembly line, but the Brits had one more chance to show the world their supremacy in the automotive gas turbine technology.

For the 1962 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race organizers offered a prize of 250,000 Francs to the first gas turbine car to complete 3,600 Kilometers in 24 hours. That was the chance Rover was waiting for.

The company teamed up with the British Formula One team BRM and together they created the Rover-BRM race prototype, aiming for the 1963 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Graham Hill at the wheel of the Rover-BRM prototype, Le Mans, 1963

The team’s budget was very tight, BRM supplied a refurbished Formula One chassis that was used (and crashed) during the previous F-One season. On top of the chassis Rover fitted an open-cockpit, spider aluminum body. The car was powered by the same T4 jet engine, mid-mounted, producing 150 HP.

The legendary F-One driver Graham Hill and Richie Ginter were the chosen ones to take turns driving the Rover-BRM, here is how Hill describes driving the car: – “You’re sitting in this thing that you might call a motor car and the next minute it sounds as if you’ve got a 707 just behind you, about to suck you up and devour you like an enormous monster”.

The car was granted the # “00”, which means it would compete as an experimental entry, but not to be officially classified. Conventional cars were limited to a 109 liters fuel tank but the organizers allowed the BRM-Rover team to install a much larger 218 liters tank, making up for the excessive fuel consumption. The little prototype could easily go down the Mulsanne Straight at 240kph, leaving most of the 2-liter class car eating dust. At the end of the race, the car had covered 4,165 Km, winning the prize and finishing at 8th place overall, but then again, it was not permitted to be classified.

Motivated by the excellent result, the Rover-BRM geared up for 1964. The team came up with a gorgeous, redesigned new body, and the engine received some important improvements, like the ceramic heat exchangers, that greatly enhanced fuel efficiency. The prototype was considered suitable to compete in the 2-liter class.

Unfortunately, the truck which was transporting the Rover prototype, crashed on its way back from a practice section, seriously damaging the car. The technicians were unable to repair it on time and the team was forced to retire from the competition.

For the 1965 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rover-BRM team was ready for the challenge. The car was at the peak of its development and two British legends were hired to be behind the wheel, Graham Hill and Jackie Steward.

During the race, the car and the drivers were keeping up with the expectations, always among the top 10 positions but towards the second half of the competition, the jet engine began to overheat. With no time to fix the problem, the mechanics reduced the diameter of the air intake, bringing down the jet pipe temperature but also forcing the car to run at a reduced power level.

The Rover-BRM at the pits. Le Mans, 1965

Regardless of the disadvantage, the team finished the race in 12th position overall and 2nd in the 2-liter class, at an average speed of 159 kph. The team also received the “Motor Magazine Trophy”, for being the first British car to cross the finish line.

The Rover-BRM accomplishment at the 1965 Le Mans was nothing short of amazing, even if it was overshadowed by the first battle of the “Ford vs Ferrari” war.

The 1965 Rover-BRM was fully restored and it is on display at the British Motor Museum, in Warwick, UK.

The race was also the closing chapter of Rover’s involvement with jet engines, the company would now concentrate on the P6 sedan, which became one of its most successful models.

The work done by the Brits was an inspiration for companies like Chrysler, General Motors, and even Toyota to create some interesting prototypes powered by gas turbines. Some of those cars we will see here at TCM.

Murderdrome

The passion the Americans feel for the oval race tracks is nothing new, it goes back to the beginning of the last century. The idea of a track where the drivers could go flat out almost throughout the whole course isn’t new, but oddly enough, it started with a very popular sport in the mid-1800s, bicycle racing.

Bicycle racing was quite popular at the time, it was fast, competitive, and convenient for the spectators since the races were held on closed circuits, and they could watch the whole action from the stands. Those race tracks were called Velodromes.

To build a smooth surface for the bikes and the structures for the banked turns, the constructors used the cheapest material they could find in the mid-1800s, wood. Since not only wood was plentiful at the time but also labor, a Velodrome could be erected in a matter of a couple of weeks.

Motorcycle racing

Harry Rembrandt Fowler (1882-1963) the one wearing goggles, and his famous Peugeot-powered Norton. The winner of the first-ever Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) on May 28, 1907.

Back in the early 1900s, the motorcycle was a fairly new invention, but as soon as the machines became commercially available in the US and Europe, the owners and manufacturers started to organize races. Those events were held on open roads or even on dirt tracks, used for horse racing.

It was only in 1910 that two guys decided to get together and bring motorcycle racing to a professional level. One of them was Jack Prince, a British bicycle racer that came to the USA to promote the sport and to build velodromes, and the other was Frederick Moskovics, a Hungarian born mechanical engineer, who became the manager of the Daimler Racing Team in 1904. Together they came up with a simple plan, to build stronger velodromes that could stand the weight and the speed of motorcycles and even automobiles.

Their first enterprise was the Los Angeles Coliseum Motordrome, located in Playa del Rey, California.

Construction began on January 31, 1910, and it took almost 2 months to be completed. Pine was used for the track surface since it was the most resistant wood against the scorching California sun.

Millions of tiny 2-inch (51 mm) x 4-inch (100 mm) boards were meticulously nailed side by side to form the 1-mile (1,609 km) long by 75 feet (23 meters) circular track. The builders estimated that over 30 tons of nails were used during the construction. When done, the track was coated with a layer of glue mixed with crushed seashells, to improve traction.

The LA Motordrome was a very well thought project, with guard rails, lighting for night racing, and stands to hold 12,000 spectators. The whole circuit was banked from 18 to 25 degrees, but judging by some of the pictures, it seems steeper than that. The outer rim is 25 feet (7.6 m) off the ground, making it impossible to watch the races from the outside. A small railroad was built in the vicinity by the Pacific Electric Railway in order to ferry spectators to and from the race track.

LA Motordrome, 1911. Photo Phill Wassil, AAA Dirt Car Researcher Project.

The LA Motordrome was a smashing success, attracting numerous competitors and large crowds of spectators. It quickly became one of the main race tracks in the country, second to only the Indianapolis Speedway.

But the enterprise came to an abrupt end when, in 1913, the track was partially destroyed by fire and the owners decided not to rebuild it.

The end of the LA Motordrome didn’t mean the end of the wooden race tracks, the achievements of the venue were an inspiration for the entrepreneurs to build more of them.

The board track fever caught on the whole country. From 1920 through 1931, the American Automobile Association sanctioned 123 championships events and 82 of them were held on wooden Motordromes, scattered across the country.

The tracks

Board racing quickly became the favorite motorsport in the USA at the time, it was crazily fast and extremely dangerous. The daredevil riders reached the status of idols and the adoration of the fans just encouraged them to disregard the most basic concepts of safety.

The motordromes were more like a trap than a race track. The seashell coating, used to improve traction, didn’t last long and most of the time the riders had to deal with a very slippery surface. Blown engines were a common problem and they would leave a layer of oil covering parts of the track, making the ridding even more dangerous.

It would take only a couple of months for the exposed pine boards to become brittle and with the constant punishment of cars and bikes travelling at 90 plus miles per hour, splinters of the size of a kitchen knife would fly all over the track. There are even some stories about kids removing a few boards before the start of the race, just enough to stick their heads out to play the chicken game of ducking in the last second before being hit by a car or a bike. The wooden tracks required constant maintenance, but the owners, always looking for more profits, mostly disregarded it.

In an insane pursuit for more speed, the banks were getting higher and higher to the point of reaching 45 degrees, making it impossible to ride a motorcycle below 100 miles per hour.

The machines

1919 Excelsior board racer, 1000cc V-twin

The motorcycles used at the motordromes became known as “board racers”, they were purpose-built machines, conceived with one thing in mind: speed. To achieve maximum performance, lightweight was paramount. The bikes look more like bicycles, with a simple hardtail frame and skinny wheels and tires.

1912 “Flying Merkel – 250cc mono cylinder. Look, mom, no brakes!!!

Hydraulic brakes didn’t exist back in the 1910s/1920s; the system was operated by cables and rods, making it heavy, complicated, and unreliable. To solve the problem, the teams came up with a very ingenious idea: to build the bikes with no brakes whatsoever, after all, they were meant to be ridden at full throttle from the beginning to the end of the race. A simpler time indeed.

A close-up of the hand-cranked oil pump, installed on a 1917 V-twin Excelsior.

To make matters even worse, those ancient engines didn’t have an efficient lubrication system and the riders had to manually pump oil every mile or so, during the race.

Following the mantra, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday“, many North American motorcycle companies had their own race team. The picture above shows Johnny Seymour, one of the official Indian race riders.

The riders

Joe Wolters posing with his brand new Haley Davidson, at the Chicago Speedway Park, 1915.

In the 1920s, a top rider could make 20,000.00 Dollars per year at board racing, (around 280,000.00 Dollars in 2022 money), enough cash to lure young daredevils to risk their lives in the motordromes.

Their racing suit consisted of a leather helmet, goggles, wool sweater, and leather boots and gloves. It is clear that the protective gear didn’t do much to save the riders’ lives when they crashed, and crashes were fairly common during the races.

With skills and luck, some of them dodged death long enough to become heroes. Names like Jim Davis, Otto Walker, and Albert “Shrimp” Burns (pictured above) might’ve faded away after more than a century, but back then, they were idolized by the fans.

The end

By the mid-1910s, the board racing reached its peak. People couldn’t get enough of seeing the competitors racing on the edge of the knife, but the price the riders and the spectators alike were paying to keep the show going on became too high.

In 1912, during a race near Atlantic City, a legendary racer called Eddie Hasha (aka the Texas Cyclone) lost control of his Indian and flew over the guard rail, he died in the crash and the spiralling bike landed into the crowd, killing three young boys and a man, and injuring 10 other spectators.

Another horrible accident happened in Ludlow, Kentucky, on July 30, 1913, the top racer Odin Johnsons crashed while fighting for the first position. He hit a lamp post, which caused the rupture of the fuel tank and exposed electrical wire ignited the spilled gasoline. Johnson and a young boy were pronounced dead at the track; more than 25 others were taken to local hospitals, where six of them died several hours later from their injuries. Two other spectators succumbed three days later. The scale of the tragedy was so enormous that many spectators at the park used their cars as ambulances.

Johnson was only 24 years old when he died. His widow started a campaign to ban board racing altogether and she found strong support among the media. The newspapers began calling the tracks “murderdromes”. But during a time when the news travelled at a much slower pace than today, the ban campaign would take another 10 years and many more casualties to pick up momentum.

Saint Louis Motordrome. 1914. Packed house to watch the modern gladiators.

It was only when the motorcycle companies, local governments, and the entrepreneurs started to question their involvement in such a controversial sport that the board racing began to lose steam and by the 1930s it was already a thing of the past.

Of course, here I focused on the motorcycle side of the motordrome, but the race drives also faced the same danger, even if their cars had brakes.

Jack Prince, the guy who conceived the motordrome, never stopped believing. He kept building more oval (or circular) race tracks but replaced the wood with steel and concrete.

Those tracks morphed into the modern super speedways we all know today. It became part of the American sports as much as baseball and football.

Oval tracks are still dangerous but in a more acceptable way and the “gladiator spirit” of the early racers still lives on among the today’s competitors.

The 1966 Batmobile

Batman is back on the big screen, this new movie comes 33 years after the American director Tim Burton revived the character with his haunting and stylish version of the Caped Crusader.

This new Batmobile definitely looks like a Mopar muscle-car.

Speaking as a fan, it is always exciting when a new movie pops up but speaking as a gear head, there will always be the expectation about what the Batmobile will look like.

Tim Burton’s movies feature a stylish, armored, rocket car while Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy has a tank-like vehicle; useful, but not particularly charming. But the Batmobile I would like to talk about here is the coolest of them all, the one Batman drove in the 1960s.

The Batman TV show.

The superhero genre had a long journey before becoming mainstream entertainment. The transition from the comics to the big screen wasn’t easy, both Captain Marvel and Batman had their chance in the theatres at the beginning of the 1940s, but thanks to the lack of special effects, those movies were crude and didn’t rightfully portray the superheroes like in the comics.

When The Adventures of Superman aired from 1952 to 1958, it enjoyed a good dose of popularity, as TV sets were becoming more common in the houses of American middle-class families at the time, but it wasn’t until Batman premiered in 1966 that the rest of the world got acquainted with superheroes.

The Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 is a dark and sinister character who moves through the shadows and uses fear as his greatest weapon, but you won’t find any of that in this series., Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin), play a silly Dynamic Duo, fighting against even sillier evildoers. The series is campy, comical, and psychedelic.

Damn you, Penguin!!!

This cartoonish series was designed specifically for kids and it worked for me. As a six-year-old boy, I loved it and never missed a single episode.

Besides all the fist fighting, the crazy villains, and the occasional appearance of the Batgirl, what I loved the most was the Batmobile. For me, it was the coolest car I’ve ever seen.

Years after the more badass versions of the Batmobile appeared in movies, the car created for the TV series is still the most iconic.

The First Batmobile

Batman is a superhero with no superpowers, consequently, he needs a lot of gadgets to fight crime, and a decent car is a must.

When he first appeared in the comics, Batman used to drive a regular late 1930s coupe and then a “supercharged” red roadster that looks like a 1939 Graham “Sharknose” model.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Monkees !!!

For the TV show, the producers wanted a more impressive car, and in 1965, the ABC-TV hired Dean Jeffries, a custom car builder with deep roots in the TV/movies industry. One of his most popular creations is the “Monkeemobile” a heavily modified 1966 Pontiac GTO for the TV series “The Monkees” (another favorite of mine).

The 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, customized by Troy Trepanier.

Jeffries worked on the design and initial fabrication for the Batmobile, using a 1959 Cadillac, like the one you see in the picture above (which would be my first choice as well). But as the deadline was looming on the horizon, Jeffries gave the task to the “King of Kustomizers”, Mr. George Barris.

Barris made a name for himself in the California hot rod/custom scene in the 1950s and became legendary in the world of television and motion pictures. He created such iconic cars as The Munster’s Coach (picture above) and KITT from Nightrider.

Barris had a very tight schedule, the ABC studio gave him only 3 weeks to get the Batmobile ready. Fortunately, the perfect car was just sitting on the lot: a decaying Lincoln Futura he bought from Ford a couple of years ago for $ 1,00.

The Lincoln Futura.

The 1950s was an amazing time for industrial design in the USA. The influence of the Space Age was everywhere. American automakers created some of the most impressive concept cars of all time, and one of them was the 1955 Lincoln Futura.

The Lincoln Futura, leaving the Studio Ghia, in Italy.

The concept was created by Ford’s lead designers Bil Schmidt and John Naijar and the Ghia Studio in Turin, Italy, was commissioned to hand-build the all-metal body panels. The Italians were also responsible to fit the body on the chassis (most likely the Continental Mark II platform), painting it in “high tech” Pear white, finishing the assembling of all parts, and shipping the car back to the States, at a final cost of $250,000 (around $2,400,000 in 2022).

The Futura was officially presented to the public on January 8, 1955, at the Chicago Auto Show, but Ford had been already touring the car across the USA for a while before that. The Futura’s styling has all the “sci-fi” inspiration one could expect from a 1950s concept car: double clear-plastic canopy top, exaggerated hooded headlight pods, and long tail fins.

Underneath the futuristic body, you will find a pretty conventional car. The Futura was powered by a 368 Lincoln “Y” block V8, bolted to an automatic transmission.

Becoming a Star

Debbie Reynolds, onboard the red Futura (Life Magazine)

Ford has been known for his good connections with Hollywood and since the Futura was almost a fully functional car, it shouldn’t be hard to put one on the silver screen.

The car became the star of the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie, “It started With a Kiss”, starring Glenn Ford as a broken Air Force Sargent and Debbie Reynolds as his sassy nightclub showgirl wife, who won the Lincoln in a contest. For the movie, the Futura was repainted in bright red, in an attempt to make the car’s lines more visible to the public.

The year 1959 also marks the peak of the “Tailfins Era” in auto design. In the following years, American cars would become more and more unpretentious. The Lincoln Futura quickly lost its relevance and a few years later, Ford sold the red Futura to George Barris for a single Dollar!

Becoming the Batmobile.

The Lincoln Futura certainly is the kind of car one would expect to see at George Barris’s shop, but with no use for it, the car sat in the parking lot for years. When he received the task to build the Batmobile, the red Lincoln was less than pristine.

Holy procrastination, Batman. The Batmobile should be done by now!!!!!

When 20th Century Fox started recording the episodes, the Batmobile wasn’t there, George Barris took a little bit longer than the planned 3 weeks to get it ready. Bill Cushenberry was responsible for the metal modifications, making it more like a “bat looking” than a “shark looking” car, which was the original idea of the Futura.

When the Batmobile was finally delivered, in October 1965, I bet the Dynamic Duo was pleased. The car was slick and elegant, qualities inherited from the Lincoln Futura, but Barris made it look dark and sinister as well.

The Batmobile was there for the debut episode Hi Diddle Diddle, which aired on January 12, 1966, and yes, it was a success. But besides the ultra-cool body and all the bat-gadgets, there was a 10 years old Ford that had been neglected for a while. As soon as the filming began, some mechanical problems like overheating and leaking fluids started plaguing the car. By mid-season, the original 368 Lincoln engine and transmission were replaced with units removed from a Ford Galaxie.

A rare picture showing Adam West and the Batmobile at the filming set.

George Barris built 4 replicas, in fiberglass, using the Ford Galaxie chassis, stretched in 11 inches. The # 5 was the stunt car, used for jumps and crashing into buildings.

The # 4 was prepared for drag racing, powered by a high-performance Ford 427 “police interceptor” V8. “Wild” Bill Shrewsberry drove the car at Muholland and several other strips across the country. The #4 car had a working flamethrower and working parachutes, it was able to go down the drag strip in 12 sec.

The Dragster Batmobile #4, after the restoration.

In 2014 the #4 went through a complete restoration by the Fiberglass Freaks, the only shop in the world officially licensed by DC Comics to build 1966 Batmobile replicas.

The # 3 was exclusively used as a promo car, while the # 2 was a perfect clone of the main Batmobile and was used as a spare.

Upon realizing that he had created something more than just a custom car, Barris applied for a patent for the Batmobile, opening the door to a new source of revenue: licensing the design to toy companies.

The original Batmobile, at Barret Jackson Auction.

George Barris never sold his Batmobiles to the studio, instead he loaned them. When the series came to an end, in 1968, he sold the replicas to collectors but kept the original one.

Mr. George Barris celebrates the deal. The lady in black is no other than Linda Vaughan, the legendary Catwoman, from the Batman TV series.

But the time to part ways with his most iconic creation finally came and on January 19, 2013, the car was taken to Barret-Jackson Collector Car Auction. The Batmobile was pulled into the auction by no other than Mr. Barris himself, to the amazement of hundreds of fans that were there. When the hammer fell, one of the most emblematic pieces of pop culture had changed hands, for the staggering price of US$4.2 million.

Predicting the future

The amount of “Bat paraphernalia” incorporated into the Batmobile is enough to make James Bond jealous. Are you ready for the list? Here we go: nose-mounted aluminum cable cutter blade, Bat Ray projector, an anti-theft device, an Anti-Fire Activator, automatic tire inflation device, detect-a-Scope, Batscope, Bat Eye Switch, Antenna Activator, Police Band Cut-In Switch, mobile Batcomputer, a Batphone, Bat Smoke, and a Bat Photoscope, emergency Bat Turn Lever, which deploys a pair of parachutes, magically allowing the Batmobile to do a quick 180-degree turn. 

Among all the silly Bat stuff, there is one item that catches the attention, after almost 60 years of its creation: the mobile Bat computer, constantly connected to the main Bat computer, located in the Bat cave. Whoever came up with this idea, certainly predicted the future, when cars would be equipped with Internet Wi-Fi, keeping the occupants connected to a sort of “Main computer”.

Holy adventure, Batman

The Dynamic Duo met Green Hornet and Kato.

The Batman TV series run for 3 seasons, between 1966 and 1968 and it was a success, not only in the USA but all over the world as well. Celebrities of the 1960s, like Bruce Lee, and Jerry Lewis, gladly accepted the invitation for a cameo appearance in the famous “Bat climb” scenes. Even Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes showed up (another one of my favorite TV shows).

Rumor has it that Frank Sinatra wanted a part in the series, as a villain. 

As part of the pop culture in the 1960s, the show lives on in the memories of fans and even in the minds of those born many years after the conclusion of the series. the phrase, “Holy______, Batman”, still can be heard every once in a while.

There were many elements that helped to make the series so beloved among the kids around the world, but the Batmobile played a major role in it. It was the third component of the Dynamic Duo.

The Wristwatch

A brief account of this obsolete piece of machinery that refuses to fade away.

Picture above: Roger Dubois, Huracán edition.

At the beginning of the 1969 movie Easy Rider, right before the start of his journey across the USA, the character Wyatt (Peter Fonda) gives one last glance at his wristwatch, removes it from his arm and throws the watch on the ground, symbolizing he was finally free, no longer chained to time.

But unfortunately, the rest of us have no other option but to keep time as the master of our lives. The clocks are everywhere, just to remind us about it: on your coffee maker, on your stove, on your computer’s screen, and especially on your cell phone. Even if we are surrounded by clocks, some of us still insist on wearing a wristwatch, but since they became an obsolete way to keep time, we wear them more like a fashion accessory, and that is precisely how the wristwatch was born.

The idea of a portable clock, that could be strapped around the wrist or at least that could fit inside a pocket it is as old as the creation of the mechanical watch itself, in the 16th century. In the beginning, wristwatches were meant to be some kind of jewelry, designed for the affluent ladies of society. Possibly the most notorious example of this trend is when, in 1571, the Queen of England, Elizabeth I received a wristwatch as a gift from Mr. Robert Dudley.

For the men, the fashion was the pocket watch, but that was about to change.

Towards the end of the 19th century, military officers discovered the benefits of synchronizing, by time, the maneuvers among different platoons on the field and the necessity of having a reliable and sturdy timekeeper. Since a soldier has both hands constantly employed holding his rifle, the pocket watch would just be impractical. As we all know, Necessity is the mother of invention, and soon officers and soldiers alike began adapting straps around their pocket watches to use them as wristwatches.

In the late 1800s, the United Kingdom was the leading country in the still young watchmaker industry. It didn’t take long for a British company to offer a model specially designed for the Royal Army, the Garstin Company of London, presented the “Watch Wristlet”, which was, basically, a pocket watch encased in a leather strap (pictured above).

From 1898 to 1902, the Mappin & Webb company produced the successful “campaign watch” series, widely popular among British officers serving in the colonies around the world. This new product helped to spread the idea that wristwatches could also be worn by a man.

In continental Europe, Girard-Perregaux and other Swiss watchmakers began supplying German naval officers with wristwatches in about 1880.

Conquering the skies

Santos Dumont, circling the Eiffel Tower in one of his hot air balloons, circa early 1900s.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the use of wristwatches among the male population was still strongly linked with the military. In 1904, the Franco-Brazilian aviation pioneer Alberto Santos Dumont asked his friend, Louis Cartier, to make him a wristwatch that would help him during his flights. Keeping time was of the utmost importance when flying those early steerable hot air balloons, and since Dumont needed to keep both hands on the controls all the time, a pocket watch wasn’t the right choice for the task.

Cartier created a beautiful, square-shaped watch that served the aviator perfectly, it was compact, light, and gorgeous. The Santos Dumont’s Cartier can be considered the first chapter of the love affair between wristwatches and aviation.

Considering that Dumont was, at the time, a public figure in Paris, he helped to make the wristwatch popular among the male Parisians.

To honour the Brazilian aviator, Cartier has a series of watches called “Santos de Cartier”, based on the original watch.

From the trenches to the streets

1914 Omega Field Watch.

During WWI, as the tactics between the artillery and the infantry grew in complexity, the use of the wristwatch became paramount, not only for the officers but for common private as well. The companies began producing watches specially designed for the hardships of war, with luminous dials and impact-resistant glass. From now on, the wristwatch became an integral part of the soldier’s uniform.

For those fortunate enough to survive the war, the wristwatch became part of their civilian lifestyle.

At this point, the watchmaker industry was well established and innovations just kept coming. All the features that make a military watch so sturdy were transferred to the civilian ones.

In 1923, John Harwood created the first successful self-winding system.

A 1943 RAF issued Longines pilot watch.

After WWII, the wristwatch was so popular among the returning combatants that the field watch and aviator watch became separate categories in the horology universe, readily available to civilian customers.

In the 1950s the American watchmakers Elgin and Hamilton developed the first electric-powered wristwatch, in an attempt to solve the most annoying aspect of a mechanical watch, which is the necessity of daily winding. The watches were not very reliable and therefore not a commercial success but it was the first step towards the quartz movement.

Beyond the blue sky

Yuri Gagarin, right before boarding his spaceship.

During the space race, between the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviets were always one step ahead of the Americans. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to fly into space when, on April 12, 1961, he completed one orbit around the Earth, travelling onboard the Vostok 1 capsule. Gagarin insisted to wear a wristwatch during his journey, and the Sturmankie company prepared him a specially built model, designed to withstand the brutal acceleration of the rocket and also the weightless environment he was about to experience. According to him, his watch worked flawlessly during the mission.

Buzz Aldrin, inside the lunar capsule, unintentionally showing his Omega Speedmaster.

One year after the launch of the Apollo program, NASA started looking for a wristwatch to be official timekeeping for the astronauts that would eventually go to the moon. After a series of evaluations, the Omega Speedmaster chronograph was the winner, outperforming brands like Rolex, Longines, and Hamilton.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong had the honour to be the very first man to set foot on the moon, but he was not wearing his watch, it was Buzz Aldrin, who left the lunar module right after, who gave the Speedmaster the privilege to be the first watch to visit the moon.

Racing

Perhaps no other human activity has embraced watches more passionately than motorsports, after all, a race driver must beat the clock before facing the other competitors on the track.

In the 1910s -20s, the Swiss watchmaker Heuer was already the leading company in the production of sports stopwatches. In 1933, Heuer released the dashboard chronograph series Autavia (AUTos + AVIAation), and this equipment quickly became the standard chronograph for all the major rally and race teams.

The actor-turned-race driver Steve McQueen, wearing the iconic Heuer Monaco chronograph, during the making of the 1970 movie “Le Mans”

While co-drivers and crew members loved their dashboard-mounted stopwatches, the drivers always preferred to have theirs integrated with the wristwatch. Through the last years of the 1960s, Heuer, in association with Breitling and Hamilton, developed an engineering marvel, a self-winding watch-chronograph movement, called Chrono Matic. Together, they seized the moment and created iconic models that became the timekeepers of the golden age of motorsports.

The American actor and race driver, Paul Newman, wearing his beloved Rolex Daytona. This very watch became the most expensive Rolex ever sold when in 2017, a collector paid $17.1 million for it.

Other brands like Rolex, Omega, and Longines followed the trend, making race-inspired watches one of the most important segments in the horology world.

Conquering the oceans

A professional diver proudly shows her Bell & Ross BR03-92.

In the underwater activities, the role played by the watch is similar to the role it played in the early stages of aviation. It is more than just keeping time, it is keeping its user alive.

The necessity of a reliable timekeeper for diving came as early as the 17th century. The hard hat divers used to attach common pocketwatches inside the helmet to keep time spent underwater, but obviously, this wasn’t the most practical solution. In the early 20th century, dust/water resistant watches could be custom made for some special customers, usually called Explorer watches, but they were far from being waterproof.

The Rolex Oyster

In 1926, the Swiss watchmaker Rolex presented the Oyster, with a hermetically sealed case, considered to be the first waterproof wristwatch.

On October 7, 1927, the new Rolex was put to a test, the English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze crossed the English Channel with an Oyster hanging around her neck. After 10 hours in the water, the Rolex came out perfectly sealed.

The Oyster became the “father” of all other dive watches that came after since they all share similar concepts, but Omega had the honour to create the first commercially successful dive watch, the Marine, released in 1932 (picture above).

In many cases, the diver’s life depends on the accuracy and reliability of the chosen watch. Since it holds such a responsibility, a dive watch must go under a series of trials before being certified for specific depths.

It is impossible to talk about diving and not talk about one of my childhood heroes, Jacques Cousteau. In 1943, the French oceanographer created the scuba diving suit, opening the doors of underwater exploration to the average adventurer.

During the 1960s and 70s, his TV shows, picturing his incredible adventures around the world, onboard the ship “Calypso”, helped to propel the popularity of scuba diving.

It is fair to say that Cousteau also helped to make dive watches popular. His favourite brand was the Swiss watchmaker Doxa, he loved the watches so much that he even became an “authorized dealer”, selling them through his company, U.S. Divers.

Cousteau started his career as an officer in the French Navy and later he became an inventor, scientist, explorer, and filmmaker. He spent his life showing us the magnificent beauty of the oceans but more importantly, he showed us the fragility of the underwater ecosystems. He died at the age of 87, in 1997, but his legacy lives on through the Cousteau Foundation, a non-profit organization involved in the conservation of marine life and preservation of tropical coral reefs.

The quartz revolution

By the end of the 1950s, the world was experiencing the beginning of the digital revolution, also known as The Third Industrial Revolution. Engineers were creating a whole new array of electronic components that would deeply change the future of the industry in general.

In 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first quartz watch in the world (picture above). The main difference is: while a mechanical watch relies on a balance wheel, which oscillated at, perhaps, 5 or 6 beats per second, this new Seiko uses a quartz crystal resonator that vibrates 8,192 Hz, which means the new Astron was much more accurate than any mechanical watch.

The embodiment of the cheap and reliable electronic watches of 1980: The Casio digital.

The advantages of the quartz watch go beyond the accuracy, it is lighter and more resistant to impacts, and since it is simpler to build, it is cheaper to buy.

By 1980, the watch market was flooded with hundreds of new electronic models, driving the once-powerful Swiss watchmakers to the brink of extinction. To survive, they had to join forces, adopt the new technology, and rely on something the Japanese quartz watchmakers could never provide: tradition and status.

Cell phone, the fiercest competitor

The affordable “quartz watch” throve in the 1980s and 1990s, but as soon as the cell phone services became more affordable and reliable in early 2000, the necessity of having a timekeeping device strapped around the wrist became redundant, since that little phone people now have in their pockets also shows the time.

With the advent of smartphones, the situation of the wristwatch became pretty dire. The phone has more accurate time, and automatically switches time zones, it has a built-in stopwatch and alarm clock (besides everything else, of course). For the younger generations, it is much more important owning the latest smartphone on the market than an expensive wristwatch.

Surviving the hard times

Jay Leno has an amazing taste for cars and watches, but a questionable fashion sense, like most of the car guys.

The watchmakers are constantly learning how to adapt to survive, if the traditional wristwatch lost its relevance as a timekeeper, the industry has been marketing it as a desirable man’s jewellery. The watch shifted its status from an useful tool to an accessory, something like the final touch of a well-dressed man.

Celebrities are always happy not only to show their watch collections but also to become “brand ambassadors”.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect example, the British actor became involved with the Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre during the recording of the 2016 movie Dr. Strange. Cumberbatch, who is a scuba diver and watch aficionado, gladly accepted the role of the brand ambassador.

The long-established connection between watchmakers and motorsports remains strong. Most of the Formula One teams have partnerships with either traditional or independent watch brands.

In 2021, Ferrari signed a multi-year agreement with Richard Mille, a fairly new Swiss watchmaker, founded in 2001.

Richard Mille is becoming a powerhouse in motorsports, the company has its own racing team, competing in the LMP2 class at the World Endurance Championship.

Conclusion

Tissot Alpine

A whole lot of things that we, the old timers, used to hold dear are losing their importance, not only watches. As I am writing the last lines of this post, on my cell phone, while waiting for for my bus, I totally understand how much the world has changed. The younger generations have different priorities.

The wristwatch represents something nostalgic, a throwback to a simpler time, but for some of us, it is more than that, a good quality mechanical watch is a machine in its purest form, a multitude of gears, pins, and springs, working harmoniously without any help of electronics. Usually encapsulated by a beautifully designed case.

For those with deep pockets, wearing a good watch instead a “smartwatch” is like driving a 1968 Miura instead a Tesla. It not about practicality, it is about style.

Chasing a Spy Plane

The Cold War was a dark period in history when humanity came, for so many times, too close to total annihilation. When this “war” came to an end, in 1991, the danger of a nuclear Armageddon became a thing of the past and now we can, in a more relaxed way, look back at some of the amazing war machines that were created by the Americans and the Soviets during that time.

Some military airplanes were so well designed that even after over 60 years of entering service, they are still on active duty.

One of those planes is the mythological Lockheed U2, this spy plane was born with a very elementary mission, to fly over enemy territory at 70,000 ft (21,300 meters), out of the reach of any fighter jet or anti-aircraft missile at the time.

Lockheed Aircraft Corp. created a jet plane with a very simple design that looks more like a glider, narrow fuselage and 103 ft of wingspan. To save space and weight, the landing gear also looks like the one you will find in gliders, only two sets mounted in tandem, also known as “bicycle” gear.

To take off, a pair of smaller wheels are placed close to the tips of the wings, but as soon as the plane lifts off, those wheels are jettisoned.

The Dragon Lady, coming back from another flight to the edge of space.

The prototype flew in August 1955 and a year later it came into service, the pilots nicknamed it The Dragon Lady.

The U2 is an unforgiving plane to fly, the lack of assisted commands and the bicycle stile landing gear make the landing a very complicated process. The ideal procedure is to bring the plane very close to the ground, around 2 ft (0,60m) and then stall it, safely touching the tarmac. But there is a problem: the pilot can’t precisely know how close to the ground the plane is, and if he stalls the plane at a higher altitude than 2 ft, the landing gear might brake because it has no shock absorbers.

The plane was called the most difficult-to-land machine in the US Air Force inventory. After numerous accidents at the beginning of the active service, the U2 pilots came up with a very interesting solution: a team member would follow the approaching plane in a car, informing the pilot by radio how far off the ground the plane is, and that was how the U2 chase cars were born.

The Country Squire.

Since the Dragon Lady comes down to the runway at 140 Mph, the chasing car must have some muscles. The first choice was the 1956/57 Ford Station Wagons, called Country Squire, as seen in the picture above. The U2 program was highly classified, therefore, finding information about those cars can be a bit frustrating, but an exchange of emails between the retired US Air Force Major Tommy Douglas and the hot rod website The Jalopy Journal shed a light on the subject.

Let’s hear from the man himself:

I’m retired Major Tommy Douglas from the US Air Force. I’m also a car junkie and have been ever since I can remember. I’m emailing you because I thought you would find my history a little interesting given our shared passions.

In 1954, I participated in a car project for the Air Force. Myself and three or four others were given the task of finding and preparing a car to be used as a chase vehicle for the then top-secret U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was a complicated aircraft to land due to its huge wingspan and bicycle landing gear. Pilots don’t necessarily land the U-2. Instead, they fly it to about 2′ off the ground and then stall it. And they do this blindly, so spotters are needed at each wingtip to call altitude.

The two cars we procured were to hold these spotters and needed to be capable of speeds of up to 120mph – just under the approach speed of the U-2. They also had to have enough cargo room to hold the detachable pogo gears that go on the wingtips of the aircraft and allow for taxiing.

“At the time, the best vehicle for the job was a 1956 or ’57 Ford Station Wagon. It was anemic in stock form, but we were hot rod guys and took care of that easy enough.”

The McCoulloch supercharger

We had two wagons on base. The first was powered by a 312 with a McCulloch supercharger on it. I don’t remember exactly where we sourced that motor, but I think we took it out of a factory Fairlane provided by Ford. It was fast, but the driver’s timing with the U-2 pilot had to be perfect to get the spotter in an ideal position.

The second wagon had a supercharged Mercury engine in it. I believe that one came from a NASCAR shop in Florida, but I don’t have any specific memory of it. That car was really fast and gave the driver a little more cushion for error.

“I don’t recall doing anything to the brakes. We had a really long and wide “landing strip” at the time and the U-2 skidded down this strip for quite a ways, giving us plenty of time to slow down. Worse came to worse, we could just swing out wide and coast to a stop”.

“I do remember lots of “testing” on that runway with those cars. There might have been some shenanigans, but no pictures. The base we used had pretty tight security.”

(The Major’s account is part of the post “Chasing The U2″, published by The Jalopy Journal, April20, 2020.

https://www.jalopyjournal.com/?p=44773

N.E. – The 312 was the biggest displacement Ford “Y” block in 1956/57. The McCulloch supercharger was part of the Ford performance catalog and could be ordered and installed at any dealership. Since it was considered “OEM” part, the supercharger was allowed to be used in NASCAR.

El Camino.

 In the 1960s the Cold War was in full throttle, the U2 spy plane was being operated not only by the Air Force but also by the CIA. As the program saw a spike in the number of missions, the Ford wagons were replaced by a pair of Chevy El Caminos. They were just perfect for the mission, it performs like a muscle car and has a very spacious bed for all the U2 related junk.

Two 1968 El Caminos were ordered, powered by the 396 big-block V8, cranking up 325 hp, more than enough for the mission, but no AC. Some people will tell the cars were SS models, but it might not be the case, the SS came standard with Rally wheels and what we see in the photos looks more like a “plain Jane” big block El Camino.

The cars were painted the Air Force standard blue paint and later on, the roof was painted white in an attempt to divert some of the blazing Arizona sun (the first operational U2 base was Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ), but that alone wasn’t enough to keep the El Camino crew from baking inside the diminutive cabin and an RV style roof AC unit added to them. When the U2 base was transferred to California, in the 1970s, they received a pair of new body style El Camino.

The Mustang

When the time to replace the El Caminos came, in the 1980s, the muscle-car scene was a lot different, the oil crisis of 1973 brought the segment to the brink of extinction.

The Air Force was once again looking for a cheap, high-performance car but the market in the 1980s offered far fewer options than in the 1960s. The answer came in 1985 when they borrowed a Ford Mustang from the California Highway Patrol for some tests. Of course, the car was not your average 5.0 Fox Body, it was an SSP (special service package), with all the good stuff you can find in a police cruiser car.

The Air Force loved it, the Mustang became the U2 chase car for the next decade, and more than 20 units were bought during that time, some of them were sent to bases in Europe and Asia.

This is the only surviving U2 chaser Mustang, a 1988 coupe. The car was bought by a collector and went through a complete restoration process.

The Mustangs were equipped with the legendary 5.0 litres V8 (302 CID) small-block, able to produce between 180 and 225 HP, depending on the year. It was less powerful than the El Camino but it handled a lot better. The lack of room in the Mustang trunk was a problem and the Air Force had to dispatch a pickup truck to get the “pogo” landing gear after each take-off.

Back to General Motors

Even after the end of the Cold War, the U2 operations didn’t stop. As missions advanced into the 1990s, the Mustang was replaced by the fourth-gen Camaro in B4C-specs (police cruiser specs).

During the early 2000s, the Camaros were replaced by Australian sourced Pontiac GTO/G8. For the U2 pilots, those Aussie Ponchos became one of the all-time favourite chase cars.

As the U2 operations became less and less “secret” after the years, videos and photos of the chase cars became abundant on the Internet. As we can see, the fifth and sixth-generation Camaro has been the primary choice for the mission but some Dodge Chargers can also be seen.

The future of the Dragon Lady.

In 2019 the US Air Force came under heavy fire after whistleblowers made public some details about a U2 mission: the team was to be deployed to RAF Mildenhall station, in Suffolk, England, for what seemed to be a routine mission if wasn’t for one little detail: by August 2019, the Air Force was getting ready to airlift two Dodge Charger chasers to Mildenhall Air Base. Assuming the transport would be performed by a C17 Globemaster, that little round trip would have cost the taxpayer the modest amount of US$ 380,000.00.

-“What? Don’t you think the Brits might have fast cars that could perform the chase duty?” -“Wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy 2 brand new Chargers over there and then simply abandon the cars once the mission was over? – “Since we are burning money, why not buy 2 F-type Jaguars? It would still be cheaper than shipping those damn Chargers!” Well, among the many questions the taxpayers might have, one is very pertinent: Why does the Air Force keep flying this ancient airplane when the satellite technology is so advanced? To its defense, the Air Force says the U2 can be redeployed to different missions faster than satellites can be rearranged.

Since the U2 cockpit is not pressurized, the pilot must wear a “spacesuit”.

As useful as the Dragon Lady still is, the government has been slowly phasing out the program. According to the Air Force, the reason is purely budgetary.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk

It might sound crazy to dress a pilot like an astronaut, shove him inside a cramped cockpit and send the guy on a 10-hour long mission, flying on the edge of space in a 1950s era airplane. The U2 was supposed to be replaced by the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a modern, high altitude surveillance drone, but even being 43 years older than the RQ-4, the U2 still can fly 10,000 ft higher than the drone.

Whatever the future of the Dragon Lady might be, the plane certainly is a very interesting chapter in the history of military aviation. The cars that performed the chasing duty throughout the U2 career represent the birth, the peak, the near death, and the resurrection of the Muscle Car movement.

It is only natural for whoever likes speed and the sound of engines, to have an interest not only in cars but airplanes as well, as a friend of mine used to say: “Why do we like cars so much? Just because it is too expensive to have a jet fighter in the garage“.

A NASA-operated U2, followed by its Charger chase car.

As for the U2 spy plane, it is nothing short of amazing how the program brought together planes and cars, interacting with each other so harmoniously.

When NASCAR Went to Le Mans

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most traditional and prestigious motor race in history. Every year, since 1923, the best race teams and drivers from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to the Circuit de la Sarthe, located in the city of Le Mans, France, for a gruesome 24 hours race, where everything is tested beyond the limits: the skills and physical strength of the drivers, the tactics of the teams, and the speed and reliability of the cars. The event is part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, with the other two races being the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.

The Corvette winner of the 1960 Le Mans GT class. This is an accomplishment that deserves a post here at TCM.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been, mostly, a European gathering, but we all know how much the Americans love to crash that party. From the Hemi-powered Cunningham roadsters and Corvettes to the smashing victories of the Shelby-Ford cars in the 1960s, the American Iron has been a constant presence in the race, but in 1976, the French crowd saw something a bit different from the land of Uncle Sam.

The 1970s oil crisis.

Before we move forward, let’s take a look at the events that triggered some radical changes in the world of motorsports in the 1970s: At the beginning of 1973, the oil producers countries in the Middle East imposed an embargo against the Western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As a result, the price of crude oil rose 300%, causing a severe economic depression around the world.

As one can imagine, motorsports started to lose its magic, it makes no sense to see race teams burning thousands of gallons of gas over the weekend when the average citizens couldn’t afford to fuel up their own cars. On top of that, many racing organizations around the world began to impose some restrictions to save fuel, making the sport less appealing. The rising cost of fuel and maintenance forced some privateers and small teams to quit racing altogether.

The Ford Torino driven by David Pearson finished the 24 Hours of Daytona in 16th overall and first in the NASCAR class, in 1976.

At NASCAR, all the races were shortened by 10% in length and the organizers were imposing restrictions on the use of big blocks engines.

Facing a decline in the number of cars on the grid, some race venues started to invite teams from other classes. In the 1976 edition of the 24 hours of Daytona, 8 NASCAR teams competed among the IMSA sports cars.

The negative effects of the oil embargo were more deeply felt in North America but in Europe, life was becoming increasingly hard as well. For the 1975 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the organizers imposed a new rule, no car should be allowed to refuel before completing 20 laps, and the size of the fuel tanks was also restricted. The idea was to force the teams to bring more fuel-efficient cars to the grid. To make matters worse, FIA removed the race from the Sports Car World Championship calendar, and big names like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Matra just dropped from the competition.

The Le Mans organizers had to find a way to fill up those empty spots and by mid-1975, they called NASCAR big boss Bill France Sr. with an interesting idea, an exchange of classes between Le Mans and the 24 hours of Daytona, since Mr. “Big Bill” also owned Daytona Speedway.

A 1969 Ford Torino, blossoming into a NASCAR racer.

The idea was to spice up the race, they didn’t want to bring only the sports cars from IMSA to Le Mans, the invitation was extended to the top three NASCAR finishers at the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona.

This new class was called Grand International and its debut was scheduled for the 1976 edition of Le Mans. The good old boys from NASCAR were amazed, they would be going to race in some fairy tale city, in France, against a bunch of toy cars. They would be not only representing the star and the stripes but also showing to the rest of the world the most traditional and grassroots motor race in North America.

The Teams

The teams that finished Daytona in first and second position were unable to go to Le Mans but the guys who finished in third place, owner/driver Herschel McGriff and his son Doug, accepted the challenge, with a Dodge Charger, sponsored by Olympia Beer. The second team had to be picked, NASCAR chose the privateer Junie Donlavey with a Ford Torino, to be driven by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Le Mans and NASCAR paid for all the teams’ expenses.

The drivers going to France actually had some solid experience outside of the circle-track, Hutcherson was part of the Ford team that beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, he finished third overall that year. The Torino guys also invited the French driver Marcel Mignot, who happened to be a driver instructor at Le Mans.

At the age of 90, Hershel McGriff became the oldest driver to compete in NASCAR when 2018, he participated in a couple of races at Tucson Speedway.

Another outstanding driver was Hershel McGriff, he remembers the reason he went to Le Mans in 1976: I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons they chose our team to go to France, I won the Carrera Panamericana in 1950 when was I only 22 years old, won 14 stock-car events at Riverside (road course) and ran the 24 hours of Daytona. So they knew I was capable on a road course because I wasn’t just a circle-track guy.” Keep in mind that McGriff wasn’t chosen, he qualified for Le Mans.

The Charger

The McGriff/Olympia Beer team chose the third-generation Dodge Charger (1971-74) to race in France; at this point, Dodge had already released the fourth-gen Charger, a dull-looking car that not even the most fanatic Mopar guy can remember, therefore the teams racing Dodge decided to stick with the older model.

The decision to take a Charger to France was a bit odd since Hershel himself was more like a Chevy guy. He qualified for Le Mans driving a Nova (picture above), but the team thought the Charger was aerodynamically sleeker than the Chevy.

The Olympia Charger at the pits, in Le Mans. Note the headlights were protected with tape during the daytime.

The engine that powered the car remains a bit of mystery, some of the information found on websites say it was the 426 Hemi, but according to McGriff it wasn’t, it was a 426 Max Wedge. Just like any other NASCAR stocker, the Charger was equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission.

The Torino

The Ford Torino that went to Le Mans has a very interesting story, the car was completely restored a few years ago by Rhine Enterprise and during the process, the technicians found out the car is a 1969 model that had all the body panels replaced to look like a 1975 model. That was a widely used practice back then; the teams would go to the extreme of morphing a “B” body Mopar into a Ford Torino (and vice-versa) just swapping body panels (and the engine, of course).

Finding information about the engine that equipped the Le Mans Torino can be confusing as well, many sites will tell the car was equipped with a “Boss” 429, but according to Rhine Enterprise, the engine was a 358 small block “Cleveland”. The picture above shows the engine bay after the restoration and as you can see, it is not a “Boss” 429.

At Le Mans

Upon arrival at Le Mans, the two stockers immediately became the stars of the show, the European fans just couldn’t get enough of the cars, they fell in love with the badass attitude and the thunderous sound of the V8s.

According to sportswriter Randy Hallman, the cars and teams were swarmed. “From the moment they arrived in France, the hulking Detroit beasts created a stir, fans flocked around the cars wherever they went. Indeed, they looked as out of place as if they’d been beamed down from some hovering starship–and got almost as much attention.

According to Hallman, car-owner Donlavey said just prior to the start of the race, “Everywhere we go, and I mean everywhere, there’s a big crowd following us. They took our car and Herschel’s on a parade through downtown Le Mans–right through the main square. It was so crowded, people were pressed against the cars on both sides.”

The French media affectionately called them Les Deux Monstres or The Two Monsters.

Among many interesting stories about that weekend, there is a rumor that McGriff brought a few cases of Olympia beer disguised as “lubricant”. When asked about it, he neither confirm nor deny: “I think that’s probably true,” he notes with a smile, “Didn’t drink much of it myself, but used to give a lot of it away when they were my sponsor.”

McGriff, jumping out of his Charger.

At the first drivers meeting, the others teams required the “big American cars” should be equipped with side-view mirrors, and they were promptly installed. The two cars were also fitted with tail lights, headlights, windshield wipers, and radio equipment.

The gas problem

The biggest problem faced by the Americans was the low octane French gasoline, they knew the 102 “race gas” couldn’t be found at Le Mans and both teams ordered low compression engines for the race, set up for 92 octanes. Later on, they found out that the gas available there was somewhere around 85/87 octanes. The Olympia team tried to install one extra head gasket to lower even more the compression but it was noticeable the big block Mopar was not enjoying the diet of crappy gasoline. McGriff melted a couple of engines during practice and qualifying.

The Torino was, somehow, doing ok, and even with the gas issue, both cars were among the fastest at the Mulsanne straight, blowing off those tiny Porsches as they stormed down at 300 plus Km/h, only to see them catching up again after a couple of turns.

The NASCAR boys did what they could but it isn’t easy to make those big and heavy cars go through all the corners of Le Mans, McGriff and the Charger qualified 47th out of 55 cars. Hutcherson and the Torino qualified 55th, the very last car on the grid.

The Race

Saturday, June 12, 1976, it was a glorious sunny morning. The NASCAR big boss, Bill France Sr. was there and his son, Bill Jr., had the honor to wave the starting flag. The expectations were high, it was supposed to be the first of many races with cars from IMSA, NASCAR, and the European GT racing together.

Unfortunately, the stokers didn’t live up to the fanfare, the Charger’s engine blew up after 2 laps, being officially the very first car to abandon the race.

The Torino bravely survived for 11 hours when the transmission gave up, and that was the end of the NASCAR presence at Le Mans.

It was very frustrating, no doubt about it, as Hershel McGriff recalls: “We didn’t do a good job of representing the class, and maybe that’s why it didn’t run a second year. If we’d have run the whole race, and finished, maybe it could’ve worked.”

McGriff at the wheel of his “snowplow” Camaro, Le Mans 1982.

Besides the fiasco, both teams enjoyed the experience and the affection of the French fans. NASCAR never returned to Le Mans but McGriff did, he was part of a team that raced two small-block Camaros in 1982. His car had transmission problems but they managed to finish the race, the other Camaro finished 17th overall and second in the GTO IMSA class. Not bad at all.

  • Note of the editor: You can find some cool videos about Le Mans stockers on YouTube. While the Torino is (allegedly) the actual one that raced in 1976, the Charger is a “tribute car”, built in 2006 by the Frenchman and Mopar maniac Christophe Schwartz. At first, the clone was equipped with a 426 Hemi but in 2010 it received a correct 426 “Wedge” engine. When the Charger is not being raced in some classic car event throughout Europe, it patiently sits still in the Le Mans museum.
  • Note #2: Olympia beer still exists, the brand has a long history in connection with motorsports, for a while they sponsored the legendary stuntman, Evel Knievel.

Gilles Villeneuve

Why do we even bother? He is different from the rest of us. On a separate level” – Jacques Laffite, talking about Gilles Villeneuve.-

A few years ago I was chatting with some friends, we were casually listing a few great Formula One drivers when I said: – Gilles Villeneuve -, while most of the guys nodded their heads agreeing with me, one friend said: I just don’t understand all the fuss about Villeneuve, he didn’t win a single World Championship.

Even if my pal was being superficial in his comment, he wasn’t wrong, Villeneuve achieved only 6 victories during his 6 years in Formula One, with such a mediocre career, why do the fans still remember him as one of the greatest?

Joseph Gilles Henri Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, in the French-Canadian province of Quebec, on January 18, 1950. While most of the Formula-One drivers started their career racing go-karts, Villeneuve’s first love affair with speed was riding snowmobiles.

At the age of 19, he was already a professional racer and in 1974 he won the World Snowmobile Derby. It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that.

The skills he learned racing snowmobiles, set him apart from the other drivers when he decided to try racing cars. This is the kind of machine you have to “dive” the nose inside the turn and power slide the rear. This “drifting” style became his trademark throughout his career.

Villeneuve himself explains this experience:

Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I’m talking about being thrown onto the ice at 100 miles per hour. Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me from having any worries about racing in the rain”.

Villeneuve was also involved in drag racing, competing at local tournaments, which is also very unusual among F-One driver wannabes. He modified and raced the very first car he owned, a 1967 Ford Mustang coupe.

The Mustang still belongs to the Villeneuve family but it was abandoned in their backyard for decades.

The last information I have is the car was brought indoors in 2016 for a well-deserved restoration. Gilles was a Mustang guy, he owned quite a few of them.

Towards Formula-One

Villeneuve and his Magnum Formula Ford.

In 1973, with the little money he made racing snowmobiles, Villeneuve bought a second-hand Magnum Formula-Ford and started competing right away at the local Quebec F-Ford championship. He dominated the season, winning 7 out of 10 races, and also clinched “The Rookie of the Year” title.

Formula Atlantic

Villeneuve’s dominance of the season and his aggressive driving style certainly caught the attention of other teams. In 1974, with a little financial help from soft drink company Schweppes, he bought a Formula Atlantic car and started to compete. In the same year he won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.

Gilles driving his March F-Atlantic, 1975

The Formula Atlantic was, at that time, the most prestigious category in Canadian motorsports. The regulations are similar to the European Formula 3/2 and for that reason, there were plenty of manufacturers supplying the cars, like Brabham, Lotus, March, and Chevron. The machines were powered by 250HP, 1600cc production-based twin-cam engines, mostly Ford-Cosworth, however other engines like Alfa Romeo were also eligible.

The 1975 season was a real challenge, Gilles didn’t have the financial means to hire a mechanic and he performed the maintenance of his car all by himself. He won his first Atlantic race in 1975 at Gimli Motosport Park, racing in heavy rain.

In 1976, Gilles went to Chris Harrison’s Ecurie Canada race team and with the help of factory March engineer Ray Wardell, he dominated the season by winning all but one of the races and taking the US and Canadian titles.

Gilles also won a special F-Atlantic race, held in Trois-Rivières, on September 5, 1976, where he had the chance to compete against some of the top Formula One drivers, like James Hunt and Alan Jones. He not only won the race but set the best lap time of the weekend.

Impressed with Villeneuve’s performance, James Hunt used his influence within McLaren (he won the 1976 World Championship driving for the team) to strongly recommend the Quebecois to be one of their drivers for the 1977 season.

Gilles finished his Formula Atlantic years winning the Canadian championship in 1977, and in the same year, McLaren offered him a position as its third driver. Villeneuve lied about his age, with 27 years he was considered a bit too old for a rookie in F-One, so he told them he was 25.

Formula-One

Villeneuve made his debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, starting the race in 9th, driving the old McLaren M23, while James Hunt and Jochen Mass drove the newer version, the M26s. He finished the race in the 11th position after being delayed for two laps by a faulty temperature gauge.

Villeneuve at Silverstone, 1977.

Judging by the numbers, it wasn’t a phenomenal debut race but the media and the drivers knew there was something special about Gilles, the Canadian had what it takes to be a future champion.

Right after the British GP, Villeneuve was told by the team manager, Teddy Mayer, that McLaren decided not to renew his contract for 1978, alleging the Canadian could become a bit expensive. They hired Patrick Tambay instead. Gilles still has 7 races remaining before the end of the season and after that, he would be jobless.

Luckily Villeneuve was on the Ferrari’s radar for a while and in August 1977 he flew to Maranello to talk with Enzo Ferrari. The meeting was a success, Enzo pretty much fell in love with Gilles, his diminutive stature and his outspokenness immediately reminded the “Commendatore” of Tazio Nuvolari, a very popular Italian champion from the 1930s. Here is how the big boss Enzo Ferrari describes the meeting:

“When they presented me with this ‘piccolo Canadese’ (little Canadian), this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognized in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let’s give him a try.”

Villeneuve at the Canadian GP, 1977

Things were moving fast, Villeneuve signed the contract and for the last two races of 1977 (Canada and Japan), he was already driving the gorgeous Ferrari 312T. (photo above).

For Gilles, it was like a dream come true, as he described: “If someone said to me that you can have three wishes, my first would have been to get into racing, my second to be in Formula 1, my third to drive for Ferrari…”

1978 season.

The first whole season driving for Ferrari was somehow a period of adaptation for Villeneuve, his best results were a third position at the Austrian GP and a memorable first victory at the Canadian GP, which was enough to elevate him to “hero” status in his home country. Some of the die-hard Ferrari fans in Italy asked the team to replace Gilles with a more seasoned driver but Enzo stood by his choice.

1979 season.

The next season proved to be a very competitive one indeed, Mario Andretti and Lotus Team lost the dominance they enjoyed during the previous year but they were still among the favourites. Other strong contenders were Williams, Ligier, Renault, and of course, Ferrari.

During 1979, Gilles Villeneuve consolidated his reputation as a daredevil driver, his “take no prisoners” driving style was making him popular, he would drive any lap like it was his last, even if sometimes it cost him the chance to finish the race.

Villeneuve was one of the pioneers of the “power shift”, he mastered the art of shifting gears while keeping his right foot at full throttle and using the clutch to control the oversteering. Once he wrote a telegram to Enzo Ferrari saying: “Ingegnere, yesterday I tried very hard to break one of the drive axles of the car and I just couldn’t. Congratulations”.

Gilles even used to disable the rev limiter of the car and make the engine spin at 14,000 plus RPM during the power slides. To the mechanics he was a butcher, to the fans he was an artist.

Gilles Villeneuve celebrates victory on the podium with third place Alan Jones. April 08, 1979, Long Beach, United States of America.

1979 was the best season of Villeneuve’s career, he won in South Africa, Long Beach, and Watkins Glenn, and finished in second in France, Austria, and Italy. He collected enough points to end the season in second, behind his teammate Jody Scheckter. Ferrari won the constructor’s world championship, closing a very successful decade for the “Maranello boys”. Ferrari wouldn’t see another driver world title until 1994 when Schumacher started his winning streak.

Here are some of the highlights of the season:

Dutch GP

Villeneuve fiercely battled Alan Jones from the start for P1 and he finally got the lead at lap 10. The Canadian was managing to keep Jones at bay and it seemed he would win the race but on lap 51, just after passing the pits, his left rear tire exploded and he spun the Ferrari. He regained control of the car and just kept going, he drove an entire lap with only two tires touching the pavement, the right front was in the air and the left rear was shredding rubber and sparking with the pavement, halfway through the lap, the rear wheel, still attached to the hub, just fell off the car. When Gilles pulled over at the pits, he tried to convince the mechanics to simply replace the wheel and tire so he could go back and continue the fight for the lead. For this stunt, Villeneuve was equally praised as a warrior that never gives up and criticized as an irresponsible driver who unnecessarily put lives at risk.

French GP

If there is one race that sums up Villeneuve’s career, certainly is the French GP, 1979. During the final 4 laps of the race, Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Rene Arnoux (Renault), fought one of the most intense battles in the history of Formula-One.

The turbocharged Renault had been plagued with reliability issues since the beginning of the season, but the team was working hard to improve the cars. By the time of the French GP, most of the problems were pretty much fixed and the whole team was focused on winning the race in their home country. Jean Pierre Jabouille made the pole position but Villeneuve jumped in P1 at the start and managed to lead the race until lap 46 when he was passed by Jabouille.

The Renault cars were performing superbly that day, on lap 76 Rene Arnoux passed Villeneuve and the French crowd went wild. That would be the most complete French victory ever: 2 Renaults, driven by two French drivers, riding on French tires (Michelin), and burning French fuel (Elf) were about to finish the French GP in 1-2.

But Villeneuve was willing to rain on the French parade, the Canadian knew he had no chances to fight for the lead, but he was determined to hold his ground on P2. Better than reading about the duel is watching it.

The fight is remembered by the fans as one of the most memorable pieces of racing in Formula One. Villeneuve, who crossed the finish line less than a quarter of a second ahead of Arnoux, later described the occasion as “my best memory of Grand Prix racing”.

The battle didn’t change their friendship.

Italian GP

The Renault cars were fast enough to qualify in the front row, but not fast enough to break away from the Ferraris. Throughout the race, both teams exchanged positions until Arnoux and Jabouille retired with mechanical problems, leaving Scheckter in first and Villeneuve in second.

Scheckter, Villeneuve, and Laffite. Monza 1979

Before the start of the race, the Ferrari’s team manager told Gilles to disregard Scheckter’s status as the #1 driver and fight him for a better position, after all, both drivers had a good chance to win the championship.

From left to right: Jody Scheckter, Clay Regazzoni, and behind the bottle of champagne, Gilles Villeneuve. Monza, 1979.

Villeneuve decided to respect the hierarchy and he didn’t challenge his teammate. Scheckter won the race and the driver’s title, Villeneuve finished the race in second place. That was a smashing victory for the Maranello team, on their home turf, but the race also was the only chance Villeneuve ever had to win an F-One championship.

Watkins Glenn

It was pouring rain during Friday practicing and Gilles was easily outperforming all the other drivers, as Scheckter recollected: “I scared myself rigid that day. I thought I had to be quickest. Then I saw Gilles’s time and — I still don’t really understand how it was possible. Eleven seconds faster!”

When the race started on Sunday, there was a 50% chance of rain, and the pavement was still wet, most of the teams decided to go with grooved tires. Villeneuve jumped in P1s and was leading the race comfortably. As the pavement was getting dry, on lap 25, most of the cars came in for slicks, except the three leaders, Villeneuve, Jones and Arnoux. At this point, Williams instructed Alan Jones to “drop the hammer” and he started to close the gap, taking off two seconds per lap. By lap 31, Jones passed Villeneuve, and kept the pace, opening 3.1 seconds per lap. Ferrari called Gilles to the pits on lap 34 for a fresh set of slicks, when he returned to the track, he was 39.5 seconds behind Jones.

Now it was Jones’s turn for a tire swap, he came to the pits on lap 37. The crew responsible for the right rear wheel was having a hard time removing it off the car and they were a couple of seconds behind the other guys. When the crew chief saw the mechanics that were working on the other 3 rims raising their arms, he ordered the jacks off and Jones stormed off the pits before the right rear wheel had been locked tight. The wheel came off the car even before he reached the track.

With Alan Jones out of the race, Villeneuve easily won it, securing second place in the 1979 driver’s championship.

1980 season

Villeneuve was the favourite to win the championship that year but the engineers at Maranello faced a very complicated situation: for 1980, the “ground effect” cars were allowed back to the grid and most of the teams developed new chassis for the season.

A “ground effect” car requires a big “air venturis” or air tunnels, on both sides of the car, all the way to the rear, and around the engine. For the teams running the narrow Ford-Cosworth V8, it was a relatively simple task to develop new chassis, but for Ferrari, running the extra-wide flat-12 engine, was impossible.

Ferrari was working on a much smaller 1.5 litre, turbocharged engine but it wasn’t ready yet, and the engineers had to deal with whatever they had available.

Gilles Villeneuve at Mont Tremblant Canadian GP. He finished the race in 5th place.

They came up with the T5, a semi-ground effect car with an overall performance way below the competitors. The season was a total disappointment for Ferrari, Gilles finished it in 14th and Scheckter in 19th.

1981 season

1981 was the first year of the Ferrari “flamethrower” turbo engine.

Jody Scheckter retired from professional racing at the end of the 1980 season, he was replaced by Didie Pirroni, a promising French driver, coming from Tyrrel.

Villeneuve was such an easy-going person, always nice with fans and reporters. He became the cool guy that everybody wanted to be around in the paddock. When Pirroni joined the team, Gilles was very welcoming: “(Villeneuve) had a little family at Ferrari but he made me welcome and made me feel at home overnight. He treated me as an equal in every way” – Didier Pirroni –

Gilles Villeneuve on the left and Didier Pirroni

Now Ferrari has two very different drivers, Villeneuve was more talented and faster than Pirroni but he was also too impulsive and sometimes erratic on track, on the other hand, Pirroni was calmer and more consistent.

Once again Ferrari let its drivers down, the new 126C wasn’t exactly new, most of the chassis design was a carryover from the year before. The new 1.5 litre, V6 turbocharged engine was able to produce almost 700 HP, making the car as fast as a rocket on a straight line, but very awkward on turns. This is how Villeneuve described the new Ferrari: “A hopeless fast red Cadillac”. “You put on new tires, and it is OK for four laps,” after that, forget it.”

This new Ferrari was a very difficult car to drive, to say the least, and the sheer talent of Villeneuve alone wouldn’t be enough to bring good results for the team. The Canadian only finished 6 out of 15 races of the season, closing the championship in 7th place; a better position than the previous year but still very disappointing.

Against all odds, Gilles brilliantly won two races in 1981.

Monaco GP

The start of the 1981 Monaco GP. The picture shows the rear wing of the Piquet’s Brabham and Villeneuve in second place.

With too many cars signed up for the race, a pre-qualifying session was implemented to bring the number down to 26 competitors (good times indeed). In an astonishing performance, Villeneuve qualified in second, right behind the future World Champion Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian led the race until lap 53 when he lost control of his Brabham and crashed into a barrier at Tabac. Alan Jones (Williams) took the lead and it seemed unlikely Gilles would be able to challenge him.

Even driving a much better car (Williams), Alan Jones lost the P1 to Villeneuve.

Driving like a truly gifted driver, Villeneuve began to close in, and to the amazement of everybody, on lap 72 he passed Jones. Four laps later he received the checkered flag, proving that, sometimes, a bad car wouldn’t be enough to hold him back.

Spanish GP

Villeneuve managed to qualify in 7th place and the strategy for the race was pretty simple: pedal to the metal for as long as the new tires would last.

At the green light, Jacques Laffite, who was the pole-position, staled his Ligier-Matra, while Gilles blasted to the third position at the first corner, and even before the end of the first lap, he was already in P2. That was an amazing start of the race for the Canadian but Alan Jones was taking full advantage of his well-balanced Williams and built a 10 seconds lead over Villeneuve.

But Jones, too eager to secure P1, made a mistake on lap 14 and spun off at the Ascari chicane. Now, Villeneuve was leading the race, with Carlos Reutemann (Williams) in second, John Watson (McLaren) in third place.

Gilles now was desperately trying to keep the lead, he was taking full advantage of the turbo engine to break away from the pack on straights but on turns, they were all over him. The five front runners became a train of cars, nose-to-tail, until the end of the race.

Villeneuve, Laffite, and Watson, pretty darn close!

The drivers behind Gilles kept changing positions and it seems Jacques Laffite would inevitably win the race, for a few times, he pulled his Ligier side-by-side to Villeneuve just to see him slip away as the horsepower kicked in into another straight.

Many consider the 1981 Spanish GP as Villeneuve’s finest victory, even under tremendous pressure, he kept his impetuosity under control and drove like a master. That race was a sign of maturity, he was ready to become a world champion, all he needed was a better car.

Canadian GP

In Canada, that year, the world saw another “classic Villeneuve” stunt: The weather was cold and wet, and throughout the race, there were a lot of minor collisions going on.

Wing? What wing?

Close to the end of the race, Villeneuve clipped the rear of Andretti’s Alfa-Romeo, the front wing of his Ferrari flipped and got stuck right in front of the cockpit, obscuring his vision. Doing the opposite of any sensible driver would do, Gilles carried on, using his peripheral vision and knowledge of the circuit. The track Marshals didn’t black flag Villeneuve, perhaps waiting for him to pull over at the pits, which, obviously didn’t happen. At some point, the damaged part fell off the car and Gilles kept going, without the front wing, in the rain, finishing the race in the third position.

1982, the tragic year.

In this rare picture showing a “naked” 126C2, Gilles patiently waits for the mechanics to give their final touches.

Hopes were high at Ferrari for the next season, the team had hired Harvey Postlethwaite, a very experienced British engineer, he was working on a new chassis since early 1981, and the car was ready for the 1982 season. The new 126C2 had a more reliable turbo-engine and much-improved handling. Harvey made some remarks about the predecessor car, the 126C, and Villeneuve’s performance in 1981:

That car…had literally one-quarter of the downforce that, say Williams or Brabham had. It had a power advantage over the Cosworths for sure, but it also had massive throttle lag at that time. In terms of sheer ability, I think Gilles was on a different plane to the other drivers. To win those races, the 1981 GPs at Monaco and Jarama — on tight circuits — was quite out of this world. I know how bad that car was.”

: Gilles Villeneuve, at the well of his Ferrari 126C2, with double rear wing. It does look weird. Long Beach, 1982. Copyright: Rainer Schlegelmilch

1982 proved to be a dark year from the beginning, in Brazil, Villeneuve was leading the race when he lost control of the car and spun on lap 30. In the USA, he finished third but was later disqualified because Ferrari equipped the cars with a “double” rear wing, considered as a technical infringement.

There were rumours, at the time, that the once enchanting relationship with Ferrari had begun to deteriorate, thanks to the lack of good results and also to Villeneuve’s unrelenting punishment to the team’s cars. To Enzo, his cars were much more than just machines and Gilles had no finesse driving them.

The Villeneuve-Pirroni feud.

The fast Imola circuit was the perfect environment for the turbo cars, Ferrari and Renault were the favorite teams to win the race. At the start, Rene Arnoux (Renault) jumped into P1, with Villeneuve and Pirroni following. At lap 44, Arnoux retired with a blown engine, leaving the two Ferraris leading the race.

It seemed the Maranello guys had the race in their pockets, the crew manager ordered to hold out “slow” signs from the pit wall, to save fuel. Villeneuve, who was leading the race, understood both drivers should slow down, avoiding any fighting for the lead, but Pironi saw it as an opportunity. On lap 46, completely disregarding the orders, the Frenchman hit the gas and overtook Gilles. The battle for the lead, the very situation the team was trying to avoid, was now at had full throttle, 3 laps later, Villeneuve passed his teammate, taking the P1 once again. They changed position a few more times; as Villeneuve slowed down each time he took the lead, Pironi would overtake him again. Eventually, Pironi won the race and for Villeneuve that was nothing less than betrayal. After the race, still enraged with the situation, he spoke to a reporter:

I’ve declared war. Absolute war. Finishing second is one thing – I’d have been mad at myself for not being quick enough if he’d beaten me. But finishing second because the bastard steals it…”

Gilles vowed never to speak with Pirroni again. This animosity didn’t make things any better for either one of them and the team as well.

The end of a very short career.

Two weeks later, Villeneuve was blasting through the Zolder circuit, during the last minutes of the qualifying session for the Belgian GP. He had already worn out his second set of super sticky qualifying tires, he knew there was no time to go back to the pits for a fresh set. On his last flying lap, he failed to beat the time of Pironi, but instead of calling it quits and heading back to the pits, Gilles continued to go flat out, after all, it was “total war” against his teammate, and he couldn’t accept this partial defeat.

Halfway through the lap, Villeneuve exited a chicane (that nowadays bears his name) into a fast left-hand turn, as he was leaving it, he saw a much slower car ahead of him, right on the middle of the track. That car was Jochen Mass’s March.

In a split-second decision, Gilles chose to pass the car to the right, but at the same time, Mass veered his March to the same side, hoping to clear the left side of the track for the incoming Ferrari.

Villeneuve rear-ended Mass’s car at 200Km/h, his disintegrating Ferrari flipped over several times, throwing his body in the air and against the fence, on the other side of the track. Watching the terrifying video, it seems like he was shot from a catapult.

Jochen Mass left his car and run as fast as he could in a desperate attempt to do something, Arnoux, and Warwick did the same. They removed the body from the fence and waited for the medical team to arrive, there was nothing else they could do. Pirroni was also there, he grabbed the badly damaged Villeneuve’s helmet and walked back to the pits.

Gilles was taken to the nearby hospital by helicopter, once there, the doctors kept him alive until his wife Joann arrived and authorized the medical team to turn off the life support system.

It was the evening of Saturday, May 8, 1982, Enzo Ferrari told the team to pack the equipment and go back home.

The tragedies didn’t end at Zolder that year, Riccardo Paletti also lost his life in an accident at the start of the Canadian GP and Didier Pirroni survived a horrible crash during the qualifying session for the German GP, but his injuries put an end to his Formula -One career.

The Legend

Villeneuve’s meager numbers never prevented the fans to idolize him, for the Ferrari crowd he is as much a hero as if he had won a world championship.

The three-times world champion Niki Lauda, said during an interview in 2001, that Villeneuve was “the craziest devil I ever came across in Formula-One”. The drivers, at the time, had mixed feelings about the Canadian, some considered him just an inconsequent daredevil but for others, he was a champion in the making.

Villeneuve and Scheckter

Perhaps Jody Scheckter has better words to define Gilles: “I always worked very well with Gilles. We had an honest and open relationship, which was part of our success. There was no bullshit: if he made an adjustment and went quicker, he’d tell me and I would tell him. That’s what kept us in such a good relationship and was part of us winning the championship“. Jody thinks Villeneuve was honest to the point of being naive, perhaps that is the reason Villeneuve was so disappointed with Pirroni. Sheckter also thinks the crazy driver persona was staged: “I don’t think he tried to do things that put him in uncalculated danger. I think from that point of view he was a responsible driver. He always had this image of being crazy, and he wasn’t really. He was only crazy when he wanted to be, it was his image”.

We like to think that hasn’t the tragedy struck that day, Gilles would inevitably become World Champion; driving a Ferrari or any other car.

Gilles, his wife Joann and Jacques, at the Formula Atlantic paddock, 1977..

It was Gilles’s greatest fan, his son Jacques, that carried on the family’s racing legacy. The little kid that so very often accompanied his father at the race tracks, became a very talented and accomplished driver.

He understood that fast laps and crazy stunts don’t win championships, points do. He won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series, and in 1997 he became the first (and only to date) Canadian to win the Formula-One driver’s world championship.

Despite his brilliant career, F-One fans just don’t remember Jacques as one of the greatest, like we remember Gilles. Perhaps, for us, fast laps and crazy stunts can be even more important than winning world titles.

Gilles Villeneuve was one of a kind race driver, he can’t be compared with anyone else. His legacy still lives on, the Circuit Notre Dame Island in Montreal, the home of the Canadian Grand Prix, was renamed Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve, right after his death. Generations of drivers have been paying their respects to Canada’s greatest race drive, every time they see the message painted at the starting line: “Salut Gilles“.

The Bizarre Collision Between an American Carrier and a Soviet Submarine.

On the foggy morning of January 15, 2022, the American carrier USS Kitty Hawk departed from the Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton, Washington for its last voyage, the destination is a shipbreaking facility in Brownsville, Texas where the emblematic vessel is set to be scrapped.

Photo courtesy US Navy. Seaman Apprentice Sophia H. Brooks

The ship was decommissioned in 2009 and had been on standby ever since, waiting for a possible reactivation that never came. The Kitty Hawk was sold for a penny (literally) to The International Shipbreaking Ltd, the same facility responsible for breaking up three other US carriers: USS Ranger, USS Independence, and USS Constellation.

Like a ghost ship, the Kitty Hawk leaves Bremerton. Photo courtesy US Navy. Seaman Apprentice Sophia H. Brooks

Because of its enormous size, the ship won’t fit in the Panama Canal and it must be towed all the way around South America, in a 16.000 miles journey.

A F4 Phantom lands on USS Kitty Hawk after a mission over Vietnam, in 1966

This is the closing chapter in the history of the last oil-burning American aircraft carrier, the ship saw action in every major conflict that the USA was involved in since the Vietnam war and for this reason, it was affectionately called “The Fighting Kitten” or the “Battle Cat”.

When completed, back in 1959, the Kitty Hawk cost $264 million in 1961 money, equivalent to around $2.5 billion in 2021.

The ship left for its first operational cruise in August 1961, right before things started to go sour in Vietnam. During its 47 years of service, the “Battle Cat” carried a variety of interesting planes, like the F8U Crusader, F4 Phantom, the legendary F14 Tomcat, and even some experiments with the U2 spy plane.

The Kitty Hawk’s bustling deck, during the second invasion of Iraq.

Besides being involved in many wars, the Kitty Hawk was also part of some very interesting events, for example, in 1972, while still serving in Vietnam, racial tensions aboard the ship came to boiling point and became a riot, injuring as many as 60 sailors. The incident led the Navy to implement the UPWARD (Understanding Personal Worth and Racial Dignity) program, intended to raise racial awareness.

But it was in 1984 that the “Fighting Kitten” was involved in a very bizarre and dangerous incident.

An aerial view of the aircraft carrier USS KITTY HAWK (CV-63) and its battle group.

In March 1984, Kitty Hawk was participating in joint naval exercises called “Team-Spirit 84”, with South Korean forces, in the Sea of Japan. Thanks to the extremely volatile situation between North and South Korea, the ship spent around 10 years in the region, as a deterrent against any crazy idea from the “commies

During the peak of the Cold War, it was a common practice for the Soviet Navy to closely follow NATO ships and when I say “closely”, I really mean it. That was a good way to exercise tactics and maneuvers in a real-world environment and also to force the Americans to show any new weapons.

Things were not different on that occasion, the Soviets sent a few warships, airplanes, and the K-314, the Victor-Class nuclear attack submarine, to follow the Kitty Hawk and its 8 escort ships.

Before we proceed let’s take a look at these two magnificent machines involved in this surreal event.

The Kitty Hawk.

The ship was completed in 1959 and entered service in 1961, it was the first of the so-called “supercarriers”, an evolution of the ” Forrestal-class” carriers that fought in WWII.

The Battle Cat is a massive ship:

Length: 325.8 meters (1,068 ft)

Displacement: 83,300 tons (fully loaded)

Beam (width): 86 meters (282 ft)

Power comes from eight Foster Wheeler boilers, providing steam for the Westinghouse turbines, generating a total of 280,000 HP. All this power is then distributed to four propeller shafts, allowing the ship to sail at a max speed of 33 knots (61 Km/h).

The carrier is capable to transport 85 aircraft, some of them could be armed with nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 5,624 officers and seamen.

The K-134

The K-314 belongs to the “Yorsh” family of Soviet subs and code-named “Victor-class” attack submarine by NATO. Its primary mission is to intercept any kind of enemy ship. It is smaller, faster, and more maneuverable than a ballistic missile sub.

It was launched on September 05, 1972.

Length: 94.3 meters (309 ft)

Beam (width): 10 meters (32 ft 10 inc)

Displacement: 4,826 tons

The K-314 was powered by one pressurized water turbine, receiving heat from a VM-4 nuclear reactor core, generating 31,000 HP, enough power to propel the ship to a max speed of 32 knots (60 Km/h) submerged.

The details of the armament are classified but it was armed with torpedoes and nuclear missiles. The ship is manned by a crew of 94 officers and seamen.

The collision.

On March 14, the K-314 spotted the American armada and immediately started the chase. As soon as the captain of the “Battle Cat” got the sub on the sonar, he tried every trick he knew to break away from the Soviet sub. The two commanders kept playing this “cat and mouse” game for a whole week. Many times the Americans knew exactly where the K-314 was but sometimes it would simply disappear. The problem is the Sea of Japan is too shallow for maximum performance of the sonar equipment, and to make matters even worse, the region is constantly busy with the traffic of military and merchant ships, it can be a nightmare for the sonar operators.

At this point, the K-314 was also being chased by a submarine hunter Lockheed P-3 Orion.

In the early hours of March, 21, Captain Vladimir Evseenko lost track of the Americans, mostly due to bad weather. He decided to bring the sub to periscope depth, around 10 meters, to take a peek around but what he saw was probably the scariest thing ever: the Kitty Hawk at 4 maybe 5 kilometres away, steaming down at full speed, approaching the K-314 from the stern. He ordered emergency diving but it was too late, the collision was inevitable. Here is what happened, according to Captain Evseenko:

The first thought was that the conning tower had been destroyed and the submarine’s body was cut to pieces“. “We checked the periscope and antennas – they were in order. No leaks were reported, and the mechanisms were ok. Then suddenly another strike! On the starboard side! We checked again – everything was in order…. We were trying to figure out what happened. It became clear that an aircraft carrier had rammed us. The second strike hit the propeller. The first one, most likely, bent the stabilator.”

Onboard the Orion plane, the K-314 signal got mixed with the sound of the Kitty Hawk, they thought the sub was going under the carrier when they heard a loud bang and a screeching noise that lasted for long minutes. The crew looked at each other in disbelief.

Onboard the Battle Cat, the collision caught everybody by surprise, here is the story, told by Captain David N. Rogers:

I was on the bridge at the time of the incident, monitoring one of the two radars. “We felt a sudden shudder, a fairly violent shudder. We immediately launched two helicopters to see if we could render any assistance to them but the Soviet sub appeared to have suffered no extensive damage“.

News of the accident travelled fast, a seaman stormed into the mess room and shouted: “We run over the Ivans” and the whole room erupted in cheers.

This picture shows the damages on the K-314.

Captain Evseenko had no other option but to bring the K-314 to surface and wait for help. After daybreak, the Kitty Hawk sent the choppers again for some precious pictures, after all, it is not every day you have a Soviet sub sitting still right in front of you. There was no sign of radioactive material leaking and the ship was not sinking, but it was not seaworthy. A Soviet cruiser stood at its side, for protection, until the tug boats came and towed the crippled sub away.

The Kitty Hawk didn’t leave the scene unscathed, the collision opened a hole in its hull and a considerable amount of jet fuel poured into the ocean, the ship was making water, but not much and it was able to make it to the base on its own.

Later on, the maintenance crew found a big chunk of the K-314 propeller stuck on the carrier’s hull and the piece was kept as a trophy.

Conclusions.

Miraculously no one got hurt in the accident and there was no radioactive leakage. Both ships were armed with nuclear missiles but it was very unlikely that the collision would detonate the weapons since they need to be armed to pose any danger.

Even if a much bigger catastrophe didn’t materialize that morning, one can’t help but think: how could both captains let this happen? On the American side, there is a reasonable explanation: as dangerous as those exercises were, it was a peacetime operation, they were not shooting at each other and Captain Rogers knew the K-314 was mostly trying to disrupt the operation; in this case, from time to time the Kitty Hawk crew would turn a blind eye (or in this case, a deaf ear) to the annoying sub and just concentrate on the exercise and probably the collision happened during one of those period of time.

On the Soviet side, things were a bit more complicated, Captain Evseenko’s sole mission during the operation was to stalk the Kitty Hawk so, how could he lose contact with an 80.000-ton ship that was no further than 5 Km away?

Victor II Class Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine | Military-Today.com

For some specialists, the commander lied about what happened. The Soviet submarine captains were very reckless during the last years of the Cold War, one of their favorite maneuvers was to emerge, at full speed, right in the middle of an American task force, just to show to the enemy how daring a Soviet captain can be. Probably that was what Evseenko tried to do but he grossly miscalculated the speed and distance of the Battle Cat.

Evseenko was relieved of his sea Captain duties and spent the rest of his career ashore, but he always believed his punishment was too harsh. He sums up: “We didn’t sink, nobody died”.

This is just another story about those crazy years of the Cold War, a time when we lived mostly in peace but at the same time, awfully close to total annihilation.

Lucky Custom’s “Cheetah”

The (north) American way of life has permeated the whole world, through movies, music, and TV shows and we, the poor cousins from South America are, perhaps, the biggest suckers of it, especially when it comes to cars and bikes. We sure love the European and Asian stuff as well but nothing sends a shiver down the spine like the sound of an American V8, and of course, the sound of an American V-twin as well.

For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when I found out that this masterpiece was built by a small custom shop, located in the city of Cordoba, Argentina; a shop called Lucky Custom

The project started with a mission: to celebrate the shop’s 10th anniversary. Even before the first sketch was drawn, Lucas Layum, the owner of the Lucky Custom, already knew this machine would be inspired by the “dry lake racers”, the kind of bikes you see breaking speed records at Bonneville or El Mirage.

There is something magical about those machines, they are so simple, so pure, every part you see has one purpose: speed. The Lucky Custom faithfully followed this design and they called it “Cheetah”.

The Lucky’s team started the project with nothing more than an engine, a 1337 cc (81,58 cubic inches) that came from a 1983 Dyna.

The displacement was increased to 1450 cc with the addition of bigger, forged pistons, and the engine was heavily reworked internally.

The cherry on top is certainly the turbo, which came from an Audi A6. With all those tricks the original power output of 67HP jumped to well over 100HP. To keep the engine heat from cooking the rider’s balls, the team installed an external oil cooler.

The next step was the frame, to keep things simple, a tubular steel hardtail unit was chosen but for the front suspension, the team exceeded themselves: they wanted a vintage look but instead of buying an “over the counter” springer forks, they created they own, gorgeous retro-style set. First, they removed the original forks from a 1960s Honda Dream, the piece was then reworked to accommodate the much bigger front wheel and the internal springs were beefed. Slits were cut into the sides to expose the springs.

The last touch on this true work of art was the headlight, the piece came from a 1940 Ford Sedan and it matches the bike like it was custom built for it.

The vintage personality is of this bike is completed with the adoption of a two-piece gas tank, while the left side half is the actual tank, the right side is where the fuel pump is concealed.

For the rims, the Lucky Custom team went over the top with their boldness, they chose a set of 23 inches, 5 spoke wire rims, in a perfect mix of classic and modern styles. The wheels are wrapped with Avon tires, giving an extra racing touch to the project.

The custom bikes universe can be a very wild one, it is amazing how the designers can create so much using such a small platform as a motorcycle. Out of hundreds of custom projects done by the shops every year, only a couple will stand out for their audacity and beauty, and that is the case with the Cheetah.

The bike is not exactly new, it was released in 2017, but it is so special that I had to bring it to pages of TCM, I hope you agree with me.

The Mini

During the 1950s North America experienced unprecedented economic growth but on the other side of the pond, in Europe, things were a lot different: they were trying to rebuild the continent from the ashes of WWII, and the economic situation was awful.

1948 Citroen 2 CV. One step above the Amish buggy.

For those fortunate enough to afford a new car, the options were not thrilling at all, the European auto industry focused on awkward, uncomfortable, and underpowered small cars; in most cases, those cars could barely fit two adults inside.

VW Beetle assembly line, 1948

The French had the Citroen 2CV, the Italians had the FIAT Cinquecento, the Brits had the Morris Minor, and the Germans had (the best of the bunch in my opinion) the VW Beetle.

The head of the British Motor Company, Sir Leonard Lord simply despised all the small European economy cars and he set for himself the noble mission to clean the streets of them.

In 1955 Sir Lord assigned the chief designer of Morris (British Motors was born when Morris and Austin merged, in 1952), Alec Issigonis, to come up with ideas for a modern economy car.

This new concept should comfortably fit 4 adults and be small enough to be contained in a box measuring 3.0×1.2×1.2 meters or 10x4x4 feet. The car also should have a good acceleration and decent handling. Not an easy task at all but Mr. Issigonis was the right person for the job, after all, he was the designer of the Morris Minor, an astounding success in the UK and Europe.

An engineering masterpiece.

Every challenge presented by this new project was faced with ingenuity. The BMC team was not just creating a new economy car, they were creating a game-changer for the whole industry.

Body and powertrain.

The chosen design was a two-door hatchback, and even before the first line was drawn, they knew the car would be a front-wheel drive, with a transverse engine.

The “east-west” engine configuration wasn’t anything new at the time but the Mini was the first mass-production, commercial success car to use it. In the decades that followed, every car maker in the world adopted this configuration to provide more interior room and comfort for the occupants. There is a good chance the car sitting on your driveway right now has a transverse engine.

Sir Lord had put the team in a very tight situation (literally), with only a 1.2-meter width, there wasn’t enough space to place engine and transmission side-by-side. To solve that problem, Mr. Issigonis came up with a very clever idea: to install the transmission right underneath the motor, bolted straight to the engine block, having both systems sharing the same lubricant oil.

The team picked an “of-the-shelf” BMC engine, with the following specs: 4 cylinders, liquid-cooled, with 950cc and 37 HP. The basic transmission was a 4-speed manual unit.

Suspension

To improve driveability, the axles were pushed as close as possible to the edges of the car (the longer wheelbase, the better the car will maneuver) and the traditional leaf/coil springs were replaced by compact rubber cones dampers, designed by Dr. Alex Moulton. This space-saving design also featured rising progressive-rate springing of the cones and provided some natural damping.

This revolutionary system provided not only the space-saving dampers the team was looking for but more importantly, it gave the car the famous go-kart-like handling that would be so much appreciated at the race tracks around the world.

To complete the package, the team approved the 10 inches steel wheels. Since such small rims were never used before, the BMC closed a deal with Dunlop to provide tires for the car.

The 950cc, 37 HP engine provided an unexpected performance to the little car; with only 585 kg (1,290 lbs) the Mini could easily reach a max speed of 150 Km/h (94 miles/h), The speed plus the superb handling made the Mini a fun machine to drive, there are many stories about BMC test drivers embarrassing cars like Jaguar and Aston Martin at the test track.

This kind of performance wasn’t meant for an economy car, and the team was forced to tame the little beast: the engine was downsized to 850cc, bringing the top speed down to 120 Km/m (75 miles/h), still pretty good for a small car.

The car was announced to the public on August 26, 1959, and BMC had 2,000 units ready to hit the showrooms. It was sold under BMC’s two main brand names: Austin and Morris. The Austin version is called “Seven” and Morris is “Mini-Minor”. In the USA, France, and Australia t was named Austin 850 and Morris 850, and in Italy, it was sold under the brand Innocenti.

The car was an instant hit: roomy interior, modern design, impressive performance, and affordability, the customers around the world just fell in love with the Mini.

The Mini Cooper.

The Mini (or the Seven) was born with a reputation: usually, an automaker is forced to increase the size of the engine to improve a shameful performance of a product, but in the Mini’s case, it was the other way around.

At the time of the car’s debut, there was talking among the engineers about bringing the 950cc engine back for a possible “GT” version of the Mini, but Mr. Issigonis was totally against it, he had a mission to create a new concept for the economy car market and the mission was accomplished with flying colours and that was it. There was no “racing’ involved at the beginning of the project.

But there was no way to hide the car’s performance capabilities, as soon as the Mini hit the streets, some customers were already racing it, (either legally or illegally).

John Cooper, with his Formula Junior, powered by a motorcycle engine.

It didn’t take long for the Mini to catch the attention of a very special guy, Mr. John Cooper, one of the co-founders of Cooper Car Company. This little shop became famous right after WWII, for building simple, inexpensive single-seat racers for privateers, often from surplus military hardware. Those cars were extremely successful and in high demand.

By the mid-50s, Cooper develop a rear-engine Formula car that had a much better weight distribution, balance, and handling than the typical front-engine cars of the time.

By the end of the 1950s, Cooper cars completely dominated the race tracks around Europe, forcing the other builders to adopt the rear-engine configuration. John was even invited to show his car in the USA and soon the F-Indy teams started switching to the new concept.

John Cooper didn’t exactly create the rear/mid-engine design, but he was responsible to make it a winner feature that become the standard in motor racing car manufacture.

Cooper immediately saw in the new Mini a future winner in the motorsports, and he knew Mr. Issigonis wasn’t very sympathetic to the idea, but he had an advantage: the two engineers were good friends. After some conversation, Cooper got the green light to make the little grocery-getter a real race car.

The engine grew in size to 997cc with a stroker kit, and the Cooper team extracted every drop of power out of it with a more aggressive camshaft, ported cylinder head, and twin carburetors, resulting in 55HP.

The Mini Cooper, equipped with the iconic “Minilite” mag rims.

The suspension was reworked and received front disc brakes. This new performance-oriented car was called Mini-Cooper (either Morris or Austin) and hit the showrooms in September 1961.

In the years that followed, Cooper created the “S” version, first for competition only and later for street use, with engines as big as 1275cc and 75 HP.

The Mini-Cooper dominated Monte-Carlo Rally in the 60s. The tiny British car won in 1964, and again in 1965, driven by the legendary Scandinavian duo Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen.

For 1966, the Mini-Coopers finished the rally in a smashing 1-2-3 position, but unfortunately, the organizers had imposed a draconian new rule for that year, stating the cars must be 100% factory original.

One of the disqualified Minis. Monte Carlo, 1966.

The Automobile Club de Monaco was firmly decided to put an end to the British winning streak. After the end of the rally, the technicians spent more than 18 hours, dismantling the cars, measuring and checking every single part. Everything seemed fine when they finally found something wrong: the original headlight bulbs had been replaced with a more powerful one, and that was enough to disqualify all three winners Mini Coopers. The drivers, the team managers, and the fans were furious, they vehemently protested against the judge’s decision and even the press joined them putting as much pressure as possible to reverse the decision, but it was all in vain.

The stolen victory in 1966 was just a small setback, in the next year, Rauno Aaltonen, driving for the British Motor Company official team, brought the Mini-Cooper once again to the highest place on the podium.

The winner of the 1967 Mont Carlo Rally.

During the 1960s, the Mini also won the 100 Lakes Rally in Finland three times, the Circuit of Ireland three times, and the Rally Poland twice. There is no doubt that rally competition contributed immensely to the Mini’s popularity.

A pop culture classic.

Paul McCartney in his 1969 Mini

Much more than a little monster at the race track and rally, the Mini became the standard of what a small, economy car should be, no more cramped, underpowered, and ugly cars for the younger buyers. If they were looking for something modern and exciting, they found it.

Soon the Mini became one of the symbols of the 1960s, adopted not only by the average first buyers but also by cool and hip people.

During its existence, the Mini changed very little and every update, (mostly cosmetic changes) was marked in the most traditional British way possible, with the “Mk” letters, just like Spitfires and Jaguars.

Mk I: From 1959 to 1967.

During the production of the first generation, BMC increased the Mini’s family with the addition of a station wagon, a panel van, and a pick-up.

Aiming at the North American market, the Mini got an optional 4-speed automatic transmission in 1965, this model became known as Mini-Matic.

During this time, production was based in UK and Australia.

Mk II: From 1967 to 1970

A restored 1969 Chilean Mini, with fiberglass body.

Only cosmetic changes here, but the success of the Mini made BMC install production lines in Spain, Belgium, New Zeeland, Portugal, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Chile. The Chilean Mini has an interesting characteristic: its body is made of fibreglass.

Mk III: From 1969 to 1974

The history of the British auto industry is a history of never-ending mergings, sellings, and acquisitions, in 1968, British Motor merged with Leyland Motors to become British-Leyland. For the Mk III, the new company adopted concealed door hinges and the annoying sliding windows were replaced by regulator-operated ones.

In 1969 “Mini” became a brand of its own, but still under the British -Leyland umbrella, replacing Morris and Austin name tags. Also in the same year, the Mini Clubman was revealed, it was intended to be a bigger and more practical version of the regular Mini.

Mk IV: From 1976 to 2000.

1976 Mini GT.

By the time the Mk IV was released, in 1976, the Mini was already showing its age. It was a revolutionary car in 1959, but almost 20 years without major updates, made it unfit to compete with modern small cars like Renault 5, VW Polo, and Ford Fiesta, just to name a few. It was still part of the 10 best-selling cars in the UK but sales were slipping. In 1977, the Mini lost a very important market when the USA stopped importing the car, thanks to a more strict emissions regulation.

1981 Austin Metro

Around this time, after a restructuring process (which included a government bailout), Leyland Motors became Rover Group. The customers were expecting the new company would finally give them a replacement for the Mini but what they got instead was the Metro, released in 1980 and sold under Austin, MG, and Rover brands. The Metro was unveiled during tough times, the UK was facing one of the worst economic crises in its history and the Rover Group, desperate for money, decided to use the Mini’s drivetrain and suspension in the new car, which was not very well received by the customers.

2000 Mini Cooper S

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Mini experienced a shifting in its purpose, it was going from a mass-production economy car to a fashionable, retro-cool icon, but that wasn’t enough to keep the Rover Group afloat. In 1994, BMW bought the company’s assets from the British Aerospace Engineering (I know it is hard to keep track but before BMW, Rover Group was bought by an aircraft company).

BMW and Rover kept the “classic” Mini in production for as long as they could but selling “collectible items” not always pay the bills. The last Mini rolled out of the assembly line on October 4th, 2000. A total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured, nearly 1.6 million of which were sold in the UK.

BMW sold all the companies that came with Rover Group: MG and Rover were sold to a new British consortium, and Land Rover was sold to Ford. The Germans only kept the Mini brand.

The old and the new.

Also in 2000, BMW unveiled their retro-inspired, modern version of the Mini, called R-50, or simply “Mini”, keeping the legend alive ever since.

Much more than a cool car.

Austin Mini assembly line, circa 1960.

Since a worn-out, 1960s Mini beat me on a highway race, (I was driving a 4 litre, V6 Ford Ranger) back in 2003, this tiny little car has intrigued me. I knew I had to write about it but for some reason I kept postponing the task, perhaps because the Mini had beat me in more ways than just one (irresponsible) race, let me explain: In 1999, a panel of renowned automotive journalists elected the Mini as the second most influential car in history, second only to the Ford Model T. For me, it was a blow, being a hardcore fan of the VW Beetle, I just couldn’t believe my car lost to the Mini, after all, it was in production for much longer (65 years vs 41 years), and sold a lot more cars (21,529,464 vs 5,387,863), but after a while, I understood the reason, although the Beetle had a more successful career, we can hardly see any trace of its engineering in modern cars, (besides the flat-four Subaru engine), on the other hand hand, the basic concept of the Mini, hatchback style unibody and the transverse four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, became the standard for the whole auto industry, and as far as I can see, this concept will only die when the carmakers stop producing internal combustion engines.

George Harrison, the Beatle Who Was a Car Guy.

The Beatles are back in the spotlight, thanks to the “Get Back”, the wonderful documentary about the band’s last work, the album Let It Be. The director Peter Jackson (the same director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) had the access to over 50 hours of never seen before video and audio recorded during the making of the album and he masterfully condensed it into an 8 hour long, 3 parts documentary.

Jackson, who also is a passionate Beatles fan, created a masterpiece that is already changing the way that we, the fans, always saw the band during their last days together.

All this Beatles talking for the last few weeks reminded me that George Harrison was an avid car guy and this passion started very early in his life, pretty much at the same time as he became passionate about rock and roll.

The year was 1955 and George was only 12 years old, his father decided to take the whole family to see the British Grand Prix, which happened that year at the Aintree race track, located in the Merseyside County, only 6 miles away from downtown Liverpool.

What George saw that day was nothing less than amazing, Mercedes-Benz dominated the race with a 1-2-3-4 result and the British driver Stirling Moss (picture above) won his first Formula One GP, narrowly beating his teammate, the Argentine Manuel Fangio. Although many people believed that Fangio allowed Moss to win his first race in front of his home crowd, that didn’t change the fact George Harrison fell in love with cars and speed that day.

George’s talent as a guitarist would bring him to join, in 1958, the Quarry Man, a skiffle/rock’n roll band led by John Lennon, and the rest is history.

All the Beatles members came from lower/middle-class families and naturally, the automobile was something way too expensive for young guys trying to make some cash playing music in small pubs.

When Ringo Star joined The Beatles, in 1962, he was already a respectable drummer in the Liverpool scene, playing for the Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, a very popular band in town. He was the only one of the Fab Four with enough cash in his pocket to own a fancy car, a 1960 Ford Zephyr Zodiac. As Paul McCartney recollects: “Ringo had a car when the rest of us didn’t even dream about it. When we saw him driving that Zodiac we thought he had stolen it“.

The Anglia

In 1962, Harrison got his drivers license and, naturally, he was looking for his first car. Brian Epstein, the band manager, immediately called a friend who worked at Hawthorne Motors, a Ford dealership in Warrington.

George got an interesting deal: a blue, 1955 two-door Ford Anglia Deluxe with a very special discount in exchange for a couple of advertising photos with his new ride.

George agreed with the deal, and on the day of the pickup, Ringo offered him a ride to Warrington. Money changed hands, photos were taken and on the way back to Liverpool, the two musicians raced each other on the highway. During the recording of Beatles Anthology, in 1995, George, Paul, and Ringo were talking about their first cars and some memories of that day came back:

Ringo: You had a green Anglia

George: Blue.

Ringo: I took you to get that car.

George: Did you?

Ringo: Yes, to…

George: (remembering) Warrington?

Ringo: Yes, and as we were coming home, you may not remember…

George: (smiling) Oh yeah? 

Ringo: You were speeding and I was speeding and we were both bumper to bumper and then you overtook this car in front, and I was ready to overtake, and just as I got right up his arse a dog ran out in front of him so he slammed on his brakes (BANG) I smashed right into him, wrote the f*ck out of my car but was lucky it was by a garage cos I drove it ….well pushed it into the garage… and I had no licence or insurance.

George: Did I stop or did I keep going?

Ringo: No you kept going

George: I didn’t see what happened?

Ringo: No, you just didn’t give a damn

George: Even to this day I never knew about that! 

After a couple of months after buying the Anglia, George had already collected 2 warning tickets for speeding.

The Jaguar

The Anglia was a nice first car but with a 997cc engine and 40 HP, it was nowhere near to George’s expectations. By 1963, The Beatles had already taken the UK and Europe by storm and finally, George could afford to buy a real car, a brand new Jaguar Mk2.

There is not a lot of information about this car around, apparently it didn’t catch the attention of the The Beatles maniacs.

The Second Jaguar

As the rumor goes around, Brian Epstein bought this 1964 E-Type as a gift for Harrison’s 21st birthday, and that makes sense since the car was registered only 3 days after the party.

The car was equipped with an ultra-cool dash-mounted record player (only good when the car is not moving).

Harrison loved his Jaguar so much that in a rather funny letter sent to a fan, Susan Houghton, posted by Letters of Note, he provided her with a seven-step instruction on how to wash to his car. In the end, he tells the young lady to pour the “muddy greasy water” onto a nearby Ford Classic, more than likely owned by Paul McCartney. Here is the letter in its entirety:

42, Brodie Ave.

Mossley Hill, Liverpool 18

Dear Susan,

I hope you had a good Chrimbo, and have a happy nuclear peace too. Thank you for giving my mum flowers and chocs (it was you wasn’t it??) Thanks also for the card, in fact, THANKS A HEAP SUSAN. “Your too kind” John Lennon.

Instructions for washing car:-

  1. Use plenty of soapy clean water, preferably warm.

2) When car is [though it may take a lot of water]- clean, leave to dry off for about 20 minutes. [You can have a cup of tea now].

3) Now ask mother to find some dusters, [2 each] and with the polish, apply with no.1 duster over an area of about 1 sq foot at a time, in a circular motion. Don’t leave it too long before polishing off. This should be carried out until the car is spotless, and gleaming clean. [Don’t forget the wheels!]

4) Take 1 brush or vacuum cleaner, and have a bash at the carpets. They too can be made to look like new.

5) The windows [interior] should be polished now, after which you can retire for another tea.

6) Before returning home, I suggest you look over the car again, for any parts you may have missed out, on finding, they should be cleaned accordingly.

7) Now proceed to 20 Forthlin RD. with about 6 buckets full of dirty muddy greasey water, where a shiney Ford Classic will be seen. Spread contents of the buckets evenly, so as to leave a nice film of muck over the car. You can now return home knowing you have done your deed for the day. Thank you!!!

Proceedings should be carried out about the 8th of January.

Thanks again for the cheerio for now don’t forget Ban the Bog.

Love from George [Harrison]

The Aston Martin

In 1964 another icon of pop culture was born, the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, debuted in theatres around the world. For the first time, we saw the most intrepid British spy in action and we fell in love with his car, the gorgeous Aston Martin DB5.

George just couldn’t resist, in the beginning of 1965, he got his own Aston. If the E-Type was a purebred sports car, the DB5 was a purebred race car, powered by an all-aluminum, 4 litre, dual camshaft, in-line 6 engine, fed by a trio of SU carbs, producing 282 HP, enough to push the lightweight coupe to a 240Km/h.

Mick Jagger crashed his Aston Martin, only 3 months after he bought it, in 1966. Some friends remember Mick complaining about the cost of the repair: £200

Aston Martin became a popular choice among British rock stars in the 1960s, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger also owned cars from the DB family.

The Mini.

In 1965, each Beatle won an Austin-Cooper as a publicity stunt for the British Motor Company. Harrison’s car was customized and painted in metallic black by the coachbuilder Harold Radford, and then, in early 1967 it was repainted with some psychedelic/Tantra art motifs.

The Mini appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie, released by BBC in December 26, 1967.

Apparently, the Mini still belongs to the Harrison family, its last notable appearance was in the 1998 Goodwood Festival of Speed, where some related celebrities took the car for a spin.

Celebrities like Ringo Star and Damon Hill,

and Stella McCartney.

The Mercedes Benzes

Harrison was a notorious British car aficionado but in 1967, he decided for something different, he bought a “600”, the top of the line Mercedes-Benz, he chose the short wheelbase, the car Mercedes called “personal luxury sedan”. For the hardcore Beatles fans, this White Mercedes is somehow familiar, it is the car George used to go to the Apple headquarters, on January 30th, 1969, for the famous rooftop concert.

George became hooked on Mercedes-Benz, he owned quite a few of them during his years as a car enthusiast, and on one occasion, in 1972, he and his wife Patty almost lost their lives inside a white 300SEL, when George hit a lamp pole while in route to a party in London. (pictures above).

Another interesting Mercedes was the 600 Pulman Limousine that Harrison bought from John Lennon in 1971. Lennon was about to move to the USA and was selling some of his “stuff”. Later on, in 1975, Harrison sold the limo to the American group ” The Supremes”, the car was shipped to America and used by the Motown stars for a few years during their tours. The car now belongs to a collector, and the picture above shows the “600” after a complete restoration, done in Germany.

If there is one car that can be considered Harrison’s daily driver is this amazing, all-black 1984 AMG 500SEL. George drove it for almost 50,000Km during the course of 18 years, the car was auctioned in 2018 for £43K.

George Harrison never stopped buying and selling cool cars throughout his life.

He had them all, Porsches…

Ferraris…

Formula-One

It was only after the break-up of The Beatles that George had more time for his hobby and he started to follow the Formula One up close.

Harrison became a regular presence at many F-One paddocks around the world, sometimes accompanied by Ringo Star.

During this time they made some good friends in the Formula One circle.

Nelson Piquet, Harrison, and Ringo having fun with Jack Stewart.

James Hunt.

George having a little taste at the wheel of Hunt’s McLaren.

The friendship with Emerson Fittipaldi (above) allowed Harrison to visit Brazil, when the two times champion invited the ex-Beatle to see the 1979 Brazilian GP and stay for a few days at his beach house, in Guarujá.

Faster

George’s passion for Formula One inspired him to write a song as a homage to the circus and to honour the death of the Swedish racing driver Ronnie Peterson. In an interview to the Rolling Stone Magazine, Harrison said he was satisfied with the lyric of the song because it wasn’t just corny: “It is easy to write about V8 engines and vroom-vroom; that would have been bullshit”.

Harrison on the track, driving a Formula-One.

In 1979, Harrison was invited to drive the legendary 1960 Coventry-Climax Lotus 18 at the Gunnar Nilsson charity campaign. It is the same car that Stirling Moss won at Monte Carlo in 1960; the hardcore gearheads will recognize it as the one Lotus Team often removed some body panels to make it lighter. The event happened at Donington Park, on July 14th, 1979.

George’s recollections of the charity event were published at Goldmine magazine, 27 November 1992 issue:

I’ve never raced seriously myself, but I had a go in a Formula One car, with quite an old 3-liter-engine car. I’d drive round Brand’s Hatch in one. And I drove in a charity for Gunnar Nilsson, a Swedish driver who died of cancer, because I gave the money from the ‘Faster’ single off George Harrison to Gunnar’s cancer fund.

George Harrison driving a 1961 Formula 1 Lotus 18 at Donington in 1979

Anyhow, they had this day for the Gunnar Nilsson campaign at the track in England and they asked me to drive this 1960 Lotus, which had won a race in Monte Carlo when driven by the great English driver Sterling Moss. This car had no seatbelts, and because it had been in a museum for 20 years the tires were hard with no grip on them, yet the car was still pretty quick! But they assured me it was just a demonstration run, going round for five laps in formation and then five laps at your own pace. So I said I’d do it.

I got there, and it’s Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell he won his ‘73 championship in; James Hunt in the McLaren. Phil Hill in his famous Ferrari. I’m walking to my car while chatting with driver John Watson about the pleasure of the run we’re about to take, and he says, ‘You’re joking. There’s no racing driver that goes in formation! As soon as they drop that flag, they’ll all be gone like crazy!

Sure enough, as soon as the checkered flag fell, the other cars went whoosh as mine puttered along in a haze of smoke! By the time I got to my first lap they were already coming behind me for their second lap, screaming away! Scared me stiff! [wild laugh] But at least I did better than James Hunt, who broke down on the first pass.”

The McLaren

Pin on George Formula One

Harrison became a close friend to Gordon Murray when the South African was the chief designer for Brabham and McLaren.

The Light Car Company Rocket Is A Dream Unfulfilled

Murray was involved in the development of the “Rocket”, an ultra-lightweight, open cockpit roadster powered by a 1-litre Yamaha engine, inspired by the 60’s era Grand Prix car. Harrison was one of the first customers of the car.

Alastair Ladd on Twitter: "George Harrison's McLaren F1. I took these at  Silverstone in 1997 https://t.co/L8gQDNVLHD" / Twitter

Gordon Murray was part of a more popular project among the gearheads, the McLaren F1, the gorgeous 1990’s supercar, powered by a V12 BMW engine.

All Things Must Pass…but George wouldn’t pass the opportunity to own a supercar designed by his good friend.

Harrison ordered a custom-built F1, according to his taste. During the process he called McLaren several times, impatiently asking for the date of delivery.

In 1994 the ex-Beatle received the car, chassis #025, painted in Dark Purple Pearl, with black satin wheels, a very unusual combination at the time.

Harrison was an ardent devotee of Hinduism and he asked the bare chassis of 025 to be covered with symbols of his Hindu faith as well as hand-written quotes and song lyrics applied in silver ink by Gordon Murray. George loved this McLaren so much that his family decided to keep it after his death.

George Harrison left this world way too soon, in 2001, when he lost the battle against cancer. For most of the fans, he was an amazing musician who was part of the most influential rock and roll band in history but he was much more than that.

I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else-George Harrison-

George Harrison and Jack Stewart

If George was a bit elusive when talking about himself, perhaps one of his good friends from the Formula-One circus, Sir Jack Stewart, gave us a simple but sincere description of Harrison’s character:

“One of the great enthusiasts, one of the nicest men. He also had one of the biggest brains that I’ve had the pleasure of being around. People might say ‘you can’t be serious, he was just a singer in The Beatles’. But with his worldly knowledge and his beliefs, he was very articulate. He was a great one for coloring pictures of life. He could really graphically describe something, it was like you were seeing a picture in front of you that someone like me could understand, perhaps outside of my normal ability“.

The Peacemaker

On August 6, 1945, a solitary B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, 3 days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. It was the only time in history that nuclear weapons were used in an armed conflict, together, the two bombings killed more than 220 thousand people and brought Japan to surrender, saving thousands of American soldiers lives that didn’t have to fight to take over the country.

Hiroshima nuclear explosion.

WWII was finally over but another war had already started the Cold War. Since 1945, the Soviet Union spies gathered a consistent amount of intelligence from the Americans, allowing them to successfully detonate its first nuclear bomb on August 29, 1949, ending the American nuclear monopoly much sooner than the Western world thought.

Soviet missiles parading in front of the Kremlin.

Throughout the 1950s, both superpowers kept piling up their nuclear arsenal, but since neither one of them had the technology of the intercontinental ballistic missiles yet, the only way to deliver the doomsday payload was flying bombers over the enemy territory.

If the Americans want to reach Moscow, the heart of the Soviet Empire, that is a staggering 18,000 Km round trip, starting from Alaska, which is the closest American territory from the Soviet Union. The B-29, the most advanced bomber at the time, has only a 9,000Km range.

The United States Army Air Force was already thinking about a strategic intercontinental bomber as early as 1941, considering the worst-case scenario of the whole of Europe (including United Kingdom) falling into the hands of the Nazis and the necessity of flying bombing mission from USA all the way to Germany and back without stopping for refuelling.

Northrop's Flying Wing Bomber Photograph by Underwood Archives
Northrop entered the competition with its ultra-radical concept of a flying wing.

Consolidated (which would later on merge with Vultee Aircraft and became Convair) won the contract with its B-36 (the other competitor was Boeing and Northrop) but since the Allies held their ground in Europe, there was no real need for this “super-bomber” during the war.

Preparations for the end of the world

With the prospect of a confrontation against the Soviet Union looming on the horizon, the USAAF gave the green light to Convair to go ahead with the production of the B-36. The prototype flew on August 08, 1946.

An early version of the B36, without the jet engines.

The B-36 was a revolutionary aircraft, designed to be powered by nothing less than 6 radial piston engines mounted on a “pusher” configuration (at the back of the wings). It is a massive machine, the biggest piston-powered airplane ever produced. Let’s check some numbers:

Length: 49.40 m (162 ft)

Wingspan: 70.10 m (230 ft)

Empty weight: 73,371 Kg (166,165 lb)

Max take-off weight: 185,973 Kg (410,000 lb)

Payload: 39,000 Kg (85,980 lb)

In ideal conditions, the range of the B-36 is 16,000 Km but when fully loaded and combat-ready the range would drop dramatically.

Powerplant

Such a colossal aircraft would need some serious horse power, and that was provided by 6 Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, air-cooled, radial engines, with 28 cylinders (4 rows of 7 cylinders), displacing 71,489 liters ( 4,362 cid). It is the largest-displacement aviation piston engine to be mass-produced in the United States, and at 4,300 hp (3,200 kW) the most powerful.

The General Electric jet engines, in this picture the air intakes are closed with louvres, to improve aerodynamic during cruise speed.

Even with all this raw power, the B-36 needed a very long runway for take-off, but Convair solved this problem by adopting four General Electric J47 turbojet engines, with 5,200 lbs of thrust each, mounted on pods, close to the tip of the wings, the addition of these engines created a popular B-36 slogan: “six turning and four burning”.

This picture gives a good perspective of the incredible size of the B-36, it dwarfs the biggest bomber of the WWII, the B-29 Superfortress.

The ideal operational ceiling of the B-36 was 40,000 ft but with the extra power provided by jet engines, the bomber could comfortably fly at 50,000 ft, and reach a top speed of 700 Km/h, well above the reach of most of the fighters of that time. When flying at cruise speed, the jet engines were shut down to save fuel.

Armament

The B-36 was designed for conventional bombing, with a payload of 39 tons, but it could easily be converted to become a nuclear bomber. The plane also had heavy defensive firepower, nothing less than six remote-controlled, retractable gun turrets alongside the fuselage, one on the tail and one on the nose, each one equipped with a pair of 20mm cannons.

Operational problems

The first units of the B-36 started to be delivered to many Bomber-Wings across the USA in 1948, the first 60 planes didn’t have the jet engines but later on Convair retrofitted them. They were also delivered without the gun turrets, which were also installed later.

Thanks to its impressive performance and range, the B-36 was also used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions, for this role, the plane was stripped of every defensive armament

The Wasp engines when mounted “backwards” (pusher configuration) have the inconvenience of exposing the carburetors to the incoming cold air and inevitably getting frozen when flying at high altitude, causing engine malfunction. In some extreme situations, the frozen carbs would allow too much gas inside the engine (rich mixture) and this unburned fuel would ignite when touching the very hot exhaust manifold. The ground crew then changed the plane’s slogan from “six turning, four burning” into “two turning, two burning, two smoking, two choking and two more unaccounted for.” The problem was fixed in the later version with the adoption of a carburetor heater device.

Ground crew reloading the 20mm cannons.

During gunnery practise, the vibration of all the 20mm cannons firing at once commonly caused the aircraft’s electronics to malfunction, leading to failure of the aircraft controls and navigation equipment; this contributed to the crash of B-36B 44-92035 on 22 November 1950. Later on, the gun turrets were removed, (only the tail guns stayed, operated by radar), the Air Force concluded the gun turret was an obsolete piece of equipment and the biggest enemy of the B-36 would be anti-aircraft missiles. That brought the crew member down from 15 to 9 and saved a lot of weight.

The first version of the bomber was designed with single-wheel main landing gear, equipped with gigantic tires, the largest ever manufactured for an airplane, up to that time, 9 feet 2 inches (2.79 m) tall, 3 feet (91 cm) wide, and weighing 1,320 pounds (600 kg), with enough rubber for 60 automobile tires. Since most of the airplane’s weight was supported by two tires only, they placed so much pressure on the pavement that the B-36 required at least 17 inches thick concrete runways, restricting its operations to the Fort Worth airfield (adjacent to the plant of manufacture) and to a mere two USAF bases beyond that. It didn’t take too long for Convair to realize the single-wheel design was a mistake and it was soon replaced by a four-wheel boogie.

The mission

A typical doomsday mission would consist of crossing the Soviet border flying from bases in Alaska or Greenland, dropping the nukes and safely landing at any allied air bases, in the Middle East or Europe.

The Strategic Air Command (SAC) wanted maximum alert to retaliate any Soviet attack; to achieve this, different bomber-wings took turns flying the B-36, fully loaded with nuclear bombs, close to the border, 24/7.

The crews had the confidence to carry out the mission successfully but just a few of them actually believed the plane was fast enough to escape the blast of a 15 megaton nuke.

During training, it was common to fly the B-36 for over 24 hours non-stop, but the bomber was fairly well equipped to give the crew a minimum level of comfort during those long missions, with bunk beds, a toilet, and a little stove.

The B-36 was a controversial weapon, it was very expensive and complicated to build and maintain, but in the early 50s, it was the only airplane capable to carry out a nuclear attack anywhere on the planet.

In a time when neither of the superpowers had the ballistic missile technology, the plane was considered the perfect deterrent against the USSR and for that reason, it was nicknamed the Peacemaker.

An experimental airplane by nature

The 1950s was an era of extreme aeronautical developments, the jet engines, supersonic speed, and the space race, and besides all that, every crazy idea was worth the shot. The B-36 was employed in a variety of experiments throughout its service life, and perhaps one of the most interesting is the nuclear propulsion system where a small reactor would provide power to keep the plane flying non-stop for weeks, maybe months.

B-36, the flying carrier.

Another curious project was the idea of carrying a parasite F-84 jet fighter and releasing it in case of incoming hostile fighters over the battlefield or simply for reconnaissance purposes.

The retirement

During the Korean War (1950-1953) the Americans came across the new generation of the Soviet jet fighter, the MIG-15, this new plane was powerful, maneuverable, and well-armed; at this point, the Air Force knew the B-36 career was over.

By 1952 the USAF had already approved the B-36’s replacement, the Boeing B-52, but thanks to military budget restrain of the mid-50s, they kept the B-36 operational until the end of the decade.

B-36 assembly line. Convair “bomber-plant”, Fort Worth, TX.

Between 1946 and 1959, a total of 384 B-36 were built, in different versions. Out of this number only 5 units, sent to museums, escaped the scrapyard.

The US Navy called the B-36 a billion Dollar blunder and advocated that this money should have been used in more efficient, carrier-based, jet bombers. Although the Air Force was always sympathetic to the idea of well-trained crews flying heavy bombers over the Soviet territory, it was the ballistic missile technology, (either based underground in the US soil or carried by submarines) that became the ultimate deterrent weapon against the full-scale Armageddon war.

The B-36 remains today as a 1940s engineering marvel, the plane came into service just when the aeronautical designs were shifting from piston to jet engines, and that was primarily the reason for its early retirement.

During its 11 years career, the B-36 was never sent into combat, and that is the uncontested proof it lived up to the name Peacemaker.