1964-1967 Ford GT

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The original version of the Ford GT made its public debut at the 1964 New York Auto Show before heading to European tracks. See more classic car pictures.

Almost everyone is familiar with the shorthand history of the 1964-1967 Ford GT as it has been presented so many times since then. Basically, it goes like this: Having been rebuffed by Enzo Ferrari in their attempts to purchase his company and the glory attending it, Henry Ford II and his minions decided to add big-time sports-car racing to their competition plate -- already crowded with participation in NASCAR, Formula 1, the Indianapolis 500, and international rallying -- by buying up another established builder of racing machinery, one that wouldn't balk at being associated with the Ford name.

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Over in England, Eric Broadley's Lola Cars, Ltd. had just introduced a sleek, Le Mans-ready mid-engine coupe, providentially fitted with an American Ford V-8 engine. Ford, looking for the shortest distance between idea and success, bought up Mr. Broadley's little shop, dressed up the Lola Mark 6 GT a bit, and, lo and behold, a mere 10-figure cash expenditure later, was able to steamroller its way to victory at Le Mans.

A first indication that the popular fable may not be the real, a complete story of the GT can be found in the spring 1964 issue of Automobile Quarterly. There, in a piece curiously titled "America Goes Grand Prix," Ford's Roy Lunn lays out some of the thinking behind the GT's development. It's all very general, of course, and slightly disjointed in places, as if edited down from a much larger story.

The AQ story had been culled from a paper submitted to the Society of Automotive Engineers plus, apparently, some material prepared for a lecture Lunn was to present. But within the descriptions of aerodynamic research, project design parameters, and other details was a paragraph that began with the words, "By July, 1963, a basic design and style had been established at Dearborn..."

Fords had won races on lots of tracks in lots of series by the early 1960s, but the 24-hour sports-car endurance classic at Le Mans was not on that list. Henry Ford II wanted to change that.

Dearborn? That's a heckuva long way from Slough Trading Estates in England.

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Tricky handling experienced by drivers who shook down the Ford GT at the Le Mans test days in 1964 spurred Ford to head to the wind tunnel for further testing. One of the results was a reshaped nose with a deeper "chin."
David Durochik

The story's trail led from that innocuous sentence to retired Ford project engineer Bob Negstad, who was assigned to what would become the Ford GT project in its earliest days. He agrees that the impetus for the project came in part from Ferrari's refusal to join Prancing Horse to Blue Oval. But he is adamant that the similarities between the Lola Mark 6 and the Ford GT are largely coincidental.

Lola was brought into the project, Negstad asserts, because Eric Broadley was a "brilliant fabricator." He ended up doing much of the construction and assembly work on the Ford GT prototype. But it was not in any way his creation.

"Broadley was technically naive," Negstad says, "a trial-and-error man" working in a "terribly old, obsolete building lit by a single 40-watt bulb." The attraction for Ford was not Broadley's design expertise, but rather his ability to quickly build what they wanted, plus the availability of a car of somewhat similar configuration that could serve as a driveable test bed while Ford's own design was coming together.

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1964 Ford GT Encounters Problems

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A faired-in spoiler at the trailing edge of the deck also helped keep Ford GT-40s planted on the pavement. Door cuts that extended deeply into the roof eased entry and exit for drivers.
David Durochik

Before Negstad, Lunn, former Aston Martin team manager John Wyer, and other figures in the making of the 1964-1967 Ford GT took up residence at Lola and moved the operation to new, more modern premises, Broadley went racing with the Mark 6. It showed potential -- any lightweight car with plenty of horsepower had at least some potential -- but was bedeviled by problems.

Some were minor (during one 1000-kilometer race the car was retired after either a distributor problem -- the official reason -- or because the wheel nuts wouldn't stay tight on their studs). Some were major (a crash at Le Mans was blamed on gearbox failure, although some accounts point to a serious aerodynamic problem as the culprit).


But time had run out for the Mark 6. Construction of Ford's design was well under way and, of the three Mark 6s built, two became test mules for Ford, while the third was sold to Texas oilman and race team owner John Mecom, who gave it a Chevrolet engine. (After a few disappointing outings, relieved by a win at the Nassau Speed Weeks, Mecom's car was destroyed in a crash at Riverside, California.)

In March 1964, the Ford GT was presented to the automotive press at the New York Auto Show. Low, sleek, and purposeful, it looked ready for battle. It wasn't.

The paint was barely dry on the car when it was loaded into a plane and flown from England to New York. Real testing had barely begun. Ford's plan was to have two cars at the Le Mans test days a little more than a month after the press debut, compete in the 1000-kilometer event in May, and be ready to take on Ferrari at Le Mans in June.

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John Wyer's Gulf Oil-sponsored light blue-and-orange team cars astounded -- and confounded -- the racing establishment by winning at Le Mans in 1968 and 1969 with a supposedly obsolete car.
David Durochik

On paper, the Ford GT and the Mark 6 were very similar. Both were based on stressed-skin monococque chassis tubs-the Ford GT's formed of steel, the Lola's of aluminum -- to which conventional upper-and-lower A-arm front and lower-arm/upper transverse and trailing arm rear suspension assemblies were attached. Both, of course, used the small Ford V-8 powerplant, though the GT's was brought up to what the press releases called "Indianapolis" specification in terms of internal upgrades and carburetion.

Both had fiberglass body panels as well. Dimensionally, the two cars were close; the Ford GT had a 95-inch wheelbase, three inches longer than that of the Mark 6, was slightly wider, and considerably heavier, at a dry weight of 1820 pounds, versus the Mark 6's 1,465 pounds. (The Ford GT would get heavier still, as time went by.)

At introduction time, Ford was being quite open about the GT's gestation, giving full credit to its own people in Dearborn and in England. But somewhere along the way that changed, perhaps as a nervous reaction to the AMA ban on manufacturers' direct participation in motorsport then still in effect. (It sounds illogical, but somehow Ford-engined Lotuses at Indy and factory-backed Fords and Mercurys running in NASCAR didn't seem to mean quite the same thing in the executives' view.) Word came down from the top that nobody at Ford, save designated spokesmen, was to talk to the press about the Ford GT.

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Developing the 1964-1967 Ford GT

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This Ford GT wears bodywork similar to that of Wyer's winning car.
David Durochik

As a result of Ford's new policy on the 1964-1967 GT, Lola's role was given increasing prominence in print as time passed, even though Broadley himself had quickly grown tired of battling with Lunn and Wyer over design details. Shortly thereafter, he would bow out of the project and build the remarkable T70 racer on his own, and the GT would be an all-Ford show via an English subsidiary, Ford Advanced Vehicles.

"Factory" GTs would be run by Shelby American starting in 1965, FAV would become JW (John Wyer) Automotive that same year, and a host of private entrants would race Ford GTs at Le Mans and elsewhere.


But we're getting ahead of the story. The Ford GT's debut at the 1964 Le Mans test days was short and not especially sweet. French driver Jo Schlesser was the first to be bitten by the new Ford, losing one of the two cars in a big way on the long Mulsanne straight. He was uninjured; the car was not so fortunate. Not long after, Roy Salvadori went off the road in the second Ford GT with test-ending results. Officially, it was said that wet road conditions were to blame, but the real cause was far more serious.

Ford designers had created the Ford GT's body shape with the help of aeronautical engineers who had suggested an "inverted-wing" configuration. What no one seems to have considered at that moment is that aircraft can fly upside down in certain situations. So, too, could the Ford GT. This spooked the drivers. Worse, it spooked the FoMoCo executives who were supporting the program.

Haunted by visions of Ford GTs launching themselves into the hordes of spectators lining the track at Le Mans, the top brass in Dearborn ultimately decided to finish the 1964 race commitments with the cars listed as FAV entries and then hand the cars over to Carroll Shelby for the following season, not only because of his racing expertise, but also to have a front man for the effort in case of catastrophe.

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The next leap forward for the Ford GT project was the Mark II. Its powerplant was the mighty 427-cid "side-oiler" V-8 that could crank out approximately 500 bhp in race trim.
David Durochik

To its credit, Ford didn't stop development. Right after Le Mans practice, a GT was taken to the Motor Industry Research Association wind tunnel in England. There it was discovered that significant amounts of lift were present even at 60 to 70 mph. So the pretty, plain body design got a new nose, complete with larger air inlets and substantial chin spoiler, and a kicked-up tail a la Ferrari was produced. Now the Ford GT could keep its feet on the ground.

Despite the efforts of dedicated technicians, fabricators, and mechanics, the Ford GT's potential remained unrealized through 1964. A single car was entered at the Nurburgring, but was retired from fifth place after the upper rear suspension attachment points proved too fragile.

At Le Mans, the final results were equally disappointing, but a Ford driven by Richie Ginther did lead the opening lap and another, with Phil Hill at the wheel, set fastest race lap of the year.

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1964-1967 Ford GT Picks Up Speed

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A ZF gearbox replaced the troublesome Colotti unit. Revised air ducts distinguished the Mark II externally.
David Durochik

Other fundamental problems with the 1964-1967 Ford GT were coming to light that sent all and sundry back to the proverbial drawing boards. The Colotti gearbox used so far was, in Negstad's words, "junk." It simply could not deal with the torque of the Ford engine, and was failing regularly.

At least this non-Ford part could be used to take the blame for an even more fundamental problem: The 289-cid V-8 itself just wasn't up to the demands placed on it. To achieve the kind of performance the GT was capable of (Ginther had apparently seen something like 210 mph on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans), the little powerplant had been overstressed; several of the well-publicized "gearbox failures" of 1964 and after were, in fact, fatal engine malfunctions.


Ford engineers started a new test program with some of their computer-savvy engineers (suspension guru Klaus Arning and Barney Larkin among them) during which a mathematical model of the Le Mans circuit was created. All possible performance variables -- tires, suspension, horsepower, and aerodynamics among them -- were assessed.

The team quickly found that top speed was the critical factor and began looking for ways to push the GT toward 250 mph. That was clearly beyond the "small" V-8, but another Ford engine, the 427-cid V-8 used in the company's NASCAR efforts, could churn out some 500 bhp for extended periods. This more than compensated for 120 or so pounds of extra weight it added to the already plump Ford GT.

A prototype was quickly built and taken to Riverside Raceway in California for testing by the Shelby American team. In a memorable back-to-back run against a 289 GT, the 427, with Tom Payne driving, was able to pull away easily from Ken Miles in the standard car. Miles broke off the test, took Payne's place in the 427, and went out for some laps on his own, reporting at the end of them that "this is the end of the 289."

And it was.

While development work on the Mark II 427 progressed, a Ford GT won the 1965 24-hour race at Daytona; another finished second in the Sebring 12-hour event. But Le Mans turned out to be another dismal episode for the team, with the sole bright spot being another fastest race lap, set by Phil Hill (again) in a Mark II. Power (485 bhp when the engines were tuned to run on low-octane French fuel) was plentiful, if not quite enough to break the 250-mph barrier, but there were some engine problems, more of the expected failures of over-stressed gearboxes (now ZF instead of Colotti), and brake woes.

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1966: A Breakthrough Year for the Ford GT

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Mark IIIs were intended to entice the "jet set." Famed conductor Herbert von Karajan ordered this 1968 model.
David Durochik

The Ford GT's brake woes were the most pressing. During tests at Daytona, the 427 GTs worked their brakes to a near-transparent white heat. ("You could see the shadow of the front suspension uprights through the discs," says Negstad.) When the cars were halted, the copper in the brake pads would fuse to the discs, at which point the only way to get the pads off was to break away the aluminum calipers.

New ventilated discs from Kelsey-Hayes finally replaced the Girling components. Pads still wore at an alarming rate, but the brakes worked and the calipers were designed to allow pad changes during pit stops.


Of course the full scope of the work done to get the cars into race-winning form can't be covered in so short a space. The "big money" supposedly flowing from Dearborn wasn't always being used to best effect, and political struggles between the head office, FAV, and the people actually working to develop the cars threatened the program from time to time.

Disagreements eventually led a group of Ford employees, believers one and all in the Ford GT's potential, to set up shop in Detroit-area premises owned by racing enthusiast Nick Hartman. Using surplus equipment gathered from here and there, the new Kar Kraft firm reworked the 289 GT to Mark II specification, built a number of parts for the Mark IIs, including transmissions beefy enough to absorb the power of the 427 engines, and later fabricated chassis tubs and other essential components for the J-Car/Mark IV series cars.

The payoff year was 1966. Daytona saw the driving team of Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby leading the parade, with other GTs finishing second, third, and fifth. Sebring was another convincing win; this time Miles and Ruby led a 1-2-3 finish for Ford.

And then there was Le Mans. Ford brought no less than eight of the 427-powered coupes to France, three each run by Carroll Shelby and John Holman (of Holman and Moody NASCAR fame), plus two shepherded by Englishman Alan Mann. In addition, a number of 289 GTs were entered as insurance -- unnecessary it turned out -- as three 427s gave Ford a 1-2-3 sweep of the race.

Unfortunately, someone on the corporate/public-relations side of Ford managed the near-impossible task of turning a magnificent achievement sour for almost everyone involved. Ken Miles, sharing a 427 with Denis Hulme in place of the injured Lloyd Ruby, had put on a brilliant performance, recording the fastest race lap and pushing his Shelby American entry to a near-unassailable lead. Then, as the final pit stops were being made on Sunday morning, a Ford official -- said to have been racing chief Leo Beebe -- decided he wanted a photo finish, and ordered Miles to slow down and allow the other two surviving 427s to catch up. They did.

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A 1954-1964 Ford GT For the Road

final ford gt
The drastically reshaped Mark IV, of which a dozen were built, marked the end of Ford's development of prototype racing cars.
David Durochik

Not all Ford GTs were racers. A few were prepared for street use and, in fact, there was a brief official attempt to turn the GT into a serious roadgoing grand tourer. The responsibility for making it happen was assigned to JW Automotive (successor to Ford Advanced Vehicles) in England.

This was no halfway effort. From the outside, a new nose was most obvious. It had reshaped fenders to allow mounting of the headlights (round sealed beams for the U.S. rather than the rectangular CibiÈ halogens otherwise used) at legal height. Useless bumperettes were installed as well, as was a heated rear window. Inside, carpeting was added, the fixed-position racing seats (which worked with movable pedals) were replaced by adjustable units, and provisions were made for air conditioning, a radio, and all necessary conveniences, including a helping of sound-deadening material.


Mechanical changes were equally extensive. In place of the race-prepped 385-bhp, 289-cid V-8, the Mark III was given a milder 306-bhp unit as used in Shelby's Mustang G.T. 350. Mufflers were also added, of course. The racers' ZF gearbox remained, complete with a sequential gearchange. Smaller, less expensive brakes were installed on the theory that Mark IIIs would not often be haulded down from 200 mph, for which they were not geared anyway.

Soft rubber bushings were installed to filter out suspension harshness, and suspension geometry was altered to improve ride comfort without materially affecting handling. Smaller fuel tanks were installed in the side pods, reducing capacity (from 39.5 to 27.6 gallons), but allowing space for some impact-absorbing foam filling around them.

The plan was for selected Ford dealers to sell Mark IIIs in the U.S. to the same sort of discerning clientele who might otherwise have bought, say, a Ferrari 250 LM (if they could get one). Base price was set at $18,500, a substantial sum, but certainly in the ballpark when compared to the money asked for a contemporary street-legal Ferrari (anywhere from $14,200 to $21,500 depending on model).

After seven GT Mark IIIs were built, the project was called off. According to one inside source, the reason for the abrupt cancellation had much to do with a road test published in Car and Driver. Among other complaints, the C/D article reported that "the workmanship and most of the hardware on this, the most costly Ford of all are, miserably below the standards of the meanest Falcon." That was a damning charge, considering that the entry-level version of Ford's compact car listed for a mere $2,118 in 1967.

If that wasn't enough, numerous quality-control problems were reported, ranging from electrical failures, to ineffective shoulder-harness reels, to a right-side door that would not remain shut. There were other gripes about uncomfortable seats and uncooperative clutch and shift linkages as well, enough in fact to fill more than the first third of the story with complaints.

C/D's driving impressions reported favorably on the Mark III's attention-getting looks ("People would stop dead in their tracks . . . and stare open-mouthed"); handling ("The . . . suspension is beautiful . . . . [The car] rides around corners like a ground-effect machine at the end of a tether. The steering is uncannily responsive, with the precision of -- not surprisingly -- a good race car"); acceleration; brakes; and ride comfort.

Hindsight allows us to see the Ford GT program as the significant and praiseworthy success it really was. Yes, winning Le Mans cost Ford a substantial sum of money, but few major victories come cheap. In the end, however, the transformation of a beautiful but ineffective would-be racer into a serious winner had more to do with top-flight drivers and the hard work of men who really believed in the project than it did with the depth of HFII's pockets.

Clubs for Ford GT Enthusiasts

Shelby American Automobile Club

P.O. Box 788

Sharon, CT 06069

Telephone: (860) 364-0449

Fax: (860) 364-0769

E-mail: saac@li.com

Antique Automobile Club of America

501 W. Governor Road

P.O. Box 417

Hershey, PA 17033

Telephone: (717) 534-1910

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