For little over a century, mankind has been enthralled with motorsport. But besides the driver rivalries and legendary personalities that have graced the circuits around the globe, it’s more often than not what they have driven that remains in the hearts of enthusiasts the world over.
The first car we honour with this series was Ford’s first breakthrough in racing on the international stage – the GT40. But the company wasn’t always into racing… In 1957, Ford signed an agreement with the Automobile Manufacturers Association that banned the promotion of and participating in racing in the US. The agreement came during the aftermath of a horrific accident at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, which claimed the life of Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators – with more than 100 more injured.
But with the increase in safety around circuits in the years thereafter and increased interest in racing, the Ford badge was taking a bit of a knock in popularity with the lack of pukka performance model and Ford’s apparent disinterest in that regard. Henry Ford II, however, was convinced that racing would improve the breed (when hasn’t it?), and the World Sportscar Championship, with the 24 Hours of Le Mans as its prime spectacle, seemed like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what Ford was capable of. So Henry Ford II pulled out of the agreement to start Fords racing heritage in 1962
That was easier said than done though, as Ford soon found out. Besides the challenge of starting a race effort from the ground up, Ford would also have to contend with Italian manufacturer Ferrari, who had been running the competition into the ground and fast becoming the authority on endurance racing in the top of the field.
Rather than try and beat The Scuderia at its own game, Ford put in a bid to buy the Italian outfit and negotiations commenced after a Ferrari had won at Le Mans for the third year on the trot. But Enzo Ferrari, founder of the firm, declared that his company was no longer on the market in May 1963, bringing dealings to an abrupt halt. But Ford had already been preparing its own racing programme with the UK-based Ford Advanced Vehicles.
The GT40 was actually conceived from the earlier Mustang I concept, which proved to the head management at Ford that they could perhaps mount a successful racing effort in-house. That concept eventually shared very little from the actual GT40s apart from the mid-engine layout, and a “Vee” motor. The team also discovered a potential partner in Lola, whose new GT coupe seemed to be a suitable base from which to start because it already featured an American V8. With a little bit used from each side of the Atlantic, the Ford GT was finally ready and shipped to the US to be displayed to the American press in New York in April 1964. The fiberglass bodied 4,2-litre V8, four-speed transaxle GT (the 40 was later added to denote the car’s height in inches)was ready to contend for the title…
Ford decided to enter Le Mans that very year, but its pre-race testing and race effort was plagued by inexperience and failures that could only come with a maiden season. Ford employed Carroll Shelby to run the brand-new racing division and under the leadership of the legendary American, the brand showed promise the next year, with significant improvements in aerodynamics and reliability as well as the use of a 7,0-litre V8 that proved to be less temperamental. Fortune continued to turn to Ford’s favour and by the time the company entered Le Mans for the third time, in 1966, the outfit had already notched up notable wins in international racing.
Thirteen Fords were entered and the new cars proved dominant, taking the lead and running through the majority of the event unchallenged until management ordered the top three (the only GT40s left) to slow down for reliability’s sake and nurse the car’s home for a guaranteed 1-2-3 in an orchestrated side-by-side finish with the top two cars who were running very close together. The finish wasn’t to the satisfaction of many pundits, who wanted to see a race to the finish between the drivers, and organisers the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) tried to prevent this by warning that the car positions prior to the race would determine the outcome, which meant that Bruce McLaren, who was running in second, would be determined the winner, as he would have covered more ground. Leader Ken Miles, slowed down just before the line to allow McLaren to pass in protest.
Controversy aside, that marked Ford’s arrival as a superpower in international racing circles and signaled the beginning of a four-year stranglehold on endurance racing, winning Le Mans back-to-back until 1969 amongst many other races. With Formula One still in its infancy, Ford had triumphed at what was arguably the pinnacle of motorsport at the time.
The GT40 remains to this day a popular car with collectors, enthusiasts and kit builders (a CAV GT featured in our performance shootout in Upington five years ago and made a strong case for itself) and Ford honoured the heritage it started with the GT, a homage to the original car just after the turn of the century.
This video documents a bit of the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans.