The Ford GT40 is undoubtedly one of the most iconic cars, let alone racers, ever produced. It sits alongside the likes of the Ferrari 250 GTO, Porsche 356, Jaguar E-Type and Land Rover Defender on the top step of the automotive pantheon, a machine which transcends its genre to such a degree that Hollywood blockbusters about its creation are still being made to this day.
Given its rarity, desirability and resultant unaffordability it's no surprise, then, that a swathe of modern replicas have been created. But such was the impact of its success in period that the GT40 actually began to inspire imitators almost straight away.
Kiwi garage owner, racer and lifelong petrolhead Ross Baker had begun building his own cars in 1962, taking inspiration from the Lotus 23B to create the Heron Mk.1, a 450kg racer powered by a 1.5-litre Ford Cortina engine. Five years and several further creations later, however, it was the success of Ford's Mk IV GT40 which turned his head. Together with fibreglass boat builder and long-time colleague Bob Gee, he decided to set about making a version of his own.
Having spent six months collating every source of information they could find on the Ford, Baker and Gee got to work. The original car's fibreglass panels wouldn't be a problem for the two experienced men, but the advanced honeycomb aluminium monocoque chassis was a different story. Sourcing competition components for Ford's 7.0-litre V8 also proved problematic for the New Zealand-based pair so, having traded the aluminium for more traditional steel, and settled on a 5.4-litre Chevrolet Corvette powerplant producing around 360hp instead, they continued.
The design process took a further year; with a gearbox capable of handling the engine's output being far outside their price range, Baker had to set about creating a new one, based on a four-speed Ford Zephyr unit with which he had enjoyed previous success. The entire transmission was pressure-fed oil by a pump from an Austin Mini and housed within a custom-designed and cast aluminium housing.
Having hand-cut and folded all 57 panels, welded and riveted them into place, and started work on the fibreglass body, the car was two-thirds to completion when the Heron team were dealt a devastating blow. New Zealand's motor racing regulations were changed, prohibiting cars with an engine capacity greater than 2.0-litres and rendering the Heron Mk.4 GT obsolete before it was even finished. Heartbroken, the pair pushed the machine to the back of their workshop, where it lay dormant for over a decade.
Luckily, however, the story has a happy ending. Having been finally completed in 1988 and entered private ownership for a long period, the Heron Mk.4 GT did eventually see the track. It was raced successfully for many years before being thoroughly restored during the last decade and appearing at Le Mans Classic in 2018 to celebrate its 50th anniversary, an event which Baker himself was present to witness.
It may not boast the pedigree, success or iconic status of the car which inspired it, then, but the Mk.4 GT is certainly imbued with the same fighting spirit. While Ford may have been seen as the relative underdog in taking the fight to Ferrari on track, it was still an international corporation with thousands of employees and nearly unlimited resources. Heron, meanwhile, was the passion project of just two men, who almost entirely on their own set out to build a little piece of Le Mans history of their very own. An endeavour which hopefully, finally, seems to be getting a little of the recognition it so richly deserves.