Edsel and Henry Ford Share Thoughts On FoMoCo, Le Mans, The GT40, Ken Block, And More
Photography courtesy of Ford
It’s not every day that you get an invitation to kick back and have a casual conversation about great cars with a couple of Ford family members, so when the chance to chat with Edsel II and Henry III arose, I naturally jumped at the chance. For those unaware, Edsel II is the son of Henry II, the man whose feud with Enzo Ferrari fueled the greatest motorsport rivalry of the 1960s. Edsel II has had a long career with his namesake company, and his son, Henry III, is well along on that path, and is currently positioned within Ford Performance.
We were joined that day by Kevin Kennedy, who has been involved with the company’s marketing and communications efforts since around the time the Mustang SVO first roamed the streets, and naturally we all talked about the Ford GT and Le Mans (GT and GT40, actually), and even the idea of a carbon fiber Mustang. There is a lot of ground to cover with a company like Ford, so thankfully I was in good company.
Aaron Miller: What’s the first car that you remember really falling in love with?
Edsel Ford II: I want to be careful how I answer that. [Laughs] If someone else was asking me, I’d give another answer, but I think mine was my first Mustang, a ‘67. But my mother had a Mini Cooper, and I thought that was such a cool car. I used to drive it all the time when I was 16. It was British Racing Green with a basketweave on the side, and it was quite, quite a car.
My father gave [that first Mustang] to me for my 16th birthday. It was pearlescent white with a blue stripe. Back in those days, you know, the design center could do special this and special that, so the interior trim was unique. It was really a beautiful car.
Henry Ford III: For my 16th birthday I got a Contour.
EF: Yeah, but it had special wheels on it. [Laughs]
HF: No it didn’t; no! That was the Contour SVT, and got a base Contour instead.
EF: Jeez. You’re tough. [Laughs] You are really tough.
HF: I think the public should know that!
EF: But it had a dual exhaust or something didn’t it? It was a Contour Sport.
HF: It was a Contour Sport, you’re right.
EF: Let’s be frank now, it was a Contour Sport.
HF: It had an excellent manual transmission. It was a special car. I liked it. I loved it. I really loved it. It was fast. Not as fast as the SVT of course but…
EF: You had a few other fun cars, though. Like the Bronco for one!
HF: Oh the Bronco. Yeah, yeah yeah!
EF: How quickly they forget! [Laughs]
AM: What’s the story on the Bronco?
HF: Yeah. Yeah, so this actually goes back to your question. The first car that I think I really fell in love with was the Bronco. The original one. And I think you, [to Edsel] you found a guy in California.
EF: I did, but I’m not sure I remember the full story anymore.
HF: I think he had done a little bit of work to it, but it still had the original engine and transmission. It was a ‘70 Bronco. And um, so we, or you, bought that during my freshman year at Dartmouth. We still have that car. But back then, I would drive it to school. And school was a 14 hour drive from home. So that’s a long time all told to be in a 1970 Bronco! [Laughs]
AM: I’m sure you were very familiar with it when you got there at the very least.
EF: We put a crate engine in it at some point too. And so my wife used to drive with him sometimes, just because it was something nice for her to do with him. I also recall that the windows weren’t sealed very properly, and it made a lot of noise. It’s still around though. We still have it. Almost everybody had it in college, except when Albert didn’t have a place for it.
AM: So, Edsel, on the topic of important cars in the family, obviously some of your formative teenage years were spent while your dad was spearheading the GT40 project. How much do you remember from that time? How much did it impact you?
EF: Well, frankly it was very impactful, because the first race I went to was at Le Mans, and I think I got hooked from that point.
AM: That’s a good first race to go to!
EF: That was the ‘66 race. And I just got hooked. And my father kept on saying to me, “Why do you like racing so much?” And I said, “You did this to me. I didn’t do it. If you hadn’t taken me to Le Mans I wouldn’t have this problem that I have!” [Laughs] But it’s, as I tell people, it’s in the DNA of our company, so it’s not such a bad problem to have!
Many of us believe that Ford Motor Company might not exist today if Henry Ford hadn’t won that race in October of 1901. The Sweepstakes. That’s really where he garnered a lot of interest in the Ford Motor Company, and where he generated enough capital to start the Ford Motor Company. So motor racing has been a part of our DNA for a long time.
AM: Arguably Ford’s role in racing has been—as much as any company—to use racing as a driver of technologies, especially with efforts like the GT40 program. What are your thoughts on this mindset?
EF: Someone asked me about that the other day. I think it drives a lot of things. It’s not just technology though. It drives enthusiasm for the product. It drives positive brand image. It drives positive employee involvement—we take our employees to both NASCAR races in Michigan. We rent a big tent and we have a finite amount of tickets, and I think they’re sold out almost immediately. So it’s good for employee morale. It’s good for all sorts of things. And, frankly, there aren’t very many places where we can have this kind of combat with our competitors. You know? I mean, this is hand to hand combat on the track.
HF: Yeah, I would agree with all of that. And I think, obviously we do a lot of digital and social to reach a much broader audience, and at a lot of the races we do displays, so people can sit and touch and smell and talk to product specialists and learn more about the vehicles, themselves. It provides us multiple platforms to interact with customers, either experientially at the track, digitally, socially, on television, that sort of thing.
AM: Obviously you both grew up at different times in the evolution of Ford’s programs. What are the differences in how you view, for example, the GT40. For you Edsel, it was very in the moment, while for Henry it was by then a long-established and much-lauded thing. Can you both talk about how you experienced it personally?
EF: I started going to auto racing when I was 18 years old, and I don’t think much has changed, in the sense that I go to races because I like to watch car racing. All of these comfort features weren’t around. So we never had any of that. We never had radios, we never had any of those kinds of things. You know, you went, and you stood in the pits, and if you didn’t want to stand in the pits for the whole race, you went home, at least that’s how it was for me.
So, I think from that point of view it’s a completely different kind of racing. I was bemoaning the fact that, when I was growing up, I mean I remember years and years and years I’d go to watch the Indianapolis 500. I must have gone, I don’t know, 15 years in a row. And I would always stay at the Speedway Motel. And you’d always go to breakfast, and all the drivers were in the dining room, having breakfast too. And that’s just the way it was. The drivers were always around. You could always talk to them. They’d always sign autographs. And I was shocked in Martinsville—I went to Martinsville last week for the NASCAR race—I was shocked that there’s a special, walled off area for all of the drivers’ motorhomes. And I thought, to me, that’s the single biggest change, that they walled off so much of the access we used to have. The pit areas now are all glassed in, so you can’t even see or get close, unless you have a form of pit pass.
HF: I think there are safety concerns, and of course legal concerns. I mean, the level of access has probably decreased in the last 50 years, that’s right, but we still try to bring that kind of access as best we can. So we bring drivers to our displays and they sign autographs there and they do Q&A sessions with the fans. I agree that it’s harder to get access to drivers during downtimes when they’re with their families, but as a result we try to compensate and bring the drivers out to the fans, letting them experience that piece in a new way hopefully.
AM: Can you speak to the evolving importance of Ford in the highest levels in international motorsports, what with the return to Le Mans and other races with the new GT?
EF: We have such a robust history in motor racing, and it’s been in all kinds of racing. Let me tell you a story about Mickey Thompson. When I was younger I got to know Mickey very well. I thought it was extremely interesting, all that early Baja stuff, and he was an important figure in all of that. So we did all kinds of racing. And we do all kinds today too. It’s where we want to be in some capacity. I’ve never seen so many people at a car race. Sports car racing brings in a younger audience, I think, than a typical NASCAR race, so the GT program is adding something special in that regard.
HF: And I think that’s also one of the reasons why we’ve gotten into sport—racing series like World Rallycross, for example, with Ken Block—because we know that’s a young demographic that we’re all chasing after, and Ken brings such a large platform, such a large social following, that with him we can capture not only race fans but non-racing fans as well. Just people who are Ken Block fans in general. The car we race in that series is clearly recognizable, even in the eyes of fans that don’t know much about racing, as a Focus RS, the same way they can tell in IMSA and WEC that it’s a Ford GT.
We really like those series where the manufacturers are able to differentiate themselves and really stay closer to the road product that they’re racing.
AM: You brought up Ken Block, so let’s stay there for a second. It feels like he’s broken the mold for how to transition into motorsport, like he’s paying for his ride with social media.
HF: If you look at what he does with his Gymkhana series, it’s pretty unbelievable. You know, he gets 20-plus, 50-plus, sometimes 70-plus million views on his Gymkhana films. He’s extremely well known in that kind of 18-40 demographic, and he’s built a brand all of his own and been very successful at it. And at the same time, the stunts, and the tricks, and the driving dynamics that he exhibits I think translate well to the race track because a lot of the skills are transferable. When he’s on the race track, and actually racing, it gives him that credibility and authenticity that he’s not just some kind of a stunt driver. He’s an actual race car driver, and that’s his day job, in a way.
Kevin Kennedy: When we first signed Ken, one of the first things we did was a promotion called 43 Fiestas. He was driving Fiestas when he first switched over, and it was a link between Richard Petty’s race team in NASCAR, and Ken Block’s number: 43.
And this was a telling moment. They filmed this commercial at one of the short tracks, and they were doing stunts with the stock car and his car. Richard Petty was there, because he was a big part of the thing, but Richard Petty’s grandson came too, and what’s Richard Petty’s grandson wearing? Full Ken Block apparel. [Laughs] I mean, he’s not in the clothing of “The King,” he was in full Ken Block Ford apparel. He was 12 or 13 years old. He was a total Ken Block freak. He knew as much about him as he knew about his grandfather, right?
And he came because he wanted to meet Ken Block. But that’s what we’re talking about in terms of bringing a completely separate audience.
AM: And that ties into what we were talking about earlier, with getting that next generation involved. The people that maybe can’t buy a car yet but will down the road.
EF: Frankly, I think NASCAR struggles with that. I think they’re looking for different things. My generation liked to buy tickets, liked to sit in stands. Enjoyed it that way. I think the next generation maybe doesn’t want to do that so much. Races are long, it’s expensive, you know. And it translates really well on television to start with.
HF: Yeah, and I mean, so we, Ford Motor Company, own the live stream rights to World Rallycross here in the US for this season. We negotiated with the FIA and we own the live stream for each Rally Cross race here in the US through our Facebook page, and we’ll replay it on YouTube, and we’ll do that for every race this season. And that’s how people are consuming media these days.
AM: We’ve run the gamut, discussing different types of motorsport. There’s so much more out there though too; what’s your personal favorite series?
HF: I’m not sure if I have one. I like them all for different reasons. They offer unique experiences.
EF: I think every race track is different, too. Because I went to Martinsville, as I said, last weekend, and I had a blast. I’d never been to Martinsville before, and you can see so much—it’s a short little track—the racing is bumper to bumper. It’s also very attractive, in my opinion. Now, I’ll be frank. There’s nothing like the Daytona 500 though. Nothing.
AM: That’s even above Le Mans for you?
EF: It’s close. [Laughs] I’ve been in the winner’s circle a couple of times at the Daytona 500. It is a very special experience. Very special.
AM: Let’s go on a small tangent. Raj Nair tells a story that he, prior to the current GT, he pitched a homologation special Mustang, that ultimately got rejected, and that that became the foundation of Project Phoenix [the current Ford GT’s code name]. What would your thoughts have been on a very limited, $200k Mustang?
EF: [To Henry] You were right in that, weren’t you?
HF: Yeah, I sat in on some of those meetings. I think, I mean it was a really interesting project, obviously, and it could’ve been great, there’s no question about it, but I think, at least as it’s concerned with Le Mans, that the story of racing a Mustang at Le Mans wouldn’t have touched in quite the same way I think as the GT.
And so I think with bringing the Ford GT back, we’re able to tell a new chapter of that story in a way that maybe would’ve been a little bit harder with a Mustang. I mean, the Mustang name is a tried and true name worthy of a race car. There’s no question about it, going back to the GT 350 in ‘65, but at least with the Le Mans component, I think the story is a little bit, you could argue, I don’t know, more cohesive with the GT.
EF: It certainly fit better with the history. [To Henry] Did you ever see any renderings of the Mustang?
KK: I did. The thing is, kind of like Raj talked about, it would have needed such changes that it was getting away from what a Mustang really is—you need to remember this is the 50th anniversary of Mustang at that time as well, right? Much like we were talking about the GT, the great thing about this car is that it carries the lineage, while being a totally modern car. It would’ve taken the Mustang too far away from what it is to give it the task at Le Mans as well.
EF: I was always fascinated by the demographics of the Mustang. Because I think a large percentage are bought by women. Over 50%.
HF: Yeah. Throughout history, too.
EF: And it’s always been that way, it’s been a car for all people. If you want a 2.3L fuel economy version, you can get that, all the way through to the GT350R. It’s always been a little bit of everything for everyone. And I don’t know what a Mustang for Le Mans would’ve done to the brand. It might have confused people.
KK: Raj had it in his mind, though. He knew the 50th anniversary of the 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans was coming up. The key was what can be done? And at the time, Mustang was having its 50th anniversary. Mustang was being sold globally for the first time. So there were a lot of things that actually made sense, if you could do it. But you’re right, how much are you willing to take it away from what it is?
EF: I think at some point it would be nice to do a white paper on the price elasticity of the Ford GT.
GT: If you think about it, we have never priced a car made by Ford Motor Company, ever, at the level [the GT’s] priced at. And people are not blinking an eye, are they? I mean, we’ve got people in line.
KK: They were at a reception last night—how many times did you get “Hey, how can I get a Ford GT?”
EF: Everywhere I go! They ask me and I say, “Go see my son. He’s the Ford GT guy.” [Laughs]
AM: To me, that’s one of the interesting things about the car, is that it’s not a million dollar hypercar.
EF: No, it’s a half-million dollar hypercar.
AM: Yeah, but for what it is, it’s relatively speaking—yes it’s weird to use the term inexpensive at a price like this—but it’s cheaper than a lot of the cars it competes against, and it’s not being produced in such numbers that it will dilute the value.
EF: I just hope people realize they’re essentially buying a race car.
AM: Ironically, they’re not buying a GT car, they’re buying a GT.
EF: [Laughs] Yeah, and it’s a race car. Plain and simple.
KK: The race car and production car are developed and built at the same time, right? What they’re learning over here goes over there and what they’re learning there comes this way too. It’s probably the first race car program where they were jointly developed running down the same path. The race car is the production car and the production car is the race car. It really is very close.
AM: How much of that is going to trickle down toward other production vehicles?
HF: The goal would be a lot of it. Obviously time will tell how much does find its way down, but you know, that was absolutely one of the objectives of this program—to create and test and prove our technology that then can be democratized across the entire lineup.