RACE TO RUIN & BACK

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By Mike Monk

Les 24 Heures du Mans – or, more simply put, Le Mans – has been running since 1923 and is a sporting event the status of which is universally recognised as one of motorsport’s legendary races. Over the years there have been many tears of both joy and heartbreak shed over the outcome of pitting man and machine against a 24-hour clock – the race defines endurance car racing. Where else can you mix privateer teams with modified road cars running on limited budgets against full-blown factory sports prototypes brim-full of technology and expertise? For the smaller outfits, winning the Index of Performance is the goal while the big guns battle it out with power and efficiency in the quest for overall victory. The speed differentials between the two tell their own story.

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The 1960s was a period of sportscar innovation with the likes of the Howmet gas turbine car and the high-wing automatic Chapparal 2F taking part, but the decade is probably best remembered for being the Ferrari versus Ford battle and the impact of the Ford GT40. The battle began in 1963 when Henry Ford heard that Enzo Ferrari was interested in selling his company. It coincided with Henry’s desire to race at Le Mans, and Ferrari had won the classic race in 1960, ’61 and ’62. Following an expensive audit of Ferrari’s assets, the deal looked to be going through until Enzo discovered he would not be allowed to control the motor racing division and pulled the plug on the deal at the eleventh hour. Enraged, Henry set about beating Enzo at his own game and had talks with Cooper, Lotus and Lola with a view to creating a Ferrari-beating Le Mans car.

Cooper and Lotus were not really viable options, so Henry and Lola’s Eric Broadley agreed on a one-year contract that included Broadley supplying two of the advanced Lola Mk6 GTs to Ford to use as a basis. John Wyer joined from Aston Martin and Ford Dearborn engineer Roy Lunn was assigned to the project at a new subsidiary titled Ford Advanced Vehicles established in Slough, England, which was to be overseen by Harley Copp.

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The GT40 first raced at the Nürburgring 1000km in May 1964 as a prelude to the eagerly awaited appearance at Le Mans where three cars were entered. All retired, but the Richie Ginther/Masten Gregory car comfortably led the early part of the race. Following more dismal showings, later in the year Carroll Shelby took over from Wyer. A maiden win at Daytona in February 1965 augured well, but the rest of the season was another failure. Six GT40s comprising works and private entries took part at Le Mans and all failed to finish. Ferrari was still on a roll, winning again as it had in 1963 and ’64, making it six victories in a row. 

After licking its wounds, the team regrouped and set about the 1966 season in style, scoring a 1-2-3 at the Daytona 24-Hour in February, a 1-2-3 at the Sebring 12-Hour – and then came Le Mans. Remarkably, GT40s posted another 1-2-3 with Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon finishing first, Ken Miles/Denny Hulme second and Ronnie Bucknum/Dick Hutcherson third, all driving 7-litre MkIIs. The cars won again in 1967 with Dan Gurney/AJ Foyt (7-litre MkIV), in 1968 with Pedro Rodriguez/Lucien Bianchi (4.9-litre MkI ‘P’) and in 1969 with Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver, incidentally driving the ’68 race-winning car, chassis P1075. This was the first time the same car had won Le Mans twice.

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The original GT40 MkI was fitted with first a 4.2-litre (255ci) engine but soon after a 4.7 (289ci). The MkII looked similar but in many ways was different and was powered by a 7-litre (427ci) motor. The MkIII was a road car and only seven were built. A lightweight, ‘bread van’ J-Car was developed on a different chassis with the 7-litre engine but was a design failure. Only nine were made and Ken Miles was killed while testing one at Riverside when the car went out of control. A GT40 MkIV followed using a reinforced J-Car chassis but with redesigned bodywork. And 40 MkV official continuation models with the ‘P’ suffix completed the GT40’s development history.

The GT40 featured here is labelled as GT40P chassis 1048, but therein hangs a tale, which will be explained later. GT40P 1048 is a MkII fitted with a 289ci (4736cc) V8 mated with a ZF 5-speed gearbox. Pre-delivery it was tested by Innes Ireland at Goodwood on 18 May 1966 before being despatched to Umberto Maglioli’s Brescia Corse racing team on 24 May with the British registration number PKX852D. Painted red with black trim, it rode on Borrani 6½-inch wide front and 8-inch wide rear alloy wheels with nickel-copper spokes. FAV 8½- and 10-inch wide rims were also supplied. Rear brake ducts were an additional feature.

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Throughout its life it was not a particularly successful car, often entered in races but not starting and failing to finish on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, it finished third in class and seventh overall on its debut at the Trento-Bondone Hillclimb in July 1966 driven by Mario Casoni. He followed this up with a new lap record and pole position in its next race, the Enna Cup in Sicily in August, but suspension problems caused a DNF. However, it did win one race, taking the 1967 Enna Cup in the hands of the highly talented Italian Nino Vaccarella, who averaged 210km/h over the 300km distance. But the car was destined for a fiery existence…

Brescia Corse sold the car to Ferrari sportscar tuning specialist Willy König at the end of 1967. The German widened the rear bodywork, flared the sills and added canard fins to the sides of the nose. The car was raced at various venues without success and was crashed by Jean-Pierre Rouget in the 1969 GP de la Corniche in Casablanca. In 1971 the rear bodywork was modified again in the style of the Porsche 917 and on 18 April the car took part in the Le Mans 3-Hour driven by Jean-Claude Guérie and Rouget, in so doing becoming the last GT40 to be driven at Le Mans in period. Sadly, though, the car caught fire and was completely gutted. The burnt-out chassis was purchased by Geurie and rebuilt over the next 12 months, finished in metallic light green, before being sold to Michel Dagorne in ’72. Then in ’73 it was purchased by Jean-Pierre Van den Doorn who sent it to Franco Sbarro for restoration in December ’79. And here the story of chassis 1048 gets intriguing.

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The Shelby American World Registry states that in 1980 Sbarro sold the original GT40P 1048 to Guiseppe Lucchini with a repro FoMoCo chassis plate. Three years later, Sbarro shipped a newly constructed GT40P 1048 to Van den Doorn with the original chassis plate. Lucchini subsequently commissioned Ronnie Spain, a noted GT40 expert and author of a definitive book on GT40s, to inspect his car in Italy as he suspected that Van den Doorn’s ‘restored’ car was likely not the original. Spain’s inspection of Lucchini’s car verified it as being the original car and provided a report on its authenticity. This information was also sent to Van den Doorn, who subsequently instigated a lawsuit against Sbarro. Van den Doorn was awarded a Lola T70 replica, another Lola replica, and cash as compensation from Sbarro, as well as retaining the restored car. Lucchini was now recognised as the legal owner of GT40P 1048.

So what happened next? Lucchini kept the car for a while before it passed on to Vintage Racing Motors Inc from whom the Woods Trust purchased this now verified original GT40P chassis 1048. It has the 289ci engine fitted with Gurney/Weslake heads and Weber carburettors. And for me, the fact that it has a contentious history does not detract from the thrill of driving one of my ‘bucket list’ cars – it actually adds a twist to the occasion.

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For starters, it is common knowledge that the ‘40’ in GT40 stands for the height of the car – 40 inches (1 016mm) – which is below my waist height, so getting in was potentially going to be a challenge, but with the top of the doors cut into the roof it was fairly easy to step over the wide sill and drop into the perforated seat. Without a helmet headroom was not an issue, but the driving position is very laid back so the harness needs to be pulled tight to prevent sliding forwards. The top of the car’s nose is just visible above the base of the windscreen but the view forward is panoramic. The rear-view mirrors are ideally placed on the front wheel arches.

There is a bit of a procedure in firing up the car, thankfully clearly explained on an info sheet in the car, but when that V8 does grunt into life with the characteristic V8 rumble, you know there is something special idling away just behind your head. The pedals are offset to the left and the short gear lever moves through a well-worn gate. The Momo steering wheel feels right and pulling away is effortless thanks to something close to 500Nm of torque available from the pushrod overhead-valve V8.

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Once all the fluids had warmed up, it was time to push on. In this guise, the engine pumps out 287kW at 7000rpm and as the revs rose so did the mechanical din – and my pulse rate. The rate of acceleration is impressively strong, the sensation increased by sitting so low to the ground. Weighing just under a tonne, the car has a top speed of around 310km/h, depending on the chosen gearbox ratios.

Once familiarised with any circuit and into a rhythm, driving such classics as this GT40 becomes a memorable experience, conjuring up all manner of images of racing heroes past tackling iconic events at famous race tracks around the world. While I did not have a Mulsanne Straight with which to approach this figure, I did manage to appreciate the high speeds attainable in each of the long gears. The term ‘relaxed racing’ came to mind but that does not do justice to the drivers who drove these cars for hours at a time, day and night in all weather – the true definition of sportscar endurance racing.

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Riding on 4.30/11.60-15-inch tyres up front and 5.30/13.6-15-inchers at the rear, I was aware that the rubber was old and needed respect but, even so, the grip was superb and a squeeze on the accelerator allowed for some entertaining progressive tail-end breakaway. Steering effort ranges from heavy at slow speeds to firm at higher velocities. Combined with seat-of-the-pants sensations provided by the all-independent suspension comprising double wishbones up front and double trailing arms with a transverse top link and lower wishbones at the rear, the GT40 is very involving to drive. Coil springs are used all round and there is an anti-roll bar at each end. Brakes are 11.5-inch (292mm) discs and are reassuringly effective.

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Henry Ford, irked at being snubbed by Enzo Ferrari, set out to beat the Prancing Horse at one of motorsport’s most iconic arenas, Les 24 Heures du Mans, and after a shaky start did just that. In what was a golden age of sportscar endurance racing, it was a costly but notable achievement. The proliferation of continuation models and replicas that have followed bear testimony to the GT40’s historic appeal and popularity. And GT40P 1048 is one of the most notorious.

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