Ford at Le Mans: How its bitter failure inspired an epic victory

100 years of Le Mans

The GT40 remains a Le Mans icon - dominating Le Mans from 1966-1969 - but its true origin story begins further back than Hollywood would lead you to believe

Chris Amon, Bruce McLaren, Ford Mk II, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Le Mans, 19 June 1966. The Ford Mk II of Bruce McLaren and Chris Zamon racing towards victory in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. (Photo by Bernard Cahier/Getty Images)

Several years of failure eventually led to glory for Ford at Le Mans

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It started in 1964 and ended in 1969. Between these dates comes not quite the whole history of Ford at Le Mans, but the only part of it anyone’s likely to want to make a movie about.

The script we know already, or at least we think we do: Henry tries to woo Enzo; Enzo seems flirtatious, receptive even. Henry makes his move, Enzo performs a deft little sidestep, primly announces that he is not that kind of Italian sports car manufacturer and leaves Henry face flat on the floor, picking dust out of his teeth, muttering something about a different kind of interaction, involving his boot and Enzo’s bottom.

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Henry leaves, gets the GT40 done and duly uses it to kick Enzo’s ass all the way from Le Mans to Maranello. Ford then duly won the French classic four times on the trot, while Ferrari would have to wait until 2023 for its next taste of victory. Ass kicked. Job done.

But as I will be by no means the first to point out, history tends to be written by victors naturally inclined to, if not make stuff up, then certainly put their best foot forward; accentuate the positive; put their own, unique spin on proceedings.

But the real story, while a little less flattering for Ford when it is realised the massively resourced factory teams only won twice in the six years GT40s and their derivatives raced in France, is I think rather more interesting than the wham-bam bare bones outlined about. Not least because it doesn’t start in 1964 nor even with a Ford.

Ford Le Mans 1966

Prior to a picture perfect Le Mans in 1966, Ford’s true story began two years earlier

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If Ken Miles was the unsung hero among the drivers in the GT40 story before Le Mans’ 66 got made, then to this day the Lola Mk6GT is the equivalent among the cars.

The decision to create the car that became the GT40 was made in 1963 with a view to it being at Le Mans the following year. For a brand-new car from a company with zero experience in building anything like what might be required, it was more of an impossible dream than an ambitious target. The Lola, and its creator, Eric Broadley, saved not only Ford’s face but its own bacon too.

By the summer of 1963 various design studies had made it clear Ford stood zero chance of getting a new car to Le Mans the following year. But in a moment of true Blue Peter worthiness, Broadley provided one he’d made earlier. The Mk6 was a make-or-break car for Lola and just as it looked like breaking it, it made it – just not in a way that could have been imagined at the time.

Broadley had thrown all the money, time and talent into the project that the then-tiny Lola concern could muster. The result was the first mid-engined sports car to use an American V8 engine, pre-dating even the Lotus 30. It had monocoque construction in an era of space frames, and it was light, slippery and potentially very fast indeed.

Le Mans 1963 Ford Lola

A hint of what was to come: The Lola-Ford Mk6 GT at Le Mans 1963

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But it took so long to prepare for Le Mans that drivers Richard Attwood and David Hobbs had to leave for France without it, Broadley himself driving it down, arriving too late for scrutineering and having to beg not to lose its place in the race.

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They had no time to set the car up and no spare springs and roll bars with which to set it up. They literally raced what Broadley turned up in, which turned out to have gearing so wrong for the race they were losing 30mph down the Mulsanne Straight. But the car ran well for half the race until the gearbox jammed putting Hobbs into the wall and out of the race.

But Ford had seen enough, and you only have to look at the Mk6’s specification, let alone its doors cut into almost the centre of the roof to know where the GT40 came from, and how close the relationship was. With Broadley on board joining Brit-abroad Roy Lunn who’d been working on the GT40 project from the start and John Wyer coming across with Le Mans-winning experience from Aston Martin, the crucial pieces of the GT40 puzzle, complete with a state-of-the-art donor vehicle, were in place.

Work started at Broadley’s place in Bromley, before moving to Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough.

Phil Hill Ford GT40 Nurburgring

Phil Hill pilots the new-look GT40 at the 1964 1000km of the Nurburgring – but the same success was not found at Le Mans

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Development driving was done mainly by Bruce McLaren and despite its accelerated gestation and myriad problems, the first car was still fast enough straight out of the box to qualify second on debut at the 1964 Nurburgring 1000km between two Ferrari prototypes, despite the event being treated more as a shakedown and test session than a proper race.

It retired with suspension problems. Despite having won five of the previous six Le Mans, Ferrari knew the threat the new 4.2-litre, V8-powered Ford posed. As the cars lined up the three GT40s were faced by no fewer than eight Ferraris in the prototype class alone, half of them works entries.

They were right to be worried. Soon after the start the car driven by Richie Ginther and Masten Gregory swept past the Ferraris and started building a commanding lead. But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong: first the car driven by Richard Attwood and Jo Schlesser caught fire and burned out, then the Ginther/Gregory car succumbed to transmission failure.

The strongest Ford, driven by Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren recovered from an early delay to lie third at dawn, but soon it too was out, leaving Ford with a new lap record for Hill as scant consolation for its efforts.

Ford GT40 1964 Le Mans

Moments before disaster: Jo Schlesser leads field of prototypes before retiring

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But if the failure in 1964 can be regarded as understandable given the newness of the car and the strength of the opposition, Ford had no such excuse for failing in 1965. It had taken away responsibility for racing from Broadley and Wyer and asked Carroll Shelby to prep the cars for racing, overseen by a new Ford division in Dearborn called Kar-Kraft. And it was Roy Lunn at Kar-Kraft who started investigating how the GT40 might be modified to take the 7-litre engine from the Ford Galaxie.

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Testing and computer predictions suggested the car might be 15 seconds a lap quicker at Le Mans, a 24-hour test at Riverside produced no insoluble problems, so it was decided that a brace of these ‘MkII’ GT40s (some just call them Ford MkIIs) would form the main thrust of Ford’s efforts at Le Mans. Had they instead piled all their efforts into giving the car they already had bulletproof reliability, along with the 4.7-litre V8 now being made ready for customer cars, the outcome of Le Mans 1965 could have been very, very different.

But Ford was not the only top team to trip over its bootlaces. Ferrari did too. All three of Maranello’s prototypes retired, as did both Fords, leaving the race to an utterly unfancied 250LM entered by the US Ferrari importer that had qualified over 12 seconds a lap slower than pole time of the fastest Ford and slower than all but one of the customer GT40s. But by the time the race became an open goal, the Fords were no longer even on the pitch.

Ford Ferrari 1965 Le Mans

Attempt number two: Ford fails again at Le Mans in 1965 – but this time so did Ferrari

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I won’t let Le Mans ’66 delay us here for too long because I’m guessing most of you have seen the film, and despite its many wilful inaccuracies (Shelby catching fire en route to winning Le Mans in 1959, Enzo Ferrari attending Le Mans in 1966, Ken Miles not attending in 1965, and Fiat buying Ferrari that year when in fact it was 1969. Ford’s first failure at Le Mans in ’64 isn’t even mentioned), the essential thrust of the story is already there.

And those who have watched the film will know its tragic ending, where Ken Miles is killed testing the so-called ‘J-Car’ successor to the MkII (so called because it complied with appendix J of the Group 6 regulations for prototypes). I have however always thought it a shame that so little mention today is made of Walt Hansgen.

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Hansgen was a good if perhaps not great driver, arriving too late on the scene but still managing to come fifth in the 1964 US Grand Prix driving for Team Lotus in what was only his second world championship F1 race and at the age of almost 45.

He is also the man Mark Donohue credited more than any other for getting him started. But he was killed in a MkII during the test weekend for Le Mans ’66, losing control in rain and apparently electing to head down an escape road, unaware that it had been blocked off. After that accident Ford installed substantial cages inside the cars which probably saved the lives of Peter Revson who flipped one testing at Daytona, and Mario Andretti who had an enormous accident at Le Mans in 1967.

So Ford had won at Le Mans in 1966, even though the ACO’s reaction to Ford’s plan to dead heat the finish meant Ken Miles was robbed of the chance to become the first person to win the Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring 12 Hours and Le Mans 24 Hours in the same year. But Ford knew Ferrari would not stand still, and once work resumed on the J-car after Miles’ accident, the car’s aerodynamics – thought to be the reason for the crash – were totally revised, and the car renamed the Ford Mk IV (following after the ill-fated MkIII road car), and wasn’t really a GT40 at all. But in the fourth season of the programme, the car was finally perfected.

Ford Mk IV Le Mans 1967

Despite losing some of its iconic Ford GT40 looks, the Mk IV was dominant at Le Mans ’67

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As Donohue put it: “They were the fastest cars on the track – except for the Chaparral maybe – and yet they’d still lasted 24 hours. They were very durable, very powerful, very fast, and about as easy to drive as a big Cadillac.”

Three were entered for the 1967 race, Andretti crashing out, Donohue and Bruce McLaren setting off from pole but held back by myriad minor misfortunes to fourth at the flat while the sister MkIV of Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt took the win, four laps clear of the heroically driven 4-litre Ferrari P4 of Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti. Having already won at Sebring, the Mk IV’s two-race career was already over.

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It retired unbeaten and with a unique claim to fame as the only genuinely all-American race car to win Le Mans to this day. That the GT40 – one car, chassis 1075 – won the next two Le Mans says far more about the failures of others than any innate superiority of the – I think I can use the word – legendary Gulf-liveried GT40.

There is some debate as to whether this car was actually derived from the Mirage M1 that had won at Spa the previous year but I don’t believe it is and can be discussed another time. But the shake up was caused by new rules limiting Group 6 prototypes to a 3-litre capacity. So no Mk IVs, P4s or Chaparrals.

Ferrari didn’t take part in the 1968 race while its brand new 312Ps proved woefully slow in 1969, the fastest qualifying behind four Porsches. An even more notable failure came from Ford itself, who’s brand new DFV-powered 3-litre P68 or F3L prototype was fast but so terrifyingly unstable it never even got to France in 1968, having already ended the career of Chris Irwin in an appalling accident at the Nurburgring.

But perhaps the most significant failure belonged to Porsche whose brand new 908s took the first three positions on the grid in 1968, but only one seeing the finish in third place, six laps down on the privately entered John Wyer GT40 of Pedro Rodriguez and the underrated Lucien Bianchi – racing in the production sports car category with its 5-litre capacity limit.

Ford GT 40 Le Mans

Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi cross the line to take unlikely victory at Le Mans ’68

For Porsche, there was even less excuse in 1969, for not only did it have three apparently now debugged 908s on the grid, but also two of its mighty new 917s. But both 917s retired, the car of Richard Attwood and Vic Elford some 21 hours into the race with a four-lap lead. But by then one of the 908s had already crashed out while another succumbed to transmission failure shortly after the 917 retired.

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All hope now lay with the last 908, fighting back after losing time with wheel bearing failure. It came down to a fight between the 41-year-old Hans Herrmann in the Porsche, a Le Mans stalwart looking finally to win the race having made his debut there in 1953, against the 24-year-old Jacky Ickx, racing an old car for a small private team, yet sniffing the most unlikely of victories. Had one of the other drivers available to Porsche – an Attwood, Elford, Siffert or Stommelen for instance – been on board it’s hard to see how even Ickx would have stayed with them in the tired old car.

Five years later Ickx wrote about those last few laps in a book called ‘My Greatest Race’. In it he said he knew the GT40 was never going to be as fast as the 908 on its own – the cars had qualified in, respectively 13th and 6th positions – so he enlisted his rival’s help, making no attempt to stop the Porsche sling shotting past on the Mulsanne before tucking in behind it and getting towed along at speeds the Ford would never have achieved on its own.

But the move that won the race began all the way back at Arnage corner. On approach Ickx deliberately held back to give himself space, then hurled the GT40 through the corner. If he could just stay approximately in touch until the White House bend – the quickest, most difficult corner on the track, he backed himself to carry so much additional speed through the curve he’d be ahead before the Ford chicane. He practiced the move, perfected it, and won by about 100 yards, probably less than the distance he’d lost refusing to run across the track at the start of the race.

Ickx Ford Le Mans 1969

Racing genius earned Ford its final Le Mans win in 1969

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Ford’s final, and least likely victory at Le Mans was his. Strangely enough, the one person not lost in praise for his performance was Ickx himself, who seemed rather dismissive of the whole affair: “First of all, an endurance race is not properly a race. Moreover, the Le Mans circuit is not a driver’s circuit. And again a battle between a Formula 1 driver and a veteran is not equal. I was lucky to be fated with a material handicap to make up for, for there is no glory in triumphing over a much older man…”

For everyone else it was a moment never to be forgotten.