From Steve McQueen to James Bond, Gulf Oil’s signature powder blue and orange sports car livery has a unique endurance racing heritage.
Even if you’re not a motorsports fan, the chances are pretty good that you’ve seen the iconic Gulf Oil colours (the British spelling just because I like it better) splashed across your TV screen at one time or another. A long line of blue and orange beauties has competed in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race over the last 50 years. Beginning in 1967 with a JW Motorsports Mirage that failed to complete the race, team owner John Wyer went on to enter race-winning Ford GT40s the following two years to give the Gulf Oil Racing Team its first taste of winner’s circle champagne.
But it was a different manufacturer that gave Gulf Oil Racing its most memorable images when in 1970, Wyer fielded one of the most beloved race cars of all time, the Porsche 917. Fortuitously, this was the car featured in Steve McQueen’s feature film Le Mans. In the movie, McQueen, who was also an extremely competent race driver, piloted this sleek, sublime and temperamental monster of a racecar (just ask anyone who drove it) forever linking it to the Gulf Oil brand.
Since its inception, Gulf Oil Racing has achieved two notable firsts. In 1975, drivers Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx (who would ultimately claim eleven Le Mans 24 Hour career race wins between them) took first overall in the race, driving the widely recognized powder blue and orange paint scheme in a Mirage. It was the first win at Le Mans by a sponsor in a car of its own name (the Gulf GR8). Then, in 2004, Gulf became the first oil company in history to trademark its racing colours.
Since then, the Gulf Oil livery has been applied to numerous racing machines, from McLaren to Audi to Ligier. But it was British carmaker Aston Martin who stole the show by branding their racecars in Gulf colours and running the car as number 007. This was a nod to Ian Fleming’s notorious licensed-to-kill secret agent James Bond who drove Aston Martin sports cars in many of the popular superspy novels. A brilliant marketing strategy that brought renewed interest to the Gulf Oil racing brand.
So what makes this simple but powerful design so enduring? In motorsports, recognizing sponsor brands as they whiz by in neck-snapping blurs can be quite a challenge. But the instantly identifiable powder blue and orange of the Gulf livery is impossible to miss. In person, the colours are even more vibrant, bordering on dayglow especially when the sun glints off the highly polished speed machines. It’s something no photograph or video footage can fully capture.
Photo: Race Car Engineering
The design is incredibly simple. A wide orange stripe runs down the middle of the car from the back to front, fanning out to both sides as it reaches the nose of the car. Additional orange stripes run along the lower edge of the car on either side. Because the orange and blue are similar in value (or vibrance), a small dark blue pinstripe separates the two colours wherever they meet. This creates more cleanly defined graphic shapes, especially when viewed at a distance.
The circular Gulf logo maintains most of its original look and feel, with small updates to the letterforms and shapes that have kept it from becoming dated over the years.
The popularity of the Gulf Oil livery is unrivaled in motorsports save perhaps the Prancing Horse of Ferrari. The Porsche 917 especially, has been the subject of photographers, artists, and merchandisers over the last half-century. You can find everything from fine art prints (as shown in this graphic featured in the fantastic book Racing Colours by the late Simon Owen) to cell phone cases and even sneakers designed by talented motorsport artist Nicolas Hunziker.
So if you’re wishing you could see the Gulf Oil livery in action, you’re in luck. Look no further than coverage of this weekend’s 24 Heures du Mans. Taking up the colours for the famed livery will be the #86 Gulf Racing Porsche 911 RSR (@gulfracinguk). I’ll be wearing my Gulf Oil 917 tee-shirt while watching the race coverage. How great would it be to see this ageless livery on the top step of the podium after 24 hours at speed? Pretty great. And I know Steve McQueen would be proud.
Special Note: I’m pretty sure the feature image in this post was from Racer Magazine a few years back, but if I am incorrect my apologies to the photographer who created it. It’s a gorgeous image so if you happen to be the one who took it, let me know and I would be happy to add the credit.
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