Safir GT40 -- an evolution

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There is a whole range of adjectives to describe cars that aren’t quite what they seem: fakes, replicas, re-creations and inspirations are just a few of the descriptions. But like the Autokraft AC MkIV that we drove and described a couple of months ago, the Safir GT40 answers none of these appellations. It is, if you like, a genuine evolution of the Ford GT40, developed for limited production and practical road use by Len Bailey who was a member of the original design and development team.

If the Safir GT40 looks almost identical to the historic model that won the Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1968 and again in 1969 it is because the body is made in the same, original Mk1 version moulds, though to a much higher standard producing a mirror finish scarlet paintwork. The BRM pattern wheels, used latterly by Ford, are made by Challenge Engineering in High Wycombe and are the finishing touch to a totally authentic looking GT40.

An original Ford GT40 would be valued today at anything from £60,000 (in scruffy condition) to £100,000, though the Gulf car which won twice at Le Mans is almost beyond value. If you want a car with a bit of history, perhaps to run in historic events or to put into a museum, that’s what you will have to pay. A Safir GT40, on the other hand, will set you back £45,000 for the rolling chassis, nearer £50,000 with a Mathwall-built Ford Boss 302 (5-litre) iron block V8 turning out a bit over 300 bhp, aided by a four-barrel Holley carburetter.

Peter Thorp negotiated the right to call his version a GT40 and bought all the available equipment from John Willment (half of the ‘JW’ partnership with John Wyer), so the Safir has a genuine pedigree. For production Len Bailey evolved the GT40 with squared-off side members which could be fabricated and would accept aluminium fuel tanks (12.5 gallons on each flank) rather than the leaky bag tanks, “handed” uprights, new suspension geometry, new alloy brake calipers, and a variety of detail modifications. The AP brakes are 11.5 inch diameter at the front and rear, and an AP 8.5 inch sintered twin-plate clutch transmits the power via a ZF gearbox, very much like the original but subsequently modified to suit BMW’s M1. The enormous twin exhaust pipes pass through expansion boxes which do very little to muffle the noise, so driving the Safir GT40 through sleepy Surrey villages is very much a case of looking out for the Law and keeping a light foot on the throttle. The noise emission can be quite acceptable on a light throttle, less offensive than that of a high-revving Japanese moped, but there’s no chance of passing by unobtrusively in a blood-red GT40!

A heavy foot building the revs up towards the 7,000 mark produces a quite different sensation, that of a pur sang racing car launching itself up a narrowing strip of tarmac. In contemporary times the GT40 seemed to lack the vivid appeal of a Ferrari 312, perhaps on account of its Detroit production based engine, but to drive one today banishes such thoughts completely. Today’s breed of turbocharged monsters, producing twice the power maybe, have muffled and muted exhaust notes which don’t arouse the drivers, let alone the spectators to any great degree. The howl of a high-revving normally aspirated engine, like the smell of Castrol R, stirs many memories of “the good old days” and the GT40 seems to epitomise a bygone age of endurance racing.

Peter Thorp’s GT40 has an open top (as did the originals sometimes, at the Targa Florio for instance) in deference to his six-foot height; the firm, cord upholstered seats are fixed but the pedals are adjustable, so it’s not easy to make a rapid change-over. So we pointed our toes to reach the pedals, and still managed to appreciate that the clutch is not unduly heavy, and nor do the brakes need a lot of warming up to do their job.

The short gear lever, working in an open gate, has a catch to guard against reverse. Unlike the original GT40s the movement is not sequential, meaning that you can move the lever from fifth to third, or fourth to second if you want to. The cockpit feels very snug indeed, and quite free of draughts, though a warm breeze comes back from the radiator via the pedal box suggesting that motoring on a hot day could be thirsty work … even without a helmet and a full set of Nomex.

Had this been a production sports car from a major manufacturer we might have complained at the firm suspension. But, as a fully rose-jointed fair weather road car derived from a Le Mans winning racing model we could only marvel that the suspension would cope with uneven surfaces at all, let alone with a reasonable degree of comfort, and we can well believe Mr Thorp’s glowing description of a trip to the Nurburgring last year with his wife, setting some impressive averages on the autobahn system.

There was no opportunity to take acceleration figures, but a 0-100 mph time of around 10 seconds felt perfectly credible. There was no problem in unsticking the 235 section Goodyear NCT rear tyres in fierce acceleration and the right-hand gearchange moved with a short, positive movement each time. The GT40 is geared for a maximum of 170 mph, but the high drag body (by today’s standards) and 1,000 kg weight probably combine to allow a top speed of around 150 mph with 300 bhp.

The steering felt very direct and responsive, and not particularly heavy with little weight over the front wheels and probably little in t h e w a y of downforce either. Sheer grip was disappointing, though, as the tyre pressures were adjusted for road use and not for an off-road handling course, which resulted in a heaving tail-out moment at a fairly low speed. Rather inhibited, we continued on the track concentrating on the feel of the car, the sound and the smell rather than any further handling experiments.

Until a few months ago Safir Engineering was next door to the Autokraft company within the Brooklands Estate, but has now moved a mile down the road and expanded at the Brooklands Garage in Oyster Lane. It’s a Ford RS centre, at the front, but they do amazing things like six-wheel Range Rover conversions, pickups, cross-country vehicles . . . or how about an XR4i-powered Escort, with rear wheel drive? Peter Thorp is laying down a further batch of six Safir GT40s, most of which are already spoken for. By any standards they are outrageous road cars, and at £50,000 apiece they make toys for the very rich but lacking the investment value of an original GT40. Yet, to go out and drive one is proof enough that normal production cars, no matter how fast or expensive they may be, lack that vital ingredient of machismo. Dulled by soundproofing, pampered by air conditioning and stereo today’s supercars are infinitely more sophisticated, but along the way the driver has lost a vital ingredient, the blending of his skills and the thoroughbred qualities of an open, back-to-nature machine. The exclusive market may be measured only in ones and twos, in the Safir price range anyway, but what a rich reward for the fortunate ones who can afford a GT40! — M.L.C.