Vintage racing and the Formula Ford: Merlyn means magic

Merlyn Formula Ford

A Merlyn Formula Ford in the heat of battle

Attempting to catalog automotive design under the umbrella of ‘purity’ doesn’t – regrettably – build a very large file. Everyone will have an opinion, but in the last century (or so) designs remaining ‘top of mind’ are relatively few: Ford’s Model T and A, the Bugatti Type 57, ’49 Ford, ’55 Chevy, Chapman’s Lotus Seven, Jaguar’s E-Type and Porsche’s early 911. Obviously there are more – make that ‘many more’ – but those mentioned roll off the tongue as rapidly as they motored down a roadway.

Turn the dial to racing cars and we’ll again give a shout-out to E. Bugatti and his Type 35, Jaguar’s C-Type, Ford’s GT40 and (most) single seat racecars of the mid-and-late-sixties. An example of the latter is the Merlyn Formula Ford pictured above. Although off most radar screens, if you watched John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in the mid-sixties with the same jaw-dropping awe as you watched Jane Fonda, Merlyn – and many Formula cars of the same era – means magic.

A reminder of that essential simplicity took place in late February at Texas World Speedway in College Station. There, members of C.V.A.R. (Corinthian Vintage Auto Racing) regularly gather to celebrate the golden era (between WWII and our exit from Vietnam) of American road racing. Do you have a Shelby Mustang? Bring it! Are you a fan of the Lotus 51? Why aren’t you in the paddock?

Despite having its roots in Nascar, the track on the edge of College Station is decidedly low key. At the time it was planned (mid-sixties) its site promised easy access from Houston, Austin and Dallas. Regrettably, those fans chose to stay home, and it would be left to Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway – some thirty years later – to lure Texas-based motorsport fans in numbers sufficient to make a business case for racing. To that end TWS is used mostly for club events (such as the CVRA’s) and occasional testing by Nascar teams. The track surface is in good shape, and the toilets still flush, but most of the infrastructure necessary to host a major meet is like so much tumbleweed; it’s simply blown away.

Thankfully, old Formula Fords have fared better, as evidenced by the Merlyn Mk11 piloted by Jeff Kraemer. Jeff, recently retired from ministering to Episcopalians, has a stable of three vintage cars from which to choose: an Alfa-powered Genie, a Hemi-powered Moore and the aforementioned Merlyn. This is Jeff’s second Formula Ford, and the College Station event was but his second time to race it. It was towed to the race – as luck, fortune and (perhaps) providence would have it – by the family Land Rover.

At the time of its introduction Formula Ford was but one in a long string of initiatives to create ‘affordable racing’, an oxymoron if ever there was one. As a breeding ground for talent its success has been rivaled on the track only by Brazilian karting – and on the runway only by the pushup bra. Just as marijuana – we’re told – leads to aggressive addiction, so has Formula Ford led to rides in professional series by any number of participating drivers. To be sure, Jeff Kraemer isn’t among them, but professional success was never Jeff’s raison d’etre; only burning gas and having fun.

That the Merlyn achieved some degree of design purity is evidenced by its stance on a racetrack some forty years after its launch. Proportions seem timeless, with a wide track, sinewy chassis and artfully sculpted panels. Jeff’s car, in a dark blue with contrasting red stripe, speaks not to England but a Yank’s fascination with all things English; Jeff (and the Merlyn’s previous owner) left the Brit-centric paint schemes to the Lotus groupies.

Inside, a simplistic dash provides all the info you need for thirty minutes of racing, and virtually no info you won’t need. The lack of navigation, on-board telematics and Bluetooth is a welcome relief; notably, the CVAR bans texting while racing. The steering wheel is removable for easy access into and out of the cockpit, and the harness holds Jeff down as if it were a dominatrix.

At the business end of the Merlyn is Ford’s Kent inline four, standard spec – back in the day – for the Cortina GT. Rules required an adherence to ‘mostly stock’, with little more than massaging (balancing and polishing) allowed, and the C.V.A.R. mandates cars be operated under those rules applicable at the time of the car’s construction. For Jeff’s Merlyn, that was 1969.

Gearboxes are allowed four forward speeds plus reverse, and cars must run on passenger car tires. A minimum weight of 400 kilograms is specified, while a driver’s gastric bypass is an allowable modification.

On the grid, with Jeff secured behind the wheel and the unmuffled Ford providing a background beat, the slim Merlyn encapsulates the intrinsic appeal of back-to-the-basics motor racing in an increasingly sophisticated society. At the start it is both man vs. man and man vs. machine in an environment that’s surprising in its subtlety. And what it lacks in bravado is makes up in ‘bravo’.

In today’s vintage Formula Ford the gentlemen – and gentlewomen – have started their engines. They will seemingly run forever.

The business end of the Merlyn Formula Ford