Ford went after Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race with a mid-engined machine, the Ford GT40, and they not only won, but they beat the Italian machine four times (‘66, ‘67, ‘68 and ‘69). With this, Ford had achieved what no American carmaker had been able to: to conquer Le Mans against the best Ferrari, Porsche and Alpine had to offer. The GT40 became the only American car to take Le Mans, and one of the most famous race cars of all time. It was sexy, ridiculously powerful and the inspiration for two 21st century Ford GTs that have themselves garnered high praise from the automotive world. But it’s the original GT40 that brought fame to Ford via one of the toughest automotive endurance races the world has ever seen.
Revenge Served Up Hot
The Ford GT40 wasn’t just a rival against the famed Ferrari, it was retaliation for a deal gone bad — a reaction to betrayal from Enzo himself. Enzo Ferrari made an initial overture with hopes that Ford could take over Ferrari’s road car business, infusing his company with the strength of Detroit capital, while he kept the reigns on the business of racing. The deal was, naturally, attractive to Henry Ford II, with the promise of adding Ferrari’s luster to the staid Ford consumer car business. The price of the deal was a cool $10 million, chump change by modern standards but a hefty tag back in 1963.
The Italian people would want nothing of the deal — one of their beloved brands being sold to the Americans, of all people. The Italian media retaliated, and when Enzo found out that the deal required him to request funds from Ford to conduct his racing venture, he was furious. The deal was off. Ford’s response was better than good — he was going to beat Enzo at his own game by building a race car for the ages. Ford had longed to compete at Le Mans, the ultimate test of a car’s abilities, and Ford’s prime directive to his engineers in entering the race was: “Beat Ferrari.”
And so Ford set out to create an all-new American thoroughbred for the Le Mans prototype class, but the task wasn’t simple. Ferrari didn’t just win at Le Mans, they utterly dominated — winning in ‘49, ‘54, ‘58, ‘60, ‘61, ‘62 and ‘63 (where the Ferrari 250s and 330s took places one through six). Henry Ford II had his work cut out for him.
The GT40 Lives and Races
Ford partnered with UK-based Lola to build its new race car. They introduced the prototype race car at the 1964 New York Auto Show with the Project Grand Touring 40, so named for its racing intentions and its super-low 40-inch height.
That same year, three GT40s (Mk 1) took to the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, each powered by a 4.7-liter V8 good for approximately 350 horsepower. Though Ford had encountered reliability issues, Ferrari was appropriately concerned about the American powerhouse coming to race at Le Mans. In testing at the 1964 Le Mans, one of the GT40s proved unstable at high speeds and retired after fifteen laps. When it came to the actual race, the results proved unfavorable for Ford; all three GT40s bowed out due to mechanical issues. The race wasn’t a complete disaster — Phil Hill set a lap record with one of the GT40s at 131.375 mph — but Ferrari took the podium with the first three spots, and Henry Ford II didn’t have his revenge, yet.
Ford handed over the GT40 to none other than Carroll Shelby for the 1965 Le Mans effort, as Shelby had seen serious success at Le Mans when he entered his Cobra Daytona and took first place in the GT class in 1964. For the GT40 Mk II, Shelby took a huge 7.0-liter V8 mill from the Ford Galaxie and placed it amidships in the GT40. The car boasted a beastly 486 horsepower, 66 more horses than Ferrari’s 4.0-liter V12 in the 330P. It was a very bold, very American move, but the GT40 failed again at Le Mans. None of the six GT40 Mk Is and Mk IIs finished the race — another disappointing year for Ford, but they wouldn’t give up just yet.
The GT40 Fulfills its Purpose
Henry Ford II gave his people the mandate to win in 1966, and he wasn’t accepting compromise. He was still primed to give Enzo hell at Le Mans, and he poured more money into the project and added another team headed by Holman-Moody, the group responsible for most of Ford’s racing cars. At Le Mans, Ford entered a whopping eight GT40s, while Ferrari entered seven cars. At the end of the race, the GT40s were victorious, not just taking first place, but first, second and third — crushing Ferrari at their own game and giving Henry Ford II his sweet revenge. It wasn’t a Pyrrhic victory by any means, but it was the ultimate win by an American at a strictly European game. Ford had created a superior car to the Italians, and swept with victory to prove its dominance in the field.
To make things worse for Enzo, Ford would kick Ferrari in the teeth at Le Mans for the next three years. The GT40 entries in both manufacturer and privateer iterations took the podium for four years straight, and Ferrari would never win at Le Mans again. Ford created a weapon to fell the Italian giant, took Ferrari down, and, along with the victory, forged a legendary American race car.