Mann of the decade
His career was confined to the 1960s but what an era it was, with Alan Mann acting as a lynchpin in Ford’s competition drive
By Richard Heseltine
It holds true in broad outline that the closer you get to the truth, the more the legend evaporates. Racer-turned-entrant Alan Mann has just skewered an eminent figure of ’60s motor sport, outlining how he was caught with his fingers in the corporate till. The anecdote is delivered deadpan, our hero allowing himself a wry chuckle at our reaction. Mann was at the centre of the most concerted competition programme of its kind ever undertaken, but he clearly has little time for fame-chasing self-publicists. Stage-managed reputations are for others. Yet while his achievements as a talisman for Ford’s global competition programme that decade are fêted, his spell in the motor sport limelight was brief. Alan Mann Racing lasted barely six years, yet his team achieved success in virtually every category it participated in. And that’s before you factor in his unlikely role as creator of one of pop culture’s most fondly remembered movie cars. But first came a spell as a driver.
“I was working down in Fleet when I got to know Dudley Gahagan who was a prominent VSCC man. He invited me to join him on a trip to Silverstone in his Bugatti Type 37. That got me interested and I did my first race at Brands Hatch in October 1956,” he smiles. Not that Mann started out on the nursery slopes, you understand. “I had an Alta-powered HWM which had belonged to Ted Whiteway. I got decent start money so I ran it in quite a few races, the last of which was the [non-championship] Naples Grand Prix in 1957. That was a real pain as it alternated between three and four cylinders. Then there was a HWM-Jaguar, a Jaguar C-type, Lotus Elite; all sorts of stuff. I ran a garage in Sussex [with future British Saloon Car Champion Roy Pierpoint] before setting up a Ford dealership. After that I gradually wound down the driving.” Largely dismissive of his achievements as a wheelman, he says: “I did OK but I was always a step behind. The top cars always seemed to be just out of reach.”
The first hesitant steps towards international prominence were as much down to accident as design: “As a Ford dealer I went to see [competition manager] Syd Henson and tried to get a Lotus Cortina to race. This would be 1963 when the car was still brand-new. That was still some way off being homologated so instead I got a Cortina GT. Syd offered me a spare engine, too, and I got Jimmy Blumer to drive the car.” Following some strong performances in the BSCC under the Alan Andrews Racing banner, the Mann equipe then headed Stateside. “Ford of America was launching the Cortina over there and entered two Willment cars in a 12-hour race at Marlboro, Maryland to get some publicity. We were then invited to do it, too, and the Cortinas finished first and second. We were second.
“While I was out there I got to know John Holman of Holman Moody. He was a NASCAR man and all the mechanics supplied to us had stock car backgrounds. Anyway, we got to talking about pitstops and at that time we reckoned about two minutes for refuelling and changing the tyres was about right. The NASCAR boys used air jacks and were really well drilled so they could do it all in about 30 seconds. There was no way we could do it that quickly. Over time I came to really respect the discipline of NASCAR people.”
And it was via Holman that Mann became a major player. “I was shipped off to Detroit where I was asked if I’d like to run Ford’s European competition operations with John Wyer. I replied ‘no’ as I couldn’t have worked with him. Not a chance – John was too difficult. He could be very prickly; he wasn’t called ‘Death Ray’ for nothing. There was no way we would get on. I was then asked to manage the Falcons on the Monte Carlo Rally for 1964. Holman had done it in ’63 but hadn’t really taken to rallying. There had been a lot of arguments and he really didn’t like Europe all that much so I was recommended.” Hence the establishment of Alan Mann Racing. “We were given 12 Falcons – six of them practice cars – and had 14 weeks in which to prepare them. Ford spent £1 million to do that one event and we were fastest on every special stage, with Bo Ljungfeldt finishing second to Paddy Hopkirk’s Mini Cooper. We should have won but that wasn’t going to happen once the handicapping system was factored in.”
And just to heap on the pressure, Mann was also tasked with homologating the Mustang for its debut on the Tour de France later that year. “That was hard going,” he says. “We got a very early car from Detroit in February ’64, a few months before it was officially launched. Nobody knew it was coming and I was told I would be shot if photos leaked out so there was a lot of secrecy involved. I borrowed a workshop from Roy Pierpoint to get it sorted and did all the testing down at Goodwood. We took off the badges, the lights, the grilles – anything that might give it away. There was one snapper there during what was a private test day. He was asked, politely, to leave and he said he would but what he actually did was go out to the Lavant straight and hide in a bush. Fortunately his photos came out all blurry.
“Anyway I did all the homologation submissions myself. We had high-ratio steering, a Galaxie rear axle, 15in wheels, the lot.” The result was first and second in the Touring category on this gruelling 14-day marathon. “It was one hell of an event and at one point we even lent our welding gear to the works Porsche team as the 904s kept breaking. You can’t imagine that sort of thing happening between rivals these days. I’m glad we did as they were very grateful and made life a lot easier for us whenever we raced at the Nürburgring.”
For 1965, AMR took the European Touring Car Championship at a canter with John Whitmore dominating from the outset aboard his Lotus Cortina. “I’d seen him racing Minis and was impressed. He was ragged but consistently fast and could get down to a time very quickly, which is the mark of a good driver.” The team also developed lightweight GT40s and oversaw Carroll Shelby’s bid for GT honours in the World Sports Car Championship. “The regular Cobra was a terrible car,” he laughs. “It was very fragile. The Daytona Cobra, though, was surprisingly easy to drive but there was no logical reason why it went so quickly. It had an old ladder chassis which used to flex like mad, leaf-spring suspension and a four-speed ’box. It was quite heavy, too, but it was just as quick as a GT40.
“Carroll was a real charmer but he only ever came to one race, and that was the 1965 Monza 1000Kms [in which Bob Bondurant and Allen Grant claimed class honours]. He was a Goodyear distributor and we sometimes used Firestones so I instructed him not to come back. The GT40 programme, though, was way too political. There was more Ford brass than mechanics at Le Mans in 1966. The politics really didn’t help and the overall bosses didn’t mind who won just as long as Ford did. Nobody wanted to let the side down and a lot of backside-covering went on. Also, I never understood the reasoning behind why they put the big-block V8 into the GT40 when we could get a reliable 425bhp out of a 289cu in small-block with a single carb and cast manifolds. The 7-litre motor made 450bhp, weighed a ton and was just unnecessary. If you drove them hard the brakes would go, then the tyres, but I suppose it did the job in the end.”
Yet if the GT40 has since earned legendary status, Mann’s own brand of sports car is remembered largely for all the wrong reasons. Project P68, or F3L as it’s more commonly known, was one of the most beautiful racers of the 1960s – itself quite an achievement considering the opposition – yet over the 1968-69 seasons this shapely device failed to cover itself in glory. “We could never get it to last for more than two hours at a time,” Mann admits. “It was designed by Len Bailey who we inherited from Ford and the whole thing came about because we had the chance to use the DFV engine. That was too good an opportunity to pass up. Unfortunately we didn’t get permission from Cosworth to stress it. We had the exhausts running down each side, the heat from which used to melt the rubber donuts. That was the car’s Achilles heel. That and the packaging: it took a day to get the engine out. We did a Spider version, too, but that never raced because it was useless.”
This gorgeous flop did, however, spawn the brilliantly named Honker. Built for Holman Moody, and likely the only car ever to race in metallic lilac, this Ford-powered Can-Am racer never prevailed for all Mario Andretti’s efforts. Nonetheless, it did find some level of silver screen immortality after being driven by Paul Newman in the otherwise forgettable racing flick Winning.
Altogether less celebrated is Mann’s own involvement with the business of show. Having already played a peripheral role in Goldfinger after helping stage the car chase in the Swiss Alps, he returned to Ian Fleming-rooted material on being asked to build cars for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “That all happened after [Ford motor sport supremo] Walter Hayes had been out for dinner with the film’s producer, Cubby Broccoli. The film people had been trying to do something with these old Bedford lorry chassis, making them look like 1920s cars, which wasn’t working. I went to see their special effects people and told them to draw what they wanted and we’d make it. We built three of them with Ford Zephyr V6 engines for £80,000 including one that was all-alloy, which was hung underneath a helicopter for the flying sequences.
We also did the cars used in a film called Doppelgänger [the cars subsequently appeared regularly in the TV show UFO]. That was the best of a bad job. We went to Ford and got the younger lads to come up with some ideas of what they thought cars of the future might look like. We then picked one. Ford of Germany did us a scale model and we went away and made some cars; horrible bloody things with very heavy gullwing doors.”
There would be no further celluloid interludes – “they’ve got a different mentality, that lot,” he says. Instead Mann stuck exclusively to motor racing, claiming 1968-69 BSCC honours in the glorious bubble-arched Escorts with Aussie star Frank Gardner driving. “He was a good lad but perhaps not quite as fast as Whitmore. He also had his own unique way of describing what a car was doing. When we were testing he’d come out with all this stuff and we’d have no idea what he was talking about! We did two seasons without the cars picking up so much as a scratch, though.”
And having achieved back-to-back titles, Mann walked away from motor racing. “In 1968 I was informed that Ford was reducing its competition budget by $25m, so it made sense to stop. At the end of ’69 I decided to sell out to Frank.” Mann changed tack completely, operating a trawler and establishing a hugely successful helicopter-leasing firm, which he sold in 2008. Having largely avoided the sport for decades, Mann has recently returned to race paddocks, the legendary gold over red livery finding a new audience in historics thanks to the efforts of his son Henry (who claimed his first outright win at Oulton Park last March) and veteran charger John Young.
“The reason behind the colour scheme was simple,” he adds by way of a parting shot. “The first time we took the Lotus Cortina to the Nürburgring we waited about 10 minutes for the cars to come by at the end of the first lap. Then about a dozen came into view – all in the usual white and green livery – and in the wet we couldn’t make out which one was ours. We needed a colour scheme which was easy to see and hard to replicate.” That it became one of the most evocative in motor sport lore was a happy by-product.