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Here's the real story behind the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40

Roy Lunn was an incredible engineer: here's how his team helped create a legend

  1. It was born out of motorsport’s most infamous grudge.

    Following months of careful negotiation, Ford was ready to do a deal with Enzo Ferrari to purchase his company. The Old Man, as wily as he was, knew he needed some major investment, and Ford wanted to go endurance racing. By May 1963, a deal was on the table, bringing the US behemoth together with the Italian upstart to create road cars and competition machinery. But when Enzo, who may never have intended to sell at all, baulked at losing the autonomy he so cherished, he sent the Americans packing. Empty-handed on his return to Detroit, Ford’s point man, Don Frey, was told by Henry Ford II to ‘go to Le Mans, and beat his ass.’ Or so the legend goes.

    The result was the GT40, a car that most definitely is a legend. As impassive a motorsport legend as the statues on Easter Island, as looming a presence as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey – everyone knows that the GT40 cleaned up in 1960s sports car racing, but the fact that you’d probably struggle to name any of the winning drivers confirms the star power of this particular car.

  2. Yet its development was decidedly ad hoc, its engineering improvisational, and success far from guaranteed, not least because Ford as an organisation had precious little racing expertise when the boss issued his ultimatum. In fact, it was an expat Brit called Roy Lunn - who sadly passed away earlier this month - who had been involved with Aston Martin’s 1949 Le Mans effort and was running Ford’s advanced vehicle department, who got the gig. Lunn’s team had developed 1962’s Mustang concept, a forward-thinking, mid-engined, aluminium-bodied roadster (the pony car that arrived two years later was rather different).

    On June 12th, Lunn and Frey presented a confidential competition programme to Ford’s cigar-chomping execs, envisaging a mid-engined racecar called the GT40 (it stood just 40in high), and a road-going GT46 iteration. According to Preston Lerner’s new book on Ford’s big adventure, Lunn wanted to ‘create a high performance, two-seater sportscar prototype that, if produced in low volume, would neutalise the Corvette image’. Apparently it took five minutes to get sign-off, the other 55 being spent discussing the marketing strategy…

  3. Lunn was packed off back to Blighty, where a thriving homespun racing subculture and the urgency of the mission soon led him to Lola. As tiddly as the firm was, its racing car was the right configuration, had an aluminium body, and used a Ford V8. It was effectively a prototype GT40 in all but name.

    Lunn bought two, squirrelled away $1.7m from the Dearborn bean counters, hired ex-Aston Martin team boss John Wyer, and got to work. The Ford Advanced Vehicles HQ was in Slough, deemed, amazingly enough, a step up from Lola’s base in Bromley. Lola’s owner Eric Broadley soon clashed with Lunn, while Broadley’s deputy, Tony Southgate (who would go own to design numerous F1 cars, and the Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9), recalled that the Ford approach was somewhat uptight. ‘There was no deviating from the script. Well, motor racing is about as far removed from that as you can get.’

  4. Bruce McLaren was hired to evaluate a prototype in August 1963, and work swiftly progressed. The steel-bodied GT40 was heavy but durable, while a primitive computer program helped calibrate the suspension geometry. The first completed car, chassis no. GT/101, ran a Ford Fairlane-sourced 4.2-litre V8, but with an aluminium block and pushrods.

    Coventry-based Abbey Panels fabricated the body, and the whole thing was finished barely in time to make its flight from Heathrow to JFK ahead of a big unveiling the day before the New York auto show, in April 1964. ‘In going into GT racing, we feel we are accepting the toughest challenge presently available to the minds and talents of motor car builders,’ Ford boss Lee Iacocca told the press.

  5. The rest is history, but the glory sure took its sweet time arriving. A Le Mans test a few weeks later revealed severe high speed instability issues – the GT40 could do 200mph but wanted to get airborne above 170, this being very early days in the world of racing aero – and its first three competitive outings, in the Nürburgring 1000km, Le Mans 24 hours and Reims 12 hours, resulted in a bleak string of DNFs. Transatlantic discord saw the operation move to a firm called Kar-Kraft in Dearborn, and by the end of the year John Wyer, though still in charge of building GT40s, handed the job of racing them to an American ex-racer and legend in his own lunchtime, Carroll Shelby.

    His Shelby American outfit and decidedly more gung-ho ethos gave the GT40 programme the character and performance boost it needed. Its HQ covered an area of 12.5 acres near LA International Airport, on a site previously used for building military jets, and many of the staff were real good ’ole boys. As A.J Baime writes in his book Go Like Hell, Shelby had an idiosyncratic management style. ‘How would you like to work in a snake pit for a real snake?’ he asked while interviewing a new secretary. (He also dismissed drivers who fussed endlessly over their chassis set-up as ‘fiddle-fuddlers’.)

  6. Out went the small-block 4.2-litre 255 cu in V8, in came the 7.0-litre, 427 cu in unit Shelby had used so famously in the Cobra, matched to a new ZF transmission. At Daytona in 1965, the MkII GT40 scored its first win, with Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby at the wheel. A podium in Sebring followed a month later, but the rest of the year and Le Mans was a disaster, all five GT40s recording DNFs. (To make matters worse, Ferrari scored its ninth and to date last overall win at Le Mans, the 250 LM’s driver line-up including future F1 world champion Jochen Rindt.)

    But 1966 saw the good times finally kick in, across a mix of works and privateer entries. There was a 1-2-3 finish at Daytona; the 7.0-litre V8 was now producing 463bhp, enough grunt to see almost 200mph on the track’s banking. Miles and Ruby won the race again: ‘The Mark II was a really good car,’ Ruby noted. ‘It had lots of power, was fast and handled damned good.’ Thirteen Fords raced at Sebring; Ken Miles won, passing Dan Gurney who was forced to push his car across the finish line after it expired on the final corner (yes, it really did happen).

  7. Then came the sensational 1-2-3 win at Le Mans, for which Ford’s preparation included running a development engine on a dyno for 48 hours of simulated laps at La Sarthe, gearchanges and all, while a further 12 engines were race-prepared. Ford assembled an army for Le Mans that year – 100 personnel, nine cars (including a spare), seven spare engines, and 21 tonnes of spare parts, all moved around in a giant truck too big to fit in some of the tighter French side streets. Henry Ford II was there, anticipating a memorable return on his by now considerable investment; in fact, he handed Leo Beebe, head of Ford’s racing programmes, a business card inscribed with a simple message: ‘You better win’. (Beebe kept it in his wallet for the rest of his life.)

    They did, but not without controversy. A rainy race eliminated the Ferraris overnight, and the GT40s had such a commanding lead by Sunday morning that the team ordered the front-runners to reduce their pace from the low 3m 30s to 4.00 mins – more difficult than it sounds. A bungled staged photo finish upset Ford racing stalwart Ken Miles, who had to settle for second place, behind Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren, who had started slightly further back and were therefore deemed to have covered the greater distance in the same time. Ford’s top brass didn’t care: they had their Le Mans victory at last, all the sweeter because the highest placed Ferrari was eighth, a distant 47 laps behind. (Distressingly, Miles was killed two months later, while testing the new lightweight J-car ‘breadvan’ prototype, which had a new chassis and heavily reworked aero).

  8. A.J Foyt and Dan Gurney won Le Mans the following year in the new Mark IV iteration – a highly evolved J-car, that had proven much faster during testing at Ford’s giant Kingman Arizona facility – comfortably defeating the Ferrari 330 P4s (a 1-2-3 win for the Italians at Daytona that year may have offered some solace), and the radically bewinged Chaparral 2F. (Gurney is credited with being the first driver to spray Champagne in the podium celebration.)

    Job done, for Ford high command anyway. For ’68, John Wyer resurrected his race team, secured sponsorship from Gulf Oil, and hooked up with a guy called John Willment to establish JW Automotive Engineering. FIA rule changes effectively reversed the GT40 back into contention, and Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi – the late Jules’ uncle – took another, but this time unexpected Le Mans win.

  9. The last triumph came in 1969, with Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver scoring one of the greatest race victories ever, in the year that Porsche’s 917 debuted: Ickx led Hans Hermann’s Porsche 908 across the finish line, roughly 120m ahead of the German after 372 laps. A proper photo finish, this time. Amazingly, he was driving the same chassis that had won the race the year before. (He also protested the Le Mans start after the death of Porsche privateer John Woolfe, who crashed at Maison Blanche and died because he wasn’t wearing a seat-belt.) Is that cool enough for you?

    (NB: we know that the car was never officially known as the GT40. But can we all just agree that that’s the best name? We also know that many more great people were involved in the car’s development than we have space available to credit)

  10. Ford GT40

    Year: 1964-1969

    Designed by: Roy Lunn, Eric Broadley, Phil Remington

    Key Drivers: Ken Miles, Lloyd Ruby, Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Pedro Rodriguez, Jacky Ickx, Jackie Oliver

    Engine: 4.2, 4.7, 4.9 and 7.0-litres (the 7.0-litre 427cu version produced 485bhp, 475lb ft of torque)

    Transmission: Ford T-44 four-speed manual

    Weight: 1207kg (Mark II)

    Top speed: up to 215mph

    Stand-out moment: 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966

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