This year marks half-a-cen­tury since a sports-rac­ing car painted in the dis­tinc­tive pow­der blue and or­ange liv­ery of the Gulf Oil Com­pany took to the track. Del­wyn Mal­lett looks at the his­tory of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Porsche and one of its most fa­mous

Classic Porsche - - Contents - Words: Del­wyn Mal­lett Pho­tos: Porsche Archiv, Canepa and au­thor

Del­wyn Mal­lett looks back at 50 years of Gulf Oil spon­sor­ship

The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a high point in sports car rac­ing, with ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers and teams from Italy, Ger­many, France, Bri­tain and the USA en­gag­ing the ser­vices of the worldʼs best driv­ers, in­clud­ing those from Formula One, to pi­lot their cars as they fought for lau­rels in the World Sportscar Cham­pi­onship.

The FIA had re­laxed the rules re­lat­ing to ad­ver­tis­ing on com­pe­ti­tion cars, open­ing the way for ma­jor spon­sor­ship deals with brands such as Gulf and Mar­tini, pre­cip­i­tat­ing a new look for rac­ing cars no longer re­stricted to na­tional or team colours and the odd hap­haz­ardly at­tached auto-re­lated de­cal or two. The blue and or­ange Gulf Oil liv­ery spanned the years 1967 to 1975 and ap­peared on two World Cham­pi­onship-win­ning mar­ques, Ford and Porsche.

It was all made pos­si­ble by the per­se­ver­ance in the face of re­peated fail­ures of An­thony Fran­cis Lu­cas, a tena­cious Croa­t­ian-born oil prospec­tor, who struck black gold in Beau­mont, a small town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, in 1901.

The ʻLu­cas Gush­erʼ, also known as the ʻSpindle­top Gush­erʼ after its lo­ca­tion on Spindle­top Hill, shot a geyser of crude oil 200ft into the air at the rate of 100,000 bar­rels a day for nine days be­fore it was capped. This find started the Texas oil boom and in lit­tle over a year there were al­most 300 oil wells in op­er­a­tion, and Texas be­came the world cen­tre of oil pro­duc­tion. The Gulf Oil com­pany, named after the Gulf Coast, was of­fi­cially formed in 1907 and rapidly grew into a gi­ant cor­po­ra­tion with a global reach.

In the 1930s, Gulf be­came in­creas­ingly in­volved in pro­mot­ing its brand and the qual­ity of its prod­ucts by as­so­ci­a­tion with mo­tor sport. Salt Lake City res­i­dent and long dis­tance speed record breaker ex­traor­di­naire, Ab Jenk­ins, used Gulf lu­bri­cants in his fa­mous, or­ange painted, Due­sen­berg-based ʻMor­mon Me­te­orʼ as he tore around the Bon­neville Salt Flats – some­times for days at a time – set­ting long-dis­tance records.

Gulfʼs most com­mit­ted ef­fort in PRE-WWII mo­tor rac­ing came in 1937 when they ap­proached the famed race car de­signer Harry Miller, who was en­gaged in build­ing what would be the first rear-en­gined road­ster to race in the In­di­anapo­lis 500. Gulf took over the project, moved Miller to their vast re­search and de­vel­op­ment cen­tre in Har­mar­ville, Penn­syl­va­nia, and to their credit were not dis­cour­aged when Millerʼs first ef­fort turned out to be a dis­ap­point­ment.

See­ing it as a high pro­file show­case for Gulf prod­ucts, par­tic­u­larly their No-nox gaso­line (petrol to we Limeys), they threw money at Miller who set about a new ver­sion. Ob­vi­ously seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Dr Porscheʼs Auto-unions as far as en­gine lo­ca­tion, the new car was per­haps an in­no­va­tion too far. Not only was the su­per­charged six-cylin­der en­gine be­hind the driver but it was also four-wheel drive, had pan­nier fuel tanks and was the first rac­ing car with disc brakes. The car failed to qual­ify for the 1938 race but, after Miller once again set about mod­i­fi­ca­tions, an­other three cars were built, one of which qual­i­fied on the sec­ond row of the 1939 race.

The man who fi­nally put Gulf Oil firmly on the mo­tor­sport map and in the pub­lic eye was Grady Davis. Born in Texas in 1908, Davis gained a de­gree in ge­ol­ogy and en­tered the oil busi­ness, worked as a ʻwild­cat­terʼ, and even­tu­ally joined a Gulf Oil sub­sidiary in South Amer­ica. Grady worked his way up the cor­po­rate lad­der and by 1960 had achieved the po­si­tion of Ex­ec­u­tive Vice-pres­i­dent of Gulf.

For­tu­nately for rac­ing fans Davis was an en­thu­si­ast through and through, com­pet­ing in his own Corvette, and with Gulfʼs


petro-mil­lions on hand he de­cided to spon­sor an at­tempt to el­e­vate an Amer­i­can car into the top ech­e­lon of mo­tor sport.

Com­menc­ing in 1961 and with the co­op­er­a­tion of Gen­eral Mo­tors, a se­ries of hot Corvettes were re-en­gi­neered at the Har­mar­ville fa­cil­ity. The blue and or­ange liv­ery was still a few years in the fu­ture and the cars were fin­ished in the Amer­i­can in­ter­na­tional rac­ing colours of white with blue stripes. The Corvette/co­bra bat­tles were mem­o­rable in the US, with the Gulf Corvette win­ning 12 out of 14 SCCA races in 1962.

Mean­while an­other man with un­lim­ited funds at his dis­posal also de­cided he wanted to see an Amer­i­can car beat the Euro­peans on their own turf, specif­i­cally Fer­rari, and par­tic­u­larly at Le Mans, then still re­garded as the most im­por­tant sports car race in the world. The man was Henry Ford II, who had just had his of­fer to buy Fer­rari re­jected. His ʻre­vengeʼ was the GT40 pro­gramme, which started in 1963.

Ford hired the vastly ex­pe­ri­enced ex-aston Martin team man­ager John Wyer to be project man­ager of the newly-formed Ford Ad­vanced Ve­hi­cles Ltd, based in Slough, west of London. Wyer would be­come a piv­otal fig­ure in the Gulf story,

An evo­lu­tion of the Lola Mk6, the new GT40 was un­veiled on April Foolsʼ Day 1963. Not an aus­pi­cious date to choose and Enzo Fer­rari must have been re­as­sured by the Fordʼs lack of re­li­a­bil­ity dur­ing the ʼ63 sea­son, when it failed to win a race. Henry Ford was clearly not im­pressed, ei­ther, and he had the cars shipped to Caroll Shelby in the US to be worked over.

It must have been a bit­ter blow for Wyer, made even worse when a Shelby-pre­pared GT40 won its maiden out­ing at the Day­tona 2000. Shelby had ap­plied his ʻthereʼs no sub­sti­tute for cu­bic inch­esʼ Co­bra phi­los­o­phy and dropped a 7.0-litre en­gine into the car. How­ever, de­spite the Fords be­ing fast, the rest of the sea­son did not go well after that ini­tial vic­tory – nor the ʼ65 sea­son, but Ford made his­tory and forged a leg­end in 1966.

The ʻbig banger ʼ GT40 MKII had come of age and its mo­ment of glory was at hand. Ford dom­i­nated the sea­son, start­ing with a 1-2-3 in the new Day­tona 24-Hours, 1-2-3 in the 12-Hours of Se­bring (the third place car was a 4.7-litre MKI) and – in front of the boss – a stun­ning Le Mans 1-2-3, end­ing a six-year run of Fer­rari vic­to­ries.

Ob­vi­ously con­fi­dent of suc­cess, Henry Ford II had made the trip to the Sarthe and, mis­sion fi­nally ac­com­plished, he an­nounced Fordʼs with­drawal from the GT40 pro­gramme.

Mean­while many pri­vate teams were com­pet­ing in GT40S and at Se­bring in 1966 our Gulf rac­ing en­thu­si­ast, Grady Davis, bumped into John Wyer and en­quired about buy­ing a GT40 for his own use.

This would prove to be a for­tu­itous meet­ing and shortly after Fordʼs with­drawal Wyer pro­posed to Davis that, rather than sprin­kling Gulf de­cals over a va­ri­ety of com­pe­ti­tion cars, they should form their own GT40 race team and paint the cars in Gulf colours. (The Ford-en­tered cars had fol­lowed the con­ven­tion of the day and were fin­ished in vari­a­tions of the USAʼS rac­ing colours, white with blue stripes or blue bon­net.)

Davis needed lit­tle per­sua­sion and the first Jwau­to­mo­tive En­gi­neer­ing/gulf Rac­ing GT40 took to the track at the Day­tona 24-Hours on the 4th Fe­bru­ary 1967. But weʼre not quite there

yet. The car had a broad or­ange cen­tral stripe but the over­all body colour was dark blue, the colour scheme used on Gulf ser­vice sta­tions.

By April the JWAE GT40S had been re­painted in the dis­tinc­tive pow­der blue and marigold that we know so well and per­sists to this day. A Shelby Amer­ica 7.0-litre GT40 won Le Mans again in 1967 but the big en­gines were banned by the FIA from the fol­low­ing year. Against ex­pec­ta­tion the now age­ing Wyer/gulf GT40S won Le Mans in 1968 and ʼ69, but it was the next phase of Gulf spon­sor­ship that made the blue and or­ange truly iconic. That and a 90-minute ʻcom­mer­cialʼ star­ring Steve Mcqueen: the film ʻLe Mansʼ.

Through the 1950s and 1960s Porsche had gained a rep­u­ta­tion as ʻgiant killersʼ, al­ways com­pet­ing in the smaller cat­e­gories but ready to pounce when the larg­er­ca­pac­ity cars fal­tered. In­deed, the 1969 race re­sulted in one of the clos­est ever fin­ishes with Jacky Ickx in the win­ning 4.9-litre Gulf GT40 and Hans Her­rmann in a 3.0-litre Porsche 908 pass­ing and re-pass­ing each other on the fi­nal laps, with Ickx slip­ping ahead of Her­rmann to win by a mere 120 me­tres.

The race also saw the Le Mans de­but of the car that would fi­nally place Porsche amongst the ʻbig boysʼ – the 917. Trag­i­cally it also saw the death on the first lap of pri­va­teer John Woolfe at the wheel of the first cus­tomer 917.

For Porsche their rac­ing ef­forts, par­tic­u­larly build­ing fifty 917s to ex­ploit a Le Mans ho­molo­ga­tion loop­hole, were stretch­ing fi­nances and also ty­ing up en­gi­neers and per­son­nel. Im­pressed by Wy­erʼs suc­cess with the ef­fec­tively ob­so­lete GT40S, Porsche ap­proached JWAE, now quite in­de­pen­dent from Ford, with a view to run­ning a team on be­half of the fac­tory. A tri­par­tite meet­ing was set up be­tween Porsche, JWAE and Gulf Oil and on Septem­ber 30th 1969 at a press event in Lon­donʼs Carl­ton Tower Ho­tel a 917 fin­ished in Gulf liv­ery and bear­ing the leg­end Gulf-porsche was un­veiled. So, for the 1970 sea­son it was a Porsche not a Ford that raced in blue and or­ange.

The Wyer/gulf 917s were turned out in what was es­sen­tially the same liv­ery as the GT40S, a broad dor­sal stripe, out­lined in black, the same width front to rear on one car and sweep­ing out un­der the head­lights and along the sills on the other. Gulf logo ʻroundelsʼ sat on the top of the wings and on the sides in front of the rear wheel arches. The first out­ing for the Gulf cars was the Day­tona 24-Hour race where Au­tosport’s Si­mon Taylor was moved to re­port that ʻItʼs quite a change for the Porsche to at­tract more oohs and ahs than the Fer­raris,ʼ and that they looked ʻ…sim­ply su­perb… men­ac­ingly beau­ti­ful. No Porsches have ever looked so well turned out.ʼ Tay­lorʼs ap­pre­ci­a­tion and ex­pec­ta­tion did not go un­re­warded, the Rodriguez/kin­nunen 917 com­ing home first with the Sif­fert/red­man car in sec­ond place.


There was no joy at Se­bring but at a wet – mon­soon wet – Brands Hatch, Pe­dro Rodriguez won by five laps in one of the all time great re­cov­er­ies, with an as­ton­ish­ing dis­play of car con­trol after be­ing black flagged early in the race and re­join­ing vir­tu­ally a lap down (see Clas­sic Porsche, is­sue 21). At Monza the Wyer car beat Fer­rari on their home turf and at the fear­somely fast Spa the Gulf cars were spec­tac­u­lar, Sif­fert/red­man win­ning in record time, mak­ing it the fastest ever road race. Rodriguez in the other Gulf 917 set fastest lap at an as­ton­ish­ing 160mph, roughly 12 sec­onds faster than the best achieved by an F1 car.

The Gulf/wyer steam­roller tem­po­rar­ily ran out of puff at Le Mans where ex­pec­ta­tion was high for Porscheʼs first out­right vic­tory. Porsche did in­deed make his­tory but it was­nʼt a Gulf car that took the che­quered flag. The Wyer cars won the fi­nal two cham­pi­onship races of the year, Watkins Glen and Zeltweg, to con­clude what was an al­most per­fect record for the Gulf-liv­er­ied Porsches.

The Gulf-spon­sored 917s might have failed to win the 24Hours, the hon­our go­ing to the Porsche Salzburg-en­tered 917 (see Clas­sic Porsche, is­sue 43), with Mar­tini-liv­er­ied Porsches placed sec­ond and third, but they did race into im­mor­tal­ity as Steve Mcqueen was us­ing Le Mans as the authen­tic back­ground for his forth­com­ing movie of the same name.

It is per­haps ironic that the most fa­mous Gulf 917, or at least the most pho­tographed, was twice a loser. Car­ry­ing the num­ber 20 it failed to fin­ish the ʻre­alʼ Le Mans and was then writ­ten off in a spec­tac­u­lar crash (in re­al­ity it was a dressed-up Lola ʻdou­bleʼ) by Michael De­laney, other­wise known as Steve Mcqueen, in that movie – but be­ware of clones, the al­lure of Mcqueen is such that sev­eral 917s have been re­fin­ished in the num­ber 20 liv­ery.

The 1971 sea­son saw the in­tro­duc­tion of ver­ti­cal tail fins for some races, cre­at­ing what many 917 fans con­sider to be the best look­ing of the many ver­sions that ap­peared dur­ing its three-year evo­lu­tion. Three Gulf 917s were en­tered for the 1971 Le Mans, two fea­tur­ing ʻLangheckʼ body­work. Both failed to fin­ish but the not-oft-shown Jo Sif­fert/derek Bell car fea­tured ar­guably the most aes­thet­i­cally sat­is­fy­ing dis­tri­bu­tion of the fa­mous blue and or­ange. The sen­sa­tion­ally curved pow­der blue long-tailed body was de­void of stripes but crowned with an un­du­lat­ing wave of or­ange cov­er­ing the cock­pit and sweep­ing back to the tail.

Con­cur­rent with the 917, Porsche also fielded their nim­ble 908/3 on cir­cuits such as the Nür­bur­gring and the Targa Flo­rio. At the 1970 Targa, Porsche fielded four 908/3s, three in Gulf colours. The Porsche de­sign stu­dio, un­der the di­rec­tion of the


newly ap­pointed Tony Lap­ine, had some fun with the liv­ery on these cars, re­tain­ing the blue body colour but trans­form­ing the or­ange stripes into a va­ri­ety of get-out-of-my-way, Iʼm com­ing through, ar­rows. These ag­gres­sive lit­tle ter­ri­ers came home in first, sec­ond and fourth places.

A neat touch, the sig­nif­i­cance of which was al­most cer­tainly lost on the ma­jor­ity of spec­ta­tors, was the ad­di­tion of a play­ing card suit sym­bol on the front right hand cor­ner – a club, di­a­mond or spade (the non-gulf 908/3 car­ried a heart) which echoed the sym­bols on Fer­di­nand Porscheʼs Targa-win­ning Aus­tro-daim­ler Sacha rac­ers of 1922. Pit boards fea­tured the sym­bol so that driv­ers could eas­ily recog­nise who was be­ing sig­nalled.

The 908/3s looked even bet­ter the fol­low­ing year, sprout­ing 917-style tail fins. The Rodriguez/müller car, how­ever, sported the odd­est ad­di­tion to the port­fo­lio of Gulf liv­er­ies, with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic large side flashes re­sem­bling the BOAC Speed­bird logo. 1971 was not Porscheʼs year at the Targa, all of the 908s crash­ing out and the win­ning Alfa break­ing the Stuttgart fir­mʼs five-year run of vic­to­ries.

The FIA an­nounced new ca­pac­ity rules for the 1972 sea­son ren­der­ing the all-con­quer­ing 917 ob­so­lete, and as ex­pected, Porsche hav­ing achieved its 20-year climb to the top of the mo­tor rac­ing lad­der, Peter Falk an­nounced to the press that Porsche would not par­tic­i­pate in the 1972 World Cham­pi­onship of Makes and that ʻRe­gard­ing the con­tracts that bind us with John Wyer and with Mar­tini, these ex­pire at the end of the year and they will ob­vi­ously not be re­newed.ʼ

One of mo­tor sportʼs most re­ward­ing as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween a spon­sor and man­u­fac­turer was draw­ing to a close. It was not, how­ever the end of Gulfʼs re­la­tion­ship with the JWAE or­gan­i­sa­tion. The team cam­paigned their own Ford-cos­worth Dfv-pow­ered Mi­rage cars for the next three sea­sons, win­ning Le Mans in 1975 with the GR8 and their sec­ond car fin­ish­ing third. Gulf Oil with­drew from in­ter­na­tional sports car rac­ing at the end of the sea­son.

Since those hal­cyon days Gulf has dipped in and out of mo­tor sport, re­turn­ing to Le Mans in 1995 with Mclaren, but painted dark blue rather than the tra­di­tional Gulf colours. The spirit and beauty of the clas­sic Gulf days re­turned in 2001 in the shape of the Audi R8 that looked won­der­ful but sadly failed to fin­ish that year ʼs Le Mans. Since then the pale blue and or­ange has made a more per­ma­nent re­turn to the tracks with Aston Martin Rac­ing, and in 2014 made a wel­come re­turn to the house of Porsche on the 991 RSR.

But can we have too much of a good thing? We old stagers may feel that the mar­ket­ing men have gone a bit over the top with their li­cens­ing agree­ments, pro­duc­ing a small army of Mcqueen aspi­rants in Gulf ap­parel of all kinds – even bar stools and so­fas! Thereʼs even a ʻlim­ited edi­tionʼ Mor­gan three-wheeler, which is surely a wheel too few.

By the way, in case you might be con­tem­plat­ing fin­ish­ing your own clas­sic Porsche in Gulf liv­ery, the cor­rect paint codes are P030-8013 for the blue and P030-3393 for the or­ange. Good luck. CP

Above left: The first show­ing of a Gulf-liv­er­ied 917 was at a press event at London’s Carl­ton Tower Ho­tel in Septem­ber 1969 Above: The mas­ter­mind be­hind the Gulf Porsches – John Wyer, who had over­seen Ford’s suc­cess­ful Le Mans cam­paign

Be­low left: Öster­re­ichring 1971, with Bell and Sif­fert in Gulf-backed 917K Be­low: One of the most iconic im­ages of all, show­ing Jo Sif­fert at the 1970 Targa Flo­rio in the vic­to­ri­ous Gulf­backed 908/3

Be­low: Jo Sif­fert and Derek Bell at the 1971 Brands Hatch 1000km, where they fin­ished third over­all be­hind en­tries from Alfa Romeo and Fer­rari. For many, this was the clas­sic Gulf liv­ery

Above left: Gulf press ad­ver­tis­ing was quick to cap­i­talise on race suc­cesses

Above: And suc­cess fol­lowed suc­cess for Porsche once John Wyer Au­to­mo­tive and Gulf came on board…

Above: The JWA-GULF Ford GT40 chas­sis # P1084 fin­ished fourth at the 1968 Spa 1000km, driven by Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs

Be­low right: Mike Hail­wood and David Hobbs drove the #22 en­try at Le Mans in 1970, crash­ing out in the fifth hour at Tertre Rouge. Note the vari­a­tion on the usual Gulf colour scheme

Be­low left: A dis­creet re­minder to the op­po­si­tion about who it is that’s just over­taken them…

Be­low: Newly-ap­pointed de­signer Tony Lap­ine was the mas­ter­mind be­hind the eye-catch­ing ‘ar­row’ graph­ics seen on the Gulf-backed 908s used in the Targa Flo­rio

Above left: Brian Red­man at the wheel of the vic­to­ri­ous Porsche 908/3 he shared with Jo Sif­fert in the 1970 Targa Flo­rio

Above: JWAE was re­spon­si­ble for help­ing Porsche solve the high­speed han­dling prob­lems which blighted the early 917s

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