The True Story Behind Ford v Ferrari and the Birth of the GT40

Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in the new, critically acclaimed movie, Ford v Ferrari. The film tells the story of the rivalry between American automotive design team Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles and Italian sports-car designers. Like all Hollywood adaptations, a lot of fiction is intertwined into the movie’s narrative but that doesn’t mean the real story isn’t just as engaging, wild and at times bizarre. Read on for the full, factual account of the rivalry between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari that leads to the creation of the GT40.

Setting the Scene

In May 1963, Henry Ford II is about to close on a deal after months of grueling negotiations. A few months prior, he gets the itch to break into the world of competitive racing with his company, the Ford Motor Company. Problem is, Ford lacks a racing car in its roster.

Meanwhile, Italian sports-car manufacturer Ferrari is dominating the racing scene with its world-renowned speed machines. The only reason Ferrari has a street car division is to make enough money to keep the lights on.

Hostile Negotiations

Mr. Ford and Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari negotiate a deal that would give Ford a 90% stake in the Ferrari company for $18 million. The deal also allows Mr. Ferrari to stay director of the racing team. So on May 23 of the same year, Enzo Ferrari is in the meeting room with Ford’s delegation, pen in hand. But instead of signing, he explodes into a chain of insults, halts the deal and marches out of the room.

Public Speculation Abounds

For many years afterward, the public has speculated about the reason for the deal’s collapse. Mr. Ferrari’s personal secretary and confidante, Franco Gozzi, later says the great Enzo is frustrated at the time with a clause requiring Ford Motor Company’s approval on his racing team’s budget for the 1963 season. He feels it compromises the personal freedom he is promised as racing team director in earlier talks … and he is not a man who gives up control easily.

Mr. Ford does not have a friendly relationship with the word “no.” He is furious. He feels Mr. Ferrari’s actions are a personal slight. His point man, Don Frey, devises a scheme for revenge: Ford would complete in the world-famous racing competition 24 Hours at Le Mans and humiliate Mr. Ferrari by taking first place.

But first, they need a car that is up to the challenge.

Letdown At LeMans

It takes time, but by the spring of 1964, with a team that includes Mustang designer Roy Lunn, the Mark I GT40 is completed – a combination of California hot rod and NASCAR racer. Then comes the 1964 24 Hours at Le Mans. Mr. Ford is poised for his long-awaited revenge.

It doesn’t come.

The GT40 is outmatched by Ferrari’s 275 P. Mechanical complications knock it out of the race after only a few laps. In a blind pursuit of victory, the team overlooks many flaws in the Mark I’s design. The aerodynamics are especially dangerous – the car would lift off the ground at 200 mph. Two GT40’s crash during testing and test driver Roy Salvadori resigns, saying, “I opted out of that program to save my life.”

Second Try Too Hot For Comfort

Ford enters the race again in 1965, this time with the new GT40 Mark II that features a mid-mounted 427 cubic-inch V8 engine that is capable of more than 200 mph. The car fares well early on. While it has speed, it lacks endurance, however. Broken gearboxes and blown head gaskets force it out of the race once again. The brake rotors are also a notable problem. Ford engineers reveal when a driver hit the brakes at the end of Le Mans’ Mulsanne Straight, it takes only seconds for the front brake rotors to reach 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and fail. The Ford team goes back to work, hoping a third try would be the charm.

GT40 Legacy

In 1966 before Le Mans, Mr. Ford -just beginning to feel embarrassed- personally gives racing boss Leo Beebe a handwritten note that reads, “You better win.”

They do.

Mr. Ford enlists the expertise of former racing driver and automotive designer Carroll Shelby, who helps develop the #2 GT40 Mark II by fine-tuning the transmission and improving reliability. Ford Motor Company enters eight cars, three driven by British race car driver Ken Miles and partner Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney with Jerry Grant, and Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. With three Ford cars leading the race – drivers Miles and Hulme in first place, McLaren and Amon in second and Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson holding third –

Mr. Beebe devises a way to stage a spectacular finish where all three Ford cars cross the line simultaneously. At last, Mr. Ford gets his revenge. Overall, it’s estimated the Ford Motor Company shells out a whopping $25 million or more to earn the victory, all to spite Ferrari.

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Image: SamH [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]