16 February 2017

Gilles Villeneuve, Ford guy

World champion racecar drivers respected Gilles Villeneuve. Niki Lauda called him the craziest devil he had ever met. James Hunt said that Canada’s six-time Formula One winner was sheer magic. And Enzo Ferrari, whose team Villeneuve drove for, loved him like his son.

The legend of this Quebec-born icon has been preserved in thousands of articles, interviews, books – even postage stamps issued around the world. It’s now been 35 years since the 5-foot-6 Villeneuve’s bigger-than-life journey came to a shocking end, the result of a qualifying-day crash on the Belgian track of Zolder, yet his memory endures in ways that defy logic. Chalk it up to the millions of tifosi (Ferrari faithful) who seem to forever love him.

However, a few pages of Villeneuve’s cult narrative have been skipped along the way. In truth, the man was, in his heart of hearts, a Ford guy.

At 18, Villeneuve's first fast car was a 1967 Mustang coupe he bought partly to test his skills and partly to get all the right juices pumping on weekend sorties to the drag strip. The Mustang came with its original 289-cid V-8. But chasing more horsepower, a whopping 427 replaced the original engine. The swap succeeded, thanks to Villeneuve’s inbred mechanical DNA and help from a few motor-minded buddies.

These local adrenaline games earned Villeneuve some cash and a handsome set of trophies. But crucially, they also honed his starting-line reactions, as his wife Joann points out: “One of the reasons Gilles was outperforming so many of his F1 colleagues later on in his career was the ‘Christmas tree’ reflex he acquired drag racing.”

“Pedal to the metal, combined with stealth precision, was just how he was,” she continued. “Life always moved at 200 mph with him.”

When the couple married in 1970, Gilles insisted on transporting his bride in a sparkling Mustang Boss 429 of the year, borrowed for the occasion from a good friend. The months that followed brought better financial times, enabling him to finally become boss of his own Boss, a model he always fancied.

In the ’80s, his 1971 Boss 351 was shipped across the Atlantic and driven across Europe by Joann. That car has now been taken out of the family collection, was prepped and will be shown at the 2017 Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto, which begins tomorrow, Feb. 17 and lasts through the 26th.

The Villeneuve family album also includes Ford trucks – Broncos, F-150s and the like. One anecdote from the F1 years recalls Gilles, Joann and their children, Melanie and Jacques (who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1995 and Formula One World Championship two years later), casually arriving at races with their family camping trailer pulled by an F-150. A homey practice to be sure, and one that invariably shocked some of the highbrow F1 organizers who were bent on safeguarding their brand’s elite image.

A footnote to the connection between Villeneuve and Ford: Talks are underway among family members and friends about recommissioning the ’67 Mustang coupe that Gilles first competed in. The plan is to have the car restored to its original dragstrip configuration, reviving the vehicle that served a teenager’s drive as an aspiring racer.

From galloping ponies to prancing horses, what a ride it’s been. And for the Villeneuves, it may not be over yet.

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