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Flat Spot On: Ford Claims Le Mans in ’66, Then Stumbles

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 18 2016
The Ford GT40s ruled Le Mans in the mid-1960s. They brought down almighty Ferrari.

The Ford GT40s ruled Le Mans in the mid-1960s. They brought down almighty Ferrari.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As the celebration of Ford’s return to Le Mans continues with the outstanding showing of the new Ford GT, it’s worthwhile to look back 50 years, if only to recognize a different time and era. It was a time when racing men and their cars were giants, especially the Ford cars built to conquer Le Mans.

Le Mans logoThe celebrated car launched in 1964 that quickly came to be known as the GT40 began life officially as the Ford GT. It symbolized an awakening by the corporate world in Detroit to the impact motor racing could make on the American and European imagination through the emerging prevalence of electronic as well as print media. The Ford GT40 also came to represent corporate hubris, not unlike collegiate athletics but on a far grander, more expensive scale. If we win our school, or company, is better than yours. Only it wasn’t a game, it was motor racing at the peak of the dangerous combination of high speed and only rudimentary safety, part of the romantic appeal of all big league motor racing in the 1960s.

Henry Ford II, “The Deuce,” had something more important in mind than intramural corporate competition. Once Enzo Ferrari embarrassed Ford by rejecting the final papers of a plan to purchase his road car-building company while the commendatore continued to run his racing team, “The Deuce” decided he would begin his conquest of the European automotive market by another route: beating Ferrari on the track at Le Mans. Due to lack of experience in a ground up plan to go racing instead of supplying and financially backing established teams, the hastily put together effort to conquer Le Mans comprised a fluid hierarchy with a not-so-firm chain of command whose saving grace was the ability to access large sums of money. It was noted in more than a few places that Ford II spent as much as $15 million — or 30 times the amount of money W.O. Bentley had spent to win Le Mans with the Bentley boys in the 1920s.

That Ford money meant, among other things, an acquisition. Initially the GT40 was modeled after the Lola GT built by Lola’s Eric Broadley. Ford II was in a hurry and believed success would arrive quickly at its first Le Mans in 1964 after John Wyer was put in charge of racing operations. It took three attempts before old man Ferrari and his P, P2 and P3 prototypes were defeated. Not a single GT40 finished the first two attempts.

But even after the victorious 1-2-3 sweep in 1966, there were still a lot of unhappy people, some of them associated with Ford’s Racing Division, a situation often overlooked in the mainstream

The controversial photo finish at Le Mans in 1966.

The controversial photo finish at Le Mans in 1966.

media or with the distance of time. Within the automotive and racing communities, the Ford executives ultimately got caught up in a public relations debacle of their own making. Just as with a lack of experience in racing meant a three-year program to build a winning team at Le Mans from the ground up, the Ford executives at the track underestimated how the racing community would react to a late-race decision to put out team orders for the 1-2-3 finish.

In the end, it cost Ken Miles the opportunity to become the only driver to win Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in the same season. And it was an early recognition that corporate dollars may have enhanced racing, but those same greenbacks could also tend to pickle it.

From a distance, there are nothing but fond memories of the Ford GT40, followed by the Mk. II and Mk. IV. Few cars are so well recognized in American racing history — although there sometimes seems to be confusion over the nomenclature and provenance of these Ford cars.

The GT40s were built in England by Ford Advanced Vehicles. Although Ford’s shops were initially next door to those of Broadley and Lola before being moved to an independent location, the tubs for the GT40 were built from steel panels by Ford under the project director Roy Lunn, according to the highly detailed account Ford GT, written by Trevor Legate. This included the GT40 Mk. II, as it was designated. This latter car had British and American origins.

After being soundly thrashed in 1964 by Ferrari, it was decided the cast iron 289 cubic inch Ford V-8 developed by Shelby American for its Cobra campaign might not supply enough power to beat the V-12 Ferraris in 1965. Lunn pushed for the use of the 427 engines being used in NASCAR and developed by Holman-Moody. In order to get two cars to Le Mans for the 1965 race, a GT40 was hastily modified to fit the massive 600-pound NASCAR engine at Kar Kraft in Dearborn.

After it was tested, another was built — but never tested — and these first two GT40 Mk. IIs were entered by Shelby American at Le Mans in 1965. Both ran afoul of problems with the transmissions built at Kar Kraft to replace the original Colotti gearboxes, but the fact Richie Ginther led the Ferraris in the opening hour was enough evidence to keep the big engine approach viable.

According to author Charles Fox in his seminal book The Great Racing Cars & Drivers, there was a lot of internal debate about moving entirely to the NASCAR V-8s for 1966 because they were so

Le Mans won by Ford.

Le Mans won by Ford.

heavy and would be hard on transmissions and brakes. As far as the brakes were concerned, with the gigantic Ford engine on board the new Mk. II “would have to be slowed from 220 mph (on the Mulsanne straight) to 35 mph in exactly seven seconds, sending the temperature of the brake discs from 700 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. And this would have to be done every three and a half minutes for twenty-four hours.”

Many at Ford favored continuing to use the 289 cubic inch V-8. (The original choice was the 4.2-liter light alloy Ford V-8 developed for use in a Lotus at Indy, but it didn’t produce enough power to justify its lower weight.) Lunn argued that the 475 foot-pounds of torque at just 6,200 RPM produced by the 427 would mean fewer shifts per lap by the four-speed gearbox, making it less demanding on the gearbox and drivers. Yet a decisive top speed of 200 mph could still be achieved on the Mulsanne against the high-revving P2 and P3 Ferrari prototypes powered by V-12 engines. Lunn’s argument prevailed.

The brakes would simply have to be developed. Eventually, Shelby’s teams designed vented brakes for better airflow and Kelsey-Hayes came up with a 98 percent copper and two percent carbide coating, which provided a better friction co-efficient and heat transfer. The vented discs were three quarters of an inch thick and could be changed quickly, which would sometimes prove necessary. Meanwhile, testing on the 7.0 liter Ford engine led to a configuration that would last for 48 hours while producing 485 horsepower, according to Fox’s account.

Kar Kraft’s chief designer was Ed Hull and Klaus Arning handled suspensions. Bob Riley, who was hired by Ford as a design engineer to work on the Mk. II and Mk. IV projects at Kar Kraft, worked on the chassis. Arning had already designed a suspension for the 427 Cobra coupe under development at Shelby. In one of the first uses of computers in racing, Arning was using a computer program run by punch cards — a program whose components Riley says he continues to reference to this day.

In the highly detailed book by Michael Shoen, The Cobra Ferrari Wars, in November of 1964 Shelby had been persuaded, if not dragooned, to take charge of the GT40 program for 1965 that had failed so miserably at Le Mans in its first outing under Wyer. Shelby accepted the contract, wrote Shoen, on the grounds he could continue his first love of trying to beat Ferrari — and everybody else — with a classic front-engined GT car.

But in effect it was the end of Shelby’s passionate battle to win overall with a classic GT car and instead he focused on the new era of prototypes opened up by the Le Mans rules. The money Shelby was already making by selling customer Cobra race cars was significantly augmented by the contract to run the GT40s and then the Mks. II and IV at Le Mans.

Part of Shelby’s new portfolio included racing the GT40s and later Mk. II and IV at the major endurance racing events in America at Daytona, Sebring and Riverside, which created a groundswell of enthusiasm for the cars among an entire generation of American racing fans.

Another change initiated by Ford was to put Leo Beebe, an executive based in Brussels, in charge

The GT 40 at Riverside in the mid-1960s.

The GT 40 at Riverside in the mid-1960s.

of the racing program. Beebe, who would report directly to Lee Iococca, was a fine executives, but knew next to nothing about motor racing. Although Ford returned to Le Mans in 1965 with more cars — including the two GT40 Mk. II entries  built by Kar Kraft — the result was still the same.

Not enough endurance to last against the pace maintained by the Ferrari prototypes, which were very popular. Like the Ford cars, the Ferrari prototypes and their large windscreens had their own distinctive appearance and charm, including the shriek of the V-12s, and were often driven by Americans.

Immediately after the 1965 debacle, Ford held a post-race “victory meeting” and began work on 1966. Chassis were shipped from Ford Advanced Vehicles to the two American teams to build the Mk. II and Ford produced a better transmission. The combination of Shelby and the NASCAR Holman-Mood team running the cars, Beebe watching the massive expenditure of dollars as well as laying the groundwork for expanded Ford operations in Europe and a phalanx of Ford Mk. IIs proved to be the elixir.

Only a lot of people were unhappy at the Le Mans finish in 1966. Ford was already taking a gentle shellacking in the enthusiast press for the amount of money it was spending to beat Ferrari, summed up by Road & Track’s Henry Manney as “cracking nuts with a hydraulic press.” He noted that Ford’s team showed up at Le Mans with “eight 7-liter Mk. 2 coupes and more material than Hannibal took across the Alps.” But Ferraris, in fact, outnumbered the Fords. Including the Ferrari factory team and privateers, the red brigade consisted of three twin cam P3s, four single cam P2s bored to 4.4 liters and several 330Ps.

It turned out that Ford needed all eight cars, which produced a mad scramble to find enough drivers after Lloyd Ruby was injured in a plane crash, A.J. Foyt suffered burns in the Champ Car race in Milwaukee and Jackie Stewart suffered chemical burns after his infamous shunt in the Formula 1 race at Spa. But those were not the most tragic of the losses. In April during a test day at Le Mans, Mark Donohue lost his co-driver Walt Hansgen, who was killed in a crash at Turn 1. Ferrari, meanwhile, had a surfeit of drivers, which were limited to two per car by the rules, and took the opportunity to goad John Surtees to walking out of his contract with the commendatore when it was suggested Ludivico Scarfiotti was needed as a standby in case Surtees got tired.

There were high stakes and the outcome was very much in doubt initially. But  by halfway, Lunn’s assessment proved correct and Ferrari’s effort was entirely broken. The strength of the Mk. II cars and their huge engines was too much for the Ferraris, which steadily lost ground on the Mulsanne, resulting in mechanical failures from the vicious pace or errors by drivers pressing too hard. Leading that pace for Ford were Americans Dan Gurney and Jerry Grant. They were joined at the front by the McLaren/Amon car and the combination of Englishman Miles and New Zealander Denis Hulme, the latter one of the three replacement drivers.

After Scarfiotti crashed into two smaller cars in the night during the rain and the gerarboxes were broken on the fastest P3 of  Richie Ginther/Pedro Rodriquez and a P2 driven by Bob Bondurant/Masten Gregory, the Fords had been ordered to slow their pace. Previously, when the fight was still on, Miles had been ordered to slow down during a rainstorm, raising the specter that more so than the other drivers, Miles was most likely to ignore team orders by pushing beyond the requested pace.

When a disengaged water hose led to a head gasket failure on the leading Gurney/Grant car, that

Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt made history in Le Mans in 1967.

Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt made history in Le Mans in 1967.

left Miles/Hulme and the “all New Zealand” car of McLaren/Amon at the front, although the latter was generally a lap down after exchanges due to pit stops before finally regaining the lead lap when the leading car had a minor brake issue.

Ronnie Bucknum and Dick Hutcherson, another replacement driver, were 12 laps down and a distant third, running ahead of a phalanx of long-tailed, 2.0-liter Porsche 6s, which appeared to be on a reliability run in fourth, fifth and sixth. The Porsches, in the words of Brock Yates at Car and Driver, “plowed teutonically ahead like ships in a convoy.” Despite the orders to slow down, Ford lost two other cars to a blown head gasket (Mario Andretti and Lucien Bianchi) and a broken suspension (Graham Hill and replacement driver Brian Muir).

Perhaps it was the specter of previous years when the Fords, now down to the final three, had failed to finish. Maybe it was the disciplined effort by Porsche to run to the finish with their 2.0-liter cars. Perhaps it was concern that Ford drivers racing one another might result in mechanical failure or a crash. But prior to their last stints, McLaren and Miles, who was leading, were ordered to run at a pace that would allow the second-placed car to catch up for a “photo finish” of all three Fords. It took just three laps for McLaren to close the gap as Miles slowed.

Accounts differ of how this decision came down. Fox writes that Ford execs, which included Jacque Passino, who directed the racing, and Dick Morris, in charge of PR, checked with Le Mans officials about a so-called dead heat and were told it would be OK. Then Le Mans officials came back, likely after a pow-wow of the top officials, and explained that the ACO had a rule for a dead heat rule and would enforce that rule, meaning that the car starting farthest back on the grid would be declared the winner.

That would drop the leading Miles to second place. (One could hardly blame the ACO officials for not wanting Ford to set the precedent of two cars winning a race where for over 40 years only one car and its drivers were celebrated as the victors. That’s one reason why they had a rule to resolve this problem occasioned by the denouement finish of the flagman greeting the slow moving cars at the finish stripe instead of a full-speed pass under the checkers. Ford might have been able to pay for a victory, but it could not commandeer history itself or the entire tradition of racing for victory at Le Mans.)

In Yates’ account, the Ford execs discovered the dead heat procedure only after Miles and McLaren had been told to stage a photo finish. In any event, the decision by Ford execs stood despite the fact it would cost Miles and Hulme the victory, technically by the 24 feet of difference between the cars on the starting grid.

A more diffident and sarcastic Manney noted that Beebe had a direct talk with the two drivers prior to their final stints and curiously they finished at the same time. He also noted the French newspapers taking exception to the odd finish and sudden elevation of a non-plussed McLaren and Amon to the victor’s wreaths ahead of their teammates.

Yates quoted a bitter Miles, who said, “We’d been told to finish neck-and-neck and that’s what we did. If they’d let Bruce and me race for it, we wouldn’t have had all this nonsense.” In his disgust, Miles had braked approaching the flagman, allowing McLaren to pass him. But in this more hierarchal era, the popular and much admired Miles had ultimately followed orders for the sake of a victory three years in the making and his job at Ford.

At a celebration dinner back in New York hosted by Ford, a mural of the photo finish at Le Mans

A quartet of Ford GTs hit the track at Le Mans this month. (Ford photo by Drew Gibson)

A quartet of Ford GTs hit the track at Le Mans this month.
(Ford photo by Drew Gibson)

kept falling off the wall and curling over those seated at the head table, including Ford execs, McLaren and Amon. It was symbolic of a plan gone very wrong. The same photograph was later handed to members of Ford’s American racing operation for signatures and then mass produced and handed out to everyone at the Ford end-of-season victory banquet in Detroit.

David E. Davis, editor of Car and Driver, which sometimes employed Miles as a car test driver, was at the New York banquet that followed the race victory. “They came away (from Le Mans) grumbling and wrangling  among themselves over a silly attempt to stage a dead-heat at the finish line,” he wrote, “a plan that smacked much more of press agency than sportsmanship.”

That August, Miles, who had done thousands of miles of test driving in the Mk. II, died in a testing crash aboard a “J car” at the Riverside track in California in early testing for the Mk. IV. The car got skittish at the high-speed entrance to Turn 9 before spinning out of control. Apparently, the problem was brake failure. In any event, it was the final coda of the 1966 race, which was followed by the far more celebratory victory of American heroes Gurney and Foyt aboard a Mk. IV in 1967.

The Mk. IV was an all-American project. The chassis were designed and built at Kar Kraft and then shipped to Shelby American and Holman-Moody. It employed a more cutting edge technique of aluminum honeycomb panels in place of the steel panels used previously.

“I think that whole computer program and the chassis being exceptionally stiff is what made the car work quite well,” said Riley in his book The Art of Race Car Design. (Full disclosure: Jonathan Ingram is the co-author.) “It was relatively heavy. That was probably the biggest issue. I don’t want to detract from it, but it was a bit on the heavy side. I had suggested using a tube frame for the tub, but that was not what the higher ups at Ford wanted.” Riley used aircraft techniques to build the front end of the chassis from welded, heat-treated aluminum.

The car was referred to as the “J car,” because of the new Appendix J put out by the Automobile Club de L’Ouest in the Le Mans rulebook had been adopted for 1966. But before trying to build a car to the new rules, which allowed a lower car, Ford had decided to stick with the plan to build the Mk. II. Initially the “J car” body had heavy design influence for Ford, but the front and rear were modified by Shelby to make it more race worthy.

At the behest of Ford executives, a front end painstakingly built by Riley on the Mk. IV using aircraft techniques and heat-treated aluminum became a tube frame structure at Shelby after the nose was modified. “I didn’t see any big difference in lap time,” Riley recounted, “and I had thought the tube frame was the best option anyway.”

Despite problems with windshields breaking in practice and qualifying and losing three cars in the span of one lap after Mario Andretti spun and was collected by two other Fords, the Mk. IV in the hands of Gurney and Foyt led from the second hour and was never challenged despite a major push from Scarfiotti in a factory P4 Ferrari. At the finish, the American car led by four laps. Gurney celebrated by spraying his magnum of champagne in victory ceremonies, which included Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford II, and a new racing tradition was born.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 18 2016
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