Le Mans In Milan: This Homage To The Last Hurrah Of The Ford GT40 Is Still Evolving
Photography by Luca Danilo Orsi
Replicas come with the connotation of compromise, and in a certain sense that is simply a fact; you are getting part of the real deal in exchange for part of the cost. They may not share the same provenance or value, but these lookalike acolytes offer many things their legendary source materials cannot. The relatively attractive cost of entry is the obvious advantage, but you can also tweak a replica to your liking, mixing and matching materials, mechanical parts, and paint codes to turn the “what might have beens” in your head into cars that you can drive. In the case of Nicola, the owner of the car pictured here, his GT40 homage gets him pretty close to driving a Le Mans winning race car through the streets of Milan.
When I met Nicola and his tribute to the 1968/69 Ford GT40, I quickly realized that the spectrum of replica car owners is just as wide as for any other type of car. Nicola didn’t just send a money order to the first kit car company he Googled. His way of doing things is in diametric opposition. He is not just another of the many, many fans of the Ferrari-conquering Ford, Nicola is a student.
It’s easy to make a replica in looks alone, but to tap into the true essence of a 1960s endurance racing car, you need technical drawings, a deep knowledge of mechanical components, a network to source said components, and the patience to put it together after the long hours of learning and gathering. But Nicola had always believed in the worth of the end result, and with the help of a few friends and like minds, he proved himself correct. With that said, as he is quick to say, the work is not entirely finished. You know how this goes, there is always something to do, some elusive finishing touch to find or fabricate—the kind of ongoing process that constitutes a car’s version of a life.
Going for a quick ride through—and only a few inches above—the city streets was enough to convince me that this thing lives up to the GT40’s reputation. It’s a pure athlete, weighing just about 950kg (~2094lbs) and propelled by 370hp. It’s the kind of car that leaves sweat marks where the seatbelts were. Part muscle car and part prototype, part aggression and part grace, there’s little to do but laugh as you collect yourself after a few minutes of breaking traction between gears and bouncing V8 yawps off of office buildings.
But Nicola isn’t interested in this car solely for the way it drives. He’s an enthusiast through and through, and he set out to build something specific.
In its roughly half-decade of competitive motorsport, the GT went through numerous iterations, starting with the Lola basis that kicked the program off into the first Ford GT prototype spec, and on to include the Mk1, Mk2, the Mk3 road car, J-car/Mk4, Mk5, Mk1B, and Mk2B. A number of different V8s were used (255, 289, 302, and 427ci bases were used) and the cars raced in a few categories over the years, mainly in Group 4 and Group 6 between 1964 and 1969. Because so many of them found success on the world stage, there is no definitive version of the GT40. A few cubic inches can identify a different year, there are tiny details separating a 1965 Mk1 from a 1969 Mk1B, a wheel design can help determine whether it was developed by a racing team in America or in England. When building a tribute, choice is on your side.
“My ‘GT40,’” Nicola tells me, “is a tribute to John Wyer’s, automobile racing engineer and team manager, and to the incredible GT40 overall Le Mans victories in 1968 and ’69.” These late-career victories for the car came after the abandoned successor Mirage M1 project, which was also based on the GT40 Mk1, due to a change in regulations for the 1968 season. This allowed for a comeback effort for the earlier version of the GT40, which was modified from its original spec, but remained close enough to comply with homologation rules, preventing the need to manufacture another 50 examples to be eligible in Group 4.
After years of planning his build, Nicola began to look for a physical starting point. He eventually landed on a body and chassis of a Tornado vision of the Mk1, an English company that built fiberglass bodies that were faithful to the original dimensions. The project therefore started from this base, but Nicola was hardly going to just plug and play his way through the build.
To stay true to the era, the widening of the rear fenders to bring the body to its modified spec was carried out by hand, not simply by mounting a modern wider body kit. The shape was modeled on GT40 P/1083, one of the very last produced. This is also why the curves are not perfectly symmetrical side to side, just like the original GT40s of the time. Another point that Nicola makes to me as we walk around the car is the set of eight intake trumpets that peek out under the rear plexi. It was unthinkable to him to make a replica with the use of electronic injection; the machine required the original Weber IDA 48 carb setup.
The work needed to achieve that setup characterizes this build, and Nicola’s dedication to following through and not compromising on his vision. To fit the Webers, he had to move the engine even lower in order to latch the cover over it.
Various modifications ensued along the way, including three engine positions, and many camshaft and carb trial setups that have taken away time, money and energy… but the result is priceless to Nicola. He will be the last to say the car is perfect, it can’t be, and although he is inspired by the J.W. Engineering cars, Nicola has created his own take on the GT40, developing and modifying it along the way into something wholly his.
Which makes the car familiar to me, but also new. I’ve spent time around real GT40s, I’ve spent time around replicas, no two are the same. For that matter, Nicola’s probably won’t be exactly the same the next time I see it. We can’t change the past or directly revisit it, but the way we remember and interpret it is ever changing, so it’s only fitting that this tribute to a piece of motorsport history is still evolving too.