The Exhilarating History of Ford’s GT40

An American high-performance endurance racing car

When the box office hit movie Ford v Ferrari came out, many Americans received their first look at one of the most treasured race cars in the country’s history, Ford’s GT40. Let’s take a look back at the origins and journey of this beloved vehicle.

If you were a US fan of auto racing at the dawn of the 1960s, you didn’t have much to brag about. Briggs Cunningham had made his valiant attempts at Le Mans in the early ‘50s (many of his cars are now on part of Miles Collier Collections, on display at the Revs Institute). The likes of Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill had wins in Europe (including wins at Le Mans in 1959 and 1958, 1961 and 1962 respectively) but Americans only found out about them several months later in Road & Track.

Then Henry Ford II —“The Deuce”— decided that Ford should win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After a failed attempt to buy Ferrari, the Detroit automaker looked for a way into the sport. That idea led Ford to Eric Broadley, a British entrepreneur, engineer and Founder and Chief Designer of Lola Cars — the motor racing manufacturer and engineering company. Eric Broadley created a mid-engine, Ford-powered sports car called the Lola GT. David Hobbs and Richard Attwood raced one at Le Mans in 1963, while we saw one in the US, raced by John Mecom’s team.

Ford bought a pair of the GTs and hired Broadley, John Wyer and Roy Lunn to create a Ford version, the GT40. The name? Naturally, GT is for Grand Turismo, while the 40 refers to the car’s height in inches. Officially the car was labeled Ford GT, the GT40 being more of a nickname.

Incidentally, Ford never registered the GT40 name. When the first modern Ford GT was developed in the early 2000s, it was to be called GT40, but guess what? Someone else had acquired the copyright and wanted big bucks for Ford to use it. Hence, the modern Ford GT, not GT40.

Initially powered by small-block Ford V-8 engines of 4.2 liters, and then 4.7 liters, the GT40 first raced at the Nürburgring in May of 1964. The new vehicle would demonstrate to be very quick. California friends Phil Hill and Richie Ginther proved that at Le Mans, with Ginther initially leading the race and Hill setting the fastest race lap in the GT40. But reliability eluded Ford, and for the 1965 season the team was under Carroll Shelby’s command.

Things started out promising that year with a win at Daytona 2000 Kilometers and a second place finish at Sebring, but the rest of the season was disappointing.

Now Ford was also racing a second generation of the GT40. Labeled Mk IIs, they were powered by the 7.0-liter Ford big-block V-8 engine with a beefed-up version of the GT40 chassis and gearbox. Both versions raced at Le Mans. Phil Hill had the fastest qualifying speed and race laps, but the six GT40s entered fell victim to head gasket, clutch and gearbox troubles — the best lasted only seven hours. Ferrari continued its now-six-year stretch of wins at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Development continued, and progress became significant in 1966. At Daytona, now a 24-hour race, the Mk IIs finished first, second, third and fifth place. They took the top three spots again at Sebring, with a big-block X-1 roadster as the winner, an Mk II in second, and a small-block GT40 in third place. The momentum was now in Ford’s favor.

Finally came the 1966 Le Mans (portrayed in Ford v Ferrari), with 13 Ford GTs against eight Ferraris, all with winning potential. Henry Ford II was there and finally got his win in the 24-hour race with Mk IIs dominating, taking the top three places in a picturesque and controversial group finish at the flag. None of the major Ferraris lasted past the 17th hour. Ford would go on to win the 1966 Manufacturers Championship for its performance across the World Sportscar Championship races.

In 1967, it was time for more changes. Ford was developing a new 7.0-liter race machine called the J-car, so named because it fit the FIA’s Appendix J racing rules. This design had an aluminum honeycomb chassis and new boxy aerodynamics. Sadly, Ford’s team driver Ken Miles, who is featured in Ford v Ferrari, was killed at Riverside Raceway while testing a J-car, and a redesign followed. The restructuring led to another big-block GT40 called the Mark IV, which is an impressive piece of racing machinery.

The Mk IVs didn’t race at Daytona, which was a Ferrari 330P4 one-two-three sweep, but got a strong start with a win by Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren in the only Mk IV entered at the  12 hours of Sebring. At the finish their lead over the second place car, a GT40 Mk II, was just over 12 laps.

There were 10 various GT40s at Le Mans in June of 1967, with four of them Mk IVs entered by Shelby and Holman & Moody. It came to be one of the most written about sports car races in history, in part because of a 3:35 am accident in which three GT40s, including a Mk IV driven by Mario Andretti, were taken out of the race. It was likely the biggest crash in Andretti’s career.

The happier story for Ford was the combination of Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt in an Mk IV. An unlikely pairing, Gurney convinced Foyt they needed to take a rather steady pace, not looking for a lap record. At one point, Gurney was being harassed by Mike Parkes in a Ferrari 330P4. He stopped on the side of the track, and Parkes pulled in behind him. But after a short period, he took off. Gurney waited a moment longer, then left and took up that quick-but-steady pace. The pair won four laps ahead of Ferrari. This was an excellent win for Gurney, Foyt, Henry the Deuce and Ford. The historic GT40 is on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

While this was the last race for the GT40 Mk IV, there was still mileage left in the Mk II. Specifically, an Mk II-B. The Mk IIs built by Shelby were unofficially Mk II-As. The versions created by Holman & Moody were Mk II-Bs. One of the cars in that massive 3:35 AM crash at Le Mans was Mk II-B serial number P/1047, driven by Roger McClusky. There was one technical problem. The Mk II-B with that serial number was entered in the 12 Hours of Reims event in two weeks. Holman & Moody shipped the car home to Charlotte, North Carolina, removed the chassis plate, and put it on another Mk II-B, P/1031, which had been a mechanical DNF (did not finish) at Le Mans.

With its revised identification, the new P/1047 was flown back to France and taken east to Reims. In it, Guy Ligier and Jo Schlesser won the 12-hour race, the last win by a GT40 Mk II and the only victory by an Mk II-B. This famed two-serial number GT40 Mk II-B is on display at Revs Institute in Naples, Florida, as part of The Miles Collier Collections.

By 1968, the rules changed. Speeds were considered too high, and the FIA limited pure race engines to 3.0 liters and production-based powerplants to 5.0 liters. These new rules caused Ford to back out. Was this the end of the GT40s? Not so fast.

Remember John Wyer? He still had original GT40s, and had modified some into Mirage M1s for the 1967 season. With the change in rules for 1968, he created the M2 and M3 prototypes with BRM and Ford DFV engines, but they weren’t successful. So Wyer resurrected a pair of Ford GT40s, and painted in the blue and orange of Gulf Oil took on a strengthening Porsche factory team. His J.W. Automotive brought Ford the 1968 World Sportscar Championship and another win at Le Mans. Porsche had the power to take the championship in 1969, but Wyer won again at Le Mans. Better yet, the 1969 winner was with the same GT40 chassis 1075 that had won the previous year in 1968. This year Jackie Ickx duked it out with Hans Herrmann right to the checkered flag.

And now to the GT40 Mk III, all seven of them. This model was an attempt to build a road-going version of the race car. There were many challenges as a slightly taller nose made it difficult to get four headlamps to legal height. The back of the vehicle was enlarged in an attempt to include luggage space, and the shift lever was located in the middle. The small-block V-8 engine offers around 305 horsepower. Both left and right-hand drive versions were created.

Because of various changes from Mk I to Mk II, as happens with race cars, chassis number allocations, etc., it’s somewhat ironic that the GT40 Mk IIIs are the rarest type.

You can get a look at two GT40s in The Miles Collier Collections at Revs Institute in Naples, FL. One is a 1966 4.7-liter Mk I once used by Gulf Oil’s Grady Davis as a road car, but then converted to a racer that finished sixth overall at Daytona in 1967. The other is, of course, the dual serial number big-block Mk II-B that won at Reims.

What you’ve read here only touches the surface of the Ford GT40 history. There are loads of books on the subject. And don’t even think of Googling “Ford GT40 videos” unless you have plenty of time on your hands. Then again, why not?