Three generations Ford GT and GT40

Three generations Ford GT and GT40

So good, they reinvented it not once, but twice. But how much of the DNA of the original Ford GT and GT40 survives in their 21st Century reinterpretations? Time to find out Words Mark Dixon Photography Dean Smith.


Three generations of Blue Oval brilliance tested, plus GTs on tour

FORD GT TOUR OF SCOTLAND

Driving 1500 miles in a modern icon

THE BEST FOUR BY FORD BY FAR


Who’d have imagined that an Austin Seven would be the perfect car in which to learn how to drive a race-spec Ford GT? First time I let the clutch in, gingerly attempting to get Philip Walker’s gorgeous Borrani-wheeled open GT underway down the pit lane at Thruxton, I stall. And the second. And possibly even the third.

‘What a car! Beautiful to look at and totally exhilarating to drive’

‘What a car! Beautiful to look at and totally exhilarating to drive’

Yet I’m in good company. At the start of the 1964 LeMans 24 Hours, the very first attempt by Ford to wrest away Ferrari’s crown with its new GT at this globally important race, Phil Hill stalled chassis 102 on the grid. The problem is that the clutch is pretty much in or out but, contrary to intuition, you can’t rely on low engine revs from the monstrously torquey 289 V8 to get you going. Equally, you don’t want to be revving its nuts off and wrecking the clutch. The trick is to somehow gradually lean on the throttle at precisely that moment when the clutch engages. It’s not easy but it’s a process that will be familiar to any Seven habitué. When you get it right, though…What a car! Beautiful to look at and totally exhilarating to drive. The V8 in Philip’s car has been dyno’d at 460bhp at the wheels, and it weighs under a tonne, so it doesn’t exactly hang around.


Three generations Ford GT and GT40

There were 12 prototype GTs built, seven of them coupés and five roadsters, and from these cars evolved the GT40s with which Ford duly trounced Ferrari at Le Mans in four successive years, 1966-1969. The story of how Ford tried to buy Ferrari, failed, and launched the GT project to take the fight to Ferrari in what Enzo’s company liked to think of as its own back yard has been told in countless magazines and books, not least in Octane, and in issue 206 we compared Mks I and III road cars with a Mk I racer, chassis 1027. But since the handful of MkIII road cars went on sale in 1967, the GT name has appeared on two more Ford sportscars. In 2004, the retro-styled Ford GT made its debut, and in 2016 an all-new Ford GT completely reinvented the formula.

Question is: can you detect any commonality between the very first Ford GT and (to date) the very last? That’s why I’m relearning how to finesse a clutch at Thruxton circuit on a rare dry day in December. Philip Walker owns all four cars here: white 1964 GT roadster, silver 1966 GT40 Mk1 chassis 1041, red 2005 GT and silver 2020 GT. He’s a hugely experienced racer and a regular winner in 1041, and it’s fair to say that few people have his breadth of experience across the spectrum of Ford GTs.

Full disclosure at this point: the ‘1964’ car is in fact a toolroom copy, albeit totally indistinguishable from an original. Philip had it made because, having previously found and restored the remains of a genuine open GT, chassis GT/111, and then sold it, he found he missed it! ‘GT/111 was the car that was raced by Bondurant and Whitmore in the 1964 Targa Florio, long thought lost, the remains of which turned up in a garage being cleared ahead of building work for the London Olympics. I showed it at the 2007 Goodwood Revival and then raced it all over Europe before selling it to a gentleman in Portugal, which enabled me to purchase the closed car, 1041. My thinking was that the coupé would be slightly faster than the roadster but, as Richard Attwood confirmed to me, there’s very little in it. I do find the visibility much better in the open car – but it is an awful lot hotter inside the cockpit! Somehow the airflow seems to drag the engine bay’s hot air back inside. ‘Having raced 1041 a fair bit, I had a hankering for another roadster, and I also had a number of new parts left over from the 111 rebuild: even a spare body, formed in moulds taken directly from the original body of GT/112, which I’d bought from the Louwman Collection. So it really is an exact replica. We’ve given it chassis number 114 – the last original car built was 112, but we decided to skip “13”!’

While GT/114 is completely road-legal, it feels every bit the racer it was designed to be. Fire up the 4.7-litre V8 and the noise is insane, the pistons striking great hammer blows directly behind your head; on the move, the right-hand sill-mounted gear-change, with ‘first’ on a dog-leg to the left, is precise and easy to use, and the steering is light and go-kart direct. Pile some revs on and there’s a proper blood-curdling snarl from that V8.

The roadster is such a characterful car, its Borrani wires giving it an upmarket appeal that its successors can’t quite match – but, for road use, it does have some disadvantages. On/off clutch aside, it gets very warm in the cockpit and there is absolutely zero space for any luggage – a feature it shares with the 2016 model, as we shall see.

The GT40 Mk1, chassis 1041, is even nicer to drive; rather surprising considering that this is a full-house race car that still sees a lot of front-row action. But then, maybe it’s all the use it’s had that makes the gearchange feel that bit looser, the steering that fraction more reactive. It’s epically fast, of course, and the V8 on straight-through pipes is just as raucous as it is in the roadster, but you are at least slightly more insulated from its aural excess by the enclosed body.

Chassis 1041 was sold new to privateer Jean Blaton in Belgium in 1966 and has always been a race car. ‘We’ve honed it to get it as we want,’ says Philip – he shares the GT40 with Gordon Shedden and Miles Griffiths, ‘and it’s a very well-balanced car in terms of power, braking and handling, although the tail can act like a lump hammer if you are too late braking into corners. But it’s inherently very strong and will pound around a track for hour after hour.’

Its mission accomplished at Le Mans, Ford’s priorities shifted elsewhere and it wasn’t until the early 21st Century that the GT name was revived on a ‘halo’ model sports car. The 2004 Ford GT was a spectacular tribute to the glory years of the 1960s – so why wasn’t it also called GT40?

Incredibly, it was because Ford had never trademarked the GT40 name, which had been snapped up by replica builder Safir in 1985. That neglect on Ford’s part came back to bite it in 2002,when negotiations to buy it back from Safir failed, and it was obliged to launch its new car simply as the Ford GT. That wasn’t such a climbdown as you might think, since the 1960s cars were officially sold as Ford GTs – presumably to sprinkle some marketing fairy dust over mundane Cortinas, Mustangs and much else. It’s true that internally the project was codenamed GT40 from the start, and the production cars were always popularly known as GT40s – but GT was, in theory, the actual title.

Project Petunia, as the new GT was codenamed – long-serving Ford technical supremo Neil Ressler was apparently a keen gardener – had a long and troubled gestation, as various design directions were followed and then abandoned. Eventually, however, with Ford’s centenary looming, management gave it the green light – with the proviso that three production-spec cars should be ready in just 15 months’ time! In classic skunkworks tradition, a small team of engineers dedicated their lives to making the vision a reality by the deadline of June 2003.

One of the biggest challenges that the Ford designers faced was packaging all the requirements of a modern supercar customer within the outline of the original GT40 inspiration. That meant luxuries such as air conditioning, a stereo, electric windows: everything their ’60s predecessors didn’t have to consider. Despite this, the finished car still measured only 44.5 inches from ground to roof, although it was slightly larger all-round than its ’60s inspiration – as, indeed, were likely most of its potential buyers.

This 21st Century GT was only retro in style and layout, however; the engineering was state-of-the-art. A super formed aluminium body and spaceframe aluminium chassis packed an all-new 550bhp supercharged V8 with six-speed manual ’box. Unveiled in 2003, right on schedule, the GT reached full production status in autumn 2004.The first of 101 cars destined for Europe (a neat reference to the very first GT prototype, chassis 101) arrived in 2005 and Philip Walker was an early adopter; in fact, his GT was the first of the four cars here that he bought.

It certainly feels a special thing, from the moment you open that wrap-over door and settle into the generously contoured seats with their signature moulded ventilation holes. The interior is a compelling mix of GT40 retro ambience – that wrap screen, those overarching A-pillars – and early-2000s concept car: lots of brushed aluminium detailing that, when you tap it, actually feels suspiciously like painted plastic, and a suitably macho billiard-ball-sized aluminium gearknob.

While the 5.4-litre engine could not be mistaken for anything other than a V8, this refined 32-valve, DOHC all-alloy unit is a world away from the raw, iron-block 4.7 V8 of the Mk1 GT40. In contrast to that car’s unfettered, guttural roar, the GT’s powerplant emits a waffle-boom-snarl that, while unmistakeably V8, is almost tame by comparison. It is, ironically, a lot less traditional muscle-car in tone than the beat you get from some current Mustangs.

Where the GT is anything but tame is in its on-road perfomance. This was always intended to be its natural habitat, rather than the circuit, and having driven another example on a fast but undulating cross-country route I know that it can feel a bit of a handful if you’re attempting to make use of its stonking performance. You’re always conscious of its near-6ft 5in width, and the steering writhes gently in your hands at speed over camber changes. There’s the nagging feeling that it would be very easy to get yourself into trouble – which is perhaps no bad thing when driving a supercar.

Incidentally, while this model of GT was never intended to compete at Le Mans, it did have some racing success: in 2008 a trio of Ford GTs run by Swiss team Matech won the FIA European GT3 championship, beating the likes of Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Lamborghini, Maserati… and Ferrari. How satisfying that must have been. Matech was less fortunate in 2010 when, at the famous 24 Hours, its two Ford GT1 racers were DNF, as was a third example campaigned by Belgian outfit Marc VDS. Boo!

Despite the sensation the GT created on launch, with early cars selling for way above the $139,995 sticker price, demand rapidly cooled and sales fell about 500 short of the projected 4500 units before production ended in 2007. Now the best low-mileage examples are worth half-a-million dollars as collectors snap up what’s regarded as one of the last great analogue US supercars.

Ironically, five years ago, prices for the 2004-2007 cars were depressed as sellers off-loaded them in favour of the latest toy: the 2016 GT. Other than sharing its name with the older car, this new version had literally nothing in common. It was made of carbonfibre, it had a 3.6-litre twin-turbo Ecoboost V6 – and it was very definitely intended to go to LeMans.

Ford originally intended to create a racing Mustang for Le Mans, but gradually realised that, if it were to be competitive, it would have to look so different from regular production cars as to be useless from the point of boosting sales. So, as the story goes, another small and dedicated band of engineers (sound familiar?) worked in secret to present the bosses with a fait accompli: the Ford GT.

Showing admirable confidence, Ford duly launched the new GT with a staggering (for a blue-collar brand) price tag of $450,000. It said it would build only 1350 cars and the order books have now closed, with 2022 due to mark the end of production. Values have never dipped and the last few cars are attracting big buyer premiums.

It took Philip Walker four years to achieve his ambition of owning a current GT. His 2020 example is a Carbon Series, which means carbonfibre wheels, a titanium exhaust and other subtle tweaks that add up to an 18kg weight saving. As he sums up: ‘The 2005GT is a road car that you can also take to a track; the 2020 car is meant for the track but you can also use it on the road. It’s actually quite comfortable and you could potentially commute to work in it, but it would be hopeless for a night away at a hotel with your partner because there is literally room for a toothbrush and nothing else.’

In that respect, the latest GT does have something in common with the 1964 original. The GT started as a racer, was reinterpreted as a proper road car in 2004 and then totally reinvented for 2016 as a track-focused road/racer. The wheel has come full circle – and it could not have been rotated in better fashion than when, 50 years after the GT40’s historic one-two-three victory, GTs returned to Le Mans in 2016 and scored a one-three-four finish in the LMGTE Pro class, sandwiching a Ferrari 488 in second place.

The racing pedigree is fully evident inside the car: despite it being two inches wider even than the 2004 GT, occupants are, shall we say, snugly accommodated and the seats are fixed: the driver’s pedal box is movable instead. A squared off steering wheel is crammed with a daunting array of knobs and buttons plus paddle shifts for the seven-speed semi-auto transmission; twist one of the knobs to select Track mode and it drops the suspension with a purposeful ‘thunk’. A nice touch is the elongated hexagon shape of the central dash section: 1967 Lamborghini Marzal, anyone?

Unconscious (presumably) design cues aside, there’s nothing remotely old-fashioned about the way the current GT drives. It is unquestionably a track car with a thin veneer of road car civilisation. And to find out how it stacks up over a five-day road trip, turn the page.

THANKS TO Philip Walker; Miles Griffiths and his crew at Hi Tech Motorsport, hitechmotorsport.co.uk; and Pat Blakeney at Thruxton Circuit, thruxtonracing.co.uk.

‘The GT was slightly larger all-round than its ’60s inspiration – as, indeed, were many of its potential buyers’

Facing page and below Chalk and cheese: 2005 and 2020 GTs could hardly be more different in every respect; 2020 car’s interior features a steering wheel crammed with knobs and buttons, emphasising its racing intent.

Facing page and above 2005 GT is very clearly a tribute to 1965’s GT40 but with modern creature comforts; while it also has a big V8, manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive, the newer car was always intended for road use rather than track – exactly the opposite to its predecessor.

TECHNICAL DATA 2020 Ford GT Carbon Series

  • Engine 3497cc twin-turbo V6, DOHC per bank, 32-valve, fuel injection
  • Max Power 638bhp @ 6250rpm
  • Max Torque 550lb ft @ 5900rpm
  • Transmission Seven-speed automated dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
  • Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, electronically adjustable telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, deployable air brake
  • Weight 1367kg (dry)
  • Top speed 216mph
  • 0-60mph 2.8sec

TECHNICAL DATA 2005 Ford GT

  • Engine 5409cc all-alloy dry-sump V8, DOHC per bank, 32-valve, fuel injection, Eaton Supercharger
  • Max Power 550bhp @ 6250rpm
  • Max Torque 500lb ft @ 3750rpm
  • Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Rack and pinion
  • Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, unequal length control arms, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Brakes Vented discs, ABS, EBD
  • Weight c1580kg
  • Top speed 205mph
  • 0-60mph 3.7sec
‘The 2005 GT’s refined all-alloy V8 emits a waffle-boom-snarl that is almost tame in comparison with the raw, unfettered, guttural roar of the Mk1 GT40’

Facing page, above and below GT40 chassis 1041 is a genuine 1966 race car that’s still regularly campaigned by Walker and his team-mates. Removing the rear bodywork shows how closely evolved it is from the 1963 GT; engine and drivetrain are very similar – and so is the noise!

TECHNICAL DATA 1964/2019 Ford GT roadster continuation and 1966 Ford GT40

  • Engine 4736cc V8, OHV, four twin-choke downdraught Weber 48IDA carburettors
  • Max Power 375/380bhp @ 6700rpm
  • Max Torque 380/400lb ft @ 5600rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive
  • Steering Rack and pinion
  • Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: upper and lower trailing arms, transverse upper links, lower wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
  • Brakes All Discs
  • Weight sub-1000kg
  • Top speed 185mph

Top and right Philip Walker’s GT/114 is a toolroom replica of the five roadsters built to launch the GT project; although it looks rather more dainty on wires than the closed GT40, it is potentially as fast round a circuit.

Article type:
Review
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James Elliott James Elliott 3 months ago #

I haven’t driven the ‘new’ Ford GT. I was due to, but when the tour dates changed I couldn’t, so Mark Dixon got the gig. I was pretty jealous as a result, though as nothing compared with when, at Thruxton, he got to drive a GT40 and three generations of GT, the last of which I haven’t yet driven, though I was meant to – did I mention?

I have driven a few GT40s before, so the one that intrigues me from our cover story is that troublesome middle child, the difficult second album, that disappointing movie sequel rushed out a bit too quick to try and capitalise on a hit. Not that there was anything rushed about the 2004 GT, which came 40 years after the original, but it was a very different prospect, sharing visual cues with the original but little in tech or ethos. It was born as the XJ-S to the E-type but, when plagued by late deliveries (and being pilloried on the Top Gear TV show) and then tech issues, it threatened to become a laughing stock – Ford’s equivalent of the XJ220. And at $140,000, it didn’t even reach its production target of 4500 units.

Even today the car is something of a quisling, wedged between two Le Mans weapons that did their talking and cemented their reputation on the track, while this soft(ish), wide GT needed two parking spaces in the supermarket if you wanted to get the doors open. I remember that doyen of classic car writers Mathhew Carter having one, which I found impressive yet impractical, an opinion I couldn’t help but share after driving one. Gosh, we are hard to please, aren’t we? And not necessarily right. That 2004-2006 GT seems to be coming into its own at the moment. Just like the ‘pastiche’ BMW Z8 that was equally derided by the visual purity police when new. A new generation hasn’t understood that it is meant to turn its nose up at these cars and is embracing what really are blisteringly quick and technologically fascinating machines, which have been wrongly spurned for years.

Is the Ford GT really a Ferrari-beater? Well, a few were raced – the GT trounced all-comers in the 2008 FIA GT3 European Championship, though it didn’t publicly give Maranello a bloody nose at La Sarthe like its ancestor and descendant – but in the desirability stakes for sure. A GT starts at around £350,000, well over four times the price of Maranello’s slower contemporary rival middie V8, the F430.

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Kyle Fortune Kyle Fortune 3 months ago #

Very nice Ford GT comparison road test

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