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.

5 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jean-nicolas Lemire BERTHIERVILLE QC Canada February 17, 2017 at 15:46
    His first car was actually a used Skoda (when he was 16).He had lost the steering wheel and was driving it with a pair of vise -grip clamped to the column.Does that make him a Skoda guy as well?
  • 2
    John Carlson Vancouver BC February 19, 2017 at 03:58
    Great article--very interesting and informative. He is truly a legend!
  • 3
    Dan Michigan February 19, 2017 at 11:29
    Good article
  • 4
    Michel Lamoureux Québec February 21, 2017 at 23:05
    As the author of this and many other articles for Hagerty over a number of years, I invariably appreciate well-informed, thoughtful and, at times, unusual feedback sent in by car folks from all parts of Canada, the US and even beyond our continental borders. THANK YOU to all such readers: unknowns as well as acquaintances and friends, for taking the time to write in. The comment here from the Berthierville gentleman (whom I do not know) is, at best, partly correct if not rather intriguing. As soon as he obtained his driver's license at age 16, Gilles Villeneuve did buy a Skoda, along with several other cars, which included an Anglia, plus a couple of MG's, among others. All deals secured thanks to "a fistfull of dollars" when you're that age with seriously limited means, and all short term buy-fix-and-sell propositions. My source for this information is no less than Joann Villeneuve, Gilles' wife and then girlfriend, who remembers every detail vividly. Difficult to find a more reliable reference, I would argue. The point of this article was to highlight a chapter hardly known of the extraordinary Villeneuve narrative: that Gilles was a FORD guy throughout his life, including various Mustang episodes therein. Hence, his first official RACER was the Mustang '67 Hardtop in question he bought in 1970, with which he honed his early racing talents, making that Pony one of the most historically significant there may be in terms of the man's overall career, once the car's full restoration (already undertaken) is completed and the iconic pony is unveiled publicly in early 2018. With that said, one fails to see what the point, somewhat derisive, is all about regarding our national (and international) hero being a "Skoda guy", much as one owes respect to that brand name too. As a footnote to the story, by the way, Joann still drives an F-150 pick-up truck. So it's clear that the love of Ford endures. Built tough, in this case! M.L.
  • 5
    John Lane Colorado March 30, 2017 at 15:12
    I have a Ford/Villeneuve story you might like to include. Gilles was a good friend and Joann was "best man" at my wedding 11 years ago. I had run the Cannonball in my 928 Porsche and was at the Long Beach Grand Prix with Gilles and Joann. Ken Squires wanted to do a tv piece on Gilles and Gilles had a "mission" he wanted to do. So Ken followed us (Giles driving my 928 which Mr. Ferrari was not pleased about) and we drove to Beverly Hills so he could check out a Cobra 427 side oiler. Squires did the tv bit and included pictures of Gilles driving the 928 but mostly was about his love and desire for the Cobra. Needless to say he received a rather heated discussion from the old man when he got back to Italy. Mr. Ferrari was not pleased that Giles "loved" the Cobra.

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