There can be few classics with the potential to win at the highest level, offer modern supercar performance on the road, yet be equally capable of 186mph on the Mulsanne straight or the A41 Tring bypass – in the nude. This is one.
The Ford GT40
Henry Ford II’s intention to make a car with which to beat Ferrari at Le Mans produced one of the most enthralling battles motor racing had yet witnessed. From 1964, the struggle raged between the two companies’ mid-engined prototypes, finishing with the eventual scoreline at the 24-hour race of 4:2 in Ford’s favour.
The publicity generated by the wins forever associated the Ford Motor Company with success at Le Mans.
Two of those overall victories were by 7-litre, American-built cars, the Mk II and Mk IV, but the small-block (289ci/4727cc) GT40s proved highly competitive in the hands of Ford Advanced Vehicles-supported and privateer teams. Indeed, John Wyer, the legendary team manager in charge of the project in Europe, long believed that a properly prepared 289 could win in France – a theory he proved with his own Gulf-sponsored cars, which triumphed against powerful opposition from Ferrari and Porsche in 1968 and 1969.
Its intentions to purchase Ferrari having been rebuffed by Il Commendatore in 1963, Ford engaged Lola’s Eric Broadley to design a mid-engined prototype with which to win the 1964 Le Mans 24 Hours. The new ‘Ford GT’ had a steel monocoque and high-tech glassfibre bodywork – both early examples of computer-aided design – and, after experimenting with an alloy ‘Indianapolis’ engine, the production ‘GT40’ was powered by the racing Shelby Cobra’s iron-block 289 V8.
The characteristic crossover exhaust manifold, radical cam-timing and quadruple Weber carbs not only gave a reliable 350-385bhp, they also produced the GT40’s charismatic howl at high revs – quite different from the low rumble usually associated with American V8s.
The GT40 was a thoroughbred, and Ford Advanced Vehicles’ job was to supply leading race teams with competitive cars with which to take on Ferrari (250 LM) and Porsche (906/910). The 1965 Le Mans 24 Hours was flooded with semi-works GT40s (even including an entry from Ferrari stalwarts Scuderia Filipinetti).
The pattern was repeated in 1966 and 1967, with customer GT40s finishing in the top three at many international races, as well as scoring countless wins at local level.
Although it was Ford’s intention to produce the model as what we would now call a roadgoing ‘supercar’, 48 of the 79 original Mk I GT40s were delivered ‘ready to race’ and, in those more liberated times, most were road-registered. It was the perfect mount for a wealthy gentleman racer who might wish to drive it to a local event, his faithful back-up team following in a Ford Transit packed with wheels, tyres, tools and spares. Alternatively, a trailer could be hitched to the trusty ‘Trannie’ and the long journey made to Spa, the Nürburgring or Sicily for the Targa Florio. Many British privateers followed this romantic route right up to 1970.
Chassis ‘1014’ was delivered new to Karl Richardson, a successful seed merchant from Essex, United Kingdom on 28 September 1965 and registered ‘NNO 14C’. It was to the definitive – and attractive – production Mk I GT40 configuration of ‘Ford Advanced Vehicles Le Mans Front Mk II’, Shelby-built 289 Cobra engine, ZF transaxle and Borrani alloy-rimmed wire wheels. As collected, the car ran on Dunlop R6 Green Spot (all-weather) racing tyres, 15 x 6.5in front, 15 x 7.5in rear. A last-minute change meant it being finished in special-order Courage Blue, a shade it sports today.
Richardson was a well-known British amateur driver, a regular at the Brighton Speed Trials and other events including the Mont Ventoux hill climb. In 1964 he’d driven his recently acquired Ferrari 250 GTO at both. It was no surprise, then, that the newly delivered GT40 was seen at both meetings in 1966. In mid-1967, having once again competed at Mont Ventoux, ‘1014’ was sold to Neil Corner.
The Englishman, better known now for his stellar collection of historic cars and an active career racing them in the ’70s and ’80s, was an extremely fine driver, with Formula 1 experience to his name. During the rest of 1967 Corner campaigned the blue car at top-level British events (including a first and a third) making one trip to Paris in October 1967 for the 1000km race at Montlhéry, where engine trouble prevented a finish.
In 1968 ‘1014’ was in fresh hands, enthusiastically driven on the road by new owner Martin Henry and raced for him under the ‘Highland Racing Partnership’ banner by Barry Wood. The pairing was effective, winning at Snetterton in March 1968. Henry kept the GT40, mainly for use on the highway, until 1970 when it was restored by well-known dealer Brian Classic as a very of-the-period road car: Rolls-Royce Sable paintwork, chromium- and cadmium-plated parts and a beige, suede-and-leather interior. It was bought in December 1971 by West Country garagiste and semi-professional racing driver Vince Woodman, and has subsequently passed through several GT40 enthusiasts’ hands, including British DJ Noel Edmonds.
Noel Edmonds confesses: “I drove at 186mph… and was naked”
In an interview with Loaded magazine, the British TV and radio star told of his early morning 186mph dash down the local dual-carriageway in the 1980s. “It was at 4.30 in the morning on the Tring bypass in a Ford GT40.
I thought I’d take it out for a breather; the poor thing was stuck in its stable and needed exercise.
“I remember arriving at the roundabout horrendously fast. I almost didn’t stop.” Following the feature in the lads’ mag, Edmonds’ daughter, Charlotte, ticked him off – not for the speed but the revelation that the feat had been achieved naked: “Dad, that was just too much information.” The local constabulary were reportedly not amused.
Under its current, North American ownership, ‘1014’ has been enjoyed on the road in the Tour Auto and Tour d’Espana, as well as racing at the Le Mans Classic.
In late 2014 the decision was taken to bring the car back to its delivery specification, so concours-winning painter David George of Cochranville, PA was entrusted with applying the special order Courage Blue to a show standard. The seats are to the original, and highly evocative design of black parachute silk with brass eyelets, and the driver is presented with a view of the classic, flat ‘Ford GT’ steering wheel and rows of toggle switches and period gauges. With the exception of the rev-counter (by Stack, an understandable addition considering the power of the free-revving V8) and amp-meter, all instruments are by Smiths. The car runs on Borrani alloy-rim wire wheels, whilst tyres are period-correct Dunlop M-series. The brake calipers are original GT40-specification items.
The small-block engine, with its correct, quadruple-Weber 48 IDAs was built by Lanzante Motorsport, the British team that supported the Le Mans 24 hours-winning McLaren F1 in 1995. Lanzante prepared and ran ‘1014’, and Adrian Newey and Ray Bellm’s GT40s in European historic racing, including the Goodwood Revival and Le Mans Classic.
If any car could hope to emulate the Ferrari 250 GTO the GT40, surely, should be a prime candidate. Faster, and easier to drive on the public highway than a Ferrari 250 LM, the opportunity to obtain a genuine ‘no stories’ GT40 rarely presents itself. This car, ‘1014’, is one such, equally at home on the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance as it is at high speed leading Porsche 906s and Ferrari Daytonas on the Tour Auto, or screaming down the famous Mulsanne at Le Mans.
The choice of attire for these drives – jeans and sweater, Nomex… or none at all – is entirely down to its new owner.
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