Two-thousand and Sixteen marks the 50th Anniversary of the Ford Motor Company finally overcoming Ferrari in battle at Le Mans.

Equally there is much being said (in jest) about ‘sandbagging’ and Balance-of-Performance (BoP) juggling which fails to consider this is their first year back. Nobody not even Germanic engineering can hit the ground and win straight out of the box can they? Taking in a little bit of history lets take a closer look at Ford’s motivations back then.

This article is a poor substitute for A.J Baume’s excellent read ‘Go Like Hell’, which we would heartily recommend to any SportsCar enthusiast. To support the words we’ve added a few pictures from the Holland family archive, Les having been fortunate enough to attend both 1965 and 1969 running of the 24 Heures du Mans.

In the late-50s America was in rude health, and as well as flourishing in the post-war glow of youth, had a need for speed and danger, many having been conditioned to taking risks by the preceding decade’s activities. The Government of the time felt it had a responsibility to its people, and with the emergence of mass advertising & marketing looked to temper some of this ‘joie de vie’.  Hence in 1957 the Automobile Manufacturers Association was encouraged to and indeed did adopt the ‘Safety Resolution’ which restricted promotion of Automobiles to more sober and as its name suggests safer ground than Speed, Acceleration and all that sizzle. Ford was pivotal to the Association and took its responsibilities very seriously.

Others were less conservative, indeed by 1961 over three-quarters of national motor sport competitions were being won by Ford’s largest domestic rival Chevrolet. The Corvette Stingray amongst others was a formidable weapon, its very name, sound and proportions needed no advertising words or campaign, and what it did on the track led to sales which swung the domestic market share substantially.

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Chevrolet Corvette 7.0 V8 at Le Mans 1965

The Safety Resolution was out of the window!  Ford began to improve its racing pedigree with cars like the Falcon and a Texan by the name of Carroll Shelby (winner of the 1959 Le Mans in an Aston Martin) was engaged to produce a racing GT in the form of the AC Cobra powered by Ford. Again domestically this car brought success to the marque, but internationally it struggled against the grandees of Europe, especially at Le Mans where the European teams competed with Prototypes which whilst capable of being driven on road to and from the circuits were, as their name suggests, a bit special and there to do a job.

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Shelby Cobra Daytona – Powered by Ford 4.7 V8 – 1965

However in 1961 civil war descended on Ferrari and in true Italian style a walkout of senior personnel brought the then current dominant force at Le Mans to its knees, and seemingly presented an opportunity.

Ford entered into extended negotiations to buy Ferrari, but agreement could not be found. Enzo Ferrari needed manufacturing and production car support, but wished to retain control of the race team operations and budget(!) funded by Ford..  Perhaps also Il Commendatore could not put the consequences of war to one side, as a proud Italian man, his factory having been bombed would he ever have sold?  Ford left, and Ferrari later settled for a deal with existing investor Fiat.

Henry Ford II was said to be furious and an at ‘all costs campaign’ to beat Ferrari on-track, in its heartland, Le Mans was the unequivocal response. Allegedly the campaign budget was never even mentioned!

In 1963 Ford came close to an Indy500 victory powering a Lotus with a 4.2 aluminium block engine which subsequently found its way into the new Ford GT40 for the 1964 32nd edition of Le Mans. Sadly all three cars retired by 05:30 on the Sunday morning , and Ferrari marched on to victory.  A Shelby Cobra Daytona driven by Dan Gurney & Bob Bondurant came home in 4th overall and took the GT class victory, thus proving the Ford 4.7 V8 to be a durable unit.

With development placed with Carroll Shelby in 1965 it was no surprise to see the Ford 4.7 V8 onboard the GT40s. A MarkII of the GT40 also appeared with a huge 7.0 V8 from the Ford Galaxie installed.  The hot weather of the year caused overheating problems, and unfortunately by nightfall the last of the GT40s, number 2, pictured below in the evening sun, had fallen by the wayside.

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Ford GT40 MkII 7.0 V8 driven by Phil Hill / Chris Amon – 1965

In 1966 it was a whole different story; the 34th running was held on the 18th & 19th June as per this year (as an aside one Henri Pescarolo had his first outing at La Sarthe!). Having pocketed the win at both Daytona & Sebring Ford sent three teams with no less than eight Mark II GT40s with the 7.0 V8 engine. Ferrari sent just 2 works 330 P3 and 5 concession, or customer cars.  The rest as they say is history; Ford GT40s numbers 2, 1 and 5 came home in the top three positions having covered 360 laps, and starting the Ford era of the late 60s.

That era of domination concluded with a final win in 1969 pictured below –

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Ickx/Oliver (#6 Ford GT40) and Herrmann/Larrousse (#64 Porsche 908c) starting their final lap

Both cars ailing, and actually swapping positions on the Mulsanne en-route to the line, the Ford winning by just 120 metres! 1970 saw the next changing of the guard.

Back to the present day, Ford come to Le Mans in 2016 to note an anniversary, but we expect to sign-off on the budget the Board needed a better business case than that. It is notable that some of the same influences outlined above are still playing out today.  Chevrolet are winning – Le Mans 2015, Daytona 2016. Ferrari have been hugely successful with the 458 and have a successful division in Corse Clienti servicing their mega-wealth client’s desires to be entertained and involved both on- and off- track.

At the end of the day the old adage still rings out in the Motoring capitals around the world – Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday!

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Arnage 1969
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1969 – Indianapolis
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Mulsanne 1969 – #68 GT40 MK1 – Driven by Kelleners & Joest… Yes, Reinhold Joest the very same..

Next in this series we will take a closer look at the current Ford GT, and subsequent to that have a chat with one of the Ford Performance drivers.