“N
ever meet your heroes.” It’s an old adage forewarning that the ones you hold in the highest regard will never meet your expectations; they’ll only let you down. Now, as a car guy self-described as being born in the wrong generation, most of my heroes — Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, James Hunt — aren’t exactly available for interviews these days. And being a racing fan and car enthusiast, that list of “heroes” also includes some severely precious metal, namely the Ford GT40 and Shelby Daytona Coupe. Disappointingly, original examples of those two particular cars can fetch $11 million and $7.25 million respectively — too many tax brackets away for me to even think about creasing their leather seats. But given the opportunity to pilot either, do I gamble on destroying the lofty pedestal on which I’ve perched these icons? Answer: a resounding “yes.” I’d jump at the chance to shoot the shit over a couple pints with Hunt, so there’s no question about rowing through the gears in a GT40 or a Daytona Coupe.

Generations of drivers and engineers alike have been inspired by what Carroll Shelby, their creator, accomplished. The mere idea of sitting in those riveted racing seats, taking in the same low-slung view out of the windshield as legends like Bruce McLaren, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, unleashing the mechanical fury of a straight-piped 427 V8… it’s what dreams are made of. Thankfully, California-based Superformance continues to build the GT40 and Daytona Coupe, just as they were in the ‘60s. Because cars like this shouldn’t be lost to the history books or million-dollar auctions.

As the only outfit sanctioned by the Shelby Car World Registry and official GT40 registry, the GT40 and Daytona Coupe that Superformance makes aren’t kit cars, replicas or “re-imagined” models like a Singer 911. They’re bonafide continuations of the original production vehicles; think of a 2015 model-year 1966 Ford GT40. Which is exactly why, when I met with Superformance CEO Lance Stander and two Superformance customers who brought along their personal cars — a GT40 and a Daytona Coupe — to Bear Mountain, New York, I did my absolute best to keep my nervous excitement in check. Never meet your heroes? I was about to drive two in one day.

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Jim Vogel, the owner of the Shelby GT40 MKII (he daily-drives it), gave me a rundown of his car’s idiosyncrasies — mainly so I didn’t stall it or throw it in reverse while looking for first gear on the dog-legged gear box. Then came the instructions simply to get in it.

“It’s easier with the steering wheel off, but step in with your right leg and straddle the door sill. Don’t fall into the seat! Not yet. That’s a hole that’s hard to get out of. Hold the door open, pivot and bring your left leg in. Now slide your butt in and get snug.”

And snug it was. Vogel was a few inches shorter than me and the car’s seat was tailored to him. Nothing is adjustable. My right knee is in the dashboard, my left foot is forced to rest either hovering over the clutch or on the floor behind it. It’s not ideal, but I make it work. I go to close the door, and, at the last second, quickly cock my head sideways, but not fast enough. Because it’s so hard to enter and exit, the GT40’s door’s design includes a large section of the roof to allow ingress and egress that much easier. It was originally meant to help speed up driver changes during pit stops. The door grazes the side of my head, nearly clips me in the temple. This car is trying to kill me and I haven’t even fired it up yet. I love it.

“Play Le Mans, Gand Prix and Days of Thunder, simultaneously, at maximum volume, with your ear to the speaker and you’ll have something close.”

When it comes to vintage cars, “character” is usually just a euphemism for indefensible quirks. But the hurdles this GT40 throws in my way genuinely seem like acts of tough love. The A/C doesn’t work and the only ventilation is a janky flap in the fixed plexi-glass window. The steering wheel feels like two 20-pound sand bags are tied to each side of it. Revs take a dramatic dip between shifts because I second-guess my own handiwork while learning the shifter. It’s exactly as I expected it to be and everything I wanted it to be. Now, it might sound like I set an extraordinarily low bar for the GT40, but I desperately hoped that it would demand an effort — because it makes the reward that much sweeter.

The reward: the sound. Sweet mother, the sound. Between the engine bay and the driver’s cabin, it’s a pretty intimate setting. That is to say, there’s not much between the two. Play Le Mans, Gand Prix and Days of Thunder, simultaneously, at maximum volume, with your ear to the speaker, and you’ll have something close. Speed builds almost like any other high-horsepower supercar, but the 40-inch-high sightline seems to add another 50 mph. It’s more rock concert than orchestra, but it’s a show I’d never thought I’d have front-row tickets for.

Then the mosh pit forms. Heavy steering, resistant pedals and a shifter that feels more like a pump-action shotgun all require some muscle and motivation to go along with the input. You can feel how flat the car is in every corner, how much the wheels spin with a ballsy kick of the throttle, with every crack in the road the front wheels find. And with the engine in close confines and every operation demanding effort, everything in the car seems to be directly bolted to the driver’s seat. Every input has instant feedback — instant gratification.

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After doing what felt like a combination of cross-fit and hot yoga all over Bear Mountain in the GT40, the Daytona Coupe is a gentle giant by comparison — luxurious, even. Power steering helped lighten up the wheel, the pedals have a classic mechanical resistance to them but feel modern, almost electronic. Combined with even softer seats and halfway-decent air conditioning, the Daytona Coupe started to lull me into a false sense of confidence and comfort. With the 427-cubic-inch V8 sitting just behind the front wheels and the driver’s seat nearly over the rear axle, the Coupe’s front end rides on rails and the cabin pendulums behind it. And with 525 horsepower, there’s a constant back-and-forth of being in control and being at its mercy.

“With the 427-cubic-inch V8 sitting just behind the front wheels and the driver’s seat nearly over the rear axle, the Coupe’s front end rides on rails and the cabin pendulums behind it.”

After a couple laps to the top of Bear Mountain and back to the main lodge, my eyes started to tear up, and not in the I’m-so-happy-I-can’t-control-my-emotions kind of way. No, the moisture and increasing sting in my eyes came with the unique smell of oil burning on a hot exhaust. The short runs up and down the mountain, coupled with a progressively harder-beating sun, meant the oil pressure was creeping up, causing some oil to overflow and spill onto the red hot ceramic-coated headers. I figured that was my signal to call it a day before burning oil turned into an even bigger — and, no doubt, very expensive — problem.

The Ford GT40 and Shelby Daytona Coupe have topped my bucket-list drives list for as long as I can remember. And I can confidently say, despite one getting temperamental and the other beating me up, I can’t think of anything I’d trade for the time I so graciously spent behind the wheel. So have I debunked the “never meet your heroes” adage? I can’t say definitively, but as far as my own heroes are concerned, this gives me even more faith that Hunt truly was a riot to have a beer with.