I’m going to write about my all-time favourite car: the Ford GT40.
For those of you wondering, my list goes:
1. Ford GT40 – such a history with beautiful lines. Low and wide. The more I look at it the more I love it. (Ed: Agreed)
2. Ferrari F40 – the last real Ferrari!
3. Porsche 911 3L turbo – for a very long time this was my numero uno. The first time I saw one I was very young. I was out with mom and dad for a stroll when suddenly I got hit by lighting! The noise coming from that boxer… the massive wheel arches… the enormous spoiler… OMG! Truly, it was my first crush.
4. Citroën DS – even when it’s 61 years old it still looks futuristic. It was the first car that I wanted to buy when I was 18, but, my jaw dropped to the floor when I heard the price. I love the one with the third facelift, when they ditched the round headlights. If you pronounce it’s name in correct French it means goddess. Quite fitting description…
5. Lancia rally 037 – Ooh la la! Probably the most iconic (or at least one of the most iconic) liveries ever to grace the racing world.
But I digress. Sorry, I love to digress. Back to the GT40. I’m including the story of Le Mans 1969, which is the last big effort the original car did; of course with a title role for Ickx. It’s been said that this was one of the most exciting endurance races in history. Of course, there is the fact that it happened in ’69 at a time when my dad just turned 10 years old, so I couldn’t be there to watch it live. All the information I’ve gathered comes from books, articles and the one source that gives me less objective info than the other. Therefore I’ll do my best to make Ickx look as heroic as possible 😂. I’ll be doing part one about the car and its history, and part two about the race. Enjoy!
Part one: The car.
Back in the early 60’s, Henry Ford II (or “Hank the Deuce”) wanted his company to race again. But he therefore had to break the 1957 Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on racing, a ban the manufacturers imposed upon themselves after the horrible Mercedes crash at Le Mans in 1955. 77 people were killed and many more were injured when the Mercedes-Benz driven by Pierre Levegh brushed the Austin-Healey driven by Lance Macklin. The Mercedes crashed into the spectators’ stand and burst into flames killing and injuring many in what is now known as one of the worst Le Mans tragedies.
As a result of that, the manufacturers in America agreed to a self-imposed ban on factory supported racing in the hope that they’d outsmart the government. You see, they’d never want the government to take a look at racing regulations and possibly rewrite them. In June of 1962, Ford withdrew his company from that ban, which was a clear signal of their intentions to race. We all know that a big car company can’t do without a (successful) racing campaign and Henry Ford II knew the same. His company was losing credibility and therefore sales dropped.
The biggest point on Hankie’s agenda was to win at the prestigious Le Mans 24 hour race – clearly a man that didn’t want to start small, haha. Le Mans was, at that time, the playground of Ferrari with the famous Italian marque winning nearly every endurance race of any significance during those days. That very Ferrari is the real reason why the GT40 exists, which was a result of the sudden drop-out of the negotiations by Enzo Ferrari when Ford was to acquire Ferrari and merge the two companies; something that really pissed off Henry Ford II. A feud was born. Of course that’s another page-filling story which I will summarise by saying that Henry vowed to beat Enzo on his territory… Le Mans.
Ford started up the British-based racing program called Ford Advanced Vehicle Division. Roy Lunn, an Englishman working for Ford England before he was “upgraded” to Ford America, would lead the program. In America he had developed the Mustang 1 concept – a mid-engined sportscar that would be the godfather of perhaps the most known Ford car to date. And if I remember correctly, only their F150 pick-up truck has sold more than the Mustang line.
Other than being the grandfather to all mustangs, this concept Mustang 1 would be the soul of the GT40 project, albeit in a philosophical rather than technical sense. Aluminium-bodied (Aloooominum for the Yanks) and lightweight, the two-seater was equipped with a 1.7-liter V-4 and some running gear from the Ford Cortinas of that time. Could you imagine turning up at Le Mans with that engine up against the Ferraris with their 5L V12’s? I think Enzo would almost die from laughter!
Aside from the mid-engined layout, there was little resemblance to the Le Mans racers that would soon put Ford back in to the hearts of race fans around the world. But still this Mustang project was essential to the GT40 program; it proved to Ford management that an international collection of engineers could form a successful product development team. Later on the reactions fuelled by jealousy would say that the car was actually European engineering funded with American cash. Of course by looking closely at the whole history we can say that this was bullshit.
Looking at the picture of the Mustang shown above, we all see that there isn’t really a lot to work with towards a Le Mans Grand Tourismo car that Ford wanted for the win. There was, however, a car out there that did check all the required boxes. Even better, it already had a massive Ford V8 engine in the back, which was quite a rarity for a European car back then. It was the new Lola GT. A good looking British coupé, build by Eric Broadley. And if you look at the picture below, you do get the feeling of the GT40 coming closer. Broadley – even though the car was unfinished – showed the Lola at the big racing car show in London in January of 1963. He was eager to jump on the deal Ford offered him as he was short on funds. It’s apparent that the Lola shared the essentials with the GT40. A pretty good looking car if you ask me.
Naturally Ford could only use so much of the design otherwise it wouldn’t be their car, so they changed a lot. The GT40 became longer, wider, smoother and perhaps even more elegant. It was fitted with fiberglass bodywork and an all-aluminium 4.2L V8 engine called “Indianapolis” and born was the ‘Mark 1’ of what would become an iconic car. Ford named it plain and simple: the GT40. GT standing for Grand Tourismo and 40 for the height the car has in inches. For us, the metric using part of the world, that would be 101.6 cm.
I don’t know if any of you have seen this car in real life but if you haven’t go find a ruler and measure 101.6 cm from the ground up. That’s what I call a low car. The “height” is so low that most of us won’t fit in it, unless the readers are jockeys 😉. As a matter of fact, Dan Gurney didn’t quite fit in either, that’s why they have this extra room in the door where the driver sits to give room to Dan’s helmet. Therefore it was thus named the Gurney Bubble.
First time the team showed up at Le Mans for a test, the car hadn’t driven many kilometres and subsequently ran into an enormous amount of problems. Tricky conditions were the least of their troubles. The result was two crashes, giving neither drivers nor mechanics much time to get used to the car.
The biggest problem however was the aerodynamics of the car. So the Ford boys went back home to the drawing board and come June, at the race, much of their aerodynamic problems were solved. They even were competing against the mighty Ferrari’s until they had to throw in the towel after mechanical failures; all of them engine problems. Ford then called up Carroll Shelby who took matters in his own hands and fitted the GT40 with Ford’s reliable 7L engine, which they used in their stock cars. This version of the GT40 would be known by the ‘Mark 2’ designation. A lot faster than the original… how could it be otherwise with such a difference in engine? Ford started testing the Mark 2 obsessively in wind tunnels and apparently they even put them on a dynamo for 48 hours in similar conditions to Le Mans. While the Mark 2 still looks like the original, it’s a lot more aggressively styled. The picture included actually shows just how low the car is.
By then it was 1966 and Ford began their domination on the international racing scene. Both at the 24 hours of Daytona and the 12 hours of Sebring they delivered a dominant 1,2,3 finish. At Le Mans that year, the Ford was very strong and unchallenged and when the night fell they’d worked on building up a massive lead on their opponents through to early Sunday morning. So big was the lead that the team asked the drivers to slow down in fear of mechanical failures. In the end, the factory Fords again took the checkered flag with a 1,2,3 finish. The first two were even on the same lap and staged a photo finish on the demand of Ford thus giving us the closest Le Mans finish to date. In the end, they gave the win to Bruce McLaren as he had started from a lower place than Denny Hulme and therefore drove a bigger distance in 24 hours. The other 10 privately entered GT40’s all failed to finish. This would be the first American Le Mans win.
For 1967, Ford decided to deal with those earlier mentioned critics (about the cars being European engineering, but funded with American cashjiejs) realising that such jabs could only be stopped by making a follow-up car completely in America. The objective was to save weight and better the Mark 1 and Mark 2’s aerodynamics, and therefore make a car that was theoretically faster and more efficient.
Ford decided to keep using the 7.0L engine only going back to the drawing board for the body work. The code name for the project was ‘the J-car’, which was named after new regulations that the FiA introduced in ’66 -Appendix J regulations. Furthermore, they decided to go for a fairly new method in race car manufacturing by building the car out of aluminium in a honeycomb structure. A method invented in the 1920’s but still used in today’s racing mainly with carbon fibre.
For those of you that don’t know it, imagine a sheet out of aluminium and on it a structure of upwards placed aluminium in the form of a honeycomb with, on top of that, another sheet of aluminium. This structure is supposed to be stronger than just sheets on top of each other. The final result was a weight saving of 140kg with the bodywork now only weighing 39kg!!! (Yes, that’s three exclamation marks.)
Unfortunately during a test at the Riverside high-speed track, the car became uncontrollable coming on to the straight, crashing and killing Ken Miles who was behind the steering wheel. During the crash, the honeycomb structure didn’t live up to his goal and shattered on impact as well as the car bursting into flames. It is believed that the “special” aerodynamics of the car, without any spoilers, generated lift instead of downforce causing the crash upon which Ford decided to go back to the drawing board, once again, going for a more conventional approach.
And thus the Mark 4 car was born. Now all the attentive readers amongst you will ask, “Four? How can it be four when there wasn’t a three?” Well to put it plain and simple, there WAS a three, but that was only a road-going car and not a dedicated racer – so for this article, it doesn’t matter.
The Mark 4 was the J-car with improved aerodynamics and the most radical of the GT40 incarnations, even though it shared some parts with the Mk1/Mk2 such as engine, gearbox, suspension parts and brakes. But the car had one major setback… as a precaution after the death of Miles, Ford fitted a roll cage lifted from their NASCAR cars; proven to be safe, but it added a lot of weight. So it neutralised the weight loss (and increased performance) that was gained by the honeycomb bodywork. Nevertheless, the bodywork was altered to fit the Le Mans circuit with the long tail being designed for Le Mans’ long straights, which in those days weren’t separated by chicanes. This afforded the cars top speeds on the better side of three hundred and the Ford had a pretty decent top speed of 343 km/h, which was recorded during the Le Mans race of 1967.
Ford tested a 2 speed automatic transmission during the J-car days, but for the Mark 4 they decided that the 4 speed manual from the Mark 2 would be better. Can you imagine that? A 2 speed automatic? That’s something for a moped! Or something to build in a Lego Technics car. 😉
Eventually, the car proved to be quite heavy. It came in at a huge 270kg heavier that the Ferraris it was up against that year. Something Dan Gurney wasn’t too happy about. And since he wasn’t driving for Ferrari, he even dared to complain about the car. It even went so far that in order to preserve his brakes he started to lift and coast the car a long way before the braking zones. A.J. Foyt later on adapted to this driving style because of the highly stressed brakes, since they were just lifted from the Mark 1 and weren’t up for the challenge that the weight and top speed of the Mark 4. That resulted in increased lap times during practice, but it did save the brakes. Together with the Le Mans race of ’67, the only other race where the Mark 4 competed was the 12 hours of Sebring, both of which Ford won; though Ford only showed up with one car for Sebring, driven by Andretti and McLaren. For Le Mans, however, Ford brought four cars: two representing Shelby America with Donohue/McLaren and Gurney/Foyt of which Gurney and Foyt won the race, and two cars for the Holman Moody team driven by Andretti/Bianchi and Ruby/Hulme.
Andretti was very thankful for the roll cage installed in the cars that probably saved his life after a huge accident at the Dunlop corners, which is the first braking point after coming out of the pits. It seemed one of the mechanics put one of the brake clippers upside down, by mistake, which caused the uncontrollable spin Andretti had before he crashed in to the concrete surroundings of the track. Andretti survived with some broken ribs. If you look at the picture you could say he had lady luck on his side.
To this day, the 1967 race is the only true American victory at Le Mans. The team, drivers, engine, chassis and tires were all from the land of the free. The only thing that was missing was a few rocket launchers. And with that bombshell (am I the only one that misses Clarkson?), on to the second part! As always I am forever in debt to @wtf_f1 for his editing.