Ford’s Quest to Beat Ferrari with the GT40
The Ford GT40 is perhaps the greatest icon of the 1960s glory days of international sports car racing, its impossibly low and wind-hewn shape, distinct and hammering Detroit V8 sound, legendary roster of drivers, and storied list of battles against Europe’s finest sports car manufacturers have all attained near-mythical status in the decades past since its domination on tracks scattered across the globe.
Its story begins in the spring of 1963, when Henry Ford II reportedly caught wind that old man Enzo was interested in selling Ferrari to the company founded by Ford’s grandfather (and the man for which he was named), Henry the First. Ford had held ambitions for Le Mans for several years at this point, and, knowing a great opportunity when he saw one, set about acquiring Ferrari with great enthusiasm, the financial and political might of the family company behind him. After spending several millions of dollars in legal negotiations and audits in pursuit of that goal, Ford was unceremoniously dropped as a suitor when Enzo became upset with Ford’s refusal to allow him full and unmitigated control over the Maranello firm’s open wheel racing programs. Humiliated and livid, Ford instructed his company’s top brass to partner with an alternate European motorsports manufacturer, one with which he could extract his revenge on Ferrari by defeating them before the world at Le Mans. Ford closely evaluated Cooper, Lotus, and Lola, ultimately choosing the latter.
Lola, by that time a widely respected make in its own right, had many years of experience building world-class race cars, and as an added bonus was already running a Ford-powered car at Le Mans—1963’s Mk 6. Though highly advanced and full of promise, the car failed to impress due in part to overly low gearing which caused the car to run out of revs on the long Mulsanne straight. Recognizing the Mk 6’s potential, Ford heavily invested in its further development of the car into what would become known as the GT40, its name indicating the car’s overall height of only forty inches.
Under ex-Aston Martin team manager John Wyer, the GT40 failed to finish at its first official race, the 1964 Nürburgring 1000 km, and again at that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. After a further series of failures Wyer was replaced by young Texan and failed chicken farmer Caroll Shelby. Shelby impressed Ford with an outright win at the car’s first running under his direction, the 1965 Daytona 2000 km race—unfortunately, the remainder of the season was an utter disaster.
With experience hard-earned through two miserable seasons, Ford and Shelby finally triumphed at Le Mans in 1966 with a stunning and unprecedented 1-2-3 finish, ending six straight years of wins by Ferrari. Not content with beating Maranello only once, Ford continued to further develop the GT40, the MKIV version of which came to be the very first entirely American-designed and built car to win a Le Mans in 1967. The GT40’s incredible reign at Le Mans would ultimately span four years, with its final two victories in 1968 and 1969, at which point Mr. Ford could well and truly be said to have made his point—Enzo wasn’t the only one who knew how to build ‘em.