Journal: Did Can-Am Have The Best-Looking Race Cars Ever?

Did Can-Am Have The Best-Looking Race Cars Ever?

By Joel Clark
May 10, 2016
16 comments

I’ve recently moved into a new artist studio and lucky enough, I share the space with a couple of other “petrolheads”. Here, among the array of old-stock race team merchandise, an eclectic mix of Formula 1 wheels and half of Caterham F1’s pit garage internals, there’s a mysterious—albeit very well-used and battered—bit of bodywork from a McLaren Cam-Am racing car.

The graphics on it are all hand-signwritten, and it got me thinking about the livery designs of the legendary race series of the late ’60s to early ’70s. I’ve always been aware of McLaren’s ‘M8’ series of Can-Am cars flashing around a track their sunburst orange outfits (still one of the first cars I remembering hearing a good while before seeing) but as for the rest of the series, I was never really that knowledgeable about what the cars looked like.

Here we have—at first glance—wonderfully bright, bold and exciting colours; each Can-Am car filling our retina with massive globs of colour, but, I can’t help feeling they could have been so much more.

The original Can-Am series is, and always likely to be, the most open race series we’ve ever seen. The series was virtually unrestricted on everything from unlimited engine sizes, power output, any kind of aero package—and your choice of turbos and superchargers! The rest of the rulebook was equally free; it required cars to have two seats, bodywork enclosing the wheels, and basic safety.

With such openness and abandonment, why didn’t the liveries follow suit? If everyone had an ideal canvas to go equally as nuts, then this was surely it.

The series’ early cars looked like real life ‘cartoon’ racing cars—I mean this as a compliment—because as a kid first setting eyes on them; they looked as though my ideal toy car had come to life. Luckily there are a few examples where the team did approach the livery with equal freedom. Some do: the 1972 Steve Durst McLaren M8D is a car that screams with all the American-brashness this race series deserves. Its light-to-dark blue livery verges on the custom car scene of that era, with different tones accentuating various shapes and parts of the bodywork.

Another notable livery is the often over-looked Porsche 917—could there be such a thing, you ask?

Well, yes; the 1,500+ horsepower, superhero-speed 1973 Sunoco Porsche 917/30 doesn’t look like the Gulf-liveried 917 racers most people know from Le Mans. Again, I find elements of ’70s custom paint jobs in there, plus ever-satisfying ‘phat stripes’ that drape over its flowing bodywork. Like many of the Can-Am cars, the 917/30 lived-on as the basis for F5000 and second-generation Can-Am cars. It’s only when you look to European race series—most notably Group 7—that we see the usual ilk of big name sponsors like Martini all over top-level race cars…but that’s another story altogether.

For what was such a popular and spectacular race series in Can-Am racing, one that featured many big-name drivers and healthy prize money, there is a distinct lack of livery-altering sponsors. I don’t know if this had anything to do with Johnson Wax, the company that originally supported the series, but it does surprise me to see the cars so unadorned by sponsorship logos.

The series finally came to an end in 1974 after a couple of fairly dismal seasons and the exodus of its top drivers to F5000, plus there was the problem of dominant cars often walking away with multiple wins on the trot. The noise and spectacle were worth it, and Can-Am returned in ’77 after merging with F5000—but many of the cars grew into ugly ducklings, until a similar demise in 1987.

I’m probably over-thinking it, though. In my research, I came across a promotional shot for Can-Am slot-car toys. To see them all lined up, like a ’70s Pantone colour guide, immediately took me back to what captured my imagination with Can-Am in the first place: they’re big, flame-spitting wedges in primary colors—not unlike what you’d see at the local horse track.

When the noise and spectacle are so good, who needs to stare at flashy liveries?

Photos courtesy of McLaren (Robert Bohl) & Porsche 

Tags Cam-Am/ Mclaren
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Corey Jordan
Corey Jordan
5 years ago

In some respects, during its heyday, Can-Am advanced motor racing faster than Formula One. In that respect, Chaparral led everyone. It was the Chaparral 2 that introduced composite tubs to the sport in 1962 (first raced at Riverside in 1963). By 1965, Chaparral was without peer in aerodynamics and ultra-light aluminum tub with two-position rear spoiler. When the Can-Am debuted in the fall of 1966, most major teams had crept closer to Chaparral . However, Jim Hall was not dawdling. In 1966 he introduced the Chaparral 2E. This car incorporated a patented rear wing, controlled by the driver. Wings had been tried before, but without the sophistication of Chaparral. The high mounted wing installation was extremely robust and incorporated a Watts linkage to keep the wing parallel to the tire tread. The 2E also introduced side mounted radiators. This freed up the front of the car for aerodynamics. Hall designed a flap that was tied to the wing position. When the wing was angled for maximum downforce, a flap in the nose closed to direct airflow over the nose for maximum downforce. When the wing was feathered for minimum drag, the flap directed air to the underside of the car. The 2E set a new standard for lowest drag down straights and highest downforce for braking and conering. In 1967, the Chaparral 2G advanced the technology. Older composite chassis’ were rebuilt into the 2D endurance racers and for 1967, the extremely advanced 2F was turning laps at Spa and Monza competitive with F1, despite weighing twice as much as an F1 car. Shown: Phil Hill on his way to victory at Laguna Seca in 1966 and Mike Spence setting a record lap at Spa in the 2F (1967).

Rusty Shackleford
Rusty Shackleford
6 years ago

@Guitar Slinger. Actually three of the 917s in the group portrait are CanAm cars: the 917/10, the 917/30 and the white 917 #0, which I believe was run by Vasek Polak as a 917/PA. .

Rusty Shackleford
Rusty Shackleford
6 years ago

To answer the headline question…..No, in my opinion the CanAm cars were far from the best looking race cars ever. In terms of closed wheel cars there are far more handsome, even beautiful, coachbuilt cars from the 50s and 60s from Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, etc.

Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson
6 years ago

Shackleford
I can also be considered lucky that I got to see the 917/30 s at Watkins Glen back then. Even as a kid I knew I was seeing something pretty awesome! The funny thing was, though, that I could take pictures of the Porsches at some of the tight sections of the track but my reflexes weren’t quick enough to catch the Formula Vee cars at the same spots.

As far as Can Am car liveries: The best ever has to be the Led Zeppelin sponsored McLaren from the 1974 Interserie. Check it out.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

That’s good stuff, Rusty.
They just had to get them pointed straight and get them to the next turn!
… then hope to slow down.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

errr, I mean Bryan.

Rusty Shackleford
Rusty Shackleford
6 years ago

I consider myself fortunate to have seen pre-Porsche Panzer CanAms at Laguna Seca and Riverside, and then the mighty 917/10 at its Road Atlanta debut. I never saw so many slack-jawed stares in my life as when Follmer brought that baby down the hill and through the fast right-handler onto the pit straight!

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

Yeah, my father talks about how when he saw the Porsches for the first time at Riverside, it was odd because they were eerily quiet… and then they were gone… leaving everyone else in the dust. {Whooooosh…}

Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson
6 years ago

@Christoper Gay & @Guitar Slinger
Well said and amen!

Also, I’m a bit confused about the article stating that the917/30 lived on in F5000. I don’t think so but I guess I could be wrong. Can you imagine that drive train in an even lighter open wheeled car! OMG!

Derelict
Derelict
6 years ago

No, no they did not. BTCC of the 60s and of the 90s had the best looking race cars.

Northwest European
Northwest European
6 years ago

I’m biased, but I like Can-Am cars. It was a combination of artful aerodynamic engineering, and when that was not enough, just add more HP. How can you argue with a rule book that said, two seats, covered wheels, and go racing?

http://www.nweuro.com/Inventory/1969-Lola-T162-CanAm-Car

Northwest European
Northwest European
6 years ago

Oh, meant to add — yes to the Group B comment! I prefer rally cars, but the Can-Am cars were (and still are) pretty badass.

Nate
Nate
6 years ago

Some of the coolest cars yes, but aesthetically not even close.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

Thank goodness the beautiful cars of this era were not yet plastered with the decals of a multitude of sponsors taking up every last piece of real estate on their bodies. Thank goodness.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
6 years ago

Amen to that Mr Gay !

And as for you Mr Clark . In case the historical perspective of the era may of escaped you ….

NOBODY had nose to tail sponsorship and manufactures decals plastered all over them back in the day . Not F1 .. not Formula 5000 … not Rally .. not the World Sports car championships … not the ETC BTC DTM … Nobody ! Well … nobody with the exception of Indy Car , NASCAR and NHRA .. which were and still are [ CART being the sole exception ] the very epitome of bad taste and wretched excess decals , logos and overdone liveries [ the only thing worse than the decals in the NHRA and NASCAR is the constant ongoing perpetual motion motor mouth blathering by the drivers and teams as they suck up to their masters /sponsors ]

And as Mr Gay has said … thank god everyone else had the sense ,, good taste and the lack of need of wretched excess sponsorship to avoid all that crap glomming up the body work .

Now on to the question at hand . Were the Can-Am cars the best looking race cars ever ? Hell no ! But were they the most bad***ed race cars ever ? With the possible exception of the 1986 Group B rally cars … damned right they were !

And again as to the question Mr Clark . The best looking race cars were the ones totally devoid of sponsorship crap all over them and more often than not carrying the colors of the country the car/team was based in … rather than some cigarette , liquor , airline , auto manufacture’s , oil producers etc dreck filling up the spaces .

Things were different back then Mr Clark … NeoLiberalism had yet to of taken hold .. ” Nobrow ” was in its infancy … and the almighty dollar/pound /euro had yet to of attained deification and godhood status … leaving designers such as yourself to design things of either usefulness , function or aesthetic value .. rather than being subservient to the almighty advertising and marketing mavens handing out their alms sparingly for the use of your talents 😉

Lecture over . Donuts and coffee in the break room . Quiz on Friday .

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
6 years ago

Oh … and another thing Mr Clark .. that photo of the multiple Porsche race cars … errr … only two of them are Can Am cars ..