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From the Archive - GT40's rivals: The Chaparral

  • Published March 20, 2018

The story of Ford vs Chaparral started at Sebring 1965, when Alec Ulmann, promoter of the 12-hour race, found his event sadly lacking in entries. Ulmann took the bold and contentious step of opening up the race to “unlimited” sports cars, of the type which later became known as CanAm. These cars had to have two-seater bodies, of sports-car style (ie, with covered wheels), but were free from such constraints as minimum weight, roof, provision of a windscreen and so on. The result was that such cars were lighter than Championship cars, and had less frontal area (= less drag). Although they were not eligible for World Championship points, if they held together then they would almost certainly win the race, in the process eclipsing the GT40s if the latter also managed to survive for twelve hours. Although Sebring was part of the official sports car world championship series, the big draw, Ferrari, declined to send any cars, because they knew that they, like the Fords, would not be able to run as fast as the unlimited sports cars. To be sure, there were actually quite a few Ferraris entered, but they were not works cars, being from private entrants (albeit with factory assistance) such as NART, the North American Racing Team.

Prominent amongst the Sebring entry list was a brace of Chaparral 2As. Unlike the earlier Chaparral ‘1’ series, the ‘2’ series was mid-engined, and initially it had one especially novel feature, this being a chassis built from fibreglass. Power came from a 327cid (5.3-litre) Chevrolet V8, and the transmission was Chaparral’s own automatic gearbox, which was expected to be the cars’ Achilles heel. Drivers of the lead car were the team owner Jim Hall and fellow American Hap Sharp, the second 2A being shared by Ronnie Hissom and Bruce Jennings. Surprise, surprise - they qualified first and second on the grid. This was largely because of the Chaparrals’ enormous weight advantage; with a race-ready weight (with fuel and driver) of around 1650 pounds, they were some 700 pounds (30%) lighter than the GT40s.

The result was predictable, and, despite horrendous weather which turned the track into an inland waterway and brought lap times to around 15 minutes (rather slower than the Chaparral’s qualifying time of 1m57.6s), the Hall/Sharp Chaparral 2A sauntered home 7 laps ahead of the second place GT40. So, in the first ever GT40 vs Chaparral 2 contest, it was the GT40 which lost out - but that second-place GT40 won its class and gained maximum points in the Championship. 1965 saw no more battles between GT40s and Chaparrals, but when 1966 arrived the cudgels were once again taken up. Chaparral had a new car, and this time it would be competing on equal terms with the GT40, because it was built to comply with the same set of rules - making it eligible for Championship races (and points). It was called the 2D, and it had a clear family resemblance to the 2A, the most obvious difference being the provision of a roof and full-size windscreen. The first confrontation was in the 24-hour Daytona Continental, where just a single 2D lined up against five GT40 MkIIs, which were expected to rule the roost. It was, therefore, rather embarrassing when early on the Chaparral took the lead! It didn’t last, and the car soon slowed following assorted new-car teething troubles; the 2D’s race ended when a suspension upright failed, after 11 hours, the race having by then become a GT40 walkover.

The result at Sebring, a month or so later, was even worse. Both 2Ds (only two were ever made) had serious engine problems due to rings which wouldn’t seat properly, allowing oil to do anything except stay in the engine. GT40 MkIIs reigned supreme, with this event being the only one ever to be won by a GT40 roadster, the alloychassised X-1 of Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby.

The Chaparrals missed the Championship rounds at the Targa Florio and Spa, and made their European debut at the Nürburgring. Only the latter race, and Le Mans, were on the Chaparral team’s agenda for Europe. Officially, Ford stayed away from the ‘Ring, although privately-entered GT40s took part in the sports-50 category; these were not expected to challenge for outright victory. The 2D’s drivers were the very experienced Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier, and both were very much at home at the Nürburgring, initially vying for position with the leading Ferraris. The race was run under changing weather conditions, and the Chaparral’s secret weapon - rain tyres made by carving a wide groove into already grooved tyres - gave the team the edge during a heavy rainstorm. It was enough of an advantage for the Chaparral (starting from second on the grid), which kept going steadily throughout the race, to come home in an incredible first position! It was a wonderful result for a team so new to Championship racing, and so relatively underfunded.

Sadly for Chaparral, that sort of form was not to be repeated at Le Mans. The single 2D entered was hampered whenever a wheel-change was required, because unlike the centre-lock wheels on the GT40s, those on the Chaparral were secured by six separate lug-nuts, so wheel-changes took an age. Not that it made much difference - after only six hours the engine couldn’t be started after a pit stop, so the car’s race was over. There are some interesting figures to look at here though: at scrutineering the eight Ford MkIIs weighed, on average, a massive 2705 pounds, whilst the Chaparral turned the scales at 1967 pounds (both weights were with fuel, ready to go), this being no less than 738 pounds (27 %) less than the MkII! Even so, the fastest qualifying lap for a MkII was 3m30.6s, for pole position, whilst the lone 2D recorded 3m35.1s, for 10th on the grid. Following Le Mans, the 2D was put aside, not reappearing until the start of 1967.

The Chaparral’s first outing against Ford had been unexpected, and also (as far as Ford was concerned) unwelcome. Chaparral’s debut outing in 1967 was nearly as bad for the blue oval. Once again it was in the USA, and this time it was in the Daytona 24-hours. The two Chaparrals which turned up were a single 2D, and the first example of a new design, the amazing 2F. Amazing, because sitting atop the boxy car’s rear bodywork was a huge wing! This was the beginning of the wing era, and Chaparral has to take a lot of the credit (blame?) for that. At Daytona, Ford struggled. The MkII had put on weight, and the novel J-car was still not race-ready, so Ford fielded no less than six portly MkIIs in an attempt to get the points on offer. Chaparrals were not the only strong contenders, because Ferrari was back with a vengeance, with the new P4s and a P3/P4 hybrid entered, and Porsche had one of their new 910s ready to upset the applecart.

Qualifying was far from easy for Ford. They did save face by getting pole position, but that wasn’t as good as it sounds, for Gurney did the job in a MkII equipped with supersticky tyres which would not be used in the race. Grid order was: MkII, 2F, P3/4, P4, MkII, P4, MkII, 2D, MkII, MkII in the top ten places. Both the 2F and the 2D were running Chevrolet 427 engines, bigger and more powerful than the 327 used in the 1966 2D. The 427 was rated at 525bhp @6000rpm, and was mated to a 3-speed Chaparral automatic gearbox, which once again was expected to be the cars’ weak point. Note that, had it not been for those sticky tyres on Gurney’s MkII, the 2F would have picked up pole position.

Ford fans will forever remember the outcome of that race as being one of the greatest debacles in the story of the GT40. Every single one of the works Fords which lasted long enough suffered transmission failure, the cause being defective heat treatment of a single batch of output shafts. Only by using the gearbox from one of the J-cars, which had been brought along to the circuit but not raced, was one of the troubled team finally able to limp home in a lowly eighth position, being beaten in the process by the first JW Automotive Engineering-entered small block GT40, 1049. The 2F started well – very well, in fact, moving immediately in to the lead. The expected transmission problems never surfaced, because, after some four hours, when Phil Hill took over from Mike Spence, Hill went back out on his usual line, and almost immediately, up on the banking, lost the car on gravel which had built up when the newly re-surfaced track began to break up. Spence had not warned him of the deteriorating track, which took Hill totally unprepared. The 2F slid in to the wall and damaged the rear suspension too much for the car to continue. As for those gearbox woes, they would probably have put the 2F out anyway, for they did that to the 2D when it was lying in eighth position.

For most of the rest of the season, Chaparral’s bad luck continued, the 2F always proving itself very fast, but unreliable. At Sebring the winged 2F gained a further advantage, the previously fixed high-downforce wing being made adjustable from the cockpit, so that it could be feathered on the straights, reducing drag. The first four grid places were: MkIV, 2F, MkIIB, 2D. At last, the Fords were as quick as the Chaparrals. This time it was the turn of the Fords to run smoothly, and they finished first and second after the 2F’s transmission failed and the 2D retired with an electrical problem.

Chaparral had decided to make a serious assault on the sports car championship, and they entered a single 2F at Monza, Spa, the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring, none of which rounds were contested by Ford prototypes. Monza: pole position, and a retirement. Spa: another retirement, but a fastest lap. Targa Florio: retired again. The Nürburgring: fastest lap - and then retirement.

Le Mans saw the first and only occasion when two 2Fs raced together, but they faced seven Fords, of Marks two and four. The Fords had been on a diet, thanks to the aluminium chassis of the MkIVs, and their average weight at scrutineering was 2648 pounds. The 2Fs, on the other hand, were fatter than 1966’s 2Ds, their average weight being 2203 pounds, the advantage of 445 pounds being down to 17%.

The Hill/Spence 2F qualified in second position, only 0.3 seconds behind the McLaren/Donohue MkIV, but the other 2F, of Johnson and Jennings, could manage no better than 24th, a huge 21 seconds off pole time. It was fifty years ago this year, and we all know that Ford came through once again, the Shelby-entered Gurney/Foyt MkIV leading home two Ferraris and the McLaren/ Donohue MkIV. The faster of the two Chaparrals had its transmission give up, and the slower 2F had to withdraw from the race when its starter-motor failed. This was the last time that Ford works cars and Chaparrals went head to head, and there’s no doubt that Ford came off better.


If you've enjoyed this you can read more articles from Issue 116 in our members area HERE.

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