Collection in action: a Ford GT40

In the wake of this year’s Le Mans, which was won, at long last, by Toyota, Mike Monk goes back a half-century to a Ford GT40 with a split personality…


In Le Mans history, the 1960s was both a period of sports car innovation and a Ferrari versus Ford conflict. The battle began in 1963 when Henry Ford heard that Enzo Ferrari was interested in selling his company, which at the time coincided with Henry’s desire to race at Le Mans, and Ferrari had won the classic race in 1960, ’61, and ’62. Following an expensive audit of Ferrari’s assets, a Ford buy-out looked to be going through until Enzo discovered he would not be allowed to control the motor racing division, and so he pulled the plug on the deal at the eleventh hour. Enraged, Henry set about beating Enzo at his own game and had talks with Cooper, Lotus and Lola with a view to creating a Ferrari-beating Le Mans car.


Cooper and Lotus were not really viable options, so Henry and Lola’s Eric Broadley agreed on a one-year contract that included Broadley supplying two of the advanced Lola Mk.6 GTs to Ford to use as a basis. John Wyer joined from Aston Martin and Ford Dearborn engineer Roy Lunn was assigned to the project at a new subsidiary titled Ford Advanced Vehicles established in Slough, England, which was to be overseen by Harley Copp.

The GT40 first raced at the Nürburgring 1000 km in May 1964 as a prelude to the eagerly awaited appearance at Le Mans, where three cars were entered. All retired, and following more dismal showings, Carroll Shelby took over from Wyer. A maiden win at Daytona in February 1965 augured well, but the rest of the season was another failure. Six GT40s comprising works and private entries took part at Le Mans and all failed to finish. Ferrari was still on a roll, winning again as it had in 1963 and ’64, making it six victories in a row.


After licking its wounds, the team re-grouped and set about the 1966 season in style, scoring a 1-2-3 at the Daytona 24-Hour in February, a 1-2-3 at the Sebring 12-Hour – and then came Le Mans. Remarkably, 7,0-litre Mk.II GT40s posted another 1-2-3 in 1967. A 4,9-litre Mk.I ‘P’, chassis number P1075, won in 1968 and in 1969, the first time the same car had won Le Mans twice.


The original GT40 Mk.I was fitted with first a 4,2-litre (255 ci) engine but soon after a 4,7 (289 ci). The Mk.II looked similar but in many ways was different and was powered by a 7,0-litre (427 ci) motor. The Mk.III was a road car and only seven were built. A lightweight, ‘bread van’ J-Car was developed on a different chassis with the 7,0-litre engine but was a design failure – only nine were made. A GT40 Mk.IV followed using a reinforced J-Car chassis but with redesigned bodywork. And 40 Mk.V official continuation models with the ‘P’ suffix completed the GT40’s development history.


The Woods Trust GT40 currently on view at FMM is labelled as GT40P chassis 1048, but therein hangs a tale. The car is a Mk.II fitted with a 289 ci (4 736 cm3) V8 mated with a ZF 5-speed gearbox. Pre-delivery it was tested by Innes Ireland at Goodwood on 18 May 1966 before being despatched to Umberto Maglioli’s Brescia Corse racing team on 24 May with the British registration number PKX852D.  Painted red with black trim, it rode on Borrani 6½-inch wide front and 8-inch wide rear alloy wheels with nickel-copper spokes. FAV 8½- and 10-inch wide rims were also supplied. Rear brake ducts were an additional feature.


Throughout its life it was not a particularly successful car, often entered in races but not starting and failing to finish on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, it finished third in class and seventh overall on its debut at the Trento Bondone hillclimb in July 1966 driven by Mario Casoni. He followed this up with a new lap record and pole position in its next race, the Enna Cup in Sicily in August, but suspension problems caused a DNF. However, it did win one race, taking the 1967 Enna Cup in the hands of the highly talented Italian Nino Vaccarella, who averaged 210 km/h over the 300-km distance. But the car was destined for a fiery existence…

Brescia Corse sold the car to Ferrari sports car tuning specialist Willy König at the end of 1967. The German widened the rear bodywork, flared the sills and added canard fins to the sides of the nose. The car was raced at various venues without success and was crashed by Jean-Pierre Rouget in the 1969 GP de la Corniche in Casablanca. In 1971 the rear bodywork was modified again and on April 18 the car took part in the Le Mans 3-Hour driven by Jean-Claude Guérie and Rouget, in so doing becoming the last GT40 to be driven at Le Mans in period. Sadly, though, the car caught fire and was completely gutted. The burnt-out chassis was purchased by Geurie and rebuilt over the next 12 months, finished in metallic light green, before being sold to Michel Dagorne in ’72. Then in ’73 it was purchased by Jean-Pierre Van Den Doorn who sent it to Franco Sbarro for restoration in December ’79. And here the story of chassis 1048 gets intriguing.


In 1980 Sbarro sold the original GT40P 1048 to Guiseppe Lucchini with a repro FoMoCo chassis plate. Three years later, Sbarro shipped a newly-constructed GT40P 1048 to Van den Doorn with the original chassis plate. Lucchini subsequently commissioned noted GT40 expert Ronnie Spain to inspect his car as he suspected that Van den Dorn’s ‘restored’ car was likely not the original. Spain’s inspection of Lucchini’s car verified it as being the original car and provided a report on its authenticity. This information was also sent to Van den Doorn, who subsequently instigated a lawsuit against Sbarro. Van den Doorn was awarded two Lola T70 replicas and cash as compensation from Sbarro, as well as retaining the restored car. Lucchini was now recognised as the legal owner of GT40P 1048.


Lucchini kept the car for a while before it passed on to Vintage Racing Motors Inc from whom the Woods Trust purchased this now verified original GT40P chassis 1048. It has the 289 ci engine fitted with Gurney/Weslake heads and Weber carburettors.


Now it is common knowledge that the ‘40’ in GT40 stands for the height of the car – 40 inches (1 016 mm) – which is below my waist height, so getting in was potentially going to be a challenge, but with the top of the doors cut into the roof it was fairly easy to step over the wide sill and drop into the perforated seat. Without a helmet headroom was not an issue but the driving position is very laid back so the harness needs to be pulled tight to prevent sliding forward. The top of the car’s nose is just visible above the base of the windscreen but the view forward is panoramic. The rear-view mirrors are ideally placed on the front wheelarches.

There is a bit of a procedure in firing up the car, but when that V8 does grunt into life with the characteristic V8 rumble, you know there is something special idling away just behind your head. The pedals are offset to the left and the short gear lever moves through a well-worn gate. The Momo steering wheel feels right and pulling away is effortless thanks to around 500 N.m of torque being available from the pushrod overhead-valve V8.


Once all the fluids had warmed up, it was time to push on. In this guise, the engine pumps out 287 kW at 7 000 r/min, and as the revs rose so did the mechanical din – and my pulse rate. The rate of acceleration is impressively strong, the sensation increased by sitting so low to the ground. Weighing just under a tonne, the car has a top speed of around 310 km/h depending on the chosen gearbox ratios. Once into a rhythm, driving such classics as this GT40 becomes a memorable experience, conjuring up all manner of images of past racing heroes tackling iconic events at famous race tracks around the world. The term ‘relaxed racing’ came to mind but that is not to do justice to the drivers who drove these cars for hours at a time, day and night in all weathers – the true definition of sports car endurance racing.


Although the racing rubberware was old and needed respect, the grip was superb and a squeeze on the accelerator allowed for some entertaining progressive tail-end breakaway. Steering effort ranges from heavy at slow speeds to firm at higher velocities. Combined with seat-of-the-pants sensations provided by the all-independent suspension, the GT40 is very involving to drive. The massive brakes are reassuringly effective.


After being snubbed by Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford set out to beat the Prancing Horse at one of motor sport’s most iconic arenas, Les 24 heures du Mans,. After a shaky start, he did just that. In what was a golden age of sports car endurance racing, it was a costly but notable achievement. The proliferation of continuation models and replicas that have followed bear testimony to the GT40’s historic appeal and popularity. And GT40P 1048 is one of the most notorious…