There are few cars in the history of American motorsport that hold as much provenance as the Ford GT40. It's a car that captivates us, that stirs up our finest working-class narratives, that serves to remind us that no matter what part of the globe, on what stage, if we Yanks and Brits can actually get around to collaborating, we are capable of great things.
The GT40 competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times. It set out on a mission of revenge, against Ferrari, and specially against Enzo himself. It won in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969. It was the first American car to win an endurance race since 1921. By the time it was deemed obsolete, Ferrari had withdrawn from endurance racing's prototype class, the highest level of Le Mans entries. They have yet to return as a factory team.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Ford's first Le Mans win. And to honor it, the Pebble beach Concours d'Elegance is assembling as many race-winning GT40s that ever existed. Over five years, Ford built 107 GT40s, every single example pushing the legend even further. And that's a lot of wins.
This is where it all began. Ford handed the reins of the GT40 program, then one year old, to Carroll Shelby. No matter that he was busy with his own successful Daytona Coupes—he knew Dearborn had to see just how worthy this program was. Miles and Ruby in the #103 prototype fought Ferrari's 330P2 for first place before ending in a Shelby sweep: GT40, Daytona, GT40. It was the GT40's first victory over Ferrari. It wouldn't be the last.
Miles and Ruby returned to tackle Daytona in February of 1966, the first year it was extended to 24 hours. The two not only had Pedro Rodriguez's Ferrari to contend with, but also the devilishly quick Chaparral 2 and the sleek Porsche 906's first race. For their first 24-hour race, the GT40s triumphed. The rivalry was more heated than ever. Said Motorsport Magazine: "... in the closing minutes, the Fords looked as though they could have done another 24 hours."
A month later, Miles and Ruby won again: this time at Sebring in a wild-looking Ford X-1 roadster. The 1966 race was marred by tragedy: Canadian driver Bob McLean perished in a GT40 Mark II, and four spectators were killed. The race continued on, and the GT40s took a 1-2-3 sweep with Miles in first. He had ticked off two of the Triple Crown endurance races. Le Mans was next.
The stuff of legends: It was the GT40's first win at Le Mans, the first victory there for an American team, and the famed photo finish wasn't without its own controversy. Miles in the #1 car crossed first, and McLaren in the #2 right next to him. Race officials declared Miles the winner. Then, on second hand, maybe not: because #2 had qualified fourth, and #1 second, McLaren's car had completed exactly eight more meters of distance around the track. Miles was gutted. But hey, it makes for a great photo.
After the stunning victory at Le Mans, Chassis P/1046 led a humble life: it was sent back to Shelby American to serve as a development mule, crashed at Daytona, converted into a street car (complete with air conditioning and metallic gold paint), then found in a crate in Belgium. It must have been like finding the . Nearly two years and 4000 hours of restoration work transformed the car back to 1966 specifications—just in time for this year's Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
Ronnie Bucknum drove for Honda in Formula One, while Dick Hutcherson raced in NASCAR. With their third-place finish, they got their only taste of sports car racing, and Holman-Moody proved that they didn't just know how to build Ford-powered NASCAR bruisers.
Mario Andretti, the man who needs no introduction, got the first of his three victories at Sebring with this long-tailed GT40 "J-Car." Brunswick Aircraft Corporation helped Ford devise an innovative and lightweight honeycomb aluminum tub. The entire car weighed 300 pounds less than the Le Mans-winning Mark IIs. The result: Andretti and McLaren reported not a single mechanical issue the entire race.
Everything Ford learned from the J-Car program it incorporated into the Mark IV, including a low-drag body that allowed Foyt and Gurney (and his signature roof bubble) to hit 220 miles per hour down the Mulsanne Straight. Ferrari had won the 24 Hours of Daytona with its own 1-2-3 sweep, and the American took it back to Le Mans: the GT40 led the race for 23 hours and walloped the Ferraris by nearly four laps.
The confetti hadn't yet been swept from the GT40's garages when Ford won its next endurance race, two weeks later in the home of champagne. The last year of the 12 Hours of Reims saw Jo Schlesser and Guy Ligier narrowly win over the Ferrari P2, which blew a hole in the crankcase with just 15 minutes left.
Chassis P/1075 may very well be the most famous GT40 in the world, wearing the most famous livery, to boot: the orange and light blue Gulf Oil colors. After two years of Le Mans victories, having proved what they set out to do, Ford was out as a factory team. But not John Wyer. Driving for John Wyer Automotive, Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman averaged over 120 miles per hour in five hours around the notoriously challenging Spa-Francorchamps.
The GT40 was already deemed obsolete in 1968 by the time it soldiered on in the FIA's Group 4. For the first-ever endurance race at Watkins Glen, Jacky Ickx and Lucien Bianchi beat out polesitter Jo Siffert in a Porsche 908 to win.
For Ford's third Le Mans victory, Enzo Ferrari protested and pulled his factory teams. Now the rivalry was down to Porsche and Ford. The 7.0-liter engines were too big for regulations, so John Wyer went back to the original Mark I and its 4.7-liter V8. It worked. Fighting through the rain, Rodriguez and Bianchi held the lead for 17 hours.
When the flag dropped at the 1968 running, every driver sprinted to their race cars, as they had done at every Le Mans—but Jacky Ickx casually strolled toward the GT40, protesting the danger inherent in the "Le Mans start." The drama continued through the next 24 hours: P/1075 diced with Hans Herrmann's Porsche 908 for the last two and a half hours, both cars suffering badly, but Ickx came ahead and beat the Porsche by just 100 yards. P/1075 remains the only car ever to win Le Mans twice in a row.
The Porsches may have been the focus for Steve McQueen's Le Mans, but it was a Ford GT40 that captured all of the drama. Chassis P/1074 had won at Monza in 1968 when it was sold to Solar Productions, and McQueen's company cut holes in the door and roof to accommodate camera equipment. Later, the holes were patched up. And at a Monterey auction in 2012, it smashed a record for the most expensive American car ever sold: a cool $11 million. Anything McQueen touched continues to turn to gold.