The real story of the Ford GT40 at Le Mans

You’ve seen the Le Mans ’66 movie, now read the true story. We explain how the legendary Ford GT40 took on Ferrari and won.

  • Le Mans 1966 and all that

    Le Mans 1966 and all that

    © Ford

    You’ve probably seen the Le Mans ’66 movie by now. Starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, it’s the Hollywood version of how Ford took on Ferrari in the world’s greatest race – and won. We dig into the on-track history that led to this famous feud, then explain how the Ford GT40 came to be. This is the tale of when Detroit fought Maranello at Le Mans.

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  • The start of the ordeal

    The start of the ordeal

    © Ford

    It’s one of the most notorious stories in motorsport, and it all began with a dispute between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari.

    Ford had looked to buy the Italian manufacturer during 1963, yet found Ferrari unwilling to step away from the Indianapolis 500. This would have placed the two brands in direct competition on the track.

    As a result, the deal failed. Henry Ford II then directed his company to enact revenge on Ferrari at Le Mans.

  • Ferrari was the marque to beat at Le Mans

    Ferrari was the marque to beat at Le Mans

    © Ferrari

    Ferrari had established total dominance at Le Mans during the 1960s. Cars wearing the Prancing Horse badge had won every running of the 24-hour race from 1960 onwards.

    This included two victories taken by Belgian driver Oliver Gendebien, pictured here behind the wheel of a Ferrari 250 TR 59/60 on his way to glory in 1960. Beating the Scuderia was going to take serious commitment and engineering effort from Ford.

  • 1964 Ford GT40 prototype

    1964 Ford GT40 prototype

    © Ford

    Ford initially courted Lola Cars, Lotus and Cooper for a partner to build its new Le Mans racer. Lola was eventually chosen, partly because the Lola Mk6 race car already made use of a Ford V8 engine.

    Lola donated two Mk6 chassis from its factory in Slough, while Ford set about creating a team to develop and build its new racer.

  • 1964 Ford GT40 prototype

    1964 Ford GT40 prototype

    © Ford

    The newly created Ford Advanced Vehicles team set about the development of a new car, based at its own British factory.

    Early prototypes of the GT40 made use of a mid-mounted 255 cubic-inch (4.2-litre) Ford V8, while later finished cars would feature a 289 cubic-inch (4.7-litre) unit. Famously, the GT40 name came from the overall height of the new race car: just 40 inches.

  • Ford GT40 team transporters ready to go

    Ford GT40 team transporters ready to go

    © Ford

    Ford had taken only seven months to create the new GT40, with the completed car being shown to journalists on April 1 1964. John Wyer was put in charge of running the Ford Advanced Vehicles team for the year.

    The rush to get the new cars finished meant the GT40 would miss the season-opening Sebring 12 Hours race. Instead, the first use of the car in anger was at the Le Mans test, less than three weeks after it was presented to the media.

  • 1964 becomes a year to forget

    1964 becomes a year to forget

    © Ford

    Making a race debut at the gruelling Nurburging 1,000km in 1964, the driver pairing of Phil Hill and Bruce McLaren qualified second on the grid. However, a suspension failure meant the GT40 failed to finish the race.

    This would set the tone for the year, with 1964 at Le Mans a dismal failure. All three of the Fords would retire with mechanical issues, while Ferrari clocked up another win.

  • 1965 shows promising signs for the future

    1965 shows promising signs for the future

    © Ford

    After the disappointment of 1964, Ford switched management of the GT40 to Carroll Shelby for 1965. This came after his notable success with the Ford-powered Daytona Coupe.

    Victory came immediately, with a win for Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby at the Daytona 2,000km race, with Bob Bondurant and Richie Ginther taking third in a sister GT40.

    Yet the remainder of 1965 would prove fruitless, with no more wins for Ford. At Le Mans, all the GT40s failed to make the finish.

  • 1966 Ford GT40 Mk I road car

    1966 Ford GT40 Mk I road car

    © Ford

    While the early GT40s had not proved successful on-track, road car versions still rolled out of the factory, with the first example delivered to the United States in early 1966.

    The Mk l road cars featured softer suspension and quieter exhausts, plus options such as air conditioning and leather seats. However, they still had a 335hp V8 engine.

  • A new hope: the 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II

    A new hope: the 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II

    © Ford

    The Mk II may have looked similar to its predecessor, but beneath the bodywork was a host of changes. In came a 427 cubic-inch (7.0-litre) Ford FE engine, with an exhaust system nicknamed ‘a bundle of snakes’ for its elaborate design.

    Kar-Kraft also modified the chassis from the original British-designed MkI, using higher strength steel. Extra robustness was added with upgraded suspension components, along with a strengthened gearbox. This featured just four speeds, instead of the five cogs found in the Mk l.

  • 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II

    1966 Ford GT40 Mk II

    © Ford

    Ford also dismissed Carrol Shelby as overall manager for the GT40 programme. Instead, priority was given to the Holman-Moody outfit, which was responsible for running Ford’s NASCAR efforts. Henry Ford II was adamant that the GT40 must win in 1966.

    However, the Shelby American team did continue as an official factory outfit, retaining Ken Miles as one of its drivers. The new GT40s would finish 1-2-3-5 in the ’66 Daytona 24 Hours, proving the changes were beneficial and setting Ford on the path to glory.

  • 1966 Ford GT40 Mk II ‘X-1’ Roadster

    1966 Ford GT40 Mk II ‘X-1’ Roadster

    © Ford

    Ford also experimented with a potential for an open-top version of the GT40 during the 1966 season. Initially created for Bruce McLaren Racing in 1965, it used a low-drag windscreen. After its return to Ford, the one-off roadster was updated to Mk II specification for Shelby American.

    Its only race came at the 1966 12 Hours of Sebring where, after experimenting with automatic gearboxes during practice, a manual transmission was fitted for the race. When the engine of the lead GT40 Mk II seized, the ‘X-1’ Roadster of Miles and Ruby slipped through to victory.

  • 1966 Ferrari 330 P3

    1966 Ferrari 330 P3

    © Ferrari

    With all the attention now on winning the Le Mans 24 Hours, Ford would face tough competition at the 1966 race.

    Ferrari had updated its line of prototype racers, creating the new 330 P3. Thanks to fuel injection, it now had more horsepower, and was built in both closed- and open-cockpit versions for the epic endurance event.

  • 1966 Porsche 906-6 LH

    1966 Porsche 906-6 LH

    © Porsche

    Although Ford and Ferrari were the main contenders in 1966, Porsche also entered a small army of 906 racers at Le Mans.

    A total of six 906 cars contested the race, including three of the brand-new LH ‘lang heck’ prototype versions. Recent victory on the Targa Florio showed the potential of the Porsche.

  • Strength in numbers

    Strength in numbers

    © Ford

    Keen to beat Ferrari at its own game, Ford entered a total of 15 Mk II GT40s for Le Mans in 1966. Eight were accepted for the race, with Shelby American running three cars. Holman-Moody also fielded another trio, while Alan Mann Racing would be responsible for the final two Mk II machines.

    Qualifying demonstrated the performance of the GT40 Mk II, with the top four places all taken by Fords. With all eight GT40s inside the top 12, the strategy of total domination looked to be working.

  • Drama on the road to tomorrow

    Drama on the road to tomorrow

    © Ford

    Ratcheting up the pressure on the Ford teams was Henry Ford II, acting as official starter for Le Mans in 1966. After the first lap, his cars were in the lead, but the coming hours would see a tense battle between Ford and Ferrari.

    Overnight rain dampened the performance advantage of the big V8 engine in the Fords. However, the Ferrari prototypes began to suffer from overheating, dropping them out of contention.

  • Controversial photo finish for the win

    Controversial photo finish for the win

    © Ford

    By half-way through the race, Ford MK IIs occupied the top four positions, with Mk I GT40s occupying fifth and sixth. Yet even then, victory was far from secure. The No.3 Mk II, driven by Dan Gurney, blew a head gasket from racing too hard with the No.1 car of Ken Miles and Denny Hulme.

    By late morning, Mk II GT40s occupied the top three positions, and Ford Racing director Leo Bebbe attempted to engineer a dead-heat at the end of the race. Ken Miles was told to slow down to allow the No.2 car of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon to catch up.

    Miles was reported to be unhappy with the contrived photo finish, and lifted off just as the cars reached the finish line. This handed the McLaren/Amon car victory, with Fords filling the other podium places.

  • Mission accomplished for Ford at Le Mans

    Mission accomplished for Ford at Le Mans

    © Ford

    In just three years Henry Ford II had achieved his goal of beating Ferrari at Le Mans. The Italian company would never take an outright win at the French event again, with the Blue Oval ready to keep coming back.

    Ford would go on to claim the P2 category of the 1966 World Sportscar Championship, further cementing its dominance.

  • 1967 Ford GT40 Mk III road car

    1967 Ford GT40 Mk III road car

    © Ford

    With the GT40 race car cleaning up on track, a bespoke road-going version was now being readied for the street. Unlike previous road-legal GT40s, the Mk III had specific features to make it suited to the highway.

    An elongated rear gave access to a luggage compartment, while the bumpers gained small chrome overriders. Unlike the race cars, there was no bigger engine, with power still coming from the 289 cubic inch (4.2-litre) V8. Only seven examples of the Mk III were built, with just three in right-hand drive.

  • Tragedy of the 1967 Ford GT40 J-car

    Tragedy of the 1967 Ford GT40 J-car

    © Ford

    Despite the success of the Mk II GT40, Ford didn’t rest on its laurels and set about developing the car even further. With power now sufficient, experimental aerodynamic changes to maximise the muscle were made throughout 1966 and 1967, along with a lightened chassis.

    Tragedy struck during a test session, when Ken Miles was killed in a high-speed accident at Riverside International Raceway, with blame laid at the lack of downforce from the aero modifications.

  • 1967 Ford GT40 Mk IV

    1967 Ford GT40 Mk IV

    © Ford

    The experimental flat-topped roof of the J-car was dropped, but the resulting Mk IV still looked distinctive. Lengthened and streamlined to achieve a higher top speed, the Mk IV also featured the lightened chassis.

    The death of Ken Miles was not in vain, with a high-strength roll cage also being fitted. Although the Mk IV only entered two races, it claimed a 100 percent success rate, with victories in the 1967 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

  • 1968 Ford GT40 Mk I Le Mans

    1968 Ford GT40 Mk I Le Mans

    © Ford

    After the high speeds seen during the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans, engine sizes were capped at 5.0 litres in 1968 by the FIA for cars in the Sports class. This ruled out the Mk II and Mk IV versions of the GT40, but meant the earlier, smaller-engined Mk I was still eligible.

    Now with reliability on its side, the Mk I took overall victory in 1968, driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi. It would repeat the same feat in 1969 with Jackie Ickx and Jackie Oliver driving, taking the total number of outright Le Mans wins for the GT40 to four in a row.

  • Ford GT wins 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours

    Ford GT wins 2016 Le Mans 24 Hours

    © Ford

    Fast-forward several decades and Ford found once again on the top step of the podium at Le Mans.

    Living up to the reputation of its GT40 predecessors, the new GT race car, run by Chip Ganassi Racing, took an impressive victory at Le Mans in 2016 in the LMGTE Pro class. Coming exactly 50 years after the first Le Mans win for the GT40, Ford was unsurprisingly ecstatic about the result.

  • 2017 Ford GT ’66 Heritage Edition

    2017 Ford GT ’66 Heritage Edition

    © Ford

    To mark the Le Mans wins 50th anniversary, Ford also announced a special edition of a car that hadn’t even actually started production yet. Remembering that historic 1-2-3 victory at the Circuit du Sarthe in 1966, the Heritage Edition featured a colour scheme inspired by the No.2 GT40 driven by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren.

    A Shadow Black exterior – available in either gloss or matte finish – was combined with silver stripes and alloy wheels in gold satin. Inside is a leather-wrapped steering wheel, along with extra carbon fibre and a limited edition plaque.

  • Ford captures the Le Mans-winning GT40 in Lego

    Ford captures the Le Mans-winning GT40 in Lego

    © Ford

    Along with the modern interpretation of the successful 1966 GT40, Ford also created a miniature Lego version. This had the benefit of being considerably cheaper than the full-size GT supercar, and produced in much larger numbers.

    Paired with a Lego version of the 2016 Le Mans-winning Ford GT, the classic 1966 GT40 also comes with a retro driver mini-figure. Fans can decide for themselves whether they want it to be Chris Amon or Bruce McLaren.

  • 2019 Ford at Le Mans with historic liveries

    2019 Ford at Le Mans with historic liveries

    © Ford

    Ford contested the Le Mans 24 Hour race again each year until 2019, which marked the final year of competition for the GT racer. However, the Chip Ganassi Team would be unable to replicate the success seen in 2016.

    Not even racing with retro-inspired liveries for the 2019 edition of the 24 Hours race was enough to clinch LMGTE Pro victory. Ford would manage fourth in class, with Ferrari taking first place on the podium.

  • Sunset on the Ford GT Le Mans project

    Sunset on the Ford GT Le Mans project

    © Ford

    In fact, Ferrari has continued to dominate the World GT Manufacturers’ Championship since 2012. But more than half a century after Henry Ford II declared war on the Ferrari at Le Mans, the battle may not be over yet.