Reliving The Paradigm Shifts Of The 1970s and ’80s Trackside In France
Photography by Jayson Fong
I’ve always been incredibly envious of those who were able to experience 1970s motorsport, in the 1970s. As history remembers it, it’s one of the most amorphous decades from the 20th century thanks to its cultural vibrancy and freedom of expression, but also the early years of the malaise era. A lot happens in 10 years. It’s impossible to summarize it in a sentence or two though, so many looking back on history use a filter like music to capture the zeitgeist, but for people like us—and especially when we’re talking about the 1970s—it’s all about the cars. At the Le Mans Classic, I was reminded that historic cars aren’t just incredibly entertaining to watch, but a physical snapshot of the time and place from which they came.
With racing taking place at a time when the commercial side of the sport and the associated sponsorships were becoming truly integrated, the 1970s saw some dramatic changes to the way motorsport was perceived. Transitioning away from the gentleman driver’s image and cars that were traditionally painted in the racing colors of their respective nations, the grids took on a new appearance that saw circuits becoming theaters of competition in regards to driver talent, engineering innovation, and even style. With race cars now mobile advertising billboards for brands that ranged from alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, and electronics, the world of motor racing was as much about appearance as it was about results (though the two were often intertwined). Together with drivers that had personalities that were as boisterous and varied as their race cars, the 1970s was without a doubt an exciting time to sit trackside.
For people like me, those who weren’t there the first time around, looking at the cars that raced in period at events like the modern Le Mans Classic is perhaps the only way we can get a small indication of what it would have been like originally. Incredibly different to the sculpted shapes that dominated car designs that preceded them in the 1960s, sports cars in the 1970s saw a dramatic change in design and engineering philosophies that were in line with the shift in tempo from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin. No longer was it smooth, proportional, and graceful lines like those on Jaguar E-Types or Ferrari 250 GTOs adorning race cars, but wildly enlarged and exaggerated wheel arches complimented by some of the most exotic liveries in the most garish colors on the palette.
Under the bonnets, a similarly aggressive approach can be seen in the goings on of the engine. With an approach that borderlines on an addiction, manufacturers and privateer race teams alike pursued maximum horsepower as a sure way of maintaining a winning position and retaining sponsors, with aero still a largely nascent area of expertise. Utilizing turbochargers to boost their power figures by the hundreds, the 1970s saw some equally ludicrous dyno charts in racing history, with Porsche 935s regularly pumping out up to 850hp in qualifying.
As exciting to look at while stationary as they are when they’re tearing up the tarmac, the sports cars from the 1970s are a perfect reflection of their time; they are the bell-bottomed flame-spitting heroes of a generation long gone but still reverberating. With engineering and designs that were refreshingly wild and even a bit absurd back then (and still today), there’s a reason this group is so admired by vintage racing fans around the world—including sports car ace Romain Dumas who piloted a Porsche 935 over the weekend. Thankfully with events like the Le Mans Classic bringing these historic machines together on hallowed tarmac, history continues to make its mark and prove that some things aren’t just confined to memory.