Rumors of Ford’s return to international racing competition became much more likely at last week’s Detroit Motor Show. Ford stole the show from Acura’s unveiling of their much-anticipated next-generation NSX with their new carbon fiber Ford GT Supercar. A high tech linear development of their epic GT40, the new car, in US-racing blue, was both unexpected and stunning. Conceived in anger and spitefulness, Ford’s GT40 would dominate international road racing in the 60’s as no American challenger had, before or since. Ford says that production of the new GT will begin next year, presumably with an eye on the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Super Sixties saw a global explosion of motor racing popularity. Detroit’s Big Three embraced the concept of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” and made huge efforts to achieve NASCAR glory for their individual brands. Drag racing and road racing was everywhere, and yet American manufacturers generally limited their racing efforts to engine development and smaller support roles. GM and Chrysler were reluctant to form dedicated factory racing programs outside of the Southern super speedways. Henry Ford II had other ideas. His company tagline was “Total Performance”, and Henry meant it. Targeting the 24 Hours of Le Mans as the ultimate victory against the best the world had to offer, Ford assembled a brain trust to try to figure out the fastest way to capture that prize.
Without the infrastructure and know-how to create a world-beating Grand Touring sports car, Ford, his engineers, and moneymen decided that the quickest way to achieve their goals would be to buy a car company that already had all the necessary pieces in place. They zeroed in on Ferrari, the most successful racecar builder of the time, and to their relief, Enzo Ferrari seemed interested in the merger. His passion had always been racing, and it was an open secret that he only built streetcars to finance his racing efforts. It was 1963 and Ferrari had won Le Mans in 1958, 60, 61 and 62. Ford knew that Ferrari was usually cash-strapped in spite of their success and negotiations began. At first, things went smoothly, but a gradual deterioration over potential credit for racing victories drove a wedge between the two makers. After ten days of negotiation in Italy, Enzo unceremoniously halted all talks and sent Ford home. Henry the second was furious and vowed to beat Ferrari at his own game.
The one endurance-racing ace that Ford could rely on was Carroll Shelby. Ford had been supporting his successful efforts with his Shelby Cobras, and now dispatched him to find a suitable racing concern that could build a winning international challenger. Shelby brought Ford to the British designer, Eric Broadley and his Lola GT road racer. The Lola was just what Ford was looking for and even better, was already in the testing phase. The Blue Oval threw large amounts of cash at accelerated development. Ferrari won Le Mans again in ’63 and that didn't sit well with Ford or Shelby. An all-out effort with the best drivers and engineers available sculpted the new car into a contender.
1964 was supposed to be the year that Ford took on the world at Sebring, Daytona and the classic European races at Spa, Monza, the Nürburgring and Le Mans. High hopes and vast sums evaporated with a series of mishaps and breakages. At the end, the GT40s wouldn’t finish a single race in ’64. And even worse, Ferrari won Le Mans. Again.
The cars were shipped to Southern California, where Shelby and his team exhaustively tested at Riverside and Willow Springs, making numerous aerodynamic breakthroughs and other improvements. The Daytona Continental 2000km was the first big race of ’65 and Ford flew a contingent of company VIPs down to witness the spectacle. After a race-long Ford/Ferrari duel, the GT40 of Ken Miles/Lloyd Ruby took the checkered flag, followed by a Shelby Cobra and another GT40 in third place. Ford swept the podium in front of the company suits, and sent an ominous message to the Italians. The Ford celebration would prove to be their only one of the season. Another series of accidents, breakages and sheer bad luck made ’65 another bleak year for the Ford effort. And Ferrari won Le Mans, yet again. Shelby, addressing a gleeful European press corps after the last American car retired, stood at a podium and made a one sentence vow- “Next year Ferrari’s ass is mine!”
As sure as his word, Shelby brought it all together for 1966. The GT40s ran rampant, winning Daytona, Sebring and finishing an epic 1-2-3 sweep at Le Mans. For the rest of the decade, the Ford GT40 would be the car to beat, including successive Le Mans victories in 1967, 68 and 69. Ferrari’s ass did indeed belong to Mr. Shelby and his Ford Competition compatriots.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Ford sweep at Le Mans. To celebrate that epic victory, and to remind the Japanese and European manufacturers what Detroit can achieve in ultimate engineering, Ford has unveiled their GT Supercar. Powered by a 600+ horsepower V6 breathing through twin turbochargers, the engine is badged an EcoBoost, but owes much of its architecture and engineering to the engine powering the Chip Ganassi Tudor Endurance Series racers. Naysayers blabbing about the lack of a traditional V8 are thinking backwards. This car is built for competition.
Ford marketing describes the GT in terms of innovation, of pushing the American performance car into advanced concepts of construction, technology and weight savings. Much of the structure and body is formed from carbon fiber with aluminum sub structures attached front and rear. The bodywork, while supremely efficient and boasting active aerodynamics, is still suggestive of the GT40 racecar of the '60s. Carbon-ceramic brakes, 20” rubber and a Formula One style paddle shift steering wheel are all intended to out-flash anything offered from Europe or Japan. The seat is fixed in place for optimum balance. The steering wheel and pedals adjust in and out for driver preference.
Exact performance figures have yet to be announced, but the potential to be a 2016 Le Mans competitor in U.S. racing blue, taking on Porsche, Audi and yes, Ferrari is generating excitement and interest for the new GT. It’s worth mentioning that Ford was born from a road race victory - Henry Ford, triumphing in 1901 to attract investors in his idea for a motor company. More than any other of the Big Three Detroit makers, Ford knows that innovation is born on the racetrack. And with the new GT, they may have more than another desirable supercar; they may have their next international race winner.