By Larry Weiner 

Photos by Steve Temple

Some days you start off on the wrong foot. Other days you get to stomp on the gas with your right foot. The latter was the case when I got a last-minute call to take a Superformance GT40 Mark I for blistering drive. More than just a thrilling experience, it would serve as a hands-on experience to size it up against the impending launch of Ford’s GT concept. While we couldn’t do a driving comparison, since the Ford’s new design is basically still on the drawing board, we’d be able to experience a remarkably close facsimile of its forebear firsthand. More about the dramatic differences between the two shortly, but first some initial impressions.

As the sun was just clearing the horizon in the east I could see that it would be a perfect day for a romp in one of the most exciting racing cars ever built. When I arrived at Superformance, Lance Stander, the owner of Superformance and several members of his team were standing around a stunning Ford GT40 repro that was sitting patiently inside the building. It so closely resembled the original that Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby drove to the win at the Daytona 2000 in 1965 that it gave me a chill just looking at it. To say that I was nearly breathless with anticipation would be an understatement. There was no doubt in my mind that what I was feeling was a combination of excitement laced with fear. Excited to have the opportunity to drive the GT40, tinged with apprehension about inflicting damage to it in the heat of a moment after giving in to sheer abandon. I immediately resolved to err on the part of caution and drive with a measure of reserve, lest some unintended consequences rear their ugly little heads.

Lance opened the driver’s door, and just like the original, this Ford GT was a right-hand drive (unlike the photo subject shot previously, which is a twin sibling, except for the driver’s position). He pointed out the location of key switchgear, and talked about some of the idiosyncrasies associated with driving the car, such as its extremely low ground clearance. Reading between the lines, the implied message was be careful navigating driveways, so as not to scrape the paint off the bottom of the front fascia. After a moment of reflection, I snapped out of it. Time was burning, and Lance asked if I was ready for the ride of my life. With a quick affirmative shake of my head, he gestured for me to get in.

Nick, Lance’s right-hand man, removed the quick-release steering wheel, and as I looked at the wide sill and long, narrow foot box, I realized that climbing into the cockpit would be easier said than done. As carefully as I tried, there was almost no way to enter the Ford GT without stepping on the seat, which I was assured was okay, but I still hated to do it. Thankfully, the interior was bathed in black and my Nikes were relatively clean, so I swung my body in as gracefully as possible, tucked my legs under the dash and lowered myself down into the seat. Nick reinstalled the steering wheel, cinched me into the car with the five-point racing harness, went over some other items, including the closeness of the foot pedals, and it was time to start the engine.

The small-block Ford fired up easily, and I took a few minutes to let it warm up before heading out, with the staccato sounds of the exhaust note bellowing through the “bundle of snakes” system, and reverberating off the interior walls of the building. Lance decided it would be fun to join me as the co-pilot, and I was glad for his company, as he has had plenty of seat time in Ford GTs. There was no doubt in my mind that a second set of eyes would be valuable, especially an experienced set. Nick quickly attached a license plate to the back of the car and it was time to hit the road. Instantly street legal, this full-bred race car was now ready to mix it up with unsuspecting commuters in their generic appliances. A real wolf among the sheep scenario if ever there was one. 

After a quick get-acquainted drive though the industrial park where Superformance is located, we headed out for a more interesting piece of road. In a short time, we were heading east on a six-lane stretch of billiard-table smooth asphalt that offered nice long straights laced with some gentle hills and curves. I decided that this would be an excellent time to let the Ford GT stretch its legs and clear its throat. Running in Third gear, I could sense the car talking to me, urging me to get into it and stop pussyfooting around. I can take a hint, and abruptly dropped the hammer.

Much like giving a championship thoroughbred its head, the Ford GT came alive. The sound of the engine went from being tolerant, but impatient, to a musical crescendo that would have left the Boston Pops musicians gasping for air in a vain attempt to keep up.

Decibels be damned, forget whatever you know or have read about NVH because it just doesn’t matter. The GT40 might vibrate, it might get hot inside, the visibility might not be the best and the raucous sound produced by the eight cylinder engine proudly emblazoned “Powered by Ford” might be deafening, but it doesn’t matter. This is a taste of what it was like to be in the seat of a car with the same DNA as the winner at LeMans. And I was having the time of my life.

The Ford GT40 is a car that wants to be driven, and driven enthusiastically, with the kind of fervor that only a lucky few ever get to experience in their life. The Ford GT came into its own at that moment, and it’s the kind of rapture that I’ll never forget. The more I asked of it, the more it gave. And as if that wasn’t enough, it kept coming back for more. We should all be so fortunate.   

Back to reality, and not wanting a speeding ticket from the CHP who regularly cruise this area, or worse yet, have this beautiful creature impounded, I turned at the next intersection and headed for the freeway. My time behind the wheel seemed like it all went by much too quickly. And although it seemed to last little more than a brief moment, in reality, I was in the seat for more than an hour. In my heart, I knew that it was time to head back to Superformance, lest they think that I had kidnapped Lance and had no intention of ever bringing the GT40 back. (By the way, don’t think for a second that the thought didn’t cross my mind.)

Getting back to our initial premise about comparing a classic-style GT40 repro with Ford’s new GT concept that goes into production next year, I have been asked by quite a few people what my thoughts are about them.  A $350,000 exotic with extremely limited production, the Ford GT is sure to be the flavor of the month among the rich and famous. It will undoubtedly be loaded with all of the latest technology and creature comforts that can be crammed into vehicle of its caliber. With a carbon-fiber body that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, powered by an environmentally friendly, twin-turbo V6 engine rated at 600 hp or so, it’s the perfect car for a newly minted dot-com millionaire or Bieber-esque billionaire whose knowledge of what constitutes a real sports car is probably is limited to what they’re read online.

Make no mistake, the new GT is no Ford GT40. Other than the name, it has nothing in common with the real deal.

The original wasn’t domesticated like the new Ford GT, nor should it be. It’s strictly business. As for the Superformance repro, this is a car that assaults your senses to the point of overload, and if you can appreciate the GT40 for what it is, and the history it made, then you get it. The Superformance GT40 is the spiritual heir to the throne, a real-world race car with an original-style suspension, and at a fraction of the price of the new Ford GT.

The GT40 is virtually the same car that the great ones like Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt drove at a time when there was nothing that Americans couldn’t do, and America was the most envied country in the world. The original Ford GT40 was just like America; larger than life, winning LeMans an incredible four consecutive years in row, and in many ways, it’s still larger than life 50 years later. The Ford GT40 might have been crude by Ferrari’s standards in the eyes of Europeans, but it soundly beat the cars with the Prancing Horse at their own game, and did it year after year. Life is too short, and if you have the chance, you should make every effort to own a GT40. It’s the one car that can take you for the ride of your life.