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Missed opportunities – the tale of the 1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car C-71

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car. Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions, unless otherwise noted.

Car owner Walter “Wally” Weir wanted a shot at running competitively in the Indianapolis 500, so for 1967 he purchased a new Gerhardt Indy Car chassis powered by a four-cam, 255-cu.in. Ford V-8. Believing that a Formula 1 driver would deliver his best chance for a respectable finish at Indy, Weir hired Scuderia Ferrari driver Lorenzo Bandini, who’d perish following a crash at Monaco before he could even test Weir’s new Indy Car. This was the first of several missed opportunities that surround the 1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car, chassis tag C-71, set to cross the auction block in August as part of Mecum’s Monterey sale.

Wally Weir was a successful gas station owner from Webster Grove, Missouri, who just happened to have a passion for open-wheel racing. He began running cars in the USAC National Championship in 1963, hiring drivers like Bob Harkey, Chuck Rodee, Mel Kenyon and Bud Tingelstad to compete. Tinglestad earned a victory for Weir at the Milwaukee Mile in June 1963, while Harkey drove Weir’s car to an eighth-place finish in the 1964 Indy 500. Given Weir’s modest budget, both were impressive achievements with a 1960 Watson chassis.

1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car

For the 1965 Indy 500, Weir provided Rodee with a year-old Halibrand mid-engine chassis, and the driver managed a 28th place finish after starting 30th. Weir understood that better results would require better equipment and potentially a driver more familiar with mid- and rear-engine cars, so he began planning for the 1967 Indianapolis 500 early.

As Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson explained in a 2009 The Talk of Gasoline Alley broadcast, both Weir and Scuderia Ferrari used Firestone tires. That gave him a connection to the Italian team, and at the 1966 U.S. Grand Prix he approached Bandini, asking how much he’d charge to drive for Weir in the 1967 Indy 500. The Italian driver held up his hand, fingers spread wide, indicating $5,000. Weir shook his head no, then held up both hands, offering $10,000 for Bandini’s services. A handshake sealed the deal.

1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car

But it was not to be. On May 7, 1967, Bandini was running second in the Monaco Grand Prix, when on lap 82 his Ferrari 312 made contact with the guardrail at the harbor chicane. The impact likely damaged the rear suspension, and Bandini lost control, hitting a light pole and rolling the car upside down. Leaking fuel saturated the hay bales meant to provide a cushion, and a spark ignited the gasoline and straw. Safety workers righted the car and extricated Bandini, but by then the driver had suffered severe and extensive burns. He would succumb to his injuries three days later, age 31.

In a bit of a tragic irony, Bandini had served as a technical advisor to John Frankenhemier during the production of 1966’s Grand Prix, starring James Garner as (fictitious) American Grand Prix driver Pete Aron. It was Bandini who suggested that the film’s crash sequence be staged at the harbor chicane – the very spot that Bandini would suffer his own crash – ultimately fatal – less than a year later.

Bandini’s death left Weir with a new – and potentially competitive – Indy Car chassis and engine, but no driver. Veteran driver Bill Cheesbourg tested the car at Indianapolis, but it was another experienced racer – Al Miller – who qualified the Gerhardt Ford in 33rd place, last on the grid, for the running of the 1967 Indianapolis 500. He was in good company in the final row, starting alongside Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill.

Al Miller, in Wally Weir’s Gerhardt Ford, at Indy in 1967. Photo courtesy IMS.

Miller kept out of trouble, but on lap 75 his day ended early with an oil leak, ultimately leaving him in 28th place. It would be his last time in the car during the 1967 season, but Weir brought him back to the Brickyard in 1968. Despite Miller’s efforts, his best four-lap average was 157.109 mph, over four mph short of the 161.125 mph needed to qualify for the 52nd Indianapolis 500. Weir and his 1967 Gerhardt Ford would sit out the 1968 Memorial Day race.

It isn’t entirely clear what happened in 1969. Weir entered the car in that year’s Indy 500, listing Brickyard rookie Roger West as his driver. West arrived at the Speedway and passed his rookie test in a car owned by Carol Horton, but failed to qualify for the race itself. Weir’s Gerhardt Ford was a no-show at the Speedway, leading to the likely conclusion that the car owner and driver could not come to terms.

Weir never got another shot to put his car in the Indy 500. In February 1970, he was killed in a traffic accident, and five months later the Gerhardt Ford sold to Dudley Higginson. In preparation for the 1971 Indy 500, Higginson stripped off the car’s Lotus 38-like bodywork and fitted wedge-style panels in search of an aerodynamic advantage. The Ford engine was replace by a still-dominant turbocharged Offenhauser, and veteran USAC Sprint car driver Bill Puterbaugh was hired to drive the #30 St. Louis Special.

Puterbaugh had passed his rookie test at Indianapolis in 1968, though he failed to qualify for the race itself in three different cars. In 1970, Puterbaugh tried again but lacked the speed necessary to put his turbo Offy-powered Watson in the show. Despite his prior experience running at the Brickyard, he was required to pass a refresher test before being allowed to qualify. As the 1971 media guide related,

4:40 p.m. on Sunday, May 23: #30 St. Louis Special – Bill Puterbaugh – Spun once in turn #3 (NE), slid 340 feet to the outside wall, hit with the right side and slid another 320 feet to the infield grass. There was a minor fire but it was out quickly. The car was extensively damaged, but Bill was OK.

The car was rebuilt ahead of the 1972 Indianapolis 500 and entered without an associated driver by Higginson, but it never arrived at the Speedway. In fact, it never ran again in-period, but instead was placed into storage in Missouri before being discovered by Chuck Haines. It’s not precisely clear when he purchased the car, or how long it remained in his possession, but in the early 1990s it sold again, this time to Charles Hayes of Elkhart Indiana.

1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car

According to Old Racing Cars, Hayes sold the car to Jimmy Brokensha and Pete Schomer, who restored the Gerhardt Ford to its 1967 specifications, including bodywork (with the distinctive read and white checkerboard livery, reportedly in anticipation of sponsorship from Purina Feeds that never materialized) and 425-horsepower Ford four-cam V-8.

In early 2000 the Gerhardt Ford was purchased by Mike Canepa, who intended to vintage race the car. Though he never did, the car remained with him until 2014, when it sold to the consignor and the late Keren S. Babcock. Displayed at historic Indy Car gatherings in 2015, 2016, and 2019, the car’s Ford engine was rebuilt by Ed Pink Racing in 2018.

1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car 1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car 1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car 1967 Gerhardt Ford Indy Car

Chassis C-71 entered just one race in-period, the 1967 Indianapolis 500. Through extenuating circumstances, the car never lived up to its potential, and one can’t help wonder how things might have been different if Bandini – winner of the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona and the Monza 1000km, both with co-driver Chris Amon – had survived to run at Indy that year. Even without a list of big-name drivers associated, the 1967 Gerhardt Ford is a piece of racing history, and one of just 11 examples built by Fred Gerhardt for the 1967 season.

Mecum Auctions has not yet listed a pre-auction estimate for this lot. For complete details on the upcoming Monterey sale, visit Mecum.com.