Story by Karen Salvaggio

Photos by Marshall Autry

Tom Cantrell’s world revolves around excellence, and it seems he will go to any length to achieve perfection on, and off, the race track. The owner of a successful construction business in the Pacific Northwest and a collector of vintage cars, Tom has also developed a powerhouse race team. With a true passion for racing history and a penchant for fire-breathing machines, Tom’s stable of race cars is like a who’s who of cubic-inch excellence from the Big Bore era — including the remarkably precise reproduction seen here.

As a frame of reference for Tom’s project, we first need to set the stage by revisiting this illustrious time period. While small displacement engines dominated racing through the 1950s and early ’60s, the rapidly developing V8 engine quickly became the power plant of choice by the late 1960s. Across Europe and throughout North America, throngs of eager spectators filled the grandstands, infields and surrounding hillsides at every race track to witness the spectacle of Big Bore racing.

Grand Touring and Gran Turismo Omologato class sizes swelled, filling with iconic race cars, including Ford’s GT40s, Ferrari 250 GTs and Shelby Cobras. Seizing the opportunity to capture the car-buying crowd, auto manufacturers Ford, General Motors, Ferrari and others jumped into the fray. The horsepower wars were on, reaching a crescendo on track from 1966 to 1987 in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, better known as Can-Am.

Unlike the previous set of racing class rules, though, the Can-Am series adopted a formula libre rulebook. Translated as “free formula,” the only regulations governing a Can-Am car’s specification were some basics for safety equipment. This effectively created an open season for car builders on the hunt for speed with awe-inspiring results.

This new, lawless racing arena attracted a different breed of racer and car builder. A host of smaller enterprises and privateers flocked to the series, fielding cars that broke the rules in every way imaginable. Horsepower was king, with massive wings and slicks holding court against the storied surface of the race track. Creativity flourished, and Can-Am cars thrilled crowds everywhere they raced. Today, true Can-Am-era race cars are among the most sought-after vintage race cars on the planet, and only the courageous few would ever attempt to field one.

Auto racing is a major sport around the world, and in many cases, a real source of national pride for many countries. Yet, the actual world of auto racing is a small and very tight-knit community. A Can-Am car was a perfect match for Tom’s racing interests, and through his professional and race connections, he was able to locate an authentic Can-Am racer. The Georgia barn-find turned out to be the one-of-a-kind 1969 Alan Mann Ford Open Sports.

Alan Mann led Ford’s racing operations in Europe, and his enterprise helped develop iconic race cars like the GT40, Daytona Cobra Coupe, Escort and Lotus Cortina. Designed by Len Bailey, the 1969 Open Sports Ford was powered by various engines, including a bored-out small-block Ford and an aluminum 8.0-liter V8, both using Lucas fuel injection. The Open Sports chassis utilized an aluminum monocoque along with many suspension parts from a previous Alan Mann project, known as the F3L (aka the P68).

The Holman and Moody-prepared car featured a 494 cid, magnesium, fuel-injected Boss engine producing 740 hp, coupled to a Hewland LG600 five-speed transaxle. Massive 24-inch wide rear wheels rocketed the metallic blue-and-gold beast down the track, achieving 0-100 mph in just five seconds.

The Ford Open Sport’s best performance was a third- place finish in the Texas International Grand Prix in November 1969, with the legendary Jack Brabham manning the wheel. Much has been written about Can-Am in the 30 years since its last race, and many believe the 1969 season may have produced the greatest Can-Am cars ever.

As with his other vintage race cars, Tom planned to race the original car in a national vintage race series. The problem, however, was that this would have required a major updating of the car’s systems, including stripping original parts off the car. This presented a real dilemma for Tom and his team. The car, while certainly sporting a bit of patina from age, was in beautifully well-preserved condition.

The car retained its original paint, Goodyear Blue Streak tires and the aluminum rims it ran on in its final race in 1969. Virtually every detail of the car was exactly as it had been presented on the Can-Am grid that day. How can you possibly justify tearing apart a real piece of history to comply with a sanctioning body’s requirements? For Tom, the answer was easy — you don’t.

Thus started a three-year journey and a true labor of love to restore the car and also build an exact reproduction of the Open Sports Ford. When excellence is the driving force, the word exact means using the same molds, the same tooling and the same style bolts, rivets, and metal alloys found in the original. Every step would follow old-school methods, and the result would be a stunning reincarnation of the original racer.

Tapping into his racing network again, Tom connected with Bill Rhine and the race car restoration masters at Rhine Enterprise/Rhine Built in Denver, North Carolina. As the leading restorer of historic NASCAR racers, Rhine Enterprise sets the bar for race-car restoration.

It was clear from the beginning that this would be a highly unique project, and once the car was in-house, it rapidly became a collaborative effort. Tom’s team and Alan Mann Racing in England assisted the skilled craftsman at Rhine Enterprise to fill in any blanks. Another asset for the build was the indomitable Kenny Thompson, a talented old-school builder who actually worked on the Holman and Moody cars back in the day, including the Alan Mann Ford Open Sports.

This impressive cadre of talent converged on both the restoration and recreation project, and the team followed a very prescriptive and methodical process. Every inch of the car was mapped out and recorded. A massive amount of photos was taken, and every part and panel were numbered, measured, and recorded. When all of that was done, paper templates of every part and panel were made and archived for use in the reproduction process, as well as for any needed repairs in the future.

Tom’s plan was to race the recreation, so in addition to making one new exact part for the new car, a spare part was created in the event of calamity on the track. To say this was a painstaking process would be an understatement, but the results are nothing less than magnificent.

The original Alan Mann Ford Open Sports Can-Am car resides safely in the caring hands of professionals in North Carolina. The new car, with its race-ready fiberglass body, resides in Auburn, Washington, under the care of master mechanic John Anderson. Tom campaigns the car in vintage racing events, including the 2016 Spokane Festival of Speed. Your author competed at that same event, and it was truly a thrill to witness this magnificent machine take to the open race track.

As racing luck would have it that weekend, a massive on-track racing incident occurred during Tom’s race session. Safety crews responded quickly, and everyone at the event stared with dismay at the massive cloud of dust rising into the air at the far end of the track. Minutes seemed like hours, and while everyone held their breath for an on-scene report, out of the cloud and into the pits came a completely dust-covered, blue and gold Can-Am car. Two race cars had experienced serious contact on track, and one of the cars went airborne, flying over Tom and his Ford Open Sports car, narrowly missing his head. Tom was relieved to be in the pits, and a reflective Bill told him, “This is why we race the recreation.”

Vintage sanctioning bodies vary in their view of reproductions like Tom’s Ford Open Sports car. But given the racing landscape and current values of vintage race cars, the most progressive and forward-thinking vintage racing organizations welcome accurate and honest recreated racers. They not only serve as a testament to bygone racing eras, but also take a respected place on the grid and a pivotal role in the progression of vintage motorsport.