Model history: By the early 1960s the Ford Motor Company decided to adopt a more youthful image. They felt one of the best ways to do so was to go out and win races in general and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in particular. Due to the gentleman's agreement between the three big American companies to stay out of racing, Ford desperately lacked the experience or know-how to take on the specialized, European manufacturers. Fortunately, the third ingredient required, money, was available in abundance. In an attempt to get into racing quickly and easily, Ford tried to buy the entire Ferrari operation. When the negotiations turned sour, Henry Ford II and his men did not give up, but instead decided to learn the Europeans a lesson with a completely new Ford racer.
Ford already gave backdoor support to Carroll Shelby for his Cobra racing cars, but in the end having to the share the credits with Shelby and AC Cars was not to the company's liking. In 1963 the decision was made to build a prototype sports racer that, unlike the Cobra, was built to score overall victories. They were realistic enough to realise that outside help was needed and after closely looking at companies like Lotus and Cooper, Ford eventually teamed up with Lola. This Eric Broadley run company had just completed a Ford-powered, mid-engined sports racer that would form the ideal basis for the new project. A new company called Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV) was founded, which would be responsible for the engineering and assembly of the cars. The chassis and body panels were made by specialists Abbey Panels. Broadley was responsible for the overall design, fellow Englishman Len Bailey took care of the chassis design and John Wyer was hired as team manager.
Bailey's chassis design closely followed that of the Lola Mk VI GT with the initially used aluminium replaced by steel for additional durability. Broadley was not very happy with the added weight, but Ford felt it was necessary to cope with the heavy and powerful engines proposed for the new car. The all aluminium, dry-sump Ford Fairlane engine was also carried over from the Lola. In good American tradition, this V8 featured a central camshaft with push-rod operated overhead valves. It was intended to be used as a stop-gap until a four-cam version would become available. In later years one of these Indy-racing derived engines was indeed fitted, but the racing and production cars all featured OHV engines. The Fairlane engine displaced just under 4.2 litres and produced a decent 350 bhp. It was mated to a Colotti four speed gearbox. For the design of the all-round independent suspension highly advanced computers were used. The neatly packaged car was tightly clothed in a fibreglass body. For easy access, the doors were well cut into the roof.
The first two Ford GTs were completed in time to take part in the Le Mans test day in April of 1964. It was a disastrous day as the first car was destroyed on the Mulsanne Straight and the other damaged. The bodywork generated considerable lift at high speeds to the extent that the car would try to go airborne. Severe overheating was another problem discovered in the test. Back in the UK the nose of the car was considerably modified to improve the high speed handling and cooling characteristics. These improvements helped, but the new cars still proved very fragile and in 1964 not one car managed to reach the finish. Many of the retirements were attributed to the Colotti gearbox, which was eventually replaced by a ZF five speed gearbox. There was also a shortage of Fairlane engines, which led to the implementation of the larger cast-iron engines used by Shelby in his Cobras. It produced considerably more power and torque, despite being only slightly heavier. Eventually the Fairlane engine was discarded altogether in favour of the Cobra V8.
Disappointed by the lack of success, Ford called in the help of Carroll Shelby and parted ways with Eric Broadley who continued production of Lola cars next door. It paid off immediately as Shelby entered GTs took a convincing victory and third place in the 1965 season opening race at Daytona. Back at FAV the development work continued and during the season a variety of different cars were constructed including several roadsters and one with an alloy chassis. These were constructed predominantly to figure out why Ferrari continued to race open cars, even though coupes were considered to be far more efficient. FAV found little to no advantage in the configuration and certainly not one that justified the reduced rigidity. In retrospect, more important were the two prototypes that were sent to the United States to be fitted with seven litre engines. These, together with one of the roadsters and the first three GT40 production cars were entered at Le Mans. The two big block cars were easily the quickest out there, but due to poor reliability Ford again left the track empty-handed with none of the six cars present managing to reach the finish. Phil Hill did record the fastest lap with an average of just above 222 km/h.
Well over a year after the first Ford GT had taken to the track, the nose design was finally good enough to start production. The 'production' GT40s were fitted with the 4.7 litre engine and ZF gearboxes and available in full racing specification, but also as a road car. The '40' was added to the type indication as a reference to the height of the vehicle, which was approximately 40 inches. The cars were high in demand with privateers and eventually close to 100 GT40s were produced by FAV, which was sold to John Wyer at the end of the 1966 season. Several chassis were shipped to United States to be fitted with the larger, more powerful engine in preparation for a third attempt at taking that elusive Le Mans win. These seven litre cars are commonly referred to as Mark IIs.
No fewer than eight Mark IIs were meticulously prepared for the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although the cars were entered by three different privateer teams on paper, Ford themselves headed the operation and supplied most of the personnel in the pit boxes. Ford's assault was further backed by five regular GT40s. By contrast, the big nemesis, Ferrari fielded only three of their latest generation prototypes. The 24 hour race proved to be particularly gruelling and only 15 of the 55 starters reached the finish. All of the Ferraris had retired with seven hours to go, as had nine of the Fords, but the surviving three held together long enough to score a historic 1-2-3 photo finish. Even though their goal was achieved, Ford continued development work on a new version of the GT40; the J-car, which would later become known as the Mark IV. This car was completely developed in the United States and with it Ford successfully proved that European help was not needed to score a Le Mans win. Of course this car would have never existed without the program set up by the Europeans four years earlier.
One of the earliest production GT40s built, chassis GT40P/1003 was delivered new to French rugby-star Guy Ligier in the spring of 1965. Under the Ford France banner it was raced by the likes of Maurice Trintignant and Ligier himself for a couple of seasons. Ligier took at least two wins in local races in this car. Chassis 1003 was retired from active service in 1969 and has survived in largely original condition. In 2010 it returned to the track for the first time in over 40 years during the Goodwood Revival, piloted by British classic car broker Gregor Fisken.