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1966 Ford GT40 Mk I

By Jeremy Wilson

Photos by Mike Litt

In 1963, Enzo Ferrari sent a letter to Ford Motor Company with an offer: he would sell his company to Ford, provided he could remain in control of its racing operation. Henry Ford II was happy to enter into negotiations, feeling the purchase would bring prestige to his company. The two companies came to a preliminary agreement and the contract was written up.

According to A. J. Baime, in his book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, Ford’s number two man, Don Frey, met with Enzo Ferrari at his office in Maranello, Italy on May 21. When Ferrari read the final document and realized he would have to request approval for any increases in his racing operation budget, he exclaimed, “My rights, my integrity, my very being as a manufacturer, as an entrepreneur, cannot work under the enormous machine, the suffocating bureaucracy of the Ford Motor Company!”

Henry Ford II, upon hearing the deal had fallen through, said, “All right. We’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him!” Within a week he had a proposal in hand to set up a new special-vehicles department, one that would design and build the fastest, most reliable and technologically advanced racing car in history. Soon after, with assistance from British racecar builder Lola, Ford constructed the GT40 (so named for its 40-inch height).

Henry Ford II aimed to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest endurance sports car race. Ferrari had won there seven times, in 1949 and in various years through 1963. In 1964, Ferrari won again; two GT40s crashed during testing and the three that raced were unable to finish. Ferrari continued its winning streak in 1965 while six GT40s broke down and were unable to complete the race.

In 1966, Ford’s efforts finally paid off: GT40s took the top three positions and this was no fluke. A GT40 finished first in ’67, ’68, and 69, permanently etching its place in automotive racing history.

In the summer of 2010, the Kirkland, Washington Concours d’Elegance featured Ford racecars including classes for Shelby Mustang GT350s, Shelby Cobras, Ford GTs and Ford GT40s. One of the standout entries was Greg Whitten’s 1966 Ford GT40 Mark I.

“I bought this car in 1992 from Bob Ash, who did the restoration,” explained Whitten. “The car was restored between 1987 and 1990 and as you can see, it is still very clean and very original. We’ve done almost nothing to it. I think we replaced the ignition wires and the spark plugs and changed the oil filter, but the rest of it is all original.”

“This GT40 has a 289 cubic-inch engine with four dual-barrel Weber carburetors,” continued Whitten. “It has a crossover exhaust so it doesn’t sound like a normal Ford V8--it has a much different sound. The engine has a fairly high compression ratio so it probably develops 425-450 horsepower. It comes on strong up to about 3000 rpm and then, as they say, all hell breaks loose. It’s a very quick car.”

Although the GT40s were capable of speeds over 200 mph, Whitten hasn’t taken this one much over 140 mph.

“In 1994, I took it to the fortieth GT40 Reunion at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin,” said Whitten. “We had about 40 cars there and we were able to take them onto the racetrack a number of times. It was part of the Chicago Historic Races so that was a lot of fun. But around the racetrack I eventually would run out of brakes--they’d get too hot. They are fairly early Dunlop disc brakes and there’s just not enough venting and ducting to cool them.”

For now, Whitten plans to keep the car as it is.

“We could improve the brakes, but car’s so original I’d kind of hate to modify it in the ways I’d need to for vintage racing.”

Click on any item below for more details at Amazon.com

A.J. Baime
Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans
Mariner Books, Paperback, 2010-06-17
Go Like Hell tells the remarkable story of how Henry Ford II, with the help of a young visionary named Lee Iacocca and a former racing champion turned engineer, Carroll Shelby, concocted a scheme to reinvent the Ford company. They would enter the high-stakes world of European car racing, where an adventurous few threw safety and sanity to the wind. They would design, build, and race a car that could beat Ferrari at his own game at the most prestigious and brutal race in the world, something no American car had ever done. Go Like Hell transports readers to a risk-filled, glorious time in this brilliant portrait of a rivalry between two industrialists, the cars they built, and the “pilots” who would drive them to victory, or doom.

Ford GT40 & GT Ultimate Portfolio 1964-2006
Brooklands Books Ltd, Paperback, 2007-05-01
Henry Ford, having been rejected by Ferrari, vowed to beat him on the race tracks of the world. It was the spark that ignited what was probably the most exciting era in Ford’s history which began in 1964. When released in Dearborn the GT40 was probably the prettiest racing car ever designed up to that time. It looked sensational and was undoubtedly very fast, but its aerodynamic performance left much to be desired, as did its reliability. It failed to finish in such events as the Nurburgring 1000 kms, Le Mans 24-hour and the Nassau Tourist Trophy, but Ford regarded these outings as part of the learning curve. In 1966 came the much modified Mark 2 version and with this car success started to come Ford’s way. Henry Ford’s dream was realized when the three surviving GT40s finished 1-2-3 at Le Mans.

John Allen, Gordon Jones, Jacky Ickx
The Ford that Beat Ferrari: A Racing History of the GT40
Haynes Publishing, Hardcover, 2005-11-11
This new edition is a re-designed and updated history of the classic 1985 edition that commands hundreds of dollars from collectors. On the cover is the most extraordinary GT40 of all: the 1075, which won six international endurance races and covered 11,963 racing miles, on its way to victory in the 1969 Sebring 12 Hours, driven by Jackie Ickx and Jackie Oliver. Throughout are photos and stories that make this book a must for any serious racing enthusiast or Ford aficionado.

David Hodges
Ford GT40 an Anglo American Competition Classic
Motor Racing Publications, Hardcover, 1998-04-10
This is the story of the classic confrontation between the classic Ford GT40 as it took on - and beat - the all-dominant Ferraris at Le Mans. A story of hard work, dedication, disappointment, tragedy, and ultimately of complete and repeated success. Hodges recollections of six epic seasons of endurance racing and of the legacy they left to international motorsport form a fascinating repeat view of what many regard as the golden period of the postwar era. Includes a record of ownership and ID of each car, plus a race record listing the fate of all GT40s entered in major events.

R.M. Clarke
Road and Track on Cobra, Shelby and Ford GT40, 1962-1992
Brooklands Books, Paperback, 1993-03-07
This compendium includes road tests, racing information, new model reports, and more on these racing legends. 25 great articles from past issues of Road & Track tell it like it was and recreate the glory days of Shelby’s great racing career. Technical analyses, comparisons, and more on the Lone Star Cobra, 260, 289, 427, replicas, GT40, Mark II, Mustang, GT350 and GT500.

Ford GT40
Alphascript Publishing, Paperback, 2010-08-10
The Ford GT40 was built to win long-distance sports car races against Ferrari (who won at Le Mans six times in a row from 1960 to 1965). That car used the Gurney Weslake engine with the special alloy heads made by Weslake. The car was named the GT (for Grand Touring) with the 40 representing its overall height of 40 inches (1.02 m, measured at the windshield) as required by the rules. Large displacement Ford V8 engines (4.7 L and 7 L) were used, compared with the Ferrari V12 which displaced 3.0 L or 4.0 L. Early cars were simply named “Ford GT”. The name “GT40” was the name of Ford’s project to prepare the cars for the international endurance racing circuit, and the quest to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The first 12 “prototype” vehicles carried serial numbers GT-101 through GT-112. The “production” began and the subsequent cars, the MkI, MkIIs, MkIIIs, and MkIVs, numbered GT40P/1000 through GT40P/1145, were officially “GT40s”. The name of Ford’s project, and the serial numbers dispel the story that “GT40” was “only a nickname.”
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