Cheers to Martini, racing’s ultimate livery

1973 Porsche 911 RSR

If the martini, as Mencken said, is the perfect American invention, then the Martini livery may be the perfect look. Perhaps the cocktail itself was named after Alessandro Martini, the man who put his name on a vermouth distillery in Turin, thereby cementing one of the martini’s only two ingredients. Three, if you add the olive.

Despite the gradual dwindling of vermouth in the century-long history of the martini, (Churchill once quipped he would like to “observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini,”) Martini & Rossi became one of the world’s most recognizable spirits brands. Sharing a name with James Bond’s cocktail is one reason for its rise. Another reason? The greatest livery in motorsports, perhaps.

The first appearance of Martini & Rossi branding was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Zagato, which placed second in its class at the 1962 Daytona Three Hours; over its bright red front fenders it simply read, in white letters, “Martini & Rossi Racing Team.” In 1968 the FIA allowed advertising from non-automotive entities, so it was time bring on the cigarettes and booze! A Porsche 910-023 driven by Hans Dieter Dechent flaunted the Martini logo between its taillights. Dieter’s friend Paul Goppert was the head of Martini publicity in Germany; in exchange for the stickers, Goppert said, he’d give Dieter some equipment and some matching overalls. Not a dime was involved.

Porsche 910
Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT45
1982 Lancia LC1
Porsche 908

What’s unique about the Martini livery, and indeed any racing livery, is the simplicity of it: just red and white letters, and two different shades of blue. But the variations grew. The stripes flowed with the bodywork, tapering off, stretching across hoods and flares, curving and widening like waves. The colors spread. Sometimes they didn’t. On the Brabham-Alfa Romeo BT45, the blue stripes wrapped around the red car’s nose like a shield. On the Porsche 917K that Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep drove to victory at the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans, the stripes are shrinking violets, nearly lost within the white paint, accenting the front fenders and little else. But on the silver Porsche 917 longtail driven by Vic Elford and Gerard Larrousse that same year, the stripes are the star: they draw their colorful tendrils across all four corners, narrowing across the doors and then curving down and over those drawn-out fenders like a ’60s Janis Joplin fever dream. (Joplin drove her own colorful Porsche, too.)

It’s this variation that became so fresh, yet immediately recognizable. Here’s another point in its favor: it was on everything.

On the 917, the Gulf livery got the nod, but Martini was there right from the beginning. In 1970, at the 917’s Le Mans debut, Martini Racing placed second and third (with a long-tail 917 and an older 908, respectively). The next year, among half a dozen 917s at Sarthe, the team won. In 1973, Martini-liveried 911 Carrera RSRs won both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Targa Florio. With stripes flowing, the open-cockpit 936 took the 1976 Le Mans, while a 935 Works took fourth overall. A year later, the 936 won again. Porsche commemorated the victory with wild Championship Edition tape stripes across the 924, 911SC, and 930 Turbo.

When Porsche took the 911SC to the East African Rally in 1978, Martini followed. The result would spawn an entire generation of ludicrously expensive 911 “Safari” replicas. In Formula 1, Martini Racing sponsored the aforementioned Brabham BT45, powered by Alfa Romeo V12 engines. Then Lotus wore the stripes on its 79 for just one year only, a relationship that lasted as long as it took your eyes to revolt against the dark green color scheme.

Unsurprisingly, Martini would eventually sponsor nearly every Italian racing effort: a Ferrari 308 GTB wore the stripes for Group 4 rallying. In 1979 the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo took on the Porsche 935 in Group 5 competition and beat it—for the next three years in a row. Martini sponsored the oddball LC1 and LC2 prototypes, which fought valiantly against Porsche. In the DTM series, the stripes lasted all the way into the 1990s, atop the dominating Alfa Romeo 155, which could have won on its sound alone.

It was the Lancia connection that sealed Martini’s legend, however. From sports car prototypes, Martini Racing joined Lancia in Group B rallying with the 037, the year it beat the odds. The Delta S4 that replaced it wore Martini stripes, as did the ECV prototype, against a sea of red. And so did the Group A Deltas, which won the World Rally Championship a record six years in a row and scored 46 victories total, a record unbroken today.

Dirty Martinis, all around. We can raise a glass to that.