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True Blue Oval: Creating a Legend

Ray Thursby

It could be argued that the impending arrival of the 2005 Ford GT was guaranteed at 4 pm on June 19, 1966. If a checkered flag had not waved over the Ford GT Mark II, the new 500-hp supercar would have had no reason to exist. The site was Le Mans, where Ford, having spent a staggering sum of money, bested Ferrari and claimed the top three finishes in the 24-hour race.

 

The road to victory began several years earlier when Ford executives, including Henry Ford II, recognized the marketing value in racing. An initial entry to big-league competition failed when Enzo Ferrari declined an offer to sell his company to Ford. A small in-house team was subsequently given approval to develop a car that could compete with—and defeat—Ferrari’s formidable racers.

The company visited Europe, specifically Lola works in England, where Eric Broadley had recently unveiled his own mid-engine racer powered by Ford’s then-new small-block V-8 engine. Broadley’s Lola Mark 6 was similar to the car Ford had designed but not yet built, which convinced Ford to form a collaboration with Lola, though the Ford GT operation was soon transferred to a larger facility.

In April 1964, the first Ford GT was unveiled. The sleek mid-engine coupe seemed almost too small to hold a driver, the 289-cu-in Fairlane engine, and the rest of the necessary hardware. It also appeared almost too pretty to be successful. The initial GT (which would become known as the GT40 because of its 40-inch height) was a fragile aerodynamic disaster with a disturbing tendency to attempt flight at high speeds. It showed promise but delivered no tangible results.


This changed when Ford forged an alliance with Carroll Shelby of Cobra fame. Shelby assumed control of Ford’s GT racing effort and, following additional aerodynamic testing and chassis development and a shift to the 427-cu-in NASCAR powerplant, transformed the GT into a winner. In 1966, the Mark II GTs swept the three major endurance races of the season at Sebring, Daytona Beach, and Le Mans. A successor, the Mark IV, repeated at Le Mans the following year, and after Ford withdrew factory support, independent 289-cu-in GTs won there again in 1968 and 1969.

A street-going GT might have come along sooner than next year if the Mark III program had borne fruit. Ford aimed to produce a reshaped GT with a detuned and muffled 289-cu-in engine, soundproofing, air-conditioning, and a radio to challenge Ferrari on American and European highways. The conversion required more work than Ford was willing to put into the car. The vehicle did not find favor with the public, and only seven Mark IIIs were built.

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