The cars we’ll never forget

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Forget flower power, for race fans the 1960s was all about unbridled horsepower. The Can-Am series was dominated by cars that have secured their place in history as some of the greatest machines ever made. Here is a small selection…

Writer Gordon Cruickshank

1966 Lola T70 – Champion

It must be a good feeling when someone creates a new and lucrative race series that’s made to measure for the car you’ve just developed. Having pointed the way with his Mk6 GT but frustrated by what Ford did with the concept, Eric Broadley’s T70 proved the point: if you’re playing to free-for-all rules, you can’t beat a big, simple engine in a light, strong car. Honed, piloted and run as a quasi-works affair by F1 world champion John Surtees, this good-looking machine won from its 1965 debut. Then they invented Can-Am. There were strong Group 7 rivals already racing in USRRC, including McLaren and Chaparral, but Lola’s well-developed machine was a perfect customer car and abounded on Can-Am grids. Dan Gurney (AAR) and Mark Donohue (Penske) drove T70s to a win apiece in that first season, but with three victories Il Grande John took the inaugural title. Unlike the later monocoque-bodied 3B coupé the MkI and II used tube frames, but mostly of aluminium, forming a tough, light mount for the 5.9-litre Traco Chevrolet V8, or whatever motor customers installed. Even the aerodynamics were right, and the T70 sold well and proved highly successful, winning the 1966 and ’67 USRRC titles too. While McLaren took control of the ’67 Can-Am season, the T70 remained ‘best of the rest’. 

1969 McLaren M8B – Champion

McLaren dominated Can-Am for a slew of years but perhaps its most significant jump was the M8B: a rigid alloy monocoque, using the 7.1-litre Chevrolet motor as a stressed member to hang the rear wheels off, bodywork that’s looking for downforce, not just drag reduction – and one of Jim Hall’s monster wings on the back. The car didn’t just win first time out – in an expanded 11-race season it took 11 poles and 11 wins, shared nicely between Bruce himself (six plus the title) and Denny (five). What counted most? Two superb drivers? The drivability of supple suspension, since the wing acted on the wheels? A rev-hungry motor with a cascading 680bhp? Or reliability so good that the team loaned out its unneeded spare to favoured drivers, bringing a McLaren/Hulme/Gurney whitewash at Michigan Speedway? Answer: all of them. That’s how top teams win, and Bruce McLaren had built up a team that for a few amazing years couldn’t be topped.

1969 Ferrari 612 – Challenger

Those Americans and their loud, crude cars – we can do it better. Easy to think this was Ferrari’s attitude to Can-Am, but in fact it was an American – the marque’s West Coast importer Bill Harrah – who whipped up the idea, and the funds, resulting in a pair of now redundant P4s being converted late in 1967. To no effect, even with Chris Amon aboard – 4.2 litres wilts before 7000cc. So Ferrari returned for the last race of 1968 with a 6-litre V12 in smooth low-line clothing. It broke on lap one. But ’69 looked good early on: Amon pulled in a third, a second and another third behind the McLarens, and thereafter made steady progress. Backwards. It was down to the engine, mostly, perhaps because Maranello was a little stretched with F1, F2, sports cars and Tasman, so despite Harrah’s promise of a sales spin-off Can-Am remained a blip on the edge of Ferrari’s radar. Barring a home cubic capacity record, the 612 broke no new ground; indeed its tube frame looked dated beside the McLarens, but it looked gorgeous and sounded amazing, and for a few glorious rounds it was the quickest thing in Can-Am that wasn’t orange.

1966 Chaparral 2E – Winner

Fact: there are no dull Chaparrals. Every one of the handful of machines Texan racer/engineer Jim Hall created showed ingenuity: lateral thinking backed by research and data collection. The creativity was enormous, the results less so (until later Indy days) – one Can-am victory and two in international sports cars. Yet in among the bright ideas which for one reason or another did not take, the 2E stands out as a model for future racing cars. Moving the radiators from nose to ‘hips’ left room for serious aero downforce, not only from that vast wing but balanced up front by an internal diffuser and top exit ducts. The wing applied its ferocious downforce (about 240lbs at 100mph) to the uprights and therefore the tyres, not the chassis, boosting grip and pointing to the brief high-wing F1 fashion, while Hall even anticipated DRS with a pedal to kick in low-drag form on the straights – automatic transmission left one foot free. Phil Hill collared that Can-Am win at Laguna Seca in 1966 in the 2E, while the same year its aero features helped the 2F coupé version sweep up the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch. The 2E is Jim Hall’s favourite, too.

1973 Porsche 917/30 – Champion

Agreed, this is the car that snuffed out Can-Am first time round by cost and sheer success, so boo-hiss to Porsche. And, yes, compared to unblown engines it’s relatively easy to manufacture buckets of power from a turbo unit by turning up the wick. But suppose you do manage to push the dyno needle to an eye-popping 1100bhp, you have to make it last, you have to bolt it to something that can handle the grunt, and it has to go around corners too. That’s what Porsche is good at. With the Le Mans-winning but now redundant flat-12 917 as a base, Weissach evolved a shovel-nosed Group 7 twin-turbo version called 917/10 that George Follmer took to the 1972 Can-Am title. But 850bhp wasn’t enough, so the litres went up to 5.4, the boost gauge went up to ‘alarming’ and the wheelbase went up to cope, producing 917/30. Serious downforce, power that some said hit 1500bhp in qualifying and top team Penske Racing’s excellent preparation swept Mark Donohue to the title in 1973, scooping all but two rounds. But by now they were only beating other Porsches; without a turbo the works McLarens had baled out and there was no real competition – or future for Can-Am.

Can-Am Curios

…and a few cars that caught the eye for reasons other than race victories

The Can-Am series was a Formula Libre in all but name – an engineering free-for-all where traditional rules no longer applied. There was never a maximum engine size, or minimum weight; there were no limitations on tyre size or turbochargers. The result was a breed of race car that combined mind-boggling speeds with outrageous innovations. Not all of them were successful and some have been consigned to history, but others are still recognisable in many race cars of today. 

Hoare Mac’s-it Special 

Crazy name, crazy car. Designed by Jack Hoare, a former Cobra engineer, this little-known racer attempted to solve the problem of engine weight by substituting one, big, heavy power-plant with four smaller ones – one for each wheel. Each engine was a two-cylinder, two-stroke Rotax unit – cannibalised from a snowmobile – displacing 800cc and generating 110bhp. All the engines were connected to each other via driveshafts and the power was fed through a central driveshaft to each wheel. None of it worked: in testing, the components couldn’t handle the variations in power from each engine and broke. Even so, the car made an appearance at one Can-Am race but failed to qualify. The technology may not have worked and was much ridiculed at the time, but the idea has resurfaced recently in electric cars with multiple wheel-hub motors gaining some traction. 

Chaparrals

Think of Can-Am and you’ll probably think of Chaparrals. The company was run by eccentric Texas oil tycoon Jim Hall and between 1963 and 1970 it created several mid-engined models all of which harnessed sometimes extreme body kits and rear wings to take advantage of aerodynamics for better handling. His most successful design was the 2E (see page 79), but that car with its giant rear wing was merely a stepping stone in Hall’s quest to discover more secrets of speed. Before it came the 2A, which featured an advanced glassfibre monocoque, and the 2C with its adjustable rear wing. Then there was the plastic prison John Surtees refused to drive, the lie-flat 2H, and, most notoriously, the 2J, aka the ‘sucker car’. Hall’s reasoning behind the 2J was simple: a car lost more time slowing down for corners than it gained on outright speed in the straight. Maintain speeds through corners, even at the expense of top-end speed, and the overall circuit time will improve. So the 2J was fitted with a built-in snowmobile engine that literally sucked the ground underneath allowing it to corner at previously unseen speeds. It only lasted one season before being banned for its unfair advantage, but the principle behind it remains key to all modern race cars.

Autocoast Ti22 

First seen towards the end of the 1969 Can-Am season, the Ti22 has become known as the titanium car. In fact its monocoque chassis contained aluminium as well, but virtually all other stress-bearing parts – including the suspension – were indeed constructed from the superlight, super-expensive material. It was the first time the metal had been used extensively in cars. Titanium was chosen because it is 60 per cent lighter than steel while being much stiffer than aluminium. The brainchild of Peter Bryant, the British engineer who started out with Lotus in F1 before moving to America and Can-Am, the Ti22 was driven by Jackie Oliver and had mixed success on the track: it finished 13th in its first race at Laguna Seca and the following season crashed off the track, destroying the chassis in the second race. Its successor, the Mk2, had more success, however. Although titanium never moved into the mainstream it is still used by many manufacturers looking to lose weight from components such as brake calipers and exhaust systems. In 2015, the Italian design house Icona unveiled its Vulcano supercar, billed as the first ever titanium car. Bryant, who died in 2009, would have begged to differ.

AVS Mk1 Shadow 

This is why Can-Am was great – any idea worth a potential tenth was worth trying. AVS Shadow founder Don Nichols and designer Trevor Harris knew they couldn’t extract more power from a Chevy than anyone else, so shrank their car so it wouldn’t trouble the atmosphere so much. They gave it Mini-sized wheels, brakes the size of saucers – even the front springs were tiny and came in threes, with friction (!) dampers. Footspace was so squeezed the drivers were splay-footed and the clutch became a hand lever. Unlike the prototype, so black, sleek and low it looked like a shiny speed hump, the car they raced looked as if driver and engine had been scooped up by a coal shovel. With a wheelbase not worth measuring and a wing like a billboard, the Shadow went fast… but rarely for long before it overheated. With no room inside for a radiator, the cooling first appeared inside the wing, then above it, and later below but neither George Follmer nor Vic Elford could keep it going. Next year’s car would be more conventional (and successful), but didn’t cause double-takes like this one. Joe Dunn