Big bangers of the sixties: Ford GT40

A late developer

Conceived in 1963 as Ford’s weapon against Ferrari in the sportscar field, but soon switching roles to become a Grand Touring Class combatant while American-built seven-litre models crushed the Modena challenge, the celebrated GT40 only became a winner in its own right when the FIA banned the monsters. Its new lease of life led to a remarkable Le Mans double, climaxing in the most thrilling 24-Hours finish of all time.

Only rarely have international motor races produced really close finishes, and these were usually the gift of slipstreaming tracks such as Monza and Hockenheim, where wheel-to-wheel racing was as natural as breathing until the authorities spoiled the fun by building chicanes.

No-one would ever have thought of Le Mans as being a slipstreaming circuit, despite its high-speed characteristics, and until 1969 the idea of two cars racing for the line after 24 hours of competition was strictly for Boy’s Own writers. But then Porsche’s 908 model, the contemporary 3-litre World Championship-winning car, fought just such a battle with the ageing Ford GT40, right at the end of its international career. Jacky Ickx, driving John Wyer’s Gulf-sponsored GT40, beat Hans Herrmann’s Porsche by 75 metres (according to the ACO’s official record) having exchanged the lead repeatedly for the last three hours of the race. It was the finest climax imaginable for the GT40 story, although it continued to give privateers good service for a little longer. History shows that Ford of America won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and 1967, and that the JW Automotive team, which was, by then, virtually independent of Ford in Europe, won in 1968 and 1969. Not only that, but remarkably it was the same car that won in September 1968, driven by Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi, and nine months later in the hands of Jacky Ickx and Jack Oliver. In those two years the Gulf Oil Company’s distinctive colours, eggshell blue with orange flashes, became synonymous with a programme that peaked four years after it was supposed to!

All sorts of anniversaries will be celebrated this June in different quarters. The ACO will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the postwar revival of the 24-Hour Race, and the Ferrari marque will celebrate its very first major victory there (or anywhere). Aston Martin will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its famous 1-2 victory, achieved when Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby beat team-mates Maurice Trintignant and Paul Frere in DBR1/300 models, thrashing a quartet of Ferrari 250 models after the works Testarossas all fell by the wayside.

In 1969 the Ford and Porsche entries provided the closest finish between two rival makes, and the most thrilling ending in the entire history of the event, while a few people will recall that in 1979 the race was won by a Kremer Porsche 935 — the first time in at least 20 years that success was achieved by anything remotely like a cataloged production car. The Ford GT40 story begins in 1963, soon after Richard Attwood and David Hobbs gave Eric Broadley’s handsome Lola-Ford GT a fine outing at Le Mans. In only its second race it ran as high as eighth on Saturday evening, but was damaged at dawn when gear selection became difficult. More than anything else the Lola GT was the inspiration for the new Ford project, and when the Ford Advanced Vehicles group was established at Slough later that Year, Broadley was hired as its freelance designer.

Roy Lunn, an expatriate Englishman working in Detroit, was FAV’s director and John Wyer was the general manager, having come over from Aston Martin; John Horsman was the chief engineer and Len Bailey was on the design staff, taking much credit for the eventual winner.

It took a long time for the Ford GT40 to become accepted as “British” despite its outstanding claims to be, for the programme was devised in Detroit and the first power unit was the aluminium 4.2-litre V8 which took Jirn Clark’s Lotus to second place at Indianapolis in 1963. By some curious coincidence, I was a passenger in the GT40 driven by Horsman at MIRA when the last 4.2 expired with a thud and a trail of smoke, just after pulling a calculated 172mph on the short straight. “Good”, said Horsman. “Now we can concentrate on the 4.7.”

Despite its iron block, the 4.7 was actually 75 lb lighter than the four-cam alloy 4.2, because it had a simpler specification, and the Indy engine was badly handicapped by the sheer weight of its dry-sump lubrication system. Not only that, but the 4.7 put out 390 bhp back in 1964 compared with the 4.2’s claimed 350 bhp, so there was no disputing the larger engine’s credentials. Right through 1964 though, and early in 1965, the Colossi gearbox was a hideous weakness, eventually overcome by installing the ZF transmission.

Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby piloted the GT40 to its maiden victory in the Daytona 2000km early in 1965, the 4.7-litre car prepared by Carroll Shelby leading home an AC Cobra and another GT40, and at Sebring Miles and Bruce McLaren took their GT40 to second place behind the Chevrolet powered Chaparral (likewise, its debut victory). Ferrari resumed its dominance for the remainder of the season, though, and in 1966 the American-built, 7-litre Ford Mk2 models powered to the fore.

Ironically, not one GT40 ever finished at Le Mans between 1964 and 1967, even though this was a prime target. Had the programme ended there, the GT40 might have been of only passing interest to historians, just as George Bush’s career would have been had he not been elected President of the United States!

The Ford parent company lost interest in the GT40 programme as soon as the Mk2 achieved its first Le Mans victory in 1966, and at the end of that year John Wyer and his partner John Willment took over the venture as a private enterprise, setting up shop in the former FAV premises at Banbury Avenue, Slough. They had the unstinting backing of the Gulf Oil Company (whose president, Grady Davis, was an unashamed motor racing enthusiast), and as a private enterprise the JW Automotive Gulf Ford GT40 programme, to give it the full title, looked ever more effective. David Yorke, who had managed the Essex Wire GT40 team for Wyer in 1966, was appointed team manager, but the most significant aspects of the 1967 season were the release from Ford (Detroit) politics, and from the need to prepare for the Grand Touring category.

Henceforth, John Horsman carried out a series of developments concentrating on lightening, improving the aerodynamics and increasing the engine size (when it was still allowed in 1967), and the cars were now additionally called “Mirage”; meanwhile, as a separate programme in 1968 and 1969, JW Automotive had Len Terry design a 3-litre car from the ground up, to be powered either by the Ford Cosworth DFV or by the BRM V12 Formula One engine.

Without question the high point of the 1967 season, for the Gulf team, was to win the Spa 1000km, a personal triumph for the fresh-faced young Jacky Ickx who did not even look old enough to hold a driving licence. Drive he did, though, for all but a statutory hour in which Dr Dick Thompson kept the show on the rain-washed road.

Not for the first time, nor the last, the FIA decided to banish the truly powerful ground-shaking cars from racing, despite their tremendous public appeal, and devised a new formula for homologated cars with a maximum capacity of 5-litres, or prototypes of 3-litres. The French rulemakers had in mind “stock-block” cars such as the Ford GT40s and Lola T70-Chevrolets, but Ferdinand Piech had a wicked thought in his mind and unveiled the Porsche 917 in 1969, while for Ferrari Mauro Forghieri rapidly designed the 512S. In 1968, though, everyone thought that a good 3-litre would be unbeatable, with a lighter starting weight.

As it turned out, Porsche took an uncharacteristically long time to turn the new 908 into a race-winner, and while the Germans strove to conquer a variety of teething problems John Wyer’s Ford GT40s turned in a string of solid winning performances, to snatch the World Championship title from under Porsche’s nose.

Jacky Ickx and Brian Redman won, handsomely, the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch (an occasion utterly ruined, though, as news came through of Jim Clark’s death at the Hockenheimring) and Paul Hawkins and David Hobbs won at Monza, but the Gulf team felt that “Hawke,” had driven disappointingly at the Ntirburgring, where the GT40 he shared with Ickx managed only third place, albeit within striking distance of the two Porsche 908s of Jo Siffert/Vic Elford and Hans Herrmann/Rolf Stommelen. My recollection of that race is that snow flurried round, the 44 laps took a painfully long 61/2 hours to complete, and everyone was glad to get away for a hot bath afterwards!

Ickx and Redman triumphed, beautifully, at Spa, but soon afterwards the Lancastrian crashed his Formula One Cooper-Maserati at the Belgian track (when the suspension broke) and was out for the remainder of the season with a broken arm. Lucien Bianchi partnered Ickx to another victory at Watkins Glen, ahead of the Hawkins/Hobbs GT40, and then Ickx broke his leg in a crash in practice for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Pedro Rodriguez was asked to replace Ickx at Le Mans, the event having been delayed until September on account of a general strike in the summer, and he and Bianchi drove a superb, commanding race, taking the lead as darkness fell and never relinquishing it. The Porsche 908s proved troublesome in their first 24-hour race, and second was claimed by Dieter Spoerry and Rico Steinemann in their works-backed 907.

The JW Automotive Gulf Ford GT40 team had narrowly beaten Porsche for the World Championship, and that Le Mans success proved conclusive in a decision that was made in Zuffenhausen nine months later. The winter development of the 917, and the production of 25 examples, stretched the resources of Porsche while it was experiencing one of the periodic down-turns in its fortunes, and even before the memorable Le Mans encounter of 1969 Porsche asked John Wyer to handle its official competitions programme in 1970 and 1971.

None but the most privileged knew that, of course, as the stage was set in June 1969. Roger Penske’s Lola-Chevrolet had won the 24 Hours of Daytona, Ickx and Jack Oliver had won the second round at Sebring in the GT40, but then the Porsche 908s hit winning form in the shape of the Siffert/ Redman partnership. Not, though, at Le Mans where, aptly, there has never been an substitute for cubic inches.

Centre of attention at Le Mans were the Porsche factory’s six cars — three 908s and three 917s of uncertain temperament. Piech, told his drivers that the 4.5-litre flat-12 engines now developed 580 bhp, but enthusiasm was restrained because the 917’s first outings at Spa and the Nurburgring had proved, conclusively, that the steel-tube spaceframe chassis had not been nearly stiff enough.

The ACO caused more despondency in the camp by threatening to enforce a new FIA ruling prohibiting moving aerodynamic devices, and demanding that the suspension-operated tail-flaps must be rendered inoperable. After threatening to withdraw his entire team, manager Rico Steinemann invited Rolf Stommelen to drive his 917 with the flaps in a fixed position, and his progress down the Mulsanne Straight at 220 mph was so utterly frightening that the stewards relented … just this once. Even Vic Elford was scared as Stommelen passed him at top speed, and that was proof enough for most people.

John Woolfe, the British privateer, took delivery of the first customer 917 at Le Mans and, against good advice, insisted on racing it even when co-driver Digby Martland withdrew, saying it was too much of handful for him. Herbert Linge, Porsche’s development engineer, was “loaned” to Woolfe and it was suggested that he should drive the first hour. Had Woolfe taken this advice all might have been well, but pride drew him to the starting grid, and he was at the wheel when the 917 went out of control at the White House, hit a barrier and disintegrated, killing the driver instantly.

Chris Amon had hung back in his Ferrari not daring to pass Woolfe and “waiting for the accident to happen”. Unfortunately the New Zealander’s judgement was not so good that day: his 3-litre open Ferrari rode over the 917’s tobogganing fuel tank and started a huge fire, right in the centre of the track and just within view of the tribunes facing the pits.

Jacky Ickx had chosen to walk across the track to start his Gulf GT40 as a defiant act of protest against the “run and jump” start, fastening his seat-belt deliberately, and he was among those badly delayed by the fracas at the White House.

Two factory 917s started the race, and they dominated the field after an hour, Stommelen leading Elford. In the second hour the German’s car began to lay a smokescreen and the oil-leak (already noted in practice) proved incurable; the car ran right through the night, making periodic stops. Elford and Attwood, however, took special care of their transmission, known to be the car’s weakest point, and led the race easily for hour after hour.

The Siffert/Redman longtail 908 had led early on Saturday evening but retired with an overheated gearbox, whilst the two Gulf GT40s lurked in the background, running to a strict schedule which was not altered even when they lay eight laps behind the Elford/Attwood 917 at half-distance. More Porsches retired, Udo Schutz misjudging the “kink” at night and reducing his works 908 to scrap, although like Win Percy many years later he was completely unharmed.

Three hours from the finish (at 2pm on Sunday afternoon) both leading Porsches retired with broken transmissions and the race changed completely. Elford’s car had been smoking and clutch-slipping for an hour and just wouldn’t go any further, and to Piech’s chagrin Rudi Lins brought his second-placed 908 to the pits with the gearbox seizing up.

Now Ickx led the race for the first time with Hans Herrmann close behind, the German’s 908 having lost half an hour in the night with a seized front hub. In third place, merely three laps behind after sustaining a puncture in the night, were David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood in the second Gulf GT40, and on the same lap as Hobbs was Piers Courage in the Matra 650, driving as hard as he knew how.

That final phase of the race provided as much excitement as a season of Grand Prix racing, and as each act was played the huge crowd rose to its feet, the clamour of voices being heard clearly in the town.

Ickx went to the pits at 11.10am for fuel and new pads, letting Herrmann take the lead, but next time around the 908 made a routine stop and Larrousse rejoined the race 10 seconds behind the GT40. And, despite a cracked exhaust-pipe which robbed the Ford’s 5-litre V8 engine of power, Ickx managed to maintain a lead of around seven seconds, lapping at just under 3min 40sec for the first time in the race (earlier, Elford had established a new record at 3min 27.2sec, the track now featuring the Ford chicane just before the pits).

After midday, as the race went into its last two hours, Larrousse applied more pressure and began to attack, but the Belgian fended him off until his last stop was due at 12.30. Although Ickx had been at the wheel since a little before ten o’clock, David Yorke decided to keep him in — a vital decision. Disregarding Oliver’s merits, Yorke realised that Ickx was still fighting fit, was perfectly attuned to the machine, and understood perfectly where, and how, he could steal advantages from the Porsche.

The lesson was lost on the Porsche team, as Herrmann relieved Larrousse for the last hour-and-a-quarter. The Porsche ran 200 metres behind the GT40 for four laps, then closed up and snatched a slender lead when 59 minutes of the race remained. Ickx was ahead next time the cars came into sight, then Herrmann, then lckx again — but this time Mike Hailwood was about to be lapped, and a process that was very easy for Ickx proved very difficult for the Porsche driver, who spent two laps looking for a way past “Mike the Bike”.

Ickx re-established his lead of 200 metres, but Herrmann found that life became easier when Hailwood went to the pits for the last time. Again the Porsche closed up, regaining the lead 22 minutes from the finish, and now the contest entered its final, and most crucial stage. Each team had a secret. Ickx was very marginal on fuel and ought, by rights, to call at his pit again five minutes from the end. Herrmann had a problem too, a brake-pad warning light that gleamed on the dashboard. He suspected, rightly, that it was a wiring fault, and tried to ignore it, but somehow the veteran felt unable to do his brakes justice each time he reached the end of the Mulsanne Straight.

Time and again the Porsche went ahead at Tertre Rouge, the Gulf Ford at Mulsanne, the Porsche at Indianapolis, the Ford before the White House; the people in the Press tribune, mostly French and English, were shouting “Jacky, Jacky” each time became into view, until their throats were sore. Certainly, I have never experienced emotions like that, before or since, at a motor race.

Usually Ickx led at the timing line, and we realised that his advantage was greatest at the critical part of the track. The two cars crossed the line 20 metres apart merely half-a-minute before two o’clock, Ickx embarking on a lap which, at any other point in the race, would have been suicidal so far as the fuel-tankage was concerned. Collectively John Wyer and his staff stopped breathing for 215 seconds … then let out a hearty cry as the blue and orange Gulf car swept past the chequered flag, achieving the finest victory in the history of the classic race.

That 1969 edition had opened with controversy, some humour, and tragedy: Ickx, the gambler, had walked across the track at the start then spent a minute at rest while the wreckage of John Woolfe’s Porsche was doused and cleared away. That merely heightened the achievement of winning, but supposing he had lost by 75 metres? It’s a possibility that the JW Automotive team never considered, even with hindsight, because on that day in June Jacky Ickx confirmed his reputation as a motor racing maestro. He would win the race again for John Wyer in 1975 … and for the Porsche factory in 1976,1977,1981 and again in 1982.

First, though, he won in the GT40, a classic among all the famous Le Mans winners. MLC