Can They Do It Again?
It’s Not Bragging If You Can Do It
There is a real risk in setting a goal and announcing it in advance. If you fall on your butt you do it in the full glare of media scrutiny. John F. Kennedy did it with the Apollo Program, and history applauds him for it, as much for the audacity as for accomplishing it.
Bringing it down to earth, Ford Motor Company has set itself the goal of reclaiming the glory days of the sixties when they beat Enzo Ferrari in his favorite venue by competing in and winning the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, and they have not been shy about announcing that they intend to win.
Enzo at Le Mans.
Although a successful racing driver in his own right, Enzo Ferrari never drove at Le Mans himself. Instead, his legacy is founded in his management of the Alfa Romeo racing effort, until after WWII when he created his own marque, Ferrari S.p.A., in 1947.
His open-wheel racers enjoyed some success in 1948, but it was Le Mans where his road racing cars played an oversize part in establishing his racing credentials, starting in 1949.
Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, 2015.
Above: The first Ferrari to win Le Mans. Expatriate Italian Luigi Chinetti ‘s Co-driver fell ill, so he drove it for all but about twenty minutes of the entire 24 hours. Enzo Ferrari rewarded him with the Ferrari franchise for the United States.
Below: The last Ferrari to win Le Mans outright, 1965 Ferrari 250LM Chassis Number 5893, driven by Jochen Rindt, Masten Gregory, and Ed Hugus.
In 1949 the winning Barchetta chassis 0008M, was clothed in a Superleggera body by Carrozzeria Touring, and all twelve cylinders displaced a mere 2 liters. Ferrari would go on to win the event outright fourteen times, including six years in a row beginning in 1959.
At Ford Motor Company in the late ‘50s, Henry Ford II had promoted safety as Fords’ marketing theme. While today that’s a legitimate strategy, back then it was a dud. Legendary marketing whiz Lido A. “Lee” Iacocca convinced “The Duece” to switch to “Total Performance,” a program emphasizing special competition cars in many different racing classes.
What was really going through the mind of Enzo Ferrari in 1963 will never be known, but for whatever reason, he “let it be known” that he wanted to sell his company to Ford. An enthusiastic Henry Ford II dove into negotiations in earnest. He was eager to have the immense prestige of Ferrari to rub off on other Fords and he was willing to pay just about any price, provided the terms were right.
Somewhere in the negotiations the two reached an impasse. Some say it was over Ferrari’s stated intention to build cars to race at Indianapolis. Ford didn’t want the competition for their Lotus-Fords, and on that note, Ferrari walked out. Of course no Ferrari ever did run at Indy thereafter, so once again his true motivation may never be known.
Ferrari would win Le Mans two more times, but meanwhile, within two weeks of Ferrari’s cutting off negotiations, an angered Henry Ford II determined to beat Ferrari where he was most famous. By the time they were done they had won Le Mans four times and Ferrari would never win it outright again.
Ford started by engaging Aston Martin’s John Wyer to run the effort (Aston Martin had won in 1959 with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori sharing driving duties), with Eric Broadley of Lola assigned to create a Ford capable of winning the race, based on a mid-engine racing coupe he’d been developing.
Close but no Cigar
The first Lola-designed “MKI” Ford GT40s (so-named for their 40 inch height), powered by 255 cubic inch Ford Indy 500 “stock block” pushrod V8s, were fast but suffered aerodynamic problems, and crashed out at Le Mans. An aero fix was successful, and Cobra 289 V8s were fitted, but rear suspensions proved fragile, and the cars failed to finish at the Nassau Speed Weeks.
After the 1964 Le Mans entry suffered further suspension failures, the cars had failed to finish in all nine starts. Consequentially, Ford severed its ties to Lola and moved operations to California under Carroll Shelby, who had his own grudge against Ferrari, after being deprived of a potential GT-class championship when Enzo managed to get the final race of the season cancelled with Cobras within striking distance (pun intended) in the standings.
The fourth GT40, Chassis number 104, sold for $7,000,000 at Mecum’s Houston Auction in 2014. It used thinner-wall chassis tubing for lighter weight. Although it never won a race, with a best finish of third at the 1965 2000 km Daytona Continental, its provenance included drivers like Phil Hill, Bob Bondurant, Richie Ginther, and Jo Schlesser.
No More Mister Nice Guy
Ford chose the nuclear option in 1966, and replaced the small-block Cobra engines with a version of the proven NASCAR 427 cubic inch V8. While the 3-liter V12s in the Ferrari 250LM that won the 1965 race made a peak of 320 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, in 1966 the big Ford MKIIs were loafing along (comparatively) developing their 485 horsepower at about 5,000.
For that season Ford mounted a multi-faceted campaign, with the Shelby team, one by Holman and Moody, and one by Alan Mann in the UK. They were successful right out of the box, sweeping the podium at both Daytona and Le Mans, and finishing 1-2 at Sebring.
Stupid PR Tricks
The 1966 effort at Le Mans is infamous for a PR stunt that cost rightful winners Ken Miles and Denny Hulme the victory. Fords stood 1-2-3 with an insurmountable lead when someone in Ford thought it would make a great publicity photo to have the cars cross the finish line abreast, so Miles slowed to let his teammates catch up. Unfortunately for him and his co-driver, the Le Mans winner is the car that travels the farthest in the 24 hours, so because the car of Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren started further back on the grid 24 hours before, they had traveled a few more feet at the finish and were awarded the win.
Climbing out of his car in the pits, Miles was heard to mutter, “Screw it!” He died two months later testing the Ford “J-Car.”
Let Us Spray
The J-car was developed into the factory entry for 1967. It was an entirely new design, with a honeycomb structure and a body with a “lobster-claw” nose developed in a sophisticated wind tunnel. Four were entered at Le Mans in 1967, with two wiped out in a single accident and a third coming in fourth. That left Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt.
Gurney had taken the lead early and he and Foyt were never really challenged. Gurney’s lead was so great that Ferrari sent Mike Parkes, four laps down in a 330 P4, out to harass him into doing something stupid. Gurney recognized the tactics.
“He was all over me under braking at the end of the Mulsanne straight, flicking his lights like crazy, trying to get me to drive harder,” Gurney said later. Instead, he pulled off onto the grass and stopped. Parkes stopped behind him, but after a few seconds, pulled back on the track and Gurney soon passed him. Foyt finished the race, 32 miles ahead of Parkes, averaging a record 135.48 miles per hour.
In one more historic moment, at the podium, Dan Gurney took the traditional celebratory bottle of Moet & Chandon, shook it up, and sprayed all and sundry with bubbly, creating a tradition still practiced today.
Ford won Le Mans four times, the second time in 1967. This is the car that Dan Gurney (note the “Gurney Bump” on the roof to accommodate his long torso.) and A. J. Foyt drove to victory. It was the first win at Le Mans for an American car, driven by American drivers for an American team. It ran only in one race, won it, and retired undefeated to the Henry Ford Museum, as shown here.
Icing on the Cake
The win was so convincing that, perhaps fearing withdrawal of European teams in future races (Ferrari, you think?), organizers placed a cap of five liters on subsequent entries.
It didn’t matter. Ford came back with improved MKIs in 1968 and 1969 powered by the ubiquitous 289. With revised bottom end and the Gurney-Weslake head design that had the carburetors bolted straight onto the heads, they produced a reliable 500 plus horsepower on gasoline. They won again, entered by John Wyer as Mirages. Having slain the dragon, Ford retired just in time to avoid being steamrolled by the next juggernaut, the Porsche 917.
GT40s for the Street
Between the first successful GT40 MK IIs and the big-block MK IVs, Ford produced just seven MKIIIs for use on public roads. They were given more luxurious interior appointments, a slightly higher ride height to better negotiate driveway aprons, etc., and an engine that was essentially the Mustang GT350 289 cubic inch V8, with an identical 306 horsepower rating. It cost about $18,500 when new.
In case you wondered if the Petersen cars are driven, this is the Petersen’s GT40 MKIII in Steve Beck’s shop in Mar Vista in 2003 for a clutch replacement. That was at the Los Angeles Chapter of the Shelby American Automobile Club’s annual Holiday Party there. Steve road-tested the new clutch with a trip to Oxnard for another Shelby club event (with the blessing of the Museum, of course).
Tribute Cars – The GT
Ford had many more racing successes, with their DFV V8 developed for Formula One becoming the winningest engine in history, but the Le Mans wins stood out in such bold relief that in 2002 Ford showed a tribute car called the GT40 Concept, to be a part of the Ford Centennial Celebration. That car reached production as the Ford GT (Someone else had picked up the rights to the GT40 name.) in 2004 with a supercharged 5.4 liter 4-valve V8 based on the Mustang SVT Cobra R’s, making 550 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque.
The last of the 4038 cars built had an MSRP of $149,995. Demand far outstripped supply, and dealers typically placed asking prices on the cars more in keeping with that of the Ferraris and Lamborghinis with which they competed well in performance.
With the 50th anniversary of the historic wins at Le Mans approaching, Ford is celebrating by introducing a new GT with a shape that won Automobile magazine’s Design of the Year award.
Like the Jaguar XJ220, the new GT is powered by a twin-turbo 3.5 liter V6. Technology has improved in 23 years so the new engine will develop perhaps 600 horsepower versus the Jag’s 542.
A carbon fiber chassis and efficient aerodynamics should make it a good deal faster, while even at an expected price of $400,000 or so, it should be a better value than the $678,000 that Jaguar asked for the XJ220. About 250 a year are planned for the new car, with no word yet on how many years of production are envisioned.
Ford’s latest tribute to the Le Mans-winning GT40s carries enough design cues to be recognized as a descendant of those cars, while incorporating innovative features like the tunnels that allow air to easily move around the central pod without generating lift. It is on display at the Petersen Museum now, along with the Museum’s GT40 MKIII.
The Big Gamble
This time, instead of the Deuce, It’s Edsel Ford II taking a gamble with the new GT, announcing its intention to contend in the LM GT Pro class. If the car is even marginally successful they will gain great PR for their EcoBoost technology that is taking over for big displacement V8s, V6s and even a four, in their mainstream consumer products, from the tiny 1.0 liter three-cylinder turbo available in the Fiesta and Focus to the 400 hp 2017 Lincoln MKZ version of the 3.5-liter turbo. If they fall on their faces, someone is going to fall on his (or her) sword.
So far, results have been mixed. After some teething problems at Daytona and Indianapolis (the road races, not the NASCAR and Indycar events) they held together at the tough Sebring course, and might have achieved a podium finish if not for an unfortunate shunt late in the race with minutes to go. Remember – it took two years for them to get there the first time.
The new Ford GT will compete in both the FIA Endurance Racing Championship and the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship.
Changing the Game
Full-on heavily-financed factory-supported teams have become the norm at Le Mans and the associated championship series. Industry giant Volkswagen seems to allocate resources to one division or another according to some corporate marketing scheme; Porsche winning for a while, then Audi, and even a car with the Bentley name on it winning in 2003.
It’s good to remember that it all started back in the early 1960s, with Henry Ford II getting ticked off at an enigmatic Enzo Ferrari.