I rate very few cars quite as highly as the Ford GT40. It’s a legend. And after many years of dreaming, I was now going to drive one. These are my thoughts and impressions:

The word legend is used too much these days. But a GT40 can hardly be labeled as anything else. All well functioning children know its main characteristics even in their sleep: 40 inches tall, built to smash Ferrari at Le Mans, mission accomplished – and that, no less than four times in a row. It is, pardon the pun, the prototype of a Le Mans racer, and there really ought to be a movie about it and its story. In the absence of that movie, I will happily admit to having constructed my own in my head, and not least having played it – on repeat – several times. The GT40 is one of those dream cars which rank so high, that it almost hurts to think that I probably will never own one.

This must be one of the best photos from Le Mans ever, as well as one of the cornerstones of the GT40-legend: The first victory at Le Mans in 1966.

Because only around 100 were ever built, and since it is a legend, and all the wealthy car enthusiasts / collectors / speculators and investors want a legend, the GT40 has become very, very expensive. Legendarily expensive, you could even say. Depending on its history, a GT40 can now set you back from a few million Euros up to maybe even five, six or seven. It depends.

An often forgotten part of the legend is the fact that the GT40 was only victorious in the third attempt. This photo is from a test in 1964 where the Ford was already fastest – but you also have to finish…

History for a GT40 is very akin to “race history”. Because, as the legend goes,  they were all race cars. All except that is, the MkIII from 1967: After the first Le Mans victory, someone at Ford apparently figured that the race winner could be converted into a very marketable street car. It could, at least technically, and the result was the MkIII. No longer a race car, but unfortunately still falling a long way short of anything really usable as a road car. So the MkIII never found success and only seven were built.

The GT40 MkIII was thoroughly converted into a road car, yet it was not really good at pretending being one.

To make matters even worse, the original purposeful design had also lost its edge in the conversion process, with the end result being that there were actually customers who opted to buy a GT40 MkI instead – and just drive that on the road. A real race car. Which was of course exactly what the GT40 was.

Note the number plates: A road registered race car. Oooh, the good old days!

That is, a rather fierce tool. When Ford first showed the GT40 (at the time simply known as the GT) in 1964, it was by far the fastest machine ever to run at Le Mans. Even exceeding 200 miles per hour. At a time when a fast road car was one that could manage half of that. It was legendary from Day 1. Fear inducing. Extraterrestial.

And in no way meant to be driven on the road. Ever.

Henry Ford II himself joined the podium in 1966. He had invested millions of dollars for that privilege.

However the thought had never crossed my mind, that this could become a problem today. Really, I had not seen any potential problem nor ever considered any – not even for the slightest of fleeting moments. Nope.

My only thought was, that I was actually about to drive my old dream car. Which has to be a thoroughly good thing. As a matter of fact, the test would be carried out on short term testing plates, as the car was of course not road registered. Completely standard procedure and no problem at all. It was really only as I was waiting for Carsten from Classic Motor Sales, who had arranged the drive, that it dawned upon me that this was not just another normal trial. Would he be joining me? No, he said –  there was no passenger seat. Oh well, he had a point there.

As I walked towards the low yellow racer sat in the sunshine, it struck me that it did not really look like anything else I’ve ever driven on the street. Or elsewhere, for that matter. Instead it looked precisely like what it is: a racing car. An absolutely purpose built, wild and warmblooded racing car with the capability to win at Le Mans. From the sixties. With 100% analogue technology. Which I was going to control – all by myself.

Yes, I may appear a little nervous. Note that even though the car is right-hand drive, the driver is actually situated very centrally. And has the gear lever to the right.

It’s not as if I was completely unprepared of course, as I knew this day was coming: My pre-test-drive morning preparations consisted of choosing to wear narrow shoes. However, besides that I felt rather naked as I settled in the bucket seat: My white cotton shirt and tie were appropiately Sixties contemporary – but shouldn’t I be wearing something fire resistant? Driving gloves? Or a helmet for good measure? I wasn’t even wearing socks.

How was it again with that rumour about the engine – having a bad habit of catching fire when submitted to a wrongly executed starting procedure and spitting back unburnt high octane?

Right about this time, I did have my doubts. And the engine wasn’t even running yet. For the first time ever in my life, I found myself sitting in a classic car wondering if this was completely safe? However, pressing the starter button immediately blew all of those considerations far, far away. Really great at focusing your mind, that button: It did require a couple of tries, but when the big V8 fired up right behind me, it soon became pretty obvious that I should not worry – I should instead concentrate!

The view from the GT40 at my parked Scimitar, reminded me that I love yellow and fiberglass. The cockpit in the GT40 was surprisingly roomy once you finally got down there.

I have never before experienced so fierce an engine, and sat in that bare interior it was like having it buckled directly onto my back. Earplugs? No, that never appeared relevant. But in fact I didn’t even have the chance to think of my hearing, as the engine was not exactly adjusted for idling, and had to be kept alive by regulary tapping the accelerator.

No matter how sparingly I tried to disperse those taps, the engine acknowledged every single one of them by immediately sucking in air in such amounts, that I genuinely feared for the stock of smaller birds in the vicinity of MyGarage: Good God, that engine was insane! From the eight massive Weber throats the air was mixed with enough high octane to trigger reactions that I have never experienced alike: The willingness to rev was unbelievable for a big V8 and the sound was even more furious. I have obviously experienced these engines as a spectator at various historic race meetings, but it makes a whole lot of difference when it’s your own right foot that’s controlling the forces – and that Ford-motor, well, it was full of anger!

Five liters of pure ferocity!

The gear change wasn’t exactly user-friendly either: You’re sitting pretty much in the middle of the cockpit of a GT40, but technically the car is right-hand drive – and unusually the gear lever is also on the right. None of which I found off-putting, but the fact that I initially could not find a single gear in that ‘box did. There was virtually zero slack in the gear lever – which in return demanded use of rather deliberate forces to move it even a few millimeters. Surprisingly however, the clutch was a fairly progressive affair, and fine the same as otherwise I would never have been able to get the car moving. That engine thrived on revolutions. Needed them, actually, as below 3000 it coughed and spluttered. Which is a pretty serious affair with a huge V8 in race tune. I am familiar with this phenomenon from other racing engines, such as in my lowly Spitfire – but compared to the GT40 the coughing of the Spitfire seems as innocent as the whistling of a soprano compared to a chain smoker’s morning hacking.

And then there was the steering. Being a 1967 specification GT40 it sits on some pretty wide tires – nor should you forget that the GT40 is not particularly lightweight either. Even in full race trim in the old days, they could hit more than 1200 kilos on the weight scale with some even approaching 1300. Not surprisingly, the steering was more than just a little heavy when near stationary. In addition, the steering lock is not impressive: But then, there aren’t that many tight corners at Le Mans, is there?

Pure and simple but nonetheless requiring all of my attention.

At this point, however, I was no longer worried – I simply did not have the capacity to worry, as even  leaving the parking lot was a more difficult task than I had ever imagined. Clearly a GT40 was not designed for maneuvering in parking lots. So, I needed to get out on the open road – quick. Where I was to realize that speed is an incredibly relative thing.

A summary: Here I was in a missile of a Sixties racing car capable of repeatedly slaughtering all competition at Le Mans. With a top speed probably exceeding 330 km/h, depending on gearing. And with the power output – of which I was not precisely informed – but would guesstimate to somewhere in the region of 500 hp in round numbers: That would be more than they had in period. On the subject of gearing, the very first GT40 had five gears (and weak gearboxes), the latter four – and this one? I do not know, as I never went above third gear. And even restricting myself to third, the car literally flew.

How fast, I do not know, as I had other things to focus on than the instruments. But most of the B-road driving could be done in first gear – well, much had to be done in first gear, because the engine coughed and spluttered below 3000 – 3500 revolutions. Only passing 4000 did it start to wake up, and at 4500 – 5000 revolutions it was just holding on – and in the lower gears it revved above 6000 with ease.

Keeping the revs high, on the other hand, and it went very well. Mind you, really furious, Ferrari-smashing, nature’s own power-well: All coughing was gone and it just pulled cleanly and progressively delivering incredible power. Extremely brutal, raw and almost scary forces, and if I had even the slightest of doubt before, it was now distinctly obvious that this car had nothing to do on a country road at all!

GT40’s were indeed driven on the roads backs in the Sixties. But typically on roads and under circumstances like these.

This became clear to me when I drove alongside a field where the farmer was harvesting. On this very dry and Le Mans-warm day, that generated huge amounts of dust which the wind swept right across the road. I had no chance of escaping it on my path, and was sitting there fixed by my four point seat belts thinking that this scenario could not possibly have been part of a GT40’s design parameters. I imagined therefore that I would now shortly suffocate inside the cabin and then the engine would die. But no: The 40 inches of yellow devil flew directly through the cloud of dust, just like through a morning mist on Mulsanne – and very surreal it was.

A typical GT40-situation, somewhere in the Sixties. Joined by other legends. And not on the roads around Vejle, Denmark either.

It was also rather surreal to experience that the reluctant gear shift in the parking lot now worked perfectly well: With the car up to speed I just tore through the gears with determination. “Click” – there was the next one, and the 500 horses could try to twist the next gears. And even more remarkable – the ‘box also worked on downshifts, helped by liberal use of the intermediate throttle blipping, probably to be heard all the way in to the city center of Vejle as well as on the other side of the fjord.

The handling traits I never really got to experience: The car was on old Dunlop Racing tires, so I deemed it might have been the best for both of us not to tread too far. But when negotiating curvers along the route, it was again clear that these roads and speeds did not offer the car any righteousness: as if all I commanded from it was merely superficial playing around. I started off with huge respect for the GT40, which in no way was diminished by discovering that it was actually so much of a fullblooded race car, that it was in reality rather unsuitable for all normal road purposes. Why anyone (both then and now) would want to drive the GT40 on public roads is beyond me!

A typical scene after a good long run in a GT40.

A point which was truly hammered home as I stalled the low, conspicuous, yellow missile at the penultimate set traffic lights on the way back!

I could have lived with that, actually, as I had already wondered several times how it had not happened yet. But the ultimate humiliation came when the car afterwards had no power to restart. A big hot V8 in race tune demands some cranking power.

And then, with all its 40 inches of yellow 300-km/h potential, I was stuck in a left-hand lane and experienced the shame of being honked at by a Skoda Roomster or some other worthless eco-box. I honestly felt the urge to immediately crush the windscreen of this ignorant in his ugly vehicle with my helmet – but there was no helmet at hand. Through tears of rage over such foolish behaviour, I instead had to reluctantly acknowledge that out here on the public road,  the world’s largest Le Mans legend is simply out of its element: Just crossing the road to Horsensvej after tractors and lorries and indifferent road-fill, it is quite simply an elephant in a porcelain shop.

I drove a legend. Only at the wrong venue.

But what an elephant! And after all, this was obvious to many others too: In less time than a tire change in modern Formula One, there was help from more understanding people, who were close to short-circuiting the jump cables in pure eagerness to help the stranded Le Mans legend, and my trust in humanity was restored. And for the GT40: The specific car had not run in anger since 2013-2014, and was probably somewhat bitter for that – and could not bother with a trifle like charging the battery? Not a problem with jump cables, and as a thank-you for some Amperes, I overtook the helping car with a solid prod of the accelerator in second gear, and the man was happy.

So was I as I returned into the parking lot: I’ve never driven anything like it. Never. I usually keep my calm, even after driving rather fast or at a race track – but here my legs were shaking and I was warm throughout my body. A kind of mental overload reaction, I think, because I was in no way anywhere near the physical limits of this wonderful car – not at all. And I also seriously doubt that this would even be possible on a public road, unless you desperately want to attract the attention of the law.

But I do know where to try it, properly: on a racetrack. It could be Le Mans, of course – but less would suffice too. Just a few hours on Jyllandsringen or Padborg Park, where there is a little straight and curves of different radii. I would like that – and believe the car would too.

Please, let me have another go! Just this time on a race track…

The car was kindly made available by Classic Motor Sales, and is now back in their showroom in MyGarage in Vejle. It is for sale on behalf of an Italian customer, and is in full racing trim with FIA papers and was last raced in 2013/2014. As such, it is completely period correct for a GT40 of the 1967 vintage. The car has a partially known history back to 1990 and is known in GT40 circles as “2079/1023”. It has probably been through Franco Sbarro’s hands, but whether the car was built by him and by what parts, including the amount of original Ford GT40 is still under investigation. This kind of fact is quite crucial for a GT40 that lives by its history. To be continued.

 

This is Franco Sbarro. He was a mechanic at Scuderia Filipinetti, who among other things ran different Ford GT40s in period. Franco Sbarro knows everything about the Ford GT40 and refurbished some of them. He has also built some replicas that are very close to the original specification of the GT40. The problem is that in a few cases in the seventies he mixed these two things up! That’s why you have to do your homework when his name is mentioned in conjunction with a GT40 – and Classic Motor Sales is still working out the history of this particular yellow GT40.

 

About The Author

Claus Ebberfeld

Broad car taste. Prefer them working, though. Coupés, estates, racing cars - and so on. Origin less important, but I love Italy. And Britain. Germany. And so on. By the way, I believe everything was better in the old days. Except the internet. Claus' keeper is a 1978 Reliant Scimitar GTE. As a true Scandinavian of course he also has a Volvo - a 445 of the 1956 vintage.

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3 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt
    Anders Bilidt

    Claus, even if you had stalled the GT40 a million times and had to deal with that humiliation, I would still be utterly green with envy…
    What a BEAST!

    Reply
  2. Claus Ebberfeld
    Claus Ebberfeld

    Well, you know what they say, Anders: It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it 🙂

    Reply
  3. Dave Leadbetter

    Lucky man! One of the most evocative road tests I’ve read in a while. An elephant in a porcelain shop indeed. It’d be all too easy to pretend you had a blast round at Le Mans speeds but this really underlines the nature of cars trying to use cars like this in the wild. The best in the world for the job they were built for, a total liability anywhere else! I am most envious.

    Reply

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