Welcome to another addition of our Ford Addict Throwback series! A place where we talk about our favorite Ford vehicles from the past, as well as entertaining history lessons too! Today’s post is one of the latter. In honor of Ford’s victory in the LM GTE Pro Category at the 2016 24 Hours of LeMans, we’d like to tell the tale of Ford at the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans, which occurred 50 years ago!
However, this story starts three years earlier, in 1963. Enzo Ferrari (yes, THE Enzo Ferrari) was interested in selling his company to Ford. Ford Motor Company had spent a substantial amount of money in an audit of Ferrari’s assets and operations, and was determined to buy the sports car maker. Ferrari disagreed with Ford’s policy regarding open-wheel racing, and out of spite, backed out of the deal at almost the last second. Henry Ford II was angered, and demanded that Ford’s racing division build a car that could embarrass Ferrari in front of the world-endurance racing circuit, a series of races Ferrari was victorious in.
Between 1963-1965, Ford negotiated with other sport car markers to build this Ferrari-beating car, including Lotus. Ford eventually worked with Eric Broadley, British racecar maker Lola’s owner and designer. Two Lola GT racecars were used for development. A team that consisted of ex-Aston Martin racing manager John Wyer, and Ford Engineer Roy Lunn, were called in to help on the project. By late 1963, Ford Advanced Vehicles, Ltd. was established as a subsidiary to make the GT40.
Lunn was the main designer of the first “GT/101”, which featured a 4.2L Fairlane engine. However, many complications arose during the 1964 race season, which eventually led to dismal results. After the 1964 Le Mans race, Ford went back to the drawing board, and Ferrari began to take notice. Wyer was replaced after the 1964 Season by a man from Texas named Carroll Shelby. Shelby was no novice to racing, any Ford Addict knows that, and went right to work on the new GT40.
The 1965 race season wasn’t great either, but Shelby had won Ford a victory in the GT40’s first race, which showed tremendous signs of optimism. The trials and errors of the 1965 season we noted and fixed when 1966 came around. The MkII GT40, with its 7-litre V8, took Positions 1, 2, and 3 at the 24 Hours of Sebring race, then 1-2-3 finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring (where apparently Shelby threatened his drivers with a hammer because of their tendency to race each other. True Story). Then in June came the big race in Ferrari territory: the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans.
The GT40 was successful in the race, and was completely killing Ferrari at their own game. Toward the end of the race, the Ford GT’s were in the front of the pack, and causing a bit of competition between the drivers. With the GT40 program on the brink of success, one thing began to cloud the drivers judgement… Who would win? The brainstorming began, and a decision needed to be made fast. They thought, should the drivers be allowed to race each other, potentially risking a crash or breakdown – or do we tell the drivers how to win, providing unfair advantage to one person over the others. Or since the cars had such a massive lead, they could arrange a tie, with the cars crossing the line at the same time. Ford’s PR guy, Leo Beebe, saw this as an irresistible way to really make Ferrari look bad. The choice was made! However, the finish didn’t work like that, since the original starting distance was taken into account. But Ford still won! The Drivers crossing the line were Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon, Ken Miles/Denis Hulme, and Ronnie Bucknum/Dick Hutcherson.
The Ford GT40 program kept going on with success and tragedy, as it raced in future seasons, but also took the life of Ken Miles in an accident during testing of the MkIV. The legacy lived on and was eventually revived in 2005 for Ford’s 100th Anniversary. Ford has brought the GT back for the 2017 model year, and raced it in LeMans again, and you guessed it, they won again. The legend of the GT continues…
…Oh and Ferrari? They still haven’t been able to win at LeMans since.