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Love The 2017 Ford GT? Here Are 6 Must Knows About The Original

The 2017 GT40 Is Amazing – But How About Some Facts About The Original Model?

Updated September 28, 2018

The Ford GT is a powerful icon to car fans in general and Ford enthusiasts in specific. But the route to fame for the original GT was a rough one and the development was fraught with trouble. Here are 6 incredible facts that helped pave the way to the 2017 GT40.

The Ford GT super cars, produced from 2002 – 2008, and now to be revived in 2016, are heavily influenced by the design and performance of the GT40 race cars of the 1960s. While from today’s perspective it seems as though the GT40s dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans all across the decade, it was a much greater task than we may recall, or that the participants might have anticipated at the time.

One: The English roots of the all-American Ford GT40 program

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Not having the in-house resources to develop a race car capable of taking on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ford sought technical partners who could aide them in their quest to win the French endurance race. Lola was the obvious choice, as the English company had just developed the Lola Mk 6, a mid-engined sports car powered by a Ford 289 V-8.  However, as each subsequent meeting had more and more Ford execs and fewer Lola staff, Lola left the project with Ford and went out and developed the Lola T-70.

Two: 1964 was not a very good start

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For the 1964 24 Hours of Le mans, Ford sent an expeditionary force of three GT40s, none of which finished the race. Top finishers were Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren in 29th place. Further, the Fords were off the pace of the less powerful Ferraris. This provided enormous motivation in Dearborn to come back in 1965 loaded for bear.

Three: Bigger must be better, right?

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For 1965 further development of the existing GT40s was handed over to Carroll Shelby, who replaced the fragile Indy engines with Cobra engines and upgraded the transmissions. At the same time, Ford contractor Kar Kraft was building Mk II versions with 7.0 L big blocks with the thought that the power:weight ratio could be improved with a bigger engine. No transaxle existed at the time that could handle the power of the 427, so Kar Kraft constructed their own out of Ford top loaders. Despite entering twice as many cars, Le Mans didn’t go much better, as all six cars broke. Though the winning car was again a less-powerful Ferrari, the GT40 did capture pole position and set fastest lap.

Four: It really took three tries before Ford won Le Mans

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Over the years as memories have faded, many believe that Ford rolled into France and won dominated Le Mans from its first attempt. It was actually its third attempt in1966. And to do so they resorted to brute force:  there were EIGHT 7.0L GT40s and five 289-powered cars. That’s 13 GT40s in a field of 55 – almost a quarter of all the cars. How did they manage as these cars? Ford brought in pretty much every team they had under contract: Alan Mann from the UK, Holman-Mooney from NASCAR, and of course Shelby, as well as Ford France and independent teams running the 4.7L cars. As it turned out, Ford did capture their first victory in high style, winning the 1966 race with GT-40s 1-2-3.

Five: And now, a “Made in America” victory

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The GT40s that had won Le Mans were all built in England, and Ford wanted to win Le Mans with a legitimately American-built car. The Mark IV was a further development of the experimental J-car (that never raced). It was a larger car, built by Kar Kraft in Detroit, with a narrower cab that rules now allowed, and a more aerodynamic shape that provided for a top speed of 212 mph. It featured an advanced construction similar to the  J car but with greater strength, including a roll cage protecting the driver. Unfortunately, the car was heavy, and as a result hard on its brakes. Out of the 11 different GT40s entered, there were four Mk IVs entered, two from Shelby and two from Holman-Moody. The win went to perhaps two of the greatest drivers in American history – AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney in a Shelby Mk IV, experienced drivers who knew how to bring a car home. Small trivia: at the victory celebration, Gurney was the first driver to spray those around him with champagne, starting a tradition that continues today.

Six: Life without Ford

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Concerned over rising speeds, the regulations limited Prototype class cars like the MK IV to 3.0 liter engines, so Ford withdrew having accomplished what it had set out to do. There was a secondary class for Sports Cars, of which 50 had to have been manufactured to qualify. Intended to allow wealthy sportsmen to buy GT cars from Ferrari and the like, Englishman John Wyer, recognized there were enough GT40s built to qualify the car in the Sports category with the 289 V-8. Wyer had been developing his own version of the GT40 prior to the rules change (called the Mirage M1) which was no longer eligible, but he was able to transfer many of the tweaks as he reconstructed the cars to GT40 Mk 1 spec. To the amazement of many, the Wyer team took home a third victory for Ford at Le Mans (though as an independent team) in 1968, the car in its iconic blue and orange Gulf colors. The Wyer team repeated the feat in 1969, again with Gulf sponsorship, winning with the same chassis the team drove to victory in 1968.

Summary

The GT40 competed at Le Mans from 1964 through 1968, in an era that not only saw increasing speeds through horsepower and aerodynamics, but a rise in professionalism. And though the six races in which a Ford GT40 competed, it won four times, a pretty incredible record, especially given its shaky start. For 1970, John Wyer took his team and Gulf sponsorship to Porsche to run the 917, but that’s a story for another day.

 

 

 

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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. GearHeads.org gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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