"I will build a motor car for the great multitude."
—HENRY FORD, 1906
"We are in the business of selling cars. Racing [them] creates a youthful image for us."
—HENRY FORD II, LE MANS, JUNE 1967
"Now, I don't want to imply that we were building old ladies' cars. But something had to be done. I had only one thing in mind. We had to beat hell out of everybody."
—LEE A. IACOCCA, NOVEMBER 1967
Lord knows, it does not rain champagne every day in the life of Henry Ford II. You may find this incredible—brace yourself—but he, too, has troubles, even if payday is not one of them. There are all those new cars he must sell, and his competitor down the street—an old rival named General Motors—always sells more. There is corporate image to maintain and there are 391,470 hungry employees to feed. Ford cannot seem to find just the right clock for the dashboard of next year's Lincoln. As if that were not enough, there is Walter Reuther on one side and Ralph Nader on the other, and they look like they never have any laughs.
December 25, 1967
But along about 4:30 p.m. last June 11, there was Henry standing in a foamy shower of fine old 1967 Mumms. Certainly not the best year for drinking, but a superb year for spilling. Those two dandies, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, had just won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Henry's Mark IV, fighting off Ferrari and 24,000 Porsches. So Chairman Ford did the statesmanlike thing under the circumstances. He dried off, shook hands all around, went home to Dearborn, Mich. and traded up to a candy-apple-red Cougar with wire wheels.
That gave it all away. People had been suspecting for some years that a few men in that stiff old company were real honkers. It figured that life could not be all tote that barge and lift that bucket seat. And then, suddenly, aha! One could see the pieces fall into place. Hidden away in secret areas, like Engine and Foundry, and even Sales, there was this special band of movers.
There are only a few of them, and one must look fast to find them, as at a backfield in motion. They are always running off to races all over the world. Their big mission is to blast the company name into your subconscious. They turn up at all the jet-set, faraway, glittering places. Romantic Monaco. N√ºrburgring. Mexico City. Spa. Uh, Rockingham, N.C. They cuddle up to newsmen in press boxes, smelling of good cologne. They spill a great deal of wine when they win, and they tool around in those four-speed expense accounts.
Understand now, they also lose a few. Racing is a tricky business. In that regard, Ford is just like the little old company next door: lose a few too many and you end up back in the tractor division.
But when you win as much as Ford has this year, they have to get along without you over at tractors. Ford's 1967 season has been a big American success story. Money alone cannot buy happiness; there comes that moment, no matter how big a company is, when it gets into racing, when you must wheel out and face the competition. Ford's experience has shown that the much-maligned system called capitalism still has some adventure in it, that you can have superior sport and make a buck at the same time.
And, needless to say, someone stirred up all this new life. At Ford one does not say pointedly that it was the chairman. However, he has gone over to those nappy suits with the side vents, and he wears a stock-modified, rear-engine haircut with a little spoiler in the back. And if Henry Ford II can do it, you can resign yourself to a wave of Ford vice-presidents with their hair down to here. Collectively, they keep their faces carefully worked into an early Grant Wood look and insist they are really going about the deadly serious business of selling cars. Let me tell you, it's not fun out there, fellow manufacturers. But individually—and actually—they are the Company Racers.
Were it not for Nader and a few congressional critics stalking them, the Racers would not make any excuses at all. But there is this muttering about automotive safety. "Of course, you've read the book," says one executive, making it sound like something on the far side of Mein Kampf." And of course we agree with safety on the highways. But surely everyone must understand that racing on the tracks, under controlled conditions, has always been inexorably tied in with making better cars." Of course. One might also think that everyone is convinced by now that the best way to improve the breed is to race it. After all, Thoroughbred fanciers do not form a syndicate and pay Buckpasser $25,000 stud fees just to see his kids loll around the pasture eating bluegrass.
Critics or not, it seems inescapable in automotive life that hot cars—or hot-looking cars—are currently turning people on. And every car maker, no matter what it says publicly—hello out there, General Motors—has its crew of Company Racers who are breeding new generations of single-overhead cam or hemi-head monsters for those little old topless ladies from Pasadena to drive down to market.
The main reason for any clutch-and-dagger secrecy, of course, is that for five years, from 1957 until 1962, all of the American car makers declared a moratorium on racing. It came in a post-McCarthy wave of suspicion that anything moving that fast had to be vaguely un-American. The ban on racing was full of noble motives—and the car makers proceeded to race anyway, on the sly, with no visible means of factory support. They operated, as one Ford official says now, "out of seemingly abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of town."
Those were good years for warehouses. But, finally, in 1962, weary of being beaten not racing by people who also were not racing, Henry Ford II announced: "We tried very hard to live with this policy.... As time passed, however, some car divisions, including our own, interpreted the resolution more and more freely, with the result that increasing emphasis was placed on speed, horsepower and racing."
Ford was now officially going racing, the chairman said, and the world settled back for the period of getting ready. By next year, one figured, the company would have some new race cars. One figured wrong. It took about two minutes, or as long as necessary to open a warehouse door and roll out the stock.
And now the breed keeps getting breedier. Detroit calls its hot street models "muscle cars." If you were under the impression that Ford introduced its new 428 Cobra Jet engine last week for grandma to drive down to the Baptist Missionary Society meetings, you may not be entirely with it—unless the Missionary Ladies have suddenly taken to smoking each other off on the way out of the church parking lot.
The 428 Cobra Jet, an engine built along the lines of Tony Galento, was created for the Stoplight Grand Prix—that little game Americans play on Detroit's Woodward Avenue and other thoroughfares. The fine irony in this is that the new 428 will still be running up against the nonracers. Everyone on Woodward Avenue knows that the Pontiac Ram Air GTO, the 427 Corvette and the Chevelle SS 396 are the street-racing cars to beat. Ford's Cobra Jet is just getting into the contest.
The blow-'em-off mood that grips the Ford Motor Company began coming on back in the early 1960s—days when Ford had a lackluster line and Chevrolet had a new Corvette with a 283-cubic-inch engine, which Jacque Passino, Ford's racing chief, says was a "wow-eee" package. Further, Ford was tooling along doing pretty good business but had no great hope of capturing the interest of the war babies, who were growing up and buying wheels.
Then began the series of dramatic little scenes that could now be scripted into an underground movie titled, Is Henry Ford Burning?
SCENE: It is 1960 in the office of Lee A. Iacocca, then Ford Division marketing manager, now executive vice-president for North American operations. He has recently been called up from Pennsylvania, where he collected an organization still known in the company as the Philadelphia Mafia, or the Chester Hill Mob. He is marked for corporate stardom.
Enter Jacque Passino, who had been kidnapped by Ford from the vice-presidency of Willys-Overland. Passino is a known sales whiz. He is a man so ferociously dapper that he is said to have suede eyeballs. Passino has just joined Iacocca's mob as a special aide.
Iacocca: Well, what do you think of our line?
Passino: Frankly, I think they're a bunch of goddam sleds.
Iacocca: I agree. But we can change all that. How would you like to go racing?
Passino: I thought you'd never ask.
"That's when we began to get ready." Passino says now, blinking in the glare of silver trophies in his Dearborn office. Says Iacocca: "We had forgotten that driving can be fun. You know what we had then? We had a thing called 'spirit' and a lousy four-speed gearbox, that's what we had. But the excitement of those early days led us to the Mustang."
One must remember, Ford needed the Mustang more than it has needed any model since the T. The Chevrolet Corvair Monza had become a sales hit. So the Company Racers put together the Mustang, borrowing in part what they had learned from competition. Introduced April 17, 1964, it sold 26,000 in one month, 417,000 in one year and is the best-selling new car ever produced anywhere in the world.
And now we come to another Racer. The year is 1960.
SCENE: The office of Donald Frey, then a bright young engineer also tabbed for stardom. He is now a vice-president and Ford's chief for product development, a rather dandy job. Frey is talking to Bob Graham of product planning (now quality control manager for the Automotive Assembly Division). Graham has just returned from Speed Weeks at Daytona Beach, Fla. and he is unhappy.
Graham: Listen, there were 75,000 people down there, and you know what they were doing?
Frey (playing straight man for the last time in his professional life): No, Mister Graham. What were they doing?
Graham: They were all looking at those Pontiacs! We have got to do something about it, and fast.
"We did exactly that," says Frey today, speaking from the 12th floor in "glass house," Ford's stark new corporate headquarters in Dearborn. "We got off a memo to McNamara [the Defense Secretary was then Ford's president]—something to the effect, 'Are you interested in going racing?' And he said, to put it simply, 'Yeah!' So we went racing."
With Frey in charge, Ford built a pair of 406-cubic-inch engines and wedged them into a 1961 Ford Fairlane. Ford rented the Daytona track on a day when nobody was around, hired a chap named Cotton Owens to drive, and everybody stood around and watched.
"We got that old sled to go 145 miles an hour," says Frey, "and we entered the Daytona 500 that same year. We didn't win. In fact, Pontiac won it that year and the next. But the year after that we got the first five places."
SCENE: Frey's old 1962 office. In walks Dan Gurney, who had driven Mickey Thompson's car in the Indianapolis 500. Gurney, in addition to being lean, handsome and a hell of a driver, is an authentic American visionary.
Gurney: I think Ford ought to build an engine for Indy.
SCENE: On another day—same year—Frey looks up from his desk and there is someone new. This time it is Carroll Shelby, devil-may-care, knockabout world racer and onetime winner of Le Mans. Mr. Shelby is wearing his taut, purposeful look, which no man can resist.
Frey: Oh, God. Now what?
Shelby: I need a couple of Ford engines for a new sports car. I've got some chassis at the A.C. Car Co. back thar in England.
Frey (wearily): Why not? But one thing: the cars have got to say 'Powered by Ford' on them.
"Oh, well," Frey now says. "I thought for sure he was just an eccentric Texas millionaire building a toy. But we gave him the engines—a couple of dozen, actually—and he built these A.C. 'Powered by Ford' Cobras, and he won an SCCA class with them. We were suddenly in the sports-car business."
SCENE: The office of William Innes, now a vice-president for Ford's Engine, Transmission and Parts Group, but then—in 1962—a mere engineer.
In come Gurney and Colin Chapman. Mr. Chapman obviously has several things going for him: 1) he had designed some wonderful racing chassis, which he has the consummate guts to call Lotus; 2) he clearly knows what racing is all about; and 3) he looks like David Niven.
Chapman: Give me an engine with 350 horsepower in 350 pounds and I'll win Indy.
Innes: I just might be able to do exactly that. It will look like a Fairlane engine, but do not let that worry you.
"This Indy project did not have what you might call a whole lot of sanction," Frey recalls. "But we had been researching a small aluminum engine, about 4.2 liters, the Indy limit, and, at approximately that time, in came Gurney and Chapman. Everything sort of went click, click, click. And, my God, we practically won Indy our first time out with, of all things, a Fairlane engine I"
Flash now to another key man in the Indy plan. He is William H. Gay, at present the chief engineer of Ford's Engine and Foundry operations. Gay is regarded with absolute awe by people who know the business. There is talk around Dearborn, not confirmed, that he can heal an engine by laying his hands on it. Gay designed the Indy engine.
Engineer Gay is not a man to be slowed down by company procedure; memos and phone calls make him impatient. During tests on the engine at Indy, when things would go wrong, Gay would not call back home for help.
"We'd just go over to Hertz," he barks, "rent us a couple of Fairlanes and bring them back and yank the engines out of them and replace all our broken parts. Then we'd have to go sneak the Fairlanes back to some local dealer and say 'Uhhh, fella, put this car back together so we can return it.' " Hertz never knew the role it played at Indy.
Sitting at the company's small test track in Dearborn, moodily watching a new Torino at work, Gay insists that racing is not fun, not a bit of it.
"Fun? Fun?" He bites savagely on his cigar. "Christ, no, it ain't fun. It's pure torture. It's murder. Standing there and listening to your engines and worrying about what could go bad. It eats at your stomach. And let me tell you another thing. When these guys win a race they always throw a big party, right? They have fancy food and drink champagne out of ladies' slippers, right? Do they invite me? No.
"But let them lose one race. No party. And do they blame the driver? No, because he's always the best driver in the whole world, whoever he is. Blame the tires? Never. Best tires in the world. They always blame me."
With that, Gay smiles and leans out to yell instructions to an aide. "Hey," he hollers, "let's race those two cars over there and see what happens. Tell them to really stand on it." Then he settles back and watches, clearly a man having fun.
But Ford wanted much more than success in stock car racing and at Indy. The next target was Le Mans and the fabulous publicity its 24-hour race confers upon winners. In 1963 Ferrari of prancing-horse and Le Mans fame sent out feelers indicating the company was for sale. Ford displayed what is called considerable interest. Frey was given a briefcase full of money with which to close the deal.
What was lost in subsequent translation was that Ferrari wanted to sell the cars and keep the racers. Ford wanted the racers and the hell with the cars. Ford was having enough trouble with its own cars in the 1963 marketplace. The deal collapsed, but Frey during the ordeal learned many new and expressive Italian words.
"The longest lunch I ever had in my life," he says, "was when I got back to Dearborn from Modena and I was called up to the penthouse dining room. I had never been there. I had to sit down and explain to Mr. Ford exactly what had happened to our deal. We were at lunch a long, long time."
Still, the result of the Day of the Long Lunch was that Ford said, "All right, then. We'll build our own Le Mans car." That led to Ford's abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town. The company found a 10,000-square-foot facility in Dearborn, leased it under the name Kar Kraft—a name like that could fool anybody—and put it under special care. Ford picked an Englishman named Roy C. Lunn to run the place, a man who had been chief designer for Britain's Aston Martin and who had an impressive set of credentials from Aston and Ford of England.
Enter Frank Zimmerman, who was then Ford Division's special vehicles manager and is now Lincoln-Mercury's marketing manager. It is April 16, 1964, in La Chartre, France, and the countryside is asplash with gay poppies and tulips. Parked out in the alley behind the old Hotel de Paris are two rather scruffy-looking Le Mans cars. They are 15 days old. They are Ford Primitives, not Ford-Ferraris, as they might have been. Zimmerman has accompanied the cars from England to get them ready for their Le Mans debut, a few weeks away. At this point, neither car has ever revved an engine in anger.
"In two days," says Zimmerman, "we wrecked both of them in trials. I called the U.S., up to my hips in shattered cars. I told Frey they went to beat hell but their tails wouldn't stay down."
Then began an effort that showed Ford wasn't about to quit. Zimmerman put both cars in shrouds, took them back to England and found enough nuts and bolts around to rebuild the two and make one new one. He wheeled them back to Le Mans, qualified them well (2, 4, 9), for the June race—and lost it (although the fourth-place Shelby Cobra of Gurney and Bob Bondurant proved to be the weekend's top Grand Touring racer). Ford Mark IIs lost in 1965, but then, of course, Ford clobbered Ferrari and the rest of the pack in 1966 and 1967.
Now, then. If you are any kind of mystery fan at all, or if you can work jigsaw puzzles or even chew gum and walk at the same time, you will have noted the theme running through these scenes.
Obvious. Nearly every key man involved in Ford's early-day racing program is now a vice-president.
"And that," says Frey, "should say something about our goals."
It does, indeed. The Company Racers—at Chrysler and General Motors as well as at Ford—are doing considerably more than winning some and losing some. They are bringing back a feeling of pride that sweeps through their organizations. Most everyone at Ford is now a vicarious Racer—even the accountants in the company haircut and sweater-vest. And let a top Racer come straggling in on Monday morning, his eyes a lovely shade of cerise and still smelling faintly of expensive Scotch and good cigars—and nobody will raise an eyebrow. If they won on Sunday.
And so it goes at Ford. Iacocca likes the sound of racing cars in full cry, and he likes the passenger-car sales they stimulate every bit as much.
Passino has fond memories of Iacocca at Indy in 1963, when the first Lotus-Fords were qualifying in Offenhauser land.
"We were all there that day," says Passino. "Iacocca, Zimmerman, everybody. And we had two Ford engines in there with all those Offenhausers, remember? And those little old cars rolled out and you could hear this sudden hush—and then a swelling murmur running through the crowd. God! It was wonderful.
"I grabbed Iacocca by the arm and said in his ear, 'Son of a gun, Lee, you hear that? They're all saying our name. That's what it's all about, man!' "
Iacocca saw it. "He just stood there and listened," says Passino, "and then he told us to forget all the other details—he'd take care of details—and to go out there and race. One more thing: he told us we had damn well better win."
History will note that Ford almost did win that first Indy venture. However, Parnelli Jones took the flag in an Offy, Jimmy Clark finished second and Gurney seventh in the Lotus-Fords. The next 500 was the year of a tragic fire; Fords threatened but A.J. Foyt's Offy won. But Clark was first for Ford in 1965, and Fords have won at Indy ever since.
The fact that everything seemed to jell at once—the stock cars, dragsters, Indy and the Le Mans program—is not so much a Ford story as it is an American one. Chrysler is on a parallel course in stock and drag cars, and General Motors, if you will stand by, is considered likely to rev up at any moment.
Ford has more up its sleeve. Hidden away inside Kar Kraft is the company's answer to the Chevrolet Corvette. Ford calls it the Mach II, and it is a sprightly little two-seat sports car that comes up to one's waist. It boasts a five-speed transaxle, independent rear suspension and a 289-cubic-inch mid-ship engine.
"We put the plans for the Mach II together one night in Frey's office," says Lunn. "If this one goes into production it will be known in the company as 'Frey's car,' just as the Mustang is known as 'Iacocca's car.' "
And will it go into production? "Well," says Lunn, "we're being a little introverted about it right now. But that should tell you something."
It does. It tells you that the Mach II will be out there among the Corvettes one of these months. And that the Company Racers have a future in their Fords.
"You worry a lot when you attend races." said Henry Ford II a couple of weeks ago. "I have gone to Daytona and watched Richard Petty kill us in his Plymouth. But we keep coming back. We went back to Le Mans this year because we didn't want anyone to think it was a fluke victory in 1966. The second time we beat them, they realized we had the cars; the drivers and the ability in America. And we're certainly going to continue. We want our success to rub off on the kids."
"Why do we do it?" asks Iacocca, "Improving the breed is only a part of it. We race because we're competitive and driving can be fun. Why else would anyone want a four-speed gearbox? Or wire wheels? Or disc brakes? No matter what anyone tells you, motor sports aren't going to go away, any more than betting horses is going to go away."
Passino has a moral of his own: "You must remember one thing," he says. "You go to a big football game. Say there are 100,000 people there. But not one of them wants to buy a goddam football. But you go to an automobile race and there they are—all your potential customers."
Not surprisingly, the Racers are rocking Dearborn. Ford has had its best competitive year. It has come to dominate Indy, growing from the two Lotus racers in 1963 to 24 Ford-powered cars out of 33 this year. Ford's English-cousin engine—clipped into Jimmy Clark's new Lotus 49—is cutting a winning swath in Grand Prix racing. In Trans-American sedan racing, over the season Ford's Mustang beat out Ford's Cougar by two points. And in drag racing Ford's unshakable Connie Kalitta won the triple crown for the first time in history. But in stock-car racing—the crown Ford wants to win more than any other—there are still a few problems. At a good many tracks this season, Plymouths and Dodges were, as they say, eating Fords for breakfast.
The 64-day UAW strike cost the company millions and caused a cutback in the 1968 racing budget. Before Walter Reuther threw his switch, Ford had intended to spend close to $14 million going racing around the world next year; now the budget may be cut by as much as half.
Still, one must not weep for the Company Racers. The budget may be cut, but on their good years they spill that much money, and there will always be a factory team out there somewhere.
Not that they have any fun. No, sir. This is a deadly serious business, men. And one must never lose sight of our primary goal, which is to sell, sell, sell. Consider the serious scene not long ago at Ford's styling rotunda, where the new cars are shown to the top brass, and where everyone must wear a visitor's badge and a Rev, Bob Richards look.
There they were: a public-relations vice-president, looking very not-fun at all in company haircut and pin-collar shirt, a few of the Racers, pacing around nervously because Racers never can stand still, and a few nonracing executives who most assuredly were serious. It was 9:25 a.m. and they had been assembled at 9 to witness Henry Ford II posing for a formal portrait with his family of hot lacing cars.
"Yes, indeed." one of them was saying, "this is a grim game. Here we are, risking our reputation on every race. It's serious. How can anybody believe we ever have any...."
At that moment a guard stuck his head in the door. "Now." he hissed. Everyone in the room came to attention with no other prompting, and in walked Henry Ford II.
"I'm ready," he said.
He was wearing his Le Mans mechanic's jacket—a blue padded parka with the word "Ford" on one pocket. There was a moment of shocked silence. Ford looked around.
"All right, all right," he grinned. "I know. You think maybe it would be better with the suitcoat, right?"
So Henry Ford II took off the funcoat and shrugged into his tastefully tailored, side-vented jacket. He adjusted his Le Mans tie—a Pierre Cardin original with little "24s" on midnight blue silk—walked over to the cars, and posed while all the Racers and the others looked on soberly.
Mr. Ford was sitting on a wheel of the Indy car. He tried to look like it wasn't any fun at all.