Vic Elford obituary: master of all he drove


If he could race it, Vic Elford would race it — fast. One of the most versatile drivers in motor sport history has lost his battle with cancer at the age of 86, after a career racing just about anything

Vic Elford portrait square


Vic Elford: 1935-2022

The motor sport career of Victor Henry Elford, who has died after a long illness aged 86, just goes to show you can never put too much faith in the statistics. He never even scored a podium in Formula 1, let alone won a race. He never won Le Mans either, despite eight separate attempts. And yet when people think of Elford today, there is one word that springs most readily to mind, ‘quick’ and only partly because it rhymed with Vic.

And quick he was, in almost anything he drove. And he drove almost everything: rally cars, rallycross cars, touring cars, sports cars, Can-Am cars, even in NASCAR. If it competed, Elford required little encouraging to compete in it.

Behind the headlines that record zero wins in Blue Riband events, his actual successes were legion. Away from Le Mans, he won every single globally renowned sports car race: the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours, the Targa Florio and the Nurburgring 1000km no fewer than three times. But the most astonishing fact of all is that because he was already 32 years old before he got his big break in sports cars, his full-time, front-line career as a driver was just five seasons long. Had he started earlier, or ended later, like almost all his contemporaries, who knows how much more he would have gone on to achieve?

Vic Elford celebrates after winning 1968 Monte Carlo Rally

Elford won in Monaco...


Porsche 907 KH at 1968 Daytona 24 Hours

... followed by Daytona victory in Porsche 907


He was, of course, a successful rally driver long before his racing career started, and a successful co-driver before that. He was the European Rally Champion in 1967 and then, famously, won the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally in a Porsche 911 before flying to Daytona and, nine days later, winning the Daytona 24 Hours in a Porsche 907, a car in which he’d had little experience at a track he’d never visited and all well within a year of his first ever competitive motor race.

It is tempting to imagine that at heart Vic was a rally driver who just got sidelined into circuit racing with Porsche after his Monte win. Not so: Vic rallied simply because he couldn’t afford to race, and started in the navigator’s seat because he couldn’t afford to drive. He was a south London boy whose parents ran a café in Peckham and money wasn’t tight, it was essentially non-existent.

Vic Elford races in NASCAR at Daytona 1970

Elford back at Daytona with NASCAR in 1970

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Porsche 911 of Vic Elford and David Stone in 1967 Lyon-Charbonniers rally

Lift-off in Lyon-Cahrbonnières Rally, '67


His co-driving career started in a Triumph TR3A in 1960 and ended the following year when he was fired from BMC because he kept on insisting he was better than its official drivers. He was then an official Triumph driver until 1963, then spent three years with Ford before Porsche’s Huschke von Hanstein came knocking.

His transformation year was 1967, during which he won the European Rally Championship, the 2-litre class in the British Saloon Car Championship (both in 911s) and had his first taste of top-level motor sport when he was tried out on the Targa Florio in a 910. Approaching the race with the mindset of a rally driver, he did ten recce laps in various cars before coming third in the race itself. From that moment, his career path was sealed.

He did try Formula 1, completing a baker’s dozen of races between 1968-71 but his first result, fourth in the 1968 French Grand Prix, would be the best of his single seater career. It is perhaps significant to note that this race was held at the notorious old circuit at Rouen which in parts made the old Nurburgring look tame, the race was conducted in the wet and claimed the life of another F1 debutant, poor Jo Schlesser, on its very first lap. What it must have been like to aim his V12-powered Cooper through the downhill swerves in the pouring rain in his very first race at the top is beyond imagining. By the end only Jacky Ickx, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart did better.

Vic Elford in Cooper Maserati at Monaco GP 1969

Cooper-Maserati carried Elford to 7th at Monaco '69

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Vic Elford in Porsche 908 on 1971 Targa Florio

Elford/Larrouse Porsche 908 set fastest lap at the 1971 Targa Florio but crashed out

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

But, as this illustrates rather well, Elford was not just quick, he was ridiculously brave too. In the 84-hour Marathon de la Route held in 1967 he did four consecutive night stints at the Nürburgring, each 7.5 hours long, because none of his co-drivers fancied being out there. By the time one of them, Jochen Neerpasch, drove the car over the line to win, Vic was already back in the UK, racing at Brands Hatch.

Helmet of Vic ElfordPerhaps the greatest evidence that Vic was cut from a rather different cloth to even the legendarily courageous drivers of the late 1960s is that he is the only person I’ve ever spoken to, or heard of, who actually enjoyed driving the earliest version of the Porsche 917. ‘It was a brilliant car, and you could tell how good it was going to get. It kept you busy for sure, but when it was so much faster than anything else, it was a price well worth paying.’ At Le Mans in 1969 he and Richard Attwood (who to this day regards it as by a distance the worst car he ever raced) were two laps in the lead after 21 hours when the car finally broke.

It is to be remembered too that in at Le Mans in 1972, it was Vic who stopped his Alfa Romeo 33 out the back of the circuit to try to save the life of the driver of a burning Ferrari Daytona. Wading into the flames he was not to know said driver had already vacated the scene unharmed, nor that his friend, Jo Bonnier had been part of the same accident and had lost his life when his Lola left the track entirely and disappeared into the trees.

He quit full-time racing at the end of that season, no longer regarding the rewards as worth the risk. It wasn’t that he feared dying at all, but the life-changing injuries suffered by too many of his friends and rivals.

Vic Elford in McLaren M8D at Laguna Seca Can-Am race 1971

Elford's Can-Am McLaren M8D at Laguna Seca in 1971

John Lamm via Getty Images

Vic Elford in Porsche 928 at Daytona 1984

1984 Daytona 24 drive was a Porsche 928


He came back briefly in 1973 to race a Porsche 917/30 in an Interserie race at Hockenheim. The turbocharged monster had 500bhp more than anything else he’d ever raced and he was up against no fewer than seven other 917s. He took pole, led into the first corner and was still leading when the flag fell, three full minutes clear of the next car.

I last saw Vic two years ago for dinner at the Goodwood Members’ meeting and I asked him what the 917/30 was like to race. ‘‘I can’t really tell you I’m afraid. It was never in the plan to actually race it. The plan was to start in front and stay in front. No racing required. And that’s exactly what we did.

“What I remember most clearly was when it came out of the old Ostkurve and I changed from third to fourth at 150mph, it could still leave thick black lines behind it. I did find that quite impressive.”

Vic Elford, Targa Florio

Elford in Sicily for the 1972 Targa Florio

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

'Quick' Vic Elford and his incredible versatility