In the 1960s Henry Ford II wanted to bring the Ford Motor Company back to the racing circuits. One of the main goals was to win the 24h Le Mans, the endurance race, that Ferrari was dominating at the time. To compete seriously at Le Mans, Ford needed a 200-mph mid-engined car that could maintain a 120-mph average lap speed after 24 hours, and Ford needed the car quickly.
Through the 1962 Mustang concept, Ford had already developed a relationship with Roy Lunn, an Englishman who started his career at Ford of Britain but came to the United States in 1958. After working on the Mustang, Roy Lunn, along with Ray Geddes and Donald Frey, turned toward the racing effort. They found that the “Grand Touring” car Ford conceived to win at Le Mans had much in common with the new Lola GT, a low-slung coupe developed by Eric Broadley in Slough, England.
Displayed in January 1963, at the London Racing Car Show, the Lola GT was hardly complete, but it formed an excellent foundation for the development of the Ford GT. Essential elements like the monocoque center section, the broad side sills (they doubled as fuel tanks) and the aerodynamic profile, made their way to the Ford GT, and Broadley, short on funds, was eager to join the Ford team.
In April 1964, paint still drying after a transatlantic flight, the strikingly modern Ford GT wowed the motor press in New York. Compared to the Lola, it was longer, wider, sleeker, and fantastically over-built, with an extremely rigid steel center section and unstressed front and rear fiberglass body panels. Behind the cabin, Ford fitted its all-aluminum 4.2-liter “Indianapolis” V8 and a 4-speed Colotti transaxle. The car featured a computer-designed double-wishbone suspension and 11.5-inch disc brakes at each wheel. Ford’s new endurance racer was called simply Ford GT. The number 40 was added retrospectively with the introduction of the Mark II, and signifies nothing more than the car’s height in inches.
Two weeks after the introduction, barely driven, the car appeared at Le Mans for pre-race testing. Things did not go well for the greenhorn Ford. The challenging course and poor weather conspired with aerodynamic problems, resulting in two damaging crashes and thus little useful practice for the drivers and the engineers. By the time of the race in June, the stability problems mostly solved, the cars were competitive against the Ferraris but retired of numerous failures that only further development would work out.
For this, Ford brought Carroll Shelby on board to oversee the racing program. He began work on installing the more reliable 7-liter stock-car engine in what would be known later as the Mark II. It proved to be considerably faster than the Mark I, and although 1965 was another unsuccessful year at Le Mans, Ford GT40 had become, in just two seasons, a strong contender.
At Le Mans in 1966, Ford entered a team of Ford GT40 Mk IIs, powered by 500bhp 7.0-litre V8 engines. Ford led from the start, and was nearly unchallenged. By dawn on Sunday, their leads were so significant that they were ordered to slow down for reliability’s sake. By noon, 10 of the 13 Fords entered, many of them sponsored by private teams, had been eliminated. However, the three remaining cars continued and finished first, second and third.
Ford returned to Le Mans in 1967, this time with ultra high-tech Mark IV race cars, which retained the well-proven 7.0-litre V8 engines, and their related transmissions, but used a new-type of aluminium honeycomb chassis/monocoque which saved more than 300lb/136kg weight, had even more wind-cheating bodywork, and could reach more than 205mph on the Mulsanne straight. The GT40 Mark IV was an all-Dearborn creation, born to some degree in response to criticism that the earlier cars were simply English machines funded by big American pockets.
The 1967 Le Mans hosted GT40’s most dramatic duel with Ferrari. Ford led early but lost three of its seven cars to nighttime crashes. The Gurney/Foyt car continued, though, beating the 2nd and 3rd place Ferraris by only four laps. After setting new fastest race laps, and averaging 135.48mph for the 24 hours, the Mk IV driven by Dan Gurney and A.J.Foyt gave Ford its second Le Mans victory.
When regulation changes outlawed the Mk IVs (which were still capable of considerable development), Ford then entrusted its 1968 and 1969 sports car race programmes to cars owned by Gulf Oil, and managed by John Wyer’s J W Automotive concern. These were further-developed versions of the original GT40s, and ran with V8 engines slightly enlarged to 5.0-litres. In 1968, Ford gained its third consecutive Le Mans victory. The Gulf-liveried Ford GT40 was driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi.
Amazingly, the same car (Chassis. No. GT40P 1075) went on to win the Le Mans 24 Hour again in 1969, this time being driven by Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver. The 1969 Le Mans was one of the most exciting in the history of endurance racing, with a margin of victory of just two seconds after 24 hours of intense competition.
This was the final Le Mans victory for Ford GT40 in an extraordinarily successful sequence. But before the GT40s went into honourable retirement, John Wyer’s team went on to secure the World Sports Car Championship at the end of the year.
Technical details Ford GT40 MkI (chassis no. P/1008)
- Steel monocoque chassis tub/centre section
- Glass-fibre body panels
- Mid-mounted V8
- 4727cc (289 cu in)
- 340bhp at 6,500rpm
- Colotti five-speed manual gearbox in unit with rear-mounted transaxle
- Rear-wheel drive
- Independent front and rear suspension
- Coil springs
- Anti-roll bar
- Rack and pinion steering
- Discs front and rear
- approximately 197mph