Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 4 1960-1964)

(Originally published May 27, 2012)  We will resume our Curbside Classic retrospective on Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars with the Swingin’ 60s.  From the Rat Pack to the Beatles, the period from 1960 to 1964 saw the beginnings of a lot of changes.  It was no less so in the choices of cars chosen to pace the Indianapolis 500 in those years.

As in almost every area of life, 1960 was almost indistinguishable from 1959.  And so it was with Pace Cars.  1960 brought General Motors’ third effort in a row.  After the Pontiac Bonneville (1958) and the Buick Electra 225 (1959), it was Oldsmobile’s turn with this big Ninety Eight convertible.

Although Oldsmobile would pace the race multiple times, this would be the only time that the big C body Ninety Eight would get the honor.  Oddly, it does not appear that Oldsmobile made any Pace Car replicas, and as is so often the case in this era, the whereabouts of the actual Pace Car is not known.

The Ford Motor Company finally broke GM’s seeming stranglehold on Pace Car honors in 1961, with a different kind of anniversary.  1961 marked the 50th Anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500.  The occasion would be marked by a special gold Thunderbird convertible.  The ’61 Thunderbird was notable for a heavy restyling and the debut of one of Ford’s best engines of the 1960s, the famous Thunderbird 390.

The color on this Pace Car was unique to cars used for the race.  This color was not one of the colors offered on any other production Thunderbird.  I knew someone in the 1980s who was trying to restore one of these, and the paint formula was (at least then) a mystery lost to time.  In the years since, the mystery has either been solved or worked around.

There were 34 cars used this year.  The official Pace Car was the only car with parchment leather interior.  The backup Pace Car and the 32 “Festival Cars” that were driven during the month of May by the race drivers and used in the annual parade were equipped with black interior, some leather and some vinyl.  The disposition of the actual Pace Car is another mystery.  A. J. Foyt won the car.  Some say that he later gave it to his mother to drive, but nobody really knows.  Very few of the golden Thunderbirds survive today, somewhere around five or six are accounted for.

1962 would mark another milestone: the last time an independent manufacturer would supply a Pace Car for the race.  Studebaker had paced the race before, and under the new and revitalizing leadership of Sherwood Egbert, the plan was hatched for the new Avanti to pace the 1962 race.

Alas, the Avanti would not be ready in time, so a Lark Daytona convertible was a last-minute substitution.  The race winner would, however, receive a free upgrade to an Avanti.  As for the Larks, the actual and backup Pace Car were equipped with the 4 barrel 289 V8 rated at 225 horsepower, mated to a 4 speed stick.  Both of these white cars with blue interior seem to have disappeared as well.

There is a dearth of available photos of this car, almost as though nobody could get enthusiastic about the stopgap Lark at Indianapolis.  Sadly, the only surviving vehicle manufacturer in the native state of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would not survive much longer.  In all, Studebaker fielded four Pace Cars, going back to 1929.  As of this, its final year, twice as many Studes as Chevys had paced the 500.  This would not be true for much longer.

1963 is a year in America that many consider the end of the era called “the 1950s” in the sense that the Kennedy assassination marked the beginning of the cultural upheaval known as “the ’60s”.  So wouldn’t it be appropriate that the car that defined performance in 1950s America be chosen as the Pace Car of 1963?

Why had it taken so long for Chrysler to bring a 300 to the party?  We may never know.  But the 300 Pacesetter convertible painted Pace Car Blue (called Holiday Turquoise on other Chryslers) would unfortunately fail to make the cut before the letter-series 300 would give rise to the sport series (that serious 300 fans would deride as all hat and no cattle).  The Pacesetter was not technically a 300J, as the J was built only as a hardtop that year.

A big block 413, a pushbutton Torqueflite and new styling showing the final influences of Chrysler styling chief Virgil Exner – what’s not to like here?  This would be the last eight cylinder Chrysler to pace the race.  Chrysler is reported to have built 1,864 Pacesetter convertibles to commemorate its 1963 role in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, along with another 308 hardtops.

The winds of change would start to blow in 1964 when the most significant car of a generation would pace the field.  The 1965 (a.k.a the “1964 1/2”) Mustang was chosen.  At the time, many considered the Mustang to be a cute little compact that would be popular for a short time.  It was certainly not in the same tradition of big, luxurious cars that had paced the race for eons.  But times change.

Three Wimbledon White Mustang convertibles with consecutive serial numbers were specially prepared by Holman & Moody for Pace Car duty with modified 289 4 barrel V8 engines to replace the 260 V8s that the cars were built with.  Another thirty five convertibles were provided for the Speedway.  Because the car was in such short supply, Ford supplied thirty five Galaxie convertibles to the Speedway in March and replaced them in early May with the Mustangs, which were pulled from the stocks of various Ford dealers in the Indianapolis area.  This is why the Mustang festival cars that survive have such variation in interior color, transmission, and other options.  Another 190 white hardtops were built as Pace Car Edition specials that were made available to Ford Dealers as part of a sales incentive program.

The original Pace Car was won by A. J. Foyt, and only one of the three actual Pace Cars is accounted for today.  The other Festival cars are difficult to account for because Ford took them back after the race (contrary to the Speedway tradition of making them available to Festival Committee members) and auctioned them to Ford Dealers for eventual resale.  Because they were pulled from regular production, they have been virtually impossible to trace.

Looking back to 1946 where we started this series a few weeks ago, it is quite a lot of ground that was covered by the U.S. auto industry in only eighteen years.  The transition covered high end luxury cars to pony cars, and from flathead engines (and even a few sixes) to race prepared modern V8s.  It gives us a sense of scale that in the few weeks that it has taken us to look at nineteen Pace Cars, we have but scratched the surface of the total, which numbers nearly one hundred.  Perhaps next May when the sound of racing is in the air, we will look at some more of these Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars.  But for now, let’s listen for Mari Hulman George’s famous invitation: “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” and enjoy the big Race.