If you’re unfamiliar with Ford’s history at Le Mans, you may be wondering why we care so much about a new Ford GT. We don’t soil ourselves over any other GTE-class racers, so why does this one matter? Sure, the top P1 class is nice, but GTE puts Ford directly up against their extremely bitter old rival: Ferrari.
(This story originally ran in December 2014 before the new Ford GT was unveiled. You can watch what the new one does this weekend at Le Mans.)
In the 1960s, Henry Ford II was running Ford Motor Company, and he had his eyes set on Le Mans. What better way to showcase your company’s cars than by winning the most grueling endurance race in the world? Winning both the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans would put an American company on top for the two most famous races of the day.
A letter tipped Ford off that Ferrari might be up for sale. Ford spent millions of dollars researching the purchase just to be sure they wanted the company. It looked like a solid deal: buy a dominant sportscar company, and then you’re all set to go to Le Mans.
Because Enzo Ferrari was always more interested in running his race teams than selling road cars to fund said teams, negotiations suddenly broke off over Ferrari’s desire to keep control over the race teams. Ford drew the line at this because they campaigned Fords in the Indianapolis 500, and they didn’t want to compete against a brand they owned. Enzo broke off the sale partially out of spite and, partially, because he’d used the prospect of a Ford purchase to get Fiat to invest in the company, leaving Ford having spent a lot of cash over a deal that didn’t go through.
Ford was rightly pissed and the need to campaign a Ferrari-beater at Le Mans was born.
According to Automobile, Henry Ford II’s exact words were, “All right, we’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him.”
That’s right: The original Ford GT40 was born out of a need to stick it to The Man. Specifically, The Enzo Man.
Sure, any race car at the top levels of motorsport is built for the purpose of going faster than all those other dudes on track, even down to the humble Minardis and Hispanias of the world. However, none have been born out of quite the vendetta as the Ford GT40.
It’s hard to say who was right in the initial feud. Did Ford’s research really not uncover the fact that Enzo Ferrari’s entire raison d’être is to find a way to go play race cars?
As for Enzo, if you’re selling a company so that you can divest yourself of these weird street car buyers, you’d think you’d have your conditions for the sale up front and center. Or was the plan for Ford to control the racing budget (and therefore have the final veto on everything Enzo wanted to do) really a surprise Ford kept until the very end?
Few care about the specifics of the feud, because on top of everything, Ford was an American manufacturer out to run against the Europeans on their home turf. They were no small-volume sportscar marque, either. Ford brought us the original, true car of the people, the Model T, which made car ownership attainable for regular dudes. That was Ford’s main schtick. Ford was a regular car company from America doing extraordinary things.
So, of course the mere mention of “GT40" is going to conjure up images of bald eagles punching Mussolini in the balls while shedding a single, thoughtful tear at some Fourth of July fireworks. ‘Murica.
Ford worked with Eric Broadley at Lola to design the chassis, as Lola had just fielded one of the most technologically advanced cars at Le Mans, the Lola Mk 6. The Mk 6 even had a Ford V8 engine. What stunk about the Lola Mk 6 was the gearing, which couldn’t rev high enough for Le Mans’ lengthy Mulsanne Straight. Ford sent their one engineer who had experience with Ford’s mid-engined Mustang I prototype to work on the project, Roy Lunn. Team Manager John Wyer was hired away from Aston Martin to head up the project as well.
The first Ford GT (serial number GT/101) was unveiled in all its fiberglass-bodied glory on April Fool’s Day, 1963. It used the same 4.2-liter all-aluminum version of the Ford Fairlane road car’s engine as the Lola Mk 6, only this one was mated to a Colotti transaxle with better gearing for Ford’s big races.
The results were, uh... not good for the first two years of the GT40. Its debut year in 1964 had far too many retirements, so Ford ousted John Wyer from the program and handed the reins over to Carroll Shelby and the Shelby-American team. This handover happened so quickly that Shelby received the cars still covered in grime from their last race. Shelby’s team of Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby won the Daytona 2000 in his debut with the car in 1965, but that was the only win that season.
The Mk I Ford GT was a disaster, but the Mk II was successful as a result of lessons learned from the car’s first iteration. Most notable was the switch to a 7-liter lightweight version of the 427 V8 engine derived from the one in the Galaxie road car as well as a new gearbox built in-house to handle the extra power. The car’s brakes kept overheating with the original, smaller engine, so a quick-change system was added so the team could swap brake discs during the race.
Then 1966 brought the Ford GT40 a decisive 1-2-3 result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It didn’t just win. It filled the podium. When we geek out over the new Ford GT’s return to racing in 2016, it’s because it’s fifty years after Ford’s first Le Mans win. The fiftieth anniversary of Ford filling an entire podium with its entries is a cause for celebration.
Mission accomplished, right? Well, sort of. They took an English-built car and won with New Zealanders Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. Ford’s even more of a global company now than they were back then, but it could be possible to stick it to their pasta-swilling nemeses once more, with feeling, in a way befitting of the company’s American base.
Ford sold the original Ford Advanced Vehicles division in England that was responsible for the Mk I and Mk II cars to John Wyer. Then Ford and Shelby-American themselves reworked the Mark II race car into the Mk IV for 1967, which featured a chassis and body redesigned in America. The Mk IV was originally much lighter than the Mk II, but a heavy roll cage was added in response to Ken Miles’ fatal accident during testing for the new “J-car” design that eventually became the Mk IV.
American Ford subsidiary Kar Kraft built the redesigned cars, and American drivers Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt took it to victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
A rule change in regards to engine displacement forced the Fords back to a sub-5-liter engine again for 1968. John Wyer had reworked the original Mk 1 design to include a 4.9-liter version of the original Fairlane V8 engine, and the same chassis #1075 of the tweaked Mk 1 car won Le Mans in 1968 and 1969. By 1970, however, the Fords were obsolete to the now-reliable Porsche 917s.
Ford didn’t just win Le Mans four years in a row in their streak of dominance, but they also won four FIA titles in what was then unofficially the World Sportscar Championship. This was the closest relative to the modern World Endurance Championship that existed in the sixties. Ford won the International Manufacturers’ Championship in 1966, the International Sports Car Championship in 1966 and 1967, and the International Championship for Makes in 1969.
Yes, we’re all still giddy about a four-year winning streak, only one of which was with a truly American design with American drivers. So? The Ford GT40 is awesome, as was the new Ford GT that debuted in 2005 and 2006. Only privateer teams took the mid-2000s GT racing, however. It’s about time Ford rejoined the party with their newest GT.
The fact that a car that will likely be an homage to the original 1960s prototype will now fit into the GTE category is also amazing in its own right. Racing technology has really come that far in half a century, and it will be interesting to see how the new Ford GT stands up to its rivals once again. Will we get another world-beater like the original car?
I can’t wait to find out.
Photo credits: AP Images (1966 Mk II #2 car run by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amos, 1969 Mk I #6 car run by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver ahead of the #64 Porsche 908, A.J. Foyt taking the checkered flag in the #1 1967 Mk IV GT40), Getty Images (Graham Hill behind the wheel of a Mk II)