(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.
This is the first of the series in which I can actually say I would gladly own any of these pace cars.
Of the cars we’ve seen so far, my favorites would be the 56 DeSoto, 59 Buick and 61 T-bird. Honorable mention to the 55 Chevy and 63 Chrysler. Too bad the Avanti didn’t make it to the race. That would have been neat to see in Pace Car livery.
Looking at That, I Just had a flashback to 2 1/12 Mustangs I Had In Sturdy plastic – White and Red From NewBerrys -1964,or 1965..
as for the pace cars…
63 should be a sting ray or bonneville/gp
62 is just a embarassment for the 500 and indiana, 62 caddies were nice. lincolns
Where are the Ramblers??
Thanks again Jim, for a great drive down the memory back straight.
As for the Ramblers, you will have to make do with the 1947 Nash Ambassador. 🙂
Too bad the AMX didn’t get a turn.
Super 500 this year! With engine competition back, I might get seriously interested again. Sure am getting tired of Corvette pace cars though.
Yeah, the 500 was pretty good this year. I agree on the over-reliance on Vettes. Corvettes have been the Indy 500/Brickyard 400 (I refuse to call it the Big Insurance Co. 400 as it has been named for several years) for about ten years now. Remember when the SSR was the Brickyard pace car? I actually liked the look of that one, it was in a subtle gunmetal gray over silver two tone that was very attractive.
Why not have a Shelby GT500, ZL1 Camaro droptop or SRT8 Challenger pace car? I’d love to see that. Or a new Boss 302 pace car. The black and red Laguna Seca Boss 302 is especially sharp! Don’t get me wrong, I like Corvettes. But EVERY year?
Mike, I am with you completely on the never-ending parade of Corvettes and Camaros that have been pace cars in modern years. Actually, I think that GM has been the only one willing to make the commitment most years. Providing a pace car means providing dozens (probably over a hundred) of vehicles including a fleet of parade or festival cars, other official-use cars and gobs of trucks and vans used in all aspects of putting on the race.
The last non-Chevy was the 2001 Olds Bravada, and the last non-GM was the 96 Dodge Viper. I would hope that Ford and Chrysler would step up again. Some of the recent Mustangs would have been great. There is a new Viper coming, so maybe . . . .
Very enjoyable series. I just watched a batch of the Indy at the restaurant where I was having lunch. Chevy and Honda while I was watching. Perfect timing to get home and read this.
Well Kiwi Scott Dixon ran second in the fastest parade this year its hardly a race with no hard braking sharp turns of left and right and your gonna race in a oval at least get the back out on corners.
Dixon gave a very classy post-race interview on our TV.
This was a great series Jim. Thanks for enriching our 500 awareness!
Quote:”1963 is a year in America that many consider the end of the era called “the 1950s.” ”
I’m pretty sure the 50s ended just before Jan. 1, 1960!
You are, of course, correct that the decade of the 1950s ended in December 31, 1959. However, as an era or in a sort of cultural sense, 1960-63 had a lot more in common with “the ’50s” than it did with what most people consider to be “the ’60s”. I have read more than one commentator on history or pop culture who suggest that the real change in eras occurred at the assassination of JFK in November of 1963.
To me, the the very early 1960s, whether in music, television, politics, fashion, advertising or most other markers of pop culture (including the cars) seem to be a continuation of the prior decade. In the same sense, “the 60s” , as an era, is often considered to include 1970-71. I guess we should not be surprised that cultural “eras” do not break down so cleanly by calendar decade.
The sixties must have seen the most social change within a non-global-war decade. I’m always amazed at the differences between 1960 and 1970. I was growing up in those years, but kind of isolated from most it by my upbringing (only child of very conservative older parents who never socialized much), but whether we’re talking car design, popular music, or whatever, it’s hard to credit the differences between the start of the decade and the end.
Agreed. November 63 was when the 50’s really ended.
Don MacLean might offer the date, Feb. 3, 1959, “the day the music died,” as a swing point into the ’60’s……
(The Clear Lake, Iowa plane crash that took Buddy Holly, Richie Valens & PJ Richardson)
I’d say the election of JFK was a turning point, away from the 50s politically. He was young, fresh, energetic with a beautiful wife and young children in the White House. McNamara at Ford ushered in the Falcon before moving to the Defense Dept. under Kennedy in 1961. The Falcon, Corvair and Valiant, answers of a sort to the Beetle were a new type of compact. Everything seemed fresh. The Moon was possible. Anything seemed possible.
Nov. 22 1963 was the loss of innocence, in ways we’ve never recovered even today. 40+ years later. The past and future are fluid, but I’d argue that Kennedy DID have a larger influence beyond his death.
Another nice set of cars – I’d imagine the Studebaker Daytona would not be much worse to drive than the Big 3 cars and set up properly a lot of fun due to the compact size.
Didn’t see any Indy 500, was not on FTA tv here this year, not that I usually watch it due to the antisocial time – comes on Monday morning when I have to go to work!
I found these two images of the TBird at the Goodwood Revival, you can see her in the background.
11/22/63 Was the day “The music died”
I have to say that T-Birds of that era are of really impressive quality and quite handsome. The 61-63’s are my most preferred T-Bird models.
One more from ’62, JPC (eBay postcard):
I remember seeing this shot but remain convinced that this is a newer picture of a “tribute” pace car. Note the size of the trees and the red-roofed buildings in the background that are missing from the genuine vintage photo. Also there is the license plate and the whitewalls, which look wider than those in the actual 1962 picture with Tony Hulman and Sherwood Egbert in the car.
This period shot of the car on the track looks to have upgraded the tires to modern thin whitewalls and lacks any kind of front license plate (which was not required for registration in Indiana).
The other thing is this production order which I found online. This would seem to indicate that the actual pace car had blue interior (blv means blue vinyl, I belive). Note that the genuine picture shows a dark convertible top boot (probably to match the interior) while the postcard car has a red top boot and red interior.
It could be that festival cars came with red interiors. Still, I believe that your picture is a relatively modern pose of one of the handful of cars that owners have restored with pace car markings. I am still under the belief that the true original and backup pace cars have vanished to time.
Last thing – I just found the postcard you refer to. On the back side is the name and address of the printer. The address includes a ZIP code, which was not implemented until a year after the 1962 race. I am guessing that this post card is part of a historical retrospective series of Indy pace cars.
This appears to be Lorne Greene and Dan Blocker, of Bonanza fame, riding in the back of the ’61 T-Bird. I wonder what Chevy (main sponsor of the show) thought of THAT!
Haha, yeah, Chevrolet was a big sponsor of Bonanza for many years. I love watching the DVDs of this show and seeing the Chevy ads. Just great.
Waiting for the story on the 1967 Camaro Pace Car and the ’69 Camaro. My favorites.
The formula for gold paint vanished along with lots of others with the change to two pack paints and water borne automotive paints, I found that out recently trying to get ‘Fiesta” blue, I got eye matched paint made using an interior panel painted when the car was new and kept out of the sun, thats virtually the only choice I had and its the second time in 25 years paint has evolved on me and old cars Ive painted.