Ford GT40: The Dazzling Champion of Le Mans


Ford GT40


One of the first life lessons everybody should learn at an early age is to treat people with respect and dignity. It was one of the lessons that Enzo Ferrari never entirely accepted. Notorious for his difficult character and bad temper, Enzo often got in conflict with his drivers and mechanics. His arrogance even turned one of his best customers into one of his fiercest competitors when Ferruccio Lamborghini decided that he had enough of Enzo’s disrespectful behavior and created his own company that has successfully rivaled Ferrari ever since.

However, Enzo didn’t change his ways, even when most of his top engineers left Ferrari in late 1961 after disagreeing with his awkward management decisions. But his biggest mistake was messing around with Ford Motor Company in the early ’60s. Ferrari was close to selling his company to Ford but, at the last second, changed his mind and offended the Americans. The news wasn’t received well in Detroit, and Enzo forgot how powerful and how vain Henry Ford II was. Understandably angry, Henry “The Deuce” swore that he would get revenge but do it on the track, where Ferrari cars were dominant. If you want to know more about the whole affair, we suggest you watch the fantastic “Ford vs. Ferrari” movie. Still, today, we will concentrate on Ford’s most effective weapon in beating Ferrari – the mighty and iconic Ford GT40.

Ford GT40


In the early ’60s, Ford Motor Company started one of the most ambitious racing ventures in the history of the automotive industry. Called the Total Performance Program, it included numerous factory-backed efforts in various forms of motorsport. From drag cars, NASCAR stockers, and rally and Touring car races to GT championships, Formula One, and Le Mans racing. Ford was active all over the world, and by the mid-60s, massive investments started to pay off in countless wins, titles, and awards. Ford Cortinas, Mustangs, Shelby Cobras, Galaxies, and Lotus F1 cars were all very successful.

However, when Henry Ford II decided to go after Ferrari at Le Mans, there was a big problem. Ford didn’t have anything even remotely suitable for the job. The company never participated in endurance racing; its engineers didn’t have the know-how, and they didn’t have a starting point. Developing a Le Mans racer from scratch would be unbelievably expensive, time-consuming, and with potentially poor results, which is something that vigilante Henry Ford II would not accept. He wanted Ferrari’s blood, and he wanted it now!

So, Ford went to Europe for somebody to develop a new and advanced race car. Very soon, a suitable partner was found in Lola, a British race car builder who raced Lola Mk6, a progressive, mid-engine race car that already used Ford’s V6 and had some success in endurance racing. However, Lola was a small company with limited resources, and Mk6, despite being promising, was underdeveloped and needed refinement. It was a perfect candidate since Eric Broadley, Lola’s owner and constructor, had done all the hard work designing a chassis and suspension. Ford was confident they could take it from there with the help of ex-Aston Martin team manager John Wyer and a selected group of engineers. The two Lola Mk6 chassis were initially purchased, and the development of Ford’s racing car officially started in late 1964.


The first completed chassis saw the light of the day in April 1964 using a famous Windsor 289 V8 engine, but with advanced DOCH technology, differentiating it from Mustangs and Shelby GT350 engines. When the car was introduced, the name GT40 was presented, and “40” was the approximate height in inches (around 1 meter), making the vehicle very low and hard to get in and out. Even though Ford had its advanced chassis, mid-engine configuration (very advanced for the period), and power from its V8 engine, the car still needed fine-tuning, balancing, and thorough testing. It had numerous issues with stability at high speeds, weight distribution, braking, and chassis strength. However, simultaneous development in England and America delivered satisfying results, so in May of 1964, the Ford GT40 was ready for its racing debut.

The Humble Beginnings

The first race-ready Ford GT40s were called Mk1, and Ford’s AVO (Advanced Vehicle Operations) in Britain had produced some 12 cars fitted with 4.7-liter V8 engines, which delivered close to 400 hp in race trim. All vehicles had fiberglass bodies over steel monocoque chassis and used a 5-speed transmission. With a top speed of over 321 km/h (200 mph), the GT40 was a formidable competitor, at least on paper. Its first race was 1000 km of Nürburgring in 1964, where GT40 held second place for most of the race but retired with a broken suspension. Interestingly, Ferrari won that race, and even though the Ford GT40 showed it had potential, the Italians didn’t take it seriously. However, the Mk1 was far from perfect; it had speed, but it didn’t have consistency, dependability, and high-speed stability. Ford entered the car in 1964, 24 Hours of Le Mans, but with no luck.

Ford GT40 Engine Bay

Frustrated with poor performance, Henry Ford II assigned a project to Carroll Shelby, a renewed American driver and constructor. Shelby won the Le Mans in 1959 behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, was busy making Cobras and winning races, and had the same enemy as the “The Duce” – Enzo Ferrari. Shelby was active in sports car races with the Cobra 289 and later with the Cobra Daytona Coupe, all powered by venerable Ford’s V8. During 1964, Cobras were very active in Europe, winning numerous races and getting close to taking the 1964 GT Championship. However, Enzo Ferrari used his influence to cancel the season’s last race, effectively promoting the Ferrari team as a champion. This highly controversial move shocked the racing world and further strengthened Shelby’s determination to get even. He did, just a year later, in 1965, when Cobras won the World Sportscar Championship in class over 2000 ccm. But this was just the beginning, and when Shelby got his hands on the GT40 project, things got moving.

The Revenge

Shelby took over the Ford GT40 in late 1964 and immediately started improving the car, emphasizing dependability and high-speed stability. A few months later, the GT40 got its first major win when Ken Miles took it to first place in Daytona, a tremendous moral buster for Ford. Soon after, the Ford GT40 achieved second place in Sebring, but the team couldn’t repeat that success in the 1965 Le Mans, where Ferrari scored a 1-2-3 win and openly joked about Ford’s performance. However, Ferrari didn’t know Ford was busy working on the GT40 MKII. This was a” heavy hitter” GT40, equipped with a massive 7.0-liter V8 engine, very similar to the one used in the Ford Galaxie race car that raced on NASCAR ovals. With 485 hp on tap, it was immensely powerful, but even more importantly, the big engine had ample torque, almost 650 Nm, which propelled the 1.2-tone race car to over 205 mph top speed. Shelby knew that torque was the key to enduring the constant high speeds required to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The 5-speed was replaced with the 4-speed manual transmission since the 7.0-liter put so much torque.

Enthusiastic about changes to the car’s stability and improved power, Ford entered the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans with an impressive 12 vehicles (several teams) in Mk1 and Mk2 specifications. Ford’s Massive effort was securing the position since the teams still weren’t convinced of the dependability. However, three cars completed the gruesome race and scored a fantastic 1-2-3 finish in front of an ecstatic European audience, shocking the Ferrari team! Ferrari knew that the GT40 was coming, but just quickly, the revenge came, and how dominant the GT40 was they couldn’t comprehend. The 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans was just the beginning of GT40’s triumphant quest. Even though passing through the finish line in orchestrated order was very controversial, it was demanded by Henry Ford II himself.

Ford GT40 at Le Mans

In the 1967 season, he started with a strike from Ferrari, which won the 24 Hours of Daytona on Ford’s home turf with a gorgeous and very fast Ferrari P4 race car. Henry Ford II was furious with the poor performance of the Ford GT40 and demanded revenge. However, the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans proved to be victorious for Ford and the newly designed GT40 Mk4, which had a different body and the same 7.0-liter V8 and achieved an even higher top speed of 212 mph. Ford occupied the first six places in that race, destroying the competition. However, at the end of the 1967 season, FIA announced a change of rules, which made the 7.0-liter V8 obsolete. For the 1968 season, Ford returned to Mk2 specs cars, which had 4.7-liter engines and remained competitive and fast. Even though the competitors caught up in terms of performance, Ford entered five cars and still won the 1968 24 Hours of Le Mans after the long battle with the Porsche 907.

By 1969, Henry Ford II had effectively shown the Ferrari (and the rest of the world) who owned the Le Mans race and completed his revenge. However, the racing team was not done and entered six cars in the 1969 race. Amazingly, three of them finished the race, showing that dependability was finally reached, with a checkered flag taken by GT40 Mk2. Once again, Ferrari was beaten to the punch, and after four years, Enzo was done. The ’68 and ’69 cars had a slightly bigger engine, a 4.9-liter V8 with 425 hp and 539 Nm of torque, still based on venerable Windsor V8 architecture but with power almost matching the big 7.0-liter. 

Production And Versions

Besides the racing GT40 (Mk1, Mk2, and Mk4), Ford, through its partners, Advanced Vehicle Operations, Alan Mann Racing, or Shelby American, produced several road-legal cars and a few exciting prototypes. Right at the beginning of the production, 31 road-going GT40 Mk1s were made and sold to privateers. Those cars barely differentiated from the reaching versions but had wire wheels, different seats, and slightly upgraded interiors. You probably noticed that there were Mk1, Mk2, and Mk4 race cars and that Mk3 was missing. That is because the Mk3 was a road-going-only model, produced in 1967 and with a price of over $15,000 (more than the price of a comparable Ferrari). It had an improved design, different headlights, and a longer wheelbase. Behind the driver was an engine from the Shelby GT350, which meant 306 hp. Only seven cars were ever completed.

Ford GT40 2

In 1965, Shelby American built four (or five, reports vary) GT40 Roadsters, open-top versions of Mk1 chassis. The idea behind the Roadsters was to offer a lighter car, but the open-top body proved to be aerodynamically inefficient and didn’t achieve its potential. One of the few made actually raced in 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, but it was soon forgotten and overshadowed by its closed-roof cousins.

However, the relatively unknown part of the Ford GT40’s history was the J-Car prototype, constructed in 1966. This vehicle incorporated the innovative aluminum honey-chassis, lightweight body with an elongated roof, active aerodynamics, and 7.0-liter V8 engine. It was made to test the possibilities according to new rules introduced by FIA. Unfortunately, this car never advanced beyond the prototype stage since it was destroyed in a testing incident in which Ken Milles was killed. Miles was one of the most critical people in the GT40 project, a Le Mans-winning driver, a talented engineer, and a close friend of Carroll Shelby.

By late 1969, over 120 cars were completed, of which only 38 were road-going models. After Ford ceased production, Carroll Shelby moved to other projects. Few cars were constructed from the stockpile of spare parts.

Summing it up

It is evident that the Ford GT40 is the clear winner of the Ford vs. Ferrari war. In just six years of its racing activities, it managed to win numerous wins and 4 Le Mans events, which was and still is unheard of. Enzo died in 1988 and never again won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But, even more importantly, GT40’s story is about fantastic effort, luck, and outsiders who were given a chance to fight a most significant name in the business and win. Creating history that is even more interesting than fiction.

Ford GT40 FAQ

Where does the name GT40 come from?

The unofficial answer: The name “GT40” originates from the car’s height being just 40 inches. This low profile was a key aspect of its aerodynamic design, crucial for its high-speed performance.

What was the idea behind the Ford GT40 project?

The GT40 was specifically designed to win endurance races, particularly the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which it famously did four times consecutively from 1966 to 1969.

Who designed the original GT40

The GT40 was initially developed by Ford in collaboration with Lola Cars, a British racing car manufacturer. The primary designers were Eric Broadley of Lola, Roy Lunn, a Ford engineer, and designer John Wyer.

How did the GT40 perform in its racing history?

The Ford GT40 is renowned for its dominant performance in Le Mans, ending Ferrari’s streak and winning four times in a row, which was an unprecedented achievement at the time.

How many Ford GT40s were made?

The original GT40 Ford is one of the rarest, most expensive cars you can buy today. Only 124 Ford GT40s were ever made.

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