Throwback Liveries – Hits & Misses

The Indianapolis 500 is a showcase for many things. In the last couple of decades, it has become common for many teams to go to retro-style or throwback liveries for the Indianapolis 500 or even the entire IndyCar season. Some of these have more success than others in achieving the desired effect. Sometimes, the style of current cars make it almost impossible to generate anything that even remotely resembles the original – such as trying to recreate a famous roadster paint scheme on a winged rear-engine car.

Here’s my take on some of the hits and misses over the years on some of the retro liveries.

The Penske Pennzoil Cars: While Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford certainly made their mark in the Jim Hall Chaparral, more commonly known as the Yellow Submarine, in 1979 and 1980; it was Rick Mears that made the Pennzoil livery legendary, in my opinion. He won two Indianapolis 500 victories in that livery and carried it from 1983 through the 1990 season.

1988 Indianapolis 500.

The livery went back to Jim Hall for the mid-nineties in CART and to Panther Racing of the IRL in the late nineties. The Panther cars were in the era that Pennzoil was tinkering with the liveries – adding a lot of black to the top half of the car and then a much lighter, pale shade of yellow in the early 2000’s. In 2005, the Panther car of Tomas Scheckter was changed to silver to promote the Pennzoil Platinum brand, before Pennzoil left the series altogether.

But in 2014 and again in 2016, Helio Castroneves ran the traditional Pennzoil livery that Rick Mears made famous in the eighties. This may be the best job of recreating an older livery and making it work on the newer style car. They got every detail right that they could while having to adhere to the new rules on number placements. Even the helmet that Mears wore in the eighties is reborn with Helio’s name emblazoned on the side.


The Gold Penske Cars: While the retro Pennzoil livery really hit the mark, they completely missed with Helio’s car for this year – the Shell Nitro car. In 1988, Danny Sullivan ran one of my favorite paint schemes – the gold Miller High Life car. The old gold color was very unique and did not have a long history. Smoky Yunick always ran black and gold cars at the Speedway and Parnelli Jones had a good-looking gold car in 1965.

Parnelli 1965

But Sullivan ran the gold Miller livery for two years and it was always one of my favorites. It just stood out in a very classic way. Apparently I’m not alone based on what has been written this spring.


Team Penske has been trying to draw comparisons between the 1988 Sullivan Miller livery and the Shell Nitro livery for Helio Castroneves this May. While I think it is a good-looking car, it bears little resemblance to the 1988 Miller car. It is the same shade of gold and that’s about it. While Sullivan’s car was predominantly gold, Helio’s car is mostly white. It has gold trim, but that’s about it.


As I said, it’s nice looking – but to pass it as a retro livery tied to the 1988 Sullivan car is a bit of a stretch.

PJ Jones Retro Liveries: Not only is Parnelli Jones one of the most legendary drivers to ever strap on a helmet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he also happened to drive two of the most iconic cars during his Indianapolis 500 tenure – Ol’ Calhoun and Silent Sam.



His son, PJ, was also an Indy car driver – mostly in CART in the late nineties. While I think PJ Jones is a better driver than many give him credit for, his career came nowhere close to his famous father’s. However, PJ Jones drove in two Indianapolis 500’s and entered two others. His two starts were in 2004 and 2006. He drove a car that was supposed to replicate Ol’ Calhoun. It fell way short.


It’s hard to duplicate the lines of a paint scheme when going from a front-engine roadster to a current car, but they still missed the mark. I would have made the blue nose bigger and brought the blue and red trim back along the side of the car – just like the original. And reflective gold Mylar numbers on the back wing don’t even come close to replicating the hand-painted gold numbers on the No.98 from 1963.


If that failed attempt weren’t embarrassing enough, it got worse in 2007. It was the fortieth anniversary of Parnelli Jones driving the famous Andy Granatelli Pratt & Whitney No.40 turbine known as Silent Sam. It was thought it would be a nice tribute to run what was to be a similar looking Dallara. Nice thought, but bad execution. The only thing that was similar was the color and the number.


Through no fault of his own, PJ Jones may have the distinction of driving two of the worst retro liveries in IMS history.

The Patrick and Coyote Liveries: While PJ Jones is saddled with two bad liveries, there were two single attempts from different teams that are maybe even worse than either of his efforts. These two were equally lame and flat out lazy in their attempts to harken back to their glory days. When Pat Patrick entered Al Unser, Jr. in the 2004 Indianapolis 500, it was said that his car was identical to Gordon Johncock’s 1973 winning Eagle. I’m sorry, I fail to see much similarity.



An almost identically lame attempt took place the following year when AJ Foyt Enterprises announced that the second car for Larry Foyt would be decked out in Coyote orange, bringing back the memories of the cars Foyt ran from 1967 until the late eighties when his Copenhagen cars went predominantly black over the course of a few years, being only trimmed in Coyote orange. If they really wanted to conjure up some memories of Foyt’s glory years, they could have put in a lot more attention to detail than they did.


Larry Foyt

The Copenhagen Livery: Unlike their futile attempt to recreate the look of the Coyote orange livery, the AJ Foyt team did an excellent job in recreating the Copenhagen look a couple of years ago. This is one of the few attempts at recreating a look that actually hit the mark in recent years.



While the sponsor was different and the style of car was very different, they did manage to recreate the look of the Foyt cars throughout the nineties.

The Target Livery: While Target had several variations throughout their twenty-six year stay in Indy car racing, the best stretch for Target Chip Ganassi Racing had to be from 1996 to 2000. In that period, they won four straight CART championships and the 2000 Indianapolis, when Ganassi was the first of the CART teams to cross over and run the Indianapolis 500 after The Split. It just so happened that 1996 was the first year they went to their now-famous lightning bolt livery.


Just last season, they brought it back for Scott Dixon. Although Target ended up leaving as a sponsor at the end of the season, they may have done just as good a job with this throwback livery, as Penske did with Pennzoil.

Dixon 2016

The Marmon Wasp II: Back in 1993, Eric Bachelart was signed to drive for Dale Coyne racing for the “500”. They had backing from a consortium known as the Marmon Group. While they had no connection to the Nordyke & Marmon Company that built the famous Marmon Wasp that won the Inaugural Indianapolis 500 – someone had the bright idea to call Bachelart’s car the Marmon Wasp II. When Bachelart failed to make the race, the sponsorship shifted over to John Andretti, who was driving a second car for AJ Foyt.




The original Bachelart car carried No.32, but really had no resemblance to the real Marmon Wasp. I always considered it an insult that they even tried to draw a tie between the real thing and the Bachelart car.

The Gurney Livery: In 2009, Bobby Rahal’s team was no longer full-time in the IndyCar Series. Still, they always entered the “500”. For 2009, he signed Oriol Servia to be the driver of a car that was made up to resemble the Dan Gurney Eagles of the late sixties. I always thought that this was one of the more entertaining of the throwback liveries because they got the fonts of the numbers right, and they even went to the trouble to list the driver, owner and chief mechanic up by the driver’s cockpit. They got the navy color right along with the wide white strip going down the middle. Completing their efforts, they even named it the DAFCA Special. I have no idea what the sponsor does, but I liked calling the Special – a tradition that dated back to almost the beginning but began fading away in the seventies.



If some of the other teams (Curb-Agajanian) had paid that much attention to details, perhaps they would have been more successful at their throwback attempts.

The Lotus Livery: Remember the days when Lotus sponsored Honda-powered cars in 2010 and 2011? That ended up being the closest an Indy car with the name Lotus on it, ever came to being fast in this century. The Lotus engine debuted in 2012. By the time the Indianapolis 500 rolled around, most Lotus teams had already gotten out of their Lotus contracts due to the woefully poor performance. It left a permanent stain of the Lotus name in Indy car history.

But getting back to 2010-11, I really thought the Lotus cars driven by Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan were good-looking cars. I’m lucky enough I got to see the Lotus run and win in their heyday of the sixties. While you had to use your imagination some, the newer liveries did take me back (slightly) to the days of Jim Clark.


Sato Lotus

I wouldn’t say this was the best throwback livery I ever saw, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. At least they tried.

Some Future Throwbacks I’d Like to See: Like anything, I’ve always liked some liveries better than others. If it was allowable under the tobacco settlement, I’d like to see the iconic Marlboro livery brought back in some other fashion. The day-glo orange chevrons were so distinctive, I would think a lot of companies would jump at the chance to be associated with them. Maybe reverse their direction, but I’d love to see the Penske cars go back to that type of livery.


I’ve also always been partial to the Little Al Valvoline livery of the early nineties.


As far as the older cars go, a proper recreation of the Fuel Injection Special of Bill Vukovich would excite me. The dark gray with red and yellow numbering is very unique.


The Johnny Lightning Special of Al Unser in 1970-71 were also beautiful cars that could be honored with a retro paint scheme. Some said Greg Ray ran a scheme similar to it, but I don’t think so. He never claimed it to be linked to the classic Unser cars and for good reason – they weren’t similar at all.


Greg ray

So there you have it. Some retro paint schemes that hit and some that completely missed and a few that fell somewhere in the middle. I’ve also tossed in a few that I’d like to see done in the future. What about you? Can you think of any throwbacks that I missed or any you’d like to see done that I didn’t mention? It’s a great topic for meaningless discussion in the Month of May.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “Throwback Liveries – Hits & Misses”

  1. I would like to see someone do the Ongais-Interscope car, can’t remember the nickname there. Also really liked Danny Sullivan’s 1982 scheme, I think it was a Forsythe car maybe, very colorful.

  2. I love the idea of a retro livery honoring the 1953 Fuel Injection Special. It’s one of my two favorite cars of all time. I agree it is hard to translate the look of a roadster to one of these cars. There is really a lot less space to work with.

  3. Some of the best days of Indianapolis 500 had beer and cigarette sponsors on cars . Some fans would be loyal to a car because a driver drove his our her brand .

  4. billytheskink Says:

    They don’t all work, of course, but I admire the effort put into most of these throw back paint schemes. I would love to see Indycar have a throwback race like what NASCAR does at Darlington and encourage all entries to run a historical scheme. I don’t care if that is blatantly copying NASCAR, it would be a lot of fun.

    There are probably too many old schemes I’d like see again to count, but one set that came to mind reading this were Ganassi’s 1995 lightning bolt cars, which were red on the top and black on the bottom. I particularly liked Jimmy Vasser’s STP car. These were not dominated by the Target logo as later lightning bolt schemes were, which may make them more appealing to sponsors.

    I am pretty much in agreement with you, George, on the liveries that you brought up. A few others that might be worth noting:

    – Ryan Briscoe’s Dragon Racing entry in 2007 also did a nice job replicating the old Pennzoil scheme despite not having Pennzoil sponsorship.

    – I thought Foyt did a good job recreating the Coyote orange car in 2011 with Bruno Junquiera, though when that seat was sold to Hunter-Reay the car became a mess of awkwardly-placed sponsor decals.

    – Another 2011 throwback car that I thought worked was John Andretti’s, which was designed to look like Gordon Johncock’s 1982 STP-sponsored winner. His number 43 was even placed inside a day-glo oval on the nose to mimic the placement of the STP logo on Gordy’s car.

    – Back before Patrick’s poor attempt in 2004, Vince Granatelli’s team was clearly mimicking the old day-glo STP cars in the late 1980s. They were fine.

  5. I would like to see the maroon of the Boyle Special on one of today’s car. The color looks great on Wilbur Shaw’s two-time winner.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    I enjoy visiting the museum, but living there and seeing nothing new each day would get old soon. Does a car get any faster if its livery isn’t “lame”? Any livery looks great in the winner’s circle, including that of one Emma Davies Dixon.

  7. Servia ran a throwback to the Marmon Wasp a few years ago that wasn’t too bad. I would love to see an MGD throwback from Rahal.

  8. Fascinating article George, thank you. Target Lightning and Al’s Valvoline are my favourite schemes.

  9. J.D. Ellis Says:

    As Jeremy said, Servia’s one-off in 2015 for RLL was a Marmon clone.

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