The First Ford GT40 Roadster Prototype Is A Different Take On The ‘American’ Drop-Top
Photography by Tom Gidden
A heated argument between competitive people isn’t considered a positive thing most of the time, but good can come of them if the conditions are right. For those who don’t know the 1960s Ferrari-Ford feud, here are the cliffs: annoyed that Ferrari wouldn’t sell his company, Henry Ford II decided to exact his revenge in the best way possible. Instead of acquiring Ferrari, he decided to cross the Atlantic to prove Ford was better off without their help, and the subsequent GT40 project took four straight overall Le Mans wins. Ferrari hasn’t had one since.
Though they wouldn’t start the streak until the following year, Ford didn’t just turn up at the 1965 edition of the race with something that’d just been cobbled together, and the new car underwent an extensive research and development phase that obviously included a gamut of prototypes. They also needed to sell road cars to the public to recuperate some of the cost of the racing program, and these slightly tamer beasts also went through a development phase of their own. One of these was the open-topped version of the GT40. Just six of these Roadster prototypes were made, only one has retained its original form. The one pictured here, chassis No. GT/108, was the first one to be built and is regarded as the only true survivor of the lot; it is a unique and stunning piece of not just GT40 history, but Ford’s.
At Silverstone, just after the car was completed in early in March of 1965, this car was driven by Sir John Whitmore, the 1961 British Touring Car champion, as well as Richard Attwood, one of Britain’s top racing drivers of the day and a future Le Mans winner. John Wyer was watching their progress from the pit wall, and after this appraisal test was completed, it was shipped off to the United States, on a supposedly temporary basis.
For the next few months it toured around the country with the Shelby Cobra team putting on demonstrations to Ford VIPs as well as the public, and in the course of such events it ended up being driven by several big names of the day, including Jim Clark, that year’s Formula 1 World Champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, and Ken Miles, the 1966 Daytona and Sebring winner. For further provenance, this car is reportedly the only GT40 Henry Ford II ever sat in—he had Carroll Shelby himself drive him around the grounds of his new headquarters.
By the autumn of 1965, this GT40s PR duties were finished, and it was put into storage, narrowly avoiding a tragic end when—these were built in England, and as it had been on American soil much longer that its temporary import documents suggested—US customs slapped an arbitrary value of $2 million on it and wanted $140,000 in duties paid for a combined total that’s equivalent to just under $17 million today.
It apparently took a lot of effort to work out an accurate value for the car after that assessment, but fortunately customs accepted a deal, and the car was allowed to remain in the country. Part of said deal meant that a sister car, chassis 110, had to be cut up and destroyed to save Ford having to pay the huge penalty duty.
With the racing GT40s having just completed their forth straight win at Le Mans in July of 1969, cars like GT/108 were surplus to requirements, so this one was sold to George Sawyer, an engineer at Kar Kraft—Ford’s special vehicle department—who was responsible for making it eligible for road use.
For the next twenty years after that it passed through several owners and in the early ‘80s was entered into a select few classic events by father and son drivers Tom and Mark Congleton. The fact that the car is in its original condition today is thanks to them; when everyone else was modifying the cars to fit wider tires to gain a competitive edge or otherwise, these instead two chose originality over performance, keeping the thinner early-spec tires and Borrani wires.
In 2003 its then-owner John McCaw sent it to Phil Reilly and company in California for a full refurbishment, and it was subsequently entered into prestigious events such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, where it participated in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the GT40. But anyone can write about its history, so I found someone who’s recently driven this special car to tell us about the experience. For this we went to the head of Girardo & Co., Max Girardo himself.
For someone used to driving and selling SWB Ferrari 250s, Alfa 8Cs, and Lamborghini Miuras for a living, you’d perhaps think that being behind the wheel of a GT40 would be just part of the job. Far from it, says Max. “This is a special car, it’s in my top 10 for sure.”
Driving any a one of a kind car with a $7 million price tag fluttering behind it would be a special enough experience for most, but Max says that this car far surpasses anything based solely on its value. “With the open roof, the roadster is just a fantastic experience unlike any other GT40. The wind tossing your hair around and the sound of glorious V8 induction and exhaust just behind your head; it’s simply all you could want in a car. The engine has such a phenomenal amount of torque, you put your foot in it at any speed and it just goes. It’s not a power band like you might find in something European, where you have to top them out high in the revs to get them to really move. The GT40 just has it all ready whenever you ask.”
“I was driving it around California, which I think really is the best place in the world to drive something like this, and it was in Monterey during car week, so the place was flooded, with the new and old. The GT40 still stuck out in this lauded crowd. It’s just so sleek, and of course so loud, that just about everyone near it openly stared for few moments before trying to figure out what it was. It’s over 50 years old with this attention, so I can’t even imagine the impact it must have had on the road in the period. It would have been like seeing a spaceship.”
More recently, Max took the car to the historic festival, also in Monterey, to demonstrate it and share its story as it looks for a new owner to continue it.