A TOUCH OF BLUE AND ORANGE
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
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
“THE GULF OIL LIVERY SPANNED THE YEARS 1967 TO 1975…”
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.
“SIMPLY SUPERB… MENACINGLY POWERFUL…”
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
“PEDRO RODRIGUEZ WON BY FIVE LAPS…”
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