Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


SIRIUSXM SATELLITE radio’s Symphony Hall channel recently featured Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a fanfare for orchestra by modern composer John Adams. I immediately thought of my brief but scintillating experiences in Formula Ford race cars.

Why Formula Fords? Why not other “fast machines” that I’ve driven or ridden in?

For one thing, a Formula Ford has the excitement of an open-wheel racing car. But what’s more, unlike several other open-wheel cars I’ve driven, the performance limits of a Formula Ford can be approached by mere mortals. As stunning counterexamples, I piloted the Benneton-Ford B186 Formula 1 car and John Cobb’s Napier-Railton.


A Formula Ford and me, at a Jim Russell School, then located at Laguna Seca.

The Formula Ford class was devised in Britain in the mid-1960s as an entry-level open-wheel race car. The class evolved into a stepping stone between go-karts and more potent open-wheel machinery for aspiring race drivers.

The name Formula Ford traces from its engine known for robustness and modest cost. The Ford Kent is a traditional push-rod-actuated overhead-valve four-cylinder, with block and head of cast iron. It originally displaced 996 cc, gradually being enlarged to its Formula Ford applications of 1498 and 1599 cc.

The Kent engine was in road-going production from 1959 to 2002, for Fords including the Anglia, Cortina, Consul Classic, Consul Capri and early Corsair. According to Ford diehards, the Kent’s motorsport influence is comparable to the Chevrolet small-block’s. A telling example: In 2009, the Kent cylinder block was brought back into production specifically for Formula Ford enthusiasts.

Various Formula Ford classes exist today around the world, with the original variety now appearing primarily in vintage venues. The charm of the originals is in their Kent-engine sturdiness and the class’s simplicity of design. For example, handling depends entirely on tire grip; aerodynamic aids of any sort are prohibited. (This also means there are no wings to knock off in close competition, albeit bodywork nose cones appear to be considered consumables.)

A classic Formula Ford is also potent. As an example, a Swift DB-1 posted impressive numbers in its Road & Track test, March 1984. It (and I) set a new R&T slalom record of 72.2 mph, 9.0 mph quicker than a Z51 Corvette of the era and 3.7 mph better than our previous record holder, the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Group 5 race car.


Image from R&T, March 1984.

The Swift leapt to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, beating a Lamborghini Countach’s time by 1.1 seconds. It rounded the skidpad at 1.28g (on purely mechanical grip, mind). The Countach did 0.869; a Corvette, 0.879.

What was the Swift DB-1 and other Formula Fords like to drive? A ball! (And this brings me back to a Short Ride in a Fast Machine.)

When you first strap in, fire up and move off, the car’s auditory and tactile inputs are overwhelming. The engine snarls; the gearbox whines; the bodywork rattles; the chassis vibrates; and your body resonates with each of these. Initially, there are simply too many things to sort out.

After a bit, though, the experience starts making sense. You isolate what the suspension is communicating about its four tire patches. You get accustomed to the ultra-quick steering. A new coherence brings to mind that old adage of “driver and machine being one.”

If you seek a musical counterpart, listen to John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The composition is aptly named, less than five minutes long.


John Adams, Massachusetts-born 1947, composer of orchestral works and operas, including Nixon in China, Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic.

Writes Adams about Short Ride in a Fast Machine, “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?”

At first, there’s an overabundance of musical inputs. Some of these are rhythmic, the insistent beat of wood block, a periodic blat of the brass, flutter of the flutes. Other orchestral bits are unexpected. There are simply too many musical things happening too quickly.


Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, San Francisco Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, SFS Media, 2012.

But, then, about halfway through the piece, a new coherence emerges. For me, it’s when the brasses sound at around 1:35 in the Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony version.

That’s when my Formula Ford drives come to mind. And I thank composer John Adams for the recollections. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Anton Thortzen
    May 2, 2015

    After having read the Lancia MonteCarlo story I was almost expecting this. Another great and entertaining story, but this time I was able to find the actual issue of R&T to read the entire story again. Frustrating how much I had forgotten in the 31 years that have passed! Good fun, though!

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