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The battle between Ford and Ferrari

Ford versus Ferrari

In the 95 years since the first Le Mans 24 Hours, few battles have captured the imagination as did the Ford versus Ferrari saga in the 1960s. Ferrari had won the French classic seven times since 1949, the last four in succession, and now US automobile giant Ford wanted a piece of the action.

Ford vs Ferrari

They were both family businesses, but Ferrari was a small Italian hand-built sportscar constructor, delivering 600 cars per year; Ford was a dynastic conglomeration rolling 1,200 cars per day off its River Rouge production lines alone, never mind its other three plants.

Aware what effect winning Le Mans had on car sales – as not only Ferrari, but Mercedes, Jaguar and Aston Martin had discovered – Henry Ford II first bankrolled Texan Carroll Shelby to race Ford-engined Cobras, up against Ferrari’s 250GTO.  In the spring of 1963 ‘The Deuce’ and his top managers went to the Sebring 12 Hours to see their Cobras sweep the board; what they saw instead was a Ferrari 1-2-3-4-5-6. “That’s the way to go racing,” said Ford. “Why don’t we buy those red cars?”

Enzo Ferrari

I set out to explore this battle of the dynasties over the Le Mans 24 Hours in my book Ford GT40 MkII – the Remarkable History of 1016 (Porter Press), about the car which helped Ford to win Le Mans; the story has now become a major Hollywood movie to be released by 20th Century Fox this autumn, with Matt Damon and Christian Bale playing the roles of Shelby and his test driver, Englishman Ken Miles.

Henry Ford II did indeed try to buy Ferrari, intending to put his Blue Oval on the Italian sportscars, but was rebuffed by Enzo Ferrari, who refused to cede control despite a $15 million offer. So Ford decided to build his own Le Mans cars, and enlisted some of the top people in the sport – Aston Martin’s John Wyer, Lola’s Eric Broadley and drivers such as Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill, Richie Ginther and Masten Gregory – to come up with the seminal GT40.

Le Mans GT40

The first year, 1964, ended in ignominy – Ford lost Le Mans to Ferrari as its three cars dropped out one-by-one. By the end of the season it had contested four races with nine cars, yet failed to post a single finish. So for 1965 Ford’s Leo Beebe ordered that the programme be removed from Wyer’s UK-based Ford Advanced Vehicles operation, and given to Shelby, who had won Le Mans in 1959 for Aston Martin under Wyer, but was now retired from driving.

Shelby brought on board as his test driver acerbic Englishman Ken Miles, a WW2 tank driver who was never afraid to speak his mind, and whom away from the track was something of a hellraiser. Over the next 12 months they worked to improve the 4.7-litre V8-powered GT car and its fragile Colotti transaxle. Miles won Shelby American’s first two races, the Daytona 2000 Kms (with Lloyd Ruby) and the Sebring 12 Hours (with Bruce McLaren), but Le Mans 1965 was another disaster, all six Fords out by midnight with either transmission or head gasket failures.

Ford formed a committee – never a great idea – and sat down to learn what it could from its two failed Le Mans campaigns, while Ferrari celebrated nine victories in a row, happy it had not taken the American dollar two years earlier. Ford had a 7-litre Galaxie NASCAR engine which would give the GT40 more power with less stress, and decided to hedge its bets for the 1966 race by installing it in eight cars – now called Mk IIs – for three teams: Shelby, Holman & Moody, and Britain’s Alan Mann Racing.

exceptional cars Ford book

The chassis were still built by John Wyer at Slough in the UK, but were finished by Shelby American in Los Angeles. Chassis P/1016 was destined for Holman & Moody, but first Shelby requisitioned it as the workhorse to develop the 7-litre installation together with Ford’s heavy-duty T-44 gearbox.

As I relate in my book, it was Ken Miles who did the bulk of the driving, first at Ford’s high-speed test facility at Kingman, Arizona, and then in an eight-day test at Sebring in January 1966, just three weeks before the first-ever Daytona 24 Hours. Miles was assisted by H&M’s Ronnie Bucknum, and the pair worked through an exhaustive list of upgrades and modifications – particularly to brake systems and gearboxes – as they perfected the Mk II.

They came up with a race car which gave Ford a 1-2-3 at Daytona, boding well for Le Mans in June. But first there was Sebring, and any complacency disappeared when a power increase saw braking problems return, and only two of the Mk IIs finished – Dan Gurney had been leading in his Shelby Mk II when the engine blew on the final lap, and he was disqualified for pushing it over the line. Ford’s face was saved by Miles, who together with Lloyd Ruby took a lightweight GT40-based GTX-1 Spyder (built for Ford by McLaren in Britain) to the win. But there was a lot more work to do on the 7-litre cars if Ford was going to win Le Mans.

Ford secured 13 entries for the French classic through John Wyer’s connections with the organising Automobile Club de l’Ouest, but hedging its bets again, five of them would be small-block GT40s, run by privateers, “just in case.” Ford had brought 27 tons of freight to support its eight-car factory attack, including elaborate workbenches, machine tools, and even coffee and Coca-Cola machines. It had rented half of the workshop space at a Le Mans Peugeot dealership for its three official teams; the Mk IIs were prepared alongside customer 404s in for service.

Ford’s sheer numbers overwhelmed the opposition: Ferrari had just two factory 330SPs, supported by 365P2s run by Scuderia Francorchamps, Scuderia Filipinetti, NART and Maranello Concessionaires, while Porsche was present in strength, although in the 2-litre prototype class.

Ford GT40

Bruce McLaren was still on the programme, and had been paired with fellow Kiwi Chris Amon in chassis #1046, while Dan Gurney was paired with Jerry Grant in #1047, and Miles with his successful Daytona partner Ruby in #1015. Gurney took pole and initially ran away with the race, but after holing its radiator, the engine blew on Sunday morning. Most of the Ferraris were by now long gone, only two running, in 8th and 10th places, behind a fleet of four Porsche 906s.

That left McLaren, Miles and Ronnie Bucknum in the #1016 development car in positions 1-2-3, which is how they ran to the flag. So Ford finally took the holy grail at its third attempt, but not without controversy. Ford’s Leo Beebe had ordered a dead heat between McLaren and Miles, but at the last moment Bruce accelerated and took the chequered flag a car’s length ahead of the Englishman. Bucknum was with them, but 12 laps down.

Miles, who had put so much into getting Ford to this point, was inwardly seething. But publicly he backed Ford’s call, saying “they’re running the cars, it’s their money. They’re paying the piper, they can call the tune.” Bruce kept a diplomatic silence about the whole affair...

Now Ford could start celebrating, booking front pages ads all over the USA. The eight factory cars had been painted in Ford range colours at the behest of the marketing department, presenting a glittering array of red, gold, silver, blue and pearlescent white liveries, with one black. Perversely, it was the black car which won.

Ford would return in 1967 with the Mk IV, an aerodynamic aluminium-honeycomb version of the Ford GT which Miles had helped to develop, but he would not be there; two months after Le Mans he was killed whilst testing it at Riverside when it flipped end-over-end at 180mph.

GT40 Photo Gallery

Dan Gurney honoured Miles’ work by taking the Shelby Red 1 to victory in the 24 Hours with AJ Foyt; he had finished Le Mans only once in nine starts, but had a gut feeling this would be his year, and on the way to the win ran it further and faster than any car in history, covering 3251.57 miles at an average speed of 135.48mph, pit-stops included.

On the podium, the Californian shook the magnum of champagne and sprayed the crowd, starting a trend that has continued through the years since. Some years later, Gurney told me: “I never thought about it at the time. Hank the Deuce was there with his new bride, I think on their honeymoon, when I started spraying him. I’m not sure if he liked it or not, but he was a good sport about it, and AJ and I had a wonderful time spraying champagne. It seemed the right way to finish a perfect weekend.”

It was the first and only all-American victory at Le Mans: an all-American car, prepared by an American team and driven by American drivers. Brute force had beaten Italian sophistication for the second time, at which point Ford withdrew. But there would be two more Ford GT40 victories with John Wyer’s Gulf team, reverting to the small-block V8s, in 1968 and 1969. Only Ferrari or Ford won the Le Mans 24 Hours throughout the Sixties.

By Mark Cole 

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