The movie Ford v Ferrari brought back a flood of memories of a trip I made to Le Mans in 1965. If you haven’t seen the movie, the story revolves around the competition between Ford and Ferrari at the 1966 24 hours of Le Mans race in which Ford triumphs over the Italian automaker. I wasn’t there in ’66, but I was there a year earlier, when Ford was still trying to win at this iconic race course.
In 1965, I was in the Air Force, and stationed in Germany. One of my duties was to inspect small communication detachments in Germany and France. So when Le Mans came up, I scheduled one of these inspections to coincide with the race, and chose Master Sergeant Bobby Dalrimple to accompany me on the trip. Sergeant Dalrimple was a burly, good-natured guy whose strength would become essential later on in our journey.
We set out very early from Ramstein Air Base on a sunny Saturday in June in my green Porsche 356A. The Porsche was a used ’58 model that I paid $1000 for. I gave this car a lot of loving care, and had just finished doing an interior restoration. Our drive to Le Mans, west of Paris, went smoothly, although Dalrimple wasn’t entirely comfortable riding in such a low-slung car.
When we arrived, an hour or so before the four o’clock start time, I thought for an instant that we had stumbled on a gigantic carnival by mistake. A huge Ferris wheel dominated the landscape. Mobs of people scurried about to numerous attractions and vendors of every sort. It was hard even getting a handle on where the entrances to the track were. I learned later that the crowd was estimated at over 300,000.
While making our way, we found a ticket booth, and bought two passes to the viewing area above the pits. We found our way inside the track and climbed a long flight of stairs to what we expected to be a great viewing spot. What we encountered was wall-to-wall spectators, some hanging off the flagpoles, and not an inch of room for Dalrimple or me. Apparently, the track management was happy to sell as many tickets as there were fools to buy them.
Since we couldn’t stay there, our only choice was to go to the infield of the track. Of course while doing this, we missed the start of the race where the drivers run across the track—jump into their cars and drive off. But we did see some good racing. The Fords took the lead and looked strong, but after a few hours they were out of the race with mechanical problems. We decided to move on. We got in the Porsche, and drove to our other destination, the base at Chatereaux, where we would follow the rest of the race on TV.
We took care of our inspection duties on Monday, and headed for home the following morning. We weren’t far up the road when I discovered that I was having difficulty shifting gears in the Porsche. However, I continued driving, and with a bit of luck, stumbled on a small garage that serviced Volkswagens. Using pigeon French and gestures, I was able to convey our problem to a somewhat indifferent mechanic. He put the Porsche on the lift and tightened the clutch linkage, and with a shrug indicated that’s all he could do.
The fix seemed to work for a while, and we sailed along the French countryside as happy as clams. But then, when we came to a stop further down the road, I couldn’t get the car in gear again. Dalrimple and I got out of the Porsche and pondered our situation. What to do? Over the years in the Air Force I learned to never underestimate the ingenuity of master sergeants. Dalrimple said start it up, and when I lift up at the back, try to ram it into gear. I did, and lo and behold, it worked.
The car lurched down the street, and I circled around to pick Dalrimple up. I slowed down to almost the point of stalling and he ran alongside of the car and jumped in. We drove along judiciously, praying we would not have to stop. But of course, we did have to stop several times. We followed the same procedure, and after a while, we got the system down pat. I drove the last 200 plus miles in third gear.
As you might have surmised, the Porsche was somewhat worse for wear after the trip. The local Porsche dealer who repaired it was aghast at the damage I had inflicted on the car. The work order on the repair job he handed me was all typed in red, reflecting his displeasure. Fortunately, I never had to return for further service. Within a couple of months I was reassigned back to the States, and the 356A got sold.
It’s been more than five decades since that drive to Le Mans, but thanks to the film Ford v Ferrari, I got a bonus trip down memory lane.