Rejuvenating GT40s

An ex-J.W.A. mechanic secures the future of these covetable Fords.

Production of the Ford GT40 ceased in the late 1960s, by which time this successful sports/racing car had established itself as a classic in its time, an appreciating collector's item for the future. It epitomised the '60s much as sporting machines such as the 4½-litre Bentley and the Jaguar D-type characterised their respective eras. But wait! Production ceased? A product of the '60s? Not strictly so! Down in Danvers Street, Chelsea, a stone's throw from the Kings Road, Mecca for "trendies" in the Beatles age which GT40 production paralleled, a brand new GT40 is taking shape in 1975. And, alongside, a second new GT40 chassis awaits attention. Not replicas, not motorised caricatures, but the genuine thing.

No, John Wyer has not decided that the 1976 Le Mans regulations favour a fifth GT40 victory (GT40s or their derivatives won in 1966, '67, '68 and '69). These new cars are the product of John Etheridge, who was in on the GT40 story from the beginning, working for Wyer, Eric Broadley, Roy Lunn, Len Bailey and company after the formation of Ford Advanced Vehicles in 1963/1964. Fresh from an apprenticeship at Aston Martin, where he'd finished up on engine testing with Jack Sopp and met the then Aston Martin Team Manager Wyer, Etheridge earned his spurs preparing and developing GT40s. Le Mans, Daytona, Sebring, Nurburgring, he did the rounds as a GT40 race mechanic for J.W. Automotive, with spells on loan to customers under a support programme, a scheme which took him to South Africa maintaining the car he'd built for Peter Sutcliffe. He remembers building the two open GT40 development cars in 1965 and one of the three Gulf-Mirages---two of which were reconverted to GT40s later —amongst the many interesting landmarks in his Slough-based career.

Etheridge left J.W. Automotive in 1968, shortly before the Gulf/J.W.A. Le Mans victory, to start his own business. Today his John Etheridge Engineering Ltd. is offering a unique spares and preparation service for fortunate GT40 owners, putting to use expertise gained at first-hand with the models in their racing hey-day. So long as owners of the 70 or so GT40s still extant refrain from bending their irreplaceable chassis, the Danvers Street workshop can practically guarantee to keep them on the road—or circuit. Etheridge holds all the J.W. Automotive spares, selling them as agent for Wyer. Whatever is missing from the parts shelves he either reconditions, fabricates himself or commissions their reproduction. If "irreplaceable chassis" seems incompatible with the building of new GT40s, this is because the 1975 cars are being constructed out of new parts upon two of possibly only three new chassis remaining. Without doubt they will be the last GT40s to be built, for Abbey Panels Ltd., who built all the complex, sheet-steel, semi-monocoque hulls, have long since disposed of the jigs.

GT40 history is astonishingly complicated, encompassing numerous derivatives and construction by three separate licensees: Ford Advanced Vehicles (including J.W.A.), Shelby-American and Alan Mann Racing. Types varied from the original sharp-nosed version, through the short, definitive-type nose derivative (both the foregoing Mark 1, for the sake of argument, with small-block engines of various capacities), the 7-litre Mark 2, the "luxury" Mark 3 road car with longer front and rear bodywork and the totally different J-type and its development, the Mark 4, both with honeycomb-aluminium chassis in place of the sheet-steel structure of the other models. To the man-in-the-street "the GT40" is likely to be the short-nosed Mark 1, by far the most numerous of the marque, including as it did some 24 road-going versions built in Slough. It is this model in particular to which Etheridge is administering, forming as it did the mainstay of J.W.A. activities, racing and road-going, the other models, apart from the two prototype and five production Slough-built Mark 3s, being Shelby territory.

Etheridge is able to offer to order all the unstressed glassfibre body panels—the complete nose, bonnet, doors, sill shrouds and the massive tail section—authentic in every detail, made in the original moulds. Customers for these panels so far have requested the thicker section road-car specification, but there is no reason why they should not be produced in race-gauge glassfibre. Screens and Perspex side windows, racing or road, and all the necessary front and rear lighting equipment is available to complete the exterior package.

Apart from the very early Mark Is and the road cars, which ran on Borrani wire wheels, GT40s ran on BRM magnesium wheels. Unfortunately these are susceptible to both apparent external deterioration and invisible fatigue and one of Etheridge's main tasks has been to originate suitable replacement wheels. GKN have produced for him suitable five-spoke (the BRM wheels had six spokes) aluminium wheel castings, former racing driver/constructor Mark Konig's new machine shop machines them and the result so far has been some very satisfied GT40 owners. They look like being as popular with road car owners who prefer their aesthetics to wires, as with those whose racing magnesium wheels desperately need replacing. In fact it would be possible to have authentic magnesium wheels re-manufactured, but apart from long-term reliability and maintenance problems there would be the short-term hazard of a bill for well over £200 each; the aluminium replacements are considerably less for the 8½-in. wide fronts and 10-in. or 11-in. rears. Ten-inch fronts and rears up to 14-in. width are in the offing.

Another non-original Etheridge part essential to GT40 well-being is his new aluminium fuel tank kit. Originally the cars had a rubber bag-tank in each sill; with age most have deteriorated badly, but a more apparent deficiency is that the fuel tends to coagulate in them, blocking outlets, when the cars are left standing for some time, as most of these almost priceless museum pieces now tend to be. The Etheridge tanks, each of 10 gallons made for him by Grand Prix Metalcraft, slip unobtrusively in their place, packed in either ordinary foam or the expanding polyurethane foam, pumped in as a liquid, used in deformable structures.

One of the more unexpected GT40 problems Etheridge revealed to me was rust. In the interests of lightness the thin-gauge sheet-steel hulls were never protected adequately, with the result that many of the marque, particularly road cars, are rotting badly in the sill and under-chassis regions, where damp has been trapped. The only cure is to strip the car and have the chassis plated, a job which Grand Prix Metalcraft carry out for Etheridge. The new car gradually taking shape exemplified most of the other GT40 parts availability. All the suspension and steering components, including magnesium uprights (some interchangeable aluminium Mark 3 uprights are kept too) are from new stock, with the exception of Armstrong or Koni dampers; new ones are no longer obtainable so old ones are reconditioned. The front-mounted, Serck oil cooler came "off the shelf", but an exact copy of the unobtainable original water radiator had to be made up "by a little man round the corner".

Smiths have provided authentic instrumentation and the vented, hammock seats are being made as original. The pedal box was from stock, as were most other bits and pieces such as alloy fuel caps and radiator piping. Solid brake discs are fitted as per the very early racers and all the road cars, with very soft pads; the later ventilated discs, though stocked, are considered undesirable for the conditions under which this pure road car will be used. The V8 engine will be a Ford 289 cu in. (4.7-litre) high performance unit fitted with a four-barrel Holley carburetter, basically similar to that fitted in the Mark 3, and drive will be through a suitably ratioed five-speed ZF gearbox. Etheridge reckons the complete car will have cost its eagerly awaiting owner some £12,000 when complete, probably cheaper than buying an old one without a history.

Hidden away behind a Rolls-Royce hire business, John Etheridge Engineering Ltd. is a haven for many an exotic, London-based road car, Ferrari Daytonas, Dinos, Aston Martins and the like receiving skilled attention from John and his staff, including Noel Appleton, another former J.W.A. race mechanic. They appear bread-and-butter cars in this GT40 oasis, but perforce are Etheridge's main income. Indeed anything, even GT40s, look run-of-the-mill alongside Jack Le Fort's delectable Lola T70, in for an engine and gearbox rebuild. Now that really is a collector's piece.—C.R.