Vic Elford: Interview From 2015

In 2015, I was doing occasional, odd freelance jobs for my friend Jeff Jablansky, who ran an automotive [world] news publication at the time. Through no fault of his own, that website no longer exists, but he greenlit a number of silly ideas I pitched that year. One was to cover a Texas Concours event exclusively in... animated car gifs?

Nothing memorable came of those, however the organizers of the Concours asked if I'd like an interview slot with their visiting guest of honor, legendary racing driver Vic Elford. 

I said yes. Thankfully, I had another friend, Will Pierce, assisting me that weekend, and he came up with brilliant, well-researched questions, many of which even surprised Vic himself. Since that interview is no longer online, I wanted to share it here.  

capturingthemachine: I'm sure you get questions about the race cars and everything, what was the most confidence inspiring race car you drove, the handling felt the most comfortable?

Vic Elford: Oh, that's a new question. 

Well these, to start with [gestures to early-production Porsche 911 behind], I was [one of the] first drivers to [take] a 911 rallying. Porsche wasn't interested, and I dragged them into it. So the first year, I was a one-man band learning about it and developing it. So I guess that first year, 1967. And in '68, this was the car I was most happy with. And there were all the others afterward, so I felt most proud about what I did with this one.

capturingthemachine: Is there any driver that you feel has similar driving style, is there any current driver you look at and say 'this person drives kind of how I did, or they feel kind of like me'?

Elford: Um, Not really because they're so totally categorized now. They only do this, or that or that, the only one I can think of is French driver Stephane Sarrazin, who actually does things apart from sports car racing. He does world championship sports cars but he also does things like world rallies like I used to, I guess he's probably the only one I can think of who does more than…one or two things.

capturingthemachine: Loeb's doing a little bit, doing other stuff too. So, you were teammates with Helmut  Marko, Dr. Helmut Marko. Did you co-drive with him? 

Elford: Alfa, that's right.

capturingthemachine: He seems like such a prickly individual [laughs], you read about him at Red Bull, what was he like as a co-driver?

Elford: I guess he was probably the same. [laughs] We didn't have any disagreements or anything, we always got on okay as teammates. So we had no problems. I guess he was the same as he is now.

capturingthemachine: What kind of Porsches do you have in your home collection?

Elford: I don't. 

capturingthemachine: No Porsches in your-?

Elford: Well I live in south Florida, and if you live in south Florida you don't drive anywhere [both laugh]. So if you need to go somewhere, it's so far cut off from the rest of the world, you fly, so if you have a car at home it's just to go shopping. So we just have a family Honda.

capturingthemachine: In 1967, you pretty much single-handedly got Porsche into rallying. I know there was a number of privateers running 911s in, like, Monte Carlo rallies before then, but what was it– because you were at Ford at the time, right?

Elford: I'd been with Ford for three years. In 1966, everything that could go bad, went bad. 

capturingthemachine: Ah. Was it the Lotus Cortinas, or?

Elford: Yeah, Lotus Cortinas. The cars were not particularly reliable but they were very quick. I won in Italy and got disqualified because Ford made mistakes on the paperwork, I led the Alpine Rally at Coupe des Alpes the whole way until about 20 miles from the finish and the car broke…and I lead the whole way, not leading just the touring cars like Lotus Cortinas, but I was in front of Porsches, Ferraris, Maseratis as well. So there were other things like that, all the way through the year. And so by the end of it I went — after the Alpine rally, I was in Cannes — to see Huscke von Hanstein, the competition manager at Porsche, whom I didn't really know. I had met him a couple of times but didn't really know, and said to him I've seen this 911— a couple of them had been in private hands, it was good in its class with one driver who you probably remember, who was quite good but better as a circuit driver than a rally driver, and one or two others — so I said "I've seen the car, I know it's gonna be a winner, and I want to drive it. "

capturingthemachine: What was it about the 911 specifically, that-

Elford: I had just seen it!

capturingthemachine: You saw there was something different about [pointing at 911] that?

Elford: I knew about it being different, but I was just…convinced it was gonna be a winner. So I said I want to drive one, and he said 'well we don't have a budget for rallying, we don't have a rally department, [Ferdinand] Piech is not interested, so no.' So I said just lend me one. Lend me one for Corsica, and I'll show you what I *think* I can do with it. And I was really sticking my neck out, because I was giving up a well-paid job at Ford to go to try to drag Porsche into something. I didn't even know if the car would — I mean, I knew it was going to…win —but there was no guarantee of it, because nothing had ever happened like that before, so I went to Corsica. I don't know if you've ever been to Corsica, but the roads are really tiny, twisty, and I managed to beat virtually all of my French friends in their Renault Alpines and Gordinis and finished third. And this Porsche — this — in Corsica, this was a big car. Compared to the other ones.

capturingthemachine: Those were the A110s, right? 

Elford: A110s, yeah.

capturingthemachine: Those are pretty tiny.

Elford: Then suddenly, at Stuttgart the mood changed when we won, they were thinking maybe he's right. They said well, "we still can't give you a contract or anything, but if you'll do it on a rally by rally basis, let's go." So I said okay, next up is Monte Carlo. 

I lead the whole way until we got to the Cul De Turini on the last night, and there was a very complicated regulation about tires that year, which meant when I got there I couldn't have the tires I needed. I had to go out on bad tires, and it had just started to snow when I got there. So I dropped from first place back to third. By then, it was all systems go in Stuttgart, I won three rallies in a row. In the mean time, I started looking up possibilities. One of the advantages of this car, above all the others, was the five speed gearbox, which was a big, big thing in those days.

And another thing, I didn't know this to start with until I learned about it, the man who was put in charge of building my rally cars was a man named Hermann Briem, who until then had been in charge of customer service. Hermann I got on really well, and I started asking him about more technical details about the car, we learned he had a vast range of different gearbox ratios available that other key people didn't have. So I finished up by designing my own cars, designing my own gearboxes, from one extreme to the other, whatever I wanted- and winning. So I finished up by winning that year three or four other rallies, I won the European championship. 

In England right after Monte Carlo, I did the very first ever rally cross anywhere in the world. It was being promoted in England, and I didn't have a car. The organizers said "well you must!" I went to the importer, who was a small private company in England, there were four of those in England[gestures to 911, holds up four fingers]. Four. [laughs] I said I need a 911 for this rally cross, and they said 'well, we have a demonstrator, our showroom demonstrator.' So I went in their showroom demonstrator packed out by the big factory Fords who were in the event, and I won! The car was trashed afterwards and bent all over, but I went to the dealer afterwards and he was actually very happy 'cause he got the phone ringing off the hook with people who wanted to know about this new car. But of course, the car was trashed, and they said 'what are we going to do with it, we can't sell the damn thing.' But I said I'll tell you what, it actually qualified, because of those two little seats in the back, as a touring car for the British Touring Car Championship, or sedan championship. 

'We'll turn it into a race car, will you drive it for us in the championship?' I said yeah, of course I would. So at the same time I was doing all these rallies in Europe, I won the British touring car championship in a Porsche 911.

capturingthemachine: Accidentally just finding out all the different hidden talents of the 911.

Elford: Absolutely, and then just to bring the whole series to a close went back to Monte Carlo again in 1968, and I won. …first time for Porsche, and believe it or not, it was the last time a British driver won it, too. And then I came to Daytona, and won Daytona.

capturingthemachine: It was a busy time! Now, you come from an engineering background-

Elford: Not really. I was an engineer, but that was just what I chose when I left school.

capturingthemachine: didn't you get a degree in it, or…?

Elford: I did. I was a civil engineer.

capturingthemachine: Then you went to go build your own gearboxes, and...

Elford: I didn't build them, I just designed them.

capturingthemachine: You did work with other driver/developers like Jim Hall and Bruce McLaren, did you find [because of this background] there was a stronger relationship between you and Hall, or McLaren? Because you were also really strong minded about development, and being opinionated about the car, about how to make it better — did that ever lead to any tensions between you and-

Elford: Absolutely not, Jim and I got on terrifically well. With the Chaparral it was all brand new to him, and of course it was totally brand new for me, so we learned together as we went along. And I didn't drive for Bruce McLaren, I drove McLarens, I never worked with Bruce. I was already at Can-Am in 1970 and Bruce was…I think in 1968 he was killed.

capturingthemachine: The 2J. I'm from Texas, so obviously Chaparral is very close to my heart.

Elford: Me too.

capturingthemachine: Of course you had already driven the 917, at that point, but did you have a frame of reference for the kind of performance, or the kind of way to drive the 2J? Because it's so specific…there's nothing like that in the world at that point. 

Elford: No, nothing like it in the world!

capturingthemachine: There's no frame of reference like, "oh, it's just like the downforce in the other thing," other things don't have downforce. 

Elford: No, and the difference there is that other cars, like McLarens, the Can Am cars, they had plenty of downforce…at 200 miles an hour! But the great thing about the 2J was that it had downforce sitting still. It didn't have to move to suck itself to the ground; it was totally new. And that was one of its huge advantages, because as I learned very very quickly I could easily out-brake the McLarens or anyone else into a corner, because as they were going into corners, the speed goes down and the downforce went away- for me it didn't change! You know, I've the same downforce when I've got my foot down on the pedal, as I've got in a corner turned into a corner, so Jim and I were learning that as we went along. 

At one point early on I remember talking with him about it, asking "well what happens when I get to the limit?" And he said, "we don't know." [all laugh] "we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if the front's going to go away, or if the back's going to come out. We simply don't know, you're gonna find out!" So I did. At Road Atlanta I found out the car through any given corner for example it would have a nice, firm, radius, and if I went too quickly that radius would simply increase a little, and all I did was just a touch off the throttle and it would stop sliding and carry on again. So it had no vices, at all.

capturingthemachine: Wow. So it was pretty neutral handling, out of the box. That's remarkable.

Elford: Totally! I would simply go into a corner, turn the steering wheel, and it went round the corner.

capturingthemachine: So, Toyota. You drove the Toyota 7.

Elford: Yeah. How'd you know about that? [laughs] I went to Japan and spent two months driving that.

capturingthemachine: Did it have the turbos on at that point? I know it did later but don't think it ever raced that way.

Elford: No. At that time, right at that time, it was 1969…we started in '68, I was there in '69. Both Nissan and Toyota were toying with the idea of coming to Can Am. Nissan had built their monster twelve cylinder car, which was never really very nice…and Toyota built the Toyota 7, which was beautiful, it was a lovely car to drive, and they already showed some of their technical ability — what they did, they bought two DFV Formula One engines from Cosworth and they took them to Japan, took them apart, and then they re-created that engine as a 5 liter engine.

capturingthemachine: Wow. That's a full liter bigger, isn't it?

Elford: It was 3 liters! The DFV formula one engine was a three liter engine. And they simply rebuilt it, redesigned it as a five liter engine. And it actually had a slightly higher specific output in terms of horsepower per liter than the Cosworth.

That's how good they were already. It was a lovely car to drive.

capturingthemachine: Were you involved with the development?

Elford: Well yeah, I was there for two months there in Japan.

capturingthemachine: How did you find the early…because at that point other than Honda there wasn't a lot of international car racing out of Japan at the time.

Elford: I read about this possible thing and I'd written to Toyota way back in 1968, and then they wrote to me and said yep, very good, we'd like for you to come and work for us for two months doing that. So I went to Japan for two months, spent two months working nonstop on the development of the car and I got on very well with the Japanese engineers, and the drivers, too. 

capturingthemachine: How different was the engineering culture there, or just the motorsport approach, by the Japanese at that kind of early stage?

Elford: In terms of the drivers, I would say that the drivers tended to be told what to do, and they had to do it. I was the odd man out, because they wanted me to tell them about the car, so I was learning about the car all the time and working with the engineers, and by then I was pretty good test & development driver so I got on well with the engineers doing that sort of thing. When it came to the race I drove alone anyway, I was the only one who did…so I got on very well. It was definitely a very sort of, "them and us" attitude between engineers and drivers amongst the Japanese themselves. 

capturingthemachine: Oh ok. A lot more delineation.

Elford: Yeah.

capturingthemachine: Do you feel like there was a greater mechanical knowledge of drivers back then, compared to now?

Elford: No, I think a lot less. A lot less. Because cars have progressed technically, and so today you know when you get to the upper echelons of racing whether it's formula one, or world sports cars, that sort of level, a driver's got to be pretty technically savvy today to be able to make it work.

Back then…not so much. Drivers who were good on the technical side tended to have a bit of an advantage. I think. Like me, I did. Pedro [Rodriguez] was very good at it too.

Then on the other side you have drivers like Jochen Rindt, who was totally useless. Useless, didn't have a clue. He had to sort of try and tell Colin Chapman, "well I think it's doing this, and I'm not sure about this," and Chapman would try and work it out and try to dial it into the car. 

capturingthemachine: I wanted to ask you the difference between, from a driver's perspective specifically, of driving the Targa Florio versus rallying.

Elford: Ah. Big difference. Rallying is short sections…back in those days, nobody could learn the sort of colossal lengths of distance we had to do, rallying's a lot different because you'll have maybe a 20-mile section and do it twice. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon. It's little packages like that, whereas back then we would have quite a number of pretty long sections. Chartreuse for example, up and over three mountains between Charbonnieres and Grenoble, it was 44 kilometers.…at night. 

[thumbs up]…In the snow. Lovely. It was one of our favorites. But you know we had a number, we didn't do the same ones two or three times in a rally, you would start here and [gesturing] wind around France and all of this is different. So we would use pace notes, which I'm sure you know about, and in the car of course you couldn't read pace notes so you had to learn it, and I'm very fortunate in that I have an almost photographic memory for roads. Not anymore because I don't bother, but I could drive somewhere once, and I could remember the road — by the time I had done it five times, I'd know it quite intimately. 

So in the Targa Florio, for example. The first time I went in 1967 I probably did in practice cars, 12…maybe 15 laps? Certainly not more. Then in the race I drove five or six laps, and I finished third. Then when I went back the following year, I obviously did a lot more training, spent a lot more time, so when I went to the start in 1968 I had probably done about 25 laps — but it's 45 miles around! And I knew it — totally. Absolutely totally. You could have put a blindfold on me, taken me in a helicopter, spinned me around, put it down on the ground and I could tell you which direction the road was going, what gear I was in, what the next one was going to be, that's how well I knew it. And I'm the only person who ever did, I think. Even [Nino] Vaccarella, who lives there, says he didn't know it quite as well as I did.

capturingthemachine: [laughs] You definitely seem to talk about it in a much more…bright way, in times I've seen drivers talk about the Targa they talk about it in a very tired way, almost. 

Elford: Of course, it's hard work for them! 

capturingthemachine: They talk like it's a treacherous thing, but you seem to talk about it like "ah! those were the days."

Elford: They were driving on the absolute limit. But I loved it. I loved it better than most anybody else, and that always helps.

capturingthemachine: That's fantastic. Well I think that about wraps it up, save for one last comment. You used the term "susceptible to balance" once, in referring to the handling of the old 911s, and I just love the phrase "susceptible to balance,"

Elford: Absolutely.

capturingthemachine: I've been trying to integrate it into my vocabulary.

Elford: Well any car is. But none, more than that. [points back at Porsche 911]

capturingthemachine: Is that because you just felt, you understand you needed to come to the car, not the car come to you; or do you just think your style suits the 911?

Elford: No, I didn't have a 'style'. I had learned what it wanted, and other people didn't, couldn't, or didn't bother. In those days…have you read any of my books?

capturingthemachine: No, not yet.

Elford: I've written two. In those days, everybody who had ever driven the 911 said it's a terrible car, it oversteers like hell, if you go into a corner too quickly and lift off you were gonna spin in the car backwards, and it was bullshit.

Total bullshit. It's not an oversteering car at all, it's basically an understeering car. But you have to learn that. And you have to learn why it's an understeering car, and you have to learn how to manage that understeer, and you don't create a weak entry unless you want to.

Vic Elford passed away in 2022 at age 86. I still think about some of the things he said back in 2015, and if you read this far, maybe you will too. 

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