Overthrow Offy RoadsterHide Text
The Lotus-Ford Plot to Overthrow the Offy Roadster By David Barry, Photography by Flip Schulke, Vintage Motorsport Magazine, Aug 2001
Dan Gurney put together the corporate might of Ford Motor Company and the innovative genius of Colin Chapman to end the era of the front-engined roadster at Indianapolis.
The men who make history are not always the ones remembered as the principal actors. Every car nut knows that Carroll Shelby cajoled Ford into supplying engines for a car built by AC Bristol that Shelby named the Cobra.
But how many people know that Dan Gurney set the hook that brought the innovative genius of Colin Chapman together with the corporate might of Ford to create the world-beating Lotus-Ford, the car that ended the front-engine roadster era at Indianapolis?
To do that, Gurney first had to sell Chapman on the idea of winning the Indy 500. That meant, in Gurney’s book, inviting Chapman to see for himself, watching the race in 1962 as Gurney’s guest.
Dan Gurney was not in need of work at the time. Nor was he short on luster as a world-renowned driver. He had been a factory Formula one driver for Ferrari, BRM and Porsche. He had won Sebring, Nurburgring, the 3 Hours, Daytona, and the French Grand Prix at Rouen, giving Porsche its first GP win. Gurney had set track records at Riverside and Laguna Seca. He was the man to beat almost everywhere.
Gurney had been driving rear-engine F1 cars in Europe and he already knew that the future of racing was rear-engine power. One year earlier, World Champion Jack Brabham had come to take on the Offys at Indy in a F1 Cooper-Climax. He had qualified ninth, and, with a tiny engine compared to the Offys, shown impressive speed through the turns.
Impressive to Gurney and a few others. The old guard establishment of oval track racing, derided the tiny, skate-like Cooper. Supposedly representing the leading edge of new technology, it couldn’t do better than ninth. Ninth? Excuse me?
"The US guys kind of made small of it," Gurney remembers, "saying, ‘is that all he’s got? "And the press played it that way, too."
Gurney knew that if Brabham could go that fast at Indy, with so little horsepower, he could beat the Offys with more. Gurney believed he could move the pieces together to make it happen. The plan he devised did not involve Jack Brabham.
"I said, I can’t do it with Jack. I was at Porsche at the time. And I thought: if I had my druthers, who would be the likely guy to design an Indy-car that included the F1 technology of the time?"
To Gurney, the answer was obvious: Colin Chapman, the most innovative, bold, brash, and forward-thinking race car designer and entrepreneur of the age. The man who pioneered lightness as a major integer of race car construction. As much as any one person, Colin Chapman oversaw the transition from the pre-WWII technology that dominated into the ‘50s, to the radically lighter, ultimately monocoque, mid-engine designs of the ‘60s. To Gurney, there was no question about who to ask as the male mid-wife of the trans-Atlantic Indy-car.
"The answer right away would be Colin Chapman," Gurney says. "Not to fool around, I got in touch with Chapman and invited him to watch the ’62 race as my guest. I said I’ll pay for your ticket."
Chapman agreed to come to Indy as Gurney’s guest and Gurney got busy pulling strings to set the ground for meetings that would get Chapman together with Ford. The next chapter of racing history had just begun.
It was a time of ferment in American motor racing, with secret projects running in all directions at both Ford and General Motors. Soon there would be the Cobra, the Corvette Grand Sport, the Chaparral, the Lola GT (later to become the Ford GT40), and now the hatching of a Lotus-Ford plot.
Gurney had invited Chapman to watch, and that’s what Chapman did at Indy in 1962. If there were any protocols of secrecy or propriety to be observed (and there were plenty, in Europe), Chapman was oblivious to them.
Chapman stayed busy stealthily going around eyeballing things, taking stock of things. He didn’t require a lot of attending to.’
"He sized things up," Gurney says of Chapman, a debonair genius who could have been played either by Alec Guinness or David Niven. "He wasn’t embarrassed a bit to get down and look at cars from underneath at a race. He was always observing. And he was enthused. It didn’t take him too long to say, 'Yes, I can do something here.'"
But first, The Rookie Test
It was good that Chapman was such a self-sufficient guest, because Gurney was not able to play full-time host at the Indy 500 party. He wound up driving one of three mid-engined cars designed by Englishman John Crostwaite for Mickey Thompson, who powered them with aluminum Buick V8s as the Harvey Aluminum Specials. Thompson, like Gurney, had seen the future in the Cooper Brabham drove in ‘61, and he was there with a team the year after Brabham’s pioneering run in the Cooper.
Before he could drive, Gurney, like any first-time Indy driver, had to take and pass his rookie test. The car he drove for that test was, ironically, an Offy, John Zink’s "Trackburner Special". It was his first drive in an Offy and his first drive on an oval track.
"I had never driven a lap on an oval track before," Gurney says, "or on those old, very hard, narrow-tread Firestone tires, that were essentially built for rigid-axle cars."
"The rookie test was not a slam-dunk affair," Gurney says. "There was no guarantee you were going to be able to get the car up to the speed you needed to go to qualify for the Speedway."
Gurney managed. He says the difference in feel between the Offy and the mid-engined monocoque was not as vast as one might think.
"There wasn’t that much difference in the steering effort of the front-engined Offy and the rear-engined Lotus I drove the following year," Gurney says. The thing that impressed him was the track itself.