On the afternoon of the 19 June, 1966, as the hands on the famous clock at the end of the Le Mans pit wall crept towards 4.00 pm, three Ford GT40s swept through the circuit’s final corner towards the finish. With their headlamp beams reflecting off the rain-soaked tarmac, they closed ranks as they approached the line in a downpour to complete the race only feet apart.The crowd roared, the chequered flag waved and in the stand above the pits Henry Ford II drank in the most famous motor racing victory in the history of the company his grandfather had started 63 years earlier. After years of trying, the mighty Ferrari team with its great Le Mans record had been comprehensively beaten.
It was the proudest moment in Ford’s motor sport history and will be celebrated in a giant display in front of Goodwood House at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.
It had been a long, hard journey to victory – much longer than the mere 24 hours the race had lasted. It started a little over three years earlier when Ford set up a special vehicles department to develop high performance cars for road and racetrack.
English engineer Eric Broadley was appointed to design and build a GT car to take on Ferrari, John Wyer, formerly Aston Martin’s racing manager, was brought on board to run the team, and Carroll Shelby, creator of the charismatic Ford-powered AC Cobra, would race and promote the car.
The first performance tests were at the Le Mans spring practice in April 1964, where the car’s highly impressive top speed took it into new aerodynamic realms.
The GT40 made its race debut the following month at the Nurburgring in the hands of Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren. It retired early but the signs were promising.
The 1965 season saw some team changes, with Carroll Shelby running the racing and John Wyer starting work on building cars for private customers. It also saw the introduction of a 7 litre version known as the Mark 1. The team headed for Daytona, where they netted an almost perfect result. GT40s finished first and third, with a Ford powered Cobra separating them in second place.
Next came the Mark II, regarded by many as the purest of the GT40 breed. All the experience of the previous two seasons was contained in this car, and in 1966 it started to pay off. First, second, third, and fifth at Daytona. First and second at Sebring. Second at the Spa 1000 KM.
And so the stage was set for the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. For Ford this was a major operation involving three teams. In the Shelby-American cars were Dan Gurney/Jerry Grant, Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon, and Ken Miles/Denis Hulme. The Holman and Moody team included Mark Donohue/Paul Hawkins, Mario Andretti/Lucien Bianchi, and Ronnie Bucknum/Dick Hutcherson, while a car for Graham Hill/Dick Thompson/Brian Muir ran under the Alan Mann banner.
When the flag dropped and the drivers sprinted to their cars for the start, it was Graham Hill who took an early lead. Ken Miles had to make an early stop, but was soon slashing seconds off the lap record in an effort to catch up. After the first hour, Ford held five of the first eight places. By early evening Miles had fought through to the front, but by this stage of the race the result was definitely still up for grabs. After six hours and several pit stops, Ferrari moved into first and second spots, but not for long. Miles retook the lead before midnight, and over the next few hours the furious pace set by the Mark IIs started to tell on its competitors.
By four o’clock in the morning Ford occupied the first six places, and with most of the Ferraris having dropped out due to mechanical failure or accidents, the second half of the race looked to be more about durability than speed.
It looked good for Ford, but with seven hours to go, Jerry Grant came into the pits in the car he had taken over from Gurney. It was out of water and overheating badly, and within an hour Grant and a disconsolate Gurney were out of the race.
The final hours were extremely tense, both in the pits and in the cars. Ford had hoped to arrange for Miles and McLaren to cross the line together and record the first dead-heat in Le Mans history, but this plan was scotched by officials who said that as the Le Mans staggered start stopped the cars from starting level, a dead heat was impossible to organise and it was decided that McLaren would take the chequered flag. As the race drew to an end, he and Miles bunched up with Dick Hutcherson, who was several laps behind, to provide the most dramatic and memorable finish ever seen at Le Mans.
In just six years of international competition, the GT40 established itself in the hearts and minds of motor sport fans across the world in a way that no other GT car had done before or has achieved since. Of all its victories, however, the one that registered its image most firmly was undoubtedly that fabulous 1-2-3 in 1966.Published 18 March 2003