Ahead of the release of Le Mans ’66, the tale of Ford versus Ferrari, GQ takes Christian Bale’s place aboard a ‘continuation’ GT40.
It was a David and Goliath story, although who’s David and who’s Goliath depends on your point of view. Ferrari were a small company, but they dominated the European racing scene and built the world’s most exotic artisanal sports cars. Ford was the biggest car company on the planet, but they made cheap, practical mass-produced family cars and hadn’t gone anywhere near motorsport. They decided to buy Ferrari. Enzo was willing to sell the road car division, but when, at the contract-signing, he spotted how the American corporation planned to take control over the racing business too, he closed his purple-inked pen, waved the legal papers away, made a short, spittle-flecked outburst directed at Henry Ford II (in unprintable Italian), and left for lunch with his consigliere, never to return.
From that moment, on 21st May 1963, the battle lines were drawn. ‘Hank the Deuce’ went straight back to Dearborn and told his people to build a car that would “kick Ferrari’s ass”. It took a few goes, but in 1966, with more than £55 million spent on development (£1.1 billion in today’s money!), Ford’s GT40 scored 1-2-3 at the Le Mans 24 Hours, and took the spoils again in ’67, ’68 and ’69. Ferrari, who was victorious in every race between 1960 and 1965, never won Le Mans outright again.
One hundred and five race and road-going examples of the GT40 were built in Slough UK, and Wixom, Michigan between 1964 and 1969, and today values run the gamut between £3 million and £10m. But you can buy a ‘continuation’ GT40 for less than the price of a Lamborghini Huracan.
Built in South Africa by specialists Hi-Tech Automotive, the California-born Superformance GT40 has a lot more going for it than a mere ‘replica’. Carroll Shelby, the man who led Ford to those mighty endurance victories, gave Superformance his thumbs up to construct officially-designated GT40/P numbered chassis. So, it’s not a genuine Ford, but it is a genuine GT40. It’s licenced by Shelby and Safir GT40 Spares as the only true GT40 continuation car, and is eligible for Shelby American Automobile Club and GT40 registries.
Because it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between an original and this 2019 car, Hollywood film Le Mans ’66 uses Superformance GT40s for race scenes.
Eighty-five percent of this car’s all-new parts are interchangeable with the original’s, including the pressed-steel monocoque. The GT40 is a notoriously tight fit, but Le Mans Coupes Ltd, Superformance’s Gatwick-based UK distributor, will customise it with a ‘Gurney bubble’ (allowing a couple of extra inches’ headroom) if required, and set the seat and pedal box accordingly. The ‘40’ in its nomenclature is a nod to the GT’s height – just 40 inches from the ground to the top of the windscreen. Be careful not to decapitate yourself when you shut the door, the line of which extends to almost the centre of the roof for aero efficiency.
The car GQ is taking out is based on the GT40 Mk1, with a 1966 number plate and, perhaps more importantly, a savage 5.7 litre Roush V8, which produces 450bhp and 465lb-ft of torque. At 1,150kg, which is pretty much identical to the original, it’ll hit 60mph in sub-four seconds.
One major difference is fuel injection, which is essential for passing modern homologation emissions standards, though to look at the block you’d never really know, unless you start counting wires. Despite the lack of carburettors, the sound is still maniacally epic. Behind the period seats, in which one lays almost horizontal, 347 cubic-litres of Detroit guts and muscle pants, coughs and barks, impatient to be uncaged.
The iconic dash is an uncomplicated, rugged strip of round Smiths instruments and labelled toggle switches. Dead ahead is the rev counter. The speedometer is placed way to the passenger side of the cockpit where you’d expect the glovebox to be, angled sideways. The tight gearshift, linked to a Quaife RFQ transaxle, is mounted on the door sill as was the original. Likewise, first gear is dog leg. The throttle pedal is stiff and you have to press it more than an inch before the power feeds in, while the clutch is easy to balance.
There’s so much feel in the seat of your pants thanks to the H&R springs, which can be upgraded to adjustable Ohlins. It’s a very physical car to drive due to the lack of power steering. Potholes are liable to snap your wrists, but the Avon CR6ZZ tyres are so high profile you’re in no danger of kerbing a wheel. This car’s rubber footprint is enormous; 215/60 R15s at the front and 295/50 R15s at the rear – race carcasses with civilian tread. Really, the GT40 is designed for smooth, French asphalt, but works well on both road and track and is easy to control in slippery conditions.
The car is sleepy under 2,000RPM, and then it cocks an eyebrow. At 3,000 it gets on its feet and starts to snarl. Between 4 and 6k it bares its teeth, digs its claws in and tears for the horizon. Injection actually enables a broader power range than carbs. The noise is like Dolby-processed adrenalin; an operatic, frantic, ear drum-warping yell. It’s difficult to know how fast you’re going because looking at the speedo could be catastrophic. It might not be even 60mph, but the noise is so thrilling it feels like 200. This, on the Mulsanne Straight, must have felt like Apollo 11 on lift-off. Le Mans Coupes can sort a 560bhp 7-litre V8 if you want to go even faster. Check with your otolaryngologist first.
There are, of course, no driver aids. The only safety net is improved cross-drilled ventilated Wortec brakes which stop better than the 1960’s solid discs, but still look period. The gears are designed to deal with higher power. Those are pretty much the only differences; it has a central handbrake, and an immobiliser, and the seats sit on the chassis rather than ‘helicopter straps’. The two fuel tanks are set to ‘auto-bleed’, rather than the driver having to manually switch from one to the other. There’s air conditioning where the spare tyre would have been, although later Ford GT40s had a/c as an option. That’s it. Otherwise, this is the same as the Mk1.
V Max can be altered according to gearing. For road use, or a track like Goodwood (Superformance will build you a 100% accurate ‘tool-room’ car eligible for the Members’ Meeting and FIA historic racing), you’ll want a shorter fifth gear than you will at Le Mans, but feasibly this car can go over the double ton. This one tops out at 180mph.
Our car is priced at £162,000 fully-built, while road-going MkII versions are around the £190k mark. An FIA-eligible race car, with its Historic Technical Passport, is around £265,000. Superformance have sold 450 of these continuation cars worldwide, and 50 in the UK, since they started trading in 1996.
It’s more powerful than the original, more reliable, and more economical. Yet only a certified GT40 anorak could ever spot the difference. It was good enough for Carroll Shelby, not to mention Matt Damon and Christian Bale who play Shelby and British driver Ken Miles in the movie. And it’ll save you millions compared with an original GT40. Pull up next to a modern Ferrari in this and you will win, at a standstill at least. Just listen to the noise! The car should win the Academy Award for Best Original Song all on its own.
Le Mans ’66 is released in cinemas on Friday 15th November.