The Lotus 79 provided Mario Andretti with the Zenith of his career, but his all-time low was the pink honker – a pig that kept trying to fly
Mario Andretti has raced so many cars, over a career that stretches back four decades, that you might expect him to hesitate over the question of which was the worst. In fact, the answer comes quickly.
“That’s easy, it was the Honker,” says Mario. “It was a Can-Am car that was designed by Len Bailey, who was involved in the Ford Le Mans programme. He was quite popular at the time, but he designed the worst car I ever drove in my life. The Honker was unbelievably bad.”
If you’ve never heard of the Honker before, take a close look at its lines and imagine the thing with a roof Spotted
a family resemblance yet? In fact it was the older brother of the infamous Ford F3L, one of the most notoriously unsuccessful sportscars ever produced by a major manufacturer.
The story began when Ford’s success at Le Mans encouraged the company to look at the burgeoning sportscar series in its own backyard. After some half-hearted Can-Am efforts with Lolas, Ford decided to build a proper machine for 1967.
“I was contracted to Ford in those days,” says Mario, “I would drive the odd stock car race, and I did the Le Mans programme as well in 1966-67. They just wanted to develop this thing and perhaps do the full Can-Am series.”
The job was entrusted to Bailey, who had been involved with the GT40. Dubbed the Project 77, the car was built in England by Alan Mann. It featured a lot of GT40-derived bits, including a long-stroke version of the V8 engine. The full-length aluminium monocoque was said to be very stiff, while the sleek body, which featured an unusually long tail, was claimed to develop very low drag.
The finished car was dispatched to Holman and Moody, who were charged with running it in the Can-Am series. It soon picked up the moniker Honker II, apparently in tribute to John Holman, who enjoyed tooting the air horns of the team transporters. For reasons unknown it was painted a shade of what was variously described as lavender or pink. The livery and name gave the thing an unfortunate pig-like image that was to prove remarkably apt…
The Can-Am schedule did not start until September, three months after Ford’s second Le Mans win, but the car was barely ready for the first outing at Elkhart Lake. On arrival on Saturday the Holman and Moody truck felled a telephone pole, which didn’t bode well, and the car itself was basically not ready to race. Mario hadn’t even sat in it
“Everything was bad about it,” he recalls. “It was pink, and it was ugly. That car was scary in a straight line. It had lift, actually! I was at a loss with it. It was done so wrong, and the aero package was non-existent. It had a clumsy gearbox, and was just ill-conceived all round. I was the guinea pig on that one.”
Among the things Mario couldn’t understand was why the gearlever was in a central position, requiring an unnecessarily complex linkage behind the seat.
“It kept getting the wrong gear, so I had to do some thinking as far as my shifting pattern was concerned. I remember going into a corner and shifting from fourth to third. The thing slipped over and picked up second. They told me I had to be careful about my slot! Then they realised what was happening, and finally put the lever where it belonged. It was one nightmare after another.”
The car was withdrawn, and its debut postponed until Bridgehampton, where Ford invited Paul Newman along to see his first motor race. This was shortly before production started on the movie Winning, and the company was so excited about his appearance that the curious legend ‘Paul Newman’s’ was painted across the nose.
“I took him around in a pace car,” Mario remembers, “one of the Shelby Cobras. It scared the shit out of him but I think that’s what piqued Paul’s curiosity about racing.”
That weekend saw the start of a lifelong friendship. Meanwhile a despondent Mario qualified only 23rd, 6.3sec off pole. That led him to utter: ‘Why don’t you put my name on the car and let Paul drive?’
The car did at least finish in eighth place, albeit two laps down. A week later at Mosport, Mario was slowest of all after a troubled practice, 19sec off pole. He elected not to start until serious development work had been carried out.
“There was nothing you could put your hands on. You’d try to do something about it, but the car would not respond because the basic package was so flawed, and Bailey was not there to really help. There were too many engineers that didn’t really know anything, and they would not listen to the driver. I was throwing my hands up in the air.”
The team skipped Laguna Seca and returned with a modified car at Riverside, where a heroic effort saw Mario qualify fifth. However, the gearbox failed after just 10 laps. In the finale at Las Vegas, engine problems caused a nonstart and that was the end of the Honker adventure.
“It’s all a blur to me. It was such a negative that I want to have that chapter not exist.”
Despite the obvious shortcomings, Bailey and Mann used the Honker design as the base for the F3L/P68 coupe, fitted with a DFV powerplant It was no surprise it proved as flawed as its predecessor. Undeterred, Bailey went back to the original concept and pressed on with an open version known as the P69, seen briefly at the BOAC 1000kms in 1969. It had a shorter body and was adorned with wings and spoilers — but it was still about as stable as a house of cards in a hurricane.
Mario Andretti was talking to Adam Cooper.