These 1966 photos, never seen before, reveal a Ford GT40 test session at Riverside

Laura Dapkus was sorting through some slides her late father-in-law had left behind when she found images from Ford GT40 test sessions at Riverside International Raceway.

“They were developed in March and June of 1966,” Laura explains while sharing them with us. “You can still see snow on the mountains.”

It startled her to find these pictures. She and husband Don had seen Ford v Ferrari, but until then she had no inkling her father-in-law had been part of the behind-the-scenes effort to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As “a brilliant former airman” educated as an electrical engineer, Don Sr. was dispatched by Ford Motor Co. to observe GT40 test sessions and stand shoulder to shoulder with team members. And, crucially, he carried a camera.

Don Dapkus Sr. at Riverside International Raceway

She says, “I DID NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT ANY OF THIS until the Ford v Ferarri movie came out and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, he worked with those guys.’ I’m like, ‘What the hell?'”

Laura’s messages, written in her signature exuberant style, are an enduring pleasure and often screamingly funny. She may be self-conscious about it and all that it reveals, but she’s an American original and I’ve pushed her to let me share the details without bowdlerizing.

It so happens that I know Laura and Don from a VW New Beetle crazyfest car show in Roswell, N.M., way back in June of 2000. I covered that one for the late and much-lamented Automobile magazine. Sometimes you leave on business and return with new personal friendships. The car show wrapped up with an alien-themed costume party on that Saturday night, so I dressed as a futuristic beatnik in sunglasses and a silver lamé tam and smock. As a magazine reporter without a date, I asked Laura to dance. Don wasn’t moving from his seat, but I thought she might like to shake it.

Don and Laura Dapkus archival photo.

Twenty-three years later, Don seems to have forgiven me for cutting in; we’re still friends, always learning new things about one another and following one another’s adventures.

Our recent exchange found Laura further describing her archival discoveries among the transparencies.

“I was going through his slide boxes and I’m like HORSE CAMP?! Whose pool is this? A camper? A boat? ICE FISHING? You know where I went? Indian princess day camp put on by the City.”

Laura was an only child in Torrance, also the offspring of an engineer. She grew up to follow Exene Cervenka and John Doe in the L.A. postpunk band X. She loved VW Beetles. With an MBA, she immersed herself in corporate work until becoming something of a refugee from it, spending a few years raising sheep on an 18-acre farm northeast of Dallas.

She shares another thought about Don Sr.: “He was a super interesting dude. He went ice fishing on the Arctic Circle and things like that.”

The Shelby American crew makes adjustments to a GT40 during testing at Riverside. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The Ford GT40 swept the top three places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 19, 1966, just weeks after some of the photography shown here. Fifty-eight days after that race and the controversial finish, Ken Miles died at Riverside during another test session. In the new book Shelby American: The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend, author Preston Lerner notes, “He was the third driver to die in a Ford prototype in five months.”

“Don’s dad was so devastated, he changed jobs,” Laura says. In fact, car magazine editors gradually shifted away from coverage of fireball wrecks and dead drivers to consumer-friendly new-car coverage and genteel sporting events and shows.

Laura points out details about the photos. For example, the white jeans. “I want to say that anyone who wears white jeans to deal with cars is cool AF.”

We see Don Sr. in a portrait with a distant GT40 poised to strike. It is impossible to determine whether he has a pocket protector.

This low-slung car, which may be a Lola T70, was nearby in the pits. Photo by Don Dapkus Sr.

The blue number 12 looks like a Lola T70, and we can’t explain its presence. The Union 76 trash can is a special ornament (and choice way to convey the brand message).

Laura Dapkus photo.

The pit lane scene depicts a crew member in the “Cobra” shirt and the brimmed hat. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari includes wearing a wristwatch on the right arm, but we showed the photo to Lerner, who thinks Shelby wouldn’t be wearing a uniform and we may be looking at engineer Carroll Smith. In an early 1965 photo included in Shelby American, Smith is seen also with a watch on his right wrist, the “cool AF” white jeans that even Shelby is wearing, and tasseled loafers. And Lerner adds that Smith wore a bush hat.

We are struggling to I.D. the others. At far right is the Goodyear tire man. And who is that photographer?

The guy in the light blue jacket at far left must be looking for spies from Maranello.

There’s a reason this report posts on Valentine’s Day.

“The Ford pics,” Laura says, “I am making 3 of them into gallery wrapped prints for Don for Valentine’s Day. It’s going to be a very cool arrangement.”

Happy Valentine’s Day to everybody: Get up and dance!

For 1960-1961, Plymouth’s Aero Wheel suggested a space-age payoff

By 1960, the Space Race was on. Instead of waiting for the government’s space agency to get us there, Plymouth gave Americans the option of launching on their own thanks to the Aero Wheel.

The horn bar that–wink, wink!–was not merely a horn bar suggested a launch (right button) and return to the launching pad (left button).

Ad copy clarified the matter:

Take the wheel of a ’60 Plymouth. The driver’s seat holds you high and comfortably (and it even controls, ingeniously, a system that automatically locks all the car doors the instant you start the engine.) That’s Plymouth’s inviting new Aero Wheel in your hand. The Teleview red-line speedometer ticks off your travel, ribbon fashion, across the face of a modern “floating” instrument pod. Every modern advance is here before you to make driving in the 1960 Plymouth easier—and more exciting. 

Mention of spacesuits and helmets was omitted, but otherwise the formula was sound. The driver and passengers were automatically sealed in the capsule, everyone transfixed by the Teleview metering, and one-hand operation sufficed.

So there must be a good explanation for the poor sales report.

“Plymouth sales alone [without Valiant, a stand-alone brand that year] dropped to seventh rank in the American industry [in 1961],” we learn from Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975. “The radical new styling was one factor in this decline.”

I suspect underreporting of registrations because so many cars went straight into deep space without the driver’s understanding the function of the left-side button, and surveys went without response.

Tony and his Comet Special S-22 convertible take the measure of Desert Hot Springs

His name is Tony, and he drives his 1963 Mercury Comet Special S-22 around Desert Hot Springs. We’ve met twice, and each time he has apologized about the restoration being incomplete.

“Still looking for parts,” Tony says, explaining about the latest thing, a new radiator of aluminum because copper and brass ones are scarce on the ground.

No one would ask me to judge in a concours d’elegance, but I say the Comet looks pretty good. And who doesn’t appreciate aluminum?

I’ve always liked that era’s naming scheme for the compact and midsize Mercury models: Comet and Meteor. Both names could be good ones for dogs, too. And we know Comet was a reindeer.

Neither the Comet nor the Meteor stood a chance of living up the the implied speed of the names, but so what? They’re simpler and more poetic than EQE 350 4Matic, which sounds like a tax form.

For 1964, the Comet Caliente replaced the S-22 in the lineup. The name was hard to accept. It was redundant, for one thing. A Comet was already cosmically hot and would probably burn a hole through the earth without having to add a peppery sauce.

In ’65 the the Comet Cyclone combined astronomical and meteorological phenomena. I was only 10 years old but wasn’t having any it.

I’ve failed to ascertain what S-22 referred to. It was the top trim package, but S-22 sounded vaguely space age. Mercury also offered the Meteor S-33 and the Monterey S-55. So it’s a progression of perhaps random numbers.

In any event, Mercury had the field covered in the taillight department. If you couldn’t tell the Comet was stopping or turning, you belonged on Planet S-22.

a ’58 Cadillac made me delay breakfast in Palm Springs

The 1957 Cadillac has always been my preference because of the cleaner, single-headlamp look. But this ’58 with its quad headlamps is still special enough for a trip around it with the camera.

Not bad for about $5,500.

I stood out in Tahquitz Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, for a profile view of this ’58. Upon my return to the sidewalk, the eager owner emerged from his seat at Sherman’s deli, said his name was Frank, and asked if I was some kind of professional because of the angles I took in the photos.

Frank said he believes himself to be the third owner of this all-original car and shared that the color is Heritage Taupe. (I find Meridian Taupe on the color charts.) I was in a hurry to order breakfast (corned-beef hash) and therefore didn’t ask about every detail.

But the car speaks for itself.

A Galaxie in all its fullness is enough to overfill the garage

Isolating the model and trim level isn’t always easy, but my reference source leads me to say the car pictured with this post is a 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 XL. Mid-1960s Fords always appealed to me, although this didn’t mean I learned to distinguish every detail. The cars looked fast and must have passed by too quickly. Yes, that’s it!

Not long ago I happened upon a Galaxie in repose and had the chance to admire it. The odometer says 40,030 miles, and it’s easy to believe that’s total mileage and the car is original. A color chart suggests our present convertible wears Wimbledon white with the interior in light BlueMet. (A dark blue metallic was also offered.)

A “390” badge on each front fender indicates the XL’s optional 390-cubic-inch V-8, although there were two versions of this engine. The 275-horsepower one was a $78 option while the mighty 315-horse was $158.

Base price for the convertible was $3,493, and some 5,161 units of the XL were produced.

Lesser models were the Galaxie 500 V-8 with the 289 c.i. engine and the six-cylinder Galaxie 500. A convertible version of each was available.

I always wondered about “Galaxie.” A surprise from Ford, use of the French word may have been intended to suggest vast potential, and it did add charm.

Even a hardtop would be a great collector car, although a quick measurement of my garage shows the maximum length of 18.5 feet to work with. The Galaxie 500 stretches to 17.75 feet, leaving eight inches to play with.

As we know from Einstein’s theories, the way around galaxies is through wormholes, and that’s approximately what would be left for transiting past the parked collectible on the way from the kitchen to the trash cart.