The Gurney Bubble and Gurney's Bubbly

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Full gallery here

A while back we ran a post on the Gulf Oil liveried 1968 & 1969 LeMans winning Ford GT40 that was temporarily on loan for display at the Racing in America exhibit of The Henry Ford Museum’s Driving America section. The reason for that loan was that the car that normally occupies that corner of the exhibit, the Ford Mk IV that won LeMans in 1967, was at Dan Gurney’s All American Racers shop in California getting a sensitive repair and conservation. That job has now been completed and the Mk IV is now back on display at the Dearborn, Michigan museum, just in time to be rejoined by Mr. Gurney.

It was appropriate that Gurney’s company was contracted to work on the car. It was Gurney who drove it to victory at LeMans with co-driver A.J. Foyt. It was also appropriate that the company is named “All American”. Henry Ford II was determined to, as Carroll Shelby put it, “kick Ferrari’s ass”. Enzo Ferrari had strung the Deuce along when the Dearborn automaker wanted to buy the Italian sports and car manufacturer in the early 1960s. When Henry Ford’s grandson realized that Enzo had no intention of selling, certainly not to an American, Ford II vowed to humiliate Ferrari on the race track. It took a while but eventually Ford won at LeMans four years running, eclipsing Ferrari’s star in that form of racing for a while.

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Though Ford’s “total performance” marketing effort included a variety of racing formats, Ford didn’t make sports cars, or at least nothing that would do at LeMans, an important race to Ferrari, the man and the company.To kick start Ford’s LeMans effort, Ford contracted with Eric Broadley and his Lola company to start developing a midengine sports racer. While the GT40 as it turned out to be, was not, in fact, a rebadged Lola, the GT40 project was based in the UK and that’s where the cars were built.

After some embarrassing fits and starts, it all came together in 1966 for an iconic (and staged) 1,2, 3 finish for Ford at LeMans. Henry Ford II, though, was not satisfied. The winning car was piloted by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, Kiwis from New Zealand. Ford wanted an all-American effort. By then, the next generation racer, known internally as the “J Car” was being developed, in Dearborn. One of the first race cars in the 1960s to bear the fruits of wind tunnel testing, what became known as the Mk IV (contemporary records indicate that Ford avoided calling it the GT40 Mk IV, simply the Mk IV) would go on to compete in only two races as rules and corporate interests changed, but it had a perfect record, first winning the 12 hour race at Sebring, Florida and then the summer round the clock race in France. Though it’s shape was refined aerodynamically, it was built just before external wings and other aero devices became commonplace, so while there are NACA ducts, a spoiler and other devices to manage air flow, it’s still a very attractive racing car.

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Gurney was having quite possibly the best week of his illustrious racing career. Before winning with Foyt in a Ford at LeMans, Gurney won the Formula 1 race at Spa in Belgium in one of his own Eagles. Not only was it the only time in history that an American won a F1 race in an American car, it is also still the only time in F1 history that a driver has won a race that he constructed. Then he won at LeMans, so he was understandably happy. On the podium, Gurney says that he was “so stoked” that he started to spray the Deuce and other dignitaries with the winners’ champagne, starting a racing tradition that continues, like Gurney’s record in F1, until today.

One note, though. I’ve sometimes seen it said that Gurney’s spraying of the bubbly started a tradition for sports championships in general. While Gurney introduced the practice to motorsports, he was likely familiar with it from how American baseball teams celebrated winning the pennant and the World Series. North American professional sports teams have been celebrating with champagne for a long time. I’m sure that Lord Stanley’s cup saw at least its share of champagne before the summer of 1967, and I don’t know how many Detroit Tigers were racing fans who saw Gurney’s celebration the year before, but their locker room celebration after winning the American League pennant in 1968 featured plenty of champagne being poured on team members and being sprayed around the room.

You can see the Gurney bubble on the driver’s side of the roof. Full gallery here

Speaking of bubbles, the 1967 Mk IV is notable for the “Gurney bubble” in its roof. Unlike the “Gurney flap”, which dramatically increased speeds at Indianapolis, the Gurney bubble was not an aerodynamic aid, but rather an accommodation for Gurney’s tall, lanky frame. If you go to any top shelf racing events, you’ll notice that professional race car drivers tend to be a bit like thoroughbred horse jockeys, short and thin. Gurney was an exception (I once asked racing journalist Robin Miller if there were any other tall guys racing besides Michael Waltrip and he replied, “I thought we were talking about racers”).

Dan Gurney taking the checkered flag at LeMans, 1967.

When they were developing the prototype and Gurney tried the cockpit on for size, he had to tilt his head just to fit, so the fabricators at Kar Kraft, Ford’s protofab shop in Dearborn, gave that chassis’ roof a bump. The Gurney bubble (not to be confused with a Zagato bubble) is actually pretty complex, going together from contours on the roof panel, the door, and the engine cowl. You may notice that the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car, which explains why the bubble is on that side of the roof. Though the Mk IV has right hand drive, it was indeed made in the USA.

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The LeMans winning Mk IV was back on display at the Ford museum in time for a gala affair honoring Dan Gurney, now 83, on the occasion of being awarded the Edison-Ford medal for his status as a racing innovator.

Henry Ford and his friend, mentor and former employer, Thomas Alva Edison, at Greenfield Village.

Now if you’re under the age of 30 and someone mentions the name Tom Edison, you may be partly excused for associating the inventor-industrialist with the word “douchebag” and the electrocution of elephants as a PR stunt to convince the public that Tesla’s alternating current was dangerous. Edison and his backers were heavily invested in supplying direct current electricity. Yes, Edison was a businessman who did what he could to make himself more powerful. Yes, Nikola Tesla was a brilliant man. Both of those things are true. It’s also true that Edison and his employees in many ways helped invent the modern world and that Mr. Tesla, brilliant though he was, was also bat-guano crazy.

Henry Ford didn’t think Thomas Edison was a douchebag. Henry virtually worshiped the inventor. Edison’s lab at Menlo Park was moved to what is now Greenfield Village. Before it was called The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Henry Ford first named it The Edison Institute in honor of his friend, mentor and onetime employer at the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit. Henry even spent about a million and a half 1914 era dollars on trying to perfect an electric car powered by Edison’s then new nickel-iron batteries.

Irving Bacon’s rendition of the Light’s Golden Jubilee banquet in 1929 honoring Thomas Edison. Image courtesy of The Henry Ford.

A couple of years before Dan Gurney was born, in 1929, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Edison’s electric light bulb Henry Ford held a “Light’s Golden Jubilee” celebration at the opening of the Edison Institute, and invited just about every notable industrialist and scientist to the banquet at his museum honoring Edison. Nine years later, Ford commissioned painter Irving Bacon to memorialize the event with a large oil painting featuring all of the honored guests. It took Bacon seven years to complete the 17′ by 7′ painting that now hangs in the museum’s concourse. Say what you will about Henry Ford and Thomas Edison as human beings, it must have been a remarkable event, with so many of the actual innovators from the “age of invention” all in one place at one time.

Per LeMans rules, the car had to carry a spare tire. The tail lights are from a Chevy Corvair. The fabricators sent someone to the parts store with instructions to buy the lightest tail lights he could get. Full gallery here.

The repair and conservation of the Mk IV were undertaken because the car had been damaged while in the UK for the Goodwood events. While I’m sure that everything is documented at the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford institutions’ archive, the museum has been a bit coy about what actually happened to the car. Apparently the car, either by itself or more likely while still in its shipping container, was dropped. It must have been quite a drop because it damaged a car that survived 36 hours of intense racing competition with the only visible damage being a windshield crack and stress cracks in the bodywork from when the celebrating team hopped on the car for a victory lap. Based on what the museum has said, the left side sill panel was crunched and engine mounts were broken. It’s possible that the then innovative aluminum honeycomb based chassis was also damaged.

Carroll Shelby managed Ford’s LeMans effort and was the titular car owner for the race. The lanky Texan probably also needed the Gurney bubble to fit in the cockpit. Shelby said that he had the car repainted after the 1967 race for the show circuit and it’s a good guess that he also took it for a post-race spin or two, so not all the grime on the car today is necessarily French.

The museum has stressed that it was a conservation to how the car was when it came off the la Sarthe circuit in 1967. According to what Carroll Shelby said a few decades ago though, that may not strictly be true. Now ‘Ol Shel was not adverse to stretching some truths so take it with a grain of salt, but the car was entered in the LeMans race by Shelby American, which managed Ford’s LeMans effort. Theoretically Shelby owned the car and when it got back to his shop in California, he said that he pulled the big block V8 engine out to dyno test it and discovered that it had actually gained 5 horsepower from before the race. Racing at full throttle for 24 hours had done a great job of breaking in the engine. Shelby also said that the car was resprayed for the show circuit, so some of the grime on the car today may not have actually come from France.

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Shelby eventually returned the car to Ford Motor Company, which in turn donated it to the museum, where it sat largely untouched until it was damaged in England.

Dan Gurney and his LeMans winning Ford Mk IV at the Henry Ford Museum, 2014. Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford.

The car is still very original. During the conservation, retired Ford LeMans team engineer Mose Newland was brought in to consult and he identified a number of ancillaries on the engine being color coded indicating that they were original equipment. He also said that the unique way that safety wires were twisted said to him that the engine and car was original, as raced at LeMans.

Bent aluminum panels and stress cracks from the LeMans race were left untouched in the conservation. Full gallery here.

A couple of things that weren’t repaired were the panel cracks from the victory lap and the cracked windshield, along with some bent panels in the aero duct in the car’s hood. In 1967, the racing team had a problem with windshields repeatedly cracking and apparently they had to have some emergency air freighted to France from Dearborn, no small or inexpensive task in 1967. Though a replacement windshield was fabricated during the conservation, it was decided to leave the car’s racing scars intact. Like with the Liberty Bell, once a crack starts, it’s hard to stop it and should the Mk IV’s original windshield completely break, the museum has a replacement ready.

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In an era when almost every car that is restored is rebuilt to a standard well beyond how it departed the factory, it’s nice to see folks treat a piece of history like a piece of history.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

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  • RobertRyan RobertRyan on Nov 15, 2014

    "it is also still the only time in F1 history that a driver has won a race that he constructed." Black Jack Brabham would disagree. , he not ony won a race driving his own car, but several World Championships

  • El scotto El scotto on Nov 16, 2014

    RE: Robin Miller's comment about Michael Waltrip. Glad to see he's still keeping it classy.

  • Paul Pity. I think there's a market for these now that half ton pickups are so immense. A few more fumbles and GM could miss out.
  • Kcflyer So I get to continue to subsidize my neighbors new EV's. Bonus, I get to pay for they kids Gender Studies Diplomas.
  • Wolfwagen The Alpha Numeric model system used to be good and had some consistency either to the size of the vehicle or engine. Now its just gobbly gook that doesn't make any sense. Lincoln was the worst since all their vehicles looked the same and all started with MK.
  • Urlik GDI engines emit 5 to 10 times the particulate matter that PFI engines emit. The particles are not just carbon either.
  • Pgb65773699 I enjoyed it, it is what you expect , funny