America's First Le Mans Victory

Revisiting the 1966 Ford GT40 that won France's grueling 24-hour street race
November 7, 2016Words by Ittai GeigerPhotos by Ittai Geiger

Last year I headed down to Monterey to cover their world famous “Car Week,” the annual, week-long event that’s been ongoing for over half a century, with crowds growing by the thousands each year. It’s as simple as showing up on Monday, finding a spot at one of the cafes downtown, and sipping espresso as you watch the parade of multi-million dollar cars roll by - cars that to the untrained eye seem merely old and shiny.

I had the pleasure of spending a day at Laguna Seca for the Monterey Historic races, where race cars that should be preserved in air-locked cases were being pushed to their limits. The following day was champagne with automotive design gurus and former Formula 1 champions, admiring machines that most did not believe still existed, at the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance.

We’re back this year in Pebble Beach to honor the Ford GT40 and the 50th anniversary of a true American story; winning the most coveted endurance race in the world against Europe’s finest at the 24 hours of Le Mans, with a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finish. Not to mention a four year dominance from 1966 until 1969.

The restored Ford GT40 P/1046 on display at Monterey's Car Week


The 24 Hours of Le Mans

An hour or two of this course is enough to put a driver and his car into a wall or to make him call it quits

Leading up to the early 60’s, only a few races established themselves as global proving grounds for drivers, machines, and the manufactures that built those machines. The 24 Hours of Le Mans (LEH-m-auh) stands out from the rest.

Le Mans began in 1923. Only the brave take on the 9 mile road course in the heart of France, zipping through rural two lane roads, brick and midlevel cobble on either side, with the Mulsanne straight covering a straight shot distance of  four miles. Down this straight, vehicles reach upwards of 200 miles per hour and drivers never lift off of full throttle for up to three minutes.

An hour or two of this course is enough to put a driver and his car into a wall or to make him call it quits, but this endurance race lasts 24 hours. Just reaching the finish line is a remarkable achievement.

Today we idolize the legacy of Porsche, Jaguar and any other car maker that not only survived the grueling test, but won the race. Ferrari for example, won six years in a row starting in 1960. Meanwhile American manufacturers like Ford were no match for the elite European brands until an unexpected event in 1966.

Henry Ford II at Le Mans


Ford vs Ferrari

There are no other three syllable words that spark as much desire as the word “Ferrari.” Enzo Ferrari was a man of few words who ruled with an iron piston, crushing the competition in almost any race his vehicles competed in. He was also a man that believed there was no need for aerodynamics, just the power of a well-engineered motor that would rocket it’s pilot to victory. We can all agree that today Ferrari’s brand represents luxury and speed, and this was no different in the 60’s.

He was also a man that believed there was no need for aerodynamics, just the power of a well-engineered motor that would rocket it’s pilot to victory. 

In 1963 Henry Ford II was head honcho of the Ford Motor Company and found himself with the chance to merge Ferrari into his family’s business, therefore gaining the motorsport prowess that Ferrari had been able to establish. What seemed like a promising business opportunity soon turned into a standoff that would leave a ripple in the automotive space-time continuum. We remember Henry Ford II not just for jumpstarting the GT40 program, but for his courage of taking on the greatest name in motorsports and ultimately creating the Ford factory-team racing model that’s still used today.

Ford went after Ferrari where it would hurt them most.
 

THE GT40

Effective immediately - a racing program would be put in place, with the first set of GT40s attacking Ferrari head on in 1964.

The P/1046 propelled itself to a top speed of 210 miles per hour down the Mulsanne straight with McLaren behind the wheel - the fastest any car had ever gone down the stretch.

Standing only 40 inches in height (literally), the GT40 was first fitted with a 4.2-liter V8 Indy Car race motor in the middle of it’s chassis. The chassis and body were designed in Europe because no one in the US at the time knew how to build a proper mid-engine monocoque. After two years of failed attempts to bring Ferrari to it’s knees, Ford ordered the legendary Carol Shelby to work his magic. Shelby custom built and tested a 4.7-liter V8, but Ford later decided the 7.0-liter V8’s that were originally built for the NASCAR racing series would be the best option for the job. Shelby, however, was still put in charge of the racing operation.

Five evolutions of the GT40 competed at Le Mans, Mk I through Mk V with a handful of prototypes sprinkled in between, but the one that we remember most is the MkII that took the checkered flag in 1966, leaving Ferrari in the fresh French dust.

P/1046 was dressed in a black and silver livery that represented the colors of the New Zealand sporting colors, in part due to the two Kiwi’s piloting the beast - Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren. It packed a 427 cubic inch Ford big-block V8, pumping out 485hp and 475lb ft of Torque to the rear wheels, with a four speed manual transmission. Although American driver Dan Gurney set the lap record within just a few hours in a similar GT40, the P/1046 propelled itself to a top speed of 210 miles per hour down the Mulsanne straight with McLaren behind the wheel - the fastest any car had ever gone down the stretch. 

Standing inches from the car today, we see the Mk II just as Bruce McLaren would have 50 years ago. The level of detail in restoration is impeccable, as the current owner followed every step possible to recreate the original build process - down to the original paint errors seen in archive photos. With a slight crack of the throttle the original Holley carburetor opens, unleashing a symphony performance that only Shelby himself could conduct.

The owner replicated every detail, down to paint errors from archival photos, for his impeccable restoration


2016 – FORD GT WINS AGAIN AT LE MANS

It was a 1-2-3 finish just like 1966, with three Ford GT’s crossing the finish line.

Although major safety modifications have been made to the Le Mans race course, it is still used today as the ultimate battleground for humans and machines to test the limits of time and perseverance. There are two major “classes” of race car, each designating various regulations on what type of motor and body design can be used. The bottom class is as close to a road car you can get, while the top LMP1 prototype class might as well be comprised of space ships.

Ford saw GT’s in 2010 and 2011 hit the Le Mans field, but a third place finish in class was the best it could muster. This year Ford returned to Le Mans to take on Ferrari with a new GT, a brand new design and a brand new motor. After sunset and sunrise, 16 cars out of the 60 that entered saw their demise, while the 2016 Ford GT took top honors in its class on its maiden voyage. It was a 1-2-3 finish just like 1966, with three Ford GT’s crossing the finish line. 

If ever a sentence will remain echoing for generations of American motorsports fans, it will be those of Henry Ford II: “If that’s the way [Enzo Ferrari] want’s it… we’ll go out and whip his ass.”

Some might call it déjà vu, I call it destiny. [H]

 

Ittai Geiger is a local San Francisco car nerd and comedian. When he's not capturing a #streetfind, he's cruising around on his moto or putting in laps at the local kart track.

 

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