Blue Oval Icons: The Le Mans-Winning GT40 Supercar

By the early 1960s, Ford Motor Company was not only one of the largest automakers in the United States, but one of the biggest companies in the world in any industry, its annual revenue only bested by General Motors and Exxon Mobil. But international endurance racing was still a challenge that Ford had yet to conquer at that point, and Henry Ford II was keen tocreate a Ford vehicle that would make it into the series.

Henry Ford II told his racing division to find a way to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.

Ford saw a potential solution by way of Ferrari, as a European intermediary had tipped him off that Enzo Ferrari, the Italian automaker’s founder, was interested in selling the company to him. But after an exhaustive and costly audit of Ferrari’s assets and extensive negotiations, Enzo backed out of the deal late in the game due to a dispute over how motorsport operations would be conducted going forward.

After Enzo backed out of Ford’s acquisition deal to buy Ferrari, Henry Ford II decided he would settle the score out on the racetrack.

Thoroughly annoyed by Ferrari’s decision, Henry Ford II told his racing division to find a way to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. After courting several proposals from the likes of Lotus and Cooper, Ford eventually decided to partner with Lola. The racing outfit already had a history with the American automaker, having used a Ford V8 in its mid-engined Mk6.

To develop Ford’s new sports car, they put together a development team that consisted of Eric Broadley, Lola Cars’ owner and chief designer, ex-Aston Martin team manager John Wyer and Ford engineer Roy Lunn. He was the only American Ford engineer with experience developing a mid-engined platform, as he had previously worked on the V4-powered Mustang I concept car.

Like the Lola Mk6, the concept was based on the GT40, and utilized an aluminum monocoque chassis and was powered by a Ford V8. Displacements ranged from 4.2 liters all the way up to the 7.0-liter 427 big block, the latter of which was used in the Le Mans-winning cars in 1966 and 1967. (Photo Credit: Ford)

Working out of a facility in Berkshire, England, under the new subsidiary title Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd., the team set to work building what would become one of the most celebrated performance vehicles of all time.

Beating Ferrari At Its Own Game

Weighing in at roughly 2,600 pounds and initially equipped with a 4.2-liter, 260ci Ford V8 hooked to a five-speed Colotti transaxle, the GT40 concept was remarkably similar to what Carroll Shelby had brought to life with his Cobra roadster, marrying a curvaceous British sports car body to a burly American V8 power plant. But this time around – not only would Ford’s V8 find a home in a more aerodynamic and rigid closed-roof aluminum monocoque chassis – its power plant would be positioned behind the driver rather than in front of him, giving the car considerably better weight distribution and high-speed stability.

The MKI, MKII, and MKIII iterations of the GT40, seen here respectively. (Photo Credit: Ford, RM Auctions)

The GT40’s success was far from immediate though. Although it had shown promise during its debut race in May of 1964, running in second place early in the Nürburgring 1,000 km, it would retire due to suspension failure. Three weeks later, three GT40s would run in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, but none of the cars would finish the race.

After seeing his racing success with the AC Cobra, Ford would tap Carroll Shelby to turn the GT40 project around. Though Shelby’s team got an auspicious start in early 1965 – winning the Daytona 2000 in February – the rest of the 1965 season was also plagued with problems.

But Shelby would take the difficult lessons learned in the 1964 and ’65 seasons and return for 1966 with a car that was finally dialed in. Dubbed the MKII, the next iteration of the GT40 was finally reliable, and Shelby’s team proceeded to dominate FIA endurance racing that year.

They kicked off the season with another win at the Daytona 2000, sweeping the podium with first, second and third-place finishes. In March, they accomplished the same feat once again at the 12 Hours of Sebring, with the X-1 Roadster taking the top spot, an MKII GT40 taking second, and third going to an MKI GT40. That summer they headed back to Le Mans, where Henry Ford finally got his revenge on Ferrari, as GT40 entries once again took all three podium spots.

In 1967 they’d head back Le Mans once again, and the “J5” MKIV car piloted by Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt would bring Ford another victory at the 24-hour race. A GT40 would end up in the winner’s circle at Le Mans the following year too, and once again in 1969.

1966 Le Mans Finishing Controversy

When it became clear that Ford would take the top three spots at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford’s marketing department saw an opportunity for a photo finish with all three cars in the shot.

Problem was, Ford knew the top two pairs of drivers wanted to win the race, so it devised a solution — the drivers would tie for the win. What Ford didn’t initially realize was that the FIA would determine the finishing order by distance traveled, resulting in the car driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon inadvertently taking the win away from the GT40 piloted by Ken Miles and Denny Hulme since the McLaren/Amon car had actually traveled some 60 feet farther due to their starting position.

Ken, understandably frustrated by the decision, allowed the McLaren/Amon car to cross the line first. Ford would never get a chance to make it up to him, as he would be killed while testing Ford’s “J-car,” an iteration of the GT40, just two months later. 

After Ford’s mid-engined sports car won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four years in a row, the competition finally began to get their acts together. Having worked out the kinks the previous season, Porsche’s new 917 sports racer had become a force to be reckoned with. The German team would take the title at Le Mans in 1970, bringing a close to the GT40’s legendary endurance racing success.

Just 105 examples of the GT40 were built in total between 1964 and 1969.

21st Century Revival

Four decades after the original GT40s began roaring around road courses all over the world, Ford revived their V8-powered, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive formula with the Ford GT.

Orange County-based Superformance builds continuation GT40 cars like this one that are so true to the original cars that more than 90 percent of the parts are interchangeable between the two. Each car they build is given a place in the Shelby Registry, and unlike the originals, they benefit from some important safety improvements that have come along in the years since, like advancements in brake system technology.

Borrowing generously from the iconic style of the original cars, the new GT was a road car rather than a purpose-built racer, offering owners everyday comforts like air conditioning and a premium audio system in a world-beating package that once again bested Ferrari’s top road-going offering when the GT hit showrooms in 2005.

The concept behind the 2005 Ford GT stayed fairly true to the original car's formula — a mid-engine V8, manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive. But rather than a massive, naturally aspirated V8 under the clamshell like the MKII that won Le Mans in 1966, the GT was motivated by a supercharged, 5.4-liter V8. It was also intended for mass production and use on public roads, rather than being a purpose-built race car like the original. (Photo Credit: Ford)

Just over four thousand examples of the first-generation Ford GT were built. No doubt due to their timeless looks and performance, the values of some particularly desirable examples have more than tripled since they went out of production in 2006.

Though the newest iteration of Ford's mid-engine supercar strays from the established GT40 formula to some degree, there are still subtle nods to the past throughout its design. Like the 2005 GT, the 2016 GT was designed as a road-legal supercar, though its racing aspirations were made clear when Ford entered it in FIA endurance racing for the 2016 season. It would go on to win its class at Le Mans, exactly half a century after the original Le Mans win for Ford in 1966. (Photo Credit: Ford)

The second-generation Ford GT would appear 2016. Le Mans would once again be a major factor in Ford’s decision to create another mid-engined monster, and this time around, the GT would be a thoroughly modern interpretation of a supercar.

Powered by a twin-turbocharged, EcoBoost V6 mated to a dual clutch transmission, the new GT doesn’t stick to the formula established by the original cars, but undoubtedly pays homage to them in its overall aesthetic. And like the original cars the new GT has found success at Le Mans, winning the GTE-Pro class in the 24-hour race in 2016.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs. Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
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