The Ford GT40 is almost certainly the most famous, and most successful, result of Britain and America’s special cross-Atlantic automotive relationship. Many cars have been built as collaborative efforts between both countries of course, but the GT40 is the king.
The development and racing years of the GT40 include some of the most important and influential names of 20th century motor racing – Bruce McLaren, Carroll Shelby, John Wyer, Henry Ford II, Chris Amon, Eric Broadley, Roy Lunn, Ken Miles, Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney, A. J. Foyt, and Jacky Ickx all either raced or worked on development of the new Ford, and some did both.
Ironically, the existence of the 40 inch high Ford endurance racer is almost entirely thanks to Enzo Ferrari. Ford had been in negotiations to buy Ferrari’s road car division in the mid-1960s, and they’d spent millions on a detailed audit of Ferrari’s assets.
Enzo was well known for being a stubborn and tempestuous man at the best of times, and his great passion was racing – not building production cars. So he saw the deal with Ford as an opportunity to get back to racing and leave the mundane daily tasks involved in running a production car company to someone else.
The deal soured quickly when Ford told Enzo he would no longer be able to enter cars in the Indianapolis 500 – so as not to compete directly with Ford on their home turf. This enraged the Italian as in his view it defeated the purpose of the deal, so he pulled out of final negotiations and left Ford high and dry.
Henry Ford II was furious at this, and he instructed his team to find him a company capable of building a Le Mans winning car – the most important non-Formula One race on the global calendar, and a race that Enzo took great pride in dominating.
Three companies were considered for the task, and all were British – Cooper, Lotus, and Lola. Eventually, Eric Broadley of Lola was chosen as he was already building the advanced, mid-engined Lola Mk6 – a car that also happened to use a Ford engine. The American engineer Roy Lunn joined the team alongside John Wyer, and the men began a fast-paced development program using the basic platform of the Mk6 as their guide.
The car that resulted from the England-based project was the Ford GT40 Mark I – a low-slung, mid-engined endurance racer powered by the same V8 used in the Ford Mustang. Its first 2 years were fraught with reliability and other issues – largely the result of the astonishingly short development time. But by 1966 the Ford GT40 was ready for primetime, and it’s still the only American car to take an outright win at Le Mans.
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Photography: Patrick Ernzen ©2016 Courtesy of RM Sotheby’s