Article by Peter Heitmann
Henry Ford II wanted his company to build a race car that could not only withstand the rigors of the 24 Hours of Le Mans but also beat the Italian-made Ferrari, a car that had been winning the Le Mans every year since 1960. The car that Ford Motor Co. built, the GT40, achieved a remarkable triumph in 1966 and continued to win the Le Mans for the next three years (1967, 1968, and 1969). An excellent movie on this subject is the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari starring Matt Damon as auto engineer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as his British driver Ken Miles.
A little known fact is that Reeve Whitson was involved in the push to make a street legal version of the GT40, otherwise known as the Mark III GT40.
Regarding Whitson’s interest in sportscars, author Tom O’Neill wrote in his book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties:
He had a passion for race cars – building them, selling them, driving them – which may explain how he befriended Jay Sebring, another racing enthusiast. (p. 205)
The production of the Mk III GT40 began sometime after Ford’s first victory at Le Mans on June 18 and 19, 1966. Henry Ford commissioned John Wayr, a renowned race car engineer, at Ford’s Advanced Vehicle facility in Slough, England (near Heathrow Airport) to modify the race car for the public market.
Wayr got the job, because, three years earlier, his facility developed the prototype of the original GT40. Initially, it was not a sterling achievement. Despite considerable effort and re-engineering, Wayr’s car continued to be a dismal failure on the race track. To overcome its defects, Ford decided to transfer the car from England to Dearborn, Michigan and have Carroll Shelby work on it. Among the important changes Shelby made were fixing the running gear, particularly the transmission, and installing a bigger, more powerful engine. The end result was a spectacular increase in speed, performance, and reliability that gave it the edge over the Ferrari.
A car that could win victories on the race track was not necessarily desirable in city traffic. Re-designed headlights and the addition of bumpers were modifications necessary to meet US safety regulations. Of course a good set of mufflers was also a significant add-on. Wayr’s original plan was to make a minimal number of changes – enough to make it legal on the street. Except for hardcore racing enthusiasts, this was not an approach that would appeal to the average potential buyer. For one thing, getting inside the car was a chore, requiring maneuvering the leg between the big steering wheel and the shift knob. Another problem was the mere starting of the engine produced tremendous sounds and vibrations, which could have an intimidating effect on an inexperienced driver.
These considerations led to Ford’s decision to make a gentler, user-friendly version of the car. Substantial, numerous, and deeper alterations were needed to go this route. It was probably at this point when Reeve Whitson was brought in as a consultant to the company’s managers.
An article in the July 1967 issue of Car and Driver said:
At this point in the spotty career of the Mk III GT, a management consultant named Reeve Whitson made his appearance. An aggressive business type, Whitson reasoned that America, or, more specifically, that vehicular Disneyland known as Southern California, was ready for a road version of the Lola Mk III GT.
Changes were made to the seating area to make it easier to get in. The 7 liter engine was swapped out for a tamer Holley-carbed, 289-cubic-inch V-8, rated at 306 horsepower. It gave the car a top speed of 175 mph. The body was extended eight inches to create some room in the back for a modest-sized luggage compartment. Among other changes were comfortable upholstery and the addition of a ventilation system. The finished product was unveiled on a showroom floor in New York City in April 1967. The price was a daunting $18,500, which was about the going rate for a Ferrari or a Lamborghini.
Mark III GT40 on display at the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles
The Mk III did not get good reviews. Car and Driver said it was not worth the price. Interest in the car waned, and it became a commercial failure. Only seven cars were produced from April 1967 to June 1969.
In the following decades, the reputation of the car has improved dramatically. Currently, among knowledgeable car enthusiasts, it is regarded as one of the coolest, most interesting sportscars Ford ever produced. These extremely rare cars are now worth over five million dollars.
The exquisite, over-the-top magnificence of the Mk III GT40 practically made the car useless for everyday driving. Current owners hardly dare risk putting their enormously expensive assets on the street. The overwhelming artistic quality of the car is probably one reason why it was not a big seller in 1967. The Mk III GT40 is a typical example of a Whitson business venture, involving enormous amounts of money to make an overbuilt prototype that would eventually fail as a finished product.
During his stay in England, Whitson befriended Maurice Philippe, a British Formula One car designer who worked with Colin Chapman in designing and producing the iconic Lotus cars for the Indianapolis 500. Whitson also met Philippe de Lespinay, a French designer of model cars, who worked at Heller Manufacturing, a model kit company in Paris.
In 2004, on a forum devoted to slot car discussions, Philippe de Lespinay told how Whitson used his influence at the Immigration and Naturalization Service to get permanent residency status in the United States for himself and his friend Maurice Philippe.
Whitson moved to the USA and became a friend of people in high places, such as WWII hero General Curtis LeMay, Art Linkletter and especially, the head of the Immigration & Naturalization Service. Maurice Philippe received his permanent residency in the USA the same day I received mine, in a private champagne ceremony in the office of Howard Hazell, INS’s Big Guy.”
In 1970 Whitson used that same pull at the INS to threaten deportation for Iranian photographer and friend of Sharon Tate, Sharokh Hatami, when he refused to cooperate with prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in the matter of the Tate-La Bianca murders. Also at this time Whitson partnered with Robert Linkletter in the making of the child-proof safety cap.
According to Philippe de Lespinay, Maurice Philippe entered the United States as an employee of Reeve Whitson. Maurice was then sub-contracted to Parnelli Jones to work as a design engineer for Vel’s Parnelli “Super Team” among whom were Joe Leonard, Al Unser, and Mario Andretti as drivers for advanced Indy cars. Whitson also employed Philippe de Lespinay and sub-contracted him to Cox Hobbies in Santa Ana, California.
Speaking of Whitson’s interest in model cars, de Lespinay said:
Who was Reeve Whitson? This man was the first to establish a system of licensing model cars by the actual manufacturers. In 1968, a story on Miniature Auto (UK) showed a “whole new line of Manufacturer-Approved clear plastic bodies”. Brabham, McLaren, Lotus and others had signed on to this new idea. It fizzled as the bodies were so-so and the market was collapsing. . . . He [Whitson] then devised plans to manufacture advanced licensed slot cars, prototypes of which were built by Bryan Warmack of Team Riggen. . . . This plan also faltered.
De Lespinay further said that he began working as a consultant for Reeve Whitson’s Innova Corporation in 1970. Whitson then subcontracted him to Cox Hobbies, which was licensed for the miniature replication of race cars around the world.
Under Philippe’s direction, Cox produced the world’s first production slot cars featuring a separate traction magnet. They were the 1973-issued Cox SuperScale 1/40 scale models. Eight different body styles appeared over an advanced angle-winder chassis fitted with a flexible rubber magnet at the back of the car.
Reeve sold the design for slot car traction magnets to Matchbox in May 1970. Several prototypes of this sidewinder, idler-gear chassis have survived to this day and are on display at the Los Angeles County Slot Car Museum. After purchasing this design, Matchbox collapsed, and the new owners of the company dropped the HO scale traction magnet slot car project. Like Matchbox, Whitson’s company, Innova, also went out of business, filing for bankruptcy in 1972-1973.
I believe Innova was a front company for the Department of Defense to acquire the intellectual property of failing companies making technological advances. It is possible that Whitson’s acquisition of the technology of traction magnets enabled him to apply it to other ventures, such as the proposed design and construction of a magnetic levitation train (maglev) from Las Vegas to Pasadena. In the late 1970s, Whitson was a promoter of the maglev train.
Another project was a 1/43 scale model of the 1975 Eagle-Offy Indy 500 winner. Whitson put Lloyd Asbury, master modeler, in charge of building the patterns. Philippe de Lespinay developed the instruction sheets for assembly and accompanying graphics. Whitson’s penchant for quality produced a prototype that was “stupendously beautiful.” A rare 1975 photo of Reeve Whitson standing among a group of men looking at a model of the Eagle-Offy was posted on the slot car forum by de Lespinay:
I took this picture during the press conference at the Indy Speedway, and it was published in all the local newspapers and in many auto-racing mags and newspapers. Yes, Tony Hulman was still with us then… The little car was just gorgeous and was to be followed by a whole line of other Indy cars sanctioned by the Speedway and designed in collaboration with the actual manufacturers.
Reeve Whitson in 1975
The project was a commercial failure. De Lespinay explained why:
Whitson’s project failed as he refused to delegate authority that would have allowed the project to progress. Today, nearly 50 years later, Whitson’s 1/43rd scale models have few equals in precision in the kit industry.
Philippe de Lespinay further revealed that Whitson had Maurice Philippe design advanced pedal cars for children using fiberglass bodies based on the 1974 Eagle Offy and the Ferrari 312 F1. The engineer responsible for building these pedal cars was Phil Remington, who came from Dan Gurney’s AAR team. De Lespinay said the “beautiful little alloy tub had a push-push system supposedly superior to that of a rotating bicycle-like device.” Whitson’s team aspired to make the proportions of these elaborately designed pedal cars as realistic as possible. Their first public demonstration was in 1975, during the Grand Prix in Long Beach, California in front of the ocean liner Queen Mary, permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor.
Whitson’s pedal car was another commercial failure. De Lespinay said:
Again, the project fizzled because Whitson would not let anyone help him, he HAD to do everything, and his recruits eventually just walked away… Whitson returned to Scotland and died of a heart attack about 10 years ago. Probably the boiled mutton got him.
So WHAT was Reeve Whitson doing inside the Formula 1 racing industry and manufacturing of F1 bodies and suspension from 1967 through 1977? I believe he was developing a cover story to explain why he had to go back to America in 1968. His cover also allowed him to travel freely around the world. Even though his business ventures inevitably failed, they nevertheless provided the engineering and design breakthroughs that could be used in other applications, such as radio-controlled toys. His associate, Art Linkletter, was the financier and investor for many electronics and toy manufacturing opportunities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. One such example was the “Art Linkletter Electronic Ignition Switch”, which can be seen below.
Whitson’s calculated failures were probably a success for his government sponsors, who were able to capture and reuse these new designs and newly developed tools and data for applications in other places, such as the aerospace industry.
Regarding Reeve Whitson’s business projects, Tom O’Neill wrote in his book, p. 205,
These ventures had one thing in common, they fell through. The easiest explanation, of course, was that they were covers, and sometimes Whitson told his friends as much. So where did his money come from? No one knew.