Probably the most famous vehicle to be born out of sheer disdain for a human, the Ford GT40 is arguably one of the finest pieces of machinery ever to hit the road. Were it not for one man’s arrogance, another’s unsubstantial stubbornness, and their combined hubris, the world might have been denied this crowning achievement in automotive history.
Sometimes anger and determination can give birth to something of unequivocal brilliance. The Ford GT40 is an example of that phenomenon speed lovers worldwide will, no doubt, revere till the end of time.
Let the Trash Talking Begin: 1963
In 1963, Henry Ford II was still making a name for himself as the head of the car-making giant. Ford was fully established in the drag and stock car areas thanks to some of the business’s best muscle cars. But the best never rest.
Ford II believed the corporation needed to improve by creating high-performance racing vehicles that could compete for the crown at races like Le Mans. These races called for cars that could go the distance, running at break-neck speeds for 24 consecutive hours at a time.
One could only imagine the excitement Ford experienced when receiving word Ferrari's owner, Enzo Ferrari, was ready to meet at the starting line to discuss selling Ford his car company, as a Ferrari was the only winner of the Le Mans since 1960.
And just as quickly as Ford approached fulfilling his dream, that same dream was shattered against the jagged rocks of a harsh reality. Ferrari changed his mind.
Not one to sit back and take defeat or humiliation, Ford decided to take his resources and go home. Rather than returning to his sandbox and sulk, however, Ford took those resources and created the High Performance and Special Operation Unit at Ford Motor Corp, and the rest is racing history.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work? 1964
The car officially named the Ford GT ( GT standing for, of course, Grand Turismo) would derive its commonly known moniker from being lowered 2” from its original specs to 40” in height.
In either a grand oversight or an act of irony, Ford never registered the car as the GT40. Even in the 2000s, when Ford resurrected the car, someone else had bought the rights to the name, hence why it is still officially known as the Ford GT.
Namine faux pax aside, once the new division was created, it was time to bring in the dream team to create a race car that would bring Ferrari (both the car and man) to his knees.
The crew was manned by automotive greats ranging from engineer extraordinaire Eric Broadley, dynamic designer Roy Lunn, and racing legends John Wyler and Carroll Shelby.
With a team like this on the case, the next win would be Ford’s without a doubt, right?
The initial configuration under the GT40’s hood was quite impressive, boasting a small-block V8. The sucker could fly, and it had no problem reaching speeds that would put the GT in the winner’s circle, but its aerodynamics made the car very difficult to maneuver.
Though modifications were made to the 1964 model to prepare it for its trip to Le Mans and other races during its inaugural season, the GT40 was not ready for the big time.
Though there was still no question the car could deliver on speed, its endurance simply was not there, and it lasted less than 12 hours at Le Mans.
It was time for someone to step up and take over the direction the car needed to head to ensure success.
Thunder Kissed in 1965
Though an integral part of the design of the initial version of the GT40, due to its 1964 issues, it was decided that Carroll Shelby would operate the controls for the car’s next attempt at the win.
Some of the significant changes in this version included improvements in the car’s aerodynamics and airflow. The body was made lighter by using more fiberglass and fewer previously used metals. The wheels were also changed, in addition to over 100 other modifications.
Most felt that the newer version of the GT40 was not only prepared to perform, but it also looked the part, as well. Initially, that was the case; however, as the season progressed and Le Mans approached, things for the GT40 began to look bleak.
Luckily, a 7-liter, 427 cubic inch engine was in development. This bad boy reached speeds up to 210 mph, and it was able to display the endurance needed to handle the 24-hour race. Ford worked up two of these GT40X models to add to the team.
After beating the Ferrari by a full five seconds in the lap trials, things looked like Ford was finally going to get its turn as champ. But we all know that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men, right?
The race to complete these new models ultimately cost Ford the race at Le Mans. How about that saying that a bunch of small holes sink a big ship? Too many small mistakes were made, and the GT couldn’t withstand the pressures of the big race.
Third Time’s the Charm: 1966
Significant changes of this version started with the formation of a committee that included many industry greats and a brain trust from NASCAR.
Ford now felt they were devoting precisely what was needed to this program in order to send the Italians home crying to their momma mias. A 289 GT40 was going to be the car to beat. Or would it be a Mach II?
Both cars took their lumps during the season. Every lap at each race was a learning experience for the racing team and the drivers.
As Le Mans time finally arrived, the Ford team was prepared to show up and show off, and that’s precisely what they did.
Ferrari’s showing was disappointing at best, and with just two hours of race time left, the Ford team was faced with a dilemma they had not prepared for. Of the top three spots in the race, a Ford driver was in each. How would they decide which of the three drivers was the winner?
In what came down to a photo finish, Bruce McLaren slightly edged out Ken Miles for first place, and Dick Hutcherson pranced across the finish line directly behind them. The Ford GT40 showed Ferrari who was boss that day.
A Continued History of Excellence
1966 was not the last time a GT40 would find its way to the winner’s circle at Le Mans. Several more victories followed. The GT40 would also find new life in an early 2000s reboot.
Even today, the Ford GT continues to outperform its Italian counterpart in many ways. It is faster, and while it might cost more initially to purchase a GT, it holds its resale value much better than the Ferrari.
Maybe Enzo Ferrari could have taken a few lessons from Ford II. You know that old saying about running your mouth when you should be listening?
Slow and Steady Wins the Race: The History of the GT40
While it took a few years for Ford II and his crew to find the right ingredients to show the folks at Ferrari that the GT40 had the right stuff, when it happened, the victory was so sweet that it was almost as if Ford won three races in one. And maybe they did?
The Ford GT40 remains one of the most beloved race cars to have ever hit the blacktop to car enthusiasts the world over. While nothing slow about the vehicle itself, keeping a steady pace eventually won the race beyond doubt.