1966 Ford GT40
1966 Ford GT40
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

France’s Le Mans is the most revered of all motor races. While the Indianapolis 500 is renowned as the world’s biggest single sporting event, and the Monaco Grand Prix is a famous and storied spectacle, the 24 hours of Le Mans 24 stands apart. Le Mans has hosted races since before the turn of the century, and was the site of the first officially recognized French Grand Prix in 1906.

Until the 1960s, Le Mans had never been won by an American car, although Stutz had finished second in 1928, with Chrysler third and fourth. Many European marques, on the other hand, had won in America, including Indianapolis.

In 1950 wealthy American sportsman Briggs Cunningham finished 10th and 11th in modified Cadillacs. He then built his own Cunningham sports racers in an attempt to win Le Mans for America. The best Cunningham finishes were a third in 1953 and a third and fifth in 1954. It had been a valiant attempt, but the resources of the European factories were just too much for even a very wealthy American privateer.

In the early 1960s Lee Iacocca, general manager of the Ford Motor Co.’s Ford Division, was promoting “Total Performance” as the division’s image. To add to the performance lustre, Ford tried to buy the Italian automaker Ferrari.

The deal failed to materialize. Whether Enzo Ferrari was serious, or just trying to goad Fiat into buying in, which they eventually did in 1969, or whether he got fed up with Dearborn bureaucracy, is not clear. The final sticking point seemed to be that Enzo Ferrari would no longer be able to manage Ferrari’s racing activities, which he dearly loved. Feeling snubbed, Ford set out to show Ferrari that they too could build fast racing cars. The result was the Ford GT-40.

Ford’s search for international sports racing expertise took them to England, and the services of ex-Aston Martin racing team manager John Wyer. Retired American racer Carroll Shelby was also hired as a consultant. Wyer’s orders, received in late 1963, were to prepare a Ford for the 1964 Le Mans race, then only 10 months away.

With such a short deadline, Wyer used a Lola GT car as the basis for the racing Ford. It was called the GT-40 (for its 40 inch height) and they began adapting it to accept Ford components, a process that left little of the original Lola. Styling was developed at Ford’s Dearborn studio, with aerodynamic testing conducted in the University of Maryland’s wind tunnel.

To link the GT-40 directly to Ford’s road cars, a stock-block 4.7 litre Ford Fairlane V-8 was used. Shelby’s development work had turned it into a reliable and powerful competition engine, but the question was whether a mundane pushrod V-8 could match the sophisticated, high-winding, overhead cam engines from the experienced racing stables of Europe.

Two of the mid-engined, rear drive coupes were ready by the spring of 1964, and Iacocca introduced them at the New York Auto Show, saying that Ford’s aim was to win Le Mans. There was some scepticism, and it was apparently vindicated when three GT-40s failed to finish the LeMans race that June.

But the GT-40s were very fast. American Phil Hill took his around at 211 km/h (131.375 mph), for both the fastest lap and a new track record. But a Ferrari won the race, and Mr. Ferrari smiled.

In 1965 Ford returned to Le Mans with its GT-40s. In the best Detroit tradition they now had bigger engines, the 7.0-litre blockbuster V-8s used in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) cars. They turned out close to 500 horsepower.

Although the GT-40s, now built in Dearborn, were blindingly fast at 338 km/h (210 mph), they again failed to finish, although Hill did break his 1964 record with a 221 km/h (137.126 mph) lap. As in 1964, Ferraris finished one, two, three, and Mr. Ferrari smiled again.

Ford’s engineers and drivers continued to test and develop, and vindication finally came in 1966. There was jubilation in Dearborn as GT-40s swept the first three places against the best Europe had to offer. The giant Ford Motor Co. had done what privateer Cunningham had been unable to do: win for America at Le Mans. Mr. Ferrari frowned.

Ford repeated in 1967 when new, lighter, more powerful GT-40 Mark IVs again beat the Ferraris and Porsches at Le Mans. Its lap record lasted until 1970, and speed and distance records until ’71.

Its point proved, Ford left international sports racing and sold the cars to John Wyer. With Gulf Oil Co. sponsorship they won Le Mans in ’68 and ’69, reinforcing their earlier victories.

Approximately 126 GT-40s were produced. They enabled Ford to join the select group, including Bentley, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Ferrari and Porsche, who had dominant eras at the mighty Le Mans.

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