Part 2 of Michael Cotton’s tete a tete with Vic Elford
Elford was unusual in the Porsche ‘family’ in having a personal friendship with Ferdinand Piëch, the company’s technical director who forced the pace of race car development. His son, Martyn, was in the age bracket of Piëch’s five children with his wife, Corinna. So it was, in June 1970, a few days before the Porsche’s 917 won Le Mans for the first time in historic fashion, he and Martyn were staying with the Piëch’s as house guests.
“Corinna announced on Saturday that we should all be ready to leave the house early. We all piled into a couple of huge American shooting brakes and set off for Weissach. Instead of stopping at the racing or research departments, we carried on into the depths of the off-road, off- everything terrain that I didn’t even know existed. We stopped beside a nondescript little shed, and a Porsche tank. Corinna took me by the hand, led me across to the tank and said ‘Happy birthday, Vic, this is yours.’
“At some point in time Martyn had heard me say that I’d love to drive a tank, and when Corinna asked him what I might like for my birthday, he told her. So, with a tank expert to guide me, I spent a marvellous hour or so thundering around the test ground in the Mercedes engined Porsche tank. It had hydrostatic transmission which works in the opposite way to traditional tracked vehicles. On old fashioned ones you pulled a lever to slow or stop the inside track to turn a corner, but with hydrostatic you turn the steering wheel and it speeds up the outside track, so I was taking corners at great speed and almost feeling like it was on opposite lock.”
Elford did not get to win Le Mans, in 1970 or in any other year, to his regret. Richard Attwood drove with Hans Herrmann to achieve Porsche’s maiden victory, in the 4.5 litre 917-023. “That car raced seven times, and I drove it on six of those seven. The one I missed out on? Le Mans, of course, when it won!” Elford started the 1970 race from pole position, driving a Porsche Salzburg 917LH with Kurt Ahrens, and they were among the leaders until their engine failed after 18 hours.
In 1972 Vic raced an Alfa Romeo 33TT3 at Le Mans, with Helmut Marko, Porsche having stopped their race programme on a temporary basis. During one of his stints Vic came across a wrecked Ferrari Daytona, on fire. He stopped immediately and ran to the car, wrenched the door open, to find that the driver had already made his escape. He rejoined the race, after his sporting act had been caught on television, and he was hailed as a hero. Soon after he was named a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit by President Georges Pompidou.
“The Matra team had won Le Mans for the first time, and they were presented to the President. Incredibly Pompidou did not speak English, so although I could hold my own with him in French, even into jokes, poor Graham [Hill] who had won the race with Henri Pescarolo, hardly got in a word.”
Elford is proud of the fact that he is one of only four drivers to have won six times on the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife (below in the 1971 Lola T212), the others being Caracciola, Moss and Surtees. He raced 15 times at the ‘Ring, more times than on any other track; 12 times in the Targa Florio, 11 times at Le Mans, nine times at Watkins Glen and seven times at Daytona. He contested 121 races in his career, won 12 of them and finished on the podium 23 times more, making a total of 35 podium results.
But still, the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally and the Targa Florio will always be the successes of which he is the most proud.
Three times wed
French is Elford’s second language, he and his Belgian wife Anita speaking in French at home. “When Anita and I first met in Belgium, in 1979, she couldn’t speak a word of English. Thankfully by then I was pretty fluent in French, so that was no big problem.
“I went to America originally thanks to my friend Gérard Larrousse. I was living in Halle, just outside Brussels, in 1984 when he called and asked ‘Vic, have you ever thought about going to America?’ Of course, I replied, but you can’t just turn up in America, you need a real job to go to in order to be allowed entry as an immigrant.”
As President Directeur General (PDG) of Renault Sport in France, he knew that Renault-Jeep Sport was being formed as the sporting arm of Renault/American Motors/Chrysler in the US. They needed a team manager, preferably someone with a comprehensive racing background who spoke both English and French. A weekend visit to be interviewed by Roy Lunn, ex-Aston Martin and Ford GT40 engineer – he was president of Renault Jeep Sport – resulted in a job offer, and a few weeks later I was on my way to Detroit. I can’t stand the cold, so I suffered through my first winter in the States as Detroit, and Chicago, are the coldest places to be.
“Anita and I have been married three times – twice to each other! In Europe we probably would not have bothered, but we needed to marry to comply with US immigration requirements.
“Then in 2009 we sort of drifted apart and divorced. A few years later she called me and said she needed to go into hospital for surgery, and would I go back to her (originally our) house to look after the cat. So I did, and then stayed after she came out of hospital. After a while we both said ‘this is ridiculous’ so we got married again. Both of us love France, especially the Midi and Provence, so we chose July 14 (Bastille Day) as our date, so we would not forget it!”
Did giving up smoking, in November 2008, give rise to tetchy moments? Just prior to that Vic confided to me that Anita had done some decorating, and he had to go outside the house to smoke his 50-60 cigarettes a day habit. “I didn’t really want to give up smoking because I enjoyed it, but Anita and I went for our annual check-up and our doctor said ‘Good news, I have a special offer for you on ‘Chantix’, do me a favour and try it.’ So I did, and within days no longer had the desire to smoke. After smoking two or three packs a day for over 50 years, you can’t imagine how much better I feel now!”
Vic and Anita live in a modern township 14 miles from Fort Lauderdale airport, a journey that never takes longer than 20 minutes, no matter what time of day. Life is to be enjoyed these days. “We are close to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and everywhere else in the Caribbean. We spent many vacations on chartered bareboat sailboats with me as captain, navigator, cook and even fisherman, although my fishing usually results in peals of laughter from the crew as I rarely catch anything, Closer look usually shows all the fish hiding underneath our boat, apparently believing that they are in a safe and secure area!”
Eight decades gone, Elford is still busy running his popular racing memorabilia shop featuring art prints of Porsche posters, all signed by Vic and artist Tony Hurst, tee-shirts, books and CDs. Access through www.VicElford.com