Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 5 1965-1969)


(Originally published May 3, 2013)  It is May in Indianapolis (again).  Last year, we featured a retrospective look at some of the Official Pace Cars used at the annual Indianapolis 500 mile race.  In 2012, we brought you four installments, which covered the cars featured in 1946-49, 1950-54, 1955-60 and 1960-64

The month of May in Indianapolis means only one thing: the annual Indianapolis 500 mile race.  The 500 (or The Race, as it is called locally) has a multitude of fascinating topics, but my favorite has been the Pace Cars.  So, shall we pick up where we left off?  Why yes, let’s do.  Recall that Speedway officials choose just one car per year for Pace Car honors.  The company that supplies the Pace Car also supplies many, many other courtesy vehicles for use at the track and by VIPs.


1965 marked a special year.  A Plymouth paced the race twice that year – its first and last time.   There were a lot of new cars that year, so competition for Pace Car honors must have been quite stiff.  But a Plymouth Sport Fury would be the car for the 1965 race.  There were supposedly 1,900 replicas built, one for each Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in the United States.  Jim Clark won the race that year – driving a Ford.  I can imagine that Henry II might have pushed a little harder for the new Galaxie as Pace car, had he known the race’s outcome in advance.


There is not a lot written about this car (go figure – a C body Mopar that gets overlooked).  Not even Allpar has any detail on this car.  It appears that the actual Pace Car was powered by the 426 wedge, but the 4 bbl 383 Golden Commando V8 was considered sufficient for Festival cars and for replicas.  There was apparently no need for special preparation as with the prior years’ Mustangs.  Other than the hardware for mounting flags, it appears that the Pace Plymouth was showroom stock.  P. M Buckminster, general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth Division, was the driver.  It seems odd that with all of the performance-oriented Plymouths that were to come, none was ever chosen to pace the race.


For 1966, we saw another historic but obscure Pace Car, the 1966 Mercury Comet Cyclone GT.  This would be the last time a Mercury would pace the race. As in 1964, Benson Ford would pilot the car.  This would also be the last time Benson would drive a Pace Car.  As we have seen, Pace Cars were more often than not painted white, certainly after 1955.  Mercury went red this year.  Or should I say Caliente?


The three cars used on the track were equipped with 427 V8s.  There were one hundred replicas built, thirty three of which were used as Parade cars for the race.  The replicas used a slightly warmed-up 390 rated at 355 bhp (due to special high-lift cams).  The cars were also equipped with a handling package and disc brakes.  Several years ago, a guy in my neighborhood owned one of these, car decals and all.  He stored it elsewhere, but it would make trips to the house on special occasions in nice weather.  Could this be the only really collectible Comet?


1967 marked just the third time that Chevy would pace the race.  Chevrolet would, however, provide the Pace Car many, many more times (including the 2011 Camaro convertible).  The 1967 Camaro is widely considered a response to the Mustang, and Chevrolet’s promoters followed Mustang again in using the race in Indianapolis to promote a new pony car.  Former race driver Mauri Rose would drive one of the three 396-equipped Camaros.


Being a Camaro, there is a wealth of info on the internet about these cars.  One source indicates that race winner A. J. Foyt turned down the actual Pace Car because it lacked air conditioning and a power top.  It is said that Chevrolet proceeded to build him another one equipped more to his liking.  Could this have been when he decided to become a Chevrolet dealer in Texas?  Much about these cars remains murky, however, such as whether the special white paint code represented some sort of special hand-buffed show finish, or whether it was a unique shade of white not shared by normal production cars.


After Chevrolet got the 1967 honors, we should not be surprised to find Ford back at the track in 1968 with its newest hot car, the Torino GT.  This time, it was William Clay Ford’s turn at the wheel, in what would mark the final time one of Henry Ford’s grandsons would pilot a Pace Car at the Speedway.  There appear to have been two cars equipped with the 428 V8 and a third with a 390, for reasons that are not clear.  It also appears that the festival cars were mostly equipped with the 302/automatic combination.


There appear to have been 709 Pace Car replicas built that year.  Given that there were a bit over 5,000 1968 Torino GT convertibles built, the percentage of Pace Car replicas is pretty high.  It appears that without Pace Car duty, there would be quite a bit fewer Torino GT convertibles preserved today.  Sadly for Ford fans, this may be one of the most overlooked Pace Cars of the 1960s, because of being between two years with very well known Pace Cars.


Poor Torino, I feel the need to give it just a little more love.  Actually, the car looked pretty good at speed.  But could Ford have known just how overlooked this car would become?  How else can we explain what must have been one of the last black and white promo photos of a pace car?


Speaking of very well known Pace Cars, one of the most well remembered came in 1969.  Who can forget the White and Hugger Orange ’69 Camaro SS.  So, how did Chevrolet come back with the second Camaro convertible in three years?  Perhaps because they knew that there would be no Camaro convertible starting in 1970.  Jim Rathmann, another well-known race driver, would be behind the wheel.  These cars all featured an orange houndstooth upholstery fabric that was unique to the Pace Car package.


These cars are extremely well documented at multiple sites (including this one).  It appears that three 396-equipped cars were built, then shipped to Chevrolet Engineering where they were largely disassembled and rebuilt with stouter, stiffer and faster parts.  Gee, there is no report of the ’65 Plymouth needing this special treatment (says the Mopar homer).  Oh well, we can at least agree that this was a highly memorable car that was prized by many.  How many?  It appears that something close to 3,700 replicas made their way into public hands, most of which used the 350/automatic power team.  A co-worker bought one of the replicas as his his first car in the early 1970s, and remembers it quite fondly.  He is, of course, sorry that he sold it.


It is clear that by 1969, the era of the full-sized luxury Pace Car was all but over.  Next time we will be back with Pace Cars of the early 1970s.