A Ford Torino actually raced in the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans | Rare Techy


If you think about it, The Ford Torino, visions of David Starsky speeding around Bay City in his movie The Striped Tomato, is often the first thing that comes to mind. Likewise, when people talk about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, thoughts of battle-scarred racing cars speeding down the Mulsanne straight come vividly to mind. Exactly 10 years later Ford took overall victory at Le Mans in his GT40, a different type of Ford had to enter the grueling 24-hour race; this time the car came from the world of NASCAR.

In 1975, Le Mans organizers wanted to add additional entertainment value to the historic race and approached NASCAR president Bill France Jr. with a proposal to enter two NASCAR teams in the then-upcoming 44th Le Mans 24 Hours. The French junior liked the idea and agreed to send two teams to the newly created Grand International class, but which two? Since the 1976 race would be against Riverside in the Winston Cup Series, the two smaller teams volunteered to go to France. Herschel and Doug McGriff would drive their family’s Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey would field her Ford Torino. The French called the two American cars as Les Deux Monstres (two monsters).

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Ford Torino: Pop Culture Icon

When producer Aaron Spelling needed a star car for his new cop show, Starsky and Hutch, he originally created a green Camaro. But like the production team went with Torino when they found out that Ford was the rental supplier for the show’s producers. The pilot episodes featured two 1975 Torinos with 351 Windsors and 2.75:1 gears. As the series progressed and gained popularity, the Torinos were fitted with a Ford 400 V8 and improved gearing, giving the car more punch for stunt scenes.

It is well known that Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul were not big fans of the Ford Torino. In earlier episodes, the Soul was thrown from side to side in chase scenes due to bench scenes, which led to the addition of aftermarket bucket seats. Glaser, on the other hand, has gone on record as hating the car so much that he tried to wreck it on purpose. Despite the opinions of the actors, the show and the car were a huge success. The popularity was too great to ignore and Ford built the 1100 Starsky and Hutch copies of the special edition, not including the countless copies created by fans around the world. While the “Striped Tomato” was in his element racing around Bay City and chasing bad guys, racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans takes a little more imagination.

Ford’s history at the 24 Hours of Le MansFord GT40 on the track

After Henry Ford II lifted the AMA’s ban on racing in 1962, the company made a new initiative to focus more on racing to increase sales of its cars. This is where Ford started throwing money at the Ford GT program in an attempt to topple Ferrari’s reign at Le Mans. After two unsuccessful attempts, Ford finally won at Le Mans in 1966 and continued the winning streak in the GT40 until 1969. In addition to the GT40, the Mustang also participated in Le Mans; In 1967, the GT350 was driven by Claude Dubois, and in 1997, the Saleen/Allen RRR Speedlab team entered two Saleen Mustangs to compete in the GT class. Only in 2016 will Ford return to Le Mans with a new GT.

While the GT40 and Mustang had cemented their place in history at Le Mans, Donlavey’s No. 90 Torino was registered purely for show purposes. That didn’t mean Junie Donlavey and her team weren’t going to give it their all. Dick Hutcherson, one of three Donlavey Torino drivers, was no stranger to Le Mans when he arrived in France in 1976 in a Winston Cup Series car. Ten years earlier, Hutcherson was one of two Holman & Moody GT40 drivers. which finished 3rd in a historic 1:2:3 victory for Ford at Le Mans in 1966. If he did it then with Ford, he could do it again, right?

NASCAR’s Dance with Le Mans: When the Ford Torino ran the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans1976 Ford Torino

Le Mans organizers argued that the presence of NASCAR’s two cars marked the 200th anniversary of the United States’ Declaration of Independence and Franco-American relations during the American Revolutionary War. The reality was that the world was in the midst of a fuel crisis, which led to fewer competitors and less spectator interest. While the Torino may not have been the fastest of its breed, it had advantages over the other cars at the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans, its straight-line speed and its drivers.

In addition to Dick Hutchinson, Frenchman Marcel Mignot, whose main occupation was a driving instructor at the Circuit de la Sarthe, was chosen as the third driver; the team had no excuse for a lack of talent, but there were plenty of other excuses. The team had the right drivers and plenty of power, but the car was missing a few key things. The No. 90 Torino was equipped with drum brakes, where all the other competing cars had modern disc brakes, which were not ideal for the immediate sharp right-hand turn at the end of the Mulsanne straight. Apart from inferior brakes, the Torino lacked mirrors, wipers and lacked taillights; all of which were quickly added to Turin before the race.

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Despite the minor changes, the McGriff Charger and Donlavey drove the same way they drove home in the Winston Cup near Turin. When the race day arrived, Les Deux Monstres were ready to take on their foreign opponents, but neither came close to winning. On their second lap, McGriff’s Charger’s engine blew due to octane issues. Both NASCAR teams had detuned their engines, expecting to run at least 90 octane fuel, which was closer to 80 octane.

The lower octane was no problem for the Torino, whose 351 could handle the lower octane. Donlavey’s Torino marched on and made it more than halfway through the race before transmission failure led to an early retirement. Although neither car finished, both were a big hit with French fans and were driven around the streets of neighboring villages before the race.

NASCAR recently announced it will return to Le Mans in 2023, this time with a single car. It’s been 47 years since its first appearance at Le Mans, but NASCAR is better prepared with the Hendrick Motorsports-prepped Camaro ZL1.



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