A Fond Look Back at Ford’s GT40

Posted January 08, 2018

By Steve Temple

Photos by Dean Larson and Jeff Bruss

Since we’ve come across some GT40 replicas in recent issues, and have more on the way, it seems fitting to share a few of my direct personal experiences with this iconic design. Like so many car guys and their favorite rides, my first awareness of the GT40 began with a model car, a blue HO scale version of the big-block Mark II. I was a preteen during the years the GT40 was dominating Le Mans, and became totally entranced by its shape, not knowing at the time just how historically significant this race car would become.

Fast-forward many years later to my first job as a fledgling editor of a kit magazine, during which I was invited to Carroll Shelby’s office to meet with Bob Negstad, the Ford designer of the 427 Cobra chassis. (That’s a long story in itself, as he had to labor under AC Cars’ insistence on using some tubing from a scrapyard for the frame rails that was too short. This required the design of an elaborate structure to hold the rear suspension). Anyway, Negstad related a remarkable experience with famed driver Ken Miles about the early testing of the GT40, which had excess lift. So much so that Miles told Negstad, “We have a bit of a problem here,” and proceeded to take him on a wild ride down the Mulsanne Straight. While running at full throttle, Miles rotated the steering wheel in both directions from lock-to-lock and the car never wavered even an inch, since the front wheels were totally off the ground! That initial GT40 design was basically ready for takeoff — if it only had wings.

Years later, I met John Holman’s son Lee of Holman-Moody, who told me about being the point man for Ford’s GT40 racing efforts in Europe. Then barely out of his teens, he basically traveled to all the road courses as a precheck on a full corporate expense account. Talk about bennies! He admitted that it was all pretty heady stuff for such a young man. Anyway, he decided to recreate the Mark II to an exacting degree, even following the blueprints he had on file for the 427 side oiler.

Of course, I begged him to let me take it for a drive. He finally relented, and I recall just getting up to speed in second gear, already approaching triple digits. Upon rounding a blind corner I nearly plowed into a flock of geese crossing the road. I thought I was going to have heart failure, killed in my dream car. No harm done, but the trouble was he was asking $600,000 a pop for it, and never sold any, last I heard.

Another time I drove a Mark II replica built by ERA right after a sumptuous meal hosted by this manufacturer, which included an overly generous snifter of Grand Marnier. Barely able to keep my eyes on the road at night, I relished the experience but wished I had been more clearheaded to properly pilot one of my all-time favorite rides. Unfortunately, I hear that ERA has discontinued its production of GT40 repros, which is a pity, since its exacting monocoque chassis is of excellent quality.

But a number of other companies are still building high-quality replicas, along with midengine designs clearly inspired by the GT40 while improving on the original with more modern engines and transaxles, along with various creature comforts.

As for the new Ford GT, about the only thing it shares in common with its storied predecessors is the name. I don’t begrudge Ford using a twin-turbo V6 instead of a V8, since this new EcoBoost engine has proven itself on the racetrack. But I have an inordinate fondness for tradition in this case, particularly the heavy torque of a beefy V8.

Speaking of midmounted V8s, spy photos of the new Corvette C8 in the works might finally fulfill Zora Arkus-Duntov’s prescient plan for a mid-engine setup. Without going into the arcane engineering dynamics about advantages of its polar moment of inertia, the GT40 was clearly ahead of its time, and now Corvette engineers will be improving both its acceleration and handling by moving the engine mass closer to the drive wheels. So what’s old is new again, but GT40 enthusiasts knew all along that this was the way to go.

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