The Ford GT40 Succeeded on the Track, but Failed on the Streets

Photography by Dirk de Jager

It’s car marketing’s oldest adage: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. Yet when Ford tried to bring the GT40 to the road with its Mk III, it failed miserably: Just seven cars were made, and Ford couldn’t even sell all of those. 

In 1967, the GT40 Mk III was one of the fastest things on the market, with a claimed top speed of 175 mph. From 1966 through 1969, the Ford GT40 was unbeatable at Le Mans. How could you not want one? Apparently, however, Ford had few takers.

Enzo Says No

It’s history à la Hollywood, of course, but the movie “Ford v Ferrari” has the merit of bringing one of motorsport’s most poignant rivalries to the big screen. We all know the basics: Giant automaker Ford wanted to buy Ferrari, the small builder of sports cars.

In May 1963, Enzo Ferrari withdrew from the deal while the contract was on the table for signing. An outraged Henry Ford II swore he would beat Ferrari on the track. Enter the GT40, a car born out of revenge. 

What the movie doesn’t dive into is the fact that Ford at the time had no experience in racing whatsoever. So, Ford went to England to find and buy a challenger that would allow the Blue Oval to best the mighty Prancing Horse. 

Lotus was quickly dismissed, as Colin Chapman was unlikely to bend to Ford’s orders. But Eric Broadley at Lola was different, and with the Lola Mk6 he had an interesting project at hand. 

The Ford GT’s legacy was born on the track, with big wins at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. Despite two big pushes, however, the model was less successful as a street car. Photography Courtesy Ford

It took some time and a lot of money–the GT40 was not an immediate success–but in 1966 Ford finally achieved its goal, beating Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a glorious one-two-three finish.

After Foyt and Gurney gave the GT40 another Le Mans win the following year, race organizers banned the car’s 427-cubic-inch engine, stating that prototypes should have an engine capacity of 3 liters or, if part of a minimal production run of 50 units, 5 liters. 

Ferrari said addio, but Ford returned with the GT40, now wearing the iconic Gulf colors and powered by a 289-cubic-inch engine. This combo, under the eye of engineer and team manager John Wyer, would bring the GT40’s number of Le Mans victories to four. 

First, the Iconic Race Car

Even without the track records, the GT40 still impresses visually with its low but broad-shouldered stance. And then there’s the growl when it comes to life.

Before we get to the street cars, we sampled a competition-ready GT40. But as GT40 race cars go, this one has not led a typical life. Chassis No. 1027 was first seen at the Brussels Motor Show wearing Belgian racing yellow.

This particular GT40’s big claim to fame: serving as a camera car for John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix.”

After that, Ford sold it to MGM, the American media company. By then the car had been resprayed in white with a blue stripe, and it starred in the action scenes of John Frankenheimer’s epic movie “Grand Prix.” Phil Hill would drive it, loaded with cameras, on the Formula 1 circuits among the single-seaters. 

After MGM sold the car, it passed through multiple owners. American Jim Toensing swapped in a Ford Indy engine; he had to remove the rear window because it kept melting from the heat of the exhausts. 

The next American owner raced it with a 302 engine and crashed it at Road America. This led to the car’s first big restoration: In 2002, it came to the U.K. with Anthony Bamford, who had it refurbished and fitted with a correct engine at Gelscoe.

The car left the shop in great health, and in 2015 Sam Hancock drove it to a lap record at the Goodwood Revival. It has since entered several races, including the Le Mans Classic.

A Race GT40 for the Street

Ford had invested heavily in the racing program, and with the first years not bringing results, the whole Ferrari payback thing was beginning to cost Dearborn dearly. So, the idea grew to offer prosperous clients the opportunity to buy a GT40 that they could take out on the road. 

To generate the 50 cars needed for homologation, Ford explored two paths for a street option.

On the one hand, you have the
Mk I GT40, which is nothing more than a race car that you could legally drive on public streets. On the other hand, the Mk III GT40 represented a much more sophisticated approach. 

It was developed with everyday usability in mind. It was, in short, the easy GT40. Just one problem: The press and the public didn’t like it one bit.

Both the road-going GT40s were built for Ford Advanced Vehicles at John Wyer Automotive Engineering in Slough, England. The Mk I was first. This car–chassis No. 1013–was the development prototype and the press demonstration car used to advertise the GT40 road program.

Unlike the later Mk III, it kept the race car’s original driving position: right-hand drive with the shifter installed to the driver’s right. 

As a result, climbing on board takes a bit of an effort. Twisting your leg between that big steering wheel and the shift knob demands some flexibility. So does lowering your bum into the driving seat. 

Once you close the cut-out door, the sky vanishes from above and it’s just you and the car, ready for the road. Compared to the racer, we see two door pockets–and that’s really all the carrying capacity this car offers. Buyers could add a radio and even air-conditioning if they wanted, however.

The driving position is bathtub-like, just as you find in the race car. It has the same dog-leg, five-speed ZF box as well, with reverse protected by a lockout to avoid costly mishaps. When making a three-point turn, it’s a bit of a downside, of course.

Ford’s first attempt at a street version of the GT40–this silver Mk I–proved to be a bit too radical. 

Chassis No. 1013 was tested intensely. In December 1965, it started a voyage through Europe, linking Adenau, Spa, Le Mans and Rouen to conclude in Slough. It was a 1400-mile journey in what John Horsman’s testing journal describes as “mostly wet, sometimes icy” conditions. 

The top speed was not established, but the testing report states that 6000 rpm in fifth gear was exceeded once, with the car still accelerating. It would never be far off the 200-mph top speed of the racer. 

Officially, the 289-cubic-inch V8 was detuned from 380 horsepower to make 335 at 6250 rpm, but on the dyno this one put out a mere 289 horses at 5500 rpm. In reality, though, it doesn’t feel like just 289. 

When you start the car, the V8 sounds every bit as intimidating. It shakes just as brutally and kicks you in the back every bit as violently. The similarities with the race car are instantly clear: the sound, the trembling, the physical stress on your upper arms. 

If you wanted to know in 1966 what it felt like to drive a Le Mans winner, you could just order this. One of the previous owners used it so much on the U.K.’s roads in any kind of weather that the chassis had to be rebuilt, this time including special rust treatment. The car is said to have covered more than 100,000 miles by now, which must make it the world’s most heavily used GT40. 

It’s a privilege to be able to drive this on the road–yet, we admit, it’s all a bit much.

A Gentler GT40

Ford figured that maybe a softer GT40 would work better on the street. This car, dubbed the Mk III, was developed in parallel with the Mk I to serve as a more user-friendly GT40.

The idea for a bigger version, a so-called GT44, had already been shelved–don’t forget, the GT40 name came about from the car’s height of just 40 inches–but here some real effort was made to create a more practical GT40. 

The Mk III gained less than half an inch in height, but it was considerably longer at 14 feet. That’s not quite 4½ inches longer than the race car. 

Since the original GT40 headlight setup was not compliant with U.S. regulations, a twin-headlight configuration was drawn up, leading to higher-placed units. This new car also offered more road clearance, while smaller fuel tanks in the sills allowed for more insulation material. 

Getting on board was easier, too, as the gear lever was moved to the conventional center of the car. This made the cabin just that little bit bigger with its left-hand drive aimed at the American market. And then there was the luggage compartment–a minimal one–in the back, just behind the engine. 

That engine was tamer, too, as its 289 came from the Mustang. It produced 306 horsepower and could propel the GT40 Mk III to 175 mph. 

Ford officials felt confident that the brand would sell more than 20 Mk IIIs at a quite phenomenal sticker price of $18,500–the going rate for an exotic from Ferrari or Lamborghini at the time. That price, by the way, represented a $2000 premium over the race car. That was the first downside.

The follow-up street model was the Mk III, featuring U.S.-legal headlights and more interior room. 

The car that you see here is the development prototype: XP130/1. Later on, it received chassis No. 1101. While also developed in England with John Wyer, it debuted a full year later than the Mk I, making its big showing at the 1967 New York Motor Show. 

This is the exact car that Ford displayed and the very one sent out to the first press tests. And those first encounters didn’t go well: Its finishing was abominable, and the reviews were disastrous. Not worth the price, Car and Driver concluded.

In the end, just seven Mk IIIs were produced, and Ford still didn’t manage to sell them all. This particular car was even converted to Mk I specs at some point before it was restored to Mk III form. Compared to the 31 road-registered GT40 Mk I cars, the Mk III was, commercially speaking, a complete failure.

Our time behind the wheel doesn’t fully explain why. Yes, this car is different. And if you’ve just driven the Mk I, the Mk III definitely feels softer. 

But that isn’t a bad thing. You still hear the engine, and while it has a lazier sound, it’s still a potent V8 nonetheless. At 2340 pounds, the tamer GT40 still offers terrific acceleration, coming into its stride around 4000 rpm; the goosebumps all feel the same. 

Here’s the thing: The Mk III is just easier to drive. The center-located shifter feels more natural even though it’s operating the same dog-leg ZF box. The clutch feels lighter to operate.

Ford really managed to make a bit of a grand tourer out of the GT40 with the Mk III while retaining much of the feeling of the original car. We’re going to call it misunderstood in its day. 

What Happened?

Ford needed to sell 50 cars total in one year for the GT40 to be able to qualify for sports car regulations instead of falling in the prototype category. That Ford managed to achieve this is in large part due to the Mk I road car, not to the Mk III as the company had intended. 

The Mk I GT40 is epic, no doubt, but it is not a great road car. It’s just too hardcore for most mortals. The Mk III actually fits that bill much better, so maybe a bit of a reappraisal for the GT40 Mk III is overdue here–especially since it makes for a much rarer appearance.

The irony is that thanks to the success of the original GT40, Ford has had no problem whatsoever selling the later generations of GT road cars, even to the point of having to disappoint eager clients. So for Ford, the marketing story needs to be adapted: Win in 1966 and sell decades later in 2005 and 2015. Better late than never, we guess.

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Comments
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sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
11/23/20 3:42 p.m.

These are the best looking GT40's....The newer ones are just ugly to me.....Sorry 

aircooled
aircooled MegaDork
11/23/20 6:01 p.m.

I saw one driven on the streets, years ago.... one.  And I have seen a Nobel N600 on the streets....

Seems like pretty much all of these where rolled off the delivery truck and into a locked garage.

I should note I am of course talking about the second gen cars, which technically also failed on the street because they are / where almost never driven there.

Harryjack
Harryjack
11/24/20 1:37 a.m.

The Ford GT40 Succeeded on the Trackbut Failed on the Streets. ... it failed miserably: Just seven cars were made, and Ford couldn't even sell ...

gadgetwiz.co.uk

wspohn
wspohn Dork
11/24/20 11:15 a.m.

A friend of mine drove his original Mk 1 GT40 on the street - and had the rear bodywork come loose and fly off into the weeds beside the highway! They managed to go back and pick it up and it  didn't have much damage. Must have looked like a giant bat taking off to the cars driving behind him)

He showed up to a gathering/race for original GT40s and told me that his was the only car that still had the original 289 in it - they tend to get 'updated' notwithstanding their substantial value.

Panamericano
Panamericano New Reader
5/6/21 3:20 p.m.

I did see a Mk III once.  At a Neiman Marcus fortnight, in the men's department.  It was pea green.  That is yuck on any other car, but on the Mk III, I would have taken it.  I did get to drive a Mk  I years later.  What a blast.  I don't remember any trouble getting in.  It was the first RHD car I had driven, and that also was a non-issue.  Just a blast.

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