The name Ford is synonymous the world over with grand scale carmaking, yet electrifying, meteoric, cutting edge are not necessarily the qualities usually associated with the brand. That, however, is precisely how we would describe the GT40—an extraordinary model if there ever was one. Developed to challenge the supremacy of Ferrari, the world’s most prestigious sports car, Ford managed to create a supercar from scratch that ultimately defined an entire era.
Henry Ford II, grandson to the company’s founder and its chairman since the late 1940s, understood that the baby boomers in the 1960s wanted speed rather than comfort, style rather than safety. Initially the clearest path to delivering precisely this seemed to be through an outright purchase of Ferrari SpA, which reportedly was for sale following internal strife. After extensive negotiations in 1963, however, Ford came to understand that Maranello was actually not to be had. His response was to embark on a costly program to develop a product in-house that would humble the very marque he had failed to absorb. It was a fine vision to have—but turning it into reality would take more than just hard work and determination.
To this end Ford recruited former Aston Martin Racing Team chief John Wyer in 1963 and entered into a collaboration with Lola Car’s owner Eric Broadley. By 1964 the first GT40s, fitted with 4.2-liter engines and Colotti gearboxes, were making it out of the purposely appointed facilities in Slough, England—and they were a disaster. So much so that Roy Salvadori, who together with Caroll Shelby had won Le Mans for Wyer’s Aston Martin in 1959, walked away from the team. Ford came nowhere near troubling Ferrari’s firm grip on the long distance race that year, which the Italians won for the fifth consecutive time, and before the end of the season the project was placed in the hands of Carroll Shelby, who had already conspired with Ford to power the AC/Shelby Cobra.
Given the car’s substantial shortcomings, 1965 was devoted primarily to the redevelopment of the concept. In order to work on the new MkII version Ford bought Kar Kraft, a small specialist firm close to the factory at Dearborn, and on Shelby’s promptings fitted the old GT40s with the same 4.7-liter engine used to power the AC Cobra. The company entered two revamped GT40 and two brand new MkII cars in the 1965 edition of Le Mans—but none of them lasted as many as ninety laps. Meanwhile Ferrari took the first three places, with Jochen Rindt’s winning 250LM completing 348 of them. Nevertheless, Ferrari’s sixth consecutive win would also be the marque’s last ever.
Because in 1966 things would change—and they would do so drastically. Shelby’s modified MkII featured a similar chassis to the original GT40 but a bigger seven-liter engine and a more reliable custom-made four-speed gearbox. Early showings in the new season were promising with convincing wins for Shelby’s development driver Ken Miles in Daytona and Sebring. The latter however, would turn out to be a tragic affair as separate accidents resulted in the death of four spectators and the GT’s first racing casualty, Canadian driver Bob McLean whose GT40 crashed into a telephone pole and burst into flames. Just two weeks later Holman & Moody driver Walt Hansgen would follow when his GT40 MkII aquaplaned into the sandbanks during practice runs at Le Mans, claiming his life. At Le Mans proper no fewer than eight official MkIIs were entered for the race, and Henry Ford II sat in the stands ready to witness the demise of his loathed adversary. Ford scooped all three podium positions, though Ken Miles was robbed of victory just to stage a perfect photo finish PR stunt with the winning cars. This blend of tragedy and success would carry onto the end of the summer, when Miles lost his life testing the latest generation of the GT, known as the J-car, which featured a new and fatally flawed chassis and aerodynamic design.
The ultra light J-car was shelved after Miles’ death, and in 1967 the development of the new MkIV included a reinforced chassis and antiroll bar for added safety. The list of race entries of the MkIV is nothing if not streamlined: it only competed at Sebring and Le Mans in 1967. And it won both races by a distance! By the end of the ’67 season Ford had come to dominate the sports car calendar in the US and Europe: Henry Ford had made his point—emphatically.
New regulations introduced for 1968 meant the MkIV, with its massive seven-liter engine, could no longer be entered in Le Mans. By then, however, the company’s interest in the race had diminished, and the GT program had been handed over to John Wyer’s J.W. Automotive Engineering. This signaled the beginning of another emblematic era in the history of endurance racing, as Wyer’s connections with Gulf Oil resulted in the famous orange and light blue sponsor dominating the tracks for years to come. With Ferrari refusing to compete under the new format, Wyer’s reconstructed GT40, driven by Pedro Rodríguez and Lucien Bianchi and featuring a revamped 4.9-liter engine, won the race. It was Ford’s third consecutive victory, ahead of the new emerging force in the category: Porsche.
Wyer’s success at reconfiguring the GT40 also produced the model’s swansong in 1969 when Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver managed to come over the finishing line approximately one hundred years ahead of Porsche’s lead works car. It was the end of the line for a remarkable project that had sprung up from one man’s hurt ego. It was also the beginning of another supremely successful period, this time for John Wyer, whose ability to neutralize the field’s advantage over his cars earned him enough recognition to be drafted by Porsche immediately thereafter. It was also, in many ways, the end of the golden era for Le Mans, the epic Ferrari-Ford antagonism embodying like never before or after the contrasting philosophies of European and American carmakers.
It would take over thirty-five years for the name GT to resurface in the vast ocean of Ford’s books, but in 2003, on the occasion of the company’s hundredth anniversary celebrations, a new series was presented to the public. Clearly retro in its design, the car bore little mechanical resemblance to its 1964 predecessor. Over the course of the following two years more than four thousand units would be sold, eclipsing the production of the original GT40 by a ratio of approximately forty to one.
Now, ten years after the first run was terminated in 2006 and on the fiftieth anniversary of Ford’s first Le Mans victory, a new GT will be made available to private customers towards the end of 2016. The production run of the carbon fiber supercar is set at a maximum of one thousand units with no more than 250 delivered each year, but with Ford fielding a GT alongside Ferrari, Aston Martin, Porsche and Corvette in the GT Pro Class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, this year’s race provided us with a taste of what could be the return to the evocative days of old.
Written in collaboration with Adrian Kobbe and published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday October 15 October 2016.