The GT40 story is a tale of how the underdog beat the giant. Known and loved by car enthusiasts around the world, it is a story of perseverance and triumph against the odds; a real-life legend from just 50 years ago.
In the early 1960’s, Le Mans was dominated by Ferrari. Henry Ford II, as an automotive magnate confined to spectatorship, expressed interest in partnership with Enzo Ferrari and the pair brokered a deal that culminated in the imminent sale of Ferrari to Ford Motor Company in 1963. However, the deal was ill-fated and Ferrari severed ties at the 11th hour after millions of dollars in legal fees had changed hands.
In 1963 Henry Ford established Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV) specifically for development of the forthcoming racing car. FAV was under the direction of John Wyer and on 16 March of the same year the first chassis was completed. The first complete car, to be known as the Ford GT, was unveiled in England on 1 April and was exhibited in New York soon thereafter. The name “GT40” was coined from the production numbers of the subsequent cars, the GT for “Grand Touring” and the 40 representing the total height of the car in inches – a requirement for international endurance racing at the time.
The Ford GT40 was first raced in May 1964 at the Nürburgring 1000 km race. After holding second place from early in the race the car was forced to retire with suspension failure. Three more GT40’s raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans three weeks later and suffered the same fate as in Germany. 1964 continued in similar fashion until the GT40 programme was handed over to the renowned Caroll Shelby. The handover was unceremonious and the cars arrived at Shelby’s factory still bearing the dirt and damage from the most recent race.
Under new direction, and back on home soil, the Ford GT40 claimed victory at the Daytona 2000 in February 1965. This was the GT40’s first racing victory and it marked the beginning of what has become the GT40 legend.
Following the Daytona win, 1965 presented no further victories for the GT40. However, the newfound success, albeit a single achievement, acted as a springboard for the development team under Shelby’s leadership. From 1966 to 1969 the GT40’s were dominant. Introduction of a 7-litre V8 (upgraded from the original 4.2-litre mill) escalated the GT40’s standing at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. The heroic result was total occupation of the podium by the Mk II GT40, raising the racing tally to four podium finishes in half as many years.
The winning trend continued the following year when Ford fielded four Mk IV, three Mk II and three Mk I cars at Le Mans. The Mk IV design claimed the top position and unwittingly resulted in the amendment of the race’s speed regulations as a result of the extreme speeds reached on the track that year. As a result, the 1968 season limited racing prototypes to a capacity of 3.0-litres; as was the norm in Formula One. Somewhat a double-edged sword, this saw the disqualification of, among others, the Ferrari 330P and the Mk IV GT40.
Excitement was far from lost, since a further amendment of the race regulations permitted a maximum engine capacity of 5.0-litres if at least 50 cars had been built to-date. To take full advantage, John Wyer’s Mk I GT40 was resurrected and the engine bored from 4.7-litres to 4.9-litres. The changes paid off and, yet again, the GT40 won at Le Mans; claiming the 1968 title – the fourth consecutive win – and placing the Ford GT40 as the victor in the 1968 International Championship for Makes.
The Ford GT40 legend lives on today and the tale of triumph continues to inspire as it did decades ago. They have even made a movie about this epic battle! See the trailer below…