Ford has a reputation as a 1960s sports car racing giant, thanks to its four Le Mans victories. But the Blue Oval wasn’t always successful…
Shivering here in my workroom, late November, reminds me of when we would spend this end of the month wondering what results would emerge from the annual Bahamas Speed Week. I personally recall happy days in Nassau during a stop-off on the way home from reporting the Daytona Continental sports car race.
I wandered among the salty brushwood and crumbling concrete of the Speed Week’s old abandoned Oakes Field aerodrome circuit, even then being encroached upon by developers. In my inquisitive head I knew that the aerodrome had been named after Sir Harry Oakes – a philanthropic American-born, Canadian-resident gold mine operator who had taken British nationality and moved to the Bahamas in 1935 to avoid tax. There he became a property developer, and invested especially in enlarging the airport that took his name. Into wartime Sir Harry was New Providence Island’s wealthiest and most influential resident. But on July 8, 1943, the 68-year-old zillionaire was found in his mansion, battered to death, partially burned and covered with feathers…
The contemporary Governor of the Bahamas was the Duke of Windsor – formerly King Edward VIII – who since his abdication and effective banishment to the Bahamas (not too onerous?) had become a great friend of Oakes. Now the Duke was not – perhaps – the brightest spark. Faced with the difficulty of summoning Scotland Yard detectives at the height of World War 2, he instead called two dodgy detectives from nearby Miami. Within 36 hours these Americans had fingered Oakes’s son-in-law – the unsavoury Count Alfred de Marigny – as his murderer.
His sensational trial lasted several weeks, which the Duke spent in America, perhaps to avoid giving evidence… It would emerge that his chosen American detectives had falsified fingerprint evidence to convict de Marigny, who was found ‘not guilty’ but immediately deported to Cuba on the grounds of ‘unsavoury character’ and ‘frequent advances to young girls’. Despite many theories – including murder by the American mafia because Sir Harry had loudly opposed plans to open a Nassau gambling casino, murder by a Florida-based African ritual specialist hired by a Bahamian business associate of Oakes, Sir Walter Christie – or indeed murder part-approved by the Duke of Windsor since Oakes was planning to transfer his vast wealth to Mexico (simultaneously undermining the Bahamian economy which, if investigated, might reveal the Duke’s own illegal money transfers to Mexico despite wartime restrictions) – plus further alternatives… The whole riddle remains famously unresolved.
During World War 2, New Providence provided two handy Atlantic airbases. Oakes Field was joined by another airfield, newly built five miles to the west, which was named Windsor Field.
But come 1946 the RAF withdrew from the latter, which reverted to minor civilian use, while Oakes Field – closer to the town centre – remained Nassau’s primary airport.
A post-war visitor to the islands was then Sherman F ‘Red’ Crise, a successful New York stock exchange figure who had developed a garage business, became a motor racing fan and served as a wartime photo reconnaissance pilot. Into the early 1950s he was a keen sailor. On one visit he spotted the aerodrome racing potential of Windsor Field’s empty runways, and with a group of local businessmen set about copying mainland-American SCCA success airbase racing.
His associates included Sir Sydney Oakes – Sir Harry’s son – and the Bahamas Speed Week races were run annually for 13 years, from 1954 to 1966. They combined the best of wealthy American sports car racing with really serious socialising. In this pretty informal – sometimes chaotic – season-closing jamboree, visiting stars confronted the best the SCCA scene could offer.
Up to 1956 the Speed Week’s races were held at Windsor Field, whose 3.5-mile circuit was highly abrasive, its crushed coral rock and asphalt surface just eating tyres. But from 1957 racing moved to Oakes Field, while Windsor Field adopted international airport status. Oakes Field racing began on a five-mile circuit, later reduced by half a mile. Although works-supported cars appeared occasionally in these speedfests, their backbone was the full American phalanx of privately run high-grade Ferraris, Maseratis, Lotus 19s, Cobras and King Cobras. Then in 1963 the GM-supported Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sports ran there. And Augie Pabst drove John Mecom’s new Lola GT – with a Chevrolet V8 in the back.
The Lola GT programme had just been acquired by Ford as the basis of its similarly rear-engined Ford GT project – and some within Ford Detroit exploded at the thought of a Lola-Chevrolet. The first ‘works’ Ford GTs then emerged in Europe in 1964, and failed to topple Ferrari at Le Mans. In the Reims 12 Hours they failed again. In the Ford Motor Company’s world this did not compute. How could huge investment fail to topple the little specialists?
Those first-year Ford GTs were quick, but their Colotti transaxles and the programme’s top-heavy management proved to be Ford’s Achilles heel. In addition Ford Advanced Vehicles’ chief engineer Roy Lunn concluded that the small-engined 4.2- to 5-litre Ford GT as originally conceived was never going to do the job, so he set about developing a big-engined 7-litre prototype to do better for 1965-66.
John Wyer – the ex-Aston Martin racing manager – headed the FAV operation developing and racing those cars from Slough, England. He would recall that when he criticised the FoMoCo engineers’ 7-litre preference, by saying archly “We race with cars, not engines”, it “was not well received”. Ford management then decided that two of the existing ‘small’ Ford GTs would be sent to the Bahamas Speed Week at the end of November, 1964.
Wyer would describe this as “The final imbecility. It was no place for a major manufacturer… We had nothing to gain from success and everything to lose from failure.” He admitted in his autobiography: “Because I lost the argument… I was thoroughly bloody-minded and took no interest in the preparation. It was a stupid attitude and I was wholly to blame when the cars performed badly”.
His former Aston Martin race engineer John Horsman – at the time a fresh recruit to FAV – also regarded these Nassau entries as just “an excuse for the Ford executives, of whom there were many, to have an expenses-paid trip with their wives to a warm climate for a few days”.
Horsman and team mechanic John Etheridge accompanied the cars on the BOAC air freighter. Arriving late at Heathrow, Horsman was just in time to see the loading crew smash one car’s oil cooler and ducting against its intended wooden pallet – the loading ramps were far too short. When John remonstrated with the loaders a BOAC functionary warned him to back off or “they would go on strike”.
Etheridge fell ill during the long flight on the thunderous propeller freighter, which landed in Montréal before flying on to New York. There the cars were unloaded, and left in the open in heavy rain. Another airline would be flying them to Miami. There was a long delay. John Horsman finally learned that the expected truck drivers were on strike. The two Johns finally pushed the two 2000lb Ford GTs the half-mile to the departure depot. Once airborne on the Miami-bound aircraft a warning came that there was a bomb on board – doubtless payback for the Brits’ strike-breaking. The aircraft promptly landed at Savannah for a fruitless search. Finally reaching Miami, Horsman found that no Ford arrangements had been made to transport the cars to the docks for the landing-ship ferry to Nassau. That became another saga until a Ford fellow finally arrived, and at last the exhausted Horsman and Etheridge could catch some sleep. John Horsman’s book Racing in the Rain is highly recommended.
In Nassau, drivers Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren found it simply impossible with their 4.7-litre engines to match the pace of the 7-litre Corvette Grand Sports. As Wyer and Horsman had predicted, Oakes Field’s short straights and tightish corners offered nowhere for the Fords’ superior top speed and handling to excel. Bruce’s car suffered the standard 289 cubic inch V8 engine failure – blown head gasket – while Phil’s had a front suspension lower ball joint fall apart –retaining washer undersized, enabling the nut to work loose. Three FAV men lost their jobs as a consequence…
So Ford’s GT effort had crumbled embarrassingly in the face of more Chevrolet Grand Sport success for GM. In part consequence Carroll Shelby was welcomed aboard “to share” direction with Wyer – as JW put it “Carroll – as an American – was in a better position to deal with Ford politics than I was and I wanted no part of them”. In truth that first season of Ford GT racing had proved to be a $2.2-million shambles. Honda’s return with McLaren in Formula 1 attracted less derision – it had looked that bad.
At the end of 1965, GM’s non-attributable clandestine racing also won over Phil Hill from Ford. He like Wyer couldn’t stomach FoMoCo practices. The last straw was when their legal department tried to bully him into signing a new contract for ’66. In Phil’s final letter to a company lawyer he wrote: “Jim Hall phoned shortly after I got [Ford executive] Homer Perry’s message via Al Dowd, suggesting that in so many words ‘s— or get off the pot’ as far as signing the contact was concerned. In our ensuing conversation we came to an agreement that was satisfactory to both of us.”
And that was ‘job done’. Phil would drive for Chaparral Cars in 1966, and Ford bombast had failed – yet again. GM racing interests 2 – FoMoCo nil. Naïveté had ruled – innocents literally abroad.
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s