Phil Hill at Le Mans

Phil Hill

Hill was in. He was going to Le Mans, in one of Ferrari’s speed machines. And unprecedentedly, he was the first American to take a spot in the Ferrari team. “Well,” Ferrari said, “come now and let me show you the great cars you will be driving.” Phil followed, and they both went checking out the army of cars in the racing shop.

This was not Hill’s first shot at Le Mans, though. He had raced in an Osca at the 1953 Le Mans. And funeral after funeral, he was well aware the racetrack was both ecstatic, and ruthless to its drivers. Anxiety took its toll on Hill. Following an X-ray examination, he was advised to quit the dreaded scene. Hill obliged, quitting racing at twenty-six.

But he would take a U-turn in 1954, agreeing to race at the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. His car, a 4.5-litre Ferrari, was offered by Texas oil tycoon Allen Guiberson. “Guaranteed not to cause ulcers.” The oilman scribbled in his letter to Hill. The race went to completion taking seven lives with it. But at the finish line, Hill placed second, enough to receive a call from Mr. Ferrari. The former honored the invite, and off he was to Modena.

Hill was a skilled technician who was just as fearful of the racetrack as much as he loved it. He was aware of how fast his car could take him, and how good his abilities were. Striking a balance between the two was always his goal. Fear wasn’t considered manly, and even more so in racing circles, but Hill took exception, ensuring he personified, according to one profiler – “one of consummate and meticulous skill nurtured by an increasingly heightened and almost paranoid fear of death.”

Once interviewed by a reporter, Hill confirmed “I would so love to get out of this unbent,”, and that “I have a horror of cripples. Even when I was a little boy I couldn’t bear to look at anyone who was deformed, could not bear to see them suffering. I guess I’ve always worried about ending up that way myself.”

Hill feared ending like de Portago, Hawthorn, and Musso. Ferrari’s champions of the race tracks who also lost their lives while at it. Hill made sure he didn’t end up a victim of some else’s mistake – the mechanic, another racer, anyone else. Back home, the United States was Ferrari’s largest market, and the boss knew the value-add Hill brought into his team.

That season, in 1958, Hill took off on a blistering note, crushing competitors to wins at the Hours of Sebring and the 1,000 Kilometers of Buenos Aires. He’d steadily built his credibility. And it was time to take on the big stage – Le Mans. Hill paired with Belgian Olivier Gendebien in a 250 Testa Rosa heading into the race. The 24-hour Le Mans was far and away the most economically viable channel for automakers to impress spectators, and double down on sales. Ferrari was ultimately aware a win would only further project his red speed cars as the foremost in the world.

On race day, Hill, basking in confidence, told Gendebien “We can win this race if we have the guts to go slow the first part.” And off they went, with Gendebien taking the initial shift. Taking his turn at the wheel, Hill sparked fire and fury on the track, dishing a grandstand performance that penned his name in history books as one of the finest racers to ever grace of Le Mans. Flying past other racers in their numbers and leaving them in their wake as visibility worsened in the pounding rain, Hill inched closer to glory after hour after hour. And at about 4.00 p.m. on June 22, 1958, he was crowned Le Mans champion, the first American to be so etched in Le Mans history.

Ferrari, Dino & Phil Hill

Enzo Ferrari lost his only heir, Dino, in 1956. And a trail of tragedies soon followed. On May 12, 1957, the stage was set for Mille Miglia, a 1000 miles race stretching between Brescia and Rome. With car racing increasingly becoming a staple in the annual highs of auto enthusiasts in Europe, the racecourse was greeted by some ten million spectators. The Mille Miglia was one of Ferrari’s most indelible days.

“It is the race of the people. One may say that the whole of Italy leans forward with her eyes on the tarred strip of road somewhere along the course on Mille Miglia day. “It is a day when I feel my life is useful,” he once said to a reporter.

The 1957 Mille Miglia was expectedly won by a Ferrari, but the buzz of victory was dampened by a tragedy, one that spread pretty fast from Tokyo to New York. It was Spain’s Alfonso de Portago, who, tucked in a Ferrari 335, blew a tire as he blitzed past rural Guidizzolo at near full speed. Colliding with a telephone pole, Alfonso’s Ferrari went flying into a crowd, killing twelve and leaving dozens more injured. The accident scene couldn’t be more indescribably hideous – a body of de Portago severed in two. The incident attracted an onslaught from the media, with clamors for the Mille Miglia to be abolished. And so what was once Italy’s most decorated sporting event was called off, permanently.

More papers came Ferrari’s way, though. He was blamed for the tragic incident and charged with manslaughter: “Enzo Ferrari, born in Modena on the 20th February 1898, and resident therein, [is] charged with manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm by negligence …”

Ferrari’s role, the charge claimed, was that his race cars came with Englebert tyres unequipped to accommodate the speed for which they were designed. Although he was ultimately declared innocent, Ferarri would contest the battle for the next seven years. At court, Ferrari felt betrayed; he had spent the greater part of his life fighting for national glory. Fighting for Italy’s honor as the world’s leading racing nation. But here he was, needing to defend that he didn’t kill anyone. “Why should I continue in an activity whose only reward is being branded a murderer?” he questioned. He considered quitting, but his love for racing cars wouldn’t let him.

More troubles soon followed, this time, in a different race car – the Dino One. Designed in honor of his late son, the Dino would go on to claim both life and glory. Rome’s Luigi Musso was the first casualty, dying in a Dino Ferrari during the French Grand Prix on July 6, 1958. British Peter Collins was next at the German Grand Prix. And while contract driver Mike Hawthorn won Grand Prix of Morocco in the Dino, he would also later succumbed to the deadly clutches of a wrecked Jaguar weeks later.

What ensued in Europe was a fierce debate on the safety of car racing. A report estimated that 1 in every 4 driver didn’t see out a racing season. Enough statistic to send chills down the spine of moralists, journalists and conscious sportsmen alike. The onslaught on Enzo Ferrari didn’t stop at the press though. The Vatican also chimed in its displeasure, regarding Ferrari “a modernized Saturn turned big industrialist [who] continues to devour his sons. As it is in myth, so too is it in reality.”

With most of his trusted experts dead, there was a dearth of talent in Ferrari’s camp in 1960. But there was still one man. He’d relished the opportunity to show up on the big stage. His name was Phil Hill, a twenty-eight year old from California. “How would you like to drive for me at Le Mans?” Enzo Ferrari asked. Hill had always hoped for this day. And here was his opportunity. Yes – he answered. How would Hill fare at Le Mans? We’ll find out in the next article.

Henry Ford II’s Marriage to Europe

Cortina

In 1963, one year after Henry Ford II pulled out of Detroit’s Safety Resolution, race drivers took to the tracks brandishing trails of speedy Ford cars. With the economy turning the green light, thirst for cars went up north, almost crushing the 1955 sales record. It was busy days at the showroom, driven by Ford’s glory and Shelby’s “Powered-by-Ford” Cobras.

The New York Times officially put Ford’s soaring sales on the front page “Does winning automobile races sell cars?” and “You bet it does,” the article began. It was obvious success on the race track was an assuredly powerful marketing instrument with “immediate and remarkable” upsides, the article noted.

Noticeably away from the Glass House, the Deuce began his next big quest. He was off to London, aiming to drive his company to even greater heights away from home turf. Asked about his trip to Dagenham – the Ford factory location and Europe’s biggest industrial metropolis, the Deuce responded: “I came to Europe to see what was becoming of our investments, which between 1960 and 1964 will have totaled $800 million.”

Henry knew what happened in the United States was finding its way to Europe – a rise of the middle class and everything it brought to the economy. While the company churned out 1200 Ford Cortinas daily, the Deuce was sure that was far from the number needed to match the surging demand in a continent whose economy was beginning to thrive following the plummeting effects of World War II.

His sights on Europe, Henry II embarked on his ambitious project, the scale of which was unprecedented in the history of the Ford empire. Getting started, the company got a new plant operational in Halewood in the UK, employing eleven thousand workers. And near Dagenham, a foundry was in the offing, with a huge power station enough to accommodate the electricity demands of a city numbering 160,000 population. The Deuce’s inkling for Europe wasn’t unexpected though, given his father’s adoration for the continent until his death.

Edsel saw in Europe a world full of opportunity, fantasy and beauty all through his life.

Ford cars were arguably the best in the world, but away from that, Henry II had more to his marriage to Europe – a woman. He’d met thirty-six-year old- Cristina Vettore Austin in Paris. But this was an illegal affair, as he already had three kids in a twenty-one-year-old marriage. His interests began to waver between Dearborn and Europe. The team at Glass House knew there was something wrong.

Success in Europe was critical for Henry II. He would have left a legacy behind if things panned out well. However, as media outfits soon uncovered his adventure, Ford’s fortunes in Europe looked anything but bright. It was unbefitting of a man steering the affairs of the world’s second-largest company to be embroiled in infidelity. Left unattended, the collision between business and personal life was simply a matter of time. This was clear to Henry II. “He was like a time bomb,” “You could almost hear the ticking,” a ford executive later recalled.

Total Performance

Tiny Lund

“You go to a big football game. Say there are 100,000 people there. But not one of them wants to buy a goddamn football. You go to an automobile race and there they are—all your potential customers.” — Ford racing executive JACQUE PASSINO.

It was February 24, 1963. Thousands of racing fans had filed in to their seats. Henry II’s brother Benson gets his spot trackside, and the Florida clouds graciously sit atop this magnificent ambiance. The stage was set for the 1963 Daytona 500 – America’s first speed competition following Henry II’s decision to pull the plug from the Detroit’s Safety Resolution.

The Press couldn’t have been louder, “A bitter controversy—beyond the point of intense sales competition—appears to be brewing in America’s automobile industry,” commented the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe today’s race will touch off total war within the domestic car building ranks.”

There were fourteen Ford cars available, and fourteen private teams bidding for glory in General Motors cars. At the wheels in Fords were top class drivers – Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, and Dan Gurney, up against the ranks of A.J Foyt, Junior Johnson, and Fireball Roberts in the Chevrolet and Pontiac team.

Off the mark and the speed machines greeted the speedway in style, blitzing around as spectators were treated to a hair-raising spectacle. Fifteen laps left, three racers in Ford cars were clearly in front, commanding a sensational lead at a frightening speed trumping 160mph. And on the last lap, South Carolina’s DeWayne “Tiny” Lund cruised to victory, followed by four other Ford drivers to ensure a perfect win for the Glass House.

As with European racing, glory on the racetrack translated to success at the showrooms. It was time to convert victory to dollars in the sales department. Iacocca was the perfect man for the job.

Media outfits countrywide echoed Ford’s superior performance at the Daytona 500, with over 2,800 newspapers featuring ads such as “In the open test that tears them apart—the Daytona 500—Ford’s durability conquered the field: first, second, third, fourth and fifth.”

Iacocca toured the country, raving about his assembly of unassailable Ford branded cars. Asked for his comment on GM’s attack on Ford’s racing investment, lacocca replied “If racing sells cars, what’s wrong with that?,” and wittily added that “It gives a guy who’s going to shell out $3,000 a chance to measure the car’s total performance,” ensuring he didn’t miss out on slipping in Ford’s new advertising motto – “total performance.”

In the spring of 1963, the team at Dearborn were rather shocked to find was Ford making the buzz in circles of sports car lovers. I mean, it wasn’t as if the company had rolled out a sports car, yet. That spring, though, a sports car called “the Cobra” was taking the racetrack by storm. Built by Carroll Shelby, the Cobra had a Ford engine inside, and while there was no substantial investment from Ford, Shelby’s build was making Ford garner even more massive publicity, thanks to its crushing performance in the Sports Car Club of America competition.

The Ferrari Factory

Farrari 125S

Ferrari opened his machine factory in Maranello during World War II. But proceedings took a dip months later when American bombers brought the factory to ruins in November 1944. That winter, Luigi Chinetti, a two-time Le Mans champion, linked up with Ferrari. The former, a strong antifascist, had moved to the U.S. on the eve of the war. Seeing his new world lacked the sports cars synonymous with Italian cities, he felt Ferrari could hit the ground running if he sold his cars on American soil. “The future is here Enzo,” Luigi said, adding that “You must believe that, here, sports cars will be a gold mine. There is hunger for motor sport. The market is virgin. There is plenty of money. The potential is immense.” This was a genius idea. Ferrari opted in.

Plagued by electricity challenges and shortage of fuel and manpower, it took almost two years to produce Ferrari’s first car – the 125 S. The car debuted at Piacenza, on May 11, 1947, and coasted to glory at the Rome Grand Prix a fortnight later. Ferrari’s popularity soared following wins at the 12 hours of Paris, the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia, all in 1948.

Briggs Cunningham brought Ferraris to the United States with his purchase in June 1949. There was no stopping Enzo Ferrari’s race to dominance in Europe in ensuing years; he enjoyed Grand Prix championship wins in 1952 and 1953, and another Le Mans glory in 1954. Asked years later his most favorite of his car, Ferrari replied: “The car which I have not yet created.” And his most cherished victory? “The one which I have not yet achieved.”

Six months following his son’s death, Ferrari summoned his new Grand Prix team to their first meeting at the Modena Autodrome on December 2, 1956.

An assembly of national champions from across Europe, Ferarri had before him a league of young, handsome, aggressively confident men – perfect fit for his track legal machines. Gino Rancati, Ferrari’s friend who was present at the meeting notes these seven men were Eugenio Castellotti (Italy), Marquis de Portago (Spain), Luigi Musso (Italy), Count Wolfgang Von Trips (West Germany), Mike Hawthorn (Great Britain), Cesare Perdisa (Italy), and Peter Collins (Great Britain).

With a new season around the corner, Italian press iconized Ferrari’s team “Il Squadra Primavera—the Spring Team.” Unfortunately, the high hopes were dashed when one of the seven men retired days later, with the remaining six subsequently dying in high-speed crashes.

Meanwhile, back at the Factory, Vittorio Jano was getting up to speed putting finishing touches to a new racing engine they had designed at Dino Ferrari’s final moments. The six-cylinder engine was, in Ferrari’s own words, all set to “burst into song.”