Skip to main content
Original Issue


Angered by taunts over America's lack of a Grand Prix car, Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby are building star-spangled racers to compete in the coming world championship classics

Look up, America! A proud moment in history is taking shape. This one will be a gripper, and it smacks of so much apple pie and Andy Hardy that a lot of people are going to choke up when it comes. Consider this: even Hollywood, that traditional trampler of all pure emotions, is filming not one but two expensive movies that will circle all around this subject without looking directly at it. Both movies will be about auto racing, which ought to explain their caution. Movies about auto racing are known to be surefire, cinch box-office bombs.

In one of these new films you can expect to see panoramic close-ups of America's heartthrob, Steve McQueen, in taped goggles and with makeup-department oil smeared artistically across his bent nose, and there will be a lot of what is known in the trade as vroom, vroom, vroom. Lord knows what dramatic wonders the other film will unfold, but it won't show the real thing, either.

The real thing, filmed or not, will come in May at Monaco. The setting will be perfect—there on the Riviera with that lumpy old Casino in the background, where the Grand Prix racecourse runs along the harbor front and up the hill past the Hotel de Paris. The air will be heavy with the rich smell of high-test perfumes, and Princess Grace will be looking on from a velvet-draped dais.

On this stage will be three principal actors. One of them is England's Colin Chapman, who builds rear-engine racing cars and wears a rear-engine haircut. Chapman paints his Lotus cars green, and Jimmy Clark wins world championships and Indianapolis 500s in them. Chapman has become so famous that people who used to say he looked like David Niven are now saying David Niven looks like him.

Another principal is Carroll Shelby (SI, May 17, 1965), the crusty Texas-American whose Cobra last year won one of the world championships for Grand Touring cars. He will be standing on the quay (it is perfectly safe to predict) in a battered black hat that sits on his head like a Stetson vulture. And between Chapman and Shelby, so low that it comes only to their knees, will be a murderous-looking car.

Not just a car. This is the car—13 feet long, a gleaming blue torpedo suspended between four thick wheels. Behind the cockpit, just back of the roll bar, is a V-12 engine nobody has ever seen before because there has never been another quite like it. It has dual overhead cams, 48 valves and 12 polished aluminum funnels along the top of the engine gulping in air to feed it. The exhausts, coiled like a pile of snakes, angle sharply out the back. They are painted red with gold flecks; the effect is to make them look too hot to touch, a reminder to the mechanics to keep their hands away. The tapered sharklike nose ends in an air scoop big enough to gobble up large dogs and small children.

In the assembling thunder of cars warming up for the Monaco Grand Prix, Chapman looks slowly and carefully at the new car. He is about as casual as a stretched rubber band.

"What do you call this thing?"' he asks.

When the black-hatted man answers, his voice comes out just right. It always does. You could light a match on it.

"This," Shelby rasps, "is the by-God American Eagle!" That's it, patriots. Up music! This is the moment a growing number of Americans have been waiting for.

The third principal is the man inside the car, almost swallowed by it, with just his head and shoulders showing above the cockpit. Under a black crash helmet, polished like night sky, his face is set in the chiseled line of his customary Mt. Rushmore expression. His eyes glint cobalt-blue, and long lines down both sides of his mouth form the world's deadliest dimples. Women hovering near him buckle slightly at the knees. It is Dan Gurney (SI, May 27, 1963), the living assurance to every worried mom that hot rodders do not all grow up bad, and whose magnificent face, even in repose, makes cinema racing drivers look faintly suspect.

And the biting, beautiful thing about the moment is that the car does not even have to win the race. In fact, winning the race would be too much. Just rolling the American Eagle out on the grid at Monaco—and to the starting line at other tracks on the Grand Prix circuit—will mark the fulfillment of an American dream. It will mean that some gutsy citizens have finally built a high-winding, fast-stepping U.S. Grand Prix car and are going to gas it up and try the Europeans at their own game on their own grounds.

Not only will it be there but, honest to George M. Cohan, Gurney and Shelby expect it to be a winner. The two of them and a fat, wealthy line of sponsors have staked a million dollars, the amount of money it took to develop and build it. If it does not win this year, then next year it surely will, because there is another million back where the first million came' from. And if that money runs out, maybe the whole country ought to support the project (Lyndon Johnson could rename the car Eagle Bird) to keep Eagle running and thereby keep the rest of the world loose.

In sober truth, the odds against American Eagle are long. First, the team of Shelby and Gurney is a crazy mixed-up American hybrid, something like a partnership of Toots Shor and Billy Sunday. Second, Grand Prix racing is not our game. It is their game, and the Europeans rule it with supercilious assurance. The U.S. drivers who are good at Grand Prix racing have gotten that way driving other countries' cars. Back in the 1950s, when Shelby was wheeling Maseratis and Aston Martins around Monaco, he told everyone who would listen (not many of them did) that an American would one day be world driving champion. They laughed at noire cowboy until 1961, when Phil Hill became the first American to win the title. But Hill did it driving an Italian Ferrari.

In 1960 Lance Reventlow made this country's only serious attempt at Grand Prix racing in more than 40 years. He built some cars called Scarabs, but they were outclassed.

Americans have a hard time identifying with any sport that does not offer one a great deal of sudden money. Grand Prix racing pays off mostly in prestige and glamour, uncashable commodities. Road racing also wanders all over the place. It never settles in one compact, closed track such as the Indianapolis Speedway, where a man can sit down with a hamper of potato salad and beer and sec the whole thing from the grandstand.

To Europeans, whose roads are narrow and whose cars are small, Grand Prix racing comes as a natural extension of a way of life. It is—like their personal driving—full of guile and tricky corners, and the race is not to the swift, but to the best downshifter. Through most of Europe the only thing an auto trunk can or need hold is a bottle of wine and a wedge of good cheese, and a racing car is none the less for having an engine that would fit in a Detroit glove compartment. But the glamour of Grand Prix is starting to get to Americans, and if ever the world was ready for a pair of evangelists like Gurney and Shelby the time is now.

Says Shelby: "We've got this name—American Eagle!—that falls on your ears just right. We're over there and, out of courtesy to us, they are nice about this, they play our national anthem and our flag is out there with all the others. And there stands Gurney with his shining face. It's by-God beautiful."

The buildup for the star-spangled scene they both can see inside their heads is taking place in a 16,000-square-foot auto shop on South Broadway in Santa Ana, Calif., a typically American neighborhood occupied by a couple of automobile dealers and a furniture-moving company, and where a truck comes around twice a day selling hot coffee and sandwiches. The place is called, in neat lettering on the front window, All American Racers, Inc.

Inside AAR the executive offices are paneled in soft-beige woods, dappled with a fingerprint frieze where President Gurney has come in from the shop section and leaned against the wall. The place is spotted with pictures and trophies from Gurney's racing career, including a hammered silver tray from one race that a secretary keeps piled with candy because people were always crushing out cigarettes in it. Gurney comes in wearing what racers call "leathers," which means heavy leather pants and a leather jacket. He has blackened, cracked hands and a face to match. He makes scratchy sounds when lie walks, and when he smiles through the layer of dust his teeth are startlingly white.

To understand Gurney, one must first understand that he revs up to a higher speed than your average car crank, but conceals it. He gets up in the morning full of pressure, and he starts out most days by barreling off into the malted-milk-colored hills around Santa Ana on a scrambler motorcycle. He bounces, fast, over rocks, through canyons and up and over trees—the low, gnarled live-oak trees of the terrain. Gurney docs this until he has his psyche hammered into enough control to handle the rest of the day's routine with emotional balance and calm.

When Gurney was younger—he is 34 now—he was a hot rodder who used to boom along the subdivisions of Riverside, Calif., which helped a little in preparing him for international racing. But, like Phil Hill, Gurney's mature reputation was built on the wheels of foreign-built cars, a situation that always rankled him. There is no way, when one is driving for someone else, to make sure one is getting the best car in the garage, and Gurney has been plagued in recent races with a series of mechanical breakdowns just at the point where he was blasting everybody off the track. But in spite of this handicap Gurney has built a solid career: in 1964 he finished six of the 10 races he started (just to finish a Grand Prix race is considered praiseworthy) and won the Grand Prix of France and Mexico. Last year Gurney won second place at Watkins Glen and in Mexico and finished fourth in world points.

Now, back at Santa Ana, Gurney puts clenched fervor into building the Eagle. If he were to come into the shop without riding the motorcycle first, every mechanic and metal-bender in the place would be a nervous wreck. As it is, he sits tautly at his president's desk as though the thing were going to take off and fly to Chicago any minute. On the desk is a packet of Gelusil tablets which, when his stomach burns too badly, Gurney eats like after-dinner mints. If these fail, he prowls through the shop like a smiling cougar.

The idea for the American Eagle came as a case of spontaneous combustion in a London taxi.

"Here we were, Dan and I, riding to a restaurant for dinner," says Shelby. "We got to talking about this thing. It was in October of 1964. Right there we put All American Racers and American Eagle together."

"It clicked," says Gurney,"because so awfully much had gone before. Ever since I was a kid, ever since I started racing cars, I have been dreaming about this sort of thing. And I would say to myself, 'Man, wouldn't it be tremendous?' I mean, our car, a United States car, not anybody else's car. In those days I also told myself. 'I've got to keep my eyes and ears open so that I'll know the right moment when it comes along.' "

"And what better time?" says Shelby. "Dan here had all the contacts with talented people to make us a car—and he had all the talent of his own to drive it for us. Perfect. And I had a few ideas on how to get my hands on some money. Not a whole lot of money. Too much financing can ruin a project like this. Just enough money."

"If I would win a race over there," says Gurney, "or if I would do well in a race over there, some well-meaning Britisher would come up to me to congratulate me. He would tell me, 'I say there, you're not like an American at all. Why, you're bloody good at driving.' And it would really turn me on. Not like an American? Ye gods!

"They play our national anthem and maybe you've got a little decal of an American Hag pasted on the side of the car, and it suddenly becomes something important."

Shelby feels just as intently and a lot more profanely. "I've had 'em say the same thing to me, 'Yer almost as good as a Europeen,' like a jab in the eye with a sharp stick."

To finance the Eagle, Gurney and Shelby began with some of their own savings. Goodyear Tire and Mobil are down for quite a bundle, and there are other sponsors. They are all betting on the Eagle out of patriotism and the possibility of having that noble motive pay off in publicity in the future.

Gurney and Shelby have not let their patriotic urges blind them to the fact that it takes specialists to build Grand Prix cars, and the most controversial clement in the Eagle project is that the specialists have not come wrapped in the Stars and Stripes but in the Union Jack of England. One is Len Terry, formerly the chief designer for Colin Chapman and Team Lotus—in other words, a man heavily responsible for the deadly green cars in which Jimmy Clark won both the world championship and the Indianapolis 500. Terry raced cars himself—he crashed badly enough to convince himself that he had the idea, all right—and turned to designing. He dreamed up a wild little car he called the Terrier, which ran 21 events in its first year out and won 18 of them—beating mostly Lotuses, a fact that made Chapman uneasy enough to hire Terry. Chapman and Terry's partnership ended last May 31 in Indianapolis exactly at sundown, not long after Clark had won the 500 with ridiculous ease. "Just the proper time," says Terry, "to end a long, successful association."

In Terry the Americans had a first-rate chassis man. To get an engine man Gurney went to the pastoral countryside near Rye, England, where a gentleman named Harry Weslake operates a small, little-publicized plant dealing in speed and also in industrial-engine development. Wcslake has the reputation of being a mystic who can lay his hands on—and heal—an engine. He has been healing, wheeling and dealing them since the 1920s. During World War II, when Great Britain was in danger of being overrun by German planes, England's Royal Air Force began to wonder out loud why the Spitfires weren't fast enough. "Send me one," said consultant Weslake. "Not the whole beastly plane, just the engine. And you might send along one of the German engines as well." Weslake spotted in the captured German engine a principle he already had used in motorcycle engines, and figured out from that how to beat the enemy. He redesigned the combustion chamber of the Spitfire Merlin engines and gave the RAF pilots the speed they needed to gain the upper hand. More recently, it was consultant Wcslake again who found an extra 75 horsepower in the new Chrysler hemi-head engine when it was in the development stage. Chrysler adopted his idea, then took the engine to the Daytona International Speedway and blew everybody off the track with it.

With Wcslake signed to produce a dream engine along lines firmly laid down by Gurney himself and with Terry working on the chassis, things picked up at Santa Ana. The Eagle began to come together, stretched out on a series of tables and dies like a monster robot waiting for someone to pour the lightning bolts to it. Gurney and Terry built a box—an awful lot like a Soap Box Derby model—and created a cockpit around Gurney, measuring it to exact scale.

When it was all put together, with Gurney fitted into the real cockpit, the Eagle took on a cleanly vicious line. The Eagle's engine develops 400-plus horsepower, which should be respectable enough.

(While tuning up for the big moment at Monaco, Gurney and Shelby have not been neglecting racing's big moment in America, the 500. All American Racers are building no fewer than six cars for Indy and, superficially, these will be almost identical to the Grand Prix Eagles. The chief difference between the Indy cars and the Grand Prix models is in the engines. For lndy the engines are Fords of the kind Clark used in winning last year. Gurney was so impressive in a first tryout of the Indy Eagle on the road course at Riverside, Calif. the other day that Riverside wants to schedule a race for Indy cars and drivers next fall. Although he used only one running gear, Indy style, Gurney made outstanding lap times.)

This is the year Grand Prix engines double in size—from 1.5 to three liters—and Enzo Ferrari already has a working, proved three-liter engine for the new formula. Ferrari engines are known to be so durable that one almost has to beat them to death with a hammer to turn them off.

In Japan mechanics are swarming all over both 12- and 24-cylinder versions of a Honda—but it will not be ready to race until fall. Britain's BRM will roll out with a new 16-cylinder power plant. Not a V-16, but an H-16, a two-crankshaft creature made up of two flat 8s, one fastened atop the other. BRM is building an H-16 for its own team and another for Team Lotus, which was caught engineless in the changeover. Lotus cars will run on BRM engines the first year under the new formula, a situation that makes Chapman grit his teeth handsomely while he is waiting for Ford of England and the Cosworth speed-specialty people to finish a new Lotus engine. John Cooper, the man who made rear engines de rigueur, has reached down to Italy for a three-liter Maserati with which to power his new Coopers. Jack Brabham will have his own chassis again—and an engine based on the American Oldsmobile V-8.

As of now, the odds favor Ferrari, who knows a good thing when he hears it running. Although, maintains Shelby, he "doesn't know sic 'em about chassis." Chapman is the one for chassis perfection. "His theory is to start out making everything too light," says Shelby; "then he runs the hell out of the cars and, as things break, he toughens them up. This is pretty tricky stuff."

But AAR is prepared to be as tricky as need be. When the American Eagle project is finished and the car sits at Santa Ana with its made-in-America look, Gurney (in his leathers), Shelby and crew could pose for a Norman Rock-well painting. And rightly so. The car and engine are Shelby-Gurney designs, no matter who put some of the parts together. This blending of talents, Gurney feels, is quintessentially American. "This land is a melting pot of people who came over here to the American way." says Gurney. "Our car has that same melting-pot touch; we feel it is a true representation of all of us at AAR."

The reason the two did not go to one of the big domestic car-builders for assistance is certainly American enough: they are apprehensive of big, impersonal companies. "I'm not too sure that the officials of these companies that build cars even like cars," says Shelby, and Gurney agrees. "They're too much oriented to profit-and-loss books, and they look at a car as a unit, not a living, breathing thing a man can curl up to. We could have gotten plenty of Detroit backing on this project—I am very close to Ford, for example—but there is such a thing as too much money and too many bosses."

A small but growing circle of people know the Eagle is coming, and they are getting caught up in the excitement. At Riverside, where Gurney raced a McLaren-Ford in October, Steve McQueen observed him carefully. McQueen, who has raced sports cars himself, is currently working on the racing film with Director John Sturges. The two of them stalled with the working title The Cruel Sport, later changed it to The Day of the Champion and, in Hollywood fashion, could change it again. It could become Beach Blanket Grand Prix or Monocoque, Baby before they are through. Still, McQueen asked Gurney to work with him on Champion.

The day after the race at Riverside, Gurney called Shelby to tell him of the offer. "McQueen wants me to be his double in some of the scenes," Dan explained. "And he even pointed out it wouldn't be too tough, because, he says, we look quite a bit alike."

Shelby's response was a low growl. "Yer about 10 times better-looking than that character."

But Shelby himself is not immune to the lure of the screen. John Frankenheimer also is making a racing picture. He has tied up most of the Grand Prix film rights in Europe for the coming season to keep McQueen and Sturges away. He will call his picture, with simple elegance, Grand Prix. One of the stars of the show will be, in effect, the American Eagle. There is some talk of using fancy fiber-glass shells to put over the Eagle like slipcovers to make it look more like Frankenheimer thinks a car should look. Both Shelby and Gurney have agreed to be consultants on the film.

Despite the action swirling around at the edge of their vision, Gurney and Shelby still only have eyes for the Eagle. In its solid form now it is a creature a man can hold on to, a thing of substance. He can pat it fondly on the nose and imagine it in action.

"I would like very much to get in a season or two with the Eagle before I quit racing," says Gurney. "It is a great car. The hard thing to think about is that sooner or later I am going to have to be brutal with it. But it will respond.

"Then I'll be able to stand on the sidelines and help run the team effort. You feel an awful lot smarter standing on the sidelines than you do driving one of these things."

It would be a smash windup to the story if Eagle beat them all. On a cleat-day Gurney and Shelby can see it. American Eagle wins Monaco, (picture of Princess Grace putting wreath of victory flowers on Eagle's nose.) Eagle stuns Europe. Advertising campaigns. Put an Eagle in your tank. Eagle bubble-gum trading cards and Eagle sweat shirts. Kids dancing the new Eagle and eating Eagleburgers. Eagle restores lagging U.S. prestige around the world. Eagle returns to wild ticker-tape parade up Broadway.

And—as Shelby says—there stands Gurney with his shining face.


THE NEW RACER is displayed by Shelby (left) and Gurney. They hope it will have swift-striking qualities symbolized by eagle in foreground.