The Ford GT40 demonstrated how a spurned corporate boss could produce a masterpiece
You can say Enzo Ferrari was directly responsible for bringing many classic sports cars to the road—and only some of them with Ferrari badges. The cantankerous old man famously spurred the creation of the Lamborghini brand by insulting Ferruccio Lamborghini after the latter had complained about issues with his Ferrari. But one of the biggest shake-ups ever attributed to Enzo was when, at the last minute, he canceled a deal to sell the Ferrari company to Henry Ford II, fearing the American would ruin Ferrari’s racing program. After having spent millions arranging the deal, Henry was naturally furious, and demanded that his company build a racing car to utterly demolish the feisty Italian.
As anyone who wanted to win in Europe did, Henry turned to the Brits. Unfortunately, the legendary Colin Chapman wasn’t interested, so Ford was forced to co-opt Lola Cars’ radical mid-engined racing program instead. With the help of ex-Aston Martin team manager John Wyer, Ford developed the Lola Mark 6 racer into the GT40. It was a marvelously advanced racing car with a British chassis, a Ford V8 and an ultra-low 40-inch roofline (hence the “40” in the name), which combined to give it amazing speed. A perfect recipe for success.
Except it wasn’t. The program suffered from terrible reliability issues, and Ford dumped Wyer for American racing legend Carroll Shelby, whose team redesigned the car as the Mark II, equipping it with the famous “427” 7.0-liter V8 and a heavy-duty gearbox with gears from a full-size sedan. After a few more teething problems, the car went on to dominate the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and again in 1967 with the upgraded Mark IV.
Then Le Mans changed the rules to throttle back the big V8 engines, at which point Wyer, who had finally worked the kinks out of the Mark I, re-entered the obsolete prototype and won Le Mans in 1968 and 1969. After this, the Porsche 917s came into their own and entered their own period of racing dominance, with Ford unwilling to continue its racing program, having proven a point so thoroughly to Ferrari.
As a racing car, the GT40 reigned supreme. As a road car, it was compromised by its raw nature, clunky gearbox and ultra-low roofline, which handicapped taller drivers. It was brutal to drive, and as hot as Hades inside. But such was its mystique that though only a hundred-odd units were built in the ’60s, over a hundred more were built from spare components and engines left lying around. And that’s not counting replicas and continuation series made by various companies around the world.
That includes Ford itself, which decided it wanted in on the nostalgia in 2004, producing a brand-new car on the GT40’s 40th birthday. But while original GT40s regularly fetch millions of dollars on the auction block, the new car is worth only a tenth as much. That’s because, thanks to modern crash regulations and a taller roofline, the GT will forever be four inches too tall to be an actual GT40. Pity.