Story Edited By: John Coleman (Thank you John!)
The 24 Hours Of Le' Mans - France's 24 Hour Of Le Mans is hands down my favorite motorsports event of the year and June is NIGH my friends! For the last four years, a group of us have faithfully got together to watch the race for the long haul, it's the one event I look forward to the most. There is nothing like a group of guys trying to armchair crew chief via talking, yelling, or praying to their favorite team's drivers and crew chiefs through the television. It's odd but year after year it's like they're not even listening. But the real reason I love the 24 Hours Of Le' Mans is because of the epic story between Henry Ford, II and Enzo Ferrari.
1923 is the year that started the world's most prestigious endurance racing event in the history of motorsports. Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, and Jaguar are just a few of the first prestigious automobile manufacturers to cut their teeth developing the early high performance standards. In fact, more automotive innovation was brought to both the track and street by Le Mans racing. So prestigious is this race, I will be using the word "prestigious" 1342 times in this article, give or take a prestigious here and there.
2019 24 Hour Of Le'Mans Circuit Layout
Henry Ford II In Talks To Purchase Ferrari - It wasn't all that long ago that racing quite literally sold cars and H. Ford II knew this would help European sales. People forget the Ford brand means as much to people in the U.K. as it does to some of us in the U.S. But it wasn't just about selling cars, I think it had more to do with Henry Ford II wanting to garnish his namesake company with a legitimate European racing pedigree. Year after year H. Ford II witnessed Ferrari dominate this and other races and wanted some of that "Ferrari Prestige" for Ford Motor Company. At this point H. Ford II's desire to race at Le' Mans and other events was still mainly on the drawing board, a calculate risk/reward scenario.
Mr. Henry Ford, II
Ferrari made it's name in racing and they truly dominated the endurance sport racing world as well as many other facets of motorsports. The problem with dominating innovation is the incredible and unforgiving costs. It comes at a heavy price and Ferrari flirted with bankruptcy many, many, times because of it. Let's not forget in the 60's Ferrari was still a small car manufacturer and the company's budget was largely set aside for racing development and research. I don't want to make the man sound like a bad business man that wouldn't be fair. Truthfully this was the practice for most manufacturers who built high end sports cars.
Through the grapevine Henry Ford II was told that Enzo Ferrari was wanting to sell and would sell to Ford Motor Company. Because this aligned with Ford's ambitions to break into the European racing scene it seemed like it was a match made in heaven. Ferrari could get out from under debt and Ford could acquire the top racing team in European motorsports and at the same time eliminate the Ferrari competition that would be competing at the Indy 500, a race Ford was very involved with.
H. Ford II sent a team and spent millions (keep in mind this is early 1960's money) to audit Ferrari's books. Ford flew to Italy to have one of the last sit downs with Ferrari and his lawyers to do the final contract negotiations.
March 1963 Turin, Italy - As the two sides of each company sat down to negotiate their terms, everything seemed to be going fine. Everyone was in good spirits and seemed to be getting what they wanted. As much money, time, and effort that Ford and his associates spent to prepare for the Ferrari purchase, it all came crashing down in 20 seconds.... flat.
As H. Ford II and his advisers were looking over the final contract, across the table, a small commotion could be heard in Italian. Then, Enzo Ferrari started to speaking to his associates in a fast and seemingly angry tone. I don't think Ferrari knew much English if any, so the people on the Ford side were probably wondering what in the hell the deal was. It was then that one of Ferrari's associates told Ford that Mr. Ferrari wanted to see the contract again. Ford was curious and looked at his people in a bit of confusion but nevertheless it wasn't exactly an unheard of practice, so they let the Ferrari associates look it over again. Ford was sitting across the table watching Enzo Ferrari flipping through the pages of the contract, pointing at something, then he would take his old fountain pen, dip it in ink, and started crossing things out in disgust. The more Ferrari would cross things out, the more he was speaking to the Ferrari team in Italian, in a very angered tone. I'm sure Ford and his advisers were really wondering what in the absolute hell was going on. Once the Ferrari legal team slid the contract back across the table to Ford, it was evident what just happened.
As Ford and his executives looked over the hastily revised contract they noticed everything having to do with the Ferrari racing division had been crossed off. Meaning it wouldn't be included with the sale of Ferrari. Basically, Ford was buying the car manufacturer without the research development team, which is what racing really was back then. This immediately infuriated Henry Ford II because it was known that Ford wanted Ferrari mainly for the racing division. To be frank, I don't think Ford could have really given a rats ass about the Ferrari car company - he wanted Ferrari's racing division. In Enzo's way of thinking he decided he wasn't handing over his hard won - Ferrari racing over to a bunch of Americans wanting to use it as a stepping stone to build their own racing legacy and I can understand that, but that decision should have been made long before Ford ever audited his books. So, the next scene was translators screaming at each other to interpret what Ford and Ferrari were screaming at each other. The two opposing executives were screaming at each other, not sure why because they couldn't understand one another, but whatever, maybe it was just that tense. Finally at 10:00 PM Enzo looked at his secretary and quietly said "Let's get something to eat" and that was the end of that.
Enzo Ferrari racing probably one of his very first vehicles.
Needless to say, Ford was just one of many of Enzo Ferrari's victims. As brilliant as Enzo Ferrari truly was, he was equally that much made up of the passionate Italian (cough asshole). It was very well known he would fire engineers, mechanics, and even scream at customers. Even to this day Ferrari is a hard company to deal with; they somehow can dictate to the customer how you purchase and own their cars. God forbid you try to sell it, you will not be invited to the next Ferrari customer's Christmas party.
Enter The Ford GT40 - Immediately after returning to the United States, Henry the Deuce put together the Ford Development team and told them to immediately start working on designing a car for Le' Mans. I don't know what the budget was, I have heard estimates anywhere from Holy Shit to F*** ME.
The infamous Ford GT40
The team was made up of some of the most legendary American and British designers known at the time. Eric Broadley (Owner of Lola Cars), John Wyer (Ex-Aston Martin team manager brought on as Ford's racing team manager), Roy Lunn (Ford Motor Company Engineer), Harley Copp, Abbey Panels (built the GT40 chassis), and other prominent British auto manufactures were in the fray as well: Lotus, Cooper, Colotti, And Fairlane. They set their headquarters up near the Heathrow Airport in London, England.
The car body was decided to be a British designed Lola MK6 on a custom chassis running a Ford power plant. Now, I am not going to get into all the variations of the MK series, it will dilute the point I am trying to get across.
The car's designation was GT40, GT stands for "Grand Touring" and 40 represented the total height from ground to roof of 40".
1964 The First 24 Hour Of Le' Mans Race - Needless to say, the car didn't perform that great during the first race. Actually most of the results were pretty dismal. Then they had to bring in the big guns, the man, the guy that I idolize, not as much as my dad but pretty god damn close. That is saying a lot.
1965 Enter Mr. Caroll Shelby - When Carroll Shelby enters our conversation you need to have some respect. Get your ass up out of your chair, put your hand on your heart and you recite the Pledge Of Allegiance, and I'm telling you there had better be at least one god damn tear running down your cheek at the end of it or you're a communist. Don't worry the flag is provided below, I'll wait.
I pledge of allegiance to the flag.. you know the rest.
Now that is out of the way let's talk about Mr. Shelby. Anyone who is even remotely interested in cars knows of Carroll Shelby. In case you aren't exactly sure who he is and why you had to stand up to recite things to the American flag and cry, I will tell you. Carroll Shelby was a former race car driver turned mechanic, race car designer, and problem solver. Famous for the AC Cobra, he has been the big 3 auto manufacturers go-to guy for pretty much all of their special projects or race cars. Shelby had the most famous tuning house in America and I dare say he gave everyone in Europe a good run for their money.
Carroll Shelby seen here with the Ford GT40 race car.
Carroll immediately looked over the car and revamped it. Put the 427 CI side oiler engine in it, reworked the heads, reworked the suspension and some of the bodywork.
With talented drivers such as Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, Ken Miles, Denny Hulme, A.J. Foyt, along with Carroll Shelby improving the car and leading the team made the GT40 almost unstoppable winning machine. Under Shelby's leadership they won their inaugural race at Daytona, FL. Then famously, Enzo Ferrari's worst nightmare - the Ford team won Le' Mans four consecutive times from 1966-1969.
Ford GT40 Team Drivers - (From Top Left To Right) A.J. Foyt, Ken Miles, Lloyd Ruby, & Bruce McLeron
In Closing - I love story. I love the best of the best coming together and kicking ass. I love that the program was put together so quickly and yet they still did well, not Le' Mans winning quality at first but they got there. It just goes to show you how close America and Britain when they're working together. This isn't a unique story, the two countries have come together for many things.
If you haven't seen the race, I would suggest watching it this year. It's going to be Ford Motor Company's last year of factory racing, for now anyway.
In the United States the race airs on the Motor Trend network Saturday June 15, 2019 at 9:00 AM Our British Friends can watch it starting Saturday June 15, 2019 at 2:00 PM U.K. Local Time and will be airing on the channel Eurosport.