Ford GT40 : the Ferrari slayer

Published on Thursday, November 14, 2019.
Updated on Monday, November 18, 2019.

It all started for me when I was five or six years old. My father had a Ford dealership back then. In the mid-1960s, Ford went after Ferrari at Le Mans and the American television transmitted the race live in 1966, the year that Ford won with the GT40, beating Ferrari for the first time and ending Ferrari’s 6 year winning streak. Ferrari won at Le Mans a total of nine times between 1949 and 1965; nine victories in 17 races.

I was very proud of my father. I was proud of Ford, as well. I had a MatchBox Ford GT40. It was my favourite of all my 200 or so Dinky toys and MatchBox cars. It got beat up, scraped, and broken more than any other. I carried it in my pocket everyday for a very long time.

Rivalries are born out of passion. In 1963 Ford and Ferrari had negotiated a deal by which Ford would acquire Ferrari. Disagreements on who and how the racing efforts of the combined entity would be managed was at the heart of the dispute causing Ferrari to close the door on Henry Ford II. Egos got involved. A rivalry began.

At the time of the Ford/Ferrari breakup, no American automobile had ever won at Le Mans, and furthermore, no American manufactured automobile had won even at the French Grand Prix since the one and only victory by Jimmy Murphy in his Duesenberg way back in 1921. Henry II thought it was time to correct that statistic.

Ford had three racing commitments at the time so it turned to each of its partners: Lola, to whom it was supplying some engines; Lotus, with whom Ford was developing several sportscar solutions; and Cooper. But Cooper was a formula participant and didn’t have the requisite tools for GT endurance racing. Lotus did develop a solution – the Lotus Europa – but it was half baked, too small and too full of Colin Chapman’s ego to fit into Ford’s brand-centric ambition to trounce Ferrari. Lola however had been on the path to produce a Le Mans winner based around a power-plant already supplied by Ford, on a mid-engine based platform, gaining praise amongst endurance developer elites.

Lola’s boss, Eric Broadley, was keen to contribute to Ford’s efforts initially, believing no doubt in the advantage he might gain financial and professionally with such an important partner. But soon after beginning their collaboration, there was a parting of ways. Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV), the UK company that Ford created to produce a GT racer based on Broadley’s chassis designs, became too much for Broadley to bear and technical disagreements began to emerge between them. Broadley and FAV went their separate ways in 1964 after only one short year of collaboration. Broadley would go on to develop extremely successful Lola cars, in his own right.

Ford Motor Company entered three GT40 MK I at Le Mans in 1964, powered by a 4.2 litre V8. As Ferrari once said ‘in order to win the race, you have to finish the race’. Ford would learn the meaning of this in 1964. Each of these three GT40s would break early in the race. The Phil Hill & Bruce McLaren number 10 car would last the longest (192 laps) but simple carburettor problems plagued them from the very first lap, leaving will behind in the field.

Ford had recruited John Wyer, proven race team leader who had won for Aston Martin at Le Mans in 1959 with the DBR1 driven by the Texan Caroll Shelby and the Englishman, Roy Salvadori. Due to a lack of encouraging results however Ford quickly turned the programme over to Shelby and Holman Moody, after these difficult early programme problems. The first built cars were sent over to Shelby, delivered to his workshop in California in late 1964. Wyer’s lack of success however didn’t cause a total severing of ties with Ford, as John Wyer would later be reincorporated to re-encompass the racing efforts of the Ford GT40 programme.

After the disappointing 1964, all sights were set on 1965 to be Ford’s breakout year. Ford’s goals had to be met. Shelby was able to work out some of the reliability bugs over the winter of 1964-1965 and to then gain the GT40’s first victory at the Daytona 2000 in February 1965. Although the GT40 was improved, it was still plagued by mechanical reliability issues. Two MK II, fitted with the massive 7 litre, 450 bhp, engine of the Ford Galaxy NASCAR racer, were engaged as the two team cars for Le Mans that year.

At the time, Ford like Ferrari, needed to construct at least 50 units of their GT racing models to satisfy the FIA homologation requirements. For Le Mans, Shelby American Inc. put the Cobra proved 4.7 litre, 380 bhp, engine into four cars for the teams of Rob Walker, Alan Mann Racing, and the Scuderia Filipinetti, while Ford France prepared its own GT40 Spyder. Shelby’s Cobra Daytona Coupe was the dominating GT car in 1965. Shelby fielded at Le Mans in 1965 five of the total number of six Cobra Daytona ever produced. And fortunately so, as the only Ford powered car to finish, of the 12 to take the start, was the 8th finishing Cobra Daytona of Jack Sears and Dick Thompson.

At practice in 1965 during Le Mans week, Phil Hill set the fastest time at 3 minutes 33 seconds in his 7 litre Mk II. At the start of the race, Hill gave the commentary for American television while Chris Amon was behind the wheel, the first time that the 24 Hours of Le Mans had ever been directly transmitted live to the American television audience.

But 1965 was not Ford’s year. A string of mechanical failures – gearboxes, head gaskets, clutches – saw the elimination of all the Ford GT40 entrants by lap 89, only one quarter of the way into the 24 hour race, the last of which was the Hill/Amon GT40X. Ferrari had its own problems with its protos but the rather reliable 250 LM made it the whole distance finishing 1st and 2nd, with a 275 GTB from the GT class finishing 3rd.

Ford had spent millions already by the end of 1965 on the programme to achieve their goal of victory at Le Mans and to defeat Ferrari. Their humiliating performance in each of those years, 64 & 65, was causing stress within the various elements on which Henry Ford II was counting to succeed. Ferrari had won at Le Mans in 1965 by default. The two Ferrari factory prototypes were not as fast as the GT40 MK II, 7.0 litre, cars, nor were they more reliable. The first and second place Ferrari 250 LM were privateer entrees that slugged along by chance to get to the end of the race despite a variety of mechanical issues, not the kind of stuff that would logically be the David that beats the Ford Goliath. For 1966, something had to change.

Rule changes have often dictated, to independent as well as major manufacturers, their chances of winning at Le Mans. In the mid 1960s, such changes requiring group 4 cars to be produced in at least 50 units and for GT cars to be produced in at least 500 units, thus the funeral tolling for many independent manufacturers. Ford, Ferrari and Porsche had made the requisite commitments but barely. The advent of the prototypes built for Le Mans had begun.


For 1966 Ferrari would field three 330 P3 and four 365 P2 in the face of Ford’s eight Mk II (7.0 litre) and five GT40 (4.7 litre) group 4 ‘sports’. An unbelievable match would pursue as the field was grouped after six hours of racing with two Mk II and two P3 all in the same leading lap. With the advantage of better fuel efficiency, at the one quarter point of the race, the Ferraris of Rodriguez/Ginther and Parkes/Scarfiotti were 1st and 2nd ahead of the Ford Mk II of Miles/Hulme and Gurney/Grant.

But Ferrari’s luck was about to change. In the ninth hour Scarfiotti’s accident caused his retirement and worse, at 3:45 am, Rodriguez pulled into the pits to no longer return, as the gearbox of his 330 P3 had locked up. As the Bardini P3 was also suffering with gearbox problems it was only a matter of time before Guichet and he would throw in the towel. At which point Ford occupied the first four places. AT 10:00 am Dan Gurney’s Mk II was out as well leaving only three of the starting 13 Fords in the race.

And so it would end, yet although the number 1 car of Ken Miles and Denny Hulme was in the lead, Henry Ford II instructed the number 1 car and the number 2 car of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon to arrive in a dead heat. Much has been said about Ford’s desire to have the no. 1 and no. 2 cars arrive to take the checkered flag side by side. But aerial images of the last lap show McLaren slightly ahead of Miles on the final lap with the no. 5 car driven by Ronnie Bucknum following in third. Images of the dropping of the checkered flag on Bruce McLaren clearly show that Miles chose to stand back one full car length in order to let the number 2 car cross the finish line first to win.

If Henry Ford II gave any instructions to the team in terms of who he wanted to win, and in light of how Ken Miles let Bruce McLaren overtake him in the final lap, the instructions it would seem were for McLaren to win.

Ford’s victory streak had just begun. Four consecutive victories would fall into Ford’s hands from 1966 to 1969. The 1968 and 1969 victories were achieved by the same GT40 Mk I 4.9 litre, chassis no. 1075. Known to have happened only twice in the history of Le Mans, and unknown until recently when the Ferrari 275 SP, known to have been victorious in 1964, went back to the Ferrari factory in 2018 it was discovered that it was actually the same chassis that had won in both 1963, as a 250 P, and then in 1964, as a 275 SP, only the engines having been changed.

Yet after 1966, things weren’t yet finished for Ferrari. Although the world remembers Ford’s achievement of four straight victories from 1966 to 1969, 1967 might have gone the other way. Ferrari might possibly have won in 1967, with the unleashing of what many believe is the most important and beautiful of all of his creations, whether for sports endurance or formula 1: the Ferrari 330 P4.

Unlike the previous two editions, 1967 wasn’t an open race for the winners from the middle of the night or early morning hours. In 1967 the winning Ford Gt40 Mk IV of Gurney and Foyt was followed by two Ferrari P4, who were in turn followed by another Mk IV, finishing 4th. And although 1966 marked a turning point, arguably 1967 is the pivotal point for endurance racing, and the Ferrari vs. Ford rivalry: a climax from which the world has seen no return. This was the rematch, the ‘Trilla in Manila’, or Ali – Fraser rematch, of sports endurance racing. Ford won. This is when Ferrari relinquished forever its hold on sports endurance prototype construction to pursue more fully and almost uniquely Formula 1, turning its back on the thing of which dreams were made for a generation (or two) of Ferrari fans. But the P4 will be for another article…

Gurney/Foyt took the lead after only two hours to hold it all the way until the end. However in the middle of the night, in the matter of only a few minutes, four GT40 fell out of the race: Andretti’s mistake at Tertre Rouge cost Ford two more abandons of the two MK IIB 7 litre of McCluskey and Schlesser. The Mk I 4.7 litre of Dumay/Greder entered by Ford France also went by the wayside virtually at the same time.

Ferrari probably underestimated the speed of the Fords, having set the fastest speed in qualifying. But the Fords were breaking the records during the race, lapping even faster than the Ferrari’s qualifying time. Unable to catch up, the Ferraris were confined to their 2nd and 3rd places, five laps and 11 laps behind respectively.

Ford’s victory was 100% American with Gurney and Foyt setting a new race record with an average speed of 218 km/h, tracing a total of 5,233 kilometres over 24 hours. Like a hammer nailing the door shut, Henry Ford II had achieved his goal of taking the fight to Enzo Ferrari and beating him at what he did best and where it hurt him the most: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Daniel Brooks

Daniel is a contributor for Forbes France writing texts in French language for their daily newsletter and trimestrial print editions.  His articles cover the classic automobile market as well as luxury and lifestyle of classic automobile collectors.

Image : Ford Heritage / Ford France

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