GT40 race car in '66 Le Mans colours
In a way it was a good job that the ‘friendly bombs’ John Betjeman spoke of in 1937 didn’t actually fall on Slough. It might not be the nicest place in the world, and I’ve been many times, but if this industrial town in the South East of England had been wiped off the map, like he hoped in his poem ‘Slough’, then the Ford GT40 might never have existed. After all it was in Slough that Ford Advanced Vehicles was based during the early sixties with the purpose of creating a racing cars to beat those built by a company situated in a sunny town in Northern Italy known as Maranello.
We all know the rest: Ford got its revenge on Enzo Ferrari’s eleventh hour retreat from a deal that would have seen the Italian firm collaborate with the Americans. Henry Ford II had wanted Ferrari badly so when the deal went sour the Lola MK6 became the basis of the GT40, and on Sunday, June 19, 1966, a trio of Ford GT Mark II endurance racers crossed a rain-soaked finish line at the famous La Sarthe circuit in Le Mans to take a 1-2-3 finish.
'66 Le Mans win started 4-year domination
But what happened after that was equally as impressive. The GT40 went on to be one of those cars that would transcend style and fashion, remaining a popular bedroom pin-up for car enthusiasts ever since. It’s difficult to get tired of that shape and it still looks so good today that Ford gave up trying to dream up a futuristic replacement and instead created the GT, a modern copy of the sixties legend.
Unfortunately getting hold of the keys to an original GT40 can be a little tricky these days (even with the offer of a free PH t-shirt and sticker), but we did manage to get a drive in the next best thing, a GT40 Continuation. These cars are recreations of originals, rather than replicas, so I’m told, and as such more than 90% of the parts are interchangeable with the original cars, including the entire monocoque chassis itself. Even the chassis numbering continues from those of the original sixties production run and the company that makes them has the rights to the GT40 name. Those who have driven both originals and continuations say the experience is as close as you can get.
The car I am going to drive is a replica of the Ickx/Oliver car No 6, from the 1969 Le Mans and is in Gulf Colours. It will reach 60mph in 3.7 seconds and is good for 207mph; as fast as a new Ford GT. When I arrive at Turners Hill, Crawley Down, to meet official UK importer Nigel Hulme, I am surprised by how small the car is. I’ve seen plenty of GT40s before but perhaps it is the more bloated appearance of the modern GT that makes this car seem small. It looks absolutely fantastic of course, the shape of the GT40 managing to be beautiful and aggressive at the same time, your eye unable to find imperfections on the perfectly proportioned shape.
It looks scary too. The only driver aids on this will be the ones attached to the ends of my arms and legs. Climbing inside it is important to make sure your head is not sliced off as the doors curve in to almost the middle of the car. You sit low, the pedals are incredibly close together and there is that slight sense of claustrophobia that you only get from sitting in an old racer. Switches are everywhere and strangely there is no gear-lever. Well, not in the middle anyway – the stick is on the right and has a dog-leg first at that, just in case you were getting any ideas that this was going to be easy.
Period high-profile tyres
Firing up the GT40 makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up; you may not have noticed that the 5.6-litre Ford V8 was pressed up a few inches from your back, but you do now. Vibrations tingle through the seats and it is so loud you feel like you are actually huddled inside the engine bay. Fumble around with the gearlever and use the masses of torque to give you a clean start and you’re away. The sense of occasion is enough to intimidate you into thinking this is a hard car to drive, but the truth is it’s not impossible.
The un-assisted steering is heavy but has the sort of feel that reminds you the wheel is actually connected to the rubber at the front. The gearchange takes a bit of getting used to and making clean changes will take practice but in truth it adds to the rawness of the car, not giving you a second to relax into any kind of comfort zone. You are concentrating all the time, at junctions, roundabouts, heck, even when you are going in a straight line. The clutch is race spec for this car and requires strong thigh muscles, although it could be worse.
Loud in every sense...
The time comes to open up the GT40 and when I do it is as if I have opened the gates of hell and Beelzebub himself is screaming at me from behind my left shoulder. The acceleration is immense, the grunt coming from hardly any revs, and the power delivery is linear and unrelenting. You poke the throttle and the car reacts instantly, nose rising slightly as you are pinned into the seat. I can’t think of any other car that feels
this fast. Every single sense is being assaulted. Your ears are being tortured by the sound, your eyes struggle to compute the change of speed, your hands grip the wheel, and you can smell, even taste, the fuel mix within the cabin.
It handles well too, staying flat through the bends. In fact the speed that can be carried through a bend is mind-boggling. Body control is brilliant and you know exactly how the chassis is going to react. The well-judged set-up gives you confidence you didn’t think know you had. In short, the sensation is fantastic – every input is rewarded and you come away feeling that you have learnt something, and there is so much more to learn. It is a raw driving experience that makes you feel like an integral part of the machine. They just don’t make cars like this anymore. Oh hang on…