Classic Cars

Goodwood Calling

Good. Better. Goodwood! We set off for the south of England, where the annual Festival of Speed is taking place this weekend. We've decided to make the journey in style with two Ford GT40s. Why? We'll explain, of course.

  • Text
    Herbert Völker
  • Photos
    Roman Kuhn

"The Europeans are a pile of arrogant wankers, and on top of that pile perches Enzo Ferrari." With this expert sycophantic analysis, racing warhorse Carroll Shelby flattered Henry Ford II – an encouraging perspective for the 1960s.
Apart from small skirmishes and campaigns there had been no real motorsport showdown between America and Europe since the invention of the automobile. This time, it was to be just a short hot time, but it was glorious.
One cannot exclude two different stories, and how they connect.

The Italian frontier: as an older man, Enzo Ferrari needed all his remaining energy for racing. The commercial wrangling over producing a reasonably functioning sports car was annoying him. He wanted to sell this part of the company. American money had always impressed him. He preferred numbers in dollars, even though they were much smaller than in lire. In addition, the unloved Fiat could be annoyed with some U.S. business – Ferrari archived bad memories like an old, nasty elephant. Anyway, he was negotiating with a Texas oil millionaire, whose living heirs spend about as much money on attorney costs in six months as the entire Ferrari purchase would have cost them. Then Ford came into play.

The American frontier: In a fit of cumulative hypocrisy, the four major U.S. automakers had imposed a ban on racing in 1957. Henry Ford II revoked the 1962 agreement: Now came a new, smart young clientele that he wanted to impress with racing glamor. When Ferrari was available to buy, he put his people on it. They even managed to push the total price for the whole thing (plus racing series cars) from $18 to $10 million dollars. We do have to pause to think about such grotesque prices ($10 million would only get you a better-preserved SWB today). Anyway: Enzo wanted to have the final say on the racing program in the Ford–Ferrari company as well, but a brave Ford executive told him in the face, no, that was not the plan.

Ferrari broke off the talks, which gave rise to a classic sentence for the automobile history books.

Henry Ford about Enzo Ferrari in 1963: "Okay then, we'll kick his ass."

The Ford company was so big itself, that sensationally short paths were found for each project, especially when Henry Ford was personally involved. This meant beating Ferrari at Le Mans, as soon as possible, thus in 1964. The instinct of an offended tycoon mingled with the downright clever marketing idea to jump from a standing start straight into the arena. In a bland landscape, a new tentpole had to be put up to draw a young audience, a signal for the next Mustang, which actually sold fabulously. In this era you should also not forget the combat power of Ford CEO Lee Iacocca.

Why Le Mans?

Because the Americans could not deal with Formula 1 and 1.5-litre engines were ridiculous anyway. Le Mans, however, had big cars, old glamor and nobility compared to Indy for example. A world stage. Typical of the whole vibe was Steve McQueen's legendary 1971 film "Le Mans".

The project was initially called "Ford GT". Fans still tend to differentiate between a Mk II and Mk IV, rather than saying "40" in general. As everyone knows, it arose from the approximately 40-inch height of the car, but the abbreviation GT40 has been used only since 1968 -– and then for posterity, of course.

Joining forces with Lola in England in 1973 was helpful. They already had a decent tubular frame for a mid-engine car that could be built on. The GT was designed in America to be an independent and particularly pretty racecar. It was a transitional period in every respect: driveline concepts, aesthetics, aerodynamics. Even if people do tend to talk the sexuality of cars to death, Italian automotive eroticism with its flowing threshold ends, was at its peak (Ferrari Dino, P3, then P4, Alfa 33 and Abarth), but there were already a whole range of forms in the pipeline, the rugged Matra, the edged Chaparral, the fish and flounder of the next big Porsches with their elongated fins. The Ford GT appeared almost like an instant classic, with clear edges in flowing stretch, so clean. At first glance it was obvious that this car would run flawlessly in the wind.

But the whole thing was handled too naively – they had figured out the importance of aerodynamics, but the attempts to implement this in actual designs didn’t bother with the details and the makers were "too idealistic". Before the final shape of the GT was determined, dozens of airflow guides were tried with their respective scoops and mouths and fins, so that in the end a comparatively chunky device was left, however, it was perfect for being painted with the blue and orange stripes of the sponsor Gulf Oil.

The problem with racing in general and specifically in Le Mans is always the same. At a speed of 300 km, the cars start to misbehave, and at 330 km the physics go crazy. This doesn’t matter for Formula 1. Even at 300 they stick to the streets in full. They do not need 330, controlled cornering is much more important.

But the top was crucial for sports cars and prototypes, especially in the early days at Le Mans, when there were no chicanes on the 6-km stretch. If pushed to its limits, the car became an aircraft at some point, and in between there was a whole circus of physical absurdities. A completely new car, designed to win, was therefore dependent on the drivers who would donate their bones before the air flow had even halfway been mastered (a few years later, it wasn’t much different with the Porsche 917) The whole thing played out even without the priming effects of higher mathematics from the underbody, which came to racing 15 years later.

As for the engines, Ford could stay relaxed given the marvels of Ferrari's 3.3-litre 4ohc-injection engines. They had decades of steamroller development behind them, they had experience with small blocks and big blocks, and pushrod engines, which could all take a deep breath and were accustomed to blowing away the elaborate trinkets of European watchmakers. Who would need 8,500 rpm, when 6,500 created quite a riot, in relative serenity? Ford experimented with capacity from 4.2 to 4.7 litres, and then – completely logically and to the delight of hard-core fans – they went for seven litres. HP figures from America were hit and miss, that is to say they were in the order of 500 hp.

This is not to say that the GT was an old-fashioned car. They had a surprising love for details, such as an unusually affectionate attitude to the psyche and physicality of the driver. They were given decent (even expensive ventilated) seats, ensured amazing cockpit ergonomics (including a striking giant wheel which reduced the effort). As drivers would often ride in the rain, even at a rate of 320 km, they bought fabulously expensive Boeing wipers, which allegedly cost the price of a racing engine, which was not $400,000 at the time, but a thousand dollars. Yes, one thousand dollars for a 4.7-litre engine, say the old recordings.

Another nice detail from the old archives: the GT was the first real racecar that was created with computer help, "however one may not yet have fully understood the results of the magic boxes".

You could accuse the Ford people of naivety, but they certainly were no cowards – as this entire GT40 story is devoted to the brave. So were two GTs in 1964 at Le Mans, when it became clear that there were too many flaws for a 24-hour chase. So they made a show of it, Richie Ginther took the lead once and showed his behind to Ferrari as long as he could. It did not last long, but back home they had their leading-the-race story.

1965 was more demanding because the seven litres were already on the spot. Ford was leading, dropped out and then you had the curious case of all of the Ferrari factory cars failing. Jochen Rindt was the sensational winner with Masten Gregory on an old private Ferrari, a joke in the face of the theatre from the big boys around. But there was much applause for this joke, and some realized that there was someone to look out for: Jochen Rindt.

About that time, Henry Ford put an end to the fun and games, and he must have said it in the manner of a constitutional monarch. Despite the ruthlessness, the action was received quite well by the international fan community. It was the time when the U.S. was still really popular in many parts of the world, and the visit of Henry Ford II himself was perceived as a great honour for Le Mans, France and in general. For example, Henry Ford had waved the starter's flag and there was record attendance at Le Mans. People claim 400,000 people attended.

Eight 7-litre GT plus flanking easier Ford cavalry were summoned from America. At the start of 1966 there were also three heartbreakingly beautiful, incomparably swelling-flowing Ferrari P3 against which the most powerful Ford looked like a pile of iron. It was not about the beauty contest and Ford cars always became more beautiful the longer they were in the race anyway.

To now finish off a really big drama in a quick and unmoved manner: Out of 14 Ferrraris (plant and private) twelve fell through, not without having previously fought heroically. Of the numerous Ford (large and small) enough were around in front of the goal to make a chaotic mess that sparked a shitstorm (especially in America) and almost became a premonition of what you need the Internet for decades later.

By the halfway point Ford had killed all the Ferraris, played all of its cards, lowered the speed to 800 rpm for the whole squadron and arranged the finish line as impressively as possible, three cars in the picture with the overwhelmingly dominating car of Ken Miles/Denny Hulme ahead of Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon. Nonetheless the wrong guys won.

Ford had overlooked the fact that the starting grid at Le Mans had to be included in the equation and that there was just forty metres difference between the two MkII. This was too much trickery for the public's taste (especially back home). There were also too many New Zealanders (Amon, Hulme, McLaren) and not enough Americans. Ken Miles, who was “just” an Englishman, grew up in the U.S. at least where he was extremely popular. The memory of the stolen victory was nonetheless glorified, as Ken Miles died in Riverside - in a GT40 prototype for the next Le Mans. The car took off and went up in flames. The purpose of the test drive was the search for weaknesses in speed, no cynicism intended.

1/3

Food for thought: a factory driver like Ken Miles about one-thousandth of today's top salaries earned at that time. Inflation adjustment helps to contextualise in numbers, but not always.

A year later, all was forgotten. In 1967 it was time for the right ones to win (they couldn’t have been more right according to Ford's point of view): Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt defeated two Ferrari P4 in a "heroic battle". You could not dream of beating nobler opponents yourself.

Thus, the mission was accomplished, it was now an official label: Everything between the first prototype and the Mk IV monsters could now be called "Ford GT40". For the completion of the program, in 1968 and 1969, they let the John Wyer team run with icons of racing aesthetics in the blue-orange of Gulf Oil. Wikipedia tells us that Gulf Oil merged with Chevron in 1984. This is most regrettable, as Captain Renault used to say in "Casablanca". If we deepen the suspicion that any gasoline in the West is always the same, then we can at least say that Gulf had by far the best colour, and the blue looked fabulous on the broad shoulders of the GT40. One might have seen it as sort of slutty when Gulf immediately afterwards got engaged to Porsche, but it was Ford’s own fault. They believed they had the staying power anyway and no longer needed to look after the vintage models.

Ford won a third and a fourth time and ended the program in 1969. The timing was not bad, for the Porsche 917, the "white giant" of Ferdinand Piëch, had already cleared its throat in the arena. It would have loved to have the GT40 for breakfast, but this never happened. Ford would have had to retrofit, but this was out of the question.

The company was generous concerning bequests to museums, but on the other hand too careless to obtain protection for rights to the name "GT40". VW had the same problem with the "GTI". Racing fans were called upon to keep the legend alive and they were done their best to preserve the fame of the GT40. The few museum pieces of real racing history (as in this Ramp story) are invaluable.

Apart from the 30 factory racers, 107 cars (Mk III) were built for the ordinary streets. They were never very comfortable, they make a terrible racket and they offer deplorable visibility. If you step on the accelerator with right kind of pressure, you’ll get eight months in jail. However, people get really excited on an early, mild and pollen-free summer day, when a GT40 crawls out of the garage in, let’s say Scottsdale. Here comes a rich person with some taste.

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