The Greatest American-Made Race Car, the Ford GT40

As Americans in 2015, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to speed and power. We have 707 horsepower Hellcats, and 762 horsepower Teslas, but there is something missing – what we don’t have is a true supercar. Yes, the 650 horsepower Corvette Z06 is good enough to keep Porsche 911 owners up at night, but since the 2005 -’08 Ford GT, we haven’t had a true exotic; a ferocious, ultra-rare beast that devours Lamborghinis and Ferraris, and captures the imagination of countless gearheads all over the world.

That’s because the one that started it all wrecked the bell curve. Since 1969, if it’s sleek, mid-engined, and American, it better be as good as the Ford GT40. It looked so good that when Ford unveiled the GT, it looked almost identical to its 40-year-old predecessor. Its dominance on the track was so impressive that it’s one of the few Americans mentioned among the all-time performance greats, and it’s stranger-than-fiction story is so impressive, that in the annals of automotive history, it could be the greatest automotive tale to ever come from our shores.

The GT40’s story begins in 1963. This was a pre-Mustang Ford, when its hottest car was the giant “R-Code” Galaxie 500, a 450 horsepower monster tuned to meet NASCAR and NHRA standards. But the company was already aiming higher – it was in the final stages of buying Ferrari from its mercurial namesake, a move that would have turned the Blue Oval into an international powerhouse overnight. Enzo Ferrari had long resented his company’s production cars and saw them as little more than a necessity to raise funds for his racing team. Ferrari was eager to sell, but with one stipulation: that he retain control of racing operations.

But he had met his match in the equally difficult Henry “Hank the Deuce” Ford II, who wanted all of Ferrari, and said he would refuse to compete Ferraris against Fords in races like the Indianapolis 500. Outraged, Ferrari broke off the talks, leaving Ford with nothing but millions of dollars in lawyer and auditing fees. The Deuce retaliated by issuing a directive to his performance department: develop a car to destroy Ferrari on the track, and do it now.

Telling Ford’s small performance division to topple Ferrari in early 1963 was like calling a varsity pitcher up to the big leagues. Scuderia Ferrari had taken the checkered flag at three consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans (it would win another two straight), and had won the Formula One Constructor’s Championship in 1961. Ford needed outside help, and found it in England. The company hired Aston Martin’s former racing manager John Wyer, and struck a deal with Eric Broadley, the designer of the dominant (and Ford-powered) Lola Mk.6 GT to help with the new car. Setting up Ford Advanced Performance, Ltd. near London’s Heathrow airport, the small team scrambled and had the car done in a matter of months, unveiling it in New York as the great American hope. By the spring of 1964, the GT40 Mk.I was ready to go racing, and to Ford’s horror, it was a disaster.

At the Nürburgring 1000 kilometer race, the GT40 retired early with suspension problems, and three weeks later at Le Mans, the three cars entered retired with mechanical issues while Ferrari cruised to its fifth consecutive victory. Fed up with the disappointing results, The Deuce fired his British works team and shipped the cars to Carroll Shelby’s Cobra team, the brilliant minds behind the Cobra roadster, and the then-dominant Daytona coupe. After struggling through 1965, Ford and Shelby had learned enough to release the Mk.II GT40, and suddenly, the world was Ford’s.

GT40s took the Daytona 2000 in a 1-2-3 victory in February 1966, repeating the feat in Sebring the following month and again – and most importantly – at Le Mans in June, with The Deuce on hand to wave the checkered flag himself, bringing Ferrari’s six-year win streak to an end. But having beat Ferrari, Ford wasn’t ready to call it a day just yet. In under three years, the GT40 had gone from revenge fantasy to top dog, the world leader that vanquished the Prancing Horse, and unsurprisingly, Ford wanted to enjoy the limelight for a while.

Reading a list of the GT40’s drivers is like looking at a who’s who of automotive legends. Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, and Jackie Ickx all drove the cars to victories. They were everywhere on the international circuit too, Ford built 100 for racing, and 7 slightly more civilized Mk.III road cars. Le Mans was the GT40’s playground again in 1967, ’68, and ’69, but by 1970, the world had turned on the car, and and Porsche’s radical 917 cars suddenly rendered the aging racers obsolete.

But while those Le Mans-winning Ferraris, and 917s rank among the all-time greats, none of them captured the public’s imagination quite like the GT40. It was borne out of the sweetest revenge story of all time, complete with fast cars, huge egos, international intrigue, and untold millions of dollars. It singlehandedly proved that the Americans could trounce the Europeans on their home turf, something that was thought to be impossible right up until that first Le Mans victory in ’66. To that end, the GT40 was a technological achievement on the same scale (but not the same magnitude) as the moon landing. And like NASA’s greatest triumph, as soon as the program ended, we’ve never been back.

American drivers have since raced to victory at Le Mans, and American cars have won their respective classes, but no American car has finished first overall since GT40 back in 1969. Original cars are now among the most sought after classics in the world, with a 1968 car selling in 2012 for $11 million at auction. And when Ford rebooted the GT for 2005, it looked nearly identical to the original car. It was plenty powerful, and it was one of the most sought after supercars of its time, but it lacked the GT40’s racing pedigree. For the 50th anniversary of its monster racing year, however, Ford is releasing an all-new GT supercar, and its sights are squarely set on the track, just like it was way back in 1963.

The GT40 was bred for the racetrack, but its legendary reputation and incredible performance have made it one of the most desired supercars of all-time. With its newest namesake eschewing the retro looks for race-focused performance, we can’t wait to see if it can recapture the magic of 50 years ago.


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