Were it not for Nader and a few congressional critics stalking them, the Racers would not make any excuses at all. But there is this muttering about automotive safety. "Of course, you've read the book," says one executive, making it sound like something on the far side of Mein Kampf." And of course we agree with safety on the highways. But surely everyone must understand that racing on the tracks, under controlled conditions, has always been inexorably tied in with making better cars." Of course. One might also think that everyone is convinced by now that the best way to improve the breed is to race it. After all, Thoroughbred fanciers do not form a syndicate and pay Buckpasser $25,000 stud fees just to see his kids loll around the pasture eating bluegrass.
Critics or not, it seems inescapable in automotive life that hot cars—or hot-looking cars—are currently turning people on. And every car maker, no matter what it says publicly—hello out there, General Motors—has its crew of Company Racers who are breeding new generations of single-overhead cam or hemi-head monsters for those little old topless ladies from Pasadena to drive down to market.
The main reason for any clutch-and-dagger secrecy, of course, is that for five years, from 1957 until 1962, all of the American car makers declared a moratorium on racing. It came in a post-McCarthy wave of suspicion that anything moving that fast had to be vaguely un-American. The ban on racing was full of noble motives—and the car makers proceeded to race anyway, on the sly, with no visible means of factory support. They operated, as one Ford official says now, "out of seemingly abandoned warehouses on the outskirts of town."
Those were good years for warehouses. But, finally, in 1962, weary of being beaten not racing by people who also were not racing, Henry Ford II announced: "We tried very hard to live with this policy.... As time passed, however, some car divisions, including our own, interpreted the resolution more and more freely, with the result that increasing emphasis was placed on speed, horsepower and racing."
Ford was now officially going racing, the chairman said, and the world settled back for the period of getting ready. By next year, one figured, the company would have some new race cars. One figured wrong. It took about two minutes, or as long as necessary to open a warehouse door and roll out the stock.
And now the breed keeps getting breedier. Detroit calls its hot street models "muscle cars." If you were under the impression that Ford introduced its new 428 Cobra Jet engine last week for grandma to drive down to the Baptist Missionary Society meetings, you may not be entirely with it—unless the Missionary Ladies have suddenly taken to smoking each other off on the way out of the church parking lot.
The 428 Cobra Jet, an engine built along the lines of Tony Galento, was created for the Stoplight Grand Prix—that little game Americans play on Detroit's Woodward Avenue and other thoroughfares. The fine irony in this is that the new 428 will still be running up against the nonracers. Everyone on Woodward Avenue knows that the Pontiac Ram Air GTO, the 427 Corvette and the Chevelle SS 396 are the street-racing cars to beat. Ford's Cobra Jet is just getting into the contest.
The blow-'em-off mood that grips the Ford Motor Company began coming on back in the early 1960s—days when Ford had a lackluster line and Chevrolet had a new Corvette with a 283-cubic-inch engine, which Jacque Passino, Ford's racing chief, says was a "wow-eee" package. Further, Ford was tooling along doing pretty good business but had no great hope of capturing the interest of the war babies, who were growing up and buying wheels.
Then began the series of dramatic little scenes that could now be scripted into an underground movie titled, Is Henry Ford Burning?
SCENE: It is 1960 in the office of Lee A. Iacocca, then Ford Division marketing manager, now executive vice-president for North American operations. He has recently been called up from Pennsylvania, where he collected an organization still known in the company as the Philadelphia Mafia, or the Chester Hill Mob. He is marked for corporate stardom.