The Ford GT40 program was built out of spite, and this weekend celebrates the pinnacle. Forty-five years ago a Ford made history by being the first all-American team to win the 24 Hours of LeMans.
Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari were two men whose egos were larger than their names above the headquarters’ door. So when Enzo kicked Henry’s company out of Maranello just before a merger in 1963, Henry was not going to leave Europe quietly. If Ford couldn’t have Ferrari, then he would just beat him at his own game.
Enzo Ferrari lived to race, and Ford’s GT40 program was founded to take the prestigious 24 Hours of LeMans away from the prancing horse.
It didn’t take Henry long to get his revenge. The GT40 MkII dominated the 1966 endurance race with a 1-2-3 finish. Not only was the victory controversial (**see explanation below), but also it was not complete. Ford’s name had been on the car, but the British (Lola) built the body and Australians (Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon) drove the winning car.
Henry Ford II set out to show Ferrari that the Americans could win at LeMans. Instead, all he had done so far was prove that an international effort can overtake Italy for top honors. So Ford went back into development, this time working with American firms to develop the GT40 MkIV. Although this car shared the GT40 name with the other three generations, the MkIV was a whole new car.
Extremely quick, and at least reliable enough to endure 24 hours of racing, the GT40 MkIV won the 1967 LeMans with Americans Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt behind the wheel. They beat the now legendary Ferrari P4s by four laps, and it was the first all-American win at LeMans. Gurney was so happy he sprayed the audience (which included Henry Ford II) with the victory champagne, beginning a tradition that continues today. The LeMans winning GT40 MkIV has since retired to The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.
Henry “the Deuce” was happy and satisfied. He was not so much interested in racing at LeMans as he was getting revenge on Enzo. By showing Ferrari that he was powerful enough take LeMans, Henry Ford II saw no more reason to sponsor endurance racing. The GT40 program was canceled, but that did not stop the cars from winning.
Even if there were no more cars built or new developments, changing rules at LeMans meant that the old MkI cars were once again competitive. The Ford GT40 would take top honors at the 1968 and 1969 races.
The GT40 is an icon that only existed when one titan pissed off another…Just imagine how much further the program could have gone if the Deuce actually liked LeMans.
**Once it was realized that the GT40 would sweep the 1966 race, Ford PR wanted a publicity photo of all three GT40s crossing the finish line in the same shot. Ken Miles and Denis Hulme were leading in the #1 car; McLaren and Amon’s #2 car was following closely behind; and Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson’s #5 car was a few laps behind. To get Ford’s desired 1-2-3 shot, the three cars had to purposely slow down and orchestrate a close finish for the photo. The #2 car made sure that the leading #1 car was the first to cross the line at the end of the race, but later French officials determined that the #2 actually covered more distance over the 24 period because the #2 car started the race much further back than the #1 car.