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Monday, July 7, 2014

The Ford GT40: America Takes on the World


Traditionally, US carmakers have a different approach to performance vehicles than our friends across the pond. The Europeans favor what may be called the “supermodel” philosophy: keep the package small and shed as much weight as possible.
We Yanks, on the other hand, don’t mind a few pounds as much, so long as a good chunk of that mass is taken up by a bad-ass engine. Sometimes our school of thought has borne greater fruit; other times theirs has. But, during a glorious four-year period in the 1960s, there was no doubt that the New World had it all over the Old.

The GT40 was built by decree of Henry Ford II, who wanted a Le Mans win for his company so bad he could taste it. He wanted to beat Ferrari, a company that Ford almost purchased in the years leading up to this point. After months of involvement, Ferrari backed out at the last second, which incensed the “Deuce.”
The first version, the Mk I, petered out in 1965 with transmission woes. Ford and Shelby American spent the next year licking their wounds and redesigning the car. Their efforts led to American victories from 1966 through 1969. The GT40 finished 1, 2, 3 in ’66. It also took 1, 2, 3, and 5th place at the first 24-hour Daytona Continental.


Between ’65 and ’66 the designers chopped 50 lbs. off the big 427 V-8’s weight by using aluminum heads and other innovations. They revised and reinforced the suspension and other critical components.

 The GT40 Mk II that made the trip to the Continent for the rematch had an aluminum chassis, fiberglass doors, and hinged rear and front sections. With a top race speed of 205 mph and average speed of 125.4 mph, it rode away from the contest with a reputation as a Ferrari killer, easily dominating the Italian automaker’s P3.


To comply with Le Mans rules, Ford had to build a limited number of street-legal versions GT40s. It made seven, under the Mk III name and powered by a tamer engine.

  The Mk III was no supercar. But it did offer those with deep pockets the chance to share in America’s glory at Le Mans, when we proved we could stand up to Europe’s best and walk away with the ultimate prize.