Doug Nye: Jim Clark's forgotten racer

29th November 2017
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Last week – while nursing my ladder injuries as regular readers will be aware – I received a cheering envelope in the morning post. It had been mailed by Michael McKinney in the USA, owner, entrant and driver of the 1967 ex-Jim Clark Vollstedt-Ford Indianapolis car which he ran for us in the Festival of Speed back at the end of June/start of July. He enclosed three wonderful photographs of (and from) the yellow peril, taken as he drove it on a sunny run up the hill. I was so impressed with them that we reproduce them here – with Michael’s permission. 


It’s always great to be able to bring a car to the Festival – or indeed to the Revival – which will come as a complete surprise to most of our events’ attendees. When most enthusiasts think back to Jim Clark days they will picture him in Lotus cars of almost every description; Formula 1, 2, Junior, sports, GT – and a few might go beyond that to Border Reivers team Lister-Jaguar, or Jaguar D-Type, or Ecurie Ecosse Tojeiro-Jaguar. There will, of course, be those who picture him – before all else it seems – in a works Lotus-Cortina or a Ford Galaxie but they are tin-top fans so they have other problems with which to cope – but not many conjure up a vision of Jimmy in the metallic mid-blue 4-wheel drive Felday-BRM sportscar, and even fewer in the lemon-yellow ‘Bryant Heating & Cooling Special’ Vollstedt-Offenhauser.

Canadian-born Rolla Vollstedt had been a youthful street racer in Oregon in 1937 when he worked for a local speed shop. After wartime military service he bought his first ‘race car’ in 1947, and as early as 1963 he built his first rear-engined Indy car following closely in the style of the trend-settingly rear-engined 1961 Cooper-Climax. He had, in fact, reacted very quickly to the advent of rear-engined European-style single-seaters in USAC National Championship racing. 

Ten years later the Indianapolis media guide would pay tribute to Rolla Vollstedt as follows: “It was felt by many that this gave the rear-engined Offy a much-needed vote of confidence and had a lot to do with the large number of rear-engined Offy-powered cars in the 1964 race..”.

He then progressed this theme further for 1965, when he completed a new car with which I subsequently became involved when it was offered for sale by Brooks USA (now Bonhams of course) at Quail Lodge, California, in the Pebble Beach Concours and Monterey Historics weekend of 2008. That car had been intended initially for veteran driver Len Sutton to run in the Indy ‘500’, no less. Combining multi-tubular spaceframe chassis construction with one of the new breed of methanol-burning 255 cubic inch – 4.2-litre – 4-cam Ford V8 engines, that Vollstedt-Ford qualified well – and finished 12th after a 20-minute stop to clear its system of contaminated fuel. Meanwhile, Canadian rookie driver Billy Foster had qualified a sister Vollstedt-Offy sixth-fastest at a new record speed for the Offy engine – which confirmed the essential class of these Vollstedt chassis…

For 1966, Rolla the Racer returned to the Indy ‘500’ with an entry including two brand-new monocoque-chassised Vollstedt-Fords. His drivers that season during the complete USAC race series included not only southern stock car ace Cale Yarborough and Billy Foster, but also two future Indy winners – Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti – while for the Japanese USAC race at Mt Fuji, international Formula 1 star Chris Amon – destined to lead the Ferrari factory team in the coming year – also took the wheel of a Vollstedt product. 

By 1973, Rolla Vollstedt’s ‘Champcars’ were heavily influenced – as were all American construction for the year’s National Championship and Indy ‘500’ race cars, by the proven pace and success of the wedge-shaped McLaren M16s and the 1972 Eagles – all of which employed similar turbocharged 2.65-litre Offenhauser 4-cylinder engines.


By 1973, Rolla Vollstedt’s ‘Champcars’ were heavily influenced – as were all American construction for the year’s National Championship and Indy ‘500’ race cars, by the proven pace and success of the wedge-shaped McLaren M16s and the 1972 Eagles – all of which employed similar turbocharged 2.65-litre Offenhauser 4-cylinder engines. 

As described by the 1975 Indianapolis Year Book “Rolla Vollstedt’s cars may not win the Indianapolis 500 but they are always among the most talked about in Gasoline Alley. Operating out of Portland, Ore., the familiar craftsman has been producing unusual racing cars since 1947. His first professional racing machine was a roadster powered by a Lincoln Zephyr V12 engine (and driven by Len Sutton). His rear-engined speedway cars, on the scene since 1963, often included subtle little improvements which in the past were quickly ‘borrowed’ by other car builders…” 

After Jimmy Clark and Dan Gurney in Colin Chapman's works Lotus-Fords had set new performance standards at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1963-64, many established United States Auto Club regulars began building rear-engined racing cars in contrast to their long-established tradition of front-engined Indy roadster designs.        

By 1967 Rolla Vollstedt had sold his pair of ’66 model monocoque-chassised cars – a la Lotus 38 this time – to Jim Robbins and built wider tubs, providing improved accessibility to the 4-cam Ford V8 engine. He reverted from inboard front suspension to outboard, and as he recalled in his book ‘From Track Roadsters to Indy Cars: The Rolla Vollstedt Story’ “California Metal Shaping again shaped the outer skins of the monocoque off the same wooden bucks of the previous year with the exception of adding one inch so the tub would end up one inch wider overall…”. Ford’s price for the 4-cam Indy engine was apparently $15,000 “even though they cost $50,000 each to produce”. It was Ford backing that helped finagle Clark into the ‘Bryant Heating & Cooling’ Vollstedt for the Rex Mays ‘300’ road race at Riverside, the finale to that year’s USAC National Championship on November 26th, 1967.

This was Dan Gurney’s home circuit, and his 5-litre ‘stock block’-engined Eagle qualified on pole…from Jimmy Clark in the lemon-yellow Vollstedt – not previously a front-runner. Rolla Vollstedt: “During qualifying I asked Jimmy if we should ‘tip the can’ a little more (add more nitro-methane fuel) so that we could sit on the pole. He said ‘Don’t worry about it. I will handle them in the race’. And he did…”.


Here was a midfield car being made to shine by a complete driving genius. John Surtees also made his Indycar debut at that Riverside race, conducting John Mecom’s Lola T90, wearing ‘Bowes Seal Fast’ livery. John and Bobby Unser filled row two of the starting grid, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti row three. Cream floats. 

In the Riverside race that November day, Gurney and Clark just took off like scalded cats, Dan leading until lap 24 when he ran wide and the Vollstedt led, with its dark-blue helmeted Scottish World Champion Driver at its helm.

But one lap later Jimmy came diving into the pits. He’d just missed a gear and the Ford V8’s valves were bent. Surtees was later sidelined by magneto trouble and Dan Gurney finally won, after a tremendous duel with Andretti and Bobby Unser. George Follmer finished sixth in the second ’67 Vollstedt – while one report declared that Clark had driven the Vollstedt “…faster than was thought capable by a mortal man”. Indeed, he had...until, perhaps, that mortal gearchange mistake… 

In a 2009 Sale back again at Quail Lodge, Brooks/Bonhams offered one of the two 1967 Vollstedt cars direct from extrovert Australian collector Peter Briggs’s Fremantle Museum where it had lived for many years. Peter had bought it as having been the Jimmy Clark Riverside race car – all confirmed and attested to by Rolla Vollstedt himself, no less.

Well – when it comes to selling obsolescent race cars short-term concerns might sometimes muddle the memory… I was sitting in the office section of the auctioneer’s marquee on the lawns at Quail Lodge when one of the telephones rang. It was someone named Michael McKinney who – it emerged – also owned a 1967 Vollstedt-Ford that was similarly fully pedigree-attested by Rolla Vollstedt as having been the Jim Clark Riverside race car… Gulp.

Ho hum – how to resolve this one? So in the middle of auction viewing, Pete Briggs’s right-hand man and I took a batch of freshly-acquired detail contemporary photographs out onto the display floor… and we began earnestly rivet-counting on the Vollstedt monocoque before us. Thank the Lord for hand-made cars as it rapidly became apparent from the rivet spacing and patterning there on the plainly “from period” aluminium skinning before us that it just did not match that of the monocoque chassis in which Jimmy Clark was sitting in the photographs before us.

So then we began to match the reference pattern to photos of Michael’s car and – hey – the match there was clear.

We followed up by matching the car we had before us to contemporary photos of the sister 1967 George Follmer car and – hey – again the match was too strong to be ignored. I speedily wrote a corrective Sale-room notice to amend the “ex-Jim Clark Vollstedt” to being offered as “the ex-George Follmer Vollstedt” – and the poor owner saw noughts drop off the potential return through absolutely no fault of his own – other than caveat emptor at the time of purchase, and lack of checking against the photographic record – in hindsight due diligence back then.

This is indeed a cautionary tale – but one which led to Michael McKinney eventually bringing his Jim Clark car to Sussex and out before our Festival of Speed crowd – and to securing these three fine photos shown here… 

Photos courtesy of Michael McKinney

  • Doug Nye

  • jim clark

  • doug_nye_jim_clark_50_years_goodwood_06041806_list.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Remembering Jimmy Clark – 50 years since he passed

  • goodwood_doug_indy_500_31052017_04.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: Flirting with the '500 – the UK's near 60-year love affair with Indy

  • gpl-1964-goodwood-mclaren-oldsmobile-m1-prototype-bodyless-on-test---bruce-driving17101805.jpg

    Doug Nye

    Doug Nye: The first true McLaren